The plusses and minuses of consensus

I belong to a cohousing group based in Herefordshire called Mandorla Cohousing. You can find out more about us at We try and take decisions by consensus, both formally and informally. My experience there has made me question the value of and need for consensus, especially in formal consensus procedures. This is the first of several blogs in which I’m going to try and clarify my thinking.

Let’s start with the plusses, which are many. They follow directly from the requirement that everybody consent to a decision. Consensus encourages a group to pay attention and talk to everyone. It encourages people to listen carefully both to the emotional tone and the intellectual content of what others say. It can change the feel of a meeting, to being in a joint search for agreement, rather than being opponents in a competitive struggle. It directs members’ attention to the common good, to the needs of the whole. It increases commitment, because everyone has agreed to everything. And, finally, where members rely on each other, consensus gives expression to an emotional need for unity.

Turning to the minuses, there are various common criticisms of consensus. It needs shared values. It can take a long time – “the democratic process breaks down after two hours [of a meeting]”, said a member of the Mifflin Street Community Co-op in Madison, Wisconsin, USA. For the sake of consensus, people may suppress their true views. (Someone involved in the women’s movement talked about “the bottled up egos lost in a mush of niceness”.) This self-censorship, in order to maintain group cohesion, has become known as groupthink. For the sake of consensus, also, disagreements may be blurred or masked, and decisions kept vague. It can give a lot of power to a ‘blocker’ (this is a term used in a formal consensus process). In practice, many organisations that espouse consensus will resort to some form of majority voting if blocks continue. In a situation of deadlock, the only alternative to this is social coercion or exclusion. Last, these difficulties can favour the status quo by making decisions difficult to take (whereas majority rule is neutral in relation to the status quo).

Strangely, though, none of these was my main concern. I’ll tell you what that was in the next blog.

Perry Walker


Truth and reconciliation in consensus

Nelson Mandela has been laid to rest. Countless words have been written about his life and his legacy, and with good cause. I’m not going to try to add too many more to that count. What’s clear is that he (and those around him) inspired a nation to act against expectations, against self-interest, for a higher ‘good’ – a unified, multiracial South Africa.

Inspiration, acting against self-interest and for a higher purpose are all necessary, central values in any consensus decision-making group. How many groups that use consensus actually, consciously, live and work to those values is another matter.

What most consensus groups need are more Mandela moments. They need to find inspiring, collaborative ways out of seemingly impossible, sometimes ideological, struggles. Positions are taken and fiercely held too. They are reinforced and dug in with the language of values and idealism. The stage is set for yet another conflict in which there are ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. The real loser is our ability to collaborate, our belief in co-operation, our sense of community.

Where’s the truth and reconciliation in all this? We invent truths, fly our standards from them, gather our forces around them, forgetting that they are just one possible view of the truth. And reconciliation, real reconciliation is rare. Feelings are usually strained but never fully repaired. Our groups are weakened, and with that our ability to function as cohesive forces for social change.

It’s tough, but we need more people, more groups, to step up and inspire those Mandela moments – to show the way to processes of truth and reconciliation. And we need more people and more groups to do the work to turn inspiration into consensus.

Of course if we deify Mandela we’ll never achieve that. What we need to remember is that inspiration needs to be channeled and turned into action and behaviour, to be enshrined in cultures, for it to make change. And that’s something that took many, many ‘ordinary’ people to achieve. Mandela provided the inspiration and the example, but tens of thousands of ordinary South Africans took that inspiration and did the work that made change possible.


Consensus: on being right

Perry like’s stories and uses them to great effect in his facilitation and training. We co-facilitated this past weekend and decided the time had come to post some of them on the blog. So from time to time we’ll add a story or saying that offers insight into the process of coming to consensus. Here’s a couple of quotes on being right to start us off:

“The world is divided into those who think they are right.” Anonymous (popularised by Peggy Seeger)


“From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.” Yehuda Amichai

Can consensus really be E-A-S-Y?

“What about consensus decision-making in hierarchical organisations?”. It’s a question that comes up regularly.

Most of my work around consensus decision-making is in grassroots, flat structured organisations. And that seems to be the natural home of consensus because of the anti-hierarchical values that thrive in that setting. But it’d be foolish to close our eyes to the fact that consensus, and the desire to work by consensus, exist elsewhere. There are hundreds of management consultancies that deliver training in consensus, for example. But is it the same thing we talk about on this blog, a close relation, or something very different?

Then today I read Learning Tree International’s ‘Perspectives on Project Management’ blog, lured in by the title How to Use the E-A-S-Y Approach to Consensus Decision Making. It’s a short and surprisingly good post (surprising only because of my prejudices that we activists have the monopoly on consensus).

Why the E-A-S-Y approach? Here’s a snippet:

An effective way to reach consensus is to use the E-A-S-Y approach:

  • Elicit comments or explanations (oral and written) from all team members
  • Ask  open-ended questions (what, where, when, which, who, how, why) about the topic
  • State the obvious – summarize . . . write it down
  • Your opinion as the project leader is important, but is not likely to be as important as the collective wisdom of the project team.

The Importance of Nurturing Dissent in a Consensus Process

Here’s the last in our series of 3 articles by Tree Bressen.

In an age of unrelenting industrialization, there are reminders all around us of the importance of dissent. How much ecological devastation has been wreaked because no one stopped it from happening? Erich Fromm has written, “Human history began with an act of disobedience, and it is not unlikely that it will be terminated by an act of obedience.” Or as Hugo Adam Bedau put it, “An unyielding ‘No!’ may yet prove to be our sole password to the future.”

On a smaller scale, gathering the wisdom of the group relies on the open and honest sharing of concerns. Without people freely speaking up, the group has no access to information with which to create the best decision. Yet disagreement can feel intimidating. Participants know that speaking a different opinion from others can create distance, and that feels socially uncomfortable.

The Abilene Paradox

There is an old story from management expert Jerry Harvey, telling how a group can do something even when no one actually wants to. This version comes from Wikipedia:

On a hot afternoon in Coleman, Texas, a family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene (53 miles away to the north) for dinner. The wife says, “Sounds like a great idea.” The husband, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, “Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go.” The mother-in-law then says, “Of course I want to go. I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”

The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is bad. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted.

One of them dishonestly says, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it.” The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The husband says, “I wasn’t delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you.” The wife says, “I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that.” The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored.

The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably, but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.

Connection Across Difference

Staying connected through times of difference is a central challenge of community life. And nowhere is this more apparent than in group meetings. Since the free interplay of ideas (and the resulting improvement in the proposal) is crucial to the consensus process, what can we do to create safe space and honor each other’s contributions?

Nourish solid friendships in the group. The more connected we are, the more we tend to have a sympathetic and respectful attitude when someone has a different opinion than we do.

Support personal empowerment. The more empowered someone feels in their life, the more willing they will be to speak up from a minority viewpoint. Whether it’s doing a personal growth workshop, therapy, finding a job where they are respected and paid decently, or getting out of an abusive relationship and into a healthy one, any changes that result in higher self-esteem and differentiation will help. When you see someone start to take the first steps, give them positive feedback (assuming you can do so from a place of genuine celebration and not patronizing), and give them time and space for the changes to settle in and grow.

Create a respectful climate for discussion. Take responsibility for co-creating safe space in the meeting. Use all the communication tools you know, such as “I statements” and not interrupting each other. If someone speaks to another member with disrespect or sarcasm, don’t let it slide: interrupt this behavior immediately – the impact reaches far beyond just those two people.

Ask questions. Draw each other out. Really search to understand why someone feels the way they do on an issue. Assume you have something to learn from them.

Reflective listening. Stay with what the minority is saying until you can repeat it back to their satisfaction, so that they feel like you are really getting it. Honor the feelings and values that are giving rise to their position.

Shift formats. If you’ve been in open discussion in the meeting, try a fishbowl or small groups or a visualization instead. Sometimes a time of silence can work miracles. Some groups have sharing circles or “distilleries” that are held outside the normal meeting time, in a more informal atmosphere.

Find the dissenter(s) an ally–do not isolate them. Perhaps no one agrees with all of what the lone dissenter is saying, but do they agree with any piece of it? Focus on that, search out the common territory. And don’t let the relationships get damaged by the disagreement; make a point of continuing social connections.

Be mindful of how you talk about the situation outside meetings. Venting behind someone’s back when you are frustrated is understandable and a normal human response. It can sometimes be helpful if it lowers your charge such that when you next encounter the subject, you can listen better. But if you are attempting to gang up support for your side in an attempt to pressure the other into going along, ask yourself whether that is really following the consensus process and the values that you and your group believe in.

