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Consensus is both a meeting technique and a mindset. Fundamentally it’s a cooperative process, which stands in sharp contrast to competitive mainstream culture. It is important for groups to take time to support each other in consciously understanding the shift that is needed to function cooperatively after a lifetime in the competitive mainstream. This is both the appeal of consensus and its bane. The attraction is that, if done well, it blends everyone’s voices into an agreeable harmony. The challenge is that when the stakes are high and people hold divergent views, there is a marked tendency to fall back on competitive conditioning. Instead of being curious about differences, people can be combative.
In contrast to voting, where decisions favor the idea that survives rigorous debate to garner majority support, in consensus a strong effort is made to protect every member’s opportunity to have their input considered. Solutions are not entertained until all parties have had a chance to offer their views on what a good solution needs to take into account.
When done well, consensus brings everyone along in the decision, and there are no outvoted minorities left behind. It produces:
• Decisions with high buy-in
• Superior implementation
• Enhanced relationships among members
• Neighbors who know each other at a deeper level as a byproduct of examining issues through heart-centered processes
• Improved group morale.
Consensus requires cooperative behavior to get good results, and that necessitates unlearning the competitive responses that we’ve been steeped in since birth. Consensus is most appropriate when groups are willing to do the work and get the training needed to create and sustain cooperative culture. If your group is not committed to acting cooperatively, or members are not willing to do the personal work needed to make a successful transition, consensus will be a struggle.
To get consensus to bloom, you have to work sensitively with the incredible variety that exists among people. Among other things, that means alternating pace (some like it fast; some slow), mixing up formats (some are petrified of talking in front of the whole group, while others eat the mic), and juggling the focus between solving problems and enhancing relationships. Choreography matters.
Many consensus advocates believe good consensus work requires groups to stretch to work with the whole person. The predominant model for group work in Western culture is to engage at the idea level of logic and language. However, as humans it is our heritage to also know things and process information emotionally, intuitively, kinesthetically, and spiritually. This requires expanding our skill set so that we can work accurately with these different tongues. Much professional support for consensus groups is focused on training them to work effectively with feelings—skills that few of us have mastered in a world that bows down to ideation.
Consensus can be used effectively with groups as large as 100, though it will take more skilled facilitation to achieve good results with larger numbers. One strategy that may help is for consensus groups to decide to make a specific decision by another method than consensus. It could be by majority vote, by throwing darts, by Ouija board, or by doing whatever Ralph says. Anything is possible, so long as the group agrees by consensus to make that particular decision that way.
In general, it does not work well to comingle competitive or transactional decision-making processes with consensus. Thus, if the plenary makes decisions by consensus, it tends to be problematic if committees make decisions by majority rule.
While it’s compelling to take advantage of modern technology to assemble teams that live in different time zones, consensus is far less effective when everyone isn’t in the same room. It’s a process that explicitly takes into account energy and nonverbal cues—which are hard to discern over the Internet. While videoconferencing is better than audio only, if there is more than a small number participating you may have to choose between a tiny image of everyone or only seeing the speaker. Each approach has limitations.
Using technology to bring a few members in to a meeting where all others are in person creates its own challenges. Equipment is more challenging and likely to distract from the content of the meeting. The attention of some of those present is diverted to managing the technology. It is inevitable that the remote members are at a disadvantage to those in the room, and this will compromise their ability to understand or contribute usefully to topics with a strong emotional component.
Consensus via email is even more difficult, as you also miss auditory input, including tone, pace, inflection, and volume. Misunderstandings that can be cleared up right away when all are gathered can take days or even weeks to unravel by email.
Practice – Listening, empathy, and attunement are skills that can be learned and must be practiced. Don’t wait for tough issues to use your best consensus skills. Practice them frequently.
Orient – In addition to helping existing members hone their capacity to act cooperatively, savvy groups anticipate membership turnover and the need to train new recruits in a process that is likely to be foreign to them. Relying on osmosis is not a sound strategy.
