What is Consensus?
Consensus is a decision making process designed to bring together the views of all the members of the group. Consensus means that a proposed decision is only accepted when everyone who is affected by it agrees with it being made.
Consensus aims to overcome some problems that come with a democracy based on majority voting. “Democracy is when three foxes and one rabbit vote what’s for dinner” – majority voting legitimises an oppressive majority. Consensus can be one step to avoid hierarchies and oppression.
Consensus can also strengthen group identity and solve tensions. When people are actively involved in the creative process of finding solutions, they will identify much more with the decisions that are being made, and are thus more likely to stick to them, feel happy about them, and feel like a full member of the group. In a society based on consensus, it would (ideally) not be necessary to fight for your rights, to demonstrate, and to overthrow governments, as all the structures would have been created by everyone, so no one would have any reason to feel unsatisfied with them.
Consensus can require a lot of time and the willingness of everyone in the group to consider each other’s needs, and there are many points of failure. This text aims to give some ideas how consensus decision making can be structured in an effective way. A workshop should be organised in the beginning of the tour so that people have the opportunity to learn how consensus works and decide how they want to implement it.
Facilitator and other roles
It can be helpful in consensus meetings to have one (or more) facilitator (“moderator”). The facilitator has the task to make sure that the meeting follows a structure and that everyone understands what is being discussed and decided.
The facilitator makes sure in the beginning of the meeting that every person knows how consensus works, what hand signals are used, that everyone understands the spoken language(s), and, if wished, that everyone knows each other’s names and pronouns.
A list of agenda points is created, possibly time limits are set for each one, and the facilitator makes sure that everyone knows what the agenda is.
During each agenda point, the facilitator makes sure that everyone is on the same page about what is being discussed about and what the aim of the discussion is (share information? make a decision?). The facilitator makes sure that the discussion doesn’t move in a direction that is not related to the topic. When a formal decision should be made, the makes sure that everyone knows what the proposal is and then checks for consensus. The facilitator can also propose a different method of discussion (for example splitting up in small groups) if the group is big and not many people are talking.
Sometimes, it is also the role of the facilitator to take hands (to decide who speaks when). Sometimes, the facilitation uses this role to create more balance about who is talking how much, for example by taking people first who haven’t spoken a lot.
Facilitation can be a tiring job, and often it is impossible for one person to keep the overview over everything. Everyone in the group should feel responsible to assist the facilitator and say if they feel like something is not going well or should be done in a different way.
It is important to recognise that the facilitator has a lot of power (the power to interrupt, always speak, to give more attention to certain opinions, proposals, agenda points). The facilitator should never use this power to push their own opinions. But as we are all not perfect, it is important to rotate the role of facilitation and to have a different person facilitate in every meeting.
Other roles can be assigned in the meeting:
- Time keeper: Informs the group about how much time has passed so that time limits can be kept.
- Note taker: Takes minutes (a “protocol”) of the meeting or at least writes down formal decisions.
- Vibes watcher: Points out when part of the group seems to be tired, shy, aggressive, not talking, or talking too much, or when there are other things going wrong (for example only men or only native speakers talking).
How to make consensus effective
The two golden rules are to be constructive and to wait until it’s your turn to speak. Other things that may help are:
- Listen – Make sure you understand what is being discussed, especially if you need a translation. Try to get all information about a point before you support or criticize it.
- Explain – Make sure people understand your position and your proposals, especially if you are being translated.
- Be as brief as you can.
- Be flexible, Be patient. – Contradictions in the decision-making process are O.K.
- Do not feel isolated – We are all here with the same motivation.
- Support the facilitator if the meeting starts to get out of control.
Checking for consensus
The way that consensus decisions are usually formally made is the following:
- Phrase a proposal
- Ask for any amendments to the proposal. If there are any, go back to point 1.
- Check for standasides. Standasides are nos that are not blocks. People don’t agree with the decision, but they still think that the group should go ahead with the decision (for example because no better solution can be found at that particular point).
- Check for blocks/vetos. If anyone is blocking/vetoing the proposal, it can not be decided, and the discussion has to continue. People can also block a decision if they feel like the number of standasides was too high.
- Check for consensus. Make sure that everyone who didn’t stand aside or block is showing agreement. If they don’t, there is probably something wrong.
There are many problems with this approach. First of all, it takes a lot of confidence to express a veto, particularly because it is mentioned in almost every introduction to consensus that a veto is something that should be “used carefully” and “normally not done”. Many people would never express a veto, no matter how much they disagree with the proposal. Second of all, in most cases there are multiple solutions to every problem. The approach “as soon as someone makes a proposal, see if there are any vetos, and if there aren’t any, it is decided” gives a lot of power to the person making the proposal. Some people feel more confident about speaking in the group and make proposals sooner than others, so these people will have much more influence on the group decisions. Often, there would have been a different proposal that would also not have any vetos (and maybe even less standasides).
