Consensus Decision Making
What is consensus?
Conditions for using consensus
The consensus process
The stages of consensus process
A consensus flowchart
Guidelines for reaching consensus
Quick consensus decision making
Consensus in large groups
Large groups consensus flowchart
Download the PDF of this briefing to print out - 2.7MB
Consensus decision making is a creative and dynamic way of reaching agreement between all members of a group. Instead of simply voting for an item and having the majority of the group getting their way, a group using consensus is committed to finding solutions that everyone actively supports, or at least can live with.
This ensures that all opinions, ideas and concerns are taken into account. Through listening closely to each other, the group aims to come up with proposals that work for everyone. Consensus is neither compromise nor unanimity - it aims to go further by weaving together everyone's best ideas and key concerns - a process that often results in surprising and creative solutions, inspiring both the individual and the group as whole.
Consensus can work in all types of settings - small groups, local communities, businesses, even whole nations and territories. The exact process may differ depending on the size of the group and other factors, but the basic principles are the same.
In the following briefing you'll find lots of useful information, not only about the basics of consensus decision making, but also about how to apply it to large groups of people and about ideas for dealing with common problems. We also have a Short Guide to Consensus and you can find lots of tips on how to make your consensus meetings run smoothly in our various guides on facilitation and meetings.
What's wrong with the democracy we've got?
How we make decisions is the key to how our society is organised. It influences every aspect of our lives including our places of work, local communities, health services, and even whether we live in war or peace.
Many of us have been brought up to believe that the western-style system of voting is the highest form of democracy. Yet in the very nations which shout loudest about the virtues of democracy, many people don't even bother to vote any more; they feel it doesn't actually make any difference to their lives as most decisions are made by an elite of powerful politicians and business people.
Power and decision making is taken away from ordinary people when they vote for leaders - handing over power to make decisions to a small elite with completely different interests from their own. Being allowed to vote 20 times in a lifetime for an MP or senator is a poor substitute for having the power ourselves to make the decisions that affect every aspect of our lives.
In any case, there are many areas of society where democratic principles have little influence. Most institutions and work places are entirely hierarchical - students and employees don't usually get a chance to vote their superiors into office or have any decision making power in the places where they spend the greatest part of their lives. Or consider the supermarket chain muscling its way into a town against the will of local people. Most areas of society are ruled by power, status and money, not through democracy.
What's wrong with voting?
Compared to this, working in a small group where everyone votes directly on important issues may feel like having democratic control. However, voting creates a majority and a minority - a situation in which there are winners and losers. If most people support an idea then it will be voted in, and the concerns of the people who opposed it can be ignored. This situation can foster conflict and distrust as the 'losers' feel disempowered by the process. The will of the majority is seen as the will of the whole group, with the minority expected to accept and carry out the decision, even if it is against their deeply held convictions and most basic needs. A majority will find it easy to steamroll an idea over a dissenting minority rather than looking for another solution that would suit all. People might sometimes choose to bow to the will of the majority, but, in a voting system, when people constantly find themselves in a minority they lose control over their own lives. A vivid example is the imprisonment, in many European 'democracies', of those refusing military service.
It's true that majority voting enables even controversial decisions to be taken in a minimum amount of time, but that doesn't mean to say that this decision will be a wise one, or even morally acceptable. After all, at one time, the majority of Europeans and North Americans supported the 'right' to hold slaves.
The alternatives are already here
We have these moments of non-capitalist, non-coercive, non-hierarchical interaction in our lives constantly, and these are the times when we most enjoy the company of others, when we get the most out of other people; but somehow it doesn't occur to us to demand that our society work this way.CrimethInc
Many people accept the idea that voting is the 'normal' way of having democratic control over the decisions that affect us - after all, it is often presented to us as the only possibility out there. However, a rejection of voting is nothing new. Many people struggling for social change have recognised that changing the way we make decisions is key to creating a different society. If we are fighting for a better society where everyone has control over their own life, where everyone has equal access to power, where it's possible for everyone to follow their interests and fulfil their needs, then we need to develop alternative processes for making decisions; processes that recognise everyone's right to self-determination, that encourage mutual aid and replace competition with co-operation.
