Guidelines for Operating by Consensus
Consensus is a process for group decision-making. The input and ideas of all participants are gathered and synthesized to arrive at a final decision acceptable to all. Through consensus, the group utilizes an approach to reaching decisions based upon trust and the input of all involved.
Consensus works among those who are committed to being supportive and empowering of themselves and one another. Each person makes a commitment to: (a) state their preference about what they would like to have happen; (b) inform the group how strongly they feel about their preference; and (c) say what they would and would not be willing to go along with. Differences are welcomed and seemingly contradictory ideas can be worked though and synthesized. Consensus assumes that people are able to talk about their differences and take responsibility for reaching a mutually satisfactory position. No ideas are lost; each member’s input is valued as part of the solution.
During discussion a proposal for resolution is put forward. It is amended and modified through more discussion, or withdrawn if it seems to be a dead end. During this discussion period, it is important to articulate differences clearly. It is the responsibility of those who are having trouble with a proposal to put forth alternative suggestion. When a proposal seems to be well understood by everyone and here are no new changes asked for, the facilitator can ask if there are any objections or reservations to it. If there are no objections, there can be a call for consensus.
Consensus does not mean that everyone thinks the decision made is necessarily the best possible one, or even that they are sure it will work. What it does mean is that in coming to that decision, no one felt that their position on the matter was misunderstood or that it wasn’t given a proper hearing. It also means that the final decision does not violate someone’s fundamental ethics, for if it did they would be obligated to block consensus or to withdraw.
On a continuum, those who object can express one of several position.
- Mild Concern: I don’t see the need for this, but I will go along.
- Reservations: I think this may be a mistake, but I can live with it.
- Standing Aside: I personally can’t do this, but I won’t stop others from doing it.
- Blocking: I cannot support this or allow the group to support this because it is unethical.
- Withdrawing: I cannot continue in this group because my values are different from the group’s.
Once a decision has been reached on an issue, this decision will stand until compelling new information requires its re-discussion.
In order to provide safety in the group it is critical that no one “go along’ for the sake of speed, efficiency or peace. Ignoring individual preferences upsets the balance of power, creates a lack of trust within the group, and undermines the strength of the group as a whole
How to have a good meeting.
Three keys to good meetings.
- Good planning.
- Plan and post the agenda at least one week in advance to allow everyone time to see the posting and reflect on the items to be discussed. Include times and what you would like to get out of each item (i.e. brainstorming, discussion, decision).
- Schedule breaks into the meeting.
- Set the meeting for a time when everyone can come and at a place that is comfortable and accommodating for the size of group you expect.
- Post the agenda where everyone can see it during the meeting.
- Get to the meeting space early. Rearrange the furniture so everyone can see each other. Set out water, scrap paper, and pens. Get a dry erase or chalk board ready for the scribe.
- Presenters, be prepared to present. Bring hand-outs or visual aids that will help keep people’s attention.
- Good facilitation.
- Choose a strong facilitator who has attended facilitation training.
- Have the facilitator and presenters meet before the meeting so that everyone understands the purpose of each agenda item and what each person might need from the other(s).
- Start the meeting on time.
- Encourages everyone to speak and is attentive to group power dynamics
- Identify goals of meeting and of each agenda item
- Good participant behavior.
- Arrive on time.
- Stay for the entire meeting.
- Pay attention. Hand work is okay. Reading a book is not.
- Turn off your cell phone.
- Do not participate if you are intoxicated or very sick.
- Assume good intentions. People you find “difficult” or who differ from you politically can have valuable input. Accommodate divergent communication styles and divergent organizing or educational backgrounds.
- Accept process roles.
- Support the facilitator by observing the process.
- Review any materials that were distributed before the meeting.
- Speak concisely and to the point.
- Wait to be called on to speak, refrain from interrupting others and speaking out of turn (even if it is a one word comment).
- Don’t engage in side conversations.
- Distinguish between your individual interests and the needs of the group.
