Consensus Basics

A similar version of this article was published in Communities Directory 2000, available for $34 ppd from Fellowship for Intentional Community, RR 1 Box 156, Rutledge, MO 63563; 660-883-5545; fic@ic.org; www.ic.org. While written specifically for people active in community living, the principles and approach to consensus decision-making described here are equally applicable to groups that don’t live together.

by Tree Bressen

Consensus process is a powerful tool for bringing groups together to move forward with decisions that are inspired and effective. However, like many tools, using consensus requires learning a particular set of skills. Groups who try to apply it without learning those skills often end up frustrated, when what’s really needed is more training, knowledge and practice.

Cooperation is the basis of community. Consensus is a thoroughly cooperative form of decision-making. While not appropriate for all situations—it’s not generally recommended for a quick fix to a crisis or deciding what color to paint the barn—for groups that have a shared purpose, explicit values, some level of trust and openness to each other, and enough time to work with material in depth, the consensus process can be immensely rewarding. In contrast with the separations of majority voting, consensus bonds people together.

The search for consensus agreement relies on every person in the circle bringing their best self forward to seek unity. The group need not all think the same, have the same opinion, or support the same proposal in a unanimous vote. Rather, what is being earnestly sought is a “sense of the meeting.” This is the essence of what the group agrees on, the common ground, the shared understanding or desire.

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Typically, a member brings forward a topic for discussion. It may be in the form of a question, a statement of a problem, or an idea for implementation. Once the item is framed by the presenter, there is time for clarifying questions. Often people in a meeting start to evaluate and form responses to an idea before the sponsor is even half finished stating it; setting aside explicit time for questions first allows everyone to understand the idea and its context before jumping into the fray.

The next phase is usually open discussion. The facilitator keeps track of time and calls on people in turn. Participants may ask more questions, pose hypothetical examples, list concerns, say why they like an idea, make suggestions, etc. A natural, free-flowing discussion can build energy, but if the pace gets too fast then less assertive members will likely feel excluded. The facilitator may suggest varying general discussion with other methods such as brainstorms or small groups. People need to monitor their pace and pay attention to each other’s needs. Finding the balance comes with practice and feedback.

As participants’ comments are integrated by the facilitator, some sense of the group’s direction emerges. As the facilitator attempts to name this and reflect it back to the group, it also becomes clear where there is not yet alignment with that direction. This is where the main challenge in using consensus lies. If an environment where everyone’s piece of the truth is welcome can be created, the inherent wisdom and creativity of the group comes through. Once substantial airing of the issues has taken place and every member has made a good faith effort to find solutions and common ground, there are three structural responses available to each participant: agreement, standing aside, or standing in the way (blocking).

Agreement does not necessarily indicate high enthusiasm or that the proposal fulfills one’s personal preference. It means that maybe you love it or maybe you just think it’s okay, but you see how it benefits the group and you can live with it.

The second possibility is standing aside. One may choose to stand aside due to personal conscience or strongly differing individual opinion; either way, one owes it to the group to explain one’s reasons. In the Quaker tradition, standing aside means that you would not be called upon to be an active implementer of a decision, though you would still be bound by it. Even though you may vehemently disagree, you honor the group’s need or desire to move in that direction. If more than one or two people are standing aside, it is a signal that the group is not yet in alignment.

The third option is standing in the way of a decision, also known as blocking. It is the ability to prevent the will of the rest of the group that gives consensus its special power, and it’s also what many people are most scared of. Blocking is never to be undertaken lightly. It is the responsibility of any participant with concerns to bring them up as early in the process as possible, and normally the ideas and feelings of every member are naturally woven in as the discussion moves along. In a well-functioning consensus group, the frequency of blocks ranges from nonexistent to extremely rare.

However, occasionally in the course of years, it may happen that a member perceives a proposal as representing a disastrous direction for the group. Not a big risk or a decision that they personally don’t like, but an action that would contradict the group’s purpose, mission, or values, irrevocably injuring the organization or its members. It takes significant ego to presume that you have more wisdom than the rest of the group; yet paradoxically, one must never block from an egotistical place or from personal preference. When the alternative is catastrophe, it becomes a member’s responsibility to serve the group by stopping it from moving forward. Anyone considering blocking a decision is obligated to thoroughly explain the reasons and make every effort to find a workable solution. Caroline Estes of Alpha Farm, a respected consensus teacher, says that if you have blocked an emerging consensus half a dozen times, you’ve used up your lifetime quota.

