This formal group process is based on values such as cooperation, trust, honesty, mutual respect and shared responsibility. Its purpose is to enable groups to reach sustainable decisions of superior quality. It also helps to establish a culture of cooperation rather than competition and can thus prevent conflicts. It is not a conflict resolution method as such.
The Consensus Process has 5 essential elements. All of of them are necessary for this model to work.
• willingness to share power – participants must be willing to give up hierarchical roles and privileges and to function as equals.
• informed commitment to the consensus process – because consensus is radically different from the way most of us have been conditioned to function, the process needs to be carefully explained, and the fundamental principles reviewed from time to time. It will not work without proper training.
• common purpose – without an overarching purpose to unify and focus its efforts, a group will spin its wheels endlessly, trapped in confusion, frustration and ego-battles. Creating a clear mission statement is very helpful.
• strong agendas – the lack of an agenda, an agenda controlled exclusively by one or two ‘leaders’, and poorly prepared agendas all undermine the consensus process. They waste people’s time erode their trust and diminish a group’s effectiveness. In contrast, a group which designates a few people to plan the agenda, and which then collectively reviews the proposed agenda, revises it as necessary, and formally adopts it by consensus, and then honours this agenda contract, is a group committed to its own success.
• effective facilitation – A facilitator is a guide, not a participant in the discussion. He or she does not give answers, but rather continuously asks questions intended to equalise participation (‘are we hearing from everyone?’, ‘are we ready to move on’). To practise the art of facilitation, one needs patience, stamina, the ability to remain calm in the face of conflict, a good memory, a sense of humour and genuine love for the group which he or she is serving.
In consensus process, no votes are taken. Ideas or proposals are introduced, discussed, and eventually arrive at the point of decision. At the moment of decision making (after a well facilitated discussion) a participant has three options:
• To give consent. When everyone in the group (except those standing aside) say yes to a proposal, consensus is achieved. To give one’s consent does not necessarily mean that one loves every aspect of the proposal, but it does mean that one is willing to support the decision and stand in solidarity with the group, despite one’s disagreements. Consensus decisions can only be changed by reaching another consensus. A group which makes decisions in this way is unequalled in its ability to be an effective agent of social transformation.
• To stand aside. An individual stands aside when he or she cannot personally support a proposal, but feels it would be all right for the rest of the group to adopt it. If there are more than a few stand asides on an issue, consensus has not yet been reached.
• To block. This step prevents the decision from going forward, at least for the time being. Blocking is a serious matter, to be done only when one truly believes that the pending proposal, if adopted, would violate the morals, ethics or safety of the whole group.
Like ‘green’ and ‘natural’, consensus is becoming a buzz word, which means it is being co-opted by those who want to appear inclusive, but who have no real intention of giving up decision-making power. Look out for warning signs:
• Consensus building. This perversion of the consensus process occurs when policy makers and their hired hands hold meetings designed to sell people on a plan that has already been decided. Ask if the organisers are willing to put away their charts and graphs and listen.
• Participation without implementation. Beware of public hearings, staff retreats, volunteer meetings, etc., where much effort is made to get ‘input’ without any commitment to implementation. Ask what is going to be done with the ideas and information generated.
• Inconvenient meeting times and locations. Ask whether those most affected by the decisions to be made realistically can attend the meetings.
• Winning at any cost. When one or more of the participants views consensus as a game to be won, rather than a process to be entered into, meetings will be the same old decision-making hard ball. Ask whether any proposals other than those of the ‘leaders’ will receive fair consideration.
• Passive-aggressive leadership. When ‘leaders’ fail to provide information, clear direction or good process, whether out of fear of appearing too controlling or sheer incompetence, they sabotage consensus. Ask those ‘in the know’ to share their wisdom and experience – and then get out of the way so that others might participate.
• Everyone decides everything. This unworkable and unnecessary strategy is a set up for failure. Ask that decision-making power be delegated to smaller working groups comprising those who will be most affected by the decisions. Ask that organisation wide and strategic decisions be open to review and challenge by all members.
• Anything goes. Groups that try to function without any structure, focus or clear process guidelines are doomed to fail. The opposite of hierarchical control is not undisciplined chaos. Ask that the group adopt some guidelines or basic agreements.
• Compromise. When opponents in a discussion settle for an agreement shich everyone can support but which no one really likes, it is not a consensus decision – it is a cop-out which will ultimately fail for lack of real commitment. Keep talking until you find a solution which satisfies the interests of all parties and generates enthusiasm, joy and a sense of solidarity.
Updated: 26 February 2007 |