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 consensus group is committed to finding solutions that everyone actively supports - or at least can live with. This makes sure that all opinions, ideas and concerns are taken into account. By 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 most important concerns - a process that often results in surprising and creative solutions, inspiring both the individual and the group as whole.
At the heart of consensus is a respectful dialogue between equals. It's about everyone working together to meet both the individual's and the group's needs - working 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 - no decision will be made against the will of an individual or a minority. Instead the group adapts to all its members' needs. If everyone agrees to a decision they will all be much more committed to making it happen.
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, not just concentrated in the hands of a few. It's about having the freedom to decide one's own course in life and the right to play an equal role in creating a common future. This is why it is used widely in groups working towards a more just and equitable society such as small voluntary groups, co-operatives and campaign networks.
In most meetings, there are one or more facilitators. Their role is to ensure that the tasks of the meeting get done: that decisions are made and implemented. They also help the group to work harmoniously, creatively and democratically.
The facilitators might take steps to keep the meeting focused, or make sure a few people don't dominate the discussion. They might suggest a break when people are getting tired; they might have prepared an agenda and process that will help the group achieve its goals.
The facilitators shouldn't have any more power than anyone else and should stay neutral on the issues under discussion. They're not there to make all the proposals and decide things for a group. They can only do their job with everyone's support and co-operation.
If a small group doesn't give anyone the role of facilitator, then everyone can be responsible for making the process of the meeting work.
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 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!
Then the group moves on to synthesise a proposal. This means finding the group's common ground, weeding out some ideas and combining all the useful bits into one proposal. Finally, if the group agrees on a proposal a decision is reached and implemented.
There are many different ways of reaching consensus. This model outlines the common stages and will work well with up to about 20 people.
At the decision stage people have several options:
Agreement with the proposal.
Reservations: You are willing to let the proposal go ahead but want to make the group aware you aren't happy with it. You may even put energy into implementing it once your concerns have been acknowledged.
Standing aside: You want to object, but not block the proposal. This means you won't help to implement the decision, but you are willing for the group to go ahead with it. You might stand aside because you disagree with the proposal, or you might like the decision but be unable to support it because you don't have the time or energy.
The group may be happy to accept the stand aside and go ahead, or they may work on a new proposal, especially if there are several stand asides.
A block always stops a proposal from going ahead. It expresses a fundamental objection. It isn't "I don't really like it," or "I liked the other idea better." It means that you cannot live with the proposal. The group can either start work on a new proposal, or look for amendments to overcome the objection.
In an ideal consensus process a block wouldn't happen since any major concerns about a proposal should be addressed before the decision stage. However, sometimes people aren't able to express their concerns clearly enough, or aren't heard by the group. In such situations the block acts as a safeguard to ensure that decisions are supported by everyone.
Being able to block is an integral part of consensus, but it comes with a big responsibility. A block stops other people from doing something that they would like to do, and it should therefore only be used if serious concerns are unresolved.
Make sure everyone understands the different options for expressing disagreement. Often people are confused and block when they'd actually be happy to stand aside. Sometimes people are scared of blocking, even if they are deeply unhappy and use a milder form of disagreement instead.
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 needs, concerns and emotions.
Summarising: A succinct and accurate summary of what's been said so far can really help a group move towards a decision. Outline the emerging common ground as well as the unresolved differences: "It seems like we've almost reached agreement on that bit of the proposal, but we need to explore this part further to address everyone's concerns." 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 that people within the group have.
In large groups it's a good idea to delegate issues to smaller groups, such as working groups or local groups. However, sometimes the issues will be so important that they have to be discussed and decided by everyone. This will often be done in a spokescouncil, which enables hundreds and thousands of people to work together by consensus in an efficient way.
In a spokescouncil the meeting splits into small groups, which start by discussing the issue(s) to come up with concerns and ideas. Spokes (delegates) from each group then meet up in a spokescouncil to feed back these thoughts.
The spokescouncil uses this information to create one or more proposals. These are discussed back in the small groups to check for any amendments and agreement. The results of these discussions are taken to the spokescouncil who should be able to either confirm agreement or draw up new proposals for further discussion. In this way the power to make decisions lies firmly with the small groups, not the spokes.
The groups sit in an outer circle around the spokes.
This makes the spokes more accountable and reduces the need to repeat information.
The small groups are often based around pre-existing groups such as work teams, local groups or affinity groups. Alternatively, a large group of people might split into smaller groups randomly.
The spoke's role is to feed back information between the small group and the spokescouncil. The spoke needs to act as a voice for everyone within the small group, communicating the breadth of collective thought rather than just their own personal point of view. Being the spoke carries a lot of responsibility to represent information accurately and not to manipulate the process.
Generally spokes don't make decisions for their group but always check back for agreement before a decision is finalised. However, an individual small group may empower their spoke to take decisions within agreed parameters.
Rotating the role of spoke from meeting to meeting is a good idea, as is having two spokes, one of them presenting the viewpoints and proposals from their small group, the other to take notes of what other groups have to say. This helps to ensure that ideas don't get lost or misrepresented.
Why small groups? Some people don't see the need to split into small groups - they want to hear the whole discussion, and have everyone else hear their point of view. However, large plenary meetings make it very difficult for everyone to participate - there's not enough time for everyone to speak and many people feel too intimidated to talk in front of hundreds of people. Breaking into small groups creates safer, more dynamic spaces to work in, includes more people and saves a lot of time. Small groups can also allow several tasks to be done in parallel.