Consensus decision-making: the first step

Step 1: Getting some clarity

So you’re facilitating a meeting for a group that uses consensus decision-making. Maybe you’re a member of the group, maybe you’ve been invited as an outside facilitator. How best to start? What problems can you foresee and what can you do to avoid them becoming a reality, or deal with them appropriately and sensitively if they do arise?

There are things you might do in any meeting, with any group irrespective of its chosen decision-making process, such as create a group agreement or facilitate an icebreaker. I’m not going to dwell on those here. I’m going to focus on clarity first. Much of this first stage of the consensus process is about establishing shared clarity. So many groups create problems for themselves simply by not making things explicit. The result is that some members of the group may not even know what decision-making process is being used.

And before I hear you say “surely not”, my assertion is based on experience, not speculation. I’ve worked with many a group that state that they work by consensus. When asked what they mean by that I’ve met a full range of responses from detailed knowledge of consensus, to the “we talk until we’re agreed” response, to the “I didn’t know we used consensus”, all in one group.

And spare a thought for the newcomer – if there’s no explicit discussion of process how are they to know how things work? What if they’ve never come across consensus before – how are they supposed to know what’s expected of them at each stage of the process? Lack of clarity disenfranchises them, which is a cruel irony in a process that claims to be one of the most democratic!

So lesson one – be clear on what process you use, and ensure that everyone else is equally as clear. How do you do that? It may mean some or all of the following:

  • running pre-meeting inductions to consensus for new folk, or those that want a refresher
  • a 10 minute reminder at the start of meetings
  • a simple opening dialogue with the group – “has everyone used consensus before?….does someone want to offer a short summary of the process….how does this group use blocks and stand-asides….what about handsignals? Is everyone familiar with them?”
  • posters of the key points on the wall, or flyers on the chairs
  • being explicit with the group about their lack of clarity and trying to make them comfortable with it…. “Don’t worry if you’re not familiar with consensus, I’ll make sure we talk through what’s happening at each stage of the process”. At least they’re clear that you’re clear!
  • Ask the group! “Does everyone feel they understand what we’re here to talk about?”, and give them time to digest the question and respond – we’re aiming to include the reflective. Don’t hurry them here or your inclusive question will be rendered useless for the sake of another 30 seconds or so.

Whatever works for your group. But don’t assume everyone understands consensus and that if they do that they understand it the same way. If you ignore this you end up with problems later – most significantly people using the veto in a non-consensual way. But if there’s been no explicit discussion leading to a shared understanding, how are they to know better? More on that when we get to Step 5 of the process.

The same logic applies to getting clarity on the content of the meeting. The chances are that there are several different views of the agenda or specific agenda items, ranging from “I’ve no idea what we’re meeting about tonight” to detailed knowledge of each and every issue. This causes its own problems.

Clarity usually emerges as the discussion deepens, but at the cost of time. Sometimes it can be just a few minutes until it becomes clear that there are several different conversations happening at once, caused by slightly different interpretations of the agenda. But sometimes it can be 30 or 40 minutes before the last kink is ironed out and the whole group is talking about the same thing.

Do we have enough information to decide?

Another common problem that has its roots in ploughing on before establishing clarity is moving into discussion without actually having enough information to make the decision. Pausing and reflecting at the start of the process gives the group time to notice these things. Once noticed they can have a more relevant discussion and decision – “what are we going to do to get well enough informed to make the decision?”. Confusion, a rapid descent into ‘getting stuck’, and going round in circles may all indicate that the group doesn’t have enough information at hand.

Often all it takes is for someone to simply articulate the problem – “I notice we’re not getting very far, and I’m wondering if we actually have all the information we need to make this decision”. Of course if that’s left too late the group may have its teeth firmly into the discussion and carry on anyway, so be prepared to reiterate the problem and ask appropriate questions – “we’re referring to the statistics in that report quite regularly, but there’s some disagreement about what it actually says. Is that something that people feel we need to have in front of us before we take this decision? Does anyone have a copy here? So should we put this discussion on old until we can get a copy?”.

Apply the brakes…

Pace can be a real problem in this opening stage of the process. Some of us are very clear on the process, the issue, in fact everything. It’s all crystal clear and anything that slows down the discussion and decision is unwelcome. Maybe they helped put the agenda together and have had to consider the issues in that process. Maybe they’ve been talking about the issue outside of meetings for months now. Basically they’re ready to go and everyone else just needs to get on board the decision-making express. As a facilitator, however, it’s time to apply the brakes.

Letting the pace be set by the best informed is a recipe for exclusion for those who:

  • are new to the group – and may need time to get up to speed with the issues and/or process (of course they may have years of experience in both issue and process)
  • are more reflective by nature, preferring to hear a diverse range of ideas, and to work at a slower pace
  • have concerns that they can’t quite find the words for at this moment in time

But if you apply the brakes, don’t you lose the attention and goodwill of those wanting to move faster? Perhaps, and their wishes shouldn’t be ignored altogether. You could:

  • offer them a reasoned explanation of what the problem of moving straight on is. Most people are reasonable and no-one likes to think that their behaviour may be the cause of exclusion
  • suggest that a little time getting clear now may well save us a lot of time later
  • try to maintain a steady pace, dealing with sidetracks and tangents efficiently
  • use more dynamic meeting formats that reflect some of the energy of those who want to dive straight in
  • lay out the grand plan –  (briefly) explain your process to the group so that they can see how each stage takes them closer to the decision-making end-point
  • facilitate for a lively and diverse discussion that fosters different points of view and those who thought they knew the answer may well be engaged by challenging and interesting perspectives. If they’re interested they’re likely to find it a good use of time
  • cut away any extraneous meeting ‘padding’ such as recapping minutes of the last meeting unless it’s absolutely necessary. Minutes can be circulated by other means (email, post) for example
  • be clear why you’re tolerating any ‘delays’ such as less focused speakers. People think in different ways, and process information differently and at different speeds. It doesn’t make their point of view any less valid….

A firm foundation

And if you’ve managed to do all of that you may have added quarter of an hour to the start of the meeting but you’ll have helped create a space that allows a more focused and respectful discussion, which in turn should lead to a stronger decision. Not bad for quarter of an hour.

Other posts you might want to read:

Previous post on the steps of the consensus process:

Later posts on the steps of the consensus process:

So you’re facilitating a meeting for a group that used consensus decision-making. Maybe you’re a member of the group, maybe you’ve been invited as an outside facilitator. How best to start? What problems can you forsee and what can you do to avoid them becoming a reality, or dealing with them appropriately and sensitively if they do arise?