The alternatives to the current system are already here, growing in the gaps between the paving stones of state authority and corporate control. We only need to learn to recognise them for the seedlings of the different kind of society that they are. Homeless people occupying empty houses and turning them into collective homes, workers buying out the businesses they work for and running them on equitable terms, gardening groups growing vegetables collectively; once we start looking there are hundreds of examples of co-operative organising that we encounter in our daily lives. Many of these organise through varying forms of consensus decision making.back to top ^
Why use consensus?
No one is more qualified than you to decide what your life will be.
Consensus decision making is based on the idea that people should have full control over their lives and that power should be shared by all rather than concentrated in the hands of a few. It implies wide-ranging liberty, including the freedom to decide one's own course in life and the right to play an equal role in forging a common future.
As well as wanting to enjoy as much freedom as possible, most of us wish to live in, and are dependent on, some form of society. This means finding ways to balance the needs and desires of every individual with those of the closer community and the wider world.
Consensus decision making aims to provide a way of doing this. It builds on respect, trust, co-operation and mutual aid to achieve agreeable solutions for everyone concerned.
At the heart of consensus is a respectful dialogue between equals. It's about helping groups to work together to meet both the individual's and the group's needs. It's about how to work with each other rather than for or against each other, something that requires openness and trust. Consensus is looking for 'win-win' solutions that are acceptable to all, with the direct benefit that everyone agrees with the final decision, resulting in a greater commitment to actually turning it into reality.
In consensus every person has the power to make changes in the group they are working in - and to prevent changes they find unacceptable. The right to block a decision means that minorities cannot just be ignored, but solutions will have to be found to deal with their concerns. No decision will be made against the will of an individual or a minority, instead the group constantly adapts to all its member's needs.
Consensus is about active participation and sharing power equally. This makes it a powerful tool not only for empowering individuals, but also for bringing people together and building communities.back to top ^
Who uses consensus?
Consensus is not a new idea. Variations of consensus have been tested and proven around the world and through time.
On the American continent non-hierarchical societies have existed for hundreds of years. Before 1600, five nations - the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca - formed the Haudenosaunee Confederation, which works on a consensual basis and is still in existence today.
There are also many examples of successful and stable utopian communes using consensus decision making such as the Christian Herrnhuter settlement 1741-1760 and the production commune Boimondeau in France 1941-1972.
Christiania, an autonomous district in the city of Copenhagen has been self-governed by its inhabitants since 1971.
Within the co-operative movement many housing co-ops and social enterprises use consensus successfully: prominent examples include Green City, a wholefood wholesaler based in Scotland; and Radical Routes, a network of housing co-ops and workers’ co-ops in the UK.
The business meetings of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) use consensus to integrate the insights of each individual, arriving at the best possible approximation of the Truth.
Political and social activists such as many anarchists and others working for peace, the environment and social justice commonly regard consensus to be essential to their work. They believe that the methods for achieving change need to match their goals and visions of a free, nonviolent, egalitarian society. In protests around the world many mass actions and protest camps involving several thousand people have been organised and carried out using consensus, including the 1999 ‘Battle of Seattle’ World Trade Organisation protest, the 2005 G8 summit protests in Scotland and the Camps for Climate Action in the UK, Germany, Australia, Netherlands and other countries.
Conditions for consensus
Different groups use slightly different processes to achieve consensus decisions. However, in every group, there are a few conditions that underpin consensus building.
All of the conditions talked about above can be gained or improved over time - so if your group isn't meeting all the conditions at the moment you don't have to give up! For example, if you haven't agreed on your common goal use consensus to decide on one that everyone can subscribe to; or if your group's facilitation skills aren't too good then use any opportunities to practice; read our facilitation briefings or attend a training.back to top ^
The consensus process (for small and medium sized groups)
The key for a group working towards consensus is for all members of the group express their needs and viewpoints clearly, recognise their common ground and find solutions to any areas of disagreement.
The diagram below shows how a discussion evolves during the consensus process. At the beginning it widens out as people bring different perspectives and ideas to the group. This provides the material needed for a broad ranging discussion (the middle section) which explores all the options and helps people understand each others' concerns. This can be a turbulent and sometimes difficult stage - people might be grappling with lots of competing or contradictory ideas - but it is the most creative part, so don't lose heart!
