Short Consensus Summary

One of the great needs I see in the Occupy movement is for better meeting facilitation and consensus training.  I’m posting this short handout here–there’s a longer one available at my main website.

Understanding Consensus:

All over the country, people are flocking to the streets to join occupations demanding a just system for the 99%.  It’s an inspiring vision: thousands of people participating in direct democracy, making decisions, having their voices heard.  And it’s a potential nightmare—thousands of ordinary Americans being subjected to really bad, ponderous consensus meetings, fleeing in frustration and anguish and ready to accept any tyranny over the prospect of more long meetings!

Consensus process can be wonderful—or terrible.  At it’s best, it can be empowering, creative and efficient.  But for that to happen, people need to understand and agree upon the process.  Facilitators need training and skill.  And the group as a whole needs to invest some trust in the facilitation team.  If no one in the group has experience with consensus, get training.  If you can’t find training, at least form a facilitators working group to find ways to practice and refine the process and to think about meetings beforehand.  Or just vote.

Why Consensus?

Consensus is a creative thinking process: When we vote, we decide between two alternatives.   With consensus, we take an issue, hear the range of enthusiasm, ideas and concerns about it, and synthesize a proposal that best serves everybody’s vision.

Consensus values every voice: The care we take in a consensus process to hear everyone’s opinions and weave them into a whole is a living demonstration that each one of us is important.  It’s a counter to systems that tell us some people count while others don’t.  In consensus, everyone matters.  But for consensus to work, we must also be flexible, willing to let go.  Consensus means you get your say—it doesn’t mean you get your way!

Consensus creates a sense of unity: When we all participate in shaping a course of action, we all feel a sense of commitment and responsibility.  Unity is not unanimity—within consensus there is room for disagreement, for objections, reservations, for people to stand aside and not participate.

Talking vs. Talking about Talking

People are eager to talk to one another—about politics, about plans of action, about what we learn each day in the occupation.  That’s talking—with real content.  But people get really bored and frustrated when we’re talking about talking—deciding which agenda items should come first, or whether or not to break down into small groups, or how long to take for lunch.  Consensus works best when the group invests some trust in the facilitators to make judgment calls that smooth the process and allow the group to get to the talking.  It bogs down when we are talking about talking.

Hand Signals:

Groups often use hand signals to simplify discussion.  The most common is finger-wiggling or ‘twinkling’, which originated from American Sign Language for applause, and signifies approval.  It allows a group to signify support quickly.

Many groups use additional signals which I won’t attempt to categorize here.  Make sure they are visible, and that everyone knows what they mean.  Too many signals become confusing and alienate new people.

Roles:

Facilitators: The facilitators guide the process, keep people on track, and decide how to facilitate each item.  They balance the need to hear every voice with the need to keep moving forward.  Facilitation of big meetings is a skill and training and practice are needed.  Facilitators need the support of the group to do their job.  Big meetings are best served by having cofacilitators. Facilitators remain neutral and do not take a position on the issues.

Stack taker: Keeps track of who wants to speak, and takes names or gives people numbers.

Notetakers and Scribes: Note takers keep the minutes of the meeting, being especially careful to record any decisions made.  Scribes may write up crucial information large so everyone can see it.

Timekeeper: The timekeeper keeps track of time and of how long we are taking for each agenda item, and alerts the group when it runs over time.

Dragons: Guard the boundaries of the meeting and run interference with those who might distract or interrupt:  drunks wandering in, police, etc.

Straw Polls and Temperature Readings:

Full consensus takes time and energy. Save it for important issues.  For simple decisions and process questions, use straw polls—quick, non-binding votes, or temperature readings—are we in favor of this, neutral or disapproving.  Democracy is not served by trying to get a large group to do a full consensus process on every detail of a meeting—for people who have limited time and energy will leave and be denied their opportunity to weigh in on important issues.

Running the Meeting:

Set an agenda and choose facilitators beforehand:

For big meetings and general assemblies, collect agenda items beforehand so the facilitators have time to think about a logical order for the agenda, and how to approach each item.  There can always be room on the agenda for new items, but setting a full agenda in a huge group will take lots of time that could otherwise be used for actually talking about the items.  Some things commonly on agendas for general assemblies:  Welcome, reports from working groups and committees, action reports, next action planning, etc.

Welcome people.

Present the agenda, ask for any additional items, and ask for approval with a simple straw poll or temperature reading:  ‘twinkles’ or thumbs up or down.  If a lot of additional items come up, ask people to bring them up to the co-facilitator to set an order.  DO NOT let the whole group discuss the order or the times—ask their permission for the facilitators to do this service so the group can discuss issues.