- Be willing to ask for process time if personal issues with other members (or outside issues) are unduly influencing your ability to make a decision.
- Once the group has reached consensus, accept and support the decision.
- Participants are responsible for voicing their opinions, participating in the discussion, and actively implementing the agreement.
- Respect others and trust them to make responsible input.
- Look for areas of agreement and common ground and build on them. Avoid competitive, right/wrong, win/lose thinking.
Roles for the meetings:
- Facilitator: The facilitator aids the group in defining decisions that need to be made, helps them through the stages of reaching an agreement, keeps the meeting moving, focuses discussion to the point-at hand; makes sure everyone has the opportunity to participate, and formulates and tests to see if consensus has been reached. Facilitators help to direct the process of the meeting, not its content. They never make decisions for the group.
- Timekeeper: assists the facilitator in keeping within time limits set in the agenda.
- Minute Taker: writes down proposals, decisions (with reservations noted), tasks people agree to complete, announcements, next meeting time/place, and future agenda items.
- Scribe: writes on paper or white board information during the meeting that is helpful for the whole group to see.
- Gatekeeper (also can be the facilitator): Helps to keep communication channels open: facilitates the participation of others, suggests procedures that permit sharing remarks. Utilize whenever you want to hear from the more silent members of the group, whenever you want to prevent a participant from dominating the discussion. Ask an individual for their opinions or the information; be sensitive to the non-verbal signals indicating that people want to participate; when a person monopolizes the conversation, ask others for input. Jeff, did you want to share something?”
“Thanks for your input, Robin. I would like to know what the rest of you think.”
- Vibes Watcher: A vibes-watcher is someone besides the facilitator who watches and comments on individual and group feelings and patterns of participation. Vibes-watchers need to be especially tuned in to the level of participation of societally marginalized people in the group.
- Task Manager: someone who keeps track of who said they would do what and reiterates it at the end of the meeting and as needed when people forget what they said they would do in meetings.
It takes training and a personal commitment to cooperation and equality to make a good facilitator. Other qualities that aid in facilitation are the ability to paraphrase or sum up, a good memory, a sense of what’s missing or what’s needed in the discussion, and humility. Also, a good facilitator is not deeply invested in the topic at hand and/or will step down from the role of facilitator for agenda items for which s/he has a lot to say. The facilitator is considered a “servant leader.” It’s a good idea to rotate facilitators so that more people get a chance to practice and everyone gets a chance to just be a participant.
Facilitator Job Duties:
- Be prepared.
- Get to meeting space early.
- Make space comfortable.
- Display Ground Rules and Agenda.
- Provide meetings supplies (handouts, dry erase board, markers).
- Meet with presenters ahead of time to find out what they might need from you.
- Keep the meeting focused.
- State the desired outcome for each agenda item.
- Keep the issues clear and manageable.
- Start the discussion with clarifying questions.
- Break large, complicated issues or proposals into smaller parts.
- Summarize after five or so people have spoken.
- Never have more than one topic or proposal on the table at a time.
- Keep a visible list of tabled items.
- Encourage Participation.
- Have people raise their hands to speak, dissuade talking out of tern, even one word comments.
- Clarify the issue under discussion as needed.
- Have everyone speak once before anyone speaks a second time.
- If someone seems to be holding back, try to engage them in discussion.
- Give people easy ways to participate. (ex: Ask questions and have people show thumbs.)
- Disassociate contributions from contributors.
- Don’t grade contributions. Say, “Thanks for that idea,” not, “That’s a good idea.”
- Manage Time.
- Start and end the meeting on time.
- Assign times to each agenda item (with group help).
- Remind participants of how much time is left.
- Interrupt long talkers when necessary.
- Keep participants from repeating points.
- Write points on the board (or ask scribe to do so).
- Leave a few minutes at the end of each item to decide its disposition.
- Keep the meeting focused on the topic under current discussion.
- Pull it all together.
- Take your time before calling for a decision.
