A Bit About Consensus

This part mainly paraphrased from C.T. Butler's book. For more details please ask people who have used consensus before or read the book.

Foundations for consensus are the following:

Trust: Between the individuals involved
Respect: For the emotional and logical viewpoints of the individuals
Unity of Purpose: Our purpose is stated above in the "statement of purpose"
Nonviolence: The power to reveal your part of the truth is the maximum force allowed.
Self Empowerment: Do not rely on authorities or experts, learn your self. Be careful about delegating power.
Cooperation: The goal is to reach a decision not to "win." Adversarial attitudes about people or proposals weaken this goal.
Conflict Resolution: Open discussion about areas of disagreement to facilitate moving towards a good decision for the group as a whole.
Commitment to the GroupAn understanding that the goals of the group are in line with your personal goals
Active Participation: From the Quakers perspective this is critical because each individual knows part of the truth, and the whole truth can only be known if everyone participates. Consensus is a process of synthesis, all sincere comments are important and valuable.
Equal Access to Power: Because of personal differences and political disparities, some people inevitably have more effective power than others. To balance this inequity, everyone needs to consciously attempt to creatively share power, skills and information.
Patience: Consensus cannot be rushed.

Impediments to Consensus are:

Lack of Training: Consensus is in many ways the opposite of how decisions are made in our society. We are neither trained nor exposed to it. Everyone has ways in which they can improve their consensus process.
External Hierarchical Structures: In can be difficult for a group to reach consensus when externals forces can disrupt the decision making structure.
Social Prejudice: Everyone has been exposed to biases, assumptions, and prejudices which interfere with the spirit of cooperation and equal participation.

The Sequence of a Consensus Meeting


  1. Pick Roles
  2. Check-In
  3. Agenda Review.
  4. Agenda Items ( perhaps more than one )
  5. Evaluation
In More Detail:

1) Pick Roles:
The role of facilitator is necessary at almost all Consensus meetings. The role of Notetaker/Scribe is necessary at most meetings because it's very helpful to be able to go back weeks later to understand what was decided ( and perhaps how it was decided). People who have experienced roles are more likely to be supportive of whomever currently has a role, therefore it's desirable for the roles to rotate from meeting to meeting amongst the people participating. Since these roles should have little power over actual content, holding the position of a role shouldn't allow an individual additional power in deciding an issue. Roles are in a sense a responsibility which is another reason they should be rotated.
2) Check-In:
Consensus is about understanding and synthesizing the viewpoints which everyone brings to the table. As such it's important to also understand the people involved on a daily as well as longer term basis. Check-Ins allow you to determine if someone has had a particularly good or bad day. Check-In's should not be used for discussion of issues. Check-Ins are usually done in a "go- around."
Agenda Review:
Although the agenda should be prepared ahead of time as the agenda planner ( usually the facilitator ) collects issue from various people, it's often helpful for the facilitator to make sure that all the issues anyone wants be discussed have been collected. The Agenda becomes a "road-map" for the remainder of the meeting. Since getting through a large portion of the business is a goal, it's important to explicitly give each issue a sufficient amount of time. Generally the time given for each agenda item is written next to the item. Unfortunately it's often the case that not all the items will be addressed because time runs out. Therefore it's a good idea to order the items on the basis of their time dependencies and importance. One of the facilitator's responsibilities is to keep the meeting on time. Therefore it's a good idea for the facilitator to make sure that items have sufficient time. Once the agenda has been agreed (consensed ) upon the facilitator must stick to it's schedule unless the group consenses to do otherwise.
Agenda Items:
This is the heart of the consensus process. It's discussed in the next section.
One of the goals of the consensus process is to constantly improve the consensus process. Therefore it's helpful for everyone involved to keep her/his mind thinking not only of the issues, but also about ways to more effectively run the meetings. The evaluation time is a time for discussions about the process itself. Most of the time groups will have an evolving process depending on the needs of the group at a particular time. The group process is both about the group as a whole and the individuals involved. Evaluations are sometimes a forum for personal constructive criticisms. Much care must be exercised in personal constructive criticisms since they are potentially destructive to the trust which is so important to the functioning of the group. If you have personal criticism of another person, make very sure that it's constructive to the group's process, and that the individual it's directed towards will be able to accept the criticism without feeling attacked or losing trust in the group.

