Facilitating consensus

people in a meeting leaning forward, interested in what is being written on a piece of paper on the floor between them

The key to helping a group towards consensus is to help all members of the group express their needs and viewpoints clearly, map out common ground and find solutions to any areas of disagreement. Active listening, summarising and synthesis are three skills that help the facilitator with this.

1) Active listening

Active listening is a key facilitation skill – without it a facilitator simply can’t do his or her job. When we actively listen we suspend our own thought processes and give the speaker our full attention. We make a deliberate effort to understand another person’s position and their underlying needs. We simply listen, and we don’t just listen with our ears. We also use our body language, eye contact and where appropriate verbal cues – short questions or comments – to help the speaker formulate their thoughts and let them know that they are being listened to.

Active listening helps facilitators in several ways. It helps us to understand how the speaker feels about a subject or situation and the underlying emotions, concerns, and tensions. It allows us to focus on the core issues of a speaker’s message. It enables us to hear what the speaker is actually saying to us, and not what we want to hear. It also shows the speaker that we are interested in what they have to say.

For more information have a look at our briefing on active listening

Summarising effectively

  • Wait until the speaker has finished.
  • Offer the summary tentatively and allow people to correct you if you get it wrong. Use phrases such as: “You seem to feel that…”, “What I hear you saying is…. is that right?” But we need to be careful how we phrase it. If we say something like: “So you feel that…” and the speaker doesn’t agree 100% then we may risk offending our speaker by misrepresenting them.
  • Summarise succinctly – try to boil things down into one or two short sentences.
  • Rephrase rather than parrot – this shows we’ve understood the key issues and feelings that were expressed. “What I hear you saying is that you feel we need to restrict noise after 10pm because you need a good night’s sleep to be able to function in the meeting tomorrow”.

2) Summarising

Listening on its own is a great tool for diagnosing problems and hearing underlying issues. There’s a second stage to active listening that can help a group move forwards – succinctly summarising what’s been said. Summarising reassures speakers they are being heard, and it can also help to focus meetings. Examples include: summarising after a period of discussion to clarify where you think the meeting has got to; or summarising after a particularly rambling speaker to ensure that everyone understood the essence of the point that they made.

Some people find it helpful to take notes or write up key issues on a flipchart as the discussion happens. This makes a succinct and accurate summary much easier.

3) Synthesis

When working to reach consensus we bring together different ideas and try to find a proposal that is agreeable to everyone. We call this process synthesis: it maps out the common ground, finds connections between seemingly competing ideas and weaves them together to form proposals.

Synthesis is based on active listening, which allows us to hear the emerging common ground as well as unresolved differences.

Start with a summary of where you think the group and its different members are at: “it seems like we’ve almost reached agreement on that element of the proposal, but that we need to explore this part further to address everyone’s concerns.” It’s important to not only pick up on clear differences, but also on more subtle agreement or disagreement.

Start with whatever agreement there is and build the proposal from that. Look for ideas on how the differences can be resolved. Focus on solutions that address the fundamental needs and key concerns that people within the group have. Often people are willing to give way on some things yet not on others which affect them more closely. The solution will often be found by combining elements from different proposals.

As with summarising it can really help to use a flipchart to write up the areas of agreement and issues to be resolved. This means everyone can see what’s happening and focus the discussion.

People often argue over small details and overlook the fact that they agree on the big picture. Making this obvious to the group can help to provide ways forward.

Even when there is strong disagreement within the group, synthesis can help move the discussion on. Always try and find some common ground, no matter how small: “so we’re all agreed that climate change demands urgent action, even if we disagree on whether the solution lies in developing new technologies, or reducing consumption”. This can reinforce that we’re all on the same side, and remind a group of their overall shared aims – a necessary condition for consensus.

Also synthesising a solution doesn’t necessarily mean uniformity or unanimity. Sometimes a solution is staring us in the face, but our desire to get full agreement becomes an obstacle: “so we’re all agreed we’d like to go ahead with the protest. However some feel strongly that the target of our protest should be government, and others feel it ought to be corporations – is there any reason why we have to choose between the two? Could we not agree that both can happen?”