Consensus decision-making: the muddle in the middle

So the group are clear on the topic of the discussion – they’ve checked out assumptions and have an agreed process for moving forward. Now the real work begins.

If you remember back to our consensus flowchart the middle stages involve a broad exploratory discussion out of which we try to draw a proposal, a way forward, that captures the energy and imagination of the group whilst simultaneously addressing their concerns.

I’ve lightheartedly referred to this phase of the flow as the ‘muddle in the middle’. Trying to keep a broad discussion of this kind neat and tidy is a recipe for stress (and probably failure). The art form for group and facilitator is probably to relax into it being a bit messy. Not all people think in straight lines, and shouldn’t be made to try. As a facilitator the emphasis is on making sure nothing gets lost –  regular summaries and good notetaking will help you here.

How broad is broad?

The simple answer is as broad as the constraints of time and energy allow for. In an ideal world the discussion would allow everyone to feel heard, all of their significant concerns to be aired, and a wide range of possible ideas to be floated and discussed. For a group fluent in good process that might not take too long. For most groups that’s quite a tall order and demands a lot of time. So you’re trying to have the broadest discussion that you can have in the time that you’ve got.

Because time is always in short supply, facilitators can be looking to optimise the group’s use of time by employing strategies such as:

  • using handsignals to express in a few seconds what would take minutes if spoken
  • judicious use of breaks, refreshments and energisers to keep a group awake and focused
  • summarising at regular intervals to ensure emerging agreements are recognised allowing the group to move on to discuss more controversial ideas
  • using small group discussion to involve everyone at the earliest possible opportunity
  • doing the maths – making time restraints and their implications for participation clear at the start and other appropriate moments.

Don’t overdo it. It’s easy to get dogmatic and deliberately broaden discussions when there’s no need. If participation is good, concerns are being heard and you have quite a few ideas emerging, fine.

Apply the brakes

We’ve already had this conversation in our post on the first steps of the process and everything we said there applies here as well. There will be some people wanting to move from issue to decision as if that conversation was a straight line, and a short straight line at that. The juggernaut may have picked up some speed by this stage, and this is one of the last easy moments to apply the brakes.

Be wary about co-operating with people pushing for a quick decision, even (especially) if you are inclined to think that way yourself. It’s a surefire way to steamroller over the needs and sensitivities of more reflective folk and will lead to decisions that may well be questioned in later meetings by those not given enough thinking time the first time around.

Jumping the gun: starting with a proposal

It’s very common for a proposal to be offered to the group at a very early stage of the discussion. By a proposal I’m meaning a suggestion of a concrete way forward. On the surface that may seem like a good thing: saves time, provides focus… and for situations when speed of decision is of the essence, such as in fast-moving direct action, perhaps it is a good thing. But the early proposal is a problem for broad discussion. Once a concrete proposal is floated it becomes the focus of the discussion and can shut down opportunities for wider, creative thinking. It also, usually, pushes a particular view and attaches specific tactics, ways of working, or action points to that view. That’s far too narrow for this stage. You may agree with the view but not the tactics. You may like the tactics but not the place they’re coming from. Both are good reasons to keep things messy for a while longer.

Personally I like to float ideas not proposals and then draw the best elements of the ideas into a proposal at a later stage.

Of course there are exceptions to this, notably when a working group is mandated to bring a proposal back to the wider group. But think about it, you’re not starting the discussion with a proposal, the broad discussion has happened, just in the working group. That discussion should have included anticipating the concerns and interests of the wider group. Bringing it back to the wider group is about accountability, and as a safety net. The wider group are being asked to trust that the working group has had a well-reasoned and sensitive discussion and to pass the proposal quite quickly unless there are serious objections that have been neglected, or friendly amendments to make the proposal stronger. They’re not being asked to have that same discussion all over again, otherwise what’s the point of the working group?

Competing proposals

The other problem with proposals at this stage of the process is that one concrete proposal is likely to provoke others. Consensus is a co-operative process, but when proposals are thrown out like this it’s very easy for a group to slip into the mindset of competition. It can be quite hard to pull a group back from competition into a state of mind that’s open to genuine consensus – much easier to try to avoid it in the first place – “Thanks for that proposal. I’d like to keep the discussion open for a while longer, so can we note it down and, if it’s still relevant later in the discussion, come back to it? In the meantime maybe you can say a little about what’s at the heart of your idea?”.

If for whatever reason you find yourself in this position, instigate a process of gentle reminders to the group – “remember folks, we’re not in competition with each other here – we’re looking for the best way forward for the whole group”, “don’t forget that we don’t necessarily have to choose between these ideas – we might be able to take the best elements from each of them…”, “can anyone see a way to pull these ideas together?”, “does it have to be either/or? Or are there other ways forward?”. Hopefully you get the picture.