One other way to make consensus decisions is to use the temperature check. In the temperature check, a statement or proposal is made and all people should express (“vote”) whether they are excited about it (hands up), don’t agree with it very much (hands in the middle), disagree with it (hands down) or anything in between. Like this the barrier to disagree with something is very low (if you are not confident enough to put your hands down, you can at least put them in the middle), and it is easier to compare the group’s agreement to different proposals with each other. The ideal proposal would be where everyone has their hands up, but sometimes this is not achievable, and then the solution can be to ask the people who have their hands in the middle (or in extreme cases also the people who have their hands down) if they think that – considering that the group doesn’t seem to find 100% agreement – the group should go ahead with the proposal anyways.
It should be noted that some people disagree with making decisions by temperature check because they feel like it’s “voting” and voting contradicts consensus decision making. Every group needs to decide by themselves how they want to make decisions, but voting is not equal to majority voting (which would contradict consensus), and can actually be a good tool to achieve consensus.
Three phases / Consensus prism
One tool to keep each agenda point structured is to split it into three phases. Some points might only need the first one or two of them.
- The information phase: Everyone shares information that everyone needs to know in order to develop an opinion on the topic. During this phase, no one should express any opinions yet.
- The discussion phase: People should express their needs and opinions and try to bring up ideas how the different opinions can be brought together.
- The decision phase: Once there is a certain idea in the room that no one seems to object to, a proposal can be phrased and checked for consensus. If everything went right, there should be a consensus at this point, if not the discussion has to move back to the discussion phase.
One physical tool that the facilitator can use to make this structure work is a Consensus Prism, a three-sided object that has one phase written on each side and can be turned when the discussion moves to the next stage.
Particularly when the group is big, it can happen that either so many people are talking that the discussion never ends, or that only a few people are talking and the rest is too shy, so not everyone’s opinions are heard. For this, it can be useful to split up into small groups of 4–5 people (during the discussion phase). Within the groups, people share their opinions and try to come up with proposals that they would agree with. After a certain time, everyone comes back together and presents the results. Surprisingly often, all the groups come up with (almost) identical proposals and a decision can be made quickly.
When a point is raised during a discussion that is not directly related to the current agenda point but is still worth to be discussed, the facilitator can put it on the parking lot. This can be a simple piece of paper. The points in the parking lot can be discussed at a later point in the meeting.
When people are getting tired or cannot concentrate anymore, it can help to play a quick game that involves moving physically. The sillier the game, the more it wakes people up.
For the whole group to come to a decision requires a lot of communication, but not all communication requires words. These hand signals have been developed so we can express these key ideas without interrupting the speaker. Not every group uses all of these signs.
- Point (one raised finger): “I have something to say”. Meetings can also be self-facilitated, in which case you can raise multiple fingers on one hand to indicate your position in the queue (if two other people already have their hands up, you show three fingers).
- Agreement (hand(s) shaking above): “I agree with what is being said”
- Disagreement (hand(s) shaking below): “I don’t agree with what is being said” (should not be used to oppose an opinion, as it might intimidate people, but can be used in a temperature check and to point out that some information/assumption is wrong)
- Language (form an L with your thumb and index finger): “I didn’t understand a word/sentence and might need translation”
- Technical Point (form a T with both hands): You have something to say that is important but not related to the ongoing discussion (food is ready, the police are coming, it’s getting cold). Technical Points are usually prioritised in the speaking order.
- Speak Up (raising gesture with both arms): “Please speak louder”
- Slow Down (lowering gesture with both arms): “Please speak slower/less aggressively”
- Move on (rolling both arms around each other): “The discussion is not moving forward, let’s move on.”
- Process point (make a circle with your index finger and thumb): “I have a proposal regarding the discussion style/meeting structure” (gives everyone the chance to assist the facilitation)
- Focus (shape a roof with both arms): “Let’s go back to topic”
- Confusion (all the fingers of one hand wriggling in front of the face): “I didn’t get your point, can you explain again?”
- Direct information (pointing with both index fingers onto a person): “I have some information that contradicts/makes obsolete/might change a point that has just been made”. This will jump the queue and can be used to avoid having a discussion based on false assumptions. Should be used with care and not to express opinions!
- Veto (one raised fist / making a cross with both arms): “Something has just been decided without taking my objections into consideration, or is about to be decided and I’m against it”. This will prevent the decisions and force the discussion to continue.
- A Consensus Handbook by Seeds For Change (http://seedsforchange.org.uk/handbook)
- Beyond ‘Consensus’ Decision-Making by Nick Dowson (former Biketour participant) (http://nickdowson.net/2016/02/07/beyond-consensus-decision-making/)