Activism: Peace: NVCD: Consensus Process
What Is Consensus
Consensus is a process for group decision-making. It is a democratic
method by which an entire group of people can come to an agreement. The
input and ideas of all participants are gathered and synthesized to arrive
at a final decision acceptable to all. Through consensus, we are not only
working to achieve better solutions, but also to promote the growth of
community and trust.
Consensus vs. Voting
Voting is a means by which we choose one alternative from several.
Consensus, on the other hand, is a process of synthesizing many diverse
elements together. Voting assumes that people are always competitive and
that agreement can only be reached through compromise. Consensus assumes
that people are willing to agree with each other, and that in such an
atmosphere, conflict and differences can result in creative and intelligent
decisions. Another important assumption made in consensus is that the
process requires everyone's participation, in speaking and in listening.
No ideas are lost, each member's input is valued as part of the solution,
and feelings are as important as facts in making a decision. It is
possible for one person's insights or strongly held beliefs to sway the
entire group, but participation should always remain equal.
What Does Consensus Mean?
The fundamental right of consensus is for all people to be able to express
themselves in their own words and of their own will. The fundamental
responsiblity of consensus is to assure others of their right to speak and
be heard. Since our society provides very little training in these areas,
we have to unlearn many behavior patterns in order to practice good
consensus process (see "Overcoming Oppressive Behavior," in this
handbook). Consensus does not mean that everyone thinks that the decision
made is the most efficient way to accomplish something, or that they are
absolutely sure it will work. What it does mean is that in coming to that
decision, no one felt that her or his position on the matter wasn't
considered carefully. Hopefully, everyone will think it is the best
decision; this often happens because, when consensus works properly,
collective intelligence does come up with better solutions than could
The Process of Consensus Agreement, at least informally, should be sought
on every aspect of group meetings, including the agenda, the times the
group should take for each item, and the process the group should use to
work through its tasks. The following is an outline of formal consensus,
the process a group uses to come to agreement on a particular course of
action. First, the problem should be clearly stated. This might take some
discussion, in order for the group to identify what needs to be solved.
Then discussion should take place about the problem, so the group can start
working towards a proposal. The biggest mistake people make in consensus
is to offer proposals too soon, before the group has had time to fully
discuss the issue. Tools a group can use during
this preliminary period of discussion include
breaking up into small groups.
When it is apparent that the group is beginning to go over the same ground,
a proposal can be made which attempts to synthesize all the feelings and
insights expressed. The proposal should be clearly stated. Then
discussion is held on the proposal, in which it is amended or modified.
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 suggestions. When the proposal is
understood by everyone, and there are no new changes asked for, someone
(usually the facilitator) can ask if there are any objections or
reservations to the proposal. It helps to have a moment of silence here,
so that no-one feels coerced into agreeing. If there are no objections,
the group is asked "Do we have consensus?" All members of the
group should then actively and visibly signal their agreement, paying
attention to each member of the group. After consensus is reached, the
decision should be clearly restated, as a check that everyone is clear on
what has been decided. Before moving away from the subject, the group
should be clear who is taking on the responsibility for implementing the
Difficulties in Reaching Consensus
If enough discussion has occurred, and everyone has equally participated,
there should not be a group decision which cannot be supported by everyone.
But depending on the importance of the decision, the external conditions,
and how the process has gone, the group might be on the verge of reaching a
decision you cannot support. There are several ways of expressing your
- Non-support: "I don't see the need for this, but I'll go
along with the group."
- 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. It is immoral." If a final decision violates
someone's moral values, they are obligated to block consensus.
A decision by an affinity group spokescouncil can only be blocked by
an entire affinity group, not by an individual. Blocks will rarely
occur if the group has fully discussed a proposal.
- Withdrawing from the group.
Obviously, if many people express non-support
or reservations, or leave the group temporarily through standing aside,
there may not be a viable decision even if no-one directly blocks it. This
is what as known as a "luke-warm" consensus and is just as
desirable as a lukewarm bath or a lukewarm beer. If consensus is blocked
and no new consensus is reached, the group stays with whatever the previous
decision was on the subject, or does nothing if that is applicable. Major
philosophical or moral questions that come up with each affinity group
should be worked through as soon as the group forms. Discussions about
values and goals are as important as discussions about actions to be taken,
and too frequently get pushed aside by groups who feel time pressures.