- Use a whiteboard or flipchart to list points of a proposal.
- Review important parts of the discussion.
- Know if or when a decision cannot be made, but don’t let the issue dissolve. Keep it alive at the next meeting.
- Ask members if they feel comfortable making a decision.
- Make sure the recorder writes it all down exactly.
- Leave some time at the end of the meeting to do a go ‘round about group dynamics or how the meeting went.
Techniques for Discussion:
- Keep Stack: Keep a list of people who would like to speak and call on them. If someone is speaking frequently you can move them down on the stack and prioritize calling on infrequent speakers (be transparent about doing this).
- Go ‘Round/Round Robin: Have everyone speak in turn, either with an object that is passed or without.
- Popcorn: Typically used during a brainstorming session, where people call out ideas without discussing them.
- Fishbowl: A small number of people are put in the center of a circle to talk, the outside circle listens. Useful when two people or a few people have differing opinions.
- Small Groups: allow more participation in formatting questions, concerns, and modifying proposals to bring back to a large group.
- Brainstorming: People throw out ideas without discussing, commenting, or evaluating them. A list is kept of the ideas and they are fleshed out utilizing a different discussion technique.
- Thumbs/Straw Poll: Useful to see which of several dates or ideas warrant further consideration.
- Tally voting: Revisit the list of brainstormed ideas, and ask people to vote on the ideas. The vote is non-binding and people can vote as many times as they want. This can be a good way to find out the group’s level of interest in different ideas.
- Working Groups: The large group may consense to delegate tasks or projects to smaller sub groups. For example, a larger action planning group might ask a few people within the large group to work together as a media team for the upcoming action. That team may make decisions about media without consulting the large group about each decision. However, it is important that the smaller working groups be accountable to the larger group and check in with them if it seems possible that the decisions they are making goes beyond the scope of the working group. When in doubt, check in. Generally, working groups are used for purposes of logistics and tasks after everyone has consensed on larger decisions. Working groups are not used as a way to bypass the consensus process, and not as a way for a small group to make big decisions that affect the larger group.
- Spokes Council: For large group decision making. Break the large group into smaller groups. Each small group chooses a spoke, a person who will act as the voice of the small group, representing them in meetings. Sometimes the spokes will meet with their small group present. Only the spokes speak, but the rest of the group can listen. Occasionally the meeting will pause whilst spokes confer with their affinity groups. Sometimes just the spokes (and a notetaker from each group) will meet. In this case the spoke is also acting as the ears of the group as well as the voice.
Consensus, A Group Decision Making Process
Consensus decision-making is a group decision making process that not only seeks the agreement of most participants, but also the resolution or mitigation of minority objections. Consensus is usually defined as meaning both general agreement, and the process of getting to such agreement.
Since the consensus decision-making process is not as formalized as others, the practical details of its implementation vary from group to group. However, there is a core set of procedures which is common to most implementations of consensus decision-making.
Once an agenda for discussion has been set and the ground rules for the meeting have been agreed upon, each item of the agenda is addressed in turn. Typically, each decision arising from an agenda item follows through a simple structure:
- Discussion of the item: The item is discussed with the goal of identifying opinions and information on the topic at hand. The general direction of the group and potential proposals for action are often identified during the discussion.
- Formation of a proposal: Based on the discussion a formal decision proposal on the issue is presented to the group.
- Call for consensus: The facilitator of the decision-making body calls for consensus on the proposal. Each member of the group usually must actively state their agreement with the proposal, often by using a hand gesture or raising a colored card, to avoid the group interpreting silence or inaction as agreement.
- Identification and addressing of concerns: If consensus is not achieved, each dissenter presents his or her concerns on the proposal, potentially starting another round of discussion to address or clarify the concern.
- Modification of the proposal: The proposal is amended, re-phrased or reiterated in an attempt to address the concerns of the decision-makers. The process then returns to the call for consensus and the cycle is repeated until a satisfactory decision is made.
