Consensus

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= a group decision-making process that not only seeks the agreement of most participants, but also the resolution or mitigation of minority objections and concerns. [1]


See also:

  1. our own entry on Consent vs. Consensus


Contents

Definition

Consensus is a group decision (which some members may not feel is the best decision, but which they can all live with, support and commit themselves to not undermine), arrived at without voting, through a process whereby the issues are fully aired, all members feel they have been adequately heard, in which everyone has equal power and responsibility, and different degrees of influence by virtue of individual stubbornness or charisma are avoided so that all are satisfied with the process.

The process requires the members to be emotionally present and engaged, frank in a loving, mutually respectful manner, sensitive to each other; to be selfless, dispassionate, and capable of emptying themselves and possessing a paradoxical awareness of precariousness of both people and time ( including knowing when the solution is satisfactory, and that it is time to stop and not reopen the discussion until such time as the group determines a need for revision.)

This definition was written by a group, Valley Diagnostic and Surgical Clinic of Harlingen Texas, as part of a community building workshop. Copyright by Valley Diagnostic and The Foundation For Community Encouragement. May be duplicated for personal use with proper credit." (http://www.community4me.com/consensus.html)


Description

Consensus

1.

URL = http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consensus

Consensus has two common meanings. One is a general agreement among the members of a given group or community. The other is as a theory and practice of getting such agreements.


2.

"Generally, a collective that operates by consensus holds regular facilitated meetings at which proposals are submitted and discussed. At the end of each discussion, the facilitator will call for objections; if none are made, the proposal will be said to have passed by consensus. Yet, this process doesn't always guarantee that there really is consensus, as a lot depends on the power dynamics that come into play. For instance, if members are individually approached ahead of time and persuaded on the merits of the proposal, that's a manipulation of the process, as it bypasses the open forum, which is at the heart of consensus. Or, if an influential or intimidating member voices strong support for the proposal and exhibits annoyance or impatience with anyone who raises concerns, thereby restricting the free exchange of ideas and possibly influencing the final outcome, the decision will not have been made by consensus.

If some members do not have access to the information needed to make an educated choice but have to rely on the assurances of the proponents that their plan is sound, that, too, will essentially invalidate the consensus.

The issue is even thornier when proposals do not pass. In many instances, if unanimity cannot be reached, the issue will simply be dropped and the group will revert to the status quo. That means that the matter the proposal was designed to address will remain unresolved. That is not consensus. Consensus requires that all members declare the outcome of a discussion to be at least marginally acceptable. If someone proposes a change because he or she perceives a problem that needs addressing, that person cannot simply be overruled for the sake of group agreement.

Blocking, the prerogative by one or more persons to stop a decision that everyone else would choose to pass, is the one aspect of consensus that seems to be universally embraced. It does not mean, however, that one person can hold the collective hostage to his or her whims. Blocking must be used judiciously and not as a power play. More often, however, pressure is applied by the more domineering members of the group to urge someone NOT to block and not to voice dissent. Blocking puts one in the spotlight and easily casts one as a troublemaker, particularly when it means defying powerful members who have already privately persuaded the others to go along with their agenda. Members who have established themselves as de-facto leaders (yes, this happens all the time in egalitarian collectives) and who may have attracted a following within the group through charisma or persuasiveness, or by scoring impressive achievements for the organization, don't have to resort to blocking to kill a proposal. It's enough for them to display annoyance, irritation, or agitation with the suggested action, generating distrust among others. The right individual could destroy a proposal simply by frowning at the right times, sighing in exasperation, or laughing sarcastically. Clearly, this is not consensus.

Consensus is not just the end result of the group's decision-making process, or the part where a vote is taken and the vote is unanimous, barring any blocks or stand-asides. The consensus process has to be built into the entire structure of the group or organization and form the basis for all of its activities and basic operation. This is true for all egalitarian collectives, even those who accept some form of majority vote in their decision-making and may therefore not strictly be defined as operating by consensus.

The basic premise of consensus, and indeed of any egalitarian group, is that all members of the group are valuable, everyone's opinions deserve consideration, and everyone's input is necessary for the group's efforts to proceed, in a spirit of collaboration. It differs from the group process used by conventional organizations in that it does not set up an adversarial relationship where one side wins (often the majority, but just as often the side backed up by the most authority) and the other side loses. In consensus, argument is not engaged in to defend a position but to arrive at solutions that everyone can consent to. In order for everyone to freely give consent, there must be no coercion or unequal power. Thus the absence of hierarchy and authority is not an added stipulation to the structure of egalitarian collectives but is essential to the consensus process." (http://geocities.com/collectivebook/introductiontoconsensus.html)

Consensus Decision-making

URL = http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consensus_decision-making

"Consensus decision-making is a decision process that not only seeks the agreement of most participants, but also to resolve or mitigate the objections of the minority to achieve the most agreeable decision. Consensus is usually defined as meaning both: a) general agreement, and b) the process of getting to such agreement. Consensus decision-making is thus concerned primarily with that process."


Consensus Democracy

URL = http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consensus_democracy

"Consensus democracy is the application of consensus decision making to the process of legislation. It is characterised by a decision making structure which involves and takes into account as broad a range of opinions as possible, as opposed to systems where minority opinions can potentially be ignored by vote-winning majorities. It also features increased citizen participation both in determining the political agenda and in the decision making process itself. Some have pointed to developments in communications technology as potential facilitators of such systems.

Consensus democracy is most closely embodied in certain Western European countries such as Switzerland, where consensus is an important feature of political culture, particularly with a view to preventing the domination of one linguistic or cultural group in the political process. The term consociational state is used in political science to describe countries with such consensus based political systems.

The concept of ijma in Islam also addresses state decision making by consensus, albeit by the ulema (Muslim scholars) rather than the population at large."


Methodology

As proposed/summarized by Starhawk:


"Why Consensus?

Consensus is a creative thinking process: When we vote, we decide between two alternatives. With consensus, we take an issue, hear the range of enthusiasm, ideas and concerns about it, and synthesize a proposal that best serves everybody’s vision.

Consensus values every voice: The care we take in a consensus process to hear everyone’s opinions and weave them into a whole is a living demonstration that each one of us is important. It’s a counter to systems that tell us some people count while others don’t. In consensus, everyone matters. But for consensus to work, we must also be flexible, willing to let go. Consensus means you get your say—it doesn’t mean you get your way!

Consensus creates a sense of unity: When we all participate in shaping a course of action, we all feel a sense of commitment and responsibility. Unity is not unanimity—within consensus there is room for disagreement, for objections, reservations, for people to stand aside and not participate.

Talking vs. Talking about Talking

People are eager to talk to one another—about politics, about plans of action, about what we learn each day in the occupation. That’s talking—with real content. But people get really bored and frustrated when we’re talking about talking—deciding which agenda items should come first, or whether or not to break down into small groups, or how long to take for lunch. Consensus works best when the group invests some trust in the facilitators to make judgment calls that smooth the process and allow the group to get to the talking. It bogs down when we are talking about talking.

Hand Signals:

Groups often use hand signals to simplify discussion. The most common is finger-wiggling or ‘twinkling’, which originated from American Sign Language for applause, and signifies approval. It allows a group to signify support quickly.

Many groups use additional signals which I won’t attempt to categorize here. Make sure they are visible, and that everyone knows what they mean. Too many signals become confusing and alienate new people.


Roles:

Facilitators: The facilitators guide the process, keep people on track, and decide how to facilitate each item. They balance the need to hear every voice with the need to keep moving forward. Facilitation of big meetings is a skill and training and practice are needed. Facilitators need the support of the group to do their job. Big meetings are best served by having cofacilitators. Facilitators remain neutral and do not take a position on the issues.

Stack taker: Keeps track of who wants to speak, and takes names or gives people numbers.

Notetakers and Scribes: Note takers keep the minutes of the meeting, being especially careful to record any decisions made. Scribes may write up crucial information large so everyone can see it.

Timekeeper: The timekeeper keeps track of time and of how long we are taking for each agenda item, and alerts the group when it runs over time.

Dragons: Guard the boundaries of the meeting and run interference with those who might distract or interrupt: drunks wandering in, police, etc.

Straw Polls and Temperature Readings:

Full consensus takes time and energy. Save it for important issues. For simple decisions and process questions, use straw polls—quick, non-binding votes, or temperature readings—are we in favor of this, neutral or disapproving. Democracy is not served by trying to get a large group to do a full consensus process on every detail of a meeting—for people who have limited time and energy will leave and be denied their opportunity to weigh in on important issues.


Running the Meeting:

Set an agenda and choose facilitators beforehand:

For big meetings and general assemblies, collect agenda items beforehand so the facilitators have time to think about a logical order for the agenda, and how to approach each item. There can always be room on the agenda for new items, but setting a full agenda in a huge group will take lots of time that could otherwise be used for actually talking about the items. Some things commonly on agendas for general assemblies: Welcome, reports from working groups and committees, action reports, next action planning, etc.

Welcome people.