Roles in Consensus Process
In large groups, it is helpful to designate roles for people to help the
process move along. It is important to rotate these responsibilities for
each meeting so that skills and power can be shared. Ideally, such
responsibilities should belong to everyone, and not just the designated
It's important to emphasize that every member of the group should try to
facilitate, vibeswatch, timekeep, and notetake. Sharing the responsibility
ensures that power is distributed equally within the group and makes
consensus easier on everyone.
The facilitator's job is to help the group move through the agreed-upon
agenda, and to make sure everyone gets a chance to speak by calling on them
in order. Facilitators should see that speaking opportunities are evenly
distributed; that quiet people get a chance to speak and people who talk
too much are given a chance to listen. The facilitator should observe when
the discussion seems to be nearing the point when a proposal could be made.
S/he can then call for a proposal or offer one to the group, and after more
discussion if necessary, s/he can then guide the group through the check
for consensus as outlined above. Facilitators should not use their
position as a platform from which to offer solutions; solutions should
arise from the group, and no-one should facilitate if they find they have
strong opinions on a given issue. A facilitator can always hand over her
or his responsibilites temporarily if s/he feels it necessary to step down.
The group should not rely upon the facilitator to solve process problems,
but should be ready to help with suggestions on how to proceed. Very large
groups should use two or more facilitators.
Vibeswatchers are useful in large groups where people don't know each
other, and their job is to be attuned to the emotional state of the group.
Is the group tense, or bored, or too silly? The vibeswatcher might suggest
a game, or more light, or open windows, or a group hug. Sometimes simply
calling attention to an emotional undercurrent that may be affecting group
process is helpful. Vibeswatchers should also call the group's attention
to a person whose anger or fear is being ignored, or to people who may be
involved in a dialogue that has its causes outside of the group's
activities. Vibeswatchers also should assume the role of
"gatekeeper," taking care of any external disturbance for the
A timekeeper keeps the group on track by giving the group a warning halfway
through that discussion time is running out and by asking the group if it
wants to contract for more time on a given issue. Timekeepers should ask
if people want to set specific time limits on brainstorms or time
allotments to each speaker on go-rounds. Before speaking themselves,
timekeepers should be sure that someone else is timekeeping for that
A notetaker tries to clearly record key points of discussions, the
consensus decisions reached by the group, things that were left to be
decided later, and who has taken on responsibilites for particular tasks.
The group (or the facilitator for the next meeting) should be able to use
the notes to construct the agenda for the next meeting. A notetaker can
also be helpful during the meeting to remind the group of key points
covered in discussion if the group is having trouble formulating a
Decision-making During Actions
It is clear that consensus is a time consuming activity. It is therefore
important for affinity groups to make their fundamental decisions prior to
going to an action. Discuss in advance such questions as: What do we do if
faced with a provocateur in our group or a nearby group? How long do we
want to stay on site? How do we respond to police strategies designed to
keep us away from the site? It helps for an affinity group to define for
itself its particular goals, or tone. Such general definitions as
"Our group will always go where numbers are most needed," or
"We want to be where we will get media coverage," or "We
want to leaflet workers inside the site," will help a group make
decisions under stressful and changing circumstances. Be prepared for
unexpected circumstances by selecting a spokesperson and a facilitator for
your group for quick-decision making process during the action. It will be
the spokesperson's responsibility to communicate the group's decisions to
the action or cluster spokescouncil. It is the facilitator's
responsibility to quickly and succinctly articulate the problem to be
discussed and to eliminate those points where agreement has already been
reached. It is the responsibility of everyone in the group to keep the
discussion to a minimum if quick action is called for. If your point has
already been made by someone else, don't restate it. A calm approach and a
clear desire to come to an agreement quickly can help the process. Don't
let anxiety overwhelm your trust in each other or your purpose in the
action. Strong objections should be limited to matters of principle.