What is Consensus?

NOTE: The following article is about formal consensus decision making, which is not an ideal method for anarchists and some of the steps in the process described below can be removed, modified, or merged as a group sees fit. Additional tips for anarchist consensus decision making can be found at the end of this essay.

From "On decisionmaking"

Consensus ... is a process which requires an environment in which all contributions are valued and participation is encouraged. There are, however, few organizations which use a model of consensus which is specific, consistent, and efficient. Often, the consensus process is informal, vague, and very inconsistent. This happens when the consensus process is not based upon a solid foundation and the structure is unknown or nonexistent. To develop a more formal type of consensus process, any organization must define the commonly held principles which form the foundation of the group's work and intentionally choose the type of structure within which the process is built.

The Structure of Formal Consensus

This structure creates a separation between the identification and the resolution of concerns. Perhaps, if everybody in the group has no trouble saying what they think, they won't need this structure. This predictable structure provides opportunities to those who don't feel empowered to participate.

Formal Consensus is presented in levels or cycles. In the first level, the idea is to allow everyone to express their perspective, including concerns,but group time is not spent on resolving problems. In the second level the group focuses its attention on identifying concerns, still not resolving them. This requires discipline. Reactive comments, even funny ones, and resolutions, even good ones, can suppress the creative ideas of others. Not until the third level does the structure allow for exploring resolutions.

Each level has a different scope and focus. At the first level, the scope is broad, allowing the discussion to consider the philosophical and political implications as well as the general merits and drawbacks and other relevant information. The only focus is on the proposal as a whole. Some decisions can be reached after discussion at the first level. At the second level, the scope of the discussion is limited to the concerns. They are identified and publicly listed, which enables everyone to get an overall picture of the concerns. The focus of attention is on identifying the body of concerns and grouping similar ones. At the third level, the scope is very narrow. The focus of discussion is limited to a single unresolved concern until it is resolved.

The Flow of the Formal Consensus Process

In an ideal situation, every proposal would be submitted in writing and briefly introduced the first time it appears on the agenda. At the next meeting, after everyone has had enough time to read it and carefully consider any concerns, the discussion would begin in earnest. Often, it would not be until the third meeting that a decision is made. Of course, this depends upon how many proposals are on the table and the urgency of the decision.

Clarify the Process

The facilitator introduces the person presenting the proposal and gives a short update on any previous action on it. It is very important for the facilitator to explain the process which brought this proposal to the meeting,and to describe the process that will be followed to move the group through the proposal to consensus. It is the facilitator's job to make sure that every participant clearly understands the structure and the discussion techniques being employed while the meeting is in progress.

Present Proposal or Issue

When possible and appropriate, proposals ought to be prepared in writing and distributed well in advance of the meeting in which a decision is required. This encourages prior discussion and consideration, helps the presenter anticipate concerns, minimizes surprises, and involves everyone in creating the proposal. (If the necessary groundwork has not been done, the wisest choice might be to send the proposal to committee. Proposal writing is difficult to accomplish in a large group. The committee would develop the proposal for consideration at a later time.) The presenter reads the written proposal aloud, provides background information, and states clearly its benefits and reasons for adoption, including addressing any existing concerns.

Questions Which Clarify the Presentation

Questions are strictly limited by the facilitator to those which seek greater comprehension of the proposal as presented. Everyone deserves the opportunity to fully understand what is being asked of the group before discussion begins. This is not a time for comments or concerns. If there are only a few questions, they can be answered one at a time by the person presenting the proposal. If there are many, a useful technique is hearing all the questions first, then answering them together. After answering all clarifying questions, the group begins discussion.

