Consensus decision-making is a group decision making process that seeks the agreement of most participants, and also the resolution or mitigation of minority objections.
The word “consensus” itself is commonly used to refer to two different concepts, which sometimes leads to confusion about what is actually meant by “consensus”. The one meaning of “consensus” signifies general agreement, regardless of the process by which such agreement is determined. It refers simply to fact of such agreement, not to any particular procedure or set of rules. Consensus decision-making, the topic of this article, refers to a particular process for arriving at decisions.
While not as common as other decision-making procedures, such as democracy, consensus decision-making has been used by a wide variety of groups, from religious such as the Quakers, to economic such as the Dutch Polder Model (a process that brings corporations, government, and labour leaders together), and the Hanseatic League (an alliance of cities run by merchant guilds), to political such as Food Not Bombs, some non-governmental organizations, as well as the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) nation.
Because consensus decision-making allows a minority to block the will of the majority, it has been adopted by a number of international bodies where there is a danger that a majority of small countries could out-vote the major powers. The European Union's Treaty of Lisbon provides in art. 15 (4) that the European Council shall take decision by consensus. Critics charge that this is designed to block any attempts to change the capitalist goals and structures of the European Council. The NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) military council also operates on the basis of consensus. In both cases, since consensus decision-making requires unanimity to make any changes, it can be employed to prevent change desired by the majority, and to thwart democratic input into decisions.
As a decision-making process, consensus decision-making in principle aims to be:
- Inclusive: As many stakeholders as possible should be involved in the consensus decision-making process.
- Participatory: The consensus process should actively solicit the input and participation of all decision-makers.
- Cooperative: Participants in an effective consensus process should strive to reach the best possible decision for the group and all of its members, rather than opt to pursue a majority opinion, potentially to the detriment of a minority.
- Egalitarian: All members of a consensus decision-making body should be afforded, as much as possible, equal input into the process. All members have the opportunity to present, amend and veto or "block" proposals.
- Solution-oriented: An effective consensus decision-making body strives to emphasize common agreement over differences and reach effective decisions using compromise and other techniques to avoid or resolve mutually-exclusive positions within the group.
- Most Logical: This happens when a solution appears to be impossible to execute because of the lack of support and cooperation.
Alternative to majority rule
Proponents of consensus decision-making view procedures that use majority rule as undesirable for several reasons. Majority voting is regarded as competitive, rather than cooperative, framing decision-making in a win/lose dichotomy that ignores the possibility of compromise or other mutually beneficial solutions. Carlos Santiago Nino, on the other hand, has argued that majority rule leads to better deliberation practice than the alternatives, because it requires each member of the group to make arguments that appeal to at least half the participants. A. Lijphart reaches the same conclusion about majority rule, noting that majority rule encourages coalition-building. Proponents of consensus argue that majority rule can lead to a 'tyranny of the majority'. However, proponents of democratic decision-making argue that majority rule may actually prevent tyranny of the majority, in part because it maximizes the potential for a minority to form a coalition that can overturn an unsatisfactory decision. They also point out the democratic decisions prevent minority rule, whereas consensus decision-making can frequently result in minority rule, when one or more individuals or a small vocal group block the will of the majority of the group.
Advocates of consensus claim that a majority decision reduces the commitment of each individual decision-maker to the decision. Members of a minority position may feel less commitment to a majority decision. The result of this reduced commitment, according to many consensus proponents, is potentially less willingness to defend or act upon the decision.
Flowchart of basic consensus decision-making process.
Since the consensus decision-making process is not as formalized as others (see Roberts Rules of Order), the practical details of its implementation vary from group to group. However, there is a core set of procedures which is common to most implementations of consensus decision-making.
Once an agenda for discussion has been set and, optionally, the ground rules for the meeting have been agreed upon, each item of the agenda is addressed in turn. Typically, each decision arising from an agenda item follows through a simple structure:
- Discussion of the item: The item is discussed with the goal of identifying opinions and information on the topic at hand. The general direction of the group and potential proposals for action are often identified during the discussion.
- Formation of a proposal: Based on the discussion a formal decision proposal on the issue is presented to the group.
