Consensus Process Overview

Consensusfrom Communities Magazine, Winter 2001 (Issue #113)

The consensus process is a decision-making method based on values such as cooperation, trust, creativity, equality and respect. It replaces traditional styles of top-down leadership with a model of shared power and responsibility. A group which uses consensus effectively can become a healthy community and a powerful force of social change.

Consensus is not a panacea. It will not work in every situation. In order to invoke the power and magic of consensus, five main elements must be in place:

  1. Willingness to share power
  2. Informed commitment to the consensus process
  3. Common purpose
  4. Strong agendas
  5. Effective facilitation

Procedure for Reaching Consensus

In the consensus process, no votes are taken. Ideas or proposals are introduced, discussed and eventually arrive at a point of decision. In making a decision, a participant in a consensus group has three options.

*To block. This step prevents the decision from going forward, at least for the time being. Blocking is a serious matter, to be done only when one truly believes that the pending proposal, if adopted, would violate the morals, ethics, or safety of the whole group. One probably has a lifetime limit of three or four blocks, so this right should be exercised with care. If you frequently find yourself wanting to block, you may be in the wrong group.

*To stand aside. An individual stands aside when he or she cannot personally support a proposal, but feels it would be alright for the rest of the group to adopt it. Standing aside is a stance of principled non-participation, which absolves the individual from any responsibility for implementing the decision in the question. Stand asides are recorded in the minutes of the meeting. If there are more than a few stand asides on an issue, consensus has not been reached.

*To give consent. When everyone in the group (except those standing aside), say “yes” to a proposal, consensus is achieved. To gives ones’ consent does not necessarily mean that one loves every aspect of the proposal, but it does mean that one is willing to support the decision and stand in solidarity with the group, despite one’s disagreements. Consensus decisions can only be changed by reaching another consensus.

Basic Consensus Agreements

To reach consensus and avoid chaos in meetings, the group needs to adopt some ground rules. The facilitator must present the basic agreements as a proposal at the beginning of the group’s first meeting – or at the first meeting in which they are to be used. Once they have been accepted by the group, it is the job of the facilitator to see that the group respects its own norms. Some possible ground rules follow. Each group must choose the norms which best meet its needs and values.

The Bare Minimum

  • Use a facilitator
  • Everyone participates
  • Speak only for yourself
  • No interrupting
  • Seek a solution

Also useful:

  • Begin and end on time
  • Have an agenda and stick to it
  • One speaker at a time
  • Listen with respect
  • No personal attacks or blaming
  • Confidentiality (when appropriate)
  • Silence equals assent (If you do not say anything, it means you agree)

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