What is Consensus?
Consensus is a group process where the input of everyone is carefully considered and an outcome is crafted that best meets the needs of the group. It is a process of synthesizing the wisdom of all the participants into the best decision possible at the time. The root of consensus is the word consent, which means to give permission to. When you consent to a decision, you are giving your permission to the group to go ahead with the decision. You may disagree with the decision, but based on listening to everyone else’s input, all the individuals agree to let the decision go forward, because the decision is the best one the entire group can achieve at the current time.
The heart of consensus is a cooperative intent, where the members are willing to work together to find the solution that meets the needs of the group. The cooperative nature of consensus is different mindset from the competitive nature of majority voting. In a consensus process the members come together to find or create the best solutions by working together. Key attributes to successfully participation include humility, willingness to listen to others and see their perspectives, and willingness to share your own ideas but not insist they are the best ones.
- A point of maximum agreement so action can follow;
- A win-win solution;
- A decision everyone can support 100%; and,
- Important for decisions that require a high degree of support.
What consensus is not.
It is not unanimous agreement. Participants may consent to a decision they disagree with but recognize meets the needs of the group and therefore give permission to. Nor does it always result in the best decision. Groups can unanimously agree on a completely incorrect solution.
It is also not:
- A majority decision
- A win-lose solution
- Compromising (a settlement of differences by mutual concession)
- People giving in on strongly held convictions
- Dictating the conclusion
- Everyone agreeing on every point
- Always the best strategy
Why use consensus?
Consensus gathers the experiences from the whole group.
Within every member of any group there is a lifetime of experiences and knowledge. Consensus is a way to tap the collective knowledge of the group to craft the best decision possible.
Consensus builds relationships between people.
In a consensus process, people extend their relationships to each other as part of the listening and talking process. Consensus takes time and effort, honest communication and a willingness to trust the relationship. The communication of ideas and feelings, and the empathetic listening, builds trust and bonds between group members. By encouraging shared leadership and participation, consensus empowers all the members of a group to make the best decision. By working together to clarify ideas and proposals, the members build trust and communication skills that continue to grow and expand as the group works together. The longer the group works together, the better they get. The synergy of building collaborative agreements also builds a strong sense of commitment to the group and its mission, and a sense of belonging and commitment among the members.
Consensus moves toward doing what is best for the common interest.
In the process of defining individual boundaries and issues within the group context, individual desires and boundaries are tested against the best interests of the group. The key element of making consensus work is a commitment by each individual to honor the best interests of the group. As people work through issues, they have their own needs reflected back to them against the context of the larger group needs. This encourages them to consider other interests beyond just their own.
Consensus agreements need less enforcement.
Once an agreement is made, and everyone gives their consent to it, the agreement is backed by the relationship. If you honor your relationship to the group, your respect for the agreements which you participated in guides you to follow the agreement. Agreements made by consensus are self enforced and rarely require anything more than a reminder of the agreement to ensure compliance. Consensus means everyone has given permission for the agreement to go ahead, and by not following through on the agreement, you jeopardize your relationship and your sense of community. If the desire for community relationship is strong, then the decisions made by the group’s consensus will also be strong. There is no subgroup of angry, outvoted participants that will work to undermine the decision or ignore it.
Facilitator’s Role in Achieving Consensus.
Guide the group process in reaching consensus by using the skills, tools, and methods designed to help a group reach consensus.
* Facilitator actions are identified in italics.
A Three Stage Process for Gaining Consensus:
The consensus decision process typically goes through three stages: Discussion, Proposal, Modification.
The discussion stage is where the group meets, and the topic is widely discussed. People freely share thoughts, opinions, feelings, ideas and react to each other’s contributions. This is the heart of consensus, because it is where you come together and synthesize all the thoughts. This is also where your opinions, if you have any, are subject to change as you listen and hear other perspectives. When a person misses this stage, they are seriously handicapped in their ability to help the group, because they did not hear any other perspectives to help them modify their own thinking, thus they are limited to only their own perspective.
The proposal stage comes after the discussion stage. The thoughts and ideas are synthesized into one or more proposal statements. Help the group clearly state the goal it has chosen. As the common ground emerges from the discussion, or as common ground is created, it is captured in writing. Facilitate the group as it develops criteria the final solution must meet.
The modification stage is where the summary proposal is tested and modified to meet the needs of the group. Write group inputs and decisions so everyone can see them.
In some cases, this is done at the same meeting, by adjusting the working draft of the proposal by including, removing, or modifying the language of the proposal. In other situations, this is done weeks or months after the meeting, as the decision is implemented and new things are learned from the experiences, and so the decision is reviewed and amended as new information becomes available. Or in larger groups, a small group takes the discussion information, creates proposals and comes back at a later time with a proposal for modification. Help the group avoid “group think” by stimulating creative thinking.acilitate the group as it develops criteria the final solution must meet.nd methods designed to help a group reach consensus. Help the group resolve conflict. Coach group members on how to reach consensus. Keep the group members focused on the goal.