Honor diversity. No matter how much you may disagree with a particular viewpoint, it’s highly likely that if you’d had that person’s life experiences, you’d feel the same way. And even if you wouldn’t, they are still entitled to their point of view. Ideally people can love and respect each other even if they vehemently disagree.

Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. We have all been there at some time in our lives. We’ve had the uncomfortable experience of being in a minority position. Remember what that was like, and think about how you would have wanted to be treated.

Cultivate patience. Hard as it may be to practice, there’s a reason this is an honored virtue, eh? Except for physical and financial decisions by communities in the building and development phase, there are few resolutions that require a tight timeline.

Sometimes the Minority is Right After All

Don’t assume that someone in a minority position is wrong! Sometimes it is appropriate for the whole group to shift. And the group will, once it sees the wisdom in the concern. When John Woolman first started preaching against slavery among Quakers, many Friends still held slaves, and it wasn’t until almost 20 years after his death that the Society of Friends petitioned the U.S. Congress for abolition.

Consensus decision-making is not about speed nor peer pressure. The point is to fully examine the possibilities and concerns and search out what is best for the whole. This seasoning process calls for reflection and discernment. It requires discipline and commitment, but the results are worth it. As visionary consultant Mary Parker Follett (1868-1933) wrote, “Social process may be conceived either as the opposing and battle of desires with the victory of one over the other, or as the confronting and integrating of desires. . . . The latter means a freeing for both sides and increased total power or . . . capacity in the world.

Enjoyed this post? You might like to read:

There are many more articles and handouts on Tree’s website

Tree Bressen is a skilled group facilitator serving a wide variety of organizations.  Her gifts include elegant process design, holding space for tough conversations, and using good process to achieve excellent product.  Her original training comes from the graduate school of communal living, working with groups using full consensus decision-making.  She founded the collaborative that produced the Group Works cards, a distillation of core wisdom in the field of facilitation.  Practicing on a gift economy basis since 2004, she also maintains a website with extensive free resources.

The Special Place of Blocking in Consensus

For many groups working by consensus “blocking” is a dirty word. To help rehabilitate the block in consensus, over the next couple of weeks we’re reproducing 3 of Tree Bressen’s articles on the role of the block in consensus decision-making. Enjoy!

The Special Place of Blocking in Consensus

Funny as it may seem, people who teach consensus process are not in consensus on what constitutes an appropriate block.
Standards vary widely, and i’d be willing to bet it’s a disagreement that goes back many years before the 1981 publication of the classic manual Building United Judgment. That book describes how the collective producing it almost broke up over their inability to come to agreement on how to address blocking. In their case, the breakthrough came when the authors agreed to include multiple viewpoints in the text, each set off in its own box.

That solution met the needs of that particular situation. But what are practicing groups to do who need clarity in order to move ahead? My aim here is to describe different standards in use, explain roles and functions that blocking can serve, and leave it up to you to decide.

* * *

First, let’s be clear on the areas of agreement, which are substantial. I have seen no source of information on consensus that allows for blocking based on individual preference. That is, all the trainers and books agree that blocks must be based on a member’s perception of group needs rather than on something they want for themselves. This is a key point on blocking and the one most often overlooked by newcomers to the process. Consensus is not extreme voting—it’s a genuinely different method that requires participants to adopt a bigger perspective and focus on group needs.

Second, it’s essential that any blocks which emerge are fully understood as to what the blocker’s concern is and why they feel that way. Accessing that knowledge will assist a meeting in discerning whether to continue further work on the proposal or to lay it down.

Third, in a well-functioning group, blocks shouldn’t happen very often. Consensus guru Caroline Estes is known for saying that a person should only block up to half a dozen times in their lifetime, total, for all the groups they participate in. If blocking is happening often, the group needs more training in consensus process.

* * *

C.T. Butler, in his Formal Consensus booklet, sets a high bar. He maintains that the entire group must agree that a block is based in a group principle or the group’s well-being in order for the block to hold. This standard is a reasonable response to the context that C.T.’s methodology was developed in: political groups who had to deal with government infiltrators and provocateurs.

In contrast, communitarian Laird Schaub says that the blocker only needs to be able to convince at least one other member of the group that the block is based in an explicitly held group value. (The other person doesn’t need to feel the same way as the blocker, they just need to admit the validity of the analysis.)

Using that model, blocks are most likely to arise either when two different values that a group holds come into conflict with each other (e.g., ecological sustainability vs. affordability when constructing a community building) or when there are different interpretations of an existing common value. As Laird puts it: “I urge a community to not be dismayed by discovering that different members have different spins on what a common value means. You weren’t really thinking you all thought the same way on everything, were you? I didn’t think so. So expect differences to arise.

The standard used by Quaker elder Caroline Estes is that one can only block when the outcome for the group would be otherwise catastrophic. Not just bad, but disastrously bad. She also says that it’s not okay for one person to prevent the group from taking risks, so long as the group is making an informed choice.

As an example, she tells a story of Pacific Yearly Meeting which, during the Vietnam War, wanted to send a ship bearing humanitarian aid to the North Vietnamese. Such an act fell under the official definition of treason, but the Quakers have long been a determined, pacifist people, and energy was building in support. Near the end of the meeting, one person stood to speak. This person pointed out that technically such an act would put in a liable position not only all the Friends in the room, but all the members of Pacific Yearly Meeting, many of whom were not in attendance at the meeting that day to give their assent to such a drastic risk. The person sat down, and the clerk (facilitator) announced, “Friends, we will now adjourn for lunch.”

The correctness of the person’s action was clear, as there was widespread agreement that it wouldn’t have been fair to subject absent members to severe legal penalties. Over lunch, the people in support of the proposal got together and went forward with their plans to charter the ship—just not in the official name of Pacific Yearly Meeting. Note that the strong desire to act did find an outlet, and one that truly addressed the concern which had been raised.

* * *

However, the story above brings up an interesting question. Why didn’t the person object sooner? Could they not get a turn to speak? Did the concern not occur to them until the eleventh hour? It seems to me that if they’d spoken up earlier, the rest of the group would have seen the wisdom of the statement, and rather than ending at a block, the whole group would have shifted to a search for new solutions.

In fact I’ve sometimes suggested this as a filter to people who are wondering whether a block is appropriate; i tell them that if there’s not a sense of resonance from others who hear the block, then it’s probably based in self-interest rather than the group’s needs, and therefore the blocker should likely stand aside instead. In that sense appropriate blocks cease to exist, because they result in a shift in group insight which converts them from barriers held by one person into concerns to be integrated by the whole.

However, blocks also serve as a safety valve in the system. I once worked with a land trust that reported a high frequency of blocks. As i inquired further, i discovered that in their process blocking was the only way to say, “I need more time for discussion on this item before we make a decision.” I encouraged the group not to rush so much, and to include an option in their decision-making for “I have some concerns and would like to dialogue more” that would feel different and more positive than blocking, thus reserving blocking for catastrophic-level concerns that emerge after substantial discussion.
While we all wish for good process with people who listen fully to each other, there are a lot of real groups out there that aren’t operating that way. For those groups with weak process, blocking is the way to ensure that if someone is being railroaded, they have a way to stop the train.

On the other hand, the blocking option is much more likely to be invoked by assertive personalities who can resist peer pressure from the group, and sometimes these are the “problem” members of the community.

That’s why teacher Rob Sandelin advocates a voting fallback, so that one member can’t exercise a “tyranny of the minority” over the group. If someone knows they can be outvoted, Rob thinks they’ll be more likely to act cooperatively. Other trainers, however, raise the concern that groups with voting fallbacks may avoid the hard work of coming to consensus. I’ve been happy to see that cohousing communities, which all have voting fallbacks in their bylaws due to requirements arising from conventional bank financing, rarely if ever invoke them in practice.

N Street Cohousing in Davis, California has another safety mechanism in place to protect the integrity of the consensus process. Part of their standard for blocking is that the person who blocks must meet multiple times with the people who made the proposal in order to try to craft something that will meet all the needs and concerns. If this requirement is not met, then the block doesn’t count and the decision can proceed. That policy is a way of codifying the need for anyone who is considering blocking a decision to work constructively on ways to resolve their concerns, which is an essential part of making consensus work.

When teaching consensus i tend to de-emphasize blocking, focusing on the process as “the power to listen” rather than “the power to block.” However, as a key feature that distinguishes consensus from majority voting, it’s critical to recognize the place of blocking in the system.