Review how the process works:

When many people are new to consensus, it’s worth spending some time to review how the process works and to clarify any misconceptions.

Issues:

Present the issue:  Someone, NOT the facilitators, tell the group what’s under discussion. What information do we all need to know?

Discuss the issue:

Facilitators call for enthusiasm (sometimes with ‘twinkles’), support, additional ideas, concerns, reservations, strong feelings, moral objections.  Out of discussion a proposal emerges.

Decide the issue:

Someone makes a proposal that synthesizes the sense of the group that arises from the discussion.  A proposal is an action statement:  We will do ______.

The facilitator asks for a show of support, then for new concerns, or friendly amendments.  The proposal can be tweaked and refined to accept additions ( or reject them) and to meet concerns.

Call for consensus:

Restate the proposal in its final form.

Ask for a show of support.

Ask for any unheard concerns, reservations or objections which can be stated for the record.

Ask for any stand asides—meaning “I won’t participate but I won’t block.”

Ask for any blocks.  Blocking consensus does not mean “I disagree”, it means “This proposal is so counter to our founding principles that I cannot let the group go forward.”  When discussion is done well, objections this strong will come up much earlier and blocking is rarely an issue.  Some groups may use a modified form of consensus—meaning that a 90% vote (or another number the group chooses) can override a block.

Celebrate!

Restate the proposal, record it, and decide who will implement it, and who will communicate the decision to others who need to know.

Announcements:

People always want to make announcements, and they often can go on and on and become a huge energy sink.  Big sheets of paper where people can write up details can help with this.

Soap Box:

People love to make statements and speeches.  When time allows, setting a time at the end of the agenda for people to do this can help keep other discussions on track.

Evaluate and close the meeting:

Take a few moments at the end to evaluate how the meeting went.

Don’t confuse the tool with the result:

Any process we use is a tool to help us achieve the goals of empowerment, creativity and unity.  If the tool isn’t working, whether it’s a hand signal, the ‘people’s mike’, or consensus itself, whether it was invented at Occupy Wall Street or has been used for thirty years in the movement, do something different.

More Resources:

Experienced facilitators have many other tools in their toolbox.  A free download of a more extended discussion of facilitation is on Starhawk’s website at http://www.starhawk.org/.

See also the many resources at Lisa Fithian’s website: http://organizingforpower.wordpress.com/ And check out Tree Bresson’s website at: http://treegroup.info/topics/Top-10-Consensus-Mistakes.pdf. George Franklin’s website has copies of many direct action handbooks of the ‘Eighties at http://www.directaction.org/.

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13 comments to Short Consensus Summary

  • garimo

    as part of a work group. I never see discussion of how the workgroup functions with in itself, or with the general assembly. I’m experiencing that the GA sends stuff to the work group when they don’t want to take the time to discuss in GA… then when the work group spends hours and hours in discussion, reach a consensus… The GA hasn’t the ability to hear/value and include the report/proposal without rushing and imposing… bla, bla… I feel a disconect somewhere.

    • what people often don’t realize is that consensus works best with trust and autonomy–if a big group has to reach consensus on every detail of every project, it will drive everyone mad. But if they can delegate work to committees and work groups, and entrust them with the autonomy they need to do their job, then the General Assembly can focus on the larger issues that everyone needs to weigh in on. it’s an interesting moment with so many people across the country struggling to learn the process–have patience, keep your sense of humor, and good luck!

    • Yup… we’re having this issue at Occupy Berkeley, too. I instigated the process of creating some nonviolence guidelines for us but it was 16 of us spending many hours to craft some language as a proposal. While our language was much less “judgemental” than some examples of such have been over the past 30 years, still several people objected and the facilitator, yes, was happy to throw it back our way when a couple minutes at the G.A. may have allowed us to synthesize ideas. As it was, the people who objected did not come join us after to look at the wording once again. So their objections were allowed to keep us from moving forward, when apparently they were not going to help us find language that made sense to them. We cannot cater to the desires of some if they are not meanwhile taking responsibility for doing what they can to carefully explain their concerns. What do we do?

      Better facilitation is one answer, and that comes with practice, but most important is for failitators to understand the intent of consensus decision-making which you laid out well, Starhawk.

      I am interested in hearing people’s ideas of how to navigate the divide between those of us actually occupying sites 24 hours a day vs. people coming in only for meetings, or meetings and some actions. Problem is that occupiers on site are dealing with so many needs of street people, including severe mental health issues. We could use some strong solidarity of people having this type of discussion sticking close by us, even if you cannot camp.