The Heart of Consensus

The goal of consensus is for the group to create a decision which each member of the group agrees is the best possible decision for the group. The goal of the consensus process is for the members of the group to synthesize a proposal which takes each member's concerns and understandings of the issue into account as best as is possible. In more traditional decision making systems the participants often make up their minds before arriving at the decision making table and attempt "win" by swaying other people to their side. In consensus it's important to think about issues ahead of time but to recognize that you are not the holder of the whole truth and therefore can't make a good decision for the group by yourself. The structure of the process leading to consensus on an issue can vary in formalism depending on the group's needs.

Fundamentally there are two parts:

  1. A discussion period leading to the making of a proposal.
  2. If the proposal is consensed upon then this becomes a decision.
Ultimately each member of the group is given the following power on each proposal. Each member may agree ( consense ), stand aside, or block consensus on each proposal:

To Consense means that you agree with the proposal and would like it to be a decision.

To Stand Aside is the weaker method of disagreement. In standing aside you are saying that you don't agree with the proposal but that you let the group decide it without your support. If you choose this method you are expected to comply with any of the decisions made even if you disagree with them.

To Block means that you think the group is making the wrong decision and that you can't let the group proceed. You must have an articulated concern before you can block.

Usually proposals can be created which are inclusive enough to make the use of blocking power a rarity. Standing Aside is slightly more common but also rare. If members of the group are using these powers often then the group should look carefully at the discussion process in the interests of creating more inclusive decisions and in the interests of understanding the individuals involved more clearly.

Although there are more complicated systems, a simple version of the consensus discussion process works as follows:

If a person would like to speak about the agenda item they raise their hand and the facilitator calls upon them in the order in which their hands were raised. It is important that each person speak only as they are called upon. This system provides an orderly way for people to speak. Since the goal of this discussion is understanding, it's very important for everyone to listen to each person carefully. Often times it's good to allow a slight pause in between speakers.

As the discussion proceeds it may be useful for the facilitator to summarize the "sense of the meeting." Usually this will involve laying out the various "sides" of an issues including the pros and cons. The facilitator should attempt to only summarize what has been said and not add in her/his own opinions. This means in effect that the facilitator is NOT part of the discussion like the other participants.

As the discussion proceeds someone should make a proposal which attempts to synthesize everyone's comments into a possible decision. In more formal consensus, agenda items are not even placed on the agenda without being in the form of a "starting place" proposal.

Some times individuals will use their speaking time to ask a "clarifying" question. This would be a question which is directed at an "expert" in the interests of clarifying or understanding something more clearly. These questions should not be used rhetorically or to make a point. These questions can be answered immediately, but without straying from the question.

After a proposal is made and the process of clarification is finished. Then a period of "broad discussion" should generally occur. This is a time for philosophical comments about the proposal. As this discussion moves forward it should narrow down towards specific concerns.

Finally a call for concerns can be made by the facilitator. Concerns are basically issues people have with the proposal which incline them towards blocking or standing aside. Even if you feel you would still consense upon the proposal you should make any concerns you have heard. At this point if there are significant concerns then the proposal should be modified to attempt to address the concerns. If there are no concerns then the facilitator should ask if there is consesus. "Speak now or forever hold you peace" This is when individuals can state that they are blocking or standing aside. Saying nothing IMPLIES THAT YOU AGREE WITH THE PROPOSAL. It is expected that if you are blocking that you have specific poorly addressed concerns.

If this system seem ungainly find ways to "streamline it." On the other hand if your meetings tend to be out of control you may want to add more details. An excellent reference for a more complicated but more powerful discussion process is C. T. Butler's "On Conflict and Consensus"

Using Consensus Requires:

  1. Participation.
  2. Honesty.
  3. A willingness to admit you are not the
  4. holder of the whole truth.
  5. A willingness to think of oneself as a part of the group rather than as just an individual.
  6. An agreement to listen.
  7. Recognition and validation of other people.
  8. Clear, specific language.
  9. Tolerance.
  10. A willingness to stick with it.
I found these on the wall in the meeting room of a community which is over 20 years old and meets every two weeks by consensus.

Brief Comparison Decision Making Methods:

one person makes the decisions for everyone
a few people make the decisions for everyone
representative democracy:
a few people are elected to make the decisions for everyone
majority rule democracy:
the majority makes the decisions for everyone.
everyone makes the decisions for everyone
each person makes decisions for her/his self.