Enjoyed this post? You might like to read:

Tree Bressen is a skilled group facilitator serving a wide variety of organizations.  Her gifts include elegant process design, holding space for tough conversations, and using good process to achieve excellent product.  Her original training comes from the graduate school of communal living, working with groups using full consensus decision-making.  She founded the collaborative that produced the Group Works cards, a distillation of core wisdom in the field of facilitation.  Practicing on a gift economy basis since 2004, she also maintains a website with extensive free resources.

We’ve blogged about Crowd Wise, a consensus voting technique, on a number of occasions on this site. And indeed, Perry Walker its originator is one of Rhizome’s members nowadays.

For those keen to learn more is now up and running complete with several case studies to show you how it’s worked in practice in remarkably varied contexts, from football clubs to Transition Towns.

Consensus decision-making: guiding groups to good decisions

We talk a lot about consensus on this blog. Supporting groups to navigate the sometimes less than clear waters of consensus is a large part of our work. Over the last year or so I’ve spoken to several fellow consensus trainers about work we’ve done together from the 2005 G8 protests onwards. One of the reflections we’ve shared is that the emphasis seems to have fallen on consensus process as opposed to consensus as a state of mind, a set of values. That was not deliberate, but it seems quite clear that some groups that have tried to use consensus have done so in the absence of clear and shared co-operative values. At that point they’re off the edge of the map of good consensus, and there be dragons.

As part of our contribution to re-establishing balance, we’ve just uploaded two new consensus decision-making guides to our Resources page. We hope there’s a suitable focus on that state of mind.

One is an abridged version of two of our most popular blog posts on the history and evolution of consensus, with the information brought together in one place. The second is an introduction and overview of what consensus is, how it works, common misconceptions, alternatives for those that can’t commit to consensus and some places to go for further information. There’s a third guide in the pipeline, aimed at facilitators of consensus.

These guides will undoubtedly evolve. Your feedback is a part of that evolution. We’d love to hear from you – what’s not clear? what’s missing? We’d also love to include more case studies of when consensus works and doesn’t, so if you have experiences to share, please get in touch.


Consensus training: Talk Action, January 26th, London

Rhizome don’t put on many open courses, though we do get asked. As it happens 2 of our facilitators are at work in an open course on Consensus Decision-Making next month, courtesy of the team at Talk Action.

We’ll look at the values that underpin effective consensual decision-making as well as at 2 models of consensus: formal consensus and Crowd Wise.

We’d love to see you there.

An appreciative audience for Crowd Wise

I spent the afternoon in London on Wednesday at a meeting of the Capacity Building Forum. You may be glad to know that there was, finally, talk of agreeing a new name (the current one hardly trips off the tongue) and creating a website so that the outside world can locate and get involved with the Forum. Essentially it’s an informal gathering of staff from various network based campaigning organisations, with a few odds and ends like Rhizome thrown in for good measure.

An hour of the agenda was given over to a skillshare on Crowd Wise, which Perry came along to offer, with Adam from the Fairtrade Foundation and myself as backing vocalists. When we’d suggested Crowd Wise as a topic for the day, I knew there would be interest, but it was actually met with very palpable excitement.

We tried out the method, and whilst Perry added up the votes from our practice session, Adam and I took questions on our recent experiment with Crowd Wise as part of a consultation with Fairtrade Foundation campaigners. The questions we were asked give a glimpse of why people are finding Crowd Wise exciting. There were several questions just to clarify the possibilities –  for example how were people kept in touch with the process when, like with the Fairtrade Foundation, Crowd Wise was used over a series of events.

We also talked about marginal voices – were they really heard in the process? Our experience from recent work is yes. The group builds a collaborative way forward that includes recognisable elements of those voices. Indeed 2 such voices attended a feedback meeting I ran for the Fairtrade Foundation, and seemed in no way resentful that the outcome ignored their views.

We also had a short discussion on whether Crowd Wise brought the possibility of consensus to organisations with hierarchical structures. The answer? Yes. And this is where a lot of the excitement lay. I suspect Perry might be kept busy over coming months and years….


Spokescouncils – learning from Stop New Nukes

Photo: Stop New Nuclear

Hinkley Point nuclear power station was successfully blockaded on Monday 3rd for an entire day. The Stop New Nuclear organisers had decided in advance on an affinity group model of action, and therefore that communication and decision making would happen by spokescouncil.

I joined the fray on the Saturday to help facilitate the spokescouncils both at the camp and on the blockade itself. From Saturday to Monday I facilitated 4 spokescouncil meetings – 2 at the camp, 1 during a camp-wide practice blockade, and the fourth and final one at the blockade itself. With the exception of the practice, on the surface at least, the others seemed to go well. The practice spokescouncil hit problems, but that’s why we practiced!

In fact I was amazed by all of the meetings I facilitated or witnesses at the camp, whether spokescouncils and general camp info meetings. They all ended on or ahead of the scheduled time and ran pretty smoothly. There was a real will to co-operate that you can’t assume will be present.

But why ‘on the surface at least’? I think there were some real issues bubbling away under the surface. Nothing insurmountable, but issues nevertheless. So what was going on?

Experience and understanding

The most obvious was the challenge that spokescouncils presented to those less versed in the ways of affinity group organising. Some of the folk attending were not just new to consensus, but had also only formed affinity groups a few hours (and in some cases a few minutes) before their first spokescouncil meeting. I wonder whether some of the ease with which we got through the meetings was caused by the mild daze that some people were in, trying to catch up with a process that’s pretty weird if you’ve never encountered it before.

There were no scheduled inductions to consensus, and I think the quality of information at the welcome tent very much depended on the volunteer who greeted you. Some probably took the time to talk to people about how the camp worked, but I don’t think that was a universal experience. A few sentences from me at the start of the meeting don’t compensate for a proper induction.

Perhaps it’s also a comment on the nature of affinity group action here in the UK. It’s fallen out of favour in recent years. Somehow “affinity group based mass action” has become just “mass action” and affinity groups have become the preserve of long-standing activists from the peace movement and Earth First! We need to remember that in actions like this blockade it’s not as simple as stating that it’s an action configured around affinity groups and expecting everyone to know what that means and to have experience of affinity group processes. And even if folk understand all of the above, they aren’t necessarily part of an affinity group at this point in their lives.

So more induction and more awareness raising of the realities of affinity group activism, and the undoubted benefits that it brings.

Spokes 1: Fishbowls 0

By the time I arrived at the camp the first spokescouncil meeting had already taken place. It would have been good to have been there, but life’s busy and it wasn’t possible. Having said that there weren’t really any significant decisions to be made so it was treated more as a practice run. Everyone was welcome and affinity groups sat behind their spoke in the traditional ‘pizza slice’ formation with spokes effectively working in a fishbowl. However it was discovered fairly rapidly that groups weren’t content to communicate through their spoke and lots of other voices tried to make themselves heard. The result was that by the time I arrived the camp organisers had already decided on a ‘spokes-only’ model for the remainder of the camp.

On one level that made things easier – smaller meetings, fewer distractions, crystallising the role of the spoke as a representative and so on. It’s a shame there wasn’t time and energy to keep working at it though and use the experience to build better individual and collective meeting practice. But nuclear power stations don’t blockade themselves and the action was understandably the focus.

Inevitably though the remaining spokescouncil meetings draw other people to them like flames draw moths. So at my first spokes meeting one or two people came along as observers. Did they just observe? Don’t be silly. They (though to be fair, not all) were amongst the most vociferous and tangential voices there. So we agreed to enforce the spokes-only ruling from then on, making an exception only for note takers where groups chose to send one.

Rule number 1: you can’t impose consensus

I said it was all fine on the surface. I’d go as far as to say that for most people the spokescouncil meetings were fine full stop. But there were definite signs of dissent, of people not buying into the authority of the spokescouncil to make decisions for the collective.

And why should they? After all they hadn’t been consulted on that decision, it was simply part of the model of action that the organisers had decided on. On one level you can say “if you don’t agree with these parameters, this actions not for you”, but the reality is people will still turn up because they’re passionate about the issue and it’s the only show in town. It’s not like there’s a choice of blockades, each with a different organising ethos so you can choose the one that works for you. People don’t necessarily think about the process until it becomes an obstacle to them taking action in a manner that fits their vision for the day.

This dissent began to manifest itself after the first action spokescouncil on the day of the blockade. One person sounded off to me, at length, about a decision, despite consenting to it in the meeting. Another activist made an announcement over the PA system that a consensus decision had been taken about an idea they were keen on and that we would “all” take their preferred action at a set time. In reality no such decision had in fact been made. A misunderstanding? That’s certainly the line I was given when I had a gentle word with them. An attempt to hijack the process? A response to being politely but firmly denied more time to talk on their subject by the facilitator (me in this instance)? We’ll never know. Suffice it to say that they were passionate about an idea and wanted to think that everyone else would be too. It’s also fair to say that they were representing personal rather than group views – not the role of a spoke.