Although the consensus decision-making process should, ideally, identify and address concerns and reservations early, proposals do not always garner full consensus from the decision- making body. When a call for consensus on a motion is made, a dissenting delegate has one of three options:
- Declare reservations: Group members who are willing to let a motion pass but desire to register their concerns with the group may choose “declare reservations.” If there are significant reservations about a motion, the decision-making body may choose to modify or re-word the proposal.
- Stand aside: A “stand aside” may be registered by a group member who has a “serious personal disagreement” with a proposal, but is willing to let the motion pass. Although stand asides do not halt a motion, it is often regarded as a strong “nay vote” and the concerns of group members standing aside are usually addressed by modifications to the proposal. Stand asides may also be registered by users who feel they are incapable of adequately understanding or participating in the proposal.
- Block: Any group member may “block” a proposal. In most models, a single block is sufficient to stop a proposal, although some measures of consensus may require more than one block. Blocks are generally considered to be an extreme measure, only used when a member feels a proposal “endanger[s] the organization or its participants, or violate[s] the mission of the organization” (i.e., a principled objection). In some consensus models, a group member opposing a proposal must work with its proponents to find a solution that will work for everyone.
Example of Ground Rules:
AR! Groundrules for Cooperation
- Practice Open Communication—Practice open communication and be a good listener. Everyone has a right to his or her own opinion. Think about individual and personal factors. Shed your preconceived notions and be flexible enough to perceive where the other person is coming from. Use your powers of patience and compassion when communicating. Feedback is important and should be given and received freely and constructively with eye toward continuous improvement.
- Avoid Power Plays—Power plays occur any time when a group member grabs for a larger share of the power than other group members. Power plays are a way of bypassing consensus by implicitly jumping the process. Types of power plays may include “all or nothing,” copping out, intimidation, rigidity, stumping, pushing the process, self-righteousness or martyrdom, lying, sabotage, creating a crisis, waiting until outside the meeting to voice concerns or criticisms, or acting defensive. When power plays occur, make sure they are defined and worked through as soon as possible.
- Protect Our Equal Rights—Remember that everyone is equal. There are no bosses here. Avoid behavior based on hierarchical models and actively work against -isms that seep into our day to day activities and decision making, such as: racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, colonialism, ableism, capitalism, and all other forms of oppression. Call out behaviors that point to -ism gently and with an eye toward continuous improvement.
- Participate in Decision Making—Participation is a responsibility of all group members. Involvement in the decision making of the group is encouraged. In decision making all opinions must be considered with respect. Efforts should be made to find common goals. When necessary, try to compromise in such a way that everyone’s needs can be met.
- Keep a Positive Attitude—Develop a positive attitude toward and take pride in your work. This attitude will communicate itself to folks outside of the group and help to create a positive image of our group. Work to take care of yourself and have fun outside of group activities in order to maintain a level of happiness and satisfaction with life that allows your work to be enjoyable.
- Know your Limitations—Be aware of your own and others’ limitations. Don’t take on responsibilities you can’t handle, or more work than you are capable of. Don’t hesitate to ask for help when you need it, and don’t wait until it’s too late and you’re swamped.
- Deal with Conflict Quickly and Directly—When you are having a problem with a co-worker, deal with that person directly, and as soon as possible. Don’t allow tension to grow. Keep in mind that as soon as possible might not mean right away. Sometimes folks need time to cool off and process their emotions before they are able to have a productive conversation.
- Acknowledge a job well done—Acknowledge and praise a job well done. Offer support, feedback, and listening when needed, and right away.
- Take Personal Responsibility— Remember that your work effects the work of others and effects our campaign. Make a point to be aware of the responsibilities that you have taken on and to complete all tasks thoroughly and within the allotted time frame. Be on time to meetings, and develop an awareness of taken on and to complete all tasks thoroughly and within the allotted time frame. Be on time to meetings, and develop an awareness of the big picture. Be willing to step up when others ask for help.
