Consensus: the deep end

13 participants and 4 facilitators, including myself, gathered in Oxford this weekend for Consensus: in at the deep end a full weekend workshop to explore consensus decision-making in more depth than consensus training usually allows.

Of course consensus is a widely used word. You hear it everywhere – the Blairs, Browns and Camerons of this world are constantly talking about reaching consensus in parliament, at the United Nations or the G8. Usually they mean that enough weight of opinion has formed around the dominant world-view that it will hold sway. So what’s new. That’s not the consensus we were exploring in the workshop.

Rather we were talking (and doing!) about a radical process that challenges people to co-operate at a deep level in order to achieve outcomes that don’t alienate, and don’t create disaffected minorities. It demands empathy, deep listening, the willingness to suspend personal agendas, openness to surprise, creativity and new ideas and a genuine attempt to find solutions that work for everyone.

The weekend’s agenda was handed firmly over to the participants. Friday evening was spent in reflection on people’s personal and collective understanding of consensus. Instead of creating a group agreement the group explored the underlying concepts – how to make the group fully accessible to those at the margins of the group.

To satisfy the inevitable urge for discussion, Saturday morning was spent in Open Space. The group then identified the issues that they most wanted to take forward into a more experiential phase of the workshop. Whilst they took a 30 minute break, we facilitators huddled and created experiential activities to explore and learn deeper skills around those issues.

The values of consensus proved to be a strong theme throughout. Consensus is often seen and taught as a decision-making process, and of course it is. But the process is only a framework for a way of inter-relating. Consensus is a state of mind and heart which is expressed through a decision-making process. It seems to me that understanding that state of mind/heart is far more powerful and effective than understanding the technicalities of a decision-making process without having that grounding in the values that it enshrines. Here’s a reflection from one of the participants, taken from an email I received this week

Something that really had an effect was the ‘persuasion exercise’ with someone against the wall and through dialogue attempting to bring them towards the larger group. It really brought home the point for me that when entering into political dialogue I will often wear the ‘party hat’ and actually to build strong consensual networks and relationships that hat needs to come off more often than not- to create a space to share common values and ideas that can lead to action together- with folk that share similar politics and also those who don’t.

Consensus is practiced widely here in the UK, but often at a shallow level with plenty of competition, poor communication and intolerance within what is supposed to be a co-operative, empathetic model.

I’m not sure how deep we got, but we certainly created activities that gave participants the chance to develop the practice of empathy, listening, and supportive curiosity. We threw them into high pressure roleplay to explore the pre-conditions for effective consensus. We practiced facilitating groups to not only reach decisions but to understand the values of consensus more deeply by the end of a meeting. And we explored tools and techniques that could be used in the consensus process.

I haven’t read the evaluations yet. I left those with my co-facilitators in Oxford. When I see them I’ll share them.

For me it was a good weekend – engaged participants and the challenge of designing the agenda as we went along, which I think we rose to.