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.
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.
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:
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 It is amended and modified through more discussion, or withdrawn if it seems to be a dead end.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:
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:
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:
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.
There are several roles which can help consensus decision making run smoothly:
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.