Practice makes perfect

I alluded to a less than perfect practice run. The day before the blockade I co-facilitated a practice run. The original plan was for another nonviolent direct action session, but the previous ones weren’t generating that much interest or energy (no fault of the trainers). So I’d suggested that we change tack and invite everyone at camp for a full group run through. We created a few ‘scenarios’ to give folk a chance to practice their responses to aggression (both ours and the cops) and to practice the spokescouncil in a quick-decision context.

What happened was that whilst the spokes met and talked about the initial vague information they had, the group gave way to police pressure and cleared the road. By the time the spokes had got the full picture it was more or less too late. Some of the spokes were seriously annoyed that the authority of the spokescouncil to decide when the blockade should clear was clearly lost. Lessons were learnt about who makes the decision and about how long even a ‘quick’ decision would take in reality.

I left the blockade part way through the day to begin my journey home. The spokescouncil facilitation was left in very competent hands. I’m told one of the characters mentioned above came back for more and continued to “misunderstand” the process. Did it matter? In this action probably not – the police were playing it low-key and allowing the blockade to happen. In another action, with confrontation, fast-moving dynamics, the potential for injury and arrest? Of course it matters, which is why we need to continually reflect and learn.

And so to summarise – what I’d do differently next time

Some thoughts on what we could do to improve spokescouncil consensus for future blockades (and it’s just the start of a very long campaign….). I offer these with a great deal of respect for the organisers of this camp and blockade, and recognise that a small group of people simply doesn’t have the capacity to make all of these happen:

  • Don’t assume knowledge of the process or mechanics of spokescouncils – make space for people to find out more. We had prepared a written briefing for groups. I would have liked to see this given out to everyone, but only a few were ever printed, so I think the impact was negligible. But I think there also needs to be regular face-to-face briefings – whether for 15 minutes before meetings, informally over a meal, twice a day scheduled into the programme or whatever.
  • Communicate the rationale for using consensus, spokescouncils and affinity groups to support people in building an affinity for them.
  • Take the time to formally get consensus on using consensus, even if that means one long and difficult meeting to help you get to a process that is faster, more efficient and still consensual – like the spokescouncil.
  • Keep working at the model of meeting that allows affinity groups to sit in with their spoke. It’s going to take more patience and more practice to build a culture that understands and values why we sometimes ask groups to speak through their spoke, but if we never do it, we can never learn.

And what worked well…

It’s also worth reflecting on what worked well at Hinkley:

  • Negotiating a specific mandate at the last camp spokescouncil to facilitate action spokescouncils more firmly than would feel appropriate in an ordinary meeting. By which I mean keeping people focused, moving at an appropriate speed for an action setting, challenging over-contribution more quickly than might otherwise be the case, and so on. The spokes welcomed being asked and were happy to consent. I think the blockade practice had demonstrated that the role of spoke can be difficult, and any help they could be given to stay on topic and working together as fast as the situation demanded was appreciated.
  • Ask all affinity groups to empower their spoke to make decisions without reference to the group in situations that require a quick decision (which in this instance we defined as less than 15 minutes). Our practice showed that very quick decisions with reference to the affinity group were unrealistic.

Spokescouncils: blockades and briefings part 2

I’ve been pondering spokescouncils this week as I head off tomorrow to join the facilitation team at the Hinkley Blockade. Before writing the short briefing for participants I looked around on the web to see if it already existed. Whilst doing so I stumbled across some reflections by a facilitator on The Change Agency’s website (scroll down for article) gleaned from facilitation of the Australian Climate Camp, last year.

Since it’s been a while since I facilitated a spokescouncil, I read Tanya Newman’s ‘hot tips’ with interest and appreciation. As a minimum they should be of value to anyone organising a large consensus-based event, and to large group and consensus facilitators.

I’m slightly envious of the level of organisation. Looking back to my own first encounter with facilitating spokescouncils (at the 2005 G8 summit) it all seems a lot more shambolic and improvised – a haphazard throwing together of facilitators from the UK, the Netherlands, and the USA with varying levels of experience and no track record of working together (plus meetings involving 300-500 people and translation into several languages).

Hinkley should be fairly straightforward by comparison. I’ll be back to eat those words next week.

Spokescouncils – blockades and briefings

I’ll be at the Stop New Nuclear blockade of Hinkley, site of the first proposed new nuclear power station, this weekend. My main role is as part of the facilitation team facilitating spokescouncil meetings at the camp and on the action itself.

graphic: anticopyright

For the uninitiated a spokescouncil is a method of making decisions by consensus within a large groups made up of separate, but co-operating, affinity groups. It allows groups to retain their autonomy whilst working together towards effective decisions. The basic mechanism is that each group speaks through a spoke, a single person empowered by their affinity group to take on that role. Sometimes the rest of the group are present behind their spoke. Sometimes just the spokes meet. Sometimes spokes huddle and consult their groups mid-meeting. Sometimes they’re mandated to decide on behalf of their group.

In preparation for the blockade I jotted down a few notes to support affinity groups in using the spokescouncil method most effectively. This will go to all groups taking part. There’s so much that could be said, but in 2 sides of A5 your options are limited. Anyway, I’ve taken out Hinkley specific stuff and put the short guide up on our resources page. I hope it’s useful for anyone organising an action camp and contemplating using spokescouncils. As always, if you can improve on it, please do, and send us your revised versions so we can upload those.

When consensus doesn’t work

Over at how to save the world, Dave Pollard has written a thought-provoking piece on consensus entitled When consensus doesn’t work. It comes complete with a ‘will consensus work?’ flowchart that highlights some of the issues we raised in our When not to use consensus post.

He touches on some situations in which consensus does not work. Most of these are cases in which it should never even have been tried (and yet groups do try!). But one thread of his argument that’s relevant to groups who do meet the basic criteria for using consensus decision-making is our innate conservatism and how it prevents us making radical change:

There is another situation when consensus is unlikely to work: When the degree of change needed to achieve the goal is necessarily radical. It is in our nature to be resistant to change, and, while change is possible when there is agreement on its urgency or importance, or when the change is easy or fun to make, the more drastic the change needed, the more reluctant people are to agree to it. I have seen too many occasions when a consensus-seeking group opted, after exhaustive discussion, for a decision that was too modest to achieve the needed result, because getting the whole group to agree even in substance on radical change was just impossible. This is particularly true in businesses faced with change-or-die situations: groupthink seems to set in, with the participants trying to reassure each other and persuading themselves to stay the course, usually with tragic results

Now a “modest” decision as part of a conscious and longer process of change, that’s fine (and chimes with the information gap theory we blogged about a few days ago). But Dave’s right isn’t he? We’re often faced with the chance to do something bold, creative, radical and decisive and we opt for less. But is this a criticism of consensus as a decision-making practice or just of people in general? Does consensus support us less to make radical change than other methodologies? I don’t think so, at least not in terms of other participatory methodologies. Clearly a visionary dictator (not saying it’s a nice vision) can make a unilateral decision to make radical change. But the issue is whether when we come together as a group we create a dynamic that blocks change.

The interesting aspect of this conversation for me is how radicals can come together and be conservative when gathered collectively to make a decision. Consensus tends to attract folk looking for an alternative to the status quo, disillusioned with mainstream models of power and decision-making. You could argue that they’re folk looking for radical change. So if Dave is right (and I’m sure he’s not the only one to have observed this trait in groups using consensus) what happens? Why do we default to conservatism?

Looking at the Climate Camp here in the UK, it more or less pulled itself apart, partly at least, because it was unable to agree a way forward when proposals for significant change emerged. The result of that collapse was that change was forced on the collective, but happened in a way that cost it more in terms of energy and cohesion than if it had consciously opted for change and managed that process.

I’m fortunate enough to have worked in groups that were faced with significant change and found a way to make decisions to support that change. One of the shared characteristics of the groups that did that successfully was a lot of underlying trust in each other. Another was humour – being able to laugh at the sudden fragility of the group when faced with change. Another was commitment – being so profoundly moved by an issue that changes had to be made and it was just a matter of time until everyone did the individual and then collective processing that made it possible.

I remember one meeting in which a campaign of direct action was agreed, although the legal consequences for those involved could have proved very significant indeed. This was a real change for the group – a step into unknown territory. At the next meeting the decision was reversed because we hadn’t caught up emotionally with what we’d decided idealistically. Eventually we did catch up, reversed the reversal and all lived to tell the tale. It sounds messy, but it needed to happen. We needed our wobble, our dip back into conservatism. We needed to acknowledge our weakness and humanity and to do so in a space where that was OK and wasn’t pounced on as ‘failure’.

