Taking decisions – defining consensus

Continuing our series of posts about decision-making, here we explore the definition of consensus. Let us know about your experiences of consensus in practice or in the comments below.

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Consensus is often defined very loosely. The ‘Consensus Handbook’ produced by Seeds of Change simply says that “a consensus group is committed to finding solutions that everyone can actively support, or at least can live with”.

I’d like to be more precise, and say that consensus decision-making has two features. First, everyone involved states their view explicitly. ‘Explicit’ is important, Conscious Consumers in Canterbury in Kent, was one of twelve groups in six European countries whose decision-making was studied in a research project. Taking all twelve together, just over half the decisions were described as being ‘nodded through’. That’s not being explicit.

Second, everyone agrees to a decision; or, at least, doesn’t disagree. In consensus decision-making, people may express disagreement in two forms. They may ‘stand aside’ because, while they may not like the decision, they support it for the good of the group. Or, they may block the decision. In that case, there is no consensus, and the discussion continues.

Third, the decision is taken, as Wikipedia puts it, “in the best interest of the whole”. When discussion gets heated in meetings of a housing coop called Threshold in Dorset, this is the question they pose: “Is this issue more important to you than the group?”

Groups differ in whether a blocker needs to give reasons for doing so and, if so, the nature of those reasons. For example, in sociocracy, a near-consensus method, people do have to give reasons for their objections, and they have to be ‘reasoned and paramount’. ‘Paramount’ means that someone’s objection relates to the fundamental purpose of the group.

When defining consensus I referred to ‘everyone involved’. That needs a bit of unpicking. Every group needs to decide what they mean. For instance, does every member of the group need to agree for a proposal to go through, or only those who have turned up to the meeting? Sociocracy seeks the agreement not of everyone but of those affected.

I very much like the natural way in which this happens in the South Seas, according to an American diplomat called Harland Cleveland:

“In a Pacific island village, important decisions will draw all the villagers to a community circle, but only those who care about a particular decision will edge toward the circle’s centre to make their views known and their weight felt. The others will sit around the outside, often talking among themselves about something else. When the village elder is able to divine and announce the common view, that doesn’t mean that everybody is an uncritical endorser of what will be done. It does mean that among those whose water-buffaloes might be gored [the topic under discussion], there is at least passive acquiescence, and those who don’t much care are willing to leave the outcome to those who do.”