A similar version of the following article appeared in Communities magazine #109, Winter 2000, available from Fellowship for Intentional Community, RR 1 Box 156, Rutledge, MO 63563; 660-883-5545; fic@ic.org; www.ic.org.

Books on Participatory Decision-Making

by Tree Bressen

Thirty years ago, during the big '60s wave of community-building, there weren't a lot of resources out there on how to make decisions together. Brave groups of people plunged in with good intentions, high hopes, and a fair dose of naiveté. Some folks resisted having meetings at all, and even those who recognized a need for groups to come together at an appointed time to make decisions often weren't fully prepared to do it effectively.
Fortunately the past three decades have seen the emergence of excellent written resources on how to have meetings that are upbeat and productive. The books described here are loaded with helpful information on everything from what to do when a decision is blocked to how to deal with a crying baby. Some selections are specifically oriented toward consensus methods, while others broadly discuss facilitation or other relevant topics. Many of the books listed are available through the Community Bookshelf service of the Fellowship for Intentional Community.

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For basic information on how to do consensus, the book many facilitators recommend first is Building United Judgment: A Handbook for Consensus Decision Making, originally published by the Center for Conflict Resolution (CCR) in Madison, Wisconsin. Sample chapters include "Structuring Your Meeting," "Working With Emotions," "Communication Skills," and "Common Problems: What To Do About Them."
Chock-full of useful knowledge presented in an accessible manner, Building United Judgment also includes fascinating insights and opinions by individual authors and commentators, set off in boxes next to the text. For example, on paraphrasing: "This technique is tricky and often mis-used. . . . Gotta be tuned in to the speaker emotionally for this to work." The chapter on blocking includes an engaging description of the actual process the authors went through when they couldn't agree on what to write about the topic! Overall this book has a very down-to-earth feel; while the extra bits give it the sense of being a work-in-progress, it's clear that the information has been "field-tested" through real experiences.
The other consensus manual in use by many communities is On Conflict and Consensus, by C.T. Butler. This booklet is simple and clear, providing a step-by-step procedure for using consensus decision making complete with flow chart. There is a section on how to evaluate meetings (something many groups overlook), and descriptions of possible roles (such as Agenda Planner, Advocate and Doorkeeper). Criticisms of the "Formal Consensus" approach that some communities have voiced are first, that it expects all issues to be raised in the form of a proposal, instead of allowing for raising of a question or situation followed by collective development of a proposal, and second, that it focuses a lot on concerns, which can lead to a negative atmosphere in meetings. However, communities can choose to tweak the Formal Consensus guidelines to allow for more flexibility in these areas.
In addition to these well-known works, there are several other guidebooks that bear mentioning here. Introduction to Consensus, by Beatrice Briggs of Huehuecoyotl ecovillage in Mexico, is less dense than Building United Judgment, while including much basic information on the standard secular consensus approach. In contrast to the two manuals listed above which include one chapter on facilitation, a full half of Bea's booklet is devoted to facilitation, including sections such as "Supporting the Shy," "Silencing the Verbose," and "When You Don't Know What to Do Next." Plus it's the only book here that's also available in Spanish.
Finally, a colleague recently introduced me to Sharing Consensus: a handbook for consensus workshops, by a man who uses no name. A sweet, home-spun booklet filled with exercises, suggestions for posters, and Quaker anecdotes, the consensus approach outlined here is very different from what most of us who teach consensus are used to. For instance, the author believes that reliance on facilitators is too authoritarian--the only reason the "clerk" (Quaker term) should repeat back the sense of the meeting to the group is to make sure it's correct for the notes. Here's an excerpt, to give you the sense of it:

"Consensus is more a set of attitudes than a set of rules. It works best when done informally, avoiding jargon and simply doing the talking together necessary to build understanding. In their 300-year history the Quakers have never written down an official set of rules for their meeting process. Actions such as checking to see if there is strong objection to a proposed course of action should occur naturally as a part of discussion, not as empty rituals or steps on a check-list."