Power Dynamics Within Meetings.
People who are accustomed to societal privilege and power may be used to having their voices and opinions heard easily and often both in larger society and in the smaller groups and meetings they participate in. It is important to confront the ways that your group’s dynamics may directly or indirectly exclude or minimize the voices of people based on their race, class, gender, ability, language use, citizenship, status as a parent, income, educational background, or activist experience.
The consensus method may not, in itself, be able to confront all societal privilege and power, but it is built interrupt those dynamics within smaller organizing communities. Because it seeks to amplify all voices and because it identifies and works against hierarchies, working by consensus can be a good foundation for anti-oppression work within groups.
It is also important for groups to engage in and to take seriously anti-oppression work. There are plenty of excellent people to provide anti-oppression trainings.
Power dynamics also manifest within groups as individual misconduct, structural weaknesses, or “power plays”. Of course, these often intersect with, or stem from issues of societal privilege, but even when that doesn’t seem to be the case, power imbalances within groups must be identified and worked through in order to fully embrace consensus principals. Remember, most people have been on the “wrong” side of at least one type of power imbalance. This shouldn’t have to be about rooting out the baddies, but simply about improving group process.
What It Looks Like
Working by consensus may be important but it’s not all that glamorous. Be wary if someone talks a good game about working against oppressive systems and changing the world, but they are not doing the hard work within meetings of simply listening, not interrupting, of accepting consensed upon decisions, and of observing ground rules. But how do you identify when there are unwanted power dynamics working their way into your group or into your meetings? Here are some of the ways that power imbalances might play out within groups or meetings (particularly in activist settings).
Microaggressions: A microagression is “the casual degradation of any socially marginalized group”. It’s often enacted on an individual level. Constantly commenting on the way a woman looks or what she is wearing, asking a person of color to speak for all people of color, refusing to refer to someone by the pronoun that they prefer are all examples of microagressions.
Gatekeeping: One person in the group seems to have all the information, and in order to participate fully, everyone else needs to go through that one person for access to information, passwords, media contacts, access to other activist communities or ways of working.
Intimidation and Self Righteousness: One person declares or implies that they deserve to have a larger say in decision making because of their purported level of activist experience, political awareness, or “political purity”. Intimidating or excluding others on the basis of activist experience encourages an atmosphere in which people feel they have to prove themselves in order to fully participate. Such an atmosphere makes activists vulnerable to infiltrators and saboteurs. Remember that you should never feel under pressure to recite an “activist resume”, to talk about past actions that you’ve taken part in, to participate in an action you’re uncomfortable with, or to prove that you are somehow “legitimate” enough to have your voice equally heard in group decision making.
Rigidity: One person in the group seems unresponsive to group process. Even after group brainstorms, discussions, straw polls, go rounds, and modified proposals, it seems as if this person hasn’t been listening. They are unwilling to take other voices into account, and will not budge from their unadulterated position. This makes it difficult to pass proposals or to make meaningful decisions as a group.
Stumping: After much discussion and brainstorming, a go round, a straw poll, and a “tally vote” show strong group support for two particular plans of action. Instead of respecting this process, one person goes back to the beginning of the discussion and begins to “pitch” whichever idea they personally are most attached to. This type of stumping is a vestigial carryover from electoral decision making styles, where the goal is to “advertise” certain ideas in order to get the majority of votes. Stumping can derail a group process that should be focused on the merits and concerns of various proposed plans, and on the nuances and ideas that each person in the group can bring to these proposals. Meeting time should not be used to “get people onto your side”, but to co create meaningful plans of action.
Pushing the Process: This person suggests, at crucial moments, that things are taking too long, that the group doesn’t have time to come to consensus, or that a decision needs to be made quickly. This suggestion often comes at moments of high emotion, high consequence, disagreement, or discomfort, and often comes at the expense of voices that are already at the margins. This might be followed by the suggestion that a few people be empowered to make the crucial decision without group input, or that the process be cut short and things be put to a vote.