Train Facilitators – The bad news is that the baseline quality for meetings in Western culture is abysmal. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way. Perhaps the single greatest point of leverage in turning this around is to invest in training a cadre of internal facilitators to run meetings. The difference can be startling.
Monitor Tasks – While good relationships and trust are the lifeblood of healthy groups, it is generally a mistake to count on good intentions alone to always see commitments through to a timely completion. It is prudent to develop an understanding that when an individual or committee accepts an assignment, there will be occasional inquiries about progress along the way for the purpose of troubleshooting and maintaining forward momentum.
Evaluate Meetings, Managers, and Committees – It’s worthwhile to protect time at the end of meetings to reflect on how the meeting went. Similarly, it’s valuable to periodically evaluate the performance of managers and committees—to review the adequacy of authorizing agreements, to applaud those who have delivered the goods, and to redirect those who have gone astray.
There are foundational elements that support good consensus:
Adopt collaborative culture – Do this explicitly and name it often
Adopt common values – These need to be defined and alive in the group so that they can be drawn upon when working issues. This is the well you drink from when differences emerge. It strengthens the resolve to persist through challenging moments and helps participants remember that everyone is on the same team.
Define a structure for delegating work and decisions – Define what’s plenary-worthy and then delegate everything smaller to managers and committees.
Believe in the Process – Expectations affect outcomes. If you anticipate a bad meeting, you are manifesting that reality. Fortunately, the reverse is also true. Groups will need to take time to support all members in fully adopting consensus, not merely tolerating it.
Engage – Stakeholders (those who care about the outcome of the topic) have an obvious reason to pay attention. If you’re not a stakeholder, you are perfectly positioned to help the group stay on task and bridge between people who are missing each other because you don’t have a dog in the fight and you care about the group. Thus, there is a good reason for everyone to be engaged all the time.
Learn to Delegate – Some consensus groups struggle with handing off authority to managers or committees. While the plenary is the ultimate seat of power, it is a mistake to have all decisions made at that level. When issues fall beneath the level of plenary concern, they should be turned over to subgroups to handle. If subgroups only advise and all proposals are required to come back to plenary for final decisions, the result is overburdened plenary agendas and demoralized committees. The key to smooth delegation is a clear mandate that spells out when the subgroup is licensed to act and when it needs to consult.
Here’s a field-tested sequence for working a topic under consensus:
Step 1: Presentation of the Issue
What exactly are we talking about? What questions are we trying to answer? This should be short and sweet.
Step 2: Questions
Did everyone understand the presentation? Are we all on the same page? The better the presentation, the fewer the questions.
Step 2a: Clearing the Air
Are there any nontrivial unresolved tensions related to this issue? If so, it’s almost always better to take the time to address them before proceeding further. Otherwise you risk the conversation being heavily taxed by distortion (people who are upset or afraid don’t tend to hear accurately, and attendees tend to be sidetracked when others are steaming, sobbing, or going stony).
Step 3: Discussion
What are the factors that a good response to this issue needs to take into account? In general, this means identifying the common values that are in play. This is an expansive step and an opportunity to bring out the soapbox for anyone who wants to make an impassioned plea for what matters most. Advocacy has the green light here. Hint: This step can typically be handled expeditiously by following this sequence:
• Brainstorm (all suggestions get recorded—there are no limits)
• Vet (drop any suggestion that isn’t tied to group interests)
• Prioritize (if some items on the list trump others, sort them here)
Step 4: Proposal Generating
What action or agreement is the best way to balance the factors that emerged from the previous step? In contrast with Discussion, this step is contractive and requires different energy. Advocacy is over; now it’s time for bridging. How do we connect all the dots? Now, for the first time, we are considering solutions. This should be an exploring and creative time.
Step 5: Decision
Are we satisfied that the proposal arising from the previous step is good enough to accept? Communities have a number of ways for individuals to indicate their positions at this point (see below). All include some version of acceptance, standing aside, and blocking.
