Conflict in consensus

Over at the Involve blog Annie Quick’s writing about the necessity of conflict in consensus processes. It’s a great post about a real problem that can render the aspirational (and inspirational) nature of consensus meaningless:

“In an attempt to avoid polarisation through dead-lock and the name-calling kind of conflicts, there’s a danger that we attempt to eliminate conflict and disagreement altogether. There are two outcomes I can see from this: either we do all learn to agree on the big issues, which I’ll argue would be a bad thing anyway, or, more likely, we would merely ignore divergent opinions and dialogue would become at best meaningless and at worse a justification for existing dominant values or decisions…..

Annie concludes with a challenge to participants and facilitators alike:

If citizen dialogue is going to really contribute to a healthy democracy it needs to encourage and engage in conflict and disagreement, not in order to overcome it, but for its own sake. So, my advice would be: search for common ground by all means. But only if you’re using it to build trust in order to tackle the uncommon ground on which democracy relies. That’s where the fun really starts.

This chimes with what the good folk at Community At Work propose in their Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making – that there’s a need to fully diverge and to weather what they call the ‘groan zone’ of conflict, difference and tension before we can begin to meaningfully converge to a consensus. Divergence isn’t an unfortunate fact we have to put up with to reach consensus, but an essential ingredient in the process.