Transferring of Roles: As often happens in small communities, you might find yourself working in an activist group with someone who, in another context, is your employer, your professor, your partner, your classmate, or even your landlord. In most cases, it’s not enough to declare that those daily roles don’t matter. Instead, it is important to watch out for ways that those power stratifications might seep into group decision making and group process.
Silent Judgement, and Gossip: This person keeps their criticisms and concerns to themselves during meetings, but loudly spreads negative opinions once the meeting is over. By establishing groundrules and using good facilitation, consensus run groups attempt to create an opportunity for concerns and criticisms to be heard and worked through within meetings. Bypassing this can create an atmosphere of intimidation as well as a lack of trust and a lack of accountability. It also can be a power grab because the person has the luxury of voicing criticisms and concerns without the difficulty of hearing responses to them.
Acting Defensive. This person cannot hear concerns or criticism within meetings without directly responding to them each time, or treating them as personal attacks. This can subtly discourage much needed honesty during debriefs, which are built to help groups improve.
What To Do About It
Set Groundrules. For a group that meets together often, there might be one set of co-created groundrules that is always posted at meetings. A group that meets together for a one-time event can come up with groundrules at the beginning of the event. Groundrules are aimed at creating a shared understanding of basic behavioral conduct within the meeting, at creating a safer space for all to participate authentically, and to build trust within the group. It can be useful to go back to the groundrules and check in if the vibe of the meeting is off. Groundrules can be useful as a way to identify unwanted power dynamics within the group.
Use The “Point of Process Hand Signal.” Interrupt the meeting to mention that there might be a problem with process, that you fear the process is being rushed or that subtle hierarchies are creeping in. Be direct. Suggest or facilitate a check-in with the group in the form of a go-round, or asking directly to hear from people whose voices haven’t been heard. A go-round can help make sure that everyone gets a chance to comment on how they feel about the current process and how it might go better.
Debrief Everything. Even though it takes time and everyone is tired, make sure that your group debriefs every action or large event that they plan, as soon as it makes sense to do so afterwards. Analyzing and understanding what worked and what didn’t about group activities makes it harder for persistent power dynamics to fly under the radar.
Suggest Structural Changes: Discussions of power dynamics often seem like they’re built to denounce bad people within groups. But most people have been on the bad side of at least one of these dynamics, even if they didn’t mean to be. Assuming that all people within the group want the group to operate more democratically and equitably, consider suggesting structural changes that could help make this happen. If it seems like one person is gatekeeping, for example, it could help to establish rotating roles within the group for who checks the email account, acts as media spokesperson, keeps track of funds, etc. If one person’s microagressions seem to be stemming from a certain type of obliviousness, suggest that anti- oppression training become a requisite for all group members.
Be Honest With Yourself: If you are the perpetrator of one of the above power plays, consider your own motives or capacity for group work. For example, if you find yourself almost always at odds with the rest of your group, and blocking many decisions, consider that you might have fundamental differences from that group, ethically or strategically, and you might want to take a step back from that organizing body. If you prefer to be the sole decision maker, or only to work with one other person, consider other types of work that could still contribute to changing the world but don’t necessitate that you work in a democratic group process.
Don’t Hesitate to Bring in Outside Trainers or Mediators As needed! Regardless of experience or expertise within a group, a fresh perspective can always be useful. It can be invigorating and refreshing for a group to periodically bring in an outside trainer who can help them work through or learn more about process issues, power dynamics, or anti oppression work.
OTHER TRAINING RESOURCES:
WHAT’S UP?! PITTSBURGH: https://wwhatsup.wordpress.com (anti racist work, started out as white people confronting white supremacy)
AORTA: Anti Opression Resource and Training Alliance: http://aorta.coop (a variety of trainings on democratic process, also mediation and anti oppression work)
CATALYST PROJECT (ANN BRADEN PROGRAM):
TRAINING FOR CHANGE: https://www.trainingforchange.org