Different groups use slightly different processes to achieve consensus decisions. However, in every group, there are a few conditions that underpin consensus building:
Everyone present at the meeting needs to share a common goal and be willing to work together towards it. This could be the desire to take action at a specific event, or a shared vision of a better world. Don’t just assume everyone is pulling in the same direction – spend time together defining the goals of your group and the way you can get there. If differences arise in later meetings, revisiting the common goal can help to focus and unite the group.
Commitment to reach consensus
Consensus can require a lot of commitment and patience to make it work. Everyone must be willing to really give it a go. This means not only being deeply honest about what it is you want or don’t want but also able to properly listen to what others have to say. Everyone must be willing to shift their positions, to be open to alternative solutions and be able to reassess what they consider to be their needs. It would be easy to call for a vote at the first sign of difficulty, but in the consensus model, differences help to build a stronger and more creative final decision. Difficulties can arise if individuals secretly want to return to majority voting, just waiting for the chance to say “I told you it wouldn’t work.”
Trust and openness
We all need to be able to trust that everyone shares our commitment to creating true consensus decisions. This includes being able to trust people not to abuse the process or to manipulate the outcome of the discussion. If we’re scared that other people are putting their own wishes and needs before everyone else’s then we’re more likely to become defensive, and behave in the same way ourselves because it seems to be the only way to look after our own interests.
Making decisions by consensus is based on openness – this means learning to openly express both our desires (what we’d like to see happening), and our needs (what we have to see happen in order to support a decision). It takes time for us to learn how to distinguish between our wants and needs – after all most of us are more used to decision making where one wins and the other loses. In this kind of adversarial system we are often forced to claim we need more than we really do so we can concede points without giving up any significant ground. But if everyone is able to talk openly then the group will have the information it requires to take everyone’s positions into account and to come up with a solution that everyone can support.
For making decisions and for learning to work by consensus. Taking time to make a good decision now can save wasting time revisiting a bad one later.
It’s essential for everyone to have a shared understanding of the process that the meeting is using. There are lots of variations of the consensus process, so even if people are experienced in using consensus they may use it differently to you! There may also be group agreements or hand signals in use that need to be explained.
If we want a decision we can all agree on then we all need to play an active role in the decision making. This means listening to what everyone has to say, voicing thoughts and feelings about the matter and pro-actively looking for solutions that include everyone.
When your group is larger than just a handful of people or you are trying to make difficult decisions, appoint facilitators to help your meeting run more smoothly. Good facilitation helps the group to work harmoniously, creatively and democratically. It also ensures that the tasks of the meeting get done, that decisions are made and implemented. If, in a small group, you don’t give one person the role of facilitator, then everyone can be responsible for facilitation. If you do appoint facilitators, they need active support from everyone present.
All of the conditions talked about above can be gained or improved over time – so if your group isn’t meeting all the conditions at the moment you don’t have to give up! For example, if you haven’t agreed on your common goal use consensus to decide on one that everyone can subscribe to; or if your group’s facilitation skills aren’t too good then use any opportunities to practice; read our facilitation briefings or attend a training.