Consensus decision-making: Why?

We’ve already talked a little about what consensus is. We used phrases such as:

“challenge oppressive behaviour, working for the common good over personal benefit…a pulling together of ideas to build the strongest available decision…a transformational process”

All well and good, but let’s look in detail and make it a bit more real: why do people choose consensus? And who are these people anyway? The common thread with groups using consensus is probably the search for a genuinely egalitarian and inclusive model of democracy. Groups that have used or are still using consensus or consensus-like include native american nations, anarchist protest movements and radical religious groups, notably quakers and mennonites.

So why does consensus deliver this superior form of democracy? Partly it’s down to a strong sense of group. Partly it’s down to the stated intention to treat all people as equals. Partly it’s down to quirks of the method, prime amongst them giving all participants in the process an equal right of veto over any and all decisions. Partly it’s down to consensus being a facilitated approach. And partly it’s down to people’s experience of consensus delivering high quality decisions that the whole group feels comfortable with (if not inspired by).

Sense of group

Consensus is for groups. Not for loose or accidental formations of people, but for groups that have a definite sense of themselves as a group. In her book Truth or Dare Starhawk calls it group mind. Others call it common ground, shared values. Whatever the words a group uses, it’s a conscious sense of the group being more than the sum of its parts. That sense of the group being able to achieve far more than any one individual makes it worthwhile for individuals to allow the group mind precedence over their personal ambition. This makes consensus the perfect approach for many co-operatives, community groups, and activist affinity groups.

The best of intentions

Consensus is an explicitly non-hierarchical egalitarian process. That’s what it says on the box, and as such it attracts users who already have a commitment to behaving in that way. Of course we don’t always live up to our ideals and most of us are brought up with competitive relationships being the norm. When we’re trying to work co-operatively they can trip even the best of us up. I’m reminded of a post on the fantastic Paths through Utopia blog, describing an anarchist school in Spain:

“Pepa tells us that they no longer allow children over nine years old to enrole. By then they have become too moulded by capitalism, competivity and individualism “the system has structured the mind and it is impossible to be free” she tells us. She thinks that adults can begin the process of changing but it takes a long time, as we are all well aware. It challenges the very basis of our society of separation – the I and the them, subject versus object. Reaching a state of freedom requires us to seamlessly merge individual and collective responsibility”

But the joy is in the journey and not arriving at the destination, right? So consensus is the preferred option for many anti-discrimination groups, and those for whom hierarchy is a problem – such as some co-operatives, anarchist groups and networks

The veto

Each individual having the right to veto any proposal at any stage? That’s a huge amount of power and a huge responsibility. For those that haven’t achieved the necessary sense of group it can also be a huge problem, with individuals vetoing proposals for individual reasons and not with that sense of group in mind.

But in a well-functioning consensus group (and they do exist) the veto is so rare as almost to be unheard of. For this reason consensus lore says that an individual should veto no more than the fingers on one hand in a lifetime! Think about it, to get to the point in a process at which someone feels moved strongly enough to stop a proposal from going any further, a group has to have ignored some pretty significant warning signs. The quality of listening, observation, inclusion has to have dropped well below the standard expected of a group committed to equality, access, inclusion, participation (and all those other nice words). And given that vetos are used to prevent a group taking an action that runs contrary to its core aims and values, the group also has to be going significantly off course. In our well-functioning group, the veto is not something to be afraid of, but to be welcomed. If someone vetos it brings the group back to itself, it sense of self, and its core aims and values.

And that makes the veto a radical safety valve that keeps groups working to their highest shared ideals.

We’ll inevitably talk more about vetos as this series of posts progresses.


Consensus assumes facilitation. For most groups this is an explicit appointing of one of more individuals to look after the process. Some groups may say they reach consensus without facilitation. More likely they do so without a facilitator, but they’re functioning well enough that they share the roles of facilitator without even thinking about it.

The use of facilitation in consensus provides some reassurances that the process will be more equitable. It’s far more than simply deciding between a go-round and a paired discussion for the next stage of the agenda. In a consensus setting having a facilitator or facilitation team in place ensures that someone out there is consciously monitoring the level of equality and is challenging informal hierarchy or any oppressive behaviour. More than that they can keep a flow of gentle but constant reminders flowing throughout the meeting – to work towards the highest intentions, to co-operate rather than compete, to aspire to build a cathedral rather than simply carve a block of stone

Quality not quantity…

Consensus works. Yes, there are many groups struggling to make it work: finding themselves watering down the process, making poor decisions, and dealing with informal hierarchy, oppression of various kinds and more. But there are enough groups that make it work well, or at least achieve moments of clarity in which they see the promise of consensus, that it’s worth pursuing. When it’s working well consensus delivers highest common denominator decisions – that is decisions based on the best of all the ideas discussed in a diverse groups. It addresses people’s concerns. And it reaffirms the sense of group and leaves people energised, creating a virtuous circle.

Other posts in this series:

Post on the process of consensus