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Consensus FAQ

I've Never Used Formal Consensus Before Why Should I learn a New Decision-Making Process?

By the time we are adults, most of us have been part of a group organized to do "something". Unless one person runs the group, the group almost certainly had meetings to make decisions about what to do. And again, almost certainly, the group used some form of voting to make those decisions.

If you were a member of the group from the beginning, then you have probably witnessed this phenomenon: In the early stages, the group has high energy, lots of cooperation and commonly held goals, all of which makes decision-making relatively easy. However, as time goes by, meetings become boring, tensions and conflicts are more common and people start dropping out in frustration that the group is not moving in the direction they would prefer, all of which makes decision-making much more challenging.

Why does this happen so often for so many groups? Can anything be done about it, you might ask, or is it just a naturally occurring pattern that is unavoidable because of human nature?

A:

The underlying problem has to do with the system of decision-making itself rather than a characteristic of human nature. The problem with the voting system is that power flows to and concentrates at the top. When this happens, those who are not at the top or have no interest in being at the top are increasingly excluded from having a meaningful voice in the decision-making process.

This dynamic is called hierarchy. The system of voting to make decisions is inherently hierarchical. Hierarchy is unavoidable when using the system of voting, even when the group, as a whole and each individual within it, has made a commitment to a set of values that are based on cooperation, power, sharing, and inclusivity.

The only way to functionally avoid this dynamic and the outcomes we typically see in the life-cycle of groups is to learn a new decision-making process, on that is inherently based on non-hierarchical or Egalitarian structures and is cooperative and inclusive. Formal Consensus is just such a model! When using  Consensus meetings are inspirational, cooperative, participatory and sustainable.

Here are our top 7 reasons of why this method of Consensus is the best in our opinion:

Consensus is the least violent decision-making process. 

Traditional nonviolence theory holds that the use of power to dominate is violent and undesirable. Nonviolence expects people to use their power to persuade without deception, coercion, or malice, using truth, creativity, logic, respect, and love. Majority Rule voting process and Parliamentary Procedure both accept, and even encourage, the use of power to dominate others. The goal is the winning of the vote, often regardless of another choice which might be in the best interest of the whole group. The will of the majority supersedes the concerns and desires of the minority. This is inherently violent. Consensus strives to take into account everyone's concerns and resolve them before any decision is made. Most importantly, this process encourages an environment in which everyone is respected and all Contributions valued.

Consensus is the most democratic decision-making process.

Groups which desire to involve as many people as possible need to use an inclusive process. To attract and involve large numbers, it is important that the process encourages participation, allows access to power, develops cooperation, promotes empowerment, and creates a sense of individual responsibility for the group's actions. All of these are cornerstones of Consensus. The goal of Consensus is not the selection of several options, but the development of one decision which is the best for the whole group. It is synthesis and evolution, not competition and attrition.

Consensus is desirable in larger groups.

If the structure is vague, decisions can be difficult to achieve. They will become increasingly more difficult in larger groups. Consensus is designed for larger groups. It is a highly structured model. It has guidelines and formats for managing meetings, facilitating discussions, resolving conflict, and reaching decisions. Smaller groups may need less structure, so they may choose from the many techniques and roles suggested throughout this website.

Consensus works better when more people participate.

Consensus is more than the sum total of ideas of the individuals in the group. During discussion, ideas build one upon the next, generating new ideas, until the best decision emerges. This dynamic is called the creative interplay of ideas. Creativity plays a major part as everyone strives to discover what is best for the group. The more people involved in this cooperative process, the more ideas and possibilities are generated. Consensus works best with everyone participating. (This assumes, of course, that everyone in the group is trained in Consensus and is actively using it.

Consensus is not inherently time-consuming.

Decisions are not an end in themselves. Decision-making is a process which starts with an idea and ends with the actual implementation of the decision. While it may be true in an autocratic process that decisions can be made quickly, the actual implementation will take time. When one person or a small group of people makes a decision for a larger group, the decision not only has to be communicated to the others, but it also has to be acceptable to them or its implementation will need to be forced upon them. This will certainly take time, perhaps a considerable amount of time. On the other hand, if everyone participates in the decision-making, the decision does not need to be communicated and its implementation does not need to be forced upon the participants. The decision may take longer to make, but once it is made, implementation can happen in a timely manner. The amount of time a decision takes to make from start to finish is not a factor of the process used; rather, it is a factor of the complexity of the proposal itself. An easy decision takes less time than a difficult, complex decision, regardless of the process used or the number of people involved. Of course, Consensus works better if one practices patience, but any process is improved with a generous amount of patience.

Consensus cannot be secretly disrupted.

This may not be an issue for some groups, but many people know that governments are apt to actively survey, infiltrate and disrupt nonviolent domestic political and religious groups. To counteract anti-democratic tactics by these governments, a group would need to develop and encourage a decision-making process which could not be covertly controlled or manipulated. Consensus, if practiced as described on this website, is just such a process. Since the assumption is one of cooperation and goodwill, it is always appropriate to ask for an explanation of how and why someone's actions are in the best interest of the group. Disruptive behavior must not be tolerated. While it is true this process cannot prevent openly disruptive behavior, the point is to prevent covert disruption, hidden agenda, and malicious manipulation of the process. Any group for which infiltration is a threat ought to consider the processes outlined throughout this website if it wishes to remain open, democratic, and productive.

 

 

Sources: Consensus for Cities, On Conflict & Consensus

Contributors: Amy Rothstein, C.T. Butler

Recommended Books:Consensus for Cities, On Conflict & Consensus

What Are Some Impediments to Consensus?

A:

Lack of Training

It is necessary to train people in the theory and practice of Consensus. Until Consensus is common form of decision-making in our society, new participants will need some way of learning about the process. It is important to offer regular opportunities for training. If learning about Formal Consensus is not made easily accessible, it will limit full participation and create inequities which undermine this process. Also, training provides opportunities for people to improve their skills, particularly facilitation skills, in a setting where experimentation and role-plays can occur.

External Hierarchical Structures

It can be difficult for a group to reach Consensus internally when it is part of a larger group which does not recognize or participate in the Consensus process. It can be extremely frustrating if those external to the group can disrupt the decision-making by interfering with the process by pulling rank. therefore, it is desirable for individuals and groups to recognize that they can be autonomous in relation to external power if they are willing to take responsibility for their actions.

Social Prejudice

Everyone has been exposed to biases, assumptions, and prejudices which interfere with the spirit of cooperation and equal participation. All people are influenced by these attitudes, even though they may deplore them. People are not generally encouraged to confront these prejudices in themselves or others. Members of a group often reflect social biases without realizing or attempting to confront and change them. If the group views a prejudicial attitude as just one individual's problem, then the group will not address the underlying social attitudes which create such problems. It is appropriate to expose, confront, acknowledge, and attempt to resolve socially prejudicial attitudes, but only in the spirit of mutual respect and trust. Participants are responsible for acknowledging when their attitudes are influenced by disruptive social training and for changing them. When a supportive atmosphere for recognizing and changing undesirable attitudes exists, the group as a whole benefits.

 

 

Sources:On Conflict on Consensus 

Contributors: Amy Rothstein, C.T. Butler

Recommended Books: On Conflict on Consensus

What Are the Pros and Cons of Using Formal Consensus?

A:

Pros:

The overall effect of this structure on group behavior is quite profound and noticeable. Individuals are not required to be like others in their ideas or desires. Individuals are, however, expected to cooperate with the process. This process, if done well, allows difficult people to become cooperative people without the individual changing at all (except that they, too, must cooperate with the process). 

There seems to be a transformative quality to this environment that affects different people in different ways. Humans seem to have a deep need to be connected to other humans in a vulnerable and intimate way. To intentionally say to a group of people that you share a common purpose and then work together to make a Decision which helps accomplish that common purpose, is very nurturing and makes deep connections. Apparently, we all hunger for this in our lives. When people find themselves in this environment, aspects of the person become developed which were previously underutilized. 

Another often unexpected result of this environment is that meetings can become fun. Not humorous, but experimentally enjoyable, as in, having a good time, getting to know your peers better, getting things done, etc. It is typical, for example for a Formal Consensus based Meeting to start with a check-in where individuals briefly share their day and what is currently happening in their lives in a go-round discussion technique. Many groups have opening and closing rituals. Some sing songs. There are even cooperative games designed for Meetings. People can actually start to like meetings as a place to really connect and interact with their community.

Cons:

There is a downside, however. Anything this powerful is going to have its problems. It is a big shift in the group's dynamics from any other group you have ever participated in. Your group, if you should adopt Formal Consensus and create this kind of environment and group culture, would be very different from other groups that do not use this Decision-making process. It can become difficult for your Formal Consensus based group to work in coalitions with other groups not employing Formal Consensus. It would be not so much because they wouldn't want to work with your group or that your group wouldn't want to work with them; but because it would be so painful to attend their meetings where competitive Decision-making takes place. It can be very difficult.

 

Sources: On Conflict & Consensus, Consensus for Cities

Contributors: Amy Rothstein, C.T. Butler

Recommended Books: On Conflict & Consensus, Consensus for Cities

What Does Consensus Look Like in Practice?

A:

One example might look like this (remember there are dozens of scenarios for how proposals can get made, discussed, and decisions made):

A proposal comes before a group. The facilitator asks us for clarifying questions only. As soon as the questions start drifting into the category of "What if such and such would happen...?" then the facilitator indicates to the group that they seem to be moving into raising concerns. S/he then asks the group  to brainstorm concerns (recorded on large chart). Also brainstorm positives about the proposal. Next people might meet in small groups to do preliminary thinking and discussion abut the proposal and concerns. Each small group sees what it can agree to and records it. The group then briefly report back what they have tentatively decided. It might sound something like this:

"Group one thinks that the proposal is excellent but feels that the date is an unrealistic one. We would suggest a later time."

"Group Two agrees with the proposal in principle but would like a later date, an we have real reservations about how the people would be selected."

