Consensus is a decision-making process used by many community bicycle collectives. Many different kinds of groups have used consensus historically, and there are many ways to implement the process. However, it is relatively uncommon way to make decisions in western society at large - thus many people are unfamiliar with it. Most groups and individuals also need to build skills to use the process well. Thus, this page is intended to be a collection of resources about consensus: what it is, ways to implement it, and tools improve in its use.
Several of the pages listed here originated as the result of a consensus workshop at BikeBike 2008, and represent the combined input of many members of different bike collectives that use consensus decision making.
Conditions that support consensus
(from 'Building United Judgement', Center for Conflict Resolution, 1981; and CORE-R.O.I. (USA) website)
- Unity of purpose
- Equal access to power
- Autonomy of the group from external hierarchical structures
- Sufficient time to explore all the information and opinions
- A willingness in the group to attend to process
- A willingness in the group to attend to attitudes
- A willingness in the group to learn and practice skills
- Strong facilitative leadership
- Members willing to contribute their views and discuss their reasons
- Commitment and effort to develop an atmosphere of honesty and openness in the group
- Willingness to confront and resolve controversy and conflict
- Good relationships among members
- Understanding others’ thinking processes
- Common language and vocabulary among group
- Good verbal skills among members
- Good communication between meetings
What impedes consensus?
- Informal hierarchies in the group
- Selfishness/personal agendas
- Strong vs. weak personalities (introvert/extrovert)
- Loquaciousness (people talking too much)
- Innatttention to turn-taking, interrupting
- Personal dislikes, feuds, etc.
- Factions (subgroups that always agree, view another subgroup as opponent)
- Inappropriate forums of communication (trying to make big decisions over email, or at the bar when not everyone is there, or during a busy shop shift, etc.)
- Fear of conflict people not expressing their views, agreeing when they don’t silent frustration. Also leads to groups avoiding big deal-issues, which makes them bigger!
- Not listening
- Too much stuff to handle in too short a time
Keeping everyone comfortable
- Take a Break – Vastly underutilized! A little time with the pressure off works wonders. Take breaks BEFORE you really need to. Schedule them into the agenda. Have the facilitator invoke them when necessary. Individuals should ask the group to break when (before) they need it.
- Snacks! – can help keep low-blood-sugar irritability out of personal interactions. Especially if meetings are long, or are scheduled during mealtimes, directly after shop sessions, or just after work.
- Alcohol – is usually a bad idea, save it for after.
- Be conscious of physical environment - is the setting comfortable for all participants? Quiet enough for people to hear? Free of distractions?
- Plan meetings at appropriate times – obviously, schedule meetings at times when most participants can be there. Beyond that, be conscious of scheduling meetings when you know a significant number of participants will be tired, or anxious to finish so they can get to other events (or to get to bed on time).
- Outside facilitation – use a good external facilitator for especially difficult topics, or especially important topics where everyone is invested and needs to be able to contribute to the discussion. Give the facilitator a practical orientation to your organization in advance (but avoid presenting biased viewpoints of problems).
Getting voices heard
- Set communication ground rules
- Stack – people raise their hands to speak, and one person keeps a list of the order in which hands are raised. People do not speak unless their turn comes up in the stack and they are recognized.
- Go-round – everyone says their opinion on the subject of discussion. A way to get all voices heard, lots of ideas out on the table, everyone gets a sense of where the group is at.
- Hand signals – a set of hand signals for succinct non-verbal communication can save lots of time and allow more group members to express themