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Consensus Decision-Making

The following article on consensus decision-making is taken from the Edward Carpenter Community Guidelines 2014, and gives some insight into the way the community seeks to be inclusive and to allow all members to play an equal part in its operation and development.

Circle of hands

What is consensus?

Consensus is a process for group decision-making.  It is a method by which an entire group of people can come to an agreement.  The input and ideas of all participants are gathered and synthesised to arrive at a final decision acceptable to all.  Consensus can help to achieve better solutions, and promote the growth of community and trust.

Consensus vs voting

Voting is a means by which we choose one alternative from several.  Consensus, on the other hand, is a process of synthesising many diverse elements together.  Voting is a win or lose model, in which people are more often concerned with the numbers it takes to "win" than with the issue itself.  Voting does not take into account individual feelings or needs.  In essence, it is a quantitative, rather than qualitative, method of decision making.

With consensus, people can and should work through differences and reach a mutually satisfactory position.  It is possible for one person's insights or strongly held beliefs to sway the whole group.  No ideas are lost, each member's input is valued as part of the solution.

A group committed to consensus may utilise other forms of decision-making (individual, compromise, majority rules) when appropriate.  However, a group that has adopted a consensus model will use that process for any item that brings up a lot of emotions, is something that concerns people's ethics, politics, morals or other areas where there is much investment.

What does consensus mean?

Consensus does not mean that everyone thinks that the decision made is necessarily the best one possible, or even that they are sure it will work.  What it does mean is that in coming to that decision, no one felt that her/his position on the matter was misunderstood or that it wasn't given a proper hearing.  Hopefully, everyone will think it is the best decision; this often happens because, when it works, collective intelligence does come up with better solutions than could individuals.

Consensus takes more time and member skill, but uses lots of resources before a decision is made, creates commitment to the decision and often facilitates creative decision making.  It gives everyone some experience with new processes of interaction and conflict resolution, which is basic but important skill building.  For consensus to be a positive experience, it is best if the group has:

  • Common values.
  • Some skill in group process and conflict resolution, and/or a commitment to let these be facilitated.
  • Members with commitment and responsibility to the group, willingness to contribute their views and discuss their reasons.
  • Commitment and effort to develop an atmosphere of honesty and openness in the group, and a willingness to confront and resolve controversy and conflict.
  • Sufficient time to explore all the information and opinions, and for everyone to participate in the process.

Forming the consensus proposals

During discussion, a proposal for resolution is put forward.  It is amended and modified through more discussion, or withdrawn if it seems to be a dead end.  During this discussion period it is important to articulate differences clearly.  It is the responsibility of those who are having trouble with a proposal to put forth alternative suggestions.

The fundamental right of consensus is for all people to be able to express themselves in their own words and of their own will.  The fundamental responsibility of consensus is to assure others of their right to speak and be heard.  Coercion and trade-offs are replaced with creative alternatives, and compromise with synthesis.

People have widely differing understanding of what consensus means.  Until they can agree on what consensus is, they really can’t expect to reach it.  Here’s a definition and way to test for consensus.  Consensus exists within a group when each member of the group can say:

  • I have had the opportunity to voice my opinions.
  • I believe the group has heard me.
  • I can actively support the group’s decision as the best possible at this time, even if it is not my first choice.

When a proposal seems to be well understood by everyone, and there are no new changes asked for, the facilitator(s) can ask if there are any objections or reservations to it.  If there are no objections, there can be a call for consensus.  Each member of the group could ask themselves if they are able to make these three statements.  If each answers "yes", consensus exists and the group can move on.  Once consensus does appear to have been reached, it really helps to have someone repeat the decision to the group so everyone is clear on what has been decided.

It isn’t easy to meet this test.  If just one person cannot agree with the three test statements, consensus does not exist.  The group must then decide whether to continue discussing the issue with the expectation of reaching a consensus.   If not, the group would move to an alternative method for deciding.  Yes, it’s okay to decide in other ways, but these other ways don’t have all the benefits of consensus (nor do they take as much time and effort).  Of course, moving to an alternative works best if the group has agreed on an alternative before a consensus-blocking impasse occurs.

Within ECC we strive for consensus wherever possible.  If consensus cannot be reached and a decision can be postponed, we do so.  Where the decision cannot be postponed, we take a vote.  In these circumstances, a proposal needs the support of 75% of those voting, to be agreed.

Any member of the group can block consensus.  This is precisely why consensus decisions are both more difficult and more effective than other methods.  Consensus decision-making forces the group to consider more aspects of a problem and more consequences of possible courses of action.  Well-made consensual decisions are thus based on broader and deeper consideration.

The members of a group must realise that their own behaviour is critical.  The following are examples of behaviours that help the group reach consensus:

  • Involve everyone in the discussion and decision-making process.
  • Listen and pay attention to what others have to say.
  • Be cautious of early, quick, easy agreements.
  • Avoid compromising.
  • Avoid competing, arguing and trying to "win."
  • Don’t "give in" just to "go along."
  • Use different opinions to enhance the decision’s quality.
  • Avoid voting.
  • Take action to reduce tension.
  • Work on the most important or controversial considerations.
  • Use a blend of information, logic, emotion and intuition.

Difficulties in reaching consensus

If a decision has been reached, or is on the verge of being reached, that you cannot support, there are several ways to express your objections:

  • Non-support ("I don't see the need for this, but I'll go along.")
  • Reservations ('I think this may be a mistake but I can live with it.")
  • Standing aside ("I personally can't do this, but I won't stop others from doing it. ")
  • Blocking ("I cannot support this or allow the group to support this. It is immoral."  If a final decision violates someone's fundamental moral values they are obligated to block consensus.)
  • Withdrawing from the group Obviously, if many people express non-support or reservations or stand aside or leave the group, it may not be a viable decision even if no one directly blocks it.  This is what is known as a "lukewarm" consensus and it is just as desirable as a lukewarm beer or a lukewarm bath.

If consensus is blocked and no new consensus can be reached, the group stays with whatever the previous decision was on the subject, or does nothing if that is applicable.

Roles in a consensus meeting

There are several roles which can help consensus decision making run smoothly:

  • The facilitator(s) aids the group in defining decisions that need to be made, helps them through the stages of reaching an agreement, keeps the meeting moving, focuses discussion to the point at hand, makes sure everyone has the opportunity to participate, formulates and tests to see if consensus has been reached.  Facilitators help to direct the process of the meeting, not the content. They never make decisions for the group.  If a facilitator feels too emotionally involved in an issue or discussion and cannot remain neutral in behaviour, if not in attitude, then s/he should ask someone to take over the task of facilitation for that agenda item.
  • A mood-watcher is someone besides the facilitator who watches and comments on individual and group feelings and patterns of participation.
  • A note-taker can take notes on the meeting, especially of decisions made and means of implementation.
  • A timekeeper keeps things on course, by occasionally reminding the group of the time elapsed, or remaining in a session.

Even though individuals take on these roles, all participants in a meeting should be aware of and involved in the issues, process, and feelings of the group, and should share their individual expertise in helping the group run smoothly and reach a decision.  This is especially true when it comes to finding compromise agreements to seemingly contradictory positions.

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