Consensus Basics

For those needed a refresher on the consensus process, here is a wonderful explanation of the process provided by professional facilitator Tree Bressen.

Consensus is a cooperative process in which group members develop and agree to support a decision in the best interest of the whole.

Main reasons to use consensus as a decision-making method:

  1. High quality decisions
  2. Builds connection among members
  3. More effective implementation


Cooperation is the basis (we all get more of what we want when we cooperate)

Consensus is for people who are genuinely trying to work together, typically based on some shared interest, purpose or calling; OK if some interests are divergent, as long as sufficient joint interests are present

Search together for the best solution for the group: it's "us against the problem" we are trying to solve rather than "us against each other"

Recognize that no decision-making system gets everyone their first choice all the time

What's the creative way to address all the needs present, rather than lowest common denominator Skills necessary for consensus are also necessary for good relationships

Consensus seeks to synthesize the wisdom of the group

Unity (different from unanimous vote or everyone's first choice) "Sense of the meeting"—essence is something you can support or are willing to let go forward, I can live with it

"Everyone has a piece of the truth"

Value all kinds of input (rational, emotional, kinesthetic, etc.)

Consensus is a questioning process, more than an affirming process

Goal is to thrash out an issue until a good solution is found, rather than make everyone feel good by a fast but fake agreement

Encourages lifting everyone up to their highest potential, instead of knocking down your opponents

Share, question, and learn from each other's experience and thinking

Remember the spirit and process of the system are even more important than the structures

There is no substitute for being friends with each other

A positive attitude will get you everywhere

Meetings should be fulfilling—if they're not, then ask why, and change it!

What Helps Consensus Work Well

Steps of the Consensus Process

1. Introduction to Issue (by presenter, preferably not the facilitator)

Why are we talking about this, why does it matter

History of the issue (including previous meetings)

Goal for this item at this particular meeting (report, decision, committee gather input, etc.) Offer as issue or proposal? It depends on the issue. For example:

If small and simple, proposal may pass with relative ease

If small and complex, likely send to committee for main work

If large and simple, might be ok to start with proposal, and might take a few more meetings, possibly with some committee work in between

If large and complex, start with issue not proposal, expect it to take a series of meetings, almost always with committee or individual work in between

At end of initial presentation, others who have factual knowledge of the issue are sometimes invited to add in further bits about the history and so on—but don't let this go on too long

2. Clarifying Questions

Questions of understanding only—short and sweet

3. Discussion

Further questions

Bring out diversity of ideas, concerns, and perspectives

Deal first with values concerns or big picture, before getting into details

Note agreements and disagreements on general direction and the underlying reasons for them—discuss those underlying reasons and needs

4. Establish Basic Direction

What would best serve the whole? Sense of the meeting General or philosophical agreement; agreement in principle

5. Synthesize or Modify Proposal as needed

Note agreements and disagreements on specifics and the underlying reasons for them—discuss those underlying reasons and needs

Generate ideas to address and resolve concerns

Evaluate potential solutions

Synthesize proposed ideas/solutions or come up with new ideas in the supportive atmosphere of the meeting

Stay aware of how much detail the whole group really needs to go into, vs. passing to committee

6. Call for Consensus

Re-state proposal clearly

Ask: "Are there any remaining unresolved concerns?"

Official decision point: Use structure for clarity, such as Agree, Stand Aside, Block Check to see if all parties genuinely consent

7. Record

Suggest having notetaker read back decision to the group; at least re-state for notetaker

Record: decision, tasks, timeline, implementation

Decision Point Structure

Agreement (Thumbs Up)

Basic alignment with group direction and proposal

Consensus is not the same thing as 100% unanimous vote in majority rule

Standard of how much agreement is enough may vary (depending on group and item)—how much agreement is sufficient to achieve solid implementation of this proposal? May range from "This is fabulous" to "I can live with it for now"

Standing Aside (Thumbs Sideways)

A choice to let the group proceed, while personally not feeling aligned with direction, based on:

Name in minutes and reason

Not in lead implementation role, but still bound by decision

How many is too many? Probably more than 1 (or at most 2). The more you allow, the more it's like voting; go too far and you lose the extra effectiveness of consensus action.

Blocking (Thumbs Down)

Don't do prematurely. Integrate your concerns into discussion early on. The following are not valid reasons to block:

Only do if proposal is disastrous for the group or crosses group's known core principles—then responsible for stopping it

Legitimate blocks are most likely to arise from different interpretations of a group value, or two group values coming into conflict with each other

Inappropriate blocking being the most common cause of dysfunctional consensus process, groups benefit from having both cultural and procedural ways to address this behavior

Culture-creation may include:

Procedural responses to blocks may include:

Tree Bressen, facilitator and teacher, has been assisting intentional communities, nonprofits, and other organizations with group process since 1994. Pages from her website are available for copying and distribution free of charge as long as you continue to include these credit lines and contact information.

Tree Bressen · Eugene, Oregon · 541-343-3855 · [email protected] ·