Finally the group finds common ground and weeds out some of the options, combining all the useful bits into a proposal. The third stage in the diagram shows this convergence of the discussion, culminating in the decision.
The stages of the consensus process
There are lots of consensus models out there, some groups have developed very detailed procedures, other groups follow a more organic process. The following basic process outlines the stages that are common to most models of consensus. Although your group may not formally go through the process for each and every decision you make it's a good idea to regularly practise doing it in this way. Being familiar with the process can really help when it comes to difficult or complex decisions.
This model will work well in groups up to about 15-20 people. With groups larger than that extra steps need to be built in to ensure that everyone is able to participate fully. Have a look at the section on Consensus in large groups below to see how this basic model can be adapted to work for groups of hundreds and even thousands of people.
Step 1: Introduce and clarify the issue
This first stage is crucial to get you off to a good start. A good introduction will focus the meeting, ensure that everyone is talking about the same issue and provide everyone with all relevant information needed to make a decision. Spending a bit more time now to get everyone up to speed will save lots of time later.
Explain what the issue is and why it needs to be discussed. This could be done by the facilitator, the person who is raising the issue or by someone who knows a lot about the issue and its background.
Step 2: Explore the issue and look for ideas
Now it's time for everyone to really try to understand the issue, to express what they want and need to happen and to come up with lots of ideas for solving the problems.
Step 3: Look for emerging proposals
After discussing the issue freely move on to finding agreement on what needs to be done.
This stage is also called synthesis, which means coming up with a proposal by combining elements from several different ideas.
Start with a summary of where you think the group and its different members are at. Outline the emerging common ground as well as the unresolved differences: “It seems like we've almost reached agreement on that element, but we need to explore this part further to address everyone's concerns.” It's important to not only pick up on clear differences, but also on more subtle agreement or disagreement.
Now start building a proposal from whatever agreement there is. Look for ideas on how the differences can be resolved. Focus on solutions that address the fundamental needs and key concerns that people within the group have. Often people are willing to give way on some things but not on others which affect them more closely. The solution will often be found by combining elements from different proposals.
It can really help to use a flipchart or a whiteboard to write up the areas of agreement and issues to be resolved. This means everyone can see what's happening and it focusses the discussion.
People often argue over small details and overlook the fact that they agree on the big picture. Making this obvious to the group can help to provide ways forward.
Even when there is strong disagreement within the group, synthesis can help move the discussion on. Always try and find some common ground, no matter how small: “So we're all agreed that climate change demands urgent action, even if we disagree on whether the solution lies in developing new technologies, or reducing consumption”. This can reinforce that we're all on the same side, and remind a group of their overall shared aims - a necessary condition for consensus.
Also synthesising a solution doesn't necessarily mean uniformity or unanimity. Sometimes a solution is staring us in the face, but our desire to get full agreement becomes an obstacle: “So we're all agreed we'd like to go ahead with the protest. However some feel strongly that the target of our protest should be government, and others feel it ought to be corporations - is there any reason why we have to choose between the two? Could we not agree that both can happen?”
Step 4: Discuss, clarify and amend your proposal
Check whether people have concerns about the proposal and look for amendments that make the proposal more acceptable to everyone. Do things like go-rounds and straw polls to gauge support for the proposal and to elicit amendments. If it becomes obvious at this stage that some people have strong reservations, see whether you can come up with a different, better option. Remember, consensus is about finding solutions that work for everyone. Be careful not to get carried away because most people like the proposal. Watch out for people who are quiet or looking unhappy and check with them. Give people time to get their head around the proposal and what it means for them. If it's a complex or emotional issue then build in some time for reflection or a break before moving on to testing for agreement.
Step 5: Test for agreement
Step 6: Implement the decision
Once you've agreed what you want to do, you need to work out who will do what and by when. Share out the tasks among the group and record these action points in the minutes for the meeting.back to top ^
An example of a consensus process
Step 1: Introduce and clarify issue
“The bit of wasteland that we’ve used as a park for the last ten years is going to be sold by the council - they want to sell it so a supermarket can be built there!”