As the reports are in, the facilitator(s) (use more than one when possible) makes an educated guess at what the group is thinking and summarizes, "It sounds as if we can agree to the proposal tentatively if we can work out the following points; date (and it seems that everyone would like a later one); personnel and the way they are to follow up..."

People might make suggestions from the floor to solve the problems, or the small groups can meet again to do that work.

Two points that make this process go smoothly are the facilitator's ability to sense and state points of agreement and to encourage an orderly flow of ideas and concerns without letting the group go off tangents.

 

Sources: Building Social Change Communities

Contributors: Susanne Terry, The Training/Action Affinity Group of Movement for a New Society

Recommended Books:  Building Social Change Communities

What Does It Mean to Assume Good Will From All Participants When Using Consensus?

A:

Always try to assume good will. Assume every statement and action is sincerely intended to benefit the group. Assume that each member understands the group's purpose and accepts the Agenda as contract.

Often, when we project our feelings and expectations onto others, we influence their actions. If we treat others as though they are trying to get attention, disrupt Meetings, or pick fights, they will often fulfill our expectations. A resolution to conflict is more likely to occur if we act as though there will be one. This is especially true is someone is intentionally trying to cause trouble or who is emotionally acting out in a disruptive pattern. Do not attack the person, but rather, assume good will and ask the person to explain to the group how that person's statements or actions are in the best interest of the group. It is also helpful to remember to separate the actor from the action. While the behavior may be unacceptable, the person is not. Avoid accusing the person of being the way they behave. Remember, no one has the answer. The group's work is the search for the best most creative process, one that fosters a mutually satisfying resolution to any concern that may arise.

 

 

Source: On Conflict & Consensus

Contributors: Amy Rothstein, C.T. Butler

Recommended Books: On Conflict on Consensus

What If One or Two People Disagree With the Rest Of the Group?

A:

Make sure their ideas have been listened to carefully. If it seems that the rest of the group has considered their idea but there is still disagreement, ask if the one or two feel strongly enough to block Consensus. They may stand aside if they feel that the group has acknowledged their ideas. Sometimes people are willing to stand aside if special considerations can be made such as:

A) They don't have to do the work on a given task.

B) If their dissenting ideas are recorded.

C) If it is stipulated that the decision does not set precedent and therefore cannot be used as basis for future decisions.

D) A trial period set for testing the decision and its implementation (this would include a time for evaluation and re-negotiation if necessary).

 

 

Sources: Building Social Change Communities

Contributors: Susanne Terry, The Training/Action Affinity Group of Movement for a New Society

Recommended Books:  Building Social Change Communities

What If the BUD Cannot Reach Agreement?

A:

The facilitator or a BUD member restates clearly where the BUD has gone in its discussion, what the outstanding issues are, what steps might be taken, and where the decision-making can begin at the next meeting.

 

Sources: Building Social Change Communities

Contributors: Susanne Terry, The Training/Action Affinity Group of Movement for a New Society

Recommended Books:  Building Social Change Communities

What If the BUD Is Evenly Divided?

A:

Ask people to meet in small groups to develop a proposal that they think everyone can agree to. Or call for silence so people can think and reflect.

 

Sources: Building Social Change Communities

Contributors: Susanne Terry, The Training/Action Affinity Group of Movement for a New Society

Recommended Books:  Building Social Change Communities

What If There Seems To Be Pressure Exerted On One Or Two Persons to "Give In"?

A:

It is the responsibility of the facilitator to insure that the individual's right to disagree is protected. The facilitator has several options for doing this depending on the situation:

A) State again for the person(s) what the facilitator senses the agreement among the rest of the group to be. S/he then asks the one or two persons who are disagreeing to state their specific objections. This is often helpful if there have been misunderstandings on either part.

B) If the objections seem to be reasonable, the facilitator can ask the group to meet again in small groups to consider the person's ideas. The group may also continue to meet as a whole, but unnecessary pressure is often relieved by small group work.

C) If the objections seem to be inappropriate or off the track, the facilitator can state as objectively as possible that it is her/his sense that the group has listened as well as it can, but the person's concerns are not appropriate for this time. 

D) Call for a break to defer the decision, if possible- i.e., give breathing and thinking space to dissenters. This could be as little as five minutes or as much as hours or days.

 

Sources: Building Social Change Communities

Contributors: Susanne Terry, The Training/Action Affinity Group of Movement for a New Society

Recommended Books:  Building Social Change Communities

What is Concern?

A:

A point of departure or disagreement with a Proposal.

 

Sources:On Conflict on Consensus 

Contributors: Amy Rothstein, C.T. Butler

Recommended Books: On Conflict on Consensus

What is Conflict?

A:

Social conflict is a relationship between two or more people who believe they have incompatible goals. It is a form of competition. Conflict occurs in what Adam Curle calls an unpeaceful relationship. An unpeaceful relationship exists whenever a individual's potential development, mental or physical, is held back by the conditions of the relationship.

