A few ingredients enable this unity-building
decision-making process to work in many settings

One of the articles in Governance (IC#7)
Originally published in Autumn 1984 on page 19
Copyright (c)1984, 1997 by Context Institute

Caroline Estes is a founding member of Alpha Farm, a small intentional community in western Oregon, where they have been using consensus on a regular basis for more than a decade. In recent years, Caroline has been sharing these skills in wider circles, with frequently impressive results.

DECISION-MAKING BY CONSENSUS is a very old process about which there is much new interest. Primitive tribes and cultures have used it for thousands of years. Early Jesuits in the 17th century called it Communal Discernment. The Society of Friends (Quakers) has used it for over three hundred years, calling it seeking unity or gathering the sense of the meeting. In the past decade or two it has come into use in settings as diverse as businesses, intentional communities, and social action groups.

In simplest terms, consensus refers to agreement (on some decision) by all members of a group. The consensus process is the process the group goes through to reach this unity of agreement. Its assumptions, methods and results are different from Robert’s Rules Of Order or parliamentary process.

During the past 25 years, since I was first exposed to the use of consensus in Quaker meetings, I have been involved in some widely different situations in which consensus has been successfully used. In 1965, at the time of the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, I watched this process being used in both the small council that was the governing body and the large mass meetings of up to 5,000 persons. The council was made up of such diverse representatives as Goldwater Republicans, Marxists, Maoists, Democrats, Republicans, Socialists, “Hippies” and simple activists. Mario Savio, leader of the movement, said that during the entire, tense, dramatic time, the group made only two strategic mistakes in carrying out the sit-ins, marches and confrontations, and these were the two times they came to a place where they weren’t able to reach consensus, and so they voted. Both votes led them in the wrong direction. Similarly, in the large mass meetings, there was consistent agreement among those assembled, after much talking and discussion. There is no doubt it was a tense and exciting time – and that the unity in that group was very strong.

Since then I have worked with many groups that use this type of decision-making, whether in community gatherings, neighborhood meetings or family (Alpha) meetings. I have found that it works as more than just a decision-making technique, for the unity and understanding it fosters serve in many ways to advance the basic purposes of these groups.

The Basis

Consensus is based on the belief that each person has some part of the truth and no one has all of it, no matter how we would like to believe so, and on a respect for all persons involved in the decision that is being considered.

In our present society the governing idea is that we can trust no one, and therefore we must protect ourselves if we are to have any security in our decisions. The most we will be willing to do is compromise. This leads to a very interesting way of viewing the outcome of working together. It means we are willing to settle for less than the very best – and that we will always have a sense of dissatisfaction with any of our decisions unless we can somehow maneuver others involved in the process. This leads to a skewing of honesty and forthrightness in our relationships.

In the consensus process, we start from a different basis. The assumption is that we are all trustworthy (or at least can become so). The process allows each person complete power over the group. The central idea for the Quakers was the complete elimination of majorities and minorities. If there were differences of view at a Quaker meeting, as there were likely to be in such a body, the consideration of the question at issue would proceed, with long periods of solemn hush and meditation, until slowly the lines of thought drew together towards a point of unity. Then the clerk would frame a minute of conclusion, expressing the “sense of the meeting.”

Built into the consensual process is the belief that all persons have some part of the truth, or what in spiritual terms might be called “some part of God” in them, and that we will reach a better decision by putting all of the pieces of the truth together before proceeding. There are indeed times when it appears that two pieces of the truth are in contradiction to each other, but with clear thinking and attention, the whole may be perceived which includes both pieces, or many pieces. The either/or type of argument does not advance this process. Instead the process is a search for the very best solution to whatever is the problem. That does not mean that there is never room for error – but on the whole, in my experience, it is rare.

This process also makes a direct application of the idea that all persons are equal – an idea that we are not entirely comfortable with, since it seems on the surface that some people are more equal than others. But if we do indeed trust one another and do believe that we all have parts of the truth, then at any time one person may know more or have access to more information but at another time, others may know more or have more access or better understanding. Even when we have all the facts before us, it may be the spirit that is lacking and comes forth from another who sees the whole better than any of the persons who have some of the parts. All of these contributions are important.

Decisions which all have helped shape and in which all can feel united make the carrying out of the necessary action go forward with more efficiency, power and smoothness. This applies to persons, communities and nations. Given the enormous issues and problems before us, we need to use the ways that will best enable us to move forward together. “…When people join their energy streams, miracles can happen.”

The Process

How does this process actually work? Consensus can be a powerful tool, yet like any tool, it needs to be used rightly. Its misuse can cause great frustration and disruption. To make the most of its possibilities we need to understand its parts and its process.