  • Maryann

    I’m posting from Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories. I read this piece after returning from the general assembly here and laughed myself silly because it really addressed some of the problems here. It would be great if this could be posted on the Occupy together resources site, as there seems to be a lack of concrete consensus resources there,

    maryann

  • Occupy San Diego does not allow people to suggest non-agenda items. All agenda items must be approved by the GA Process Committee.

    Occupy San Diego has also abandoned direct democracy for representative democracy. There is a Council consisting one one elected member of each committee.

    The Council and the GA Process committee appear to be controlled by the same people. When I challenged the hierarchy by suggesting during my Transparency Committee report last night that everyone be allowed to participate fully in Council meetings, a guy pulled me aside and told me that the rule that the Council shall only be composed of one elected person from each committee had already been consensed upon.

    Later this same guy told the General Assembly not to think they had to block things that were intolerable because nothing is set in stone and that even if something is consensed upon, it can still be brought up again and changed. But it cannot be brought up again unless the GA Process Committee votes to place it on the agenda, and they’re not going to allow anything on the agenda that would dilute their power to control the agenda or the power of the Council hierarchy to circumvent direct democracy and substitute representative democracy.

    I believe that the switch from direct democracy to representative democracy and the controlled agenda are among the primary reasons that the number of people at OccupySD is dwindling.

    • There’s always a balance between a process that is completely wide open, and one that has more controls. I’m actually not in favor of setting agendas in huge meetings of lots of people–the process is impossibly slow and cumbersome, and people end up excluded in a different way–by attrition, as they get frustrated with meetings. And we have often used spokescouncils very effectively in actions. The difference is that in a spokescouncil, the ‘spokes’ often rotate, so that no one remains the representative for all time. And spokes report back to their groups. But it sounds like you are not feeling a sense of trust in the process or seeing a way that the Process Committee can be held accountable to the group as a whole?
      I see people all over the country struggling to invent a form of direct democracy in which everyone can have a voice, but which can scale up to large groups without becoming so cumbersome that no one’s voice is really effective and no one has time to do anything except attend meetings. Ome suggestion–last night at Occupy Oakland they started their General Assembly with a forum. The facilitators suggested a question–something on the order of what can we do or do we do to respect ourselves and one another in this community? They asked us to break into groups of ten to discuss it, then let people come up to an open mike to make time-limited statements. That worked really well. Perhaps Occupy San Diego needs something like that each day which can be open for people to have some of the political discussions people are eager to have, and use the more representative form for organizing the camp and dealing with the day to day issues.
      I’ve also heard that San Diego was using the talking stick for meetings. That’s a great process for getting people to speak from the heart–it can be a slow, ponderous and frustrating way to try and make decisions. It’s one of the things I write about in the handout on my website, http://www.starhawk.org/, The Five-Fold Path of Productive Meetings. Good Luck! And thanks for writing.

      • According to the Occupy Wall Street consensus model, decisions cannot be made within committees if they effect everyone.

        Controlling what may or may not be placed on the agenda effects everyone.

        The Occupy San Diego GA Process Committee gave themselves the power to set the agenda without asking for consensus. Hierarchies that usurp power can be dangerous.

        Many Occupy cities do not have Councils because it is a form of representative government rather than direct democracy.

        Although decision making in large groups can be “slow, ponderous and frustrating,” it is still better than moving to a more efficient system like fascism that will get things done quickly by concentrating power in a small group of people while stifling minority voices
        .

        • Well, Mark, I applaud the desire for absolutely pure democracy, but in practice, there’s just not time enough in the universe to set every agenda in a large assembly. Good facilitators do set the agenda ahead of time, but ask for approval. They have a transparent process for putting items on the agenda–but might very well require proposals or issues to come through the committee before they get up on an agenda. Oakland does that, for example. Otherwise the group spends so much time debating the agenda that people lose patience and leave before they get to the real discussions of substance. Any process can be abused–but if a group cannot delegate some power to committees and work groups, and invest some trust in the people doing the work, then instead of everyone being empowered, nobody has any power. If people take on responsibility, they need to be empowered to do their jobs.

  • shari sisco

    Wow, occupy SD I just posted 2 days ago we needed a spiral dance in SD, the energy sadly needs a big hug and positivity, to be grounded, I did print out stars handbook, it’s sat next to the inform
    aton table for 3 days I went back yesterday and found it and a facilitator named Will and gave it to him he’s , w.t the get s*** done committee inspiring young guy, hopefully he reads and passes along ! Peace

  • […] been a lot written already on consensus, so instead of re-writing, take a look at Starhawk’s posting on an overview of consensus.  What she doesn’t say is that consensus is a system of governance – in other words a […]

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