Level One: Broad Open Discussion
General Discussion

Discussion at this level ought to be the broadest in scope. Try to encourage comments which take the whole proposal into account; i.e., why it is a good idea, or general problems which need to be addressed. Discussion at this level often has a philosophical or principled tone, purposely addressing how this proposal might affect the group in the long run or what kind of precedent it might create, etc. It helps every proposal to be discussed in this way, before the group engages in resolving particular concerns. Do not allow one concern to become the focus of the discussion. When particular concerns are raised, make note of them but encourage the discussion to move back to the proposal as a whole. Encourage the creative interplay of comments and ideas. Allow for the addition of any relevant factual information. For those who might at first feel opposed to the proposal, this discussion is consideration of why it might be good for the group in the broadest sense. Their initial concerns might, in fact, be of general concern to the whole group. And, for those who initially support the proposal, this is a time to think about the proposal broadly and some of the general problems. If there seems to be general approval of the proposal, the facilitator,or someone recognized to speak, can request a call for consensus.

Call for Consensus

The facilitator asks, "Are there any unresolved concerns?" or "Are there any concerns remaining?" After a period of silence, if no additional concerns are raised, the facilitator declares that consensus is reached and the proposal is read for the record. The length of silence ought to be directly related to the degree of difficulty in reaching consensus; an easy decision requires a short silence, a difficult decision requires a longer silence. This encourages everyone to be at peace in accepting the consensus before moving on to other business. At this point, the facilitator [calls for volunteers] or sends the decision to a committee for implementation. It is important to note that the question is not "Is there consensus?"or "Does everyone agree?". These questions do not encourage an environment in which all concerns can be expressed. If some people have a concern, but are shy or intimidated by a strong showing of support for a proposal,the question "Are there any unresolved concerns?" speaks directly to them and provides an opportunity for them to speak. Any concerns for which someone stands aside are listed with the proposal and become a part of it.

Level Two: Identify Concerns
List All Concerns

At the beginning of the next level, a discussion technique called brainstorming is used so that concerns can be identified and written down publicly by the scribe and for the record by the note taker. Be sure the scribe is as accurate as possible by checking with the person who voiced the concern before moving on. This is not a time to attempt to resolve concerns or determine their validity. That would stifle free expression of concerns. At this point, only concerns are to be expressed, reasonable or unreasonable, well thought out or vague feelings. The facilitator wants to interrupt any comments which attempt to defend the proposal, resolve the concerns, judge the value of the concerns, or in any way deny or dismiss another's feelings of doubt or concern. Sometimes simply allowing a concern to be expressed and written down helps resolve it. After all concerns have been listed, allow the group a moment to reflect on them as a whole.

Group Related Concerns

At this point, the focus is on identifying patterns and relationships between concerns. This short exercise must not be allowed to focus upon or resolve any particular concern.

Level Three: Resolve Concerns
Resolve Groups of Related Concerns

Often, related concerns can be resolved as a group.

Call for Consensus

If most of the concerns seem to have been resolved, call for consensus in the manner described earlier. If some concerns have not been resolved at this time, then a more focused discussion is needed.

Restate Remaining Concerns (One at a Time)

Return to the list. The facilitator checks each one with the group and removes ones which have been resolved or are, for any reason, no longer of concern. Each remaining concern is restated clearly and concisely and addressed one at a time. Sometimes new concerns are raised which need to be added to the

list. However, every individual is responsible for honestly expressing concerns as they think of them. It is not appropriate to holdback a concern and spring it upon the group late in the process. This undermines trust and limits the group's ability to adequately discuss the concern in its relation to other concerns.

Questions Which Clarify the Concern

The facilitator asks for any questions or comments which would further clarify the concern so everyone clearly understands it before discussion starts.

Discussion Limited to Resolving One Concern

Use as many creative group discussion techniques as needed to facilitate a resolution for each concern. Keep the discussion focused upon the particular concern until every suggestion has been offered. If no new ideas are coming forward and the concern cannot be resolved, or if the time allotted for this item has been entirely used, move to one of the closing options described below.

Call for Consensus

Repeat this process until all concerns have been resolved. At this point,the group should be at consensus, but it would be appropriate to call for consensus anyway just to be sure no concern has been overlooked.