- Call for consensus: The facilitator of the decision-making body calls for consensus on the proposal. Each member of the group usually must actively state their agreement with the proposal, often by using a hand gesture or raising a colored card, to avoid the group interpreting silence or inaction as agreement.
- Identification and addressing of concerns: If consensus is not achieved, each dissenter presents his or her concerns on the proposal, potentially starting another round of discussion to address or clarify the concern.
- Modification of the proposal: The proposal is amended, re-phrased or ridered in an attempt to address the concerns of the decision-makers. The process then returns to the call for consensus and the cycle is repeated until a satisfactory decision is made.
The consensus decision-making process often has several roles which are designed to make the process run more effectively. Although the name and nature of these roles varies from group to group, the most common are the facilitator, a timekeeper, an empath and a secretary or notes taker. Not all decision-making bodies use all of these roles, although the facilitator position is almost always filled, and some groups use supplementary roles, such as a Devil's advocate or greeter. Some decision-making bodies opt to rotate these roles through the group members in order to build the experience and skills of the participants, and prevent any perceived concentration of power.
The common roles in a consensus meeting are:
- Facilitator: As the name implies, the role of the facilitator is to help make the process of reaching a consensus decision easier. Facilitators accept responsibility for moving through the agenda on time; ensuring the group adheres to the mutually agreed-upon mechanics of the consensus process; and, if necessary, suggesting alternate or additional discussion or decision-making techniques, such as go-arounds, break-out groups or role-playing. Some consensus groups use two co-facilitators. Shared facilitation is often adopted to diffuse the perceived power of the facilitator and create a system whereby a co-facilitator can pass off facilitation duties if he or she becomes more personally engaged in a debate.
- Timekeeper: The purpose of the timekeeper is to ensure the decision-making body keeps to the schedule set in the agenda. Effective timekeepers use a variety of techniques to ensure the meeting runs on time including: giving frequent time updates, ample warning of short time, and keeping individual speakers from taking an excessive amount of time.
- Empath or 'Vibe Watch': The empath, or 'vibe watch' as the position is sometimes called, is charged with monitoring the 'emotional climate' of the meeting, taking note of the body language and other non-verbal cues of the participants. Defusing potential emotional conflicts, maintaining a climate free of intimidation and being aware of potentially destructive power dynamics, such as sexism or racism within the decision-making body, are the primary responsibilities of the empath.
- Note taker: The role of the notes taker or secretary is to document the decisions, discussion and action points of the decision-making body.
Healthy consensus decision-making processes are supposed to encourage and identify dissent early, maximizing the chance of accommodating the views of all minorities. Since unanimity may be difficult to achieve, especially in large groups, or unanimity may be the result of coercion, fear, undue persuasive power or eloquence, inability to comprehend alternatives, or plain impatience with the process of debate, consensus decision making bodies may use an alternative benchmark of consensus. These include the following:
- Unanimity minus one (or U-1), requires all delegates but one to support the decision. The individual dissenter cannot block the decision although he or she may be able to prolong debate (e.g. via a filibuster). The dissenter may be the ongoing monitor of the implications of the decision, and their opinion of the outcome of the decision may be solicited at some future time.
- Unanimity minus two (or U-2), does not permit two individual delegates to block a decision and tends to curtail debate with a lone dissenter more quickly. Dissenting pairs can present alternate views of what is wrong with the decision under consideration. Pairs of delegates can be empowered to find the common ground that will enable them to convince a third, decision-blocking, decision-maker to join them. If the pair are unable to convince a third party to join them, typically within a set time, their arguments are deemed to be unconvincing.
- Unanimity minus three, (or U-3), and other such systems recognize the ability of four or more delegates to actively block a decision. U-3 and lesser degrees of unanimity are usually lumped in with statistical measures of agreement, such as: 80%, mean plus one sigma, two-thirds, or majority levels of agreement. Such measures usually do not fit within the definition of consensus.
