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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?


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