Consensus evolved from the meeting process of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). It is a nonviolent way for people to relate to each other as a group. Consensus allows us to recognize our areas of agreement and to act together without coercing one another. Under consensus, the group takes no action that is not consented to by all 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 other of their right to speak and to be heard.
Consensus 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, however, we generally are referring to a set of rules for decision-making that are consistent with the idea and ideals of consensus. Successful use of consensus process depends on people’s understanding the idea and wanting to use it.
A set of rules for consensus process:
The problem/situation is discussed and a clear idea of what decision has to be made is formulated. Part of this discussion should be to bring out the group’s present position or course of action relating to this issue. A proposal can then be made.
If someone is not present and has not communicated any interest in the matter, it may be assumed that [that person/entity] has no strong feelings.
After adequate discussion, instead of voting, it is asked if there is any opposition to the suggestion as stated.
If there is no opposition at this point, the decision can be formally stated and adopted.
Any one person can state his or her opposition to the decision as stated and this will block the group’s adoption of that decision. Since it takes only one person to halt the entire process, this is a lot of power. Consensus cannot work unless people are responsible regarding their use of this power (i.e., is my objection real, valid and basic to the decision at hand, or is my objection petty, nitpicking or a personal ego trip?). At the same time, if one feels strongly that the decision as stated is bad, it is being responsible to hold up that decision.
There are ways of expressing an objection without blocking the group decision:
- non-support (I don’t see the need for this, but I’ll go along);
- 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 block others from doing it.)
- withdrawing from the group.
If there is an objection blocking the group, the objection must be worked out before that proposal can be adopted. This might be done by convincing the objector that his or her objection is not valid or is based on a misunderstanding; by amending the decision so as to satisfy the objection; or by reconsidering the decision.
If the objection is met (satisfied), a sense of the group is again taken. If there are no other objections at this point, the decision is made.
If all objections are not met, the group continues in accordance with its last consensus relating to this matter, until a suggestion can be found that is not blocked. Where the group has not previously made a decision to do something, the consensus is to take no action as a group.
If there is difficulty in satisfying an objection or there a number of valid objections, perhaps the decision is not a good one and an entirely new approach (or even a break) should be considered.
Some essential elements for consensus work:
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 find ways to satisfy your objections.
RESPECT: Trust others to make responsible objections. Don’t argue the merits of an objection; either accept it or try to find ways to satisfy the objection.
COOPERATION: Avoid competitive win/lose, right/wrong thinking. Look for areas of agreement and common ground. When a statement occurs, look for ingenious resolutions of the next-most-acceptable alternative for all concerned. Avoid arguing for your own way to prevail; present your ideas as clearly as you can, then listen to others and try to advance the group synthesis.
CREATIVE CONFLICT: Avoid conflict-reducing techniques like majority vote or coin tossing; try instead to resolve the conflict. Don’t change your mind or withdraw an objection simply to avoid conflict or to 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.
Summary of Major Points in the Consensus Education Package
The following is a summary of the major points of the Consensus Education Packet. This summary is not meant as a substitute for the packet itself. Rather, it is a supplement to it _ a condensation of the major points in the packet which can be referred to during the consensus process itself. And it is a constant, easily used resource for people who want to learn more about consensus. The summary is in outline form so that relationships between different concepts will be easier (hopefully) to understand.
More copies of this summary or of the packet itself can be obtained by writing to INVERT, RFD 1, Newport ME 04953.
Note – this material is from INVERT, RFD 1, Newport ME 04953.