- Rough Consensus is a process with no specific rule for "how much is enough." Rather, the question of consensus is left to the judgment of the group chair (an example is the IETF working group, discussed below). While this makes it more difficult for a small number of disruptors to block a decision, it puts increased responsibility on the chair, and may lead to divisive debates about whether rough consensus has in fact been correctly identified.
Although the consensus decision-making process should, ideally, identify and address concerns and reservations early, proposals do not always garner full consensus from the decision-making body. When a call for consensus on a motion is made, a dissenting delegate has one of three options:
- Declare reservations: Group members who are willing to let a motion pass but desire to register their concerns with the group may choose "declare reservations." If there are significant reservations about a motion, the decision-making body may choose to modify or re-word the proposal.
- Stand aside: A "stand aside" may be registered by a group member who has a "serious personal disagreement" with a proposal, but is willing to let the motion pass. Although stand asides do not halt a motion, it is often regarded as a strong "nay vote" and the concerns of group members standing aside are usually addressed by modifications to the proposal. Stand asides may also be registered by users who feel they are incapable of adequately understanding or participating in the proposal.
- Block: Any group member may "block" a proposal. In most models, a single block is sufficient to stop a proposal, although some measures of consensus may require more than one block (see previous section, "Non-unanimous or modified consensus"). Blocks are generally considered to be an extreme measure, only used when a member feels a proposal "endanger[s] the organization or its participants, or violate[s] the mission of the organization" (i.e., a principled objection). In some consensus models, a group member opposing a proposal must work with its proponents to find a solution that will work for everyone.
Criticisms of consensus decision-making
Critics of consensus decision-making, such as Howard Ryan, Ulli Diemer, and Al Giordano, argue that the process, while potentially appropriate for small groups with a high degree of homogeneity, can be problematic or destructive in many situations, for a number of reasons:
- Consensus decision-making favours the status quo: In decision-making bodies that use formal consensus, the ability of individuals or small minorities to block agreement gives an enormous advantage to anyone who supports the existing state of affairs. This can mean that a specific state of affairs can continue to exist in an organization long after a majority of members would like it to change. Similarly, proposed new initiatives or directions can be, and frequently are, blocked, even when a majority favours the initiative. Howard Ryan and Al Giordano describe repeated instances of this in the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s. In their view the rigidity of the consensus model made it impossible take decisions and undertake timely actions in response to changing circumstances, leading to the eventual collapse of the movement’s organizations as frustrated members walked away. According to Ulli Diemer, the consensus model “allows people who are insensitive or stubborn to bring the whole group grinding to a halt. Ideally, of course, they ‘stand aside’ or learn to participate more constructively, but what has actually happened in countless consensus groups is that the group has been prevented from doing what most people in it wanted to do – in other words, prevented from functioning – because one or a few people have blocked consensus or dragged discussions on past the willingness of most members to continue participating in the group. The social change movement is littered with the corpses of groups which fell apart for precisely such reasons.”
- Consensus decision-making is susceptible to disruption: Giving the right to block proposals to all group members may result in the group becoming hostage to an inflexible minority or individual. Furthermore, "opposing such obstructive behavior [can be] construed as an attack on freedom of speech and in turn [harden] resolve on the part of the individual to defend his or her position." As a result, consensus decision-making has the potential to reward the least accommodating group members while punishing the most accommodating. Diemer argues that “democratic groups are better equipped to deal with process problems. This is because democracy allows a group to proceed with what it wants to do in the face of people who are obstructive, obnoxious or insensitive. Democracy makes it possible for a group to say to such people, in essence, that ‘we don’t think this particular discussion/behaviour is constructive anymore, and we want to move on, whether you agree or not’. It enables the group to proceed in the way the majority of people in it want it to.”