Consensus needs four ingredients – a group of people willing to work together, a problem or issue that requires a decision by the group, trust that there is a solution, and perseverance to find the truth.

It is important to come to meetings with a clear and unmade-up mind. That is not to say that prior thinking should not have been done, but simply that the thinking must remain open throughout the discussion – or else there is no way to come to the full truth. This means everyone, not just some of the group. Ideas and solutions must be sought from all assembled, and all must be listened to with respect and trust. It is the practice of oneness for those who are committed to that idea – or it is the search for the best possible solution, for those who are more pragmatic.

The problems to be considered come in all sizes, from “who does the dishes” to “how to reach accord on de-escalating the arms race”. The consensus process begins with a statement of the problem – as clear as possible in language as simple as possible. It is important that the problem not be stated in such a way that an answer is built in, but that there be an openness to looking at all sides of the issue – whatever it may be. It is also necessary to state it in the positive: “We will wash the dishes with detergent and hot water,” not “We will not wash the dishes in cold water.” Or, “We need to wash the dishes so they are clean and sanitary,” not, “The dishes are very dirty, and we are not washing them correctly.” Stating the issues in the positive begins the process of looking for positive solutions and not a general discussion on everything that is bad, undesirable or awful.

The meeting needs a facilitator/clerk/convener, a role whose importance cannot be too strongly emphasized. It is this person whose responsibility it is to see that all are heard, that all ideas are incorporated if they seem to be part of the truth and that the final decision is agreed upon by all assembled.

Traits that help the facilitator are patience, intuition, articulateness, ability to think on his/her feet and a sense of humor. It is important that the facilitator never show signs of impatience. The facilitator is the servant of the group, not its leader. As long as the group needs the clerk he/she will be there. It is important also for a facilitator to look within to see if there is something that is missing – a person who has been wanting to speak but has been too shy, an idea that was badly articulated but has the possibility to help with the solution, anything that seems of importance on the non-verbal level. This essence of intuition can often be of great service to the group by releasing some active but unseen deterrent to the continued development of a solution.

The facilitator must be able to constantly state and restate the position of the meeting and at the same time show that progress is being made. This helps the group to move ahead with some dispatch.

And last but by no means least – a sense of humor. There is nothing like a small turn of phrase at a tense moment to lighten up the discussion and allow a little relaxation. Once you have found a good clerk or facilitator, don’t let her/him go.

Often there are those who want to talk more than is necessary and others who don’t speak enough. The facilitator needs to be able to keep the discussion from being dominated by a few and to encourage those who have not spoken to share their thoughts. There are a number of techniques for this. One is to suggest that no one speak more than once, until everyone has spoken; another is to have men and women speak alternately. This is particularly helpful for a short time if one gender seems to be dominating the discussion. However, it is not well to have any arbitrary technique used for too long. It is well to use these ways to bring a balance into the group, but these artificial guidelines should be abandoned as soon as possible. For instance, alternating of men and women might be used for one session – but then let whoever wants to speak in the next session. My experience is that a single two- or three-hour session with guidelines usually establishes a new pattern, and there is little need for the artificial guidelines to be continued.

No matter how well the discussion is carried forward, how good the facilitator and how much integrity there is in the group, there sometimes comes a point when all are in agreement but one or two. At that point there are three courses open. One is to see whether the individuals are willing to “step aside.” This means that they do not agree with the decision but do not feel it is wrong and are willing to have it go forward, but do not want to be part of carrying the action forward.

During the gathering of the sense of the meeting, if more than two or three persons start to step aside from a decision, then the facilitator should be alert to the fact that maybe the best decision has not yet been reached. This would depend on the size of the group, naturally. At Alpha it is OK for one person to step aside, but as soon as another joins that one, the clerk begins to watch and to re-examine the decision. It might be that at that time the facilitator would ask for a few minutes of silence to see if there was another decision or an amendment that should be considered that had been overlooked that would ease the situation.

Another possibility is to lay aside the issue for another time. This alternative always seems to raise serious questions. However, we need to have some perspective on what we are doing. It is likely that the world will continue to revolve around the sun for another day, week, or year, whether we come to a decision at this moment or at another; and the need to make a decision now is often not as important as the need to come to unity around whatever decision is made.

Personal experience has shown me that even the most crucial decisions, seemingly time-bound, can be laid aside for a while – and that the time, whether a few hours or days, is wisely allowed and when again assembled we come to a better decision than was possible in the beginning.

The third possibility is that one or two people may be able to stop the group or meeting from moving forward. At that time there are several key ingredients to be considered. On the part of the meeting, it is important that the meeting see the person who is holding the meeting as doing so out of that person’s highest understanding and beliefs. The individual(s) who are holding the group from making a decision must also have examined themselves well to know that they are not doing so out of self-interest, bias, vengeance or any other emotion or idea except the very strong feeling and belief that the decision is wrong – and that they would be doing the group a great disservice by allowing it to go forward.

