Introducing consensus to non-consensus groups

It’s common for people who value consensus to want to make the meetings they have as part of their everyday lives more consensual. So the question of how to use consensus in more  traditional, often hierarchical, settings comes up regularly. Saturday’s Transition Leicester group was no exception and it’s spurred me to share a few thoughts:

Saturdays group's initial thinking (click for a clearer view)

Down, down, deeper and down: Consensus requires some level of sharing – shared values, shared goals, or both. The deeper the sharing the deeper the consensus that can be reached. Many ‘alternative’ groups – action affinity groups, co-operatives have very deeply held shared values and consensus is a powerful tool for them. It becomes a method of not only making decisions, but of building a group that strives for deep understanding of equality, and deeply challenges oppression in all it’s forms. But in the workplace, for example, that level of sharing might be far more shallow. So realistic expectations are important.

Consensus in this setting is probably going to be far more functional than the transformative consensus happening elsewhere. However it should still be able to transform poor meetings to useful ones and challenge some of the assumptions of power and leadership that go unremarked in most organisations.

What’s in it for me? My biggest single tip to anyone wanting to introduce all or some of the ideas of consensus where it might not naturally seem to fit is to offer a clear, practical rationale. Consensus as a transformative-decision-making-process-that-radically-challenges-societies-norms probably won’t go down well with the boss. But consensus as a tool-to-increase-ownership-of-decisions-and the-quality-of-outputs might pique a bit of interest.

So, make sure you let people know what’s in it for them. Can you improve the quality of the ideas generated? Can you ensure that decisions are implemented more proactively? Can you cut down on the amount of time spent remaking decisions that were poorly made the first time around? Can you leave staff and volunteers feeling increasingly valued, with inevitable consequences for job satisfaction? The answer to all of these should be ‘yes’.

When it’s working well, consensus decision-making involves:

  • clarity on the decision being taken and the process being used
  • good listening and a feeling of being heard
  • broad discussion that actively explores possible concerns and looks to include diverse opinion
  • co-operating to find a solution that works for everyone
  • reflection – revisiting proposals to ensure they’re as strong as they can be
  • the final safety check of the ‘test for consensus’ which allows for shades of agreement and has the ultimate safety valve of the veto (aka the block, the major objection)
  • clear actioning of tasks
  • an on a process note it slowly but surely builds the group into a better functioning, cohesive unit

This makes it a highly pragmatic way of making high quality decisions.

But does it take more time? At first, probably. However you’re trading time for quality and possibly saving time in the long run. If you make a poor decision it’s poorly implemented, or not implemented at all. So you waste time chasing up the people who took on (or were given) action points. You waste more time having a repeat discussion at your next meeting because people have expressed dissatisfaction with the decision. And the result is at best half-hearted.

I’m not advocating consensus for all decisions. Don’t waste time using consensus to make unimportant decisions (as long as they are genuinely unimportant to everyone!), or choose between a range of bad options. Toss a coin, roll a  dice.

I’m also not advocating it for all groups in all settings. If it’s used to create the illusion of ownership, beware. People will soon see through that and lose, not gain, trust in the organisation. There has to be a genuine commitment to power-with rather than power-over, to participation and transparency. And of course, it’s hard to put the genie back into the bottle. Consensus gives people a taste of being respected, listened to, and valued. ‘Ordinary’ meetings won’t ever seem the same again.

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