For example, a nuclear family which has had no previous communal experience decided to move into a communal household. The husband expected to maintain traditional gender roles in that he expected his wife to cook, clean, and emotionally care for him. The woman and the other members of the house had different ideas; they expected everyone to share equally in house maintenance tasks and to share emotional support for each other too. The man in this situation clearly was in a conflict with other members of the house.All the people involved believed that they had incompatible goals. The conflict also illustrates an unpeaceful relationship in which the woman was held back from her potential development by her husband's belief and practice of societal gender roles. There was a conflict of goals in that the woman needed the time which she would have to spend on her husband's upkeep for her own development, and she needed him to be responsible for himself. He, on the other hand, did not want to take the time to be involved in doing house maintenance chores ( and also in this case, he did not feel skilled in cooking). Because he was unwilling to cooperate he was being held back in his relationships with other house members as well as maintaining oppressive gender roles.

 

 

 

Sources: Building Social Change Communities

Contributors: Susanne Terry, The Training/Action Affinity Group of Movement for a New Society

Recommended Books:  Building Social Change Communities

What is Consensus?

Consensus is becoming popular as a democratic form of decision-making. It 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
  • Efficient

Often, the Consensus process is:

  • Informal 
  • Vague
  • Very Inconsistent

This happens when the Consensus process is not based upon a solid foundation and the structure of the 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.

A:

 A decision-making process whereby decisions are reached when all members present Consent to a Proposal. This process does not assume everyone must be in complete agreement. When differences remain after discussion, individuals can agree to disagree, this, give their Consent by Standing Aside, and allow the Proposal to be accepted by the group.

Consensus is a process of nonviolent conflict resolution. The expression of concerns and conflicting ideas is considered desirable and important. When a group creates an atmosphere which nurtures and supports disagreement without hostility and feat, it builds a foundation for stronger more creative decisions. When using Consensus the decision reflects the will of the entire group, not just the leadership. Each individual is responsible for expressing their own concerns. It is best if each concern is expressed as if it will be resolved. The group then responds by trying to resolve the concern through group discussion. If the concern remains unresolved after a full and open discussion, then the Facilitator asks how the concern is based upon the Foundation of the group. If it is, then the group accepts that the proposal is Blocked.

The people who carry out the plans of the group are more satisfied with their work in this way because they know it is the will of the members of their group. And as the old adage goes, two (or more heads) are better than one. With Consensus, decisions are adopted when all participants consent to the result of discussion about the original proposal. People who do not agree with the proposal are responsible for expressing their concerns. No decision is adopted until there is a resolution to every concern.  When concerns remain after discussion, individuals can agree to disagree by acknowledging that they have unresolved concerns, but consent to the proposal anyway and allow it to be adopted. Therefore, reaching Consensus does not assume that everyone must be in complete agreement, a highly unlikely situation in a group of intelligent, creative individuals.

See also:

Formal Consensus

N Street Consensus

 

Sources:On Conflict on Consensus 

Contributors: Amy Rothstein, C.T. Butler

Recommended Books: On Conflict on Consensus

 

What is Consent?

A:

Acceptance of the Proposal, not necessarily Agreement. Individuals are responsible for expressing their ideas, concerns and objections. Silence, in response to a Call for Consensus, signifies Consent. Silence is not complete Agreement; it is acceptance of the Proposal.

 

Sources:On Conflict on Consensus 

Contributors: Amy Rothstein, C.T. Butler

Recommended Books: On Conflict on Consensus

What is a Block?

A block is not decided by an individual alone if a particular concern is blocking Consensus; it is determined in cooperation with the whole group. The group determines a concern's legitimacy. 

 

A:

If the allotted agenda time has been spent trying to achieve Consensus, and unresolved legitimate concerns remain, the Proposal may be considered blocked, or not able to be adopted at that Meeting.

To prevent such an issue from hindering your group's progress please learn about N Street Consensus and how they have addressed unnecessary blocking from happening.

 

 

Sources: On Conflict on Consensus 

Contributors: Amy Rothstein, C.T. Butler

Recommended Books: On Conflict on Consensus

What is a Decision?

A:

The end product of an idea that started as a Proposal and evolved to become a plan of action accepted by the whole group.

 

Sources:On Conflict on Consensus 

Contributors: Amy Rothstein, C.T. Butler

Recommended Books: On Conflict on Consensus

What is a Meeting?

A:

An occasion in which people come together and, in an orderly way, make Decisions.

 

Sources:On Conflict on Consensus 

Contributors: Amy Rothstein, C.T. Butler

Recommended Books: On Conflict on Consensus

What is a Proposal?

A:

A written plan that some members of a group present to the whole group for discussion and acceptence.

 

Sources:On Conflict on Consensus 

Contributors: Amy Rothstein, C.T. Butler

Recommended Books: On Conflict on Consensus

What is a Stand Aside?

A:

To agree to disagree, to be willing to let a Proposal be adopted despite unresolved concerns.

 

Sources:On Conflict on Consensus 

Contributors: Amy Rothstein, C.T. Butler

Recommended Books: On Conflict on Consensus

What is an Agreement?

A:

Complete agreement, with no unresolved concerns.