This is always one of those times when feelings can run high, and it is important for the meeting, or group, not to use pressure on those who differ. It is hard enough to feel that you are stopping the group from going forward, without having additional pressure exerted to go against your examined reasons and deeply felt understandings.

In my personal experience of living with the consensus process full-time for 12 years, I need to say that I have seen the meeting held from going forward on only a handful of occasions, and in each case the person was correct – and the group would have made a mistake by moving forward.

There is another situation which does occur, though rarely, where one person is consistently at odds with everyone else. Depending on the type of group and its membership, it would be well to see if this person is in the right organization or group. If there is a consistent difference, the person cannot feel comfortable continuing, and the group needs to meet and work with that person.

One reason it is important that each decision be well seasoned is that the consensus is a very conservative process. Once a decision has been made, it takes a consensus to change the decision. This means that whatever has been arrived at needs to be able to be relied on for some time, and thus decisions should not be arrived at in haste. One way a decision can be tried, but not necessarily need to be changed, is to put a time limit on it. For instance, if you want to try a new way of handling the cleaning of the house, then you might say: “We will allot one hour a day to housekeeping for the next month. At the end of the month, either we will reconsider the decision or it will no longer be operable.” At Alpha Farm we have done this on a number of occasions, usually trying a decision for a year and then either making a final decision or dropping it entirely. This necessitates keeping minutes, which is another aspect of consensus that needs to be heeded.

Minutes on decisions that have been made need to be stated by the clerk or facilitator or minute-taker at the time of the decision, so that all present know they have agreed to the same thing. It is not well for minutes to be taken and then read at the next meeting, unless there is to be a meeting very soon. The reason for this seems obvious: those who make the decision are the ones to carry it out – and if there is a month or more before they are stated, then the same people may not all be present, and the minutes may or may not be correct, but the time for correction is past. This is a particularly important but little- adhered-to part of the process.

Recently, I was privileged to facilitate the first North American Bioregional Congress, held in Missouri. Over 200 persons arrived from all over the continent, and some from abroad, and worked together for five days, making all decisions by consensus. Some of those present had used the process before or were currently using it in the groups they worked with at home; but many had not used it, and there was a high degree of skepticism when we began as to whether such a widely diverse group of people could work in that degree of harmony and unity. On the final day of the Congress, there were a very large number of resolutions, position papers and policies put forward from committees that had been working all week long. All decisions that were made that day were made by consensus – and the level of love and trust amongst participants was tangible. Much to the surprise of nearly everyone, we came away with a sense of unity and forward motion that was near-miraculous, but believable.

A Second Point of View

Six years of experience at Aprovecho has taught us some valuable lessons about consensus. Let me describe why we practice consensus-minus-one.

Initially, coming from conservative backgrounds and fearing the inability to all agree, the one agreement we made was to ratify decisions without the agreement of one person present. We saw it as a way to get business done without some obdurant individual holding up the whole show. Our bylaws say something like “with one member dissenting.”

In fact, we seldom get a dissenter. What it means is that if two people oppose something, they can block it, but an individual can’t. So we’re guarded against unaccountable insanity or temporary bouts of grumpiness. Neither has ever been an issue, but we’ve found that if ever one person strongly opposes something, we usually try to discuss it to a point where they at least feel OK about it going ahead. Then they can say, “Well, I still dissent but I don’t feel unsupported in my views.”

Effectively, this gives everyone a vote, as of course they have with total consensus, but there’s a difference. In total consensus, one individual can gradually take control of an organization by cumulatively swaying what doesn’t get done in a direction s/he wants to see it go. By refusing to agree to black, the group is left only with white to dark grey. Later the options can be narrowed further by refusing to support darker shades of grey. Over a period, and sometimes going unnoticed, your single subversive can push the whole group to accepting only white.

Editor’s Note:

My turn. At one level, the differences between these two approaches are slight – in practice probably hardly noticeable. Yet there is a difference in spirit that harkens back to the difference between unitary and adversary democracy. Total consensus assumes and requires a high level of trust and maturity. If these qualities can be developed in the group, then its use is well rewarded by a bonding that goes deeper than the reserve implied in consensus-minus-one. A good facilitator can do wonders with the most unpromising groups.

On the other hand, there are many groups – especially with loosely defined memberships – where it would be naive to assume that every member will act in “unitary good faith,” especially since our society trains us to act as adversaries. Consensus-minus-one can permit these groups to gain many of the benefits of consensus without risking the subversion that Ianto describes. The lesson, it seems to me, is to have lots of tools in your toolbox, and use each where it fits.

– Robert Gilman

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