Consensus decision-making: weaving it all together

Opening and holding open a broad and inclusive discussion can be hard: there are usually some people in any group that want to rush to the decision. The irony is that once you’ve successfully opened a discussion it can be hard to stop people talking and draw the discussion together to begin the process of formulating a proposal.

So, how do you spot the right moment?

  • sometimes the natural energy of the group will tell you  – there’s a gathering excitement around a particular idea or cluster of ideas, which can be seen in body language, tone of voice, and use of handsignals (if the group uses them)
  • sometimes you’ll hear people talking about an idea as if it’s already been agreed and beginning to plan the details of implementing it – a sure sign of energy for the idea
  • you may notice signs of impatience as people begin to show that it’s time for the next step
  • the discussion may be continuing but each contribution adds little that’s new to the sum total of the group’s thinking so far
  • people may be disagreeing less, or over smaller and smaller details
  • and of course, you may hear specific calls to move on or offer a proposal to the group

Of course it may simply be that the group has dedicated all the time that it can reasonably spare to the discussion and has to move on if the decision is to be made in time.

So what happens next? Well, now’s the time for the group, aided by their facilitator(s) to draw together a more concrete path forward that reflects the hopes and excitement of the group as well as the concerns and objections. Hopefully all of these have been expressed in  your discussion. This weaving together of the various threads into a proposal is sometimes referred to, in consensus jargon, as synthesis . Once you’ve got a proposal that seems to summarise the group’s thinking the focus of the meeting changes and the group are now discussing the merits of the proposal – the discussion has narrowed down and from here on in the group is testing the proposal against their aspirations and concerns to make sure the two match and that the proposal can deliver the best decision for the group in the time it’s got. This process may involve friendly amendments – amendments to the original proposal that make it stronger and more reflective of the group’s aspirations and concerns. The role of friendly amendments is to create space to polish off the rough edges (and give more time for concerns to emerge and be articulated).

Like all other stages of the consensus process there are possible pitfalls, some of which are considered below:

Calling time

Quite often the group will be forced to move into the synthesising phase of the discussion by time factors. It’s useful to acknowledge the tension between the time available and the quality of the discussion. It’s also useful to check that the deadline is real and not artificial. The stress in the most stressful meeting I’ve ever witnessed was caused by a group being pushed through a process faster than it was comfortable with. The deadline for the meeting was entirely artificial. The meeting could have been lengthened with a bit of juggling of the overall events timetable and negotiation over who was using what space. Instead the facilitators accepted the deadline as fact and tried to work to it. Result? The group soon became resentful, unco-operative and even hostile to the facilitators and process. It was a valuable lesson and one I’m glad I learnt as an observer and not a facilitator!

But assuming the deadline is reasonable, it’s  a case of reminding the group that they’re making the best possible decision they can make in the time they have. And they’re looking for a decision that, ultimately, they can live with.Yes, they may well make a better decision with more time, but they don’t have it..

Binary decisions

For some reason there’s a tendency in groups to be oppositional. We hear a few ideas, the group narrows them down and then we’re asked to choose between them. It’s either/or. We’re attached to our own thinking which often means that we state our ideas with certainty, we reiterate, we lobby. We don’t trust the group to hear all ideas as equal and take them into equal consideration. This breeds competition – a real obstacle to genuine consensus.

For some choosing between ideas is painful. Quite often it’s also unnecessary. The whole point of the synthesis stage of the process is that it pulls together the best qualities from a wide range of ideas. This might not mean taking ideas as they’re presented to the group. Instead a group may explore what the underlying issues and qualities of an idea are and find other ways to use those qualities and address the issues. Sometimes it might be OK to take the ideas at face value and agree to do more than one. There’s nothing (except our lack of imagination) stopping a proposal being a palette of options.

Applying the brakes

Not the first time we’ve flagged this problem up…..Once a proposal is formed there can be a rush to get it agreed in a “here’s the proposal, take it or leave it?” kind of way. However, assuming that the group has left a little time, holding open space for friendly amendments is important. Exciting and creative tweaks often emerge that make a decision far better. It’d be a shame to rule out that possibility.

Refusing to open back up

Another related problem is getting fixated on a proposal and talking it to death even when it’s clear it’s not going to work. Synthesis is tricky, and getting it right first time unlikely. So expect to go back and forth between the broad discussion and this stage a few times until you formulate the right proposal that can withstand the process of scrutiny and amendments. There’s no shame in backing up and opening out again, though many groups act as if there is.

Losing focus

After a proposal is offered to the group the discussion can become unfocused and wander off all over the place. Given that the task is clear – discuss a specific proposal – this might sound odd. Usually it’s a symptom of the group not having a shared understanding of the proposal. This can be helped by ensuring  a clear note of the proposal is taken and preferably written up in a way that everyone can see. This is especially important if it’s complicated. It’s one way to help maintain the accuracy and integrity of the proposal. Regular verbal restatement also helps, as does breaking down a complex proposal in to constituent parts.

Death by a thousand amendments

Not all groups start out life with the right attitude for consensus. Many will be used to a more cut and thrust, politicking group environment. In this environment “friendly” amendments are sometimes used as a tool for destroying an idea. With enough amendments any idea can be rendered worthless. This is a sure sign that one or all of the following are happening:

  • poor listening and undervaluing those on the group’s margins have led to resentment and distrust
  • new people have joined the discussion late in the day and haven’t understood or valued how the proposal was reached
  • the broad discussion wasn’t broad enough and significant concerns aren’t addressed in the proposal

That’s the facilitator’s cue to ensure there’s a little backtracking and some high quality listening before attempting another synthesis. In the case of the middle issue, there may be a need to call on the latecomers to trust the quality of the discussion so far, to trust it’s been inclusive and wide-ranging (assuming it has).

A moment’s reflection

One useful technique to help with the above problems is to state the proposal and then let it sit, take a break and have a cuppa, go away and return to the discussion another day – whatever it takes to enable people to come back to the proposal fresh and ready to be creative. Even just a five-minute breather can help.

And, on our journey through the stages of the consensus process that only leaves us with the test for consensus. You might also like to read other consensus posts:

Previous posts on the steps of the consensus process: