Consensus decision-making: the moment of truth

There comes a point in the consensus process where you have to test for consensus, that is actively ask the group whether or not there is agreement for the proposal that’s under discussion.

The success of that test is dependent on the foundation you’ve collectively built so far. If the group has worked well together to this point, and engaged in high quality listening and empathising this test can be painless, almost a formality, a reaffirmation of what everyone already knows – i.e. that there’s agreement for the proposal. However if the foundation’s shaky, this is where the walls come crumbling down and the group is left with not so much a cathedral as a pile of rubble.

We covered the mechanics of this step of the process in previous post, as well as an introduction to the veto, or block, so I’ll paste what’s already been said below and then add some words on facilitating this uniquely consensual stage:

So far the flow we’ve presented could be for any decision-making system looking to maximise participation. It’s at Step 5 [testing for consensus] that it becomes uniquely consensus. That’s because this is where we entertain the possibility of agreeing to disagree and of the veto (or block, major objection or principled objection – it goes by a lot of names). So let’s reflect a minute. We’ve got a shared agreement on the issue we’re discussing. We’ve given it the time it needs to explore diverse perspectives, to hear of concerns and possible concerns and out of that we’ve drawn together a proposal that seems to have the energy of the group behind it. We’ve paused and then tried to make the proposal even stronger, taking into account some concerns we hadn’t heard clearly enough before. We’ve restated the proposal so we’re all clear what we’re being asked to agree to (or not). Now the facilitator asks us 3 questions:

  1. Any blocks? Does anyone feel that this proposal runs contrary to the shared vision of the group and as such will damage the integrity of the group, potentially even causing people to leave? If you’ve done the work well to this point, the answer will usually be “no”. But let’s not assume…. give people time, and if there are no blocks move on to the next question. However if there are blocks you need to back up – is it enough to continue to amend the proposal or do you need to return to the broad discussion (which obviously wasn’t broad enough first time round….)?
  2. Any stand-asides? Does anyone disagree with the proposal enough, on a personal level, that they don’t want to take part in implementing it (but is happy for the rest of the group to go ahead, without feeling in any way a lesser part of the group for it)? It’s worth checking here that there aren’t too many stand-asides as that’s an obvious sign of a lukewarm response to a proposal. And we can do better than lukewarm.
  3. Do we have consensus? Assuming there are no blocks, and no more than a manageable number of stand-asides, can we assume that we agree? No – never assume, so ask the question and insist on a response. Lack of response may indicate ‘consensus by lack of will to live’…. the “I’ll agree to anything just as long as this interminable meeting ends” syndrome.

The veto

Each individual having the right to veto any proposal at any stage? That’s a huge amount of power and a huge responsibility. For those that haven’t achieved the necessary sense of group it can also be a huge problem, with individuals vetoing proposals for individual reasons and not with that sense of group in mind.

But in a well-functioning consensus group (and they do exist) the veto is so rare as almost to be unheard of. For this reason consensus lore says that an individual should veto no more than the fingers on one hand in a lifetime! Think about it, to get to the point in a process at which someone feels moved strongly enough to stop a proposal from going any further, a group has to have ignored some pretty significant warning signs. The quality of listening, observation, inclusion has to have dropped well below the standard expected of a group committed to equality, access, inclusion, participation (and all those other nice words). And given that vetoes are used to prevent a group taking an action that runs contrary to its core aims and values, the group also has to be going significantly off course. In our well-functioning group, the veto is not something to be afraid of, but to be welcomed. If someone vetoes it brings the group back to itself, it sense of self, and its core aims and values.

And that makes the veto a radical safety valve that keeps groups working to their highest shared ideals.

So what are the issues for facilitators at this point, and how might we deal with them?

Misuse of the veto

This is probably the most common complaint about consensus, and I’ve known long-term groups grind to a halt because of serial blocking. I prefer to think of this as misunderstanding of the use of the veto.

The most frequent misunderstanding is that a veto is an opportunity to block any proposal that I simply don’t like. And it’s this tension between the personal and the group vision that underpins almost all problems that might occur during the test for consensus. It’s a hard line to draw. After all when we’re working in a group we’re both individuals and group members. But consensus relies on us having a sense that as a group we can achieve more than we can as individuals (the group being more than the sum of its parts and all that). Flowing from that is the willing surrender of our autonomy so that we can be part of an autonomous group. To put it bluntly, I agree to put aside my personal baggage in order to be part of this group. That baggage might include personal ideals and goals that aren’t shared by the group. An (imperfect) example might help:

Let’s say I’m into all things green, and that includes green spirituality. My environmentalism is intimately linked to my view of myself as a spiritual human being. And I join a local green action group that works by consensus. I can sign up to all their values about sustainability and the need for empowered action. No problem so far. But the group doesn’t share my spirituality. In fact it’s decidedly secular. So when we’re discussing the organisation of our annual green fayre the rest of the group aren’t impressed by my suggestions of adding in a little of the spiritual side of life in the form of an opening and closing ceremony. The result is that the proposal we end up discussing doesn’t include my ceremonies, and to me that makes it far less attractive. Do I use my veto?

Short answer, no. I agree to disagree. To veto in this context is to impose my values on the group, to try to trump the collective with the personal and by flexing my autonomy to rob the whole group of its autonomy. But sadly that’s how it’s often defined and used, and this rapidly becomes a hostage situation with the group held hostage by one person refusing to be flexible, and insisting that everyone agree with them.

Agreeing to disagree may take several forms. You might stand aside – “I’m not that excited by the fair, so I’ll give it a miss this year, but you go ahead and organise it with my blessing… I won’t come to meetings that are focused on the fair, but will see you at our monthly open meeting”. In some situations you might even willingly and cheerfully leave the group because you realise that you don’t have the common ground with the group that you thought you did. Maybe your local pagan group will meet your needs more closely…

And the facilitation role here is to help the individual navigate that inner dialogue whilst simultaneously creating a supportive space within the group for it to happen in. Simply saying – “that’s your stuff, leave it at the door or find another group” isn’t enough. The individual is owed an explanation. After all, if you buy into my misunderstanding-rather-than-misuse theory, the chances are the problem has arisen because the group has never adequately articulated what it means to block.

  • So first things first, check out any assumptions about how the veto is used. If the group have a clear policy on this now would be a good time to ask for it to be communicated to all those present.
  • Next, at the moment of asking for vetoes reiterate that policy…. “are there any blocks to this proposal going forward? That is any serious concerns that if we agree to this proposal it might damage the integrity and cohesion of this group?”
  • If you find yourself faced with a veto that you suspect might not fit the group’s definition of an appropriate block, gently ask the blocker if they are able to articulate the reasons for their block in relation to group values and aims. If what you hear sounds personal, keep asking – “It’d help me to understand your objection if you could say a little more about how that relates to our collective vision for the group?”.
  • Remind the group of the alternatives to blocks – revisiting the broad discussion to explore the issue more, standing aside from a proposal, registering dissent in the minutes of the meeting and so on.
  • If there’s an insistence on framing the objection as a veto but it’s clear it doesn’t meet the criteria, then face it head on: “I hear your objection, and you’re obviously very unhappy with this proposal, but the way I hear you talk about your objection in the context of this group”. In some groups the sheer strength of upset being caused by the proposal could lead to it being withdrawn – group cohesion being more important than any one proposal

One word of caution, there’s a fine line between exploring a person’s reasons for using the veto and exploring alternatives and trying to lobby them to change their mind for the convenience of the wider group. If we cross that line we’re into the territory of the group mainstream trying to use their power to silence a group margin

When to block

The most obvious sign that a block should be used is when you or anyone else is feeling compelled to leave the group (nothing willing or cheerful about it) because the group is on the verge of violating its own common ground. The problem may lay in the group failing to live up to its ideals around process leading to it alienating people, or it may fail to live up to its aims and purpose. “compelled”, “violating”, “failing”: powerful words, I appreciate, but it’s a tool for use in power-filled situations – when the power isn’t working for the common good. Bear in mind that all the previous steps of the flow of consensus should have been equalising that power.

In terms of facilitation, especially in the mainstream UK culture, it’s easy to try to avoid conflict and downplay strong emotion. Don’t. This is a moment of significant learning for the group. They could be on the brink of making a serious error of judgement and some of the group are trying to pull them back from the brink. Some things facilitators can usefully do here include:

  • Supporting the idea of the veto when you know that you’re in controversial territory: “this proposal seems to be pretty controversial, so let’s test for consensus to see if that clarifies where we stand. Are there any blocks?”….Pause and observe the group – “don’t be afraid to block. Remember if we’re about to make a mistake it’s important to realise that. But let’s not veto for the sake of it”
  • Testing for consensus, even if the discussion is still going on, to provoke some clarity…. “if I were to test for consensus right now, would there be any blocks to this proposal?”
  • Backing up….. If feelings are running that high (and there is often strong feeling around a potential veto)maybe you’ve rushed into the proposal too quickly. “This proposal seems to be arousing a strong reaction, and I’m not sure it has the full support of the group. Are there other ideas that we dropped from the conversation earlier that we should revisit, either as alternatives or to help us pull together a better proposal?”
  • Take a break. Before testing for consensus have a tea break and let the proposal sit with people.

Reaction to the veto: seeing the veto as a positive action

Veto’s are used when the group has gone off course. Almost by definition that means that the group will be engaged in a struggle: some people will be feeling alienated from the proposal, possibly from the process and the group. There may even be people planning their escape from the meeting or group. In this context it can be hard to keep sight of the veto as a positive. It helps bring the group back on course. It also equalises power – perhaps an alienated margin (even a margin of just one) is using its right to veto to remind the group that they believe in inclusion and are failing to live up to that ideal. Also, and crucially, one person may veto but more than likely they are articulating the concerns of a larger number of people – a veto is used and there’s a wider sight of relief. So as facilitators we need to welcome the veto. Not hunt it out like some rare orchid, but be very open to it, and help the group to find the value in it. Not always easy in the moment.

We also need to be prepared for a backlash – a tired group seeing the veto as the beginning of yet another long discussion rather than the end they were hoping for. This is especially the case when not everyone has fully heard or appreciated the thinking (or feeling) behind the veto. This raises the question of whether the veto needs to be justified.

Unpacking a veto

Different group handle vetoes in different ways. I know of groups that drop the proposal the instant a veto is offered and move on to look for new ways forward. The person vetoing is not asked for their reasons why. There’s an assumption of trust. There’s an assumption of understanding of the purpose and power of the veto.

Other groups struggle to find that level of trust and understanding and vetoes are usually interrogated (often a hostile interrogation, sadly). If tensions are running high the person(s) vetoing may not feel safe to articulate their thinking or feeling, and a cooling off period between the veto and the explanation of the veto may be wise. Be prepared to intervene to facilitate that process.

An explanation is potentially useful even where trust exists because it highlights what the group has to learn to avoid a repeat of the current situation.

We’ve focused heavily on the veto to this point because it’s the biggest obstacle groups face as they learn to use consensus well. But there are other tips and hints for facilitators of this step of the flow of consensus

When to test for consensus

Testing for consensus usually occurs when the group has a proposal that seems to be gathering momentum. In this context, the signs that it’s time to test are similar to those that it’s time to try to synthesise a proposal.

But you might also test to provoke a hesitant group into climbing off the fence and taking a position. Perhaps the discussion around the proposal has run out of steam, you’re not seeing a lot of enthusiasm, but nor are you hearing a lot of objections. Obviously you need to think about the causes of this apathy (tiredness, not enough information to make a high quality decision, not a particularly important decision for this group), but a test for consensus might shake the conversation up a bit and highlight whatever the problem is. Think of it as a diagnostic tool.

State the proposal often

Think how frustrating it would be to have to deal with a veto only to finds out that the veto was caused by a misunderstanding over the nature of the proposal. Restating the proposal often and clearly is vital at this point in the decision-making process, especially if the proposal is complex, or has multiple parts to it.

It’s all too easy

Beware of reaching consensus too easily. If the speed of agreement doesn’t quite fit the mood of the discussion that led to it, check it out. Are people agreeing for the wrong reasons? Are they bored of the meeting and just wanting to move on? Tired and wanting to go home? Disengaged by the dynamics of the discussion? Beaten into submission by domineering speakers? It could be that they’ve failed to engage with the depth of the issue and are working at a superficial level. All of this should ideally be picked up and dealt with much earlier in the process, but better now than never.

And finally, it ain’t over til it’s over

Successfully navigating the test for consensus isn’t everything. The decision still needs to be recorded accurately for future reference and for those who couldn’t make the meeting. Then any action arising from the decision needs to be implemented, volunteers found, resources allocated. I’m not going to say more on this here.

That’s our journey through the consensus decision-making process over with for  now. Look out for posts on when not to use consensus and near-consensus alternatives for groups or situations when consensus isn’t a realistic option.

You might also like to read other posts in this series:

Previous posts on the steps of the consensus process:

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10 thoughts on “Consensus decision-making: the moment of truth

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