What is Consensus?

The article below, originally of Quaker origin, was published in the Connexions Digest #39 in 1983. It presents a positive view of the consensus decision-making model. The Connexions website contains a number of other articles about various aspects of, and experiences with, consensus: they can be found through the Subject Index. They include a Connexipedia article which describes different models of consensus and pros and cons associated with them. There are also articles which argue the advantages of democratic decision–making as opposed to consensus decision–making. These include Ulli Diemer’s One Vote for Democracy and Howard Ryan’s Blocking Progress. Articles which look more generally at problems in group process and organization include Jo Freeman’s The Tyranny of Structureless, Tom Wetzel’s On Organization, and Al Giordano’s TraitÉ du Savoir–Vivre for the Occupy Wall Street Generations.
For related materials, you might also want to check these topics in the Subject Index: Collectives, Conflict Resolution, Consensus Decision Making, Decision Making, Democratic Values, Group Facilitation, Group Meetings, Meetings, Organizational Culture, Self–Management, What is Consensus.

Consensus evolved from the meeting process of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). It is a non–violent way for people to relate to each other as and in a group. Successful use of a consensus process depends on people understanding the idea and wanting to use it.

Consensus, like majority rule, is the name of a broad category of processes; it is not the name of one particular process. The ideals of consensus are not a set of rules, and they encompass more than just decision–making. When we refer to consensus we generally are referring to a set of rules for decision–making that are consistent with the idea and ideals of consensus.

Consensus allows us to recognize our areas of agreement and act together without coercing one another. Under consensus the group takes no action that is not consented to by all group members. The fundamental right of consensus is for all persons to be able to express themselves in their own words and of their own will; the fundamental responsibility of consensus is to assure others their right to speak and be heard.

1. The problem/situation needing consideration is discussed and a clear idea of what decision needs to be made is formulated. (Part of this discussion should be to bring out the present position or course of action of the group relating to the issue.)

2. If someone is not present and has not communicated any interest in the matter, it may be assumed that they have no strong feelings on the matter.

3. After adequate discussion, instead of voting, it is asked if there is any opposition to the suggestion as stated.

4. If there is no strong objection to the decision at this point, the suggestion can be formally stated and adopted.

5. Any person can state their opposition to the suggestion and this will block the group’s adoption of that suggestion. (There are ways to express an object–ion without blocking the group from adopting the suggestion.)

6. If there is an objection blocking the group, the objection must be worked out before that suggestion can be adopted.

7. If the objection can be met (satisfied), a sense of the meeting can be taken again. If there are no other objections at this point, the suggestion can be adopted.

8. If all objections are not met the group continues in accordance with its last consensus relating to this matter, until a suggestion is found that is not blocked. Where a group has not previously made a decision to do something, the consensus is to take no action as a group.

Ways to Object Without Blocking Consensus:

1. Non–support (I don’t see the need for this, but I’ll go along.)

2. Reservations (I think this is a mistake, but I can live with it.)

3. Standing aside (I personally can’t do this but I won’t block others from doing it.)

4. Withdrawing from the group.

Some Guidelines for Using the Consensus Process:

1. Responsibility. The power to object and block consensus should be used responsibly and sparingly. Block consensus only for serious, principled objections; when possible object in ways that do not block consensus. Help others to satisfy your objections.

2. Respect. Conversely there is a responsibility to accept objections and move on, rather than arguing the merits of an objection. Respect others; trust them to make responsible objections. Either accept an objection or try to find ways to satisfy it.

3. Cooperation. Look for areas of agreement and common ground; avoid competitive right/wrong, win/ lose thinking. When a stalement occurs, look for ingenious resolutions, next–most–acceptable alternatives. Avoid arguing for you own way to prevail; present your ideas as clearly as you can, then listen to others and try to advance the group synthesis.

4. Creative conflict. Avoid conflict–reducing techniques like majority vote, averages and the like; try instead to resolve the conflict. Don’t change your mind or withdraw an objection simply to avoid conflict or promote “harmony.” Don’t try to trade off objections or to reward people for standing aside. Seemingly irreconcilable differences can be resolved if people speak their feelings honestly and genuinely try to understand all positions (including their own) better.

Many groups, no matter how cooperative they try to be, are often hot–beds of competition because of their decision–making process. In moving towards a more cooperative society we must examine all aspects of our lives, including the way we make decisions. The tyranny of the majority over the minority is in no way superior to the tyranny of a dictator over all; it remains tyranny. All of us must be aware of situations and events which have proven that the minority or even one voice was the voice of reason and truth, and often silenced, by the tyranny of the “democratic majority.”

Published in the Connexions Digest Volume 8, Number 3, Winter 1983–1984. (CX4701)

Related articles:

Consensus Decision–Making
Connexipedia article.

One Vote for Democracy
Ulli Diemer takes the position that the consensus model of group decision–making rarely works well and that the democratic model is better both in principle and in practice.

Blocking Progress
Howard Ryan maintains that consensus is wrong in principle and in practice: "The problem is not so much that individuals are being irresponsible or somehow abusing the consensus process. The problem lies in giving individuals that kind of power in the first place. Consensus turns majority rule into minority rule. That’s not democracy."

The collective decides
Decision–making problems in organizations.

On Organization
Issues in organizing for social change.

TraitÉ du Savoir–Vivre for the Occupy Wall Street Generations
Al Giordano describes ‘death by consensus’.

The Tyranny of Structurelessness
Unstructured groups may be very effective in getting women to talk about their lives; they aren’t very good for getting things done.


Subject Headings

Anti–Democratic Ideologies & Structures
Conflict Resolution
Consensus Decision Making
Decision Making
Democratic Values
Group Facilitation
Group Meetings
Organizational Culture
Strategies for Social Change
Tyranny of the Minority
What is Consensus?