While some might say that his approach is overly idealistic, it seems to me an important balance to the lists and techniques in other books. There's an evolution taking place in consensus, as groups like CCR and Movement for a New Society reacted to the "Tyranny of Structurelessness"* of the 1970s with structured agendas and facilitators to keep things on track. The nameless author of Sharing Consensus advocates for using those structures at most as training wheels, letting go of them as soon as the group is ready. Meanwhile, on a different track, three of the four facilitation books profiled below arise from the corporate or community organization context that's growing up alongside the alternative culture of activist politics and intentional communities.
A Manual for Group Facilitators, CCR's facilitation handbook, was published four years before Building United Judgment and can be taken as a companion work. Like the other books on facilitation listed here, it's oriented toward working with groups of which you are not a member, but almost all the information is quite useful for facilitating in your home community too. A Manual for Group Facilitators is a thorough overview, including my personal favorite chapter, "What Can Go Wrong: What To Do About It," which includes highlights such as: "When an Exercise Flops," "What Do You Do About Your Own Feelings?" and "Someone 'Freaks Out.'" Good advice abounds, with CCR's trademark field-tested feel.
Beginning our segue from alternative to mainstream books, something to notice right away is that the latter works don't treat consensus the same way. They tend to include consensus on a list of qualities that good decisions should consider striving for, rather than giving it a central and defining role.
Sam Kaner's Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making is a child of the movement started by Michael Doyle and David Straus in 1976 with How to Make Meetings Work: The New Interaction Method (the classic book for mainstream, hierarchical organizations on how to do participatory meetings). I was put off at first by the format, which is a series of handouts rather than a "normal" book. But the handouts are actually more accessible than straight prose for many people, and enable a group to focus attention on a specific process issue.
Central insights of Kaner's book for me included that gaining structural clarity on a group's decision-making process can prevent conflicts that will otherwise appear as interpersonal difficulties; the "Groan Zone" that groups go through on the way to creating shared understandings; and "Gradients of Agreement"--the concept that how much enthusiasm is enough for something to count as "agreement" can vary by group and occasion.
Among businesspeople, Roger Schwarz's The Skilled Facilitator: A Comprehensive Resource for Consultants, Facilitators, Managers, Trainers, and Coaches is considered a landmark. The most intellectually based of the books listed here, it has lots of great information if you can handle the dry, analytical style. Schwarz is particularly sensitive to how to intervene in groups of which you are not a member, while also including a section on what to do if you are a member. He also distinguishes between "basic" and "developmental" facilitation: the latter has the explicit goal of supporting a group's further development of process skills (thus working yourself out of a job).
Finally, Great Meetings! Great Results, by Dee Kelsey and Pam Plumb, is a wonderful overall book on facilitation. Easy to read, covers a lot of territory, what's not to like? Especially check out the chapter on "Tools for Problem Solving," which describes half a dozen varieties of brainstorming, along with brain mapping, force field analysis, and a bunch of other techniques. Other sample chapters include "Managing Conflict" and "Integrating Graphics." If you're only going to read one book on general facilitation (as opposed to consensus facilitation specifically), this is probably the one to choose.
Taken collectively, the books reviewed here contain an enormous amount of information about group process. I find myself referring to them year after year, picking up new bits on every reading. Ideally groups will take time to read around, and experiment to see what best meets the needs of the community.

* "The Tyranny of Structurelessness" was a landmark article that addressed how the lack of explicit structures in feminist groups of the 1970s was keeping decision-making processes hidden and shielding covert manipulation. Written by Jo Freeman, it was reprinted in the 1990 and 1995 editions of the FIC's Communities Directory.


Auvine, Brian, et al. (1977) A Manual for Group Facilitators. Originally published by the Center for Conflict Resolution, reprinted by the Fellowship for Intentional Community. 90 pages. $19 ppd.

Avery, Michel, et al. (1981) Building United Judgment: A Handbook for Consensus Decision Making. Originally published by the Center for Conflict Resolution, reprinted by the Fellowship for Intentional Community. 124 pages. $19 ppd.

Briggs, Beatrice. (2000) Introduction to Consensus. Also available in Spanish. Beatrice Briggs, POB 25, Black Earth, WI 53515; briggsbea@aol.com. 62 pages. $15 ppd.

Butler, CT and Amy Rothstein. (1987) On Conflict and Consensus: A Handbook on Formal Consensus Decisionmaking. Full text available for free on the internet at http://www.ic.org/wiki/conflict-consensus/. Food Not Bombs Publishing, 61 pages. $14 ppd.  

Kaner, Sam. (1996) Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making. Community at Work, 1 Tubbs St., San Francisco, CA 94107; 415-641-9773; skaner@aol.com. 255 pages. $24.95 plus $6 shipping.

Kelsey, Dee and Pam Plumb. (1997) Great Meetings! Great Results. Hanson Park Press, PO Box 3883, Portland, ME 04104; 888-767-6338; hppress@aol.com. 175 pages. $29.00.

Schwarz, Roger. (1994) The Skilled Facilitator: A Comprehensive Resource for Consultants, Facilitators, Managers, Trainers, and Coaches. Jossey-Bass Inc., 350 Sansome St., San Francisco, CA 94104; 415-433-1740; www.josseybass.com. 314 pages. $34.95.

Sharing Consensus: a handbook for consensus workshops. C/o Nova Land, 128 Hidden Springs Lane, Cookeville, TN 38501. 80 pages. $5.00 donation for copying and postage.

Click here to see a longer list including other, newer books.

Tree Bressen, facilitator and teacher, has been assisting intentional communities, nonprofits, and other organizations with group process since 1994. Pages from her website are available for copying and distribution free of charge as long as you continue to include these credit lines and contact information.

Tree Bressen
Eugene, Oregon