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Building Consensus: Conflict and Unity

Chapter 1

Consensus — A Different Approach


This book provides guidance for strengthening the ability of groups and individuals interested in seeking agreement and common understanding for more informed decisions. It is intended for use by people who are using or considering using consensus processes in their workplaces, community organizations, schools, families or other social settings. A group or team may use consensus-building processes to strengthen their understanding of relevant concerns and potential consequences of a decision even when a decision will ultimately be made by the "boss" or by a final vote. A wide variety of organizations use consensus decision-making processes for some or many of their decisions, ranging from strategic planning groups of corporations and production teams in the automotive and motorcycle industries to grass roots social action groups and natural resources planning councils (Susskind, McKearnan, & Thomas-Lamer, 1999; Gastil, 1993; Gerber, 1992).

Consensus Is a Learning Process

Most of us are well-schooled in deciding by majority rule or having a boss decide. But we've had less practice in seeking the common good together, listening to different voices, weaving together common ideas and concerns, agreeing on a decision that reflects what is good for the group at that time, and taking responsibility collectively for the decision and its consequences. Learning to approach decision-making this way takes practice. Coaching or training by someone with experience in using consensus helps.

Why Use Consensus-Building and Decision-Making

Consensus-building emphasizes cooperation in sharing information and airing differences, which provides an opportunity for new ideas to emerge. It also affects how members experience the process and the value of their contributions. Consensus-building reminds us that we share a common humanity, even with our differences.

Perceptions of fairness of the decision-making process often vary according to whether one's views were heard or considered. It is important that members understand that their viewpoints have been considered without requiring that others agree with them. Consensus-building establishes underlying attitudes and provides clear practices for encouraging consideration of different views, thereby strengthening the sense of fairness. This is particularly important in diverse -groups or groups with some members whose voices are seldom heard.

Broader commitment and acceptance of decisions may be created and then strengthened through consensus-building. When the views of members were considered in management teams in a Fortune 500 company, commitment to the decision, attachment to the group, and trust in the leadership were strengthened (Korsgaard, Schweiger, & Sapienza, 1995). Sometimes, the decision has broader acceptance if it is made by consensus. When top level executives at AT&T were divided and at a standstill, they convened task forces and called on Quaker Robert Greenleaf, who built consensus in these groups and worked with them to reach consensus decisions. "A task force report that has a minority report attached to it is really of very little value. Unless it has complete agreement, it really doesn't settle much. It leaves the matter still open where it was at the start" (Greenleaf, 1987). When the task forces reached hard-won agreement, the executives accepted the results of the groups' deliberations.

Consensus processes create a level of confidence that helps people bear the costs of change, which typically come before the benefits. In the course of building consensus, major challenges that might emerge during implementation of various decision options are often identified, reducing the surprises that can undercut effective implementation. When the group makes the decision by consensus, the confidence may be even stronger, and implementation may be quicker and more effective.

Capacity for ongoing cooperation, collaboration and co-ownership are developed through consensus-building and decision-making. Members are encouraged to see the decisions and the work of the organization as theirs, not just the responsibility of those in charge. The more practice a group has in building agreement, the more strength it has for meeting the challenges of the next decision-making situation.

What Consensus Processes Look Like:
Three Examples from Practice

How Consensus Works: An Overview

The consensus process is like a funnel — wide open at the outset to allow for broad participation, then gradually narrowing as it channels the content towards a preliminary summary in consensus building (Stage 1). If the group uses consensus decision-making, a series of summaries leads toward a decision (Stage 2).

Stage 1: Consensus-Building

1. Working groups, committees, or individuals with relevant
background information circulate documents before the meeting.
Members do their homework in advance.

2. The meeting opens according to the group's usual practice.
Some groups use a period of silence to permit everyone to
reflect on their common purpose and to prepare for working together.

3. The facilitator or clerk identifies a specific agenda item.
Individuals or the group in charge of providing the
relevant information summarize the key issues.

4. With a pause between speakers, members are recognized
by the facilitator or clerk to contribute their concerns,
ideas and information to the group as a whole.
The facilitator or clerk stays neutral about the issue.

5. No motions are made. The facilitator or clerk
periodically summarizes the discussion without
naming anyone, reflecting common concerns and issues
of difference. This summary may be acknowledged
by the group as a reflection of their deliberations and
handed over to the ultimate decision-maker,
or the group may proceed to Stage 2
to reach a decision by consensus.

Stage 2: Consensus Decision-Making

6. Steps 4 and 5 continue until a decision becomes clearer.

7. The facilitator or clerk identifies what appears to be
the emerging decision and asks for unresolved concerns.
If necessary, the stated decision is revised
to more adequately reflect the group's conclusion.

8. The facilitator or clerk asks for approval.
The approved decision is announced.

The group has made
the decision by consensus.

This Manual's Approach to Consensus

Deciding by consensus has been part of the organizational and political life of many groups for centuries (Mansbridge, 1980). Although the approach presented in this manual has much in common with other consensus approaches, is unique in that it draws on the religious method used for decision-making by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) for 350 years.

Participants from a wide variety of faith backgrounds in our workshops have indicated that the values and practices of this approach have been useful to them, regardless of their own religious or spiritual beliefs. Adapted from the Quaker practice, the consensus process can be effective in any group whose members share hopes and beliefs about their ability to engage in collective action for the common good. The examples given earlier in this chapter were based on the form of consensus used by Friends. Although Quaker-based consensus has been used in groups as large as 600, this manual is written primarily for groups up to 100; we have had direct experience using it in groups this size.

Some features of Quaker-based consensus practices include:

The attitudes, practices and basic approaches for dealing with differences in consensus-building or decision-making are presented in Chapters 2-4. Chapter 5 describes the process of consensus decision-making. Chapter 6 explores the work of the clerk or facilitator. This chapter will be helpful for facilitators of consensus-building efforts and provides detailed guidance for facilitating or clerking consensus decision-making meetings. For groups that choose to make decisions by consensus, Chapters 7-9 provide guidance for setting the agenda, taking minutes, and handling dissent. Chapter 10 compares consensus decision-making with two other approaches and provides a rationale for the use of consensus decision-making in certain situations. It also provides a framework for considering consensus-building as part of other decision-making processes. Those interested in a brief introduction to the use of consensus by Quakers are invited to read Chapter 11, which also includes a list of basic resources from the Quaker literature on consensus that provided the published basis for our work. The appendices include additional tools for using consensus, including a checklist for assessing consensus practice (Appendix A) and a form for evaluating group dynamics and subgroup influence (Appendix B). Although we have more experience with consensus practice that is face-to-face and find this format to be indispensable for many decisions, we also offer guidelines for use of e-mail in the consensus process (Appendix C).

Copyright © 2001 Earlham Quaker Foundations of Leadership Program - Used by permission

Additional materials about consensus-building and consensus decision-making and resources for training are available on the Internet website at http://www.earlham.edu/~consense.

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