How do you know you have consensus?
When all the participants give permission for the proposal to go ahead, consensus is reached. Check to see if everyone can support the decision 100%.
Guidelines for Group Members for Reaching Consensus:
- Avoid arguing for your own solution. Listen carefully to the opinion of others.
- Avoid compromising or changing your mind solely to agree or avoid conflict.
- Support only those solutions you can live with.
- Avoid non-consensus tactics such as voting, averaging, or trading.
- Aim for expression of a lot of ideas.
- Avoid jumping to conclusions when there is little agreement.
- Discuss the reasons for the agreement and determine if other possibilities have been left out.
- Consensus may not mean that you are in 100% agreement with the decision, but you’ve been heard, and you’ll support the team’s decision 100%.
- Clarify: “Silence is Consent.”
Typical Problems Encountered by Groups in Reaching Consensus
Lack of participation:
For consensus to work, a large majority of the membership, ideally a minimum of 80 %, needs to be present for the discussion phase of the decision. Those not present, during this phase need to be brought up to speed. Some consensus groups sign up to be buddies for those not present, and the buddy’s job is to convey the perspectives of the meeting to the person not present. When half or less of a group participates, the group misses too much perspective and decisions end up,
poorly made, and often unsupported by those that missed the discussion.
People who miss the discussion but come in on the proposal:
When people miss the discussion, and its perspectives, they may bring up the same conversations and points that the rest of the group has already been through. If this occurs regularly, people may become resentful of those that don’t participate in the discussions or may even stop coming to meetings because they end up rehashing the same discussions over and over again. Many consensus groups do not allow those not present for the discussion stage to be part of the proposal and modification stages or have special considerations for those that did not participate in the discussion. Participation in the full cycle of the consensus process is important for a successful consensus decision.
The meeting environment discourages contributions:
If there is a lot of cross talking, or loud rebuttals, or sarcastic tones it will keep some people from sharing their ideas. In the worst cases people are personally insulted, belittled, or laughed at. It is unlikely in such an environment people would feel good about being part of the process and willingly contribute ideas that might add value but run counter to the ideas of others in the group. If there is a strong hierarchy in the group, for example a dominate person such as a supervisor, it can affect people’s willingness to bring up all the ideas, especially those that might run counter to the boss’ opinions.
Everyone consents but puts no energy behind it:
A decision is reached, everyone consents to it, but it never gets done. This occurs when the during the modification stage of the proposal, the “who will do this work” question does not get asked or resolved. At the end of the modification process a plan can be added for who does the work and how they will be held accountable for the work.
An individual inappropriately uses blocking:
The group’s interests are not being served by a block, for example a person blocks a decision from their own preferences or as a power play over the group. Or a person threatens to block even before the discussion phase is held. This is where the facilitator needs to help the group negotiate by defining what the real issue is. Often there are hidden issues unresolved which are driving the individual to block. In the final case, a majority vote can override an inappropriate use of blocking.
Facilitator Questions That Will Help Achieve Consensus:
To Open Discussion:
- Could we clarify the terms connected to this topic?
- What do you think the general idea or problem is?
- What are the elements that are essential to the understanding of this topic?
- Would anyone care to offer suggestions on facts we need to better our understanding of the problem or topic?
To Broaden Participation:
- Now that we have heard from a number of you, would others who have not spoken like to add their ideas?
- How do the ideas presented thus far sound to those of you who have been thinking about them?
To Limit Participation:
- “We appreciate your contributions. However, it might be helpful to hear from some of the others. Would any of you who have not spoken care to add your ideas to those already expressed?”
- “You have made several good suggestions and I wondering if someone else might like to make some remarks?”
- “Since all the group members have not yet had the opportunity to speak, I wonder if you would hold comments until a little later?”
To Focus Discussion:
- “Where are we now in relation to our goal for discussion?”
- “Would you like me to review my understanding of the things we have said and progress we have made in this discussion?”
- “Your comment is interesting. However, I wonder if it quite on topic for the problem we are discussing?”
Compiled by Rae Stonehouse
Rae A. Stonehouse is an author, speaker, and self-publishing consultant dedicated to helping others embrace constant improvement and overcome challenges. With over 40 years of experience as a Registered Nurse in psychiatry and mental health, Rae brings a wealth of knowledge and passion for self-development to his writing and presentations.
As a 25+ year member of Toastmasters International, Rae has systematically built his communication abilities and self-confidence to share his insights as an author and speaker. His self-help books and personal development presentations aim to have conversational one-on-one connections with readers and audiences.
Rae is known for his wry sense of humor and sage advice delivered in a relatable coaching style. After four decades as a nurse, Rae has rewired rather than retired, actively writing and pursuing public speaking. He strives to share lessons learned to help others achieve personal and professional growth.