“But nobody wants another supermarket - we already have three in this town!”
Step 2: Explore the issue and look for ideas
“Let’s go round and see what everyone thinks.”
“I guess it’s time to find somewhere else for the kids to play.”
“I can’t give up that easily - let’s look for ways to raise the money to buy the park!”
“Yeah, let’s form an action group, do some fundraising, and what about squatting it?”
“Mmm... not sure that squatting’s for me. I’d be happy to look at raising money though.”
“OK, but I don’t want to rule out taking action if we can’t raise the money.”
[More ideas are talked about...]
Step 3: Look for emerging proposals
“So what are we going to do? Some of you feel that we should build tree houses in the park to stop the developers, but we think we should try and raise money to buy the land.”
“But nobody’s said that they’re actually against squatting the park - just not everyone wants to do it. And squatting might slow the council down so we have time to raise the money. Let’s do both.”
Step 4: Discuss, clarify and amend your proposal
“So let’s just check how everyone feels about that as a proposal. Let’s do a go-round.”
“I like the idea of both squatting and trying to raise the cash to save the park, but people have been talking about separate groups doing those. I feel that we really need to stay as one group.”
[Everyone has their say...]
“OK, so there’s a suggestion that we amend the proposal to make it clear that we stay as one group, even though we’re squatting and raising funds at the same time.”
Step 5: Test for agreement
“Right, we have a proposal that we squat the park to make sure that it doesn’t get trashed, and at the same time we start doing grant applications to raise money to buy the land. We’re going to be clear that we are one group doing both these things. Does anyone disagree with this proposal? Remember, if you think we should consider any reservations you have then please let us know, even if you’re still going to go along with it. And you can stand aside if you don’t want to take part in all or part of the plans. Finally, the block is if you feel this is really wrong for some reason.”
“Yes, I think squatting has good chances of getting results, but I’m not sure we can raise that much cash. I’m not going to stand in the way - so yeah, I’ll stand aside from the grants bit.”
“I don’t believe we can manage the fundraising either, but I’m happy to give it a try.”
“Does anyone else disagree? No? OK, I think we might have consensus. Let’s just check - wave your hands if you agree with the proposal... Rob, just checking, because you didn’t wave your hands - are you happy with the proposal? Ah, I see, yes... I hope your wrist gets better soon. Great, we have consensus, with one stand aside and one reservation!”
Step 6: Implement the decision
“OK, so we’re going to squat the land and we need to start fundraising. We’ll need to decide things like when we’ll start squatting, and what things we’ll need. And for the fundraising we’ll need to identify funds that may be able to help, and come up with other ideas for raising money. And let’s talk to people who couldn’t come tonight and make sure they can get involved.”
When do I use the block?
At the decision stage of the consensus process people have several options: to agree with the proposal (with or without reservations), to stand aside from the proposal but let the others proceed, or to block the proposal.
The option to block a proposal is based on the principle that no decision should be made against the will of a member of the group. It is an integral part of the consensus process. It means that a minority can't just be ignored, but solutions will have to be found that deal with their concerns. If a proposal is blocked, it means that the group can't move forward, and needs to come up with a different proposal that addresses the concerns that led to the block.
However, a big responsibility comes with the option to block. The block stops other people from doing something that they would like to do, therefore it is only appropriate to use it if major concerns about the proposal remain unresolved when it reaches decision stage. A person considering blocking needs to think carefully about whether standing aside from the decision - letting others in the group go ahead - would be enough.
Key skills for consensus
Active Listening: When we actively listen we suspend our own thought processes and give the speaker our full attention. We make a deliberate effort to understand someone's position and their underlying needs, concerns and emotions.
Summarising: A succinct and accurate summary of what's been said so far can be really helpful to move a group towards a decision. Outline the emerging common ground as well as the unresolved differences. Check with everyone that you've got it right.
Synthesis: Find the common ground, and any connections between seemingly competing ideas, and weave them together to form proposals. Focus on solutions that address the fundamental needs and key concerns within the group.
Handsignals can make meetings run more smoothly and help the facilitator see emerging agreements. The following three signals usually suffice:
Guidelines for taking part in consensus decisions