Booklet/Consensus decision making

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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 means that a proposed decision is only accepted when everyone who is affected by it agrees with it being made.

Consensus aims to overcome some problems that come with a democracy based on majority voting. “Democracy is when three foxes and one rabbit vote what’s for dinner” – majority voting legitimises an oppressive majority. Consensus can be one step to avoid hierarchies and oppression.

Consensus can also strengthen group identity and solve tensions. When people are actively involved in the creative process of finding solutions, they will identify much more with the decisions that are being made, and are thus more likely to stick to them, feel happy about them, and feel like a full member of the group. In a society based on consensus, it would (ideally) not be necessary to fight for your rights, to demonstrate, and to overthrow governments, as all the structures would have been created by everyone, so no one would have any reason to feel unsatisfied with them.

Consensus can require a lot of time and the willingness of everyone in the group to consider each other’s needs, and there are many points of failure. This text aims to give some ideas how consensus decision making can be structured in an effective way.

Facilitator and other roles

It can be helpful in consensus meetings to have one (or more) facilitator (“moderator”). The facilitator has the task to make sure that the meeting follows a structure and that everyone understands what is being discussed and decided.

The facilitator makes sure in the beginning of the meeting that every person knows how consensus works, what hand signals are used, that everyone understands the spoken language(s), and, if wished, that everyone knows each other’s names and pronouns.

A list of agenda points is created, possibly time limits are set for each one, and the facilitator makes sure that everyone knows what the agenda is.

During each agenda point, the facilitator makes sure that everyone is on the same page about what is being discussed about and what the aim of the discussion is (share information? make a decision?). The facilitator makes sure that the discussion doesn’t move in a direction that is not related to the topic. When a formal decision should be made, the makes sure that everyone knows what the proposal is and then checks for consensus. The facilitator can also propose a different method of discussion (for example splitting up in small groups) if the group is big and not many people are talking.

Sometimes, it is also the role of the facilitator to take hands (to decide who speaks when).

Facilitation can be a tiring job, and often it is impossible for one person to keep the overview over everything. Everyone in the group should feel responsible to assist the facilitator and say if they feel like something is not going well or should be done in a different way.

Consensus Tools

Checking for consensus

The way that consensus decisions are usually formally made is the following:

  1. Phrase a proposal
  2. Ask for any amendments to the proposal. If there are any, go back to point 1.
  3. Check for standasides. Standasides are nos that are not blocks. People don’t agree with the decision, but they still think that the group should go ahead with the decision (for example because no better solution can be found at that particular point).
  4. Check for blocks/vetos. If anyone is blocking/vetoing the proposal, it can not be decided, and the discussion has to continue. People can also block a decision if they feel like the number of standasides was too high.
  5. Check for consensus. Make sure that everyone who didn’t stand aside or block is showing agreement. If they don’t, there is probably something wrong.

There are many problems with this approach. First of all, it takes a lot of confidence to express a veto, particularly because it is mentioned in almost every introduction to consensus that a veto is something that should be “used carefully” and “normally not done”. Many people would never express a veto, no matter how much they disagree with the proposal. Second of all, in most cases there are multiple solutions to every problem. The approach “as soon as someone makes a proposal, see if there are any vetos, and if there aren’t any, it is decided” gives a lot of power to the person making the proposal. Some people feel more confident about speaking in the group and make proposals sooner than others, so these people will have much more influence on the group decisions. Often, there would have been a different proposal that would also not have any vetos (and maybe even less standasides).

One other way to make consensus decisions is to use the temperature check. In the temperature check, a statement or proposal is made and all people should express (“vote”) whether they agree with it (hands up), don’t agree with it very much (hands in the middle), disagree with it (hands down) or anything in between. Like this the barrier to disagree with something is very low (if you are not confident enough to put your hands down, you can at least put them in the middle), and it is easier to compare the group’s agreement to different proposals with each other.

Three phases / Consensus prism

One tool to keep each agenda point structured is to split it into three phases. Some points might only need the first one or two of them.

  1. The information phase: Everyone shares information that everyone needs to know in order to develop an opinion on the topic. During this phase, no one should express any opinions yet.
  2. The discussion phase: People should express their needs and opinions and try to bring up ideas how the different opinions can be brought together.
  3. The decision phase: Once there is a certain idea in the room that no one seems to object to, a proposal can be phrased and checked for consensus. If everything went right, there should be a consensus at this point, if not the discussion has to move back to the discussion phase.

One physical tool that the facilitator can use to make this structure work is a Consensus Prism, a three-sided object that has one phase written on each side and can be turned when the discussion moves to the next stage.

Parking lot

When a point is raised during a discussion that is not directly related to the current agenda point but is still worth to be discussed, the facilitator can put it on the parking lot. This can be a simple piece of paper. The points in the parking lot can be discussed at a later point in the meeting.

, the discussion phase and the decision phase. Some points might only require the first one or two of them. In the information phase, the facilitator makes sure that everyone knows what is being discussed about and what the aim of the point is (share information? make a decision?). People should not share opinions during this phase, but they should share information that is necessary for everyone

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 are 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