Making a Plan

I lived at Acorn Community in rural Virginia for over four years. When i first arrived, the standard procedure at meetings was for the group to gather around the breakfast table, eating and chatting until someone picked up the clipboard with the list of meeting topics and suggested one for the group to start with. When that topic was finished, we’d move on to another one, until at some point a gardener would complain that the day was moving on and it was time to get to work outside. Discussion would be wrapped up, perhaps by agreeing in a bit of a rush to whatever was proposed most insistently, and the clipboard would be hung on a hook until the next meeting.

Some months later, Formal Consensus teacher CT Butler came through and suggested we consider planning our agendas in advance. “Huh?” “What’s that?” “Wouldn’t that take too much time?” He suggested that our meetings would move along so much more efficiently that it would be worth the time.

We decided to try it as an experiment. Three of us formed a committee and drew up a form for each meeting. We worked out in advance which items would be discussed when. We clarified which community member would present each item, for how long, and who would facilitate each week. We tried to give the harder items to more experienced facilitators, and used team facilitation for newcomers to learn skills. All the roles were rotated among willing volunteers, and we made sure no one tried to present an item at the same time as they facilitated or took notes. We reserved a few minutes at the end of every meeting for brief evaluations, so we could give ourselves feedback on what worked well and what could be improved.

In order to deal with the concern that we not lose out on any of our precious meeting time, we started adding an “overflow” item to the plan too, so that if we finished all the other items faster than we expected, we’d be ready to go with something to fill in the rest of the time.

Once we saw how much more effective we could be, there was no turning back. Factors that influenced the agenda included who was home that week to sponsor or participate in the discussion, urgency of action needed, balancing heavy and light items at each meeting, which items had been waiting longest for attention, and so on. The agenda planners posted clearly whether the item would be an introduction, discussion, or possible decision. While at the beginning it could take two hours of person-time to work it all out, later we became so accustomed to juggling the different factors that one person could plan a week’s agendas in twenty minutes.

Delegate, Delegate

Acorn’s approach to agenda planning illustrates an important principle for making consensus process work. How many times have you seen a meeting bog down in details to the point of exhaustion? Learning to distinguish when an item is small enough to fit in the box of a committee or manager’s domain can save everyone countless hours of frustration and boredom.

Committees fall into two categories: standing and ad hoc. Standing committees perform ongoing tasks for an organization. Typical examples for a community might include Membership, Finance, or Road Maintenance. Ad hoc committees are formed for a one-time task, such as planning a party or doing legal research on land zoning.

When a committee is set up, it’s important to be clear about the extent of their power. What is the purpose of the committee? Are they doing research only and reporting back? Making recommendations for the larger group to implement? Making decisions and following through themselves? Committees need a mandate from the larger group and a timeline. Even if the committee’s work isn’t finished for a while, reporting back in a timely manner keeps the committee and the larger group in touch with each other.

The most functional size for a committee is usually three to five people. A balanced committee includes representatives of the breadth of opinion on a subject, as well as depth of expertise. You probably need people who are energetic initiators, thorough on follow-up, skilled at writing, smooth interpersonal communicators, linear thinkers and gestalt thinkers—luckily each person does not need to have all of these qualities, so long as they are represented in the group! One person should be designated as the convenor, who sets up the first meeting.

If the committee is open to it, posting when and where its meetings will take place so that others may observe can help defuse possible tensions. Once trust is built and the relationship is established, the larger group will naturally send items to the committee for seasoning and input. When the committee returns its ideas to the larger group for final decisions, a sense of wider ownership and participation is created.

Minutes

Have members of your group ever sat around arguing or scratching their heads, wondering just what it was you decided about that guideline eight months ago? Figuring it out can take ten minutes or three hours or be impossible. Minutes make all the difference. They serve as the memory of the group and create a common record that everyone has access to.

