Consensus decision-making has been growing more widespread in a variety of movements, from environmental activists, to co-operatives, to the recent explosion of Occupy camps. Rebecca Smith of Seeds for Change told PN: ‘We have seen a change in meeting culture in Britain, towards a greater awareness of the value of participation and the methods that make it possible.’
“The first step is learning to be honest with yourself."
Seeds for Change, a training and support network, has been advocating and teaching consensus decision-making for the last 12 years. This month they are publishing a consensus decision-making handbook, to complement the consensus decision-making materials already on their website.
Seeds defines consensus decision-making as ‘a creative and dynamic way of reaching agreement between all members of a group. Instead of simply voting for an item and having the majority of the group getting their way, a consensus group is committed to finding solutions that everyone actively supports — or at least can live with.’ Surely the notion of a decision everyone can agree on looks good on paper, but is it a feasible reality?
Rebecca Smith described some of the problems that can arise within consensus decision-making, as well as what can be done to avoid them. ‘It is certainly possible to be too rigid about how you implement the process of consensus decision-making,’ said Smith. ‘For example, some people faced with an abstract question like “What are the aims of your event?” might draw a total blank, and want to leap straight-away to deciding what to do. Later on in the discussion, when someone suggests something they don’t like, it becomes clear they actually have very strong ideas about what their aims are, and it might be necessary to revisit earlier stages of the conversation. So consensus needs flexible facilitation that takes into account the ways that people like to think and communicate.’
Others have criticised consensus decision-making for slowing down decision processes. Whereas a majority rule system makes enables decisions to be made rapidly, consensus requires time and discussion in order to make a decision that an entire group can agree with.
Smith explained that though the discussion can take a while, consensus ends up saving time in the end: ‘It makes sense that finding a decision everyone can give their consent to can take longer than finding one a simple majority of people are happy with. In the long run that extra time may be won back because people have a greater commitment to the group and are more likely to implement the decisions it makes.’
In fact there are also steps you can take to speed up the consensus process: ‘A very basic example is making a clear agenda and sticking to one point at a time,’ said Smith.
‘Consensus works on the direct democratic principle that decisions should be made by people who are affected by them – you can save a lot of time making sure you aren’t sitting round in one big circle micro-managing every detail of a project when you could trust small groups to get on with most things and just check in on bigger questions.’
But, in order for consensus to work effectively, all members of the group must be able to both participate and listen actively. Honest dialogue between group members is key in achieving consensus.
Smith offered advice for how people can overcome their resistance to honest dialogue: ‘The first step is learning to be honest with yourself, for example recognising when you don’t really need something, and you might do better to let go of it for the sake of a group.
Or alternatively, learning how to stand up for the things that are important to you – risking being seen as the “awkward one” to voice something that no-one else has dared say yet.’
‘Honesty is made more possible by developing self-respect – you are a worthwhile human being even if you don’t get what you want, and even if you sometimes say things that other people don’t want to hear. This is made much more possible with the support of others – even one or two people in your group who really listen to what you have to say, and make space for the things you are holding back.
‘So while what we do as individuals to overcome our own resistance is important, enabling honest dialogue remains very much collective work.’
But it’s important to remember that consensus decision-making is more than just finding agreement; the entire process is a learning experience. ‘I often hear people introducing consensus by saying “You wave your hands if you agree”. But it is much more than this.
‘It is about having the care and respect for every member of a group to look for ways forward that everyone will be happy with. And the confidence to believe that if we think creatively enough we can find those solutions where no-one has to lose out, even if at first glance what we want is incompatible’.
Recap on consensus
Consensus decision-making (CDM) doesn’t mean everyone fully supports every decision. It means everyone can live with the decisions the group makes. Here is a rough outline of the process:
1 Discuss issue
2 Develop proposals
3 Test proposal(s) for clarification and then agreement
People can disagree in a number of ways:
Reservation (‘I have reservations but will let this pass’);
Stand-aside (‘I disagree with this, and will not help make it happen, but I won’t stop the group from doing it’); and
Block (‘I have a fundamental disagreement with this proposal and will not allow it to go ahead’). In strict CDM, it is ‘one person, one block’. The next-strongest version is ‘consensus-minus-one’, where it needs two people to block a proposal.
4 If there are any blocks (in strict consensus) or if there are too many reservations and/or stand-asides, go back to stage 1 or 2.
5 If there are no blocks, and not too many reservations or stand-asides, you have active agreement, or consensus, go on to stage 6.
6 Agree who’s going to do what by when.
7 Carry out the decision.