Good consensus helps groups build those kind of spaces and groups – critical and supportive in the right way at the right times. Human and idealistic. So whilst I agree with Dave that what we see in consensus groups is often a default to conservatism, I think that consensus used well is a fantastic tool to tip us over the edge, collectively, into radical change.

Hat tip Dwight Towers (again!)

A brief history of consensus decision-making: Part 2

We covered a fair bit of ground in the first part of our tour of consensus past and present, but it was never going to be a complete survey of all movements and peoples who use consensus or consensus-like decision-making. So here’s a second installment. In it we look at

  • The Aymara people of Bolivia
  • The sociocracy movement, particularly the work of Kees Boeke
  • and the Movement for a New Society, who heavily influenced modern consensus

The Aymara

The most useful source I found beyond fleeting references to the Aymara and consensus was Emily Hedin’s paper Voices from the Bolivian Altiplano: Perspectives on empowerment amongst Aymara women. In it she quotes a local NGO worker as saying:

Photo: Micah MacAllen

“There are certain characteristics of Bolivian culture that make us distinct and give empowerment a different meaning. First, we see the community as an entire whole. Community includes everyone. The process of dialogue and consensus is important. Everyone participates in the decision-making process”

And then goes on to write:

Claims of consensus in community participation must not be accepted uncritically. In her study on indigenous politics, Van Cott (2010) warns that the tendency to depict indigenous communities as consensus-driven masks diversity and conflict among different unions, associations, and groups. Nonetheless this perception of community consensus building as an Aymara cultural trait emerged during interviews as women articulated their idea of empowerment as closely related to an already-existing tradition of collective action.

The everyculture website has a bit more to add:

Political Organization. In pre-Conquest time… the Aymara dominated the Andean highlands… The independence of these nations was lost as the Quechua-speaking Incas extended their influence, but on the local level little of Aymara life changed. Decision making in the traditional ayllu was of the consensus type. Leadership authority was executed by the jilaqata, chosen yearly among adult men according to a rotating system. In the new community organization, connected to the national governments, the headman is theoretically chosen by the subprefector in the provincial capital, but in practice he is often elected by his community members. He is merely the “foremost among equals,” and actual decisions are made by the reunión (assembly), where consensus is still a goal.

Once again we have a picture, like that of the Haudenosaunee or the San people, of leaders elected and held to account by the will of the wider community and not regarded as having power over, but borrowing power from. It’s not all perfect. everyculture suggest that there was a high level of gender equality in Aymara culture, but Hedin’s paper demonstrates the modern-day struggle of Aymara women to be heard and to be given leadership roles.

Kees Boeke and Sociocracy

From the high Andes to the low countries of the Netherlands. One of the books I’m currently reading is We the People: consenting to deeper democracy – a guide to Sociocratic principles and methods.

The book defines sociocracy as “simply a method for organising ourselves to live and work together more efficiently and more harmoniously. It can be used by one person, two persons, a corporation, a religious group, a neighbourhood association, or a whole community”

According to Socionet sociocracy is “The vision of sociocracy is a society in which all members are equivalent in their ability to consent to the conditions that govern their lives.”

We the People has a chapter on the history of sociocracy which started to grab my attention when it turned to Kees Boeke (1884-1966), Dutch educationalist and peace activist. He grew up in a Mennonite family and became a Quaker. Given the contribution of these two denominations to consensus perhaps it’s not surprising that he explored models of consent based decision-making and was unhappy with existing European democracies. In 1945 he published Sociocracy: Democracy As It Might Be. We the People quotes that text:

We are so accustomed to majority rule as a necessary part of democracy that it is difficult to imagine any democratic system working without it. It is true that it is better to count heads than to break them…but the party system has proved very far from providing the ideal democracies of people’s dreams

His adaptations of the ideas of sociocracy developed by his predecessors brought it much more in line with what I understand by consensus. He tested his theories in the school he founded, aiming to develop “a sociocratic environment to implement the values he felt would lead to a peaceful society and allow human beings to develop naturally. The school was self-governing community of almost 400 adults and children. He founded his work on Quaker practice:

There are three fundamental rules underlying the system. The first is that the interests of all members must be considered, the individual bowing to the interests of the whole. Secondly, solutions must be sought which everyone can accept: otherwise no action can be taken. Thirdly all members must be ready to act according to these decisions when unanimously made.

The Movement for a New Society (MNS)

I recently happened to come across Andrew Cornell’s article Anarchism and the Movement for a New Society on (can’t remember how I got there, but thanks for the tip whoever it was that drew it to my attention). I’ve had a copy of an MNS publication on my bookshelf for many years – Resource Manual for a Living Revolution. It’s the nearest thing I have to a facilitation and group work bible. So it was great to read more about the work of MNS and draw out some of their contribution to consensus here. In terms of our tour of consensus, we’re now up to the 1970s and 80s. Cornell writes:

Though rarely remembered by name today, many of the new ways of doing radical politics that the Movement for a New Society (MNS) promoted have become central to contemporary anti-authoritarian social movements. MNS popularized consensus decision-making, introduced the spokescouncil method of organization to activists in the United States, and was a leading advocate of a variety of practices—communal living, unlearning oppressive behavior, creating cooperatively owned businesses.

He sets the context to the emergence of the MNS and gives us more history of consensus along the way. I’ll leave you with Cornell for a while because he does such a good job:

Radical pacifists created the Congress of Racial Equality in 1942 and were important conduits of participatory deliberative styles and the tactics of Gandhian non-violence to leaders of the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Meanwhile, the Beat culture, incubated by anarchists in the 1940s, fed into the more explicitly political counter-culture of the 1960s. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) drew on SNCC’s participatory structure and the ethos of the counter-culture to formulate two of the defining demands of the New Left: the implementation of participatory democracy and the overcoming of alienating culture. Yet, in the later 1960s, both the Black Freedom movement and the student movement, smarting from repression on the one hand, and elated by radical victories at home and abroad on the other, moved away from this emergent, anarchistic, political space distinguished from both liberalism and Marxism. Many civil rights organizers took up nationalist politics in hierarchical organizations, while some of the most committed members of SDS returned to variants of Marxist-Leninism and democratic socialism. If participatory democracy and cultural transformation could, together, be seen as a ball about to be dropped, the Movement for a New Society was one of the most important groups diving for it, working hard to keep it in play. The emergent women’s liberation movement likewise placed a premium on developing egalitarian internal relationships and making changes in daily life; not surprisingly, then, feminism left an enduring impact on MNS…

…The impetus to change the internal dynamics of radical organizations stemmed from a variety of sources. Inspired by SNCC—who in turn had been influenced by pacifists such as James Lawson and Bayard Rustin—SDS had promoted the demand for a participatory form of democracy, but had never formalized the concept into a procedure. The early women’s liberation movement responded to the sexism that marred New Left groups by roundly criticizing patriarchal leadership tendencies and attempting to craft egalitarian organizations of its own. The founders of MNS sought to build on both of these initiatives by developing and teaching a formal model of “democratic group process” which drew on the Quaker tradition in which many were steeped as well as the conflict resolution techniques some early MNS members practiced as professional mediators. Beyond adopting a formal consensus procedure with delineated roles, MNS drew on “sensitivity training” techniques, “role playing…listening exercises, and trust games” to increase awareness of group dynamics and challenge members to excise oppressive aspects of their traditional patterns of behavior. Members saw at least three benefits in this process: it helped empower more reserved and less experienced participants; it kept in check the sometimes competing egos of movement veterans involved in the organization; finally, the organization found the highly deliberative aspect of consensus useful in the group’s early stage when it was “searching” for new ideas, and building unity amongst its members.

There is so much for current advocates and practitioners of consensus to learn from MNS. When was the last time you consciously engaged in sensitivity training? Their work has fed into many other movements and groups. I hope it’s influenced Rhizome. It’s there in the work of UK-based Turning The Tide and in US-based Training for Change, which in turn has influenced Australia’s The Change Agency and Plan to Win.

Near-consensus alternatives: Consensus Oriented Decision-Making

Here’s the second in a series of posts on near-consensus alternatives. In this post we’re talking to Tim Hartnett, facilitator, mediator and counsellor about Consensus Oriented Decision-Making (CODM, pronounced co-dem). Tim has developed CODM and has outlined the method in his recent book Consensus-Oriented Decision-Making: The CODM Model for Facilitating Groups to Widespread Agreement.

Tell us a little about CODM – what is it and how does it differ from the consensus decision-making we’re more used to here at Rhizome?

