Original image by Tola Brennan

Last week I went down to CUNY’s School of Labor and Urban Studies to co-teach a class on democratic decision-making, as part of a semester-long course in cooperative management. We talked a lot about consensus process, a process used by many groups that want to share power and leadership widely. It got me thinking about the questions people often ask about practicing consensus.

What is consensus process?

Consensus is a structured process for arriving at mutually acceptable decisions that honors all voices. It seeks to activate the wisdom and creativity of the entire group by refining a proposed decision until all serious concerns have been addressed. Groups generally choose consensus decision-making for a mix of reasons — part values commitment and part conviction that it will result in better, more lasting decisions.

“Consensus values every voice. It’s a counter to systems that tell us some people count while others don’t.”

Starhawk expressed the values commitment this way: “Consensus values every voice: The care we take in a consensus process to hear everyone’s opinions and weave them into a whole is a living demonstration that each one of us is important. It’s a counter to systems that tell us some people count while others don’t.”

Groups vary in precisely how they structure their process, but the general flow goes something like this: Out of the group’s discussion of an issue emerges a proposal. The group works through any clarifying questions and concerns that participants raise, modifying the proposal as needed. It then conducts a formal testing of consensus. Each group member may actively agree to the proposal, may stand aside to let the group go ahead even though they don’t particularly favor the proposal, or they may find that the proposal constitutes for them a block, something they absolutely cannot move forward along with the group on.

One way of visualizing consensus process

A block represents a deep and serious concern, not merely dislike of the proposal, or a preference for something else. The person may feel that the proposal violates the group’s core values in some way, or that it poses an unacceptable level of risk to the group’s survival. If consensus is not achieved, or if it’s lukewarm, with a large fraction of members standing aside, the group may continue to explore concerns and seek modifications of the proposal — or an entirely new one — that will be more acceptable to everyone. If consensus is achieved — with most or all members actively agreeing and few or none standing aside — the group moves ahead with implementing the decision.

What happens if we can’t agree?

If a group is functioning well, under ordinary circumstances blocks should be very rare, perhaps no more than once every several years. Groups adopt various formal procedures for following a block. Some ask the original proposer(s) and the person(s) with the block to work as a small group between meetings to revise the proposal until it is acceptable to them, and then bring it back to the whole group. Others switch to a modified form of consensus if they can’t reach full agreement, such as consensus-minus-1 or a supermajority vote. Such modified consensus procedures can be especially appropriate for larger groups, or for decisions that must be made under time pressure. If they are to be used, however, it’s vital that they be spelled out and agreed to in advance, so no one feels betrayed in a crisis.

Doesn’t that take forever? Isn’t it more efficient to have a leader calling the shots?

There’s a popular saying in the cooperative world, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Groups that practice consensus tend to believe that decisions made thereby are better. Agreements, once reached, tend to be solid. Especially for contentious or important decisions, group members can often still explain in detail, years later, what was considered and how the decision was made. And the sense of being able to make wise decisions together can boost the overall confidence of the group, creating a solid bond of trust and making all of its work more effective. Anyone who’s been part of a workplace in which their knowledge and judgment were not taken into account knows how demoralizing that can be.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

The difference from a hierarchical organization is that leadership is spread widely, and intentionally cultivated in each participant. Processes are designed to get as much input as possible from across the organization, and structures are set up so that every member has the opportunity to weigh in on decisions at the strategic governance level.That said, effective consensus-based groups are clear about who needs to participate in which decisions at which times. They delegate work to subcommittees, and they empower individuals to lead in their areas of expertise, or in areas where they are growing leadership. Organizational structures like sociocracy and worker self-directed nonprofits formalize interlocking circles of responsibility within an organization. Each circle operates by consensus, within its sphere of authority.

My group basically already does that

Many small groups informally use a consensus-like process, without necessarily calling it that. They simply seek agreement in their discussions, and reserve voting for a last resort, or when a formal decision record is required.

Such groups may benefit from adopting a more formal consensus process. In particular, the step of formally testing the strength of consensus and tallying those who actively support a proposal and those who stand aside can provide valuable information for the group. If a large number of members have reservations about a proposal, the group may wish to rethink it, even though consensus is technically achieved. This information can be obscured in a less formal process, where members may refrain from expressing minor disagreement or concerns to avoid slowing the meeting down. Actively calling for clarifying questions and concerns is another element of a more formal process that groups may benefit from adopting.

Do we really need a facilitator?

Having one or more people in a facilitation role is a common component of most consensus processes. I think all meetings larger than about five or six people would benefit from having a facilitator, regardless of how decisions are ultimately made. A facilitator makes the group’s work easier and more effective in a few key ways.

A facilitator can help participants to hear each other more clearly, helping speakers unpack a rambling or emotionally heated statement and pull out the content the group needs to hear. They can intentionally balance participation, calling for comments from those who haven’t spoken yet, or from those with different viewpoints from what’s been said so far. They can help the group segment their work into phases, so that everyone is working on the same part of the problem at a time. And they can help the meeting stay on track and ensure that the group follows its chosen processes.

A smaller team can work well without a facilitator, especially if everyone takes on the role of facilitative participant, actively working to balance participation, synthesize everyone’s input, and keep on track. Groups can also use structured processes, such as consecutive rounds of hearing from everyone in turn, to support some of these functions.

Facilitating a meeting is very different from chairing one.

Facilitating a meeting is very different from chairing one. The chair, who is usually also the leader of the group, tends to see their role as marching the meeting through the agenda as efficiently as possible. Participants often feel hesitant about raising concerns, disagreeing with the leader, or slowing down the process. This prevents the group from accessing all the information it has available to it, and results in weaker, less considered decisions. Many groups who want to be less hierarchical do so by simply forgoing having a strong chair. They often have meetings that wander through free-association as a result.

The facilitator is a process advocate, and should be invested as little as possible in the content and the outcome of the discussion. For this reason, groups should have multiple members able to trade off facilitation duties, or even bring in an outside facilitator for especially important or controversial decisions.

What’s the most important thing about decision-making processes?

No one decision-making process fits every group. Groups need to tailor their processes to their own goals, values, resources, structure, and needs. Whatever a group’s process, the most important thing is that it is clear and everyone understands it. What you don’t want is confusion or disagreement about what the process is when you are struggling with a difficult decision.

Try writing your process down. The process for making a particular type of decision should fit on a single sheet of paper, although larger organizations may have different processes for different parts of the organization under different conditions. They will want a process manual that clearly lays this all out.

Often times — especially in groups that aim to work collaboratively and and share power — there is a tendency to shy away from such formalization, avoiding anything that feels too “corporate”. While groups certainly shouldn’t just adopt familiar forms without questioning how well they serve them, in my experience, the more horizontal a group strives to be in its operations, the more intentional and clear it needs to be about its chosen processes.

To this end, groups should make sure that members are regularly trained in the group’s processes, including whenever new members join, and that their processes are practiced consistently. People can only fully share power when they know when and how they can contribute to shaping group decisions.