Consensus Based Decision Making

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What is consensus based decision making?

It is a decision making process that not only seeks the agreement of most participants, but also to resolve or mitigate the objections of the minority to achieve the most agreeable decision.

Etymologically consensus means to “think or feel together.”

Consensus aims to be:

Inclusive: As many stakeholders as possible should be involved in the consensus decision-making process.

Participatory: The consensus process should actively solicit the input and participation of all decision –makers.

Co-operative: Participants in an effective consensus process should strive to reach the best possible decision for the group and all of its members, rather than opt to pursue a majority decision, potentially to the detriment of the minority.

Egalitarian: All members of a consensus decision-making body should be afforded, as much as possible, equal input into the process.  All members have the opportunity to table, amend and veto or block proposals.

Solution-oriented: An effective consensus decision-making body strives to emphasize common agreement over differences and reach effective decisions using compromise and other techniques to avoid or resolve mutually-exclusive positions within the group.

The Process

Since the consensus decision making process is not as formalized as others the practical details of it’s implementation vary from group to group.  However, there is a core set of procedures that are common.

Once an agenda for discussion has been set each agenda item is addressed in turn.  Typically, each decision arising from the agenda items follows through a simple structure:

Discussion of the item: The item is discussed with the goal of identifying opinions and information on the topic at hand.  The general direction of the group and potential proposals for action are often identified during the discussion.

Formation of a proposal: Based on the discussion, a formal decision proposal on the issue is presented to the group.

Call for consensus: The facilitator on the decision making process calls for consensus on the proposal.  Each member of the group usually must actively state their level of agreement with the proposal to avoid the group from interpreting silence or inaction as agreement.

Identification & Addressing of Concerns: If consensus is not achieved, each dissenter presents his or her concerns on the proposal, potentially starting another round of discussion to address or clarify the concern.

Modification of the proposal: The proposal is amended or re-phrased in an attempt to address the concerns of the decision-makers.  The process then returns to the call for consensus and the cycle is repeated until a satisfactory decision is made.

Roles in the consensus process

The consensus decision making process often has several roles which are designed to make the process run more effectively.  Although the name and nature of these roles varies from group to group, a facilitator, a timekeeper, a vibes watcher and a minutes keeper, are common roles.  Not all decision making bodies use all of these roles, although the facilitator position is almost always filled.

The common roles in a consensus meeting are:

Facilitator: As the name implies, the role of the facilitator is to help make the process of reaching a consensus decision easier.  Facilitators accept responsibility for moving through the proposed agenda on time; ensuring the group adheres to the mutually agreed upon mechanics of the consensus process; keeping the group on topic; and, if necessary, suggesting alternate or additional discussion or decision making techniques, such as go-arounds or break-out groups.

Timekeeper: The purpose of the timekeeper is to ensure the decision making body keeps to the schedule set in the agenda.  Effective timekeepers use a variety of techniques to ensure the meeting runs on time including: giving frequent time updates, ample warning of short time, and keeping individual speakers from taking an excessive amount of time.

Vibes watcher: This person monitors the “emotional climate” of the meeting.  Defusing potential emotional conflicts, maintaining a climate free of intimidation and being aware of potentially destructive power dynamics, such as sexism or racism within the decision-making body, are the primary responsibilities of the vibes watcher.  They might also keep a speakers list.

Minutes keeper: The role of the minutes keeper is to document the decision, discussion and action points of the decision-making body.  Unlike other forms of decision making, consensus minutes often make a point of documenting dissenting positions.

When consensus cannot be reached

Although the consensus decision-making process should, ideally, identify and address concerns and reservations early, proposals do not always garner full consensus from the decision-making body.  When a call for consensus on a motion is made, a dissenting delegate has one of three options:

1. Declare reservations: Group members who are willing to let a motion pass but desire to register their concerns with the group may choose to “declare reservations.” If there are significant reservations about a motion, the decision-making body may choose to modify or re-word the proposal.

2. Abstain or stand aside: A “stand aside” may be registered by a group member who has a “serious personal disagreement” with a proposal, but is willing to let the motion pass.  Stand asides do not halt a motion.  Stand asides may also be registered by those who feel they are incapable of adequately understanding or participating in the proposal or those who feel personally detached from the decision at hand.

3. Block: Any group member may block a proposal.  Blocks are generally considered to be an extreme measure only used when a member feels a proposal endangers the organization or its participants, or violates the mission of the organization.  In some consensus models, a group member blocking a proposal must work with it’s proponents to find a solution that will work for everyone.

Hand signals

Hand signals are used as a way for group members to nonverbally indicate their opinions and positions.  Although the nature and meaning of individual gestures varies from group to group, there is a widely adopted core set of hand signals.  These include wiggling the fingers on both hands, sometimes referred to as “twinkling”, to indicate agreement.

Thumbs up = support proposal

Hand facing upwards = support proposal but needs clarification or slight amendment or re-wording

Hand facing downwards = have reservations about proposal

Thumbs down = don’t support proposal

Triangle = point of process

Thanks to the Ottawa Valley Food Co-op for providing this resource.