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Consensus is Not Unanimity: Making Decisions Co-operatively

Adapted from Randy Schutt

What is consensus?

Is it a co-operative, process in which people share their best ideas and come up with superior decisions or a coercive, manipulative, time-wasting process in which those which are most treacherous, are most verbal, or have the most time can get their way? Or is it an idealistic fantasy where every problem always has a good simple solution that incorporates everyone's ideas (no matter how ridiculous) and satisfies everyone completely?

Consensus is not Unanimity

Many people think of consensus as simply an extended voting method in which every one must cast their votes the same way. Since unanimity of this kind only rarely occurs in groups with more than one member, groups that try to use this kind of process usually end up being either extremely frustrated or coercive. Either decisions are never made (leading to the demise of the group, its conversion into a social group that does not accomplish any tasks), they are made covertly, or some group or individual dominates the rest. Sometimes a majority dominates, sometimes a minority, sometimes an individual who employs "the Block". But no matter how it is done, it is NOT consensus.

Consensus is a process for deciding what is best for a group.

The final decision is often not the first preference of each individual in the group and they may not even like the final result. But it is a decision to which they all consent because it is best for the group.

Consensus is a Co-operative Process

Consensus is a process for people who want to work together honestly in good faith to find good solutions for the group It cannot be used by people who do not, can not or will not co-operate. Consensus should not be attempted in a group with people who want to maintain their wealth and privilege or want to dominate or control others. In these situations, nonviolent struggle would be more appropriate.

Consensus is Not Just a Process, but a Valuable Goal

Consensus is a process that allows everyone in a group to participate and work together nonviolently to make decisions - the ultimate realisation of a true democracy and very attractive to anyone who has ever been dominated or oppressed. It gives people the power to make decisions and also demands that they take responsibility for those decisions. Rather than abdicating power to an individual or representative, it demands that that we take complete responsibility.

Consensus is One of the Best Processes

If not consensus, then what? Usually voting is proposed as a reasonably democratic alternative. But voting is not a meeting process, it is simply a procedure. The goal of a vote is to tally the (existing ) preferences of a group of people, and in some logical, fair, and equitable way come up with a good decision. Kenneth Arrow received a Nobel Prize for proving it was impossible to do this except under very simple circumstances e.g. Situations when there are only two possible options. Furthermore, voting necessarily ignores the intensity of preference, each individual feels or the distribution of consequences that a decision imposes. And even under the best of circumstances, voting necessarily means that some group of people will not get what they want and if severely trampled by the majority, may leave the group or retaliate.

Voting can therefore only produce satisfying decisions where everyone is extremely tolerant or there is unanimity of opinion. Unanimity can sometimes be achieved if one person or group can persuade everyone else of the validity of their perspective and solution. But it the problem has no easy, clear solution, some people are personally devoted to a particular solution, or there is competition for power in the group, the process, will quickly bog down, factionalize , and/or revert to coercion.

Good consensus process gets around these problems by allowing the members of the group to explore in depth the complete range of options and concerns in a non-adversarial, co-operative atmosphere. Discussions in small groups allows everyone, even those who are not verbally adept, to express their ideas, concerns and opinions. Members of the group get a chance to learn from each otherís experiences and thinking, empathise with people with other experiences and backgrounds, and gracefully change their minds as they hear these new ideas and arguments. They can challenge dumb, obsolete, or immoral assumptions and solutions, and they can explore unusual solutions ( radical transformations, compromises, bargains etc ) that are often overlooked when the discussion gets polarised or restrained by formal proposals. Individuals can offer to give of their time or wealth or to suffer a loss for the good of the group. And people can be persuaded, inspired, loved, or counseled out of their prejudices, biases, and other rigidities or if this fails, nonviolently prevented from acting immorally.

Of course a good process that ends in a vote can also have all these co-operative aspects. In fact, a good voting process may be indistinguishable form a good consensus process until the end. But non-consensual processes usually rely on formal proposals, debates, and other parliamentary procedures that interfere with co-operation. Knowing that there will be an up-down vote at the end often polarises the discussion. Also, if the group should develop a lynch mob or group thinking mentality , there is no avenue for an individual or minority to slow or thwart their immoral decisions.

Consensus is Not Conflict - Free or Painless

Good consensus process relies heavily on problem-solving, questioning, empathy, self-sacrifice, and nonviolent direct action. In a good process, conflict is not ignored or covered up, but encouraged. Issues and proposed solutions are thoroughly thrashed out until a good solution is found. Like any good nonviolent action, the ideas are severely challenged, but the people involved are listened to loved, and supported. When there are no easy solutions., then individuals must be willing to sacrifice for the good of the group or the group must divide or disband. When one person or a group ( minority or majority refuses or is unable to work co-operatively, everyone else must boldly, yet tenderly resist and challenge them, or if necessary throw them out of the group (ideally, offering support and guidance to their next endeavor).

A Checklist for the Consensus Process

These are just some to the many ways the conduct a meeting using the consensus process. Roles should be carried out by everyone as needed - not just specially designated.

Basic Procedure

At or before the Meeting (or at a previous meeting):

The Flow of a Cooperative Decision-Making Process

Discussion/Problem Solving Tools

Process/Empowerment Tools

Typical Tasks for a Facilitator

Typical Tasks of a Vibeswatcher

Typical Tasks of a Stacker

Stress-Reduction Techniques

Conflict Resolution Tools

Running Meetings by Consensus

Types of meetings:

Some ingredients of an effective meeting:

  1. Agree on group process: Robert's Rules of Consensus or Free for All or something else.

  2. Content: list all the possible agenda items, either from past agreements (minutes) or by brainstorming. Prioritize (perhaps in order of ease of putting into effect). Agree on how much time each item can have in order to fit meeting length.

  3. The Facilitator remains neutral, does not contribute her/his own ideas, nor evaluate the ideas of others. When time is nearly up for a topic, Facilitator will ask the group if they want to allot more time, stop, or come back to it later. Consensus is reached when no "unresolved concerns" remain. (Applause is nice to acknowledge achieving consensus.)

  4. The Vibes Watcher may interrupt if meeting gets heated to suggest a deep breath or five minute break, remind group of their common goals, etc.

  5. The Names Taker keeps a list of those people who want to talk. (Process questions don't need to wait in line---hold up both index fingers to let Facilitator know you have a process questions.)

  6. The Recorder uses the speaker's own words as much as possible and is willing to make corrections. Neat printing and speed are helpful. Consensed items are circled, volunteers' names and due dates are written next to jobs.

  7. The Timekeepker says, "One minute left" if group has set a time limit for speaking, followed by "Time is up" a minute later. Also responsible for saying, "Five minutes left on this topic" or "Time is up."

  8. The Participants want a way to focus their energy for maximum effectiveness, and are willing to work until actions/solutions are found that all accept, with no unresolved concerns left.

Adapted from __How_to_Make_Meetings_Work__, Doyle & Straus

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