Booklet/Consensus 2012

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What is Consensus?

Consensus is a decision making process designed to bring together the views of all the members of the group. Consensus does not require everyone to agree on everything, it does require a common goal of the group and willingness to work on problems together.

Consensus works if the group can work openly and creatively with concerns of individuals about proposals. The group reshapes proposals until everyone is comfortable with them. Consensus is based on the philosophy that the process of making decisions is a key part of the decision. Good process means that people's concerns are taken into the decision, that the process empowers people and that everyone has an opportunity to shape the decision. Consensus is a flexible process, you should feel more than free to build new decision tools, modify the steps, add or change the roles as best fits the needs of your groups.

Why Consensus?

Perhaps the strongest argument for the need for a "new" decision-making method is the world around us which has been created by the "old" methods. In a world governed by consensus, nuclear weapons, the genocide and mistreatment of indigenous people, environmental degradation and the madness of war would be impossible – they would be blocked by you and me and millions of others. Consensus grew out of a critique of the existing decision methods which tend to hold power in the hands of a few and make decisions based often on corrupted values. Consensus attempts to give the maximum power to the individual while giving us the possibility to include as much of our shared experience, knowledge and wisdom in our decisions as possible. The need for consensus is based upon the experience that every decision based on simplifications of truth (using models) bares the danger of missing important points. More opinions and input make a better picture. Combining input from more people also optimizes synergetic effects. Consensus models give a larger opportunity to motivate people to become involved in things they are part of than other decision models.

Facilitator and other roles

Meetings which work by consensus do not have a leader but do usually have a facilitator. This is someone who -with consent of the group - helps structure the meeting. The facilitator's main tasks are to make sure everyone speaks in turn and to make the group aware of the time limits. The facilitator should also keep an eye on the structure of the meeting and so is more likely to introduce different techniques or to summarize the current state of the discussion, although anyone can do this. Apart from the facilitator, other specific roles will be the note taker (who should take note of the decisions reached), the time keeper (who keeps score of the time based on the amount of time set up for each item at start of the meeting) and a vibes watcher (sometimes it is important to watch out for people getting upset/tired/stressed or who are unhappy with the decision but don't feel able to say why). It is better if the facilitator and vibes watcher are not part of the meeting themselves but this is often tricky.

Structure of a Consensus Meeting

The meeting starts with the facilitator, time keeper, note taker and vibes watcher being appointed, followed by the agenda and time limits being agreed by the meeting. The facilitator will also make any necessary practical announcements at this stage. The topics on the agenda are then discussed. Each discussion continues until everyone agrees -if someone blocks a decision then the discussion must re-start on the basis of those objections. Everyone has the right to block a decision they really can't live with, although this is rare.

People also have the option to stand aside ("I'm not doing it but I won't stop you"), but in most cases true consensus can be reached. During the morning circles working groups can be formed to further discuss a specific idea or problem later on during the day, and report back to the morning circle the next day.

How to make consensus effective

The two golden rules are to be constructive (it's not valid just to disagree or block, explain your reasons, offer your alternatives or commitments) and to wait until it's your turn to speak. Other things that may help are:

  • Listen - Make sure you understand what is being discussed, especially if you need a translation. Try to get all information about a point before you support or criticize it.
  • Explain - Make sure people understand your position and your proposals, especially if you a re being translated.
  • Be as brief as you can.
  • Be flexible, Be patient. - Contradictions in the decision-making process are O.K.
  • Do not feel isolated - We are all here with the same motivation.
  • Support the facilitator if the meeting starts to get out of control.

Consensus flow.png

Hand Signals

For the whole group to come to a decision requires a lot of communication, but not all communication requires words. These hand signals have been developed so we can express these key ideas without interrupting the speaker.


Consensus point.svg

This means "I have a question/comment." You should keep your hand up until the facilitator sees it and recognizes you. When many people raise their hands, the facilitator will make a list and call on people in order.


Consensus repeating.svg

It is clear what you want to say, for me you don't have to continue with this point. This indicates to the speaker, that it is clear what she/he said and that she/he can stop talking further. This sign is developed to help the speaker: not to criticize what she/he says. Also the facilitator can react, when a lot of people use this sign, by stopping the speaker.


Consensus technical.svg

This means "I have a technical remark [process suggestion]". Use this sign when you have an idea how the group can come to a decision through some other tool or method (like using a straw poll or breaking into groups to solve different parts of the problem) OR you have inportant additional information. Usually, a facilitator will call on this sign before others, because a good process suggestion can save a lot of talk. Be sure NOT to use this sign when you are going to talk about the issue directly (then use one raised open hand).


Consensus confused.svg

This means "I'm confused". The speaker should try to use other words and explain simply and shortly what he or she is trying to say.


Consensus agree.svg

This is the symbol for "I agree" or "sounds like a good idea". It's a way to agree without speaking, which means things don't need to be repeated. It is a positive silent expression. It can be useful when someone comes up with a good idea and when the facilitator sees everyone waving - they know we are near consensus. When the facilitator tests for consensus and only sees waving hands, we may have a decision.


Consensus veto.svg

The symbol of protest, it means "No! Stop! I block this idea." If a proposal is presented and the facilitator asks for comments, the raised fists will get first attention- There is no consensus without everyone's agreement and these strongest objections should be heard first. This symbol can also be used when you have very strong negative feelings about what the speaker is saying. However, you need to be most careful about this sign. Before you block, be sure you understand what is being said, for the entire group's attention will focus on you once you raise your fist. If several fists go up at once, time can be saved by stopping a bad idea before it is explained in detail.

Seeds for Change a grassroots UK group have written a lot of fantastic little guides and briefings to help activist groups organise themselves without leaders. All their documents are @nti-copyright: this means you are free to copy, adapt and distribute them all as long as the final work remains @nti-copyright. We give two thumbs up to the resources on their