- Consensus decision-making is a barrier to participation by people who can’t or don’t want to sit in long meetings: Since consensus decision-making focuses on discussion it is a very time-consuming process. This is a liability in situations where decisions need to be made speedily or where it is not possible to canvass the opinions of all delegates in a reasonable period of time. Additionally, the time required to engage in the consensus decision-making process acts as a major barrier to participation for people unable or unwilling to spend long hours sitting in meetings – in other words, most people.  In movements for social change, consensus decision-making practices deter the involvement of working-class people, who have jobs, as well as people who have children and other responsibilities, while privileging those who are relatively free of work or other responsibilities. Al Giordano argues that consensus appeals to “talkers” and “ideologues” while driving “doers” away: “[W]hat kinds of people don’t like to go to long meetings? Almost everybody in ‘the 99 percent’ hates meetings, but especially community organizers and people with skills who are busy using them to advance the cause. Paradoxically, these are the folks most experienced at doing things and therefore have real lived experience to aid in the development of strategy and tactics. Consensus decision-making processes, however, screen too many of these people out of the game. They wouldn’t be caught dead there. They’re too busy wielding their talents to while away their hours in processes that they already know go on too long.”
- Consensus decision-making reflects the cultural bias of white middle-class university-educated people: The consensus process is not neutral: it is means by which working class and non-white people can be excluded from effective participation. Rebecca Solnit in her book A Paradise Built in Hell describes the conflicts that resulted when young white middle-class activists who came to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to help with the rebuilding attempted to impose consensus decision-making on the local residents groups they were supposed to be assisting. Al Giordano suggests that consensus is popular in groups formed by "college educated Americans" precisely because the process guarantees that their group will remain homogenous and narrow, by screening out anyone who doesn’t belong to this demographic.
- Abilene paradox: Consensus decision-making is susceptible to all forms of groupthink, the most dramatic being the Abilene paradox. In the Abilene paradox, a group can unanimously agree on a course of action that no individual member of the group desires because no one individual is willing to go against the perceived will of the decision-making body.
- Consensus decision-making is anti-democratic: Groups working for radical social change, that is, the abolition of capitalism and its replacement by grassroots democracy, are acting against their own supposed goals, according to Ulli Diemer, when they reject democratic decision-making, since radical democracy can only be created with the methods of radical democracy.
Perhaps the oldest example of consensus decision-making is the Iroquois Confederacy Grand Council, or Haudenosaunee, who have traditionally used consensus in decision-making, potentially as early as 1142. Examples of consensus decision-making can likely be found among indigenous peoples, such as the African Bushmen. Although the modern popularity of consensus decision-making in Western society dates from the women's liberation movement and anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s, the origins of formal consensus can be traced significantly farther back.
The most notable of early Western consensus practitioners are the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, who adopted the technique as early as the 17th century. The Anabaptists, or Mennonites, too, have a history of using consensus decision-making and some believe Anabaptists practiced consensus as early as the Martyrs' Synod of 1527. Some Christians trace consensus decision-making back to the Bible. The Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia references, in particular, Acts 15 as an example of consensus in the New Testament.
Quaker-based consensus relies on a simple, time-tested structure that moves a group towards unity. Though it works best in the context of shared religious beliefs, the Quaker model has been employed in a variety of secular settings as well. The process allows for individual voices to be heard while providing a mechanism for dealing with disagreements.
The following aspects of the Quaker model are from an adaptation prepared by Earlham College:
- Multiple concerns and information are shared until the sense of the group is clear.
- Discussion involves active listening and sharing information.
- Norms limit number of times one asks to speak to ensure that each speaker is fully heard.
- Ideas and solutions belong to the group; no names are recorded.
- Differences are resolved by discussion. The facilitator ("clerk" or "convenor" in the Quaker model) identifies areas of agreement and names disagreements to push discussion deeper.
- The facilitator articulates the sense of the discussion, asks if there are other concerns, and proposes a "minute" of the decision.
- The group as a whole is responsible for the decision and the decision belongs to the group.
- The facilitator can discern if one who is not uniting with the decision is acting without concern for the group or in selfish interest.
- Dissenters' perspectives are embraced.
Key components of Quaker-based consensus include a belief in a common humanity and the ability to decide together. The goal is "unity, not unanimity." Ensuring that group members speak only once until others are heard encourages a diversity of thought. The facilitator is understood as serving the group rather than acting as person-in-charge. In the Quaker model, as with other consensus decision-making processes, by articulating the emerging consensus, members can be clear on the decision, and, as their views have been taken into account, will be likely to support it.
IETF rough consensus model
In the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), decisions are assumed to be taken by "rough consensus". The IETF has refrained from defining a mechanical method for verifying such consensus, apparently in the belief that any such codification will lead to attempts to "game the system." Instead, a working group (WG) chair or BoF chair is supposed to articulate the "sense of the group."
One tradition in support of rough consensus is the tradition of humming rather than (countable) hand-raising; this allows a group to quickly tell the difference between "one or two objectors" or a "sharply divided community", without making it easy to slip into "majority rule".
Much of the business of the IETF is carried out on mailing lists, where all parties can speak their view at all times.
Overlaps with deliberative methods
Consensus decision-making models overlap significantly with deliberative methods, which is the name academics such as political scientists use to describe consensus models.
Tools and methods
Some consensus decision-making bodies use a system of colored cards to speed up and ease the consensus process. Most often, each member is given a set of three colored cards: red, yellow and green. The cards can be raised during the process to indicate the member's input. Cards can be used during the discussion phase as well as during a call for consensus. The cards have different meanings depending on the phase in which they are used. The meaning of the colors are:
- Red: During discussion, a red card is used to indicate a point of process or a breach of the agreed upon procedures. Identifying off-topic discussions, speakers going over allowed time limits or other breaks in the process are uses for the red card. During a call for consensus, the red card indicates the member's opposition (usually a "principled objection") to the proposal at hand. When a member, or members, use a red card, it becomes their responsibility to work with the proposing committee to come up with a solution that will work for everyone.
- Yellow: In the discussion phase, the yellow card is used to indicate a member's ability to clarify a point being discussed or answer a question being posed. Yellow is used during a call for consensus to register a stand aside to the proposal or to formally state any reservations.
- Green: A group member can use a green card during discussion to be added to the speakers list. During a call for consensus, the green card indicates consent.
Some decision-making bodies use a modified version of the colored card system with additional colors, such as orange to indicate a non-blocking reservation stronger than a stand-aside.
Hand signals are often used by consensus decision-making bodies as a way for group members to nonverbally indicate their opinions or positions. Although the nature and meaning of individual gestures varies from group to group, there is a widely-adopted core set of hand signals. These include: wiggling of the fingers on both hands, a gesture sometimes referred to as "twinkling", to indicate agreement; raising a fist or crossing both forearms with hands in fists to indicate a block or strong disagreement; and making a "T" shape with both hands, the "time out" gesture, to call attention to a point of process or order. One common set of hand signals is called the "Fist-to-Five" or "Fist-of-Five". In this method each member of the group can hold up a fist to indicate blocking consensus, one finger to suggest changes, two fingers to discuss minor issues, three fingers to indicate willingness to let issue pass without further discussion, four fingers to affirm the decision as a good idea, and five fingers to volunteer to take a lead in implementing the decision.
Another common set of hand signals used is the "Thumbs" method, where Thumbs Up = agreement; Thumbs Sideways = have concerns but won't block consensus; and Thumbs Down = I don't agree and I won't accept this proposal. This method is also useful for "straw polls" to take a quick reading of the group's overall sentiment for the active proposal.
Completed Dotmocracy sheet
Dotmocracy sheets are designed to compliment a consensus decision-making process by providing a simple way to visibly document levels of agreement among participants on a large variety of ideas.
Participants write down ideas on paper forms called Dotmocracy sheets and fill in one dot per sheet to record their opinion of each idea on a scale of strong agreement , agreement , neutral , disagreement , strong disagreement or confusion . Participants sign each sheet they dot and may add brief comments. The result is a graph-like visual representation of the group's collective opinions on each idea.
The Step-by-Step Process and Rules defined in the Dotmocracy Handbook reinforce consensus decision-making by promoting equal opportunity, open discussion, the drafting of many proposals, the identification of concerns and the encouragement of idea modification.
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Related topics in the Connexions Subject Index
Anti-Democratic Procedures & Structures –
Conflict Resolution –
Consensus Decision-Making –
Democratic Values –
Group Meetings –
Majority Rule –
Minority Rule –
Organizational Culture –
Tyranny of the Minority –
What is Consensus
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