Step 6: Implementation
Who will do what, when, coordinating with whom, and with what resources? While this step shouldn’t be hard, it can be costly to skip it.
The key to this sequence going well is appreciating the different dynamics of steps 2a, 3, and 4. That’s where the heavy lifting is done. Each requires a different container and energy, and these steps need to be worked separately.
There are a number of ways to indicate individual positions at the decision step. Any of them can work well if they are clearly defined and understood by the community. For this reason, it works best to choose one and use it consistently.
Colors (often represented with cards): Green – acceptance, anything from wild enthusiasm to lukewarm. Yellow – standing aside, allows the proposal to pass yet withholds personal support. Red – blocking, prevents the proposal from being adopted—even if there is only a single person holding this position.
Thumbs: Up – acceptance. Side – stand aside. Down – block.
Consensus Scale: 5 – acceptance, I love it. 4 – acceptance, I like it. 3 – acceptance, I can support it. 2 – stand aside, I can’t support it, but won’t block. 1 – block, I believe it is bad for the community.
This usually comes in one of two flavors: a) the person is undecided yet does not want to hold the group up; or b) the person dislikes the proposal for personal reasons that are not tied to common values of the group.
Whenever there are stand asides, the group should slow down and make sure that the reasons for taking this position are understood and recorded in the minutes. If there are people standing aside but no blocks, the group may declare that a decision has been made. Nonetheless, it may be wiser to table the proposal at this juncture and let it season if the group believes that the energy of the group is not sufficiently aligned. Whether or not to adopt a proposal about which people have stood aside is a nuanced choice that groups should wrestle with on a case-by-case basis.
In healthy groups, blocks rarely occur, for the simple reason that when groups are communicating well they don’t advance proposals for which there are blocking concerns. Either concerns get worked out in the preceding phase (step 4 above) or the proposal is laid down.
It is important that groups define the legitimate grounds for blocking and establish a process by which blocks will be tested for validity. In general, it works best if the standard is that it will be a mistake for the group: that the proposal contradicts a common value or violates an existing agreement. In order for a block to be sustained, it is not necessary that others agree with the blocker’s thinking, only that others can see how the block entails a reasonable interpretation of common values or group agreements.
Though blocks are rare (or should be), it can be energetically challenging to engage with the blocker (to explore solutions) with an open mind and an open heart. Blocks only occur after steps 1-4 have been completed, and it can be frustrating for the group to have someone slam on the brakes with the finish line in sight. Note: In well-functioning communities, blockers make a good faith effort to labor with others to find a mutually agreeable resolution to the impasse and others engage in ways that are supportive of the blocker as a community member and of the underlying relationships.
When you have members missing, it’s typically prudent to pause between steps 3 and 4 and again between steps 4 and 5. This allows reflective time for both people who missed the meeting to see if anything is absent or off-balance and for those who take a bit longer to know their mind and be ready to articulate their concerns or preferences (perhaps they weren’t ready in the meeting but are the next day). Pauses protect the right of the absent while not hamstringing those who attended.
Consensus is a conservative process. Once made, decisions cannot be changed, except by a new consensus. That said, when a consensus group is torn about the possibility of being stuck with a bad decision (which may be hard to undo later if members are split about it), it’s permissible to use a sunset clause, which means that the decision will automatically expire after a set period of time (presumably sufficient to try out what the group believes is the most promising policy) unless the group explicitly acts to make the agreement permanent. In general, groups find that living with a policy during a trial period almost always clarifies whether the agreement was sound or fractured, which makes it obvious what to do at the end of the trial period. (Whew.)
Agenda Prep – Done by a subgroup (perhaps Steering or Oversight) whose job it is to draft plenary agendas. While anyone (individual or committee) can propose topics for consideration, they should be screened by this subgroup for three things: a) is it plenary worthy? b) is it ready for prime time (mature enough for plenary)? and c) if there is more agenda that passes the first two screens than will fit into the meeting (don’t put a ten-pound meeting into a five-pound sack), what has the highest priority or urgency? For topics that move forward, determine objectives, assess the time needed, and hand over the agenda to the facilitators.