Unity not uniformity

One of the biggest issues most groups face when using consensus is their own inability to genuinely deal with diversity. I’m not necessarily talking about diversity in terms of gender, race, sexuality, class etc (sadly many movements aren’t diverse enough for that to be the issue). For many groups this will be about diversity of opinion, of worldview, or value systems. That struggle to accept difference and dissent makes the broad discussion stage of consensus even messier. So it’s useful to remind ourselves that we’re working towards unity and not uniformity.

All too often consensus is interpreted as convincing the minorities to conform to the majority view, or at least get out of the way. If we’re serious about using consensus, and simultaneously serious about changing society we have to move beyond that, as society is full of difference, dissent, and diversity.

So when facilitating for breadth as well as depth, part of your role is to constantly challenge people to keep their minds open, to suspend judgements, to increase their empathy and understanding, to learn to value difference. To start with it may fall to you to be the one (and it may just be one) who values dissenting voices – “thanks for that point, it offers a valuable new perspective on the discussion…”. It may fall to you notice and report on the struggle to be heard – “Helena made an interesting contribution, but I notice that we’ve moved on without any further discussion of it. Why is that?”. It may fall to you to be the one who acknowledges the struggle to understand new perspectives – “I don’t know about anyone else, but I found what Helena said challenging. I’ve not thought about the issue that way before. It would help me to hear more. How do others feel?”. In time others in the group will join you (if they aren’t already leading the way) and you’ve started the journey to being a more diverse and respectful group.

Show some concern

Perhaps the most significant outcome of our broad discussion is to have heard each others’ concerns whilst they are still at the level of concerns. Small niggles and potential problems are easier to articulate without causing offense but if ignored they can escalate quickly into major stumbling blocks that carry a large emotional content. Ignoring them cuts two ways. A group may fail to make a safe space for concerns to be articulated, fail to hear a concern once it is articulated, or fail to take it seriously. The concerned individual (or individuals – there is rarely only one) can ignore the voice within them that’s trying to make itself heard. They might feel that conforming to peer pressure is more important than paying attention to their own doubts, for example.

Many of the problems groups have in dealing with the veto or block stem from concerns not being articulated clearly, and not being listened to and appreciated when they are spoken.

Facilitators and groups can make it easier for concerns to be heard by:

  • framing them as “concerns” and not “fears”, “major objections” and the like
  • reminding people that they are unlikely to be the only person to feel what they feel
  • reminding people that flagging up possible problems does the whole group a favour – better to hear them now than after a decision is made.
  • showing a genuine interest in working for the strongest decision – one that has dealt with concerns appropriately. And by strong I also include strengthening group cohesion – that ‘glue’ we’ve talked about before
  • pausing for reflection at regular intervals to allow for internal voices of doubt to become clear
  • breaking full groups down into pairs or smaller groups to create more space and safety to discuss possible problems
  • paying attention to the ‘vibe’ of the group, as well as its body language and tone of voice. Concerns are usually there in people’s faces or postures, or in the atmosphere of the room. If you feel concerned but don’t understand why, you’re probably tuning into the underlying vibe of concern and should speak up – “I don’t know about anyone else but it doesn’t feel as if we’ve dealt with all of our concerns. I can still feel some tension around this idea. Can anyone share what that means from their perspective?”

I’m aware as  I write that my comments about hearing concerns rather than major objections could be interpreted as an aversion to strong emotions and conflict. Mainstream activist culture here in the UK is probably averse to the expression of strong emotions because (sadly) it’s a largely white, middle class culture that values intellectual processes more than heart processes and shies away from conflict. So let me clarify: strong emotion and conflict can have an important role in deepening the connections in a group, aiding understanding, and building empathy. It reminds us that we’re dealing with other humans and not just with issues and ideals. It can break us out of rigid thinking and into more humane feeling.

When I suggest expressing concerns rather than major objections it’s about airing emotion (as well as intellectual argument) but not in a way that emotionally blackmails others in the group. I’ve seen this too often where consensus is working badly – “I feel so strongly about this idea that we must drop it immediately without any rigourous testing of my objection, and without any consideration of other people’s emotions”.

Moving on up

Consensus is an upward spiral. No group has all the attitudes and skills needed to do perfect consensus. But the struggle to use consensus well helps to build those attitudes and skills so that bit by bit the group achieves new heights, overcomes new struggles, deepens its understanding. This broad discussion phase is where the majority of that work takes place.

The tools of the trade

It probably won’t have escaped your notice that I’ve tried not to spend too much time prescribing particular facilitation tools or techniques beyond maintaining an appropriate dialogue with the group. It goes without saying that all of those facilitation techniques that help build trust, engage the full group, create safe and respectful spaces for dialogue are useful in consensus as they are in any meeting. However the most useful thing is having the right state of mind…

You might also like to read other posts in this series:

Previous posts on the steps of the consensus process:

Later posts on the steps of the consensus process: