Troubleshooting consensus

Like any method of decision making, consensus can work better in theory than in practise. However, most of the sticking points stem from lack of experience, or the fact that the conditions for consensus aren’t being met, rather than there being a problem with consensus itself. It takes time to unlearn the patterns of behaviour we have been brought up to accept as the norm. Probably the most important thing to do is to take time and reflect on how your consensus process is going, giving each other feedback and constantly looking for ways to improve.

When things do get tricky in a meeting, it is important to get to the bottom of the underlying issues. Develop your ability to spot problems and the reasons behind them, and learn how to deal with them. There are a handful of really common problems, but there are many possible issues underlying them. The approach you take will depend on the cause of the problem. Don’t just ask What’s happening? Also ask Why is it happening? The more trust and understanding there is in a group the easier it is to overcome problems. Facilitation can help by supplying the tools to avoid problems in the first place and to deal with them creatively if they do occur.

Below we’ve compiled ideas for dealing with common issues in consensus based meetings.

Our meetings take a long time – how can we speed things up?

Reaching good consensus decisions can take longer than voting, especially when a group is new to it. It can take time to look at ideas until all objections are resolved, and some decisions might take more than one meeting to decide. The advantage of consensus is that decisions are usually of a higher standard. Consensus does get quicker with practise, particularly in a long-term group.

Save time in consensus by:

  • Making sure in advance that you have all the information you need at the meeting. If vital facts are missing, work out what needs to be done to get them for the next meeting and move on;
  • Delegating nitty-gritty business to working groups (e.g. publicity or fundraising);
  • Splitting the meeting into parallel working groups to deal with several issues at once – each working group comes back with a platter of proposals for the whole group to decide on;
  • Delegating a small group to synthesise everyone’s ideas into a few possible solutions to be discussed later by the whole group;
  • Good facilitation – keep the group focussed and stop people from going off on tangents;
  • Keeping accurate minutes to avoid having to revisit decisions.

Urgent decisions

Time pressure to find a solution to an urgent problem leads to stress and group pressure ‘to just get on with it’. When meetings run for a long time because a decision ‘must be made today’, many people will get tired, leaving only those with the most stamina to be involved in the final decision.

Allow enough time in the agenda to tackle urgent issues adequately. Postpone less urgent decisions, or allow them less time. Can the meeting be extended or continued another time? Could you find a temporary solution? Could a small group go away to discuss (and resolve) the issue?

Our meetings lack focus

A lack of focus can be very frustrating when you need to make decisions. To avoid this draw up an agenda that outlines what will be discussed in what order, and then stick to it. Appoint a facilitator to help the group to stay on topic and stop people from going off on tangents. If new issues come up in a discussion, acknowledge that they need discussing too, but separately. Make a note of them and schedule a time to discuss them.

What if we’re stuck and can’t reach a decision?

  • Do the conditions for consensus exist in your group?
  • Do you need to spend more time on developing shared goals? Is everyone committed to working together to find a solution?
  • Does everyone understand how consensus works? Do you need to explain the process? Do you have good facilitator(s)?
  • Do you have all the information you need to make a decision? If not, how can you get it?
  • Do you have a worthwhile decision to make? Where there’s nothing to think about, flip a coin.
  • Is the group unable to reach a decision because it has no good choices? Are you forced to choose between being shot and hung? Can you create a situation where you can make real choices?
  • Have you had an honest discussion about where people are coming from?

Sometimes the group has not gone deep enough in their discussion. People may be holding back from being completely open about their concerns and motives, or they might find it difficult to express them. Alternatively, it may be that someone hasn’t been listened to carefully enough, and people are assuming they’ve understood when they haven’t.

Encourage everyone to explain their viewpoints in more depth. What’s at the root of people’s worries? Which are the issues that are vital to address and which ones are side issues? Which areas does everyone agree on and what are the unresolved concerns?

Has the discussion become polarised?

Groups often get paralysed by individuals or factions holding strong conflicting positions. Remind yourselves that consensus is about co-operating to find solutions and not competing. Holding onto our personal agendas and opinions is often an obstacle to this co-operation happening. Encourage self-reflection. If the language of a discussion starts taking on tones of ‘either /or’, take a break and think of new ways forward. Can the ideas work together in any way? Are we falling out over small details and forgetting that we have a lot in common? Ask people to argue the point of view they like the least to help them understand the other side of the conflict.

Do you need to agree now or can you choose one of the options below?

Break down the decision into smaller bits. Are there any points on which you agree and can move forward? Can other areas be decided later?

Put the decision on ice, and come back to it in an hour, a day or a week. When people have a chance to cool off things can look quite different. At other times people might just be too tired to see a way forward – so a break or a cup of tea might help. If the decision is postponed try to engage conflicting parties in conflict resolution in the meantime.

Imagine what will happen in a year, or five years if you don’t agree. How important is the decision now? A long term view can make people more willing to shift their positions.

Agree an alternative process for taking a decision that all parties can sign up to. This could be allowing the person, or people, most affected to make the decision, putting all the possibilities into a hat and pulling one out, or tossing a coin. Some groups also have majority voting as a backup, often requiring an overwhelming vote such as 80% or 90% to make a decision valid. Be careful not to turn to this at the first sign of trouble – it’s a definite last resort in a consensus group.

Do you need an outside facilitator to help you through your sticky patch?

Bringing in outside help needs to happen when there’s enough good feeling left for people to co-operate with the process and be willing to accept a different facilitator. Quite often an outside facilitator will be seen as neutral, which can help things along.

Is it time to split the group?

If the same people continually find themselves at odds with the rest of the group, it may be time to think about the reasons for this. Is this really the right group to be in? Do all members of the group share the same goals, and is everyone committed to true consensus? You might need to spend some time exploring these issues. Depending on the answers a group may ask members to leave or split into two groups. Although this might be painful, it will be better for everyone in the long run. Ideally, you’ll carry on supporting each other and working together on shared projects.

Too many ideas?

Sometimes an issue brings up a large number of ideas. Pick a process that gives space to hear and consider each idea in turn. Which parts of it work, which don’t work so well for the group? Can you pick elements from different ideas to create one combined ‘super-proposal’? Are there any ideas that can be filtered out – for example, ideas that go against the aims of the group? Can some proposals be delegated to working groups for decision making?

Techniques for evaluating ideas:

Pros and Cons: list the benefits and drawbacks of each idea and compare the results. This can be done by the whole group or by splitting into small groups.

Plus-Minus-Implications: create a table with three columns entitled Plus, Minus, Implications. In the Plus column write down the positive aspects of the option, in the Minus the negative consequences, and put any other interesting or important effects in the Implications column.

Stickers and dots: for a quick prioritising exercise you can give everyone a number of stickers or dots (1-6 usually works). Ask people to stick their stickers by the issue or idea that they consider to be most important for the group to deal with.

Show of hands and Strawpolls: a quick way of gauging group opinion and identifying potential ways forward. Beware of using this as a short-cut to reaching a decision without a full discussion!

How can we deal with disruptive behaviour?

Do your meetings suffer from disruptive behaviour such as chatting, people coming late and leaving early, incessant joking, and going off on tangents? This could be a sign that people’s needs in the meeting are not being fulfilled. We all bring a number of needs with us – we need to feel that we are being treated fairly, want our expertise and experience to be valued and our opinions to be heard. When these needs aren’t fulfilled people can easily feel alienated from the meeting. This often expresses itself in disruptive behaviour. For example, if someone feels they had no say in the choice of agenda they may not see the relevance of what is being discussed. Make sure everyone is able to participate and use facilitation tools to keep the meeting on track.

Alternatively the meeting might simply have gone on for too long, and people are tired and hungry and just need a break. It’s also worth checking in with individuals as people’s ability to sit still and focus varies. Build in breaks every 90 minutes and provide food and drinks for people to recharge.

Our group is dominated by a few individuals.

A common form of disruptive behaviour is when a handful of dominant personalities do most of the groups’ talking and organising. The key to reducing dominating behaviour is to recognise that it is a two-way process. People can only dominate a group if others let them.

There are different kinds of dominating behaviour. Some people like power and will use their skills and experience to manipulate a group. This needs to be challenged openly. At other times, some people end up doing most of the work within a group, leading to more knowledge of the issues and more emotional investment. This means they can find themselves speaking a lot in meetings and dominating the discussions whether they like it or not. One of the best ways to deal with this is for every member of the group to do a fair share of the work, rather than letting one or two people do it all. That way information, skills, and effort are more equally distributed. Taking on more tasks should also enable quieter people in the group to have more confidence to speak up.

Whatever its causes, dominant behaviour can be discouraged, and other people’s participation can be increased with the use of a few simple facilitation tools:

  • Reaffirm the group’s commitment to consensus decision making at the start of meetings.
  • Gently remind dominant people that others also have valued opinions, and that meeting time is limited: “Thanks for that contribution. It would be really nice to hear from anyone that’s not yet had the chance to speak….”
  • Set up a group agreement that includes agreements not to interrupt, and to allow everyone a chance to speak.
  • Information is power – share information at the beginning of the meeting through presentations and question and answer sessions.
  • Use go-rounds, small groups and paired listening to allow everyone to have a chance to speak.
  • Use hand signals so that you can see who wants to speak, and prioritise those who haven’t contributed so often.
  • Invite an experienced facilitator to come to your group. They can highlight and deal with unhealthy group dynamics.

What to do when someone blocks?

Why do blocks occur?

In an ideal consensus process, a block wouldn’t occur, since any major concerns about a proposal should have been noticed and dealt with before moving on to the decision stage. The fact that someone feels the need to block a proposal means that something has gone wrong earlier in the process, but because this will sometimes happen the option to block needs to be available.

Fundamentally, blocks occur when the conditions for consensus aren’t being met. The kind of things that commonly go wrong, and end up with a block are:

  • The proposal goes against the agreed aims and principles of the group.
  • The proposal impacts in a profoundly negative way on an individual’s fundamental needs.
  • Going ahead with the proposal would lead to severe consequences for individual members or the group, e.g. members leaving the group, either immediately or in the longer run; or serious legal consequences.
  • An individual hasn’t been able to express their concerns in a way that the group can understand, or even at all.
  • The group is not ready to make a decision – more in-depth discussion is needed to address everyone’s concerns and to involve everyone in the decision making. There are many reasons for this, including: members of the group may be absent; not everyone had a chance to feed in their views; the proposal is being rushed through; people need to sleep on it; vital information is missing.

What to do in case of block

Once someone has blocked, it is important for the whole group to understand the reasons behind it. Find out whether an amendment to the original problem might be satisfactory to everyone, if not, go back to discussing other potential solutions to the issue.

It is also worth checking whether the block is actually a stand aside, as sometimes people aren’t clear what the difference is – but remember to be careful to avoid putting pressure on the person blocking when checking this.

What if people are afraid to block?

Making use of the block can be hard, especially for people who don’t feel confident in their group. It can involve standing up to perceived or actual group pressure and impatience. Many people are tempted to keep quiet and important discussions are sometimes avoided.

Create an atmosphere where people will feel able to block. This places particular responsibility on the facilitator to check what levels of agreement exist and to make people comfortable to speak up.

What if the block is being misused?

Because blocks are such powerful tools it’s important to be aware of how they can be misused. Some of the common misuses are:

  • conscious or subconscious use of the block to maintain or gain power or attention;
  • different cultural and political backgrounds leading to misunderstanding of the block;
  • the person blocking doesn’t understand, or is not committed to consensus. For example blocking when the proposal is still being discussed – i.e. not at the decision stage yet. This could either be because someone doesn’t understand the process or because they have already made up their mind and are not prepared to listen to other people’s positions.
If you feel a block is being misused:
  • Explain the consensus process and how the block works. Do this at the beginning of meetings, and possibly again if a block occurs.
  • Discuss the difference between a block and a stand aside. It may become clear that an objection is a stand aside rather than block. Be careful that the person blocking doesn’t feel under pressure to stand aside.
  • If someone regularly blocks it may indicate that the group isn’t meeting their needs – perhaps they don’t feel listened to? Try to uncover such hidden dynamics and deal with them.
  • If someone finds themselves continually at odds with the rest of the group it may be time to consider whether this is the right group for that person. Does the person agree with everyone else about the aims and principles of the group? Would it be better for the person to leave?

What if people refuse to accept the validity of a block?

In some cases the rest of the group is unwilling to respect a block. This is a difficult situation. A group should respect a block, unless it stems from a fundamental disagreement with the aims of the group or is driven by abuse of power (although it isn’t always easy to tell if this is the case.)

Some people argue that you should only be allowed to block a proposal if it is against the well-being of the group, however we feel it is valid to block for personal reasons. We need to respect each other even if we disagree profoundly – we can’t just draw an arbitrary line to stop respecting people when it’s about their personal view rather than the group’s interest. Commitment to consensus means carrying on looking for solutions for everyone, even when it becomes difficult.

If a group goes against a block this can completely undermine the member’s commitment to the group and is against the principles of consensus. The fact that someone feels the need to block suggests that their concerns have not been taken into account. If that block is then not accepted by the group, this might be an even more serious sign that they are not being respected. This means that the conditions for consensus are not being met, and this needs to be addressed.

In the short term there are a few things you can do if a block is not being accepted:
  • Have a break for 10 minutes or even a few days – it allows people to cool down and have a think. Quite often the group will feel differently after a bit of time out.
  • Go back to exploring people’s needs and concerns. Make sure that the member using the block is able to articulate themselves clearly, and the group can understand their concerns.
  • Ultimately if a group refuses to respect someone’s block, then this may lead to that person leaving. It is important to remind everyone of that consequence.

Steamroller proposals

Sometimes people already have firm ideas or proposals when they come to a meeting. This could be from a working group (such as funding or publicity), a local group or an individual who has already spent some time thinking about the issue. Bringing proposals to a meeting can be helpful in speeding up the discussions. However there is a danger that the proposal will be pushed through without discussion or modification. Also, people at the meeting often react negatively to a proposal because they have not had time to consider the matter for themselves and feel ‘steamrollered’, even if that was not the intention of the proposer.

To avoid these problems it’s important to remind everyone that consensus is based on taking everyone’s point of view into account, exploring different options and combining the best elements into a proposal. People bringing ideas to the meeting need to be willing to let the group modify and adjust them, maybe even beyond recognition.

Dealing with pre-existing proposals

Option 1:

  1. After explaining the issue to be discussed collect any existing proposals and put them to one side.
  2. Together explore the issue, gather concerns and look for any other new ideas.
  3. Add new ideas to your list. Have a broad ranging discussion about all ideas – the pre-existing ones and those that have come out of the meeting.
  4. Synthesise a proposal for consensus out of these.

Option 2:

  1. After explaining the issue to be discussed, outline the existing proposal.
  2. Together explore the issue itself and the pros and cons of the proposal.
  3. Make a list of people’s concerns and other ideas.
  4. Modify the proposal to address these until everyone is happy with it. (This only really works if there is just one existing proposal. If there are two or more, using this process would set up an either/or dynamic that might make it really hard to reach agreement).

Our group is biased towards the status quo

In consensus based groups there can be a resistance to change, with some people using the decision-making process to consistently stifle new initiatives and to maintain the current position.

Many people are afraid of change and can feel challenged by new people wanting to introduce new ways of doing things. It can be hard to overcome this, but consensus should not be used as to stifle innovation. Consensus can help in these situations by accommodating both the wish for change and the wish to protect that which is well-proved and working. If this is not achieved then ultimately people will get frustrated and leave the group. At the same time it is well worth taking into account people’s experience – there may be very good reasons why they are opposing something.

Some ideas to try:

  • A sub group could go ahead with a project without everyone being involved.
  • A trial period for a new way of doing this, with built in review.
  • Identify what it is that people are afraid of and find solutions.