CODM is a seven-step process for building consensus in groups. It provides an outline for facilitators or group members to conduct a participatory and collaborative decision-making process. It could be considered a version of the consensus decision-making model Rhizome members are familiar with, but it offers more detailed guidance on the different stages of the process. CODM combines the basic consensus decision-making model with the best practices of group facilitation, mediation, and nonviolent communication.

One significant difference seems to be the separation of the process of discussion and dialogue and the final decision rule (ie: the agreed mechanism for expressing the will off the group – majority vote, supermajority vote, consensus, unanimity and so on). Can you say a little more about that?

The CODM model is applicable in groups that require full consent as their final decision rule. But yes, it is also very usable in groups that have other standards of how much agreement is necessary to pass proposals. CODM focuses on consensus as a “process” of group decision-making, and it strives to advance the procedures and techniques of that process so that agreement levels are maximized regardless of what decision rule a group uses.

What drove you to develop CODM? Was it flaws in the current practice and theory of consensus? An attempt to bring consensus to groups for whom formal/simple consensus wouldn’t be appropriate? None of the above?

I teach the CODM model to two main audiences: the general public and those with experience in the formal consensus model. To the general public, I am trying to help groups learn both the value of building consensus and the tools for a successful consensus process. CODM is a model that can be applied to a great variety of groups, large and small, diverse or cohesive. So it is a model that can bring consensus decision-making into much wider use.

Is that primarily because of CODM’s flexibility around the decision rule?

CODM makes consensus-oriented decision-making applicable to a wide variety of groups not only because it offers flexibility around decision rules. Just as importantly, it gives detailed steps for how to successfully conduct a collaborative discussion. The basic consensus model offers only the vague steps of discuss objections, make modifications, and re-test for consensus. The CODM model articulates these tasks into much greater detail, making the model easier to understand and use.

You were telling us about your two audiences…

To groups already familiar with the formal consensus model I offer CODM as a way to help hone group process for greater success. The detailed steps can clarify the path to consensus. They provide a template for facilitators, a backbone structure to improvise from as you facilitate each unique situation.

I also enjoy helping groups identify when the formal consensus model may be negatively affecting their group dynamic. In such cases, CODM can help a group regain efficient functionality, while retaining a consensus process. I have seen some very well-intentioned groups suffer (and even disband) because of dynamics related to their version of consensus. So it has been very gratifying to be able to help such groups become more flexible and begin to thrive again.

So the detail in CODM supports us to be more rigorous in our practice of consensus with groups?

Yes, CODM helps groups to be more successful using consensus. Thus, groups can more rigorously use the process. When groups have trouble using consensus, they often slide into using alternatives. Sometimes, for instance, a group will form a steering committee to handle many decisions because it  too difficult for the whole group to conduct an (often chaotic) consensus process on multiple issues. But if a group has a more clear and efficient process, they can continue to practice whole group decision-making, and not delegate that authority to a steering committee.

There are many other ways groups that struggle succeeding with consensus begin to make decisions outside of an honest group consensus process. For instance, an ethos of people “doing their own thing” may evolve. While this might support individual autonomy, it may also be a result of unsuccessful attempts to cooperate. A more effective process can help a group bring more issues to a true consensus.

Can you give us an example of CODM working to its full potential so we can get a feel for the challenges it can help a group deal with, and the kind of groups using it?

One group asked me to facilitate an important meeting wherein a proposal to change the group by-laws was to be presented. A subcommittee had drafted new by-laws, and they intended to follow a formal consensus process to gain the group’s approval. They planned to present the proposal, answer questions and then adapt it in response to feedback. But they were very worried that some members of the group would be resistant to the whole idea. Prior to the meeting there were already people talking about blocking the committee’s proposal. I suggested that the group use the CODM model instead. The CODM steps offered three valuable contributions that I think proved very useful.

First, we started with an open discussion that articulated all of the needs that new by-laws might hope to address. This gave the group members a chance to understand all the concerns that needed to be addressed prior to presenting any proposal.

Second, when it came time to begin developing a proposal, the CODM process offered a way for options to be developed collaboratively. As different group members contributed ideas, the resulting proposal was a joint project, owned by the whole group, and not the work of a subcommittee. This lessened the resistance some members were feeling about being shut out of the development process. It is true that many of the ideas originated from the subcommittee’s draft. But the CODM process allowed them to be pieced together in a way that gave everyone a sense of ownership. Each part of the newly proposed by-laws were also directly related to needs the group had identified, giving everyone a shared understanding of the rationale for each item.

And finally, the CODM process guided the group to develop several alternatives. For instance, there were two versions of proposed requirements for official group membership (should there be an “inactive” membership status?). The group considered each of these versions in turn, brainstorming how the drawbacks of each might be successfully addressed. This kept the group working together, trying to improve each option, one at a time. Only after this was complete did the group start evaluating which option better met the needs of the whole group. Delaying the evaluation phase helped the discussion avoid becoming adversarial. Everyone understood the potential of each idea before anyone started comparing them.

In the end, the feared resistance to new by-laws never materialized. The CODM process prevented an adversarial dynamic from developing between the subcommittee and other group members. It shepherded the group toward a decision that everyone understood and felt ownership toward. The result was not only full agreement, but a fully collaborative process.

I have to ask: what have been the biggest problems you’ve encountered with CODM?

The biggest challenge people have in using CODM is assessing whether or not to use short-cuts to the process. Not all decisions require full consideration of several alternatives before a decision is made. The CODM model encourages the use of short-cuts whenever the group desires to move more quickly through the steps. Sometimes, however, it can be difficult to know when it will work to speed through a step and when more diligence will prevent problems later in the process. For instance, the full CODM process calls for posting a complete list of identified stakeholder needs and concerns. With major decisions, such a list can keep everyone fully aware of the criteria for a successful outcome. But if the list is short and relatively obvious, then putting it up on a poster may be overkill. If you know the CODM process well, you begin to get a stronger intuition about when short-cuts can be taken successfully.

Perhaps the most common critique of consensus, from its friends as well as it’s foes, is that it’s too time-consuming to be practicable. What’s your experience of CODM – appreciating that there are some short cuts, what can we expect in terms of how long it takes, compared to groups working by formal consensus?

As you mention, groups using CODM are encouraged to use short-cuts as necessary for them to reach the desired balance between time efficiency and thorough deliberation. When the full process is employed, competing proposals are developed one at a time. This may take more time up front, but it shortens the time needed to choose between proposals later, because it ensures that each option is well understood before it is decision time. An aggravating waste of time in many meetings occurs when people argue against proposals they don’t really understand yet. CODM can successfully prevent this. But if the CODM process is used more thoroughly than necessary, a group may spend time on steps that an appropriate short-cut would avoid. That is a danger when a facilitator is first learning to use CODM and is not able to assess when a short-cut might be advantageous.

From a facilitators perspective what are the other main challenges of facilitating CODM? For those of us used to formal/simple consensus how would we need to adapt our facilitation?

Those familiar with formal/simple consensus facilitation can gain two valuable things from CODM without needing to change the style or tone of their role as facilitator. First, CODM will give them a stronger understanding of the building blocks of real collaboration. It is like learning music theory after having learned to play music by ear. You may do many of the same things you always have. But you will better understand what to do when things start falling apart. And you will have more tools up front to prevent the common problems in group deliberations.

Secondly, the CODM model is defined by the process it outlines, not the decision rule a group uses to complete its decisions. There is an important distinction between a consensus “process” and a full-consent “decision rule”. Some facilitators have a hard time loosening the ideology that has invariably wed these two concepts. The fact that we use the word “consensus” to refer to both the process and the outcome does not help. But when facilitators begin to think flexibly about this distinction they increase their ability to help a greater variety of groups in a greater variety of situations.

Help us loosen that ideology. What’s your experience: do you feel that groups using the CODM process and then a voting decision rule are reaching decisions that are as deeply collaborative as the consensus groups you’ve worked with (and by that I mean those that use consensus process and decision rule)? Does the vote become more of a formality because the process has forged deep agreement?

My experience is that a good process is what generates that wonderful, organic sense of “we don’t even need to vote, because the answer is clear to us all.” I have seen that good process (and the resulting harmony) occur in groups with all different kinds of decision rules. And I have witnessed some awful process in all types of groups as well. That’s what confirms for me that how you discuss things is ultimately more important than whether you require full consent.

 I enjoyed the book and am learning from it. I’ve already changed my thinking about consensus. But it was the final chapter of the book “Going for full agreement” that I found most challenging and interesting. You offer some well-honed critiques of a unanimous approach to decision-making. Can you say a bit about that?