Closing Options
Send to Committee

If a decision on the proposal can wait until the whole group meets again, then send the proposal to a committee which can clarify the concerns and bring new, creative resolutions for consideration by the group. [You should] include on the committee representatives of all the major concerns, as well as those most supportive of the proposal so they can work out solutions in a less formal setting. Sometimes, if the decision is needed before the next meeting, a smaller group can be empowered to make the decision for the larger group, but again, this committee should include all points of view. Choose this option only if it is absolutely necessary and the whole group consents.

Stand Aside (Decision Adopted with Unresolved Concerns Listed)

When a concern has been fully discussed and cannot be resolved, it is appropriate for the facilitator to ask those persons with this concern if they are willing to stand aside; that is, acknowledge that the concern still exists,but allow the proposal to be adopted. It is very important for the whole group to understand that this unresolved concern is then written down with the proposal in the record and, in essence, becomes a part of the decision. This concern can be raised again and deserves more discussion time as it has not yet been resolved. In contrast, a concern which has been resolved in past discussion does not deserve additional discussion, unless something new has developed. Filibustering is not appropriate in Formal Consensus.

Declare Block

After having spent the allotted agenda time moving through the three levels of discussion trying to achieve consensus and concerns remain which are unresolved, the facilitator is obligated to declare that consensus cannot be reached at this meeting, that the proposal is blocked, and move on to the next agenda item. The Rules of Formal Consensus The guidelines and techniques in this book are flexible and meant to be modified. Some of the guidelines, however, seem almost always to be true. These are the Rules of Formal Consensus:

1. Once a decision has been adopted by consensus,it cannot be changed without reaching a new consensus. If a new consensus cannot be reached, the old decision stands. 2. In general, only one person has permission to speak at any moment. The person with permission to speak is determined by the group discussion technique in use and/or the facilitator.(The role of Peacekeeper is exempt from this rule.) 3. All structural decisions (i.e., which roles to use, who fills each role, and which facilitation technique and/or group discussion technique to use) are adopted by consensus without debate. Any objection automatically causes a new selection to be made. If a role cannot be filled without objection, the group proceeds without that role being filled. If much time is spent trying to fill roles or find acceptable techniques, then the group needs a discussion about the unity of purpose of this group and why it is having this problem, a discussion which must be put on the agenda for the next meeting, if not held immediately. 4. All content decisions (i.e., the agenda contract, committee reports, proposals, etc.) are adopted by consensus after discussion. Every content decision must be openly discussed before it can be tested for consensus. 5. A concern must be based upon the principles of the group to justify a block to consensus. 6. Every meeting which uses Formal Consensus must have an evaluation.

Additional Tips for Consensus Decision Making

Choosing facilitators: In a consensus process, the facilitator is a very powerful person. It is very important that the facilitator is not preselected by someone other than the group making decisions. The facilitator should come from the group itself and the role of facilitator should be rotated from meeting to meeting.

The simplest way for a facilitator to be chosen is to ask members of the group to come forward and volunteer to be the facilitator. From that group of volunteers, the facilitator for that meeting can be chosen either by group vote or at random. Selecting a facilitator at random can be done by drawing lots, by rolling a die and having each of the volunteers pick a number off the die, etc.

Creating agendas: If a group is to function truly democratically, the group must not only make decisions democratically, but they must select the agenda for the meeting and the issues that are to be decided upon as well. A small cadre of organizers creating an agenda beforehand and then telling people to "consent" to it is not democratic regardless of the process used to arrive at "consent".

Consensus Pros and Cons:

Pros: Consensus is viewed by many to be a very egalitarian form of decision making where process is paramount and the concerns of all people affected by a decision are considered.

Cons: Some view consensus as a very time consuming and complex process and some believe that consensus makes it difficult for people who have limited time available (like working people) to fully participate in groups that use consensus decision making. Some also view the usefulness of consensus to be limited because it is believed that people must be generally prepared to agree to begin with before using consensus and, thus, they view consensus as being not useful for deciding contentious or controversial issues.

PLEASE NOTE: It is perfectly reasonable to combine parts of consensus decision making and direct democracy if this is preferable to your group or organization. It is always good to experiment with different methods to arrive at the decision making method that works best for your group or organization.


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