 

Sources:On Conflict on Consensus 

Contributors: Amy Rothstein, C.T. Butler

Recommended Books: On Conflict on Consensus

What is an Agenda Contract?

A:

The Agenda Contract is made when the Agenda is reviewed and accepted. This agreement includes the items on the agenda, the order in which they are considered, and the time allotted to each. Unless the whole group agrees to change the Agenda, the Facilitator is obligated to keep to the contract. The Decision to change the agenda must be a Consensus, with little or no discussion.

 

Sources:On Conflict on Consensus 

Contributors: Amy Rothstein, C.T. Butler

Recommended Books: On Conflict on Consensus

What is an Evaluation?

A:

A group analysis at the end of a Meeting about interpersonal dynamics during Decision-making. This is a time to allow feelings to be expressed, with the goal of improving the functioning of future Meetings. It is not a discussion or debate, nor should anyone comment on another's evaluation.

 

Sources:On Conflict on Consensus 

Contributors: Amy Rothstein, C.T. Butler

Recommended Books: On Conflict on Consensus

What is the N Street Consensus Method?

A:

The N Street Consensus method is very similar to Formal Consensus however the major difference is that it does not require Consensus-with-unanimity. Like Formal Consensus this method also seeks  to hear from everyone in the circle, asking clarifying questions, expressing concerns, and modifying and improving the Proposal. The "rules of N Street Consensus are pretty simple and straightforward:

  • When the facilitator calls for consensus on a proposal and no one blocks, the proposal passes.
  • If one or more people blocks a proposal, however, the person(s) blocking are obligated to meet with small groups of other members in a series of solution-oriented, Consensus-building Meetings. Their job is to think through the issues and mutually agree on a new proposal that addresses the same problem as the blocked proposal. They present the new Proposal at the next Meeting.

 

 

Sources: Busting the Myth that Consensus-with-Unanimity Is Good for Communities

Contributors: Diana Leafe Christian

Recommended Reading: Communities Magazine #155

Busting the Myth that Consensus-with-Unanimity Is Good for Communities

What is the Difference Between Agreement and Consent?

A:

Generally, when you say, "I agree with you," you mean that you heard and understood what someone else said and that you support their conclusions. Agreement could be understood to mean the same as the equals (=) symbol in mathematics.

When groups are voting as a process for making decisions, generally speaking, most understand the question to be about agreement; i.e., "Do you agree with proposal A or do you oppose proposal A?" In the voting process, this question is asked of each person participating, they cast their answer as a "vote" and the votes are counted and the answer that receives the majority of the votes wins the decision.

The word Consensus is based upon the concept of Consent rather than Agreement. The focus of Consensus process is in a different arena than the process is in a discovering which idea can gather the most votes. Consensus process focuses on discovering what decision would be in the best interests of the group to which every participant can give their consent.

In the Consensus process, you are never asked if you agree or not; the question is: "Do you have any concerns that must be resolved before freely giving consent to adopt a proposal?"

This is a substantial concept that affects every aspect of Formal Consensus. This is why you will not find the concept of "building Consensus" [on this site]. The decision-making process known as Consensus is an alive, dynamic, and constantly evolving process before the Decision is made. This is the part that could be called "building Consensus"; however, generally, the phrase is used to describe something that happens after a decision has been made and the decision-makers want to convince others to accept it.

In a formal setting, Consensus Decision-making process starts with the introduction of a proposal or issue from an individual or group. Then there is a time when individuals can honestly and safely express their ideas. Then, the group has an opportunity to creatively address the conflicts and everyone Cooperates in finding the resolution that best serves the common purpose of the group. It ends when there are no more concerns that need to be resolved before the decision is adopted; i.e., the group has "reached Consensus" or given their consent to adopt the proposal as a decision. Once a decision has reached Consensus, the next phase is to implement it; there is no further need to "build Consensus" if it was truly a Consensus process to begin with.

 

 

Sources: Consensus for Cities, On Conflict & Consensus

Contributors: Amy Rothstein, C.T. Butler

Recommended Books: Consensus for Cities, On Conflict & Consensus

What is the Role of Doorkeeper?

A:

Doorkeepers are selected in advance of the Meeting and need to arrive early enough to familiarize themselves with the physical layout of the space and to receive any last minute instructions from the Facilitator. They need to be prepared to miss the first half hour of the Meeting. Prior to the start of the Meeting, the Doorkeeper welcomes people, distributes any literature connected to the business of the Meeting, and informs them of any pertinent information (the meeting will start fifteen minutes late, the bathrooms are not wheelchair accessible etc.).

A Doorkeeper is useful, especially if people tend to be late. When the Meeting begins, they continue to be available for latecomers. They might briefly explain what has happened so far and where the Meeting is currently on the agenda. The Doorkeeper might suggest to the latecomers that they refrain from participating in the current agenda item and wait until the next item before participating. This avoids wasting time, repeating discussion, or addressing already resolved concerns. Of course, this is not a rigid rule. Use discretion and be respectful of the group's time.

Experience has shown this tole to be far more useful than it might at first appear, so experiment with it and discover if Meetings can become more pleasant and productive because of the friendship and care which is expressed through the simple act of greeting people as they arrive at the Meeting.