Present the agenda, ask for any additional items, and ask for approval with a simple straw poll or temperature reading: ‘twinkles’ or thumbs up or down. If a lot of additional items come up, ask people to bring them up to the co-facilitator to set an order. DO NOT let the whole group discuss the order or the times—ask their permission for the facilitators to do this service so the group can discuss issues." (http://starhawksblog.org/?p=631)


Discussion

Dave Pollard:

"Consensus is not unanimity, but it is agreement among all members of a group that any concerns or objectives they may have are sufficiently small that they are willing to be bound by the decision. While it is not always an appropriate method for making decisions, it usually works:

Consensus Decision-Making is an appropriate process whenever (a) there is an informed lack of agreement, and (b) there is a collective interest in achieving such agreement.

In other words, it won't work if the group is insufficiently informed to have a rational position on the issue at hand, or to appreciate the essence of any disagreement they might have with others. If you're ignorant of the essential facts, or don't care about the issue, or aren't or don't feel bound by the decision, you can't meaningfully agree to such a decision. And if you've been brainwashed or propagandized to misunderstand others' position, and hence are unable to consider the issue objectively, consensus will likely be impossible. Likewise, if the decision choices are substantively aesthetic, matters of personal taste, consensus decision-making may be the wrong approach. And if the members of the group don't trust or care about each other, attempts to achieve consensus may be fruitless.

Consensus decision-making also won't work if people are so inexperienced in using it that they don't realize the consequences of their decisions. Or if they can (for any of a variety of reasons) be coerced, sweet-talked or 'bought' by others in the group. Or if there isn't enough time (or the group is unwilling to allot enough time) for the process to take its course.

Despite these drawbacks and limitations, this process is getting more and more attention these days. Businesses are increasingly forming as cooperatives and other forms of non-hierarchical 'Natural Enterprise', comprising equal partners who trust many decisions to the most skilled and informed partner, and make the remaining decisions by consensus. The 'wisdom of crowds' uses the collective knowledge of a large group of informed and independent people to make better decisions than any expert or management group could make -- while this isn't a consensus process per se it does use the same 'front end' steps. Enterprises are realizing the value of improving collaboration with those within and outside the organization, and consensus decision-making can be an essential collaborative tool. And as the adversarial legal system collapses under it's own weight, alternative disputes resolution processes that have much in common with the consensus decision-making process are getting increased use.

As our political systems, prone to reducing everything to 'either-or' dichotomies that pit large power blocs against each other or allow the rich and powerful to make undemocratic back-room decisions, fall into disfavour, the consensus decision-making processes that are often used in jurisdictions using proportional representation to negotiate past impasses, are being more extensively studied and used. And as more people tire of dysfunctional centralized systems and establish community-based bottom-up networks and organizations to bring about change, they are finding that consensus decision-making is a very powerful and effective process for such groups." (http://blogs.salon.com/0002007/2009/01/16.html#a2313)

10 Reasons why it is important

Dave Pollard:

"Here are my 10 reasons why consensus decision-making will be one of the most important capacities for people to develop and practice in this turbulent century. Think about what's going on in the Middle East, or the disagreements that are hobbling your government, your business, or your community organization, and how consensus decision-making might be a better way, as you read this list:


1. It focuses on differences as learning opportunities, not 'problems': Gathering diverse and divergent points of view, and consideration of the diverse needs of different people and groups, is part of the consensus decision-making process. Rather than focusing on the differences, the consensus decision-making process focuses on using this information to inform the search for a solution, a resolution, that works for everyone.

2. It achieves buy-in and willingness to act, from everyone in the group: Unlike voting approaches that leave the 'losers' licking their wounds and uninspired to help implement the decision, consensus decision-making gives all members of the group 'pride of ownership' in the collectively achieved consensus, and hence is far more likely to be implemented well.

3. It is non-confrontational and non-adversarial: Its objective is to look rationally at the issue, not to provoke emotional responses -- anger, defensiveness, stubbornness. Cooler heads are encouraged and allowed to prevail.

4. It builds connection: As valuable as consensual decision are, the positive connections, relationships and understanding that emerge from use of this process are even more valuable, putting the parties in a good position to work together more effectively in the future.

5. It encourages and facilitates listening skills: The biggest problem with communication, said GB Shaw famously, is the illusion that it has occurred. Many traditional decision-making processes encourage people to articulate and stake out their own positions and not to listen to others'. Consensual decision-making requires effective listening skills, and the more people who practice this, the better off we'll all be.

