Tips for Consensus Decision Making

Democratic Decision-Making

Implicit Beliefs of Democratic Decision-Making

  • People are intelligent, capable and want to do the right thing;
  • Groups can make better decisions than any one person can make alone;
  • Everyone’s opinion is of equal value, regardless of rank or position;
  • People are more committed to the ideas and plans that they have helped to create;
  • Participants can and will act responsibly in assuming true accountability for their decisions;
  • Groups can manage their own conflicts, behaviors and relationships if they are given the right tools and training;
  • The process, if well designed and honestly applied, can be trusted to achieve results.

Transparency in decision making helps everyone understand how they can take part in the decision making process and how power is distributed in the process. There are basically two participatory ways to make decisions as a group – by majority rules or by consensus. A group can be creative in modifying or combining theses methods. For example, if a group can’t reach consensus and it is a timely matter that must be decided, then the group can go to a two-third majority vote or an appointed person with expertise in the area to be decided can been given the authority to make the final decide. The important thing is that everyone understands the process and agrees to it.

Majority rule voting, in which a decision is made when over half of a group supports the proposal, works well for large groups that are not well-versed in consensus process (see below). However, majority rule means that one half of the community wins and the other half loses. Silencing a sector of the population goes against a central goal of community organizing which seeks to empower every member of a community and enliven participation in civic life. If a group needs to use majority rule, then in order to avoid alienating a large group, they might decide a proposal will only succeed with a two-thirds majority.

The Consensus Process honors all voices.

An alternative method is consensus. A consensus process aims at bringing the group to mutual agreement by addressing all concerns. It does not require unanimity. In some cases consensus can take longer than other processes, but it can foster creativity, cooperation and commitment to final decisions,  which results in increased cohesiveness, effectiveness and, often, time savings.

Consensus asks us to step out of our narrow personal agendas and to make decisions that are in the best interest of the whole group. This is not to say that personal concerns are left out of the process. Effects on or agendas of individuals impact the whole group and are weighed into consideration during the discussion portion of the process. Someone who has a personal concern with a proposal, but who has had their issues deliberated on by the group and feels they can live with the decision can allow a decision to be made by “standing aside” from the decision. A ”block” is a persons’ means to disallow a decision to be made. A block is only used when a person has a strong moral disagreement or thinks that the decision will fundamentally damage the group. It is not a step to be taken lightly.

The steps of consensus are:

  • State the issue. What are we talking about? The facilitator asks the person who brought the issue to the group to frame the issue.
  • Clarify question. What needs to be decided? The facilitator or the framer states what needs to be decided.
  • Discussion. What are all the viewpoints? The facilitator asks each person to speak to the issue.
  • Make proposal. The facilitator asks for proposals of action the group can take that incorporates all viewpoints.
  • Discussion. The facilitator asks people to speak to proposals by asking clarifying questions or by expressing support or concerns.
  • Modify proposal by friendly amendments or withdraw proposal and solicit new proposals.
  • Test for consensus:
    • Call for concerns – The facilitator restates proposal and asks if anyone still has concerns. If so, ask the person with concerns to restate them and ask others speak to those concerns.
    • Call for objections within consensus – If people still have concerns even after they have been thoroughly discussed then the facilitator asks if those persons with remaining concerns are willing to stand aside. (“I think don’t agree but I can live with it.”)
    • Call for blocks – If persons with concerns cannot stand aside then the facilitator asks if they are blocking. If blocked, the proposal is dropped or discussed further or sent to committee.
  • Consensus reached. Ask everyone to show visual (finger waving) or oral agreement.
  • Decision implemented. Who does what, when?

Consensus works best when everyone in the group understands how the process works. It is a good skill to give training on.

Many groups (especially groups that are open to the public, or who are strangers without strong past relationships or built trust) use a modified version of consensus. Consensus is sought through the process outlined above but if it cannot be reached the group can use a 2/3 or 3/4 super majority vote to reach a decision. We recommend that Move to Amend groups use a modified version of consensus.