 

 

 Sources: On Conflict & Consensus

Contributors: Amy Rothstein, C.T. Butler

Recommended Books: On Conflict & Consensus

What is the Role of a Facilitator?

The word facilitate means to make easy.

A:

 A facilitator conducts group business and guides the Consensus process so that it flows smoothly. Rotating facilitation from Meeting to Meeting shares important skills among the members. If anyone has firsthand knowledge about facilitation, it will help the flow of all Meetings. Co-facilitation, or having two (or more) people facilitate a Meeting is recommended. Having a woman and a man share the responsibilities encourages a more balanced Meeting. Also, an inexperienced Facilitator may apprentice with a more experienced one. Try to use a variety of techniques throughout the Meeting. And remember, a little bit of humor can go a long way in easing tension during a long, difficult Meeting.

Good facilitation is based upon the following principles:

Non-Directive Leadership

 

Clarity of Process

 

Agenda Contract

 

Good Will

 

 

 Sources: On Conflict & Consensus

Contributors: Amy Rothstein, C.T. Butler

Recommended Books: On Conflict & Consensus

 

What is the Role of Notetaker?

A:

The importance of a written record of the Meetings cannot be overstated. The written record, sometimes called notes or minutes, can help settle disputes of memory or verify past Decisions. Accessible notes allow absent members to participate in ongoing work.

Useful items to include in the notes are:

  • Date and Attendance
  • Agenda
  • Brief Notes (highlights, statistics...) 

         -Reports

         -Discussion

  • Verbatim Notes

         -Proposals (with revisions)

         -Decisions (with concerns listed)

         -Announcements

        - Next Meeting Time and Place

        - Evaluation Comments

after each Decision is made, it is useful to have the Note-taker read the notes aloud to ensure accuracy. At the end of the meeting, it is also helpful to have the Note-taker present to the group a review of all decisions. In larger groups, it is often useful to have two Note-takers simultaneously, because everyone, no matter how skilled, hears information and expresses it differently. Note-takers are responsible for making sure the notes are recorded accurately, and are reproduced and distributed according to the desires of the group (e.g., mailed to everyone, handed out at the next Meeting, created and stored in Google Docs, filed, etc.)

 

 

 

 Sources: On Conflict & Consensus

Contributors: Amy Rothstein, C.T. Butler

Recommended Books: On Conflict & Consensus

What is the Role of a Peacekeeper?

A:

The role of Peacekeeper is most useful in large groups or when very touchy, controversial topics are being discussed. A person who is willing to remain somewhat aloof and is not personally invested in the content of the discussion would be a good candidate for Peacekeeper. This person is selected without discussion by all present at the beginning of the Meeting. If no one wants this role, or if no one can be selected without objection, proceed without one, recognizing that the Facilitator's job will most likely be more difficult.

This task entails paying attention to the overall mood or tone of the Meeting. When tensions increase dramatically and angers flare out of control, the Peacekeeper interrupts briefly to remind the group of its common goals and commitment to Cooperation. The most common way to accomplish this is a call for a few moments of silence. 

The Peacekeeper is the only person with prior permission to interrupt a speaker or speak or speak without first being recognized by the Facilitator. Also, it is important to note that the Peacekeeper's comments are always directed at the whole group, never at one individual or small group within the larger group. Keep comments short and to the point.

The Peacekeeper may always, of course, point out when the group did something well. People always like to be acknowledged for positive behavior.

 

 

 Sources: On Conflict & Consensus

Contributors: Amy Rothstein, C.T. Butler

Recommended Books: On Conflict & Consensus

What is the Role of a Timekeeper?

A:

The role of Timekeeper is very useful in almost all Meetings. One is selected at the beginning of the Meeting to assist the Facilitator in keeping within the time limits set in the Agenda Contract. The skill in keeping time is the prevention of an unnecessary time pressure which might interfere with the process. This can be accomplished by keeping everyone aware of the status of time remaining during the discussion. Be sure to give ample warning towards the end of the time limit so the group can start to bring the discussion to a close or decide to rearrange the agenda to allow more time for the current topic. There is nothing inherently wrong with going over time as long as everyone consents.

 

 

 Sources: On Conflict & Consensus

Contributors: Amy Rothstein, C.T. Butler

Recommended Books: On Conflict & Consensus

What is the Role of Public Scribe

A:

The role of public scribe is simply the writing, on paper or blackboard, of information for the whole group to see. This person primarily assists the Facilitator by taking a task which might otherwise distract the Facilitator and interfere with the overall flow of the Meeting. This role is particularly useful during brainstorms, report-backs from small groups, or whenever it would help the group for all to see written information.

 

 

 Sources: On Conflict & Consensus

Contributors: Amy Rothstein, C.T. Butler

Recommended Books: On Conflict & Consensus

What is the Role of an Advocate?

A:

Like the Peacekeeper, Advocates are selected without discussion at the beginning of the Meeting. If, because of strong emotions, someone is unable to be understood, the Advocate is called upon to help. The Advocate would interrupt the meeting and invite the individual to literally step outside the meeting for some one-on-one discussion.

When people are upset, they can talk to someone with whom they feel comfortable. This often helps them make clear what the concern is and how it relates to the best interest of the group. Assume the individual is acting in good faith. Assume the concern is in the best interest of the group. While they are doing this, everyone else might take a short break, or continue with other agenda items. When they return, the meeting (after completing the current agenda item) hears from the Advocate. The intent here is the presentation of the concern by the Advocate rather than the upset person so the other group members might hear it without the emotional charge. This procedure is a last resort, to be used only when emotions are out of control and the person feels unable to successfully express an idea.

 

 

 Sources: On Conflict & Consensus

Contributors: Amy Rothstein, C.T. Butler

Recommended Books: On Conflict & Consensus

What is the Role of an Agenda Planner(s)?

A well planned agenda is an important tool for a smooth meeting, although it does not guarantee it. Experience has shown that there is a definite improvement in the flow and pace of a Meeting if several people get together prior to the start of the Meeting and propose an agenda. In smaller groups, the Facilitator often proposes an agenda.

 

 

A:

The agenda planning committee has 6 tasks:

  1. Collect Agenda Items
  2. Arrange Them
  3. Assign Presenters
  4. Brainstorm Discussion Techniques
  5. Assign Time Limits
  6. Write Up the Proposed Agenda

 

 Sources: On Conflict & Consensus

Contributors: Amy Rothstein, C.T. Butler

Recommended Books: On Conflict on Consensus

 

 

What is the Role of Facilitator in Formal Consensus?

A:

The word "facilitate" means "to make easy." A Facilitator conducts group business and guides the Formal Consensus process so that Decision-making flows smoothly at group Meetings. Rotating facilitation from meeting to meeting shares important skills among the members. If everyone has firsthand knowledge about facilitation, it will help the flow of all Meetings. Co-facilitation, or having two (or more) people facilitate a Meeting, is recommend. In this way, an inexperienced Facilitator may apprentice with a more experienced one. Use a variety of group discussion techniques throughout the meeting. And with proper timing, a bit of humor can go a long way in easing tension during a difficult moment at the Meeting.

   The Facilitator is expected to meet with the Agenda Planning Committee prior to the business meeting to plan a proposed agenda and brainstorm on discussion techniques for specific agenda items.

   Good facilitation is based upon the following principles:

 

 

Sources: Consensus for Cities, On Conflict & Consensus

Contributors: Amy Rothstein, C.T. Butler

Recommended Books: Consensus for Cities, On Conflict & Consensus

What Kind of Decisions Can Be Made in a BUD Meeting?

In a process that allows for one to "disagree" with the proposal and yet still give one's consent for the group to adopt the proposal, a certain degree of awareness is warranted with regard to the type of decision being made.

A:

There are two types of decisions:

  • Policy Decisions
  • Event Decisions

Policy decisions are intended from the start to become standard against which future circumstances are compared, and future decisions are made without further group decision-making because the "policy" is set by the earlier group decision. 

Event decisions are intended from the beginning to be only for the specific set of circumstances being considered and do not automatically carry forward to the next similar situation.

Each decision needs to be clearly defined as a policy decision, an event decision, or some combination of both. Creativity is the key here. The more clarity brought to the classification of each proposal and any and all of its parts as either policy or event decisions will serve the group's process interests in direct proportion to the effort expended.

This is not always easy to do and often the party making the proposal will classify it one way and, someone else hearing it for the first time, might classify it differently. And sometimes, the same proposal is both, usually meaning that 2 decisions need to be made: one concerning the policy-making aspects of the proposal and the other to address the practical, event specific aspects of the proposal.

The way in which an individual holds the type of decision at hand significantly affects the dynamics of consenting to a decision for which one has unresolved concerns, commonly referred to as "standing aside." If it is understood that this is a policy decision, this would mean that anyone who "agreed to disagree" or stand aside and give their consent to this proposal, would be obligated to Cooperate with the implementation of the policy and abide by it in practice, now and in the future.

Using the Formal Consensus process, it is not acceptable to consent to a policy decision, even with strongly held concerns for which one stood aside, and then not cooperate with that policy. If the decision at hand is a one time, single event decision, it is entirely possible for someone to clearly state their intention not to participate in the event before the decision is made and, if they have no concerns about the group doing it, consent to it.

For those who stood aside, it is understood that they have no intention of cooperating with the decision but they will not interfere with other group members implementing the decision. These are diametrically different behaviours solely dependent on whether the proposal at hand is considered a policy or event decision.

Most event decisions and many policy decisions have a great deal of variation as to what constitutes Consensus. As just mentioned, the group could easily tolerate one or more members clearly declaring their intention not to participate, say in an all day excursion sponsored by the group, and still decide to do the trip without those members.

However, some decisions are, by their significance to the purpose of the group, too important to simply accept a Consensus, and need to be actually agreed to by the members of the group before the decision can be adopted. These decisions require agreement before they can be adopted. This means there would be no stand asides and everyone understands that they are giving not only consent to let the decision be made, they are in actual agreement with the decision.