Those who believe that requiring full consent is the ideologically superior decision rule in all cases will be challenged by the observations I make in this chapter. Their sacred cow is examined quite closely. In all fairness, the book should include a similar chapter on the drawbacks of adversarial debate. It does not, simply for the reason that most people interested in consensus decision-making already understand these problems. But unfortunately, not everyone practicing consensus decision-making understand the problems that requiring full consent can create for a group that cannot achieve it successfully.

My overarching goal is to help groups make decisions as collaboratively and as efficiently as they need to function well. When a group can successfully reach full agreement, requiring it can work fine, and the CODM model can help ensure success. When groups are larger, more diverse, pressed for time, or otherwise challenged, the full consent rule has presented some real problems. I think it is important to honestly assess these difficulties. Sometimes changing the group’s decision rule can solve problems that otherwise threaten a group’s survival. The CODM model offers a way to be flexible in final decision rules while still employing a consensus-oriented deliberation process.

One of the things that stands out for me throughout this chapter is the language of ‘voting’ that you use throughout. Let me give you an example – you talk about the possibility that for some people some of the time holding true to their own opinion and being outvoted in a majority vote situation can be more satisfying than consensus, because they get to hold to their own view whereas in consensus they’re asked/expected to vote to help form a group view.  Many consensus facilitators would say that consensus has no element of voting, of mine versus yours, it’s about co-operation through and through….

Voting is simply the act of having each group member indicate their preference in some way. There is nothing inherently competitive about it. It is just a way to gather information. Unfortunately, the discourse on consensus has often contrasted “voting” with “consensus” as if the “test for consensus” is not a form of voting. The legitimate contrast is between the different decision rules: majority vote, super-majority, full consent, etc. A common fallacious contrast, however is often made between “majority voting” and “consensus process”. This pairing contrasts a decision rule with a dialogue/deliberation process, an apple and an orange. It is more clear to contrast fruits of the same kind.

“Majority voting” and “requiring full consent” are both decision rules. Groups can and should contrast these options to find the one that works best for them. I am neutral on this topic unless I see that a group is unable to successfully use the decision rule they have chosen. If majority rule decisions are undermined by the minority, there is a problem. Likewise, if a group can’t move forward on popular ideas that need action, there is also a problem. The problem may be solvable by improving the process. If not, the problem may be addressed by changing the decision rule.

“Consensus process” and “adversarial debate” are both dialogue/deliberation processes. Most of the criticisms leveled at “majority rule” are really criticisms of “adversarial debate”. In this contrast I am not neutral. I advocate that a consensus process be used as much as possible. While there is some value to adversarial debate, I believe all of its goals can be better achieved with a cooperative approach.

So the choices a group needs to make are: one, do we use a consensus-oriented process or an adversarial process; and two, at the end of our discussion how do we finalize decisions (with a vote requiring which threshold of agreement or consent)? These two choices can be made independently. For instance, a group may use a consensus-oriented process paired with a majority vote. Likewise, a group could engage in prolonged adversarial debate, conducted in search of satisfying a requirement for full consent to pass proposals. The chosen decision rule does not dictate the conduct of the process. And voting (whether you tally “agreement” or “consent”) occurs regardless.

You might also like to read:
Near-consensus alternatives: Crowd Wise

Sharing consensus with co-ops

As our contribution to Co-operatives Fortnight, June 25th to July 9th, we thought we’d share our enthusiasm for consensus decision-making. So we’ve written a short briefing on Consensus in Co-operatives Which you can download for free. We’ll also make a print-ready version available from our resources page. The briefing argues the case for consensus being an ideal way of deepening co-operation in co-ops, highlights a few myths and challenges and offers a few suggested web links for training and support and background reading. We hope it’s useful.

Near-consensus alternatives: Crowd Wise

In our last post on consensus we talked about near-consensus alternatives.

Here’s the first in a series of posts that explore near-consensus alternatives. By near-consensus, I simply mean methods that share some of consensus’ analysis if the problems of traditional majoritarian decision-making and are trying to explore ways to deepen dialogue and produce results that work for a larger section of participants.

So let’s look at Crowd Wise. I’ll be co-facilitating a course with Perry Walker, originator of Crowd Wise, in the near future, so Crowd Wise seemed like a good place to start

How did Crowd Wise evolve?

PW: Six or seven years ago, I met Peter Emerson of the de Borda Institute, based in Belfast. For thirty years, Peter has single-handedly flown the flag for consensus voting, which is the type of voting used in Crowd Wise. This form of voting involves people putting a series of options in order of preference. Those preferences are then turned into points. If there are six options, and you vote for all of them, your first preference gets six points, your second preference gets five points, and so on. At that stage, I had a sense that there was a really interesting approach in what Peter was doing, but I couldn’t work out what it was. Peter and I managed to get a grant from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust , and I then got a further grant from the Democratic Innovation Fund of the Ministry of Justice. This enabled us to run a number of trials. I slowly realised that while the consensus voting seemed very powerful, the way in which Peter incorporated it into an overall process did not work for me. So I gradually stripped that away and built my own process around the method of voting. I used to have a postcard that said, “I’ve learned so much from my mistakes that I think I’ll make another one”. Fortunately, I managed to make enough mistakes in these trials that I was able to work out how to help others avoid them. A process that felt right slowly emerged, and that process is Crowd Wise.

Crowd Wise is consensus voting, but many proponents of consensus see voting as its antithesis. Tell us more….

PW: I wouldn’t say that Crowd Wise is consensus voting. Consensus voting is the form of voting that Crowd Wise uses. Crowd Wise also involves discussion – or ‘deliberation’, to be a bit more technical. Now the voting and the deliberation are closely entwined. People who disagree with each other nonetheless have an incentive to talk to each other. The proponent of a particular option will seek to persuade the other person to give that option a higher preference in the consensus vote than they originally intended to. Indeed, the form of voting means that people who disagree may have more of an incentive to talk to each other than people who agree. And that same incentive also encourages that talk to be constructive.

I understand the incentive to talk to someone to persuade them of my argument. But what’s the incentive to listen to theirs? Many people would assert that that’s not the norm in argument and debate within our culture. Why does Crowd Wise foster a constructive response?

PW: I’m supposing that everyone wants to advance their preferences. So everyone wants to influence people who support options different to those that they prefer. And I think most people accept that it’s a good thing to listen to somebody, when you want that person to listen to you! Saying all that enables me to respond to the second part of the statement. When ‘proponents of consensus’ describe voting as the antithesis of consensus, what they have in mind is majority voting, known in British politics at First Past the Post. Now, because this is by far the best known form of voting, people tend to equate it with voting as a whole. The Seeds for Change website, for example, says “voting creates a majority and a minority – a situation in which there are winners and losers”, and only remembers to qualify this system of voting as majority voting in the next paragraph. In sum, then, I entirely agree with proponents of consensus that majority voting is the antithesis of consensus. But rather than conclude that all forms of voting are to be avoided, I have discovered a form of voting that does not have the drawbacks of majority voting.

What are the main similarities and differences between Crowd Wise and consensus as it’s used in many non-hierarchical activist networks?

PW: Doing a little bit of research for this interview, I have been struck by the extent of the differences. The end, in terms of reaching general agreement, is pretty much the same, but the means are very different. I see that the Rhizome website is happy to use the Wikipedia explanation of consensus decision-making, so let’s go with that. Wikipedia says that:

The basic model involves collaboratively generating a proposal, identifying unsatisfied concerns, and then modifying the proposal to generate as much agreement as possible. After a concerted attempt at generating full agreement, the group can then apply its final decision rule to determine if the existing level of agreement is sufficient to finalize a decision.”

The differences with Crowd Wise begin right at the start of this basic model. Crowd Wise starts with a range of options, with six a typical number. In addition, the ways in which these options are generated vary a great deal. At AFC Wimbledon, the options were generated by a working group of twelve or so, drawn from a much larger electorate of the 1500 members who own the club. At an event in 2009 at the University of Gloucestershire, the six options were generated in advance by people who were not part of the summer school for whom the event was held. Now it is true that Crowd Wise involves looking at concerns, but the way in which this happens is different from traditional consensus decision-making. In the case of the University of Gloucestershire event, which was about the future powers of parish and town councils, these concerns were identified by the proponents of the various options, who then amended their options to make them more appealing to the electorate.

Furthermore, in Crowd Wise, there is no question of an individual blocking a proposal, or even standing aside. For the way in which people formally give their view is by voting, and the most hostile they can be to any option is to rank all the options, and to put it last. You could of course devise a voting system that allowed people to express the strength of their opinion, whether in favour of their best option or against their worst option. But what you would then lose would be the incentive for people who disagree to talk to each other.

