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