Facilitator – This is the single most impactful role in the consensus process—especially as the group is making the transition to cooperative culture and is learning the process. (As the group gets more sophisticated in working with consensus, the need for skilled facilitation lessens—the group runs itself.) The facilitator needs to be someone who thoroughly understands consensus, has solid communication skills, and is adept at reading the group. The facilitator keeps the group on task, proposes formats for engaging on each topic, is mindful of mixing styles to accommodate the range of preferences in the group, tracks both content and energy (is the group coming together or drifting apart; are people enjoying what’s happening or getting discouraged or bored; is there an undercurrent of tension or fulminating upset that needs attention?).
Further, the facilitator needs to be skilled at hearing fully what people are saying (both explicitly and beneath the surface), at quickly separating the wheat from the chaff, aggregating like comments, and offering accurate summaries.
Caution: In order to best protect neutrality, the facilitator should not draft the agenda or be a presenter. Further, because of the need to keep eyes on the group to capture nonverbal input, the facilitator should not be the one taking minutes.
Minute Taker- Minutes should include enough context and depth for anyone who missed the meeting to understand all the main points that were raised and the rationale behind every decision. Absent this, the group will be at risk of repetition whenever someone who missed the previous considerations has questions about the outcome.
Neither do you want minutes to be a verbatim transcript of what everyone said. It takes too long to wade through it. There is an art to writing accurate, succinct minutes.
Presenter- This person introduces the topic (and should be distinct from the facilitator). In almost all cases, it should be possible to do this in less than five minutes. It’s fine for this person to be a stakeholder (unlike the facilitator, who should be neutral). The presentation should include: a concise summary of the issue, any background needed to fully understand context, any prior work on this topic, any existing agreements, and a clear objective the group is trying to accomplish on this topic.
Scribe (optional) –If the facilitator wants to have a visual record of ideas or key points, it can be helpful to have someone assigned to capture these on a flip chart or whiteboard.
Stacker (optional) –In larger meetings it can be helpful to have someone assigned to track the order in which people have raised their hands to speak so that the facilitator needn’t worry about it.
Gatekeeper (optional) –If members are in the habit of arriving late to meetings, someone can take on the role of quickly and quietly filling them in on what’s happening before they sit down so that the group isn’t held up by the facilitator pausing the meeting to accomplish the same thing.
In selecting an appropriate facilitator for a particular draft agenda, the pool needs to consider four major screens:
Neutrality- Facilitators need to be all about the “how” and minimally about the “what” for all topics considered on their watch.
Skill- There are two main challenges to keep in view: complexity and volatility. Some topics have neither; some have one and not the other; some have both. Pick a facilitator who has the chops to handle what’s expected.
Availability – In addition to the obvious (can they attend the meeting?), you need to look at whether they have the time to prepare and the emotional bandwidth.
Capacity – You have to think strategically. You can’t always pick your best facilitator to run every meeting. People need work to get better, and you need a vibrant pool to draw from. Thus, a better question is whether a prospective facilitator is good enough.
Meeting behavior is significantly different from informal social time, and it’s wise for groups to be explicit about what’s expected.
Best practices include:
• Think in terms of what’s best for the group (as distinct from something that’s only a personal preference) and speak from that perspective.
• Do homework: read any handouts and think about the topic beforehand.
• Respect the norms and process agreements that the group has developed for meetings.
• Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
• Give voice to what is important and on topic—especially if it’s a view that no one else has expressed.
• Respond to viewpoints that are different than your own with curiosity.
How do you avoid tyranny of the minority, where the will of the majority can be frustrated by an obstreperous minority? The remedy has several elements:
—Carefully select for members with good communication skills.
—Don’t assume that members understand consensus or the personal work needed to achieve good results. Train them.
—Make clear that the right to one’s voice being taken into account is tied at the hip to the concomitant responsibility to take into account the voices of others. You don’t get the former without the latter.
CohoUS Staff, Laird Schaub