6. It is a collaborative process, focused on achieving agreement: Collaborative skills teach us to look for what is best for the collective group, not our personal interest. When the objective is agreement rather than 'winning', the energies of the group are directed at finding something that works for everyone rather than staking out personal positions, and the essential skills of negotiation and conversation are learned differently, and more effectively.

7. It is an emergent process, enabling discovery of a shared direction: Many processes we use in everyday life are linear, with a predetermined direction and expected result. In a complex world, understanding of the problem and the solution co-evolve, and we need processes that don't presuppose knowledge of either. Consensus decision-making is such a process, and in this process participants often 'find their direction', and discover it is not what they'd presupposed, and that this direction informs them in making other decisions they are facing. Sometimes agreeing which way you are headed is more important than knowing your destination.

8. It requires and encourages honesty, not posturing or rhetoric: Consensus-building provides no reward for the most skilled, clever, persuasive or articulate speaker. It is up to everyone in the group to draw out and articulate what the least articulate people in the group are trying to say. Dishonesty -- overstating a position, understating a difficulty, or taking a position you don't really believe -- can totally undermine the process and cannot be tolerated.

9. It is a creative process, enabling us to practice imagining what's possible: We live in an age of dreadful imaginative poverty, and achieving consensus often requires the group to think creatively and imagine ways of doing things that will achieve consensus and which may not be at all obvious. The more practice we get imagining possibilities, the better equipped we will be to tackle the challenges facing us in this difficult century.

10. We cannot afford any more of the old, unworkable decision-making processes: Leaving decisions to oligarchies, tyrants, rich and powerful interests, the "free market", bullies, experts, executives and corrupt corpocracies has left our world in a terrible mess, full of war, corruption, ignorance, desperation, suffering, inequality, waste, indebtedness, incompetence, pollution, bankruptcy, violence and oppression. It's time for us to find a better way to make decisions, one that is inclusive, conciliatory, engaging, creative, positive, non-adversarial, honest, responsible, emergent, sustainable, attentive, connected, and supportive of continuous learning. Consensus decision-making is such a process." (http://blogs.salon.com/0002007/2009/01/16.html#a2313)


Consensus at Occupy Wall Street

David Graeber:

"As far as any of us knew, no one had ever managed to pull off something like this before. Consensus process had been successfully used in spokes-councils  —   groups of activists organized into separate affinity groups, each represented by a single “spoke” — but never in mass assemblies like the one anticipated in New York City. Even the General Assemblies in Greece and Spain had not attempted it. But consensus was the approach that most accorded with our principles. So we took the leap.

Three months later, hundreds of assemblies, big and small, now operate by consensus across America. Decisions are made democratically, without voting, by general assent. According to conventional wisdom this shouldn’t be possible, but it is happening  —  in much the same way that other inexplicable phenomena like love, revolution, or life itself (from the perspective of, say, particle physics) happen.

The direct democratic process adopted by Occupy Wall Street has deep roots in American radical history. It was widely employed in the civil rights movement and by the Students for a Democratic Society. But its current form has developed from within movements like feminism and even spiritual traditions (both Quaker and Native American) as much as from within anarchism itself. The reason direct, consensus-based democracy has been so firmly embraced by and identified with anarchism is because it embodies what is perhaps anarchism’s most fundamental principle: that in the same way human beings treated like children will tend to act like children, the way to encourage human beings to act like mature and responsible adults is to treat them as if they already are.

Consensus is not a unanimous voting system; a “block” is not a No vote, but a veto. Think of it as the intervention of a High Court that declares a proposal to be in violation of fundamental ethical principles — except in this case the judge’s robes belong to anyone with the courage to throw them on. That participants know they can instantly stop a deliberation dead in its tracks if they feel it a matter of principle, not only means they rarely do it. It also means that a compromise on minor points becomes easier; the process toward creative synthesis is really the essence of the thing. In the end, it matters less how a final decision is reached—by a call for blocks or a majority show hands—provided everyone was able to play a part in helping to shape and reshape it.

We may never be able to prove, through logic, that direct democracy, freedom and a society based on principles of human solidarity are possible. We can only demonstrate it through action. In parks and squares across America, people have begun to witness it as they have started to participate. Americans grow up being taught that freedom and democracy are our ultimate values, and that our love of freedom and democracy is what defines us as a people—even as, in subtle but constant ways, we’re taught that genuine freedom and democracy can never truly exist.

The moment we realize the fallacy of this teaching, we begin to ask: how many other “impossible” things might we pull off? And it is there, it is here, that we begin enacting the impossible." (http://interactivist.autonomedia.org/node/33931)


Critique of Consensus and why we need Dissensus

Murray Bookshin:

"How, then, would society make dynamic collective decisions about public affairs, aside from mere individual contracts? The only collective alternative to majority voting as a means of decision-making that is commonly presented is the practice of consensus. Indeed, consensus has even been mystified by avowed "anarcho-primitivists," who consider Ice Age and contemporary "primitive" or "primal" peoples to constitute the apogee of human social and psychic attainment. I do not deny that consensus may be an appropriate form of decision-making in small groups of people who are thoroughly familiar with one another. But to examine consensus in practical terms, my own experience has shown me that when larger groups try to make decisions by consensus, it usually obliges them to arrive at the lowest common intellectual denominator in their decision-making: the least controversial or even the most mediocre decision that a sizable assembly of people can attain is adopted -- precisely because everyone must agree with it or else withdraw from voting on that issue. More disturbingly, I have found that it permits an insidious authoritarianism and gross manipulations -- even when used in the name of autonomy or freedom.


...


On a more theoretical level, consensus silenced that most vital aspect of all dialogue, dissensus. The ongoing dissent, the passionate dialogue that still persists even after a minority accedes temporarily to a majority decision, was replaced in the Clamshell by dull monologues -- and the uncontroverted and deadening tone of consensus. In majority decision-making, the defeated minority can resolve to overturn a decision on which they have been defeated -- they are free to openly and persistently articulate reasoned and potentially persuasive disagreements. Consensus, for its part, honors no minorities, but mutes them in favor of the metaphysical "one" of the "consensus" group.

The creative role of dissent, valuable as an ongoing democratic phenomenon, tends to fade away in the gray uniformity required by consensus. Any libertarian body of ideas that seeks to dissolve hierarchy, classes, domination and exploitation by allowing even Marshall's "minority of one" to block decision-making by the majority of a community, indeed, of regional and nationwide confederations, would essentially mutate into a Rousseauean "general will" with a nightmare world of intellectual and psychic conformity. In more gripping times, it could easily "force people to be free," as Rousseau put it -- and as the Jacobins practiced it in 1793-94.

...


If consensus could be achieved without compulsion of dissenters, a process that is feasible in small groups, who could possibly oppose it as a decision-making process? But to reduce a libertarian ideal to the unconditional right of a minority -- let alone a "minority of one" -- to abort a decision by a "collection of individuals" is to stifle the dialectic of ideas that thrives on opposition, confrontation and, yes, decisions with which everyone need not agree and should not agree, lest society become an ideological cemetery. Which is not to deny dissenters every opportunity to reverse majority decisions by unimpaired discussion and advocacy." (http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/bookchin/CMMNL2.MCW.html)

Examples

Victor Pickard:

"The most exemplary of Indymedia’s radical democratic institutional codes is an adherence to a consensus-based decision-making model. All IMCs utilize some form of consensus decision-making, which is codified in IMC documents. The success of consensus decision-making is based on institutional memory, constant reflexivity concerning process, and strong interpersonal relationships founded on trust. The Seattle IMC describes its consensus process in a website-linked document titled ‘‘Detailed Description of Consensus Decision Making,’’ which is part of an online publication, On Conflict and Consensus, published by members of the Consensus Network (Butler & Rothstein, 1987; see http://www.consensus.net). This online resource occasionally is referred to on the general listserv and during meetings. It addresses efficiency, leadership, discussion, and equality; it suggests that proposals be considered and, if necessary, reworked by the group to reach the best decision for the community as a whole.

For activist groups like Indymedia, consensus is understood to mean that everyone feels that his or her input was considered in the decision-making process (Polletta, 2002). The Seattle IMC’s meetings allow for several levels of consensus and ways to register dissent without derailing the process, including ‘‘reservations’’ (have concerns), ‘‘non-support’’ or a state of ‘‘non-disagreement’’ (the person sees no need for the decision), or ‘‘stand aside’’ (it may be a mistake but a person can live with it). Making a ‘‘block’’ indicates that the person feels the decision goes against fundamental IMC principles. This stops any affirmative decision." (http://www.victorpickard.com/upload/rcsm157052.pdf)

More Information

  1. Guidelines for Consensus Decision-Making
  2. Deliberative Democracy

Recommended by Dave Pollard:

  1. Summary of Consensus Decision-Making
  2. Consensus Queries
  3. Voting Fallbacks articles
  4. Randy Schutt's Examples of Cooperative Decision-Making Processes


Key Books to Read

Jon Elster, ed. Deliberative Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 282 pages.


Nino, C. S. (1996)The Constitution of Deliberative Democracy. New Haven: Yale University Press

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