The notetaker’s goal is not to record who said what when. Rather, the information readers will likely want to know is:

  • date of the meeting
  • who was present
  • title of each item clearly labeled
  • main points of discussion
    • questions answered
    • range of opinion
    • concerns raised
      • whether each concern was resolved or not
    • “sense of the meeting”
    • new ideas
  • agreements and decisions
    • reasons and intentions for a decision
  • name and reason of anyone standing aside
  • next steps

If that’s all too much to cover, then just go for the core: if there is a proposal, and especially if there is a consensus decision, that needs to be stated clearly and explicitly. During the meeting, if the group is nearing consensus, the facilitator should state the sense of the meeting and then have the notetaker read out the proposed minute, because it’s the minute that will actually serve as the record of what was agreed to.

Finally, minutes will be most useful when the information is clearly organized. Acorn found it useful to index them by both subject and date. If no one is enthused at the prospect of taking on this task, you may consider hiring the services of a professional indexer.

The Role of the Facilitator

As Caroline Estes has previously written, the role of the facilitator cannot be over-emphasized. The facilitator is responsible for keeping the meeting on track. Yet every member is also responsible for each other and the group, and every person can engage in facilitative behaviors such as soliciting input from quieter members, bringing the discussion back to the main topic, and summarizing what’s been said.

Facilitation is an art and a skill, a science and an intuition; every facilitator has room for growth. If your group is inexperienced in facilitation, consider bringing in someone to give a workshop or sending a few people off for more training, who can then teach others when they return. There are also books and other resources listed at the end of this article.

Rotating everyone through the role helps minimize power differences in the group. If the least skilled members get more practice, it brings the level of the whole group up a notch. Being thrust into the facilitator role makes people better meeting participants too. However, it makes sense to call upon more skilled facilitators for more challenging or controversial topics.

The facilitator is the servant of the group. She or he must never push their own agenda. While everyone has biases, for the duration of the meeting it is the facilitator’s job to leave their attachments aside in order to be a clear channel for what the group needs. Neutrality and objectivity are essential. If you are in the facilitator role, a few minutes before you start, clear your mind of worries and fatigue; breathe and center; ground yourself. All your attention will be needed for the task at hand.

As the facilitator, you carry an attitude of group success. For every group, in every situation, there is common ground that can be discerned—your job is to see that and reflect it back, over and over. As each person speaks, listen carefully, and every few minutes step in to weave together what’s been said. Look for the reasons behind the positions. If someone’s contribution is hard for others to take, search for what’s underneath that others will be able to relate to and name it. If someone becomes frustrated, look for what’s not being heard. Unity is present, waiting to be discovered. Have faith.

Energy, tone and body language will tell you at least as much as the words spoken. Don’t be afraid to name openly what you see happening, yet be gentle and concentrate on the positive. Some groups employ a vibes-watcher to pay special attention to this. The vibes-watcher may suggest a break, or a moment of silence. Silence is a powerful tool. Sometimes a moment to think is all that’s needed to break a tension. Seek the path forward, but don’t be afraid of conflict; it’s a natural experience and it shows that people care enough to put energy in. Highly skilled facilitators are able to take that energy and use it to help the group.

If someone proffers a premature block, you can work with the substance of their objection in the moment, or you can acknowledge the seriousness of their concern and ask them to hold it and listen with an open mind to more discussion. If you come to a stuck point, remember that you have options. An item can be laid over for future discussion. You or someone else can talk one-on-one with an individual during a break. Items can be sent to a committee for further consideration. The group can request help from an outside facilitator. With patience and effort, agreements can nearly always be reached.

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Facilitator Paul DeLapa sees consensus as a creative route to collective discovery. More than a decision-making method, “Consensus is a process that leads to agreements that people are unified on,” he says. “It requires a different mind-set . . . to create and build out of what’s present.” All our lives we’re taught that we’ll be rewarded for delivering the “right” answer—suddenly there is no right answer. Instead, there is a cooperative search for elegant, creative solutions that meet everyone’s needs.

In a culture where we’re taught that every person must struggle for themselves and we can’t get ahead without stepping on others, consensus is a radical, community-building alternative. Consensus teaches that no one can get ahead by themselves: our success with the method depends utterly on our ability to work with others. Competition is no longer the root of experience; instead, we honor and integrate the diverse life surrounding us. Consensus is interdependence made visible.