There is another difference where Crowd Wise could be at a disadvantage. This has to do with the decision rule. The possible decision rules for traditional consensus decision-making seem to be pretty clear. The conclusions to be drawn from the final consensus vote (usually the second vote, sometimes the first) are not always as clear. Sometimes they are.

In 2010 I ran an event for Transition Town Lewes (TTL), which wanted to select a new governance structure. The two options that came top, well ahead of the rest, were very similar. Both involved setting up a Steering Group which initially comprised the contacts for their existing working groups, and then invited other members of TTL to put themselves forwards. They differed slightly in how people to join the steering group were chosen from among the people offering themselves. It was an easy decision for TTL to decide to combine those two options. By contrast, the six options used by AFC Wimbledon were all stories about how the club could evolve. I was asked to interpret the voting results to work out which strategic criteria took priority. I said that the main conclusions were:

“There was a strong desire to retain ownership by the fans. This applied to the ground as well as the club. There was a desire to get back to Merton (the London borough that was home to the original Wimbledon club), with Kingston (where the club are now) in particular and south west London in general as acceptable but second best. Wimbledon fans are cautiously ambitious. They do not want ambition to jeopardise fan-ownership, and balance it against the wish to return to Wimbledon or Merton.”

In other cases, the interpretation relates more to the mathematics of the voting. With majority voting, it is at least clear who has a majority. With consensus voting, there is no rule that tells you what score by the option that comes top, or combination of scores, is good enough. It’s a question of feel. I have never found that to be a problem, but it could be, especially in situations of conflict.

The final difference relates to ethos. Consensus decision making as usually understood puts stress on having a shared ethos, on the importance of the common good, of listening, and so on. I have never found it necessary to emphasise any of these points with Crowd Wise.

Because they happen naturally or because Crowd Wise has different foundations?

PW: I hope because they happen naturally. I gave reasons why I thought people would listen to each other above. But I am probably being a little naïve. I am sure that there are settings where the extent of conflict or the nature of the participants, say where they simply want to maintain their initial position, means that these things do not happen naturally and need to be encouraged. Furthermore, in a way that I do not yet fully understand, it is the desire of the supporters of the different options to win the vote, to have their option come top, that fuels the identification of consensus.

That sounds counter-intuitive, and you say you don’t fully understand it, but is there any more you can say at this stage?

PW: One example of this was the Crowd Wise event on the future powers of local councils which is on the back of the Crowd Wise briefing . In this case, the proponents of the different options adapted their options, after talking to the 60 members of the audience (the electorate) in ways in which made the options closer together. That in turn may have paved the way for five out of the six proponents deciding that they would do better in the vote, and not sacrifice anything fundamental, if they merged their preferred option with other options.

Now, it may be the case, that if the make-up of the audience had been different – very polarised for example – that the options would not have evolved in this way. But I have not had any examples of that happening in any of the fifteen or so events and projects using Crowd Wise that I have run so far.

Where does Crowd Wise get results when other forms of consensus don’t?

PW: All methods have settings in which they work and settings in which they don’t – there is no one perfect method that always works. I think Crowd Wise might get results when other forms of consensus do not in four circumstances:

  1. When the people taking the decision are not an affinity group. The attendees at the Summer School all had the same sort of job – parish council chair or clerk. But they did not know each other well. The members of the AFC Wimbledon all have their support for the club in common, but that is not the same as having a shared ethos.
  2. When there is naturally a range of options, as, for example with participatory budgeting.
  3. When you want to involve lots of people – like the 1500 members of AFC Wimbledon.
  4. When you don’t have much time – the event at the University of Gloucestershire only took a couple of hours.

Read our other posts on consensus

When not to use consensus…

In her book Truth or Dare, Starhawk wrote some oft-quoted and wise words on When not to use consensus. They stand re-quoting, and I’ve had the cheek to add a few thoughts:

When there is no group in mind: A group thinking process cannot work effectively unless the group is cohesive enough to generate shared attitudes and perceptions. When deep divisions exist within a group’s bonding over their individual desires, consensus becomes and exercise in frustration.

When there are no good choices: Consensus process can help a group find the best possible solution to a problem, but it is not an effective way to make an either-or choice between evils, for members will never be able to agree which is worse. If the group has to choose between being shot and hung, flip a coin. When a group gets bogged down trying to make a decision, stop for a moment and consider: Are we blocked because we are given an intolerable situation? Are we being given the illusion, but not the reality, of choice? Might our most empowering act be to refuse to participate in this farce?

When they can see the whites of your eyes In emergencies, in situations where urgent and immediate action is necessary, appointing a temporary leader may be the wisest course of action.

When the issue is trivial: I have known groups to devote half and hour to trying to decide by consensus whether to spend forty minutes or a full hour at lunch. Remember consensus is a thinking process – where there is nothing to think about, flip a coin.

When the group has insufficient information: When you’re lost in the hills, and no one knows the way home, you cannot figure out how to get there by consensus. Send out scouts. Ask: Do we have the information we need to solve this problem? Can we get it?

Starhawk ‘Truth or Dare’. © Miriam Simos, published by Harper and Row

Of course you can appoint your leaders and decide to send out your scouts by consensus

I’d add:

When there’s no decision to take: Not because all the options are poor ones but because there’s genuinely no need for collective agreement on an issue. Let me illustrate with the example I’m thinking of, which I’ve seen a few times. A group of activists gather to plan and take action. Perhaps some have come as organised affinity groups. Perhaps others are there as individuals. They discuss tactics and identify potential targets and as the meeting progresses ideas emerge and energy gathers around them. There comes a stage where a range of ideas for action have been put forward and people need to decide what action they want to take, if any. But it’s not a collective decision, just a personal one – “where do I want to put my energy? what do I feel will be most effective.”

There’s a strange dynamic that can emerge in groups using consensus whereby they start to believe that full group sign-off is needed for everything. So when an affinity group states that they have an idea for action that they are planning to take forwards, and invites others to join in, there can be a response along the lines of “but we haven’t agreed we’re doing that particular action yet”. The action hasn’t been ‘authorised’ by the group. Hmmm – given that consensus enshrines autonomy (and the choice to pool our autonomy for greater effectiveness), this is a tad ironic.

Secondly and more seriously there’s a situation when a group isn’t willing or able to grow. I never thought I’d hear myself suggesting that grassroots groups shouldn’t use consensus (at least not yet), but here I am saying that very thing. Consensus is an aspirational process. We talk in terms of equality, challenging all oppression, including the margins of a group, building the best possible proposal for the group, and more. Visionary stuff. How many groups are genuinely capable of doing that all of the time or any of the time? Not many that I’ve encountered. So we’re constantly working towards consensus, ideally in a virtuous circle: the experience of our attempts at a consensual decision-making process helps us to deepen our mutual understanding and our common ground, making us more likely to reach consensus next time around.

And if we ever get there? Well then there’s a particularly controversial decision to be made, or we’re having an off day, or we have new members that have changed the dynamic of the group, and momentarily we’re  a step back, striving for consensus again.

Many groups use consensus as a process but struggle to grow the values of consensus within the group – competition, lack of empathy, distrust, intolerance of difference are rife and all make reaching consensus harder. This cycle is vicious not virtuous – distrust deepens, intolerance intensifies and before long you don’t so much have the conditions for consensus as for dysfunction. Of course this isn’t true of every individual within the group, but it can be the prevalent group dynamic.

Why is this different to “no group mind”? Because in many such groups there’s plenty of potential for group mind – shared values, a shared political analysis, shared aims or tactics – but the group is focused on difference and where they converge can seem smaller and weaker than where they diverge. Maybe they focus on difference and simultaneously fail to appreciate it as a strength, fail to respect other opinions or views, and fail to synthesise ways forward that engage the full group. At which point of course they’re no longer doing consensus. Maybe they focus on individual values over shared and agreed values. This is usually reflected in the process, which breaks down under a pressure of blocks. At a recent meeting of UK climate activists there was a stand-off of blocks and “anti-blocks”.

But where next for groups ideologically committed to anti-hierarchical methods of decision-making? There are alternatives to consensus which could be described as near-consensus techniques. I’ve never given them a lot of time, being a bit of a consensus purist. But recently I’ve begun to think that they might be better than consensus with no room for growth. If we claim to use consensus but don’t embody its values, wouldn’t it be more honest to accept that we don’t use consensus and choose a near-consensus alternative until we’ve cultivated the values we need? The danger is that, otherwise, we teach a generation of activists that consensus is a dysfunctional, painful and divisive process.

You might like to read:

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Previous posts on the steps of the consensus process:

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: