Consensus decision-making: what it is and what it is not

Consensus is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot: the United Nations reaches a consensus…. politicians or journalists speak of consensus emerging around some important issue or other. What they are talking about seems to be a significant majority view. What they’re not talking about is consensus decision-making as we at Rhizome understand it.

This is the first in a series of posts in which we’ll share some of our understanding of consensus decision-making – what it is and what it is not, and in later posts more detail on how it works and can be facilitated for maximum impact.

We’ve already started talking about what it is not, so let’s carry on in that vein and take a look at some of the common misconceptions.

Consensus decision-making is not:

A significant majority: consensus decision-making seeks to avoid the divisiveness of majority/minority decisions. Whenever there’s a minority there’s the potential for:

  • resentment
  • conflict
  • perpetuation of oppressive social or group dynamics that alienate a specific sort of person or opinion
  • lack of ownership of decisions leading to poor-implementation of tasks
  • a culture of lobbying – trying to acquire support outside of meetings which can damage accountability

Yes – clearly a decision that 80% of a group agree with is stronger than one which only 51% agree with, but it’s not consensus. There may be times in which working towards a high level of agreement is more appropriate than consensus decision-making because consensus requires a deeper level of commitment and a deeper sense of shared values than most decision -making systems. If that’s not present, a significant majority may be your best bet. There are several methodologies that can help here, which we’ll look at in a future post.

We talk until we all agree: People often speak of consensus as unanimity. When asked how they make decisions they will tell you that they discuss the issue until they are all in agreement. If strong unanimous agreement can be reached, great. But there are issues with working to find unanimity:

  • It can be intolerant of diversity whereas consensus builds in a mechanism to agree to disagree which provides an important safety valve and encourages diversity.
  • It can also lead to overlong meetings that sap energy from a group rather than energising it.
  • Unanimity can often only be found by compromising and accepting the lowest common denominator option, which can be a weak and pointless decision. Consensus on the other hand asks people to be flexible in seeking the highest common factor.

We talk until you all agree with me: sadly quite a common variation of the above.This mentality of having the “right answer ” can be genuine and even well-meaning, but it is disempowering for groups and usually results in unanimity by brow-beating rather than a sincere agreement. Consensus works on the principle that we work in groups because we are stronger through our diversity of experience and ideas. It appreciates that the best decision will usually be a synthesis of a the best elements of the possible options. These principles are rarely compatible with one person’s vision however clear it may be and however articulate and charismatic they may be.

A meeting with handsignals: This is a description that’s become common in some activist circles. Consensus decision-making has become confused with the specific facilitation techniques used in meetings, in this case handsignals. In other words consensus becomes confused with any meeting at which there’s an attempt to facilitate for equality and participation. Consensus is (usually) a facilitated process because it does have a strong commitment to accessibility, inclusion and equality….so we’re a small part of the way here with this definition.

Consensus – 1: Some groups have found consensus hard to achieve, but have an ideological commitment to it so they’ve found a short cut here and there. Consensus – 1 is one of those shortcuts. Each and every participant in consensus has the right (and responsibility) to veto proposals that run counter to the groups shared and stated purpose. This veto is sometimes called a block, a principled objection, or a major objection. The act of blocking is one of the most misunderstood and contentious parts of the consensus decision-making process. We’ll focus on it in future posts. For many groups this is where they get stuck. And so they’ve created a rule that allows them to overrule a block if all those not blocking agree to overrule it. Bottom line? This is significant majority by another name with all the dangers that entails, even though the majority can often be 90% of the group or more. It can and will still alienate people – may as well hand them their coat and show them the door….

So what is consensus then? At a recent workshop a participant told me a short story which illustrated consensus for them:

2 stonemasons are carving blocks of stone. When asked what he’s doing the first mason says: “I’m carving this block of stone”. When asked the same question the second mason says: “I’m building a cathedral.

Consensus has more in common with that second mason…..

Consensus decision-making is:

  • a mindset as well as a process. It’s more than a methodology, it’s a commitment to challenge oppressive behaviour, working for the common good over personal benefit
  • a way of finding the best decision for a diverse group of people who all share some deeply held common ground. It’s this ‘glue’ that makes consensus work – the sense that the common ground is stronger  than the difference created by diversity. And from there groups can work to welcome diversity and see it as a strength
  • a pulling together of ideas to build the strongest available decision
  • a way of agreeing to disagree. Consensus offers a range of ways to relate to a proposal that reflect human psychology. For example it allows for people to stand aside from implementing a decision they are lukewarm about whilst giving their blessing to the rest of the group to go ahead. And this can happen in consensus without those that stand aside needing to feel in  any way ‘lesser’ in the group. More on this later.
  • a transformational process that asks us to put aside our personal certainty and create a group certainty. This can deepen trust and foster  better group-working skills along the way, rather than weakening groups as majority systems often can.

Hopefully that’s whetted your appetite for more. Watch this space for an overview of how consensus decision-making works in practice, the potential pitfalls and the solutions to them. We’ll also look at when not to use consensus and other systems that can give near-consensus decisions for those very situations!

Other posts in this series:

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8 thoughts on “Consensus decision-making: what it is and what it is not

  1. Well, what I am missing here is that often, when there is a minority, there is creativity, something new, useful dissensus, healthy forking in thinking rather than just “one party view.”

    There are core issues on which a given community needs to agree thoroughly. Otherwise, why be there? But the rest of it? Maybe not so useful.

    My bottom line is: we don’t need to agree; we just need to get along. 🙂

    • I think you’re right about both the the useful dissensus and the bottom line – that “can we live with this decision?” question. It’s an important one and raises some important issues that groups struggle with in consensus which I hope to touch on in future posts. Key amongst them is the tension between trust and control. Some people seem to feel that unless a group ‘agrees’ on everything and every detail the decision won’t turn out right. This level of control can paralyse a group. For example it means any decision taken with one of those people absent is likely to have to be re-examined in detail and essentially remade. It’s also a common cause of resistance to small group processes (“if I’m not in all the groups, how can I be sure that intelligent discussion is happening?”). I suspect that underlying this is a lack of trust not in consensus but in group process and/or a clarity of personal vision – an inner dialogue (and sometimes an outer one!) that runs something like: “I’m certain that I know what the best course of action is. The best decision this group can make is to accept my certainty and go with my proposal. Besides it’ll save us all time….”. It seems odd to say that a clarity of personal vision is a bad thing, but the longer I play with consensus the more I think that certainty is a real obstacle in the consensus setting, with the notable exception of being certain that surrendering my personal agenda to the group agenda will allow me to make greater change in an empowering way than if I work alone.

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