While there are many people who seem to think that Consensus means agreement with the decision, in Formal Consensus, the decisions that require agreement from all members are rare and reserved for only those decisions that are of major significance to the group or define its purpose.

Some groups, because of their specific common purpose, might decide that no decisions ever require agreement and use what might be called absolute Consensus, where anyone can choose to stand-aside, agree or disagree or otherwise give their consent without agreeing, in part or entirely, with the decision.

Much of the work of discovering whether a proposal is a policy decision or event decision happens during agenda planning. This is not to say the agenda planning group makes the decision as to which type it is or is not. It is either completely clear or it is an evolving process in which many different people are involved. Either way, it comes up during agenda planning because it will likely effect how the agenda is planned. Experienced practitioners will learn to include their thoughts regarding these "policy decision vs. event decision issues when submitting a proposal for the agenda.

 

 

 

 

 

Sources: Consensus for Cities

Contributors: C.T. Butler

Recommended Books: Consensus for Cities

When Can You Use Consensus?

A:

Consensus can be used effectively only when there is common agreement to find solutions acceptable to the entire group. This occurs most often when it is a feeling of the group that no decision is more important than the group itself-that is, when the ongoing life of the group is important, or solidarity and a sense of well-being among group members is a priority, consensus is more likely to be an effective method of decision-making.

 

Sources: Building Social Change Communities

Contributors: Susanne Terry, The Training/Action Affinity Group of Movement for a New Society

Recommended Books:  Building Social Change Communities

Why Should My BUD Use Consensus?

A:

"[Consensus] is profoundly significant for the future of the species. We must learn to live together cooperatively, resolving our conflicts nonviolently and making our decisions consensually. We must learn to value diversity and respect all life, not just on a physical level, but emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. We are all in this together."

~ C.T. Butler & Amy Rothstein, On Conflict and Consensus

If Conditions For Use of Consensus exist within your BUD, you might be wondering "what then is the advantage for using Consensus?" More importantly, what is the advantage to helping move your BUD to the point where it can use Consensus? Here are some arguments for use of the Consensus process:

  1. It decides without voting, and therefore without a "losing" and a "winning" side. Consensus makes a stronger decision than voting- everyone can give willing assent to an idea and participate more fully in implementation. 
  2. It is a way of accumulating viewpoints and synthesizing, rather than choosing one idea over another.
  3. It aims at persuasion and not coercion.
  4. It provides an opportunity for everyone to contribute information and participate. 
  5. There are more opinions than in a voting system.
  6. People get a chance to hash things over and as a result develop a better proposal than if a quick vote had been taken.
  7. Consensus affirms that the integrity of the group is more important than any one issue that the group may face.
  8. It affirms the group's ability to think as a group rather than considering proposals from individuals and then compromising.
  9. Consensus discourages back room politics and encourages openness.

Consensus creates a cooperative dynamic. Only one proposal is considered at a time. Everyone works together to make it the best possible decision for the group. Any concerns are raised and resolved, sometimes one by one, until all voices are heard. Since proposals are no longer property of the presenter, a solution can be created more cooperatively.

It is often said that Consensus is time-consuming and difficult. Making complex, difficult decisions is time-consuming no matter what the process. Many different methods can be efficient, if every participant shares a common understanding of the "rules of the game". Like any process, Consensus can be inefficient if all the members of a group do not follow the same structure.

This website codifies a formal structure for decision-making. It is hoped that the relationship between this book and Consensus as described herein would be similar to the relationship between Robert's Rules of Order and Parliamentary Procedure.

 

 

Sources: On Conflict & Consensus

Contributors: Amy Rothstein, C.T. Butler

Recommended Books: On Conflict & Consensus

Why is Conflict Resolution Important in a BUD, an Intentional Community, a Collective or Network of People Working for Social Change?

When a group of adults and children decide to live together, work together in a collective, or share a common commitment to social change, there are bound to be some disagreements and hot conflicts. Each member has different values, experiences, needs and ideas about how things should be done. Conflict resolution skills are important for several reasons. 

A:

First, on the personal level, it is more enjoyable to live in a household where individual relationships are not constantly rocked by conflict. Skill in handling conflicts allows individuals and the group to be pushed to change while still providing a safe and stable environment in which to live. In a social change Community, conflicts within a household or collective can come to absorb vast amounts of time and energy that would otherwise be directed towards the political work at hand. If we develop our skills at handling such internal questions we will have more energy to be effective change agents. On the political level, conflict resolution is important because it:

  1. Demonstrates to others that conflicts can be resolved creatively and nonviolently.
  2. It shows that we can all learn and develop skills for handling conflicts.
  3. It allows an individual to handle conflicts creatively in their own personal life while continuing to work for basic social change.
  4. It provides us with the confidence we need to actively engage in conflicts with the world around us since conflict is a basic ingredient in any work for social change.

 

 

Sources: Building Social Change Communities

Contributors: Christopher Moore, The Training/Action Affinity Group of Movement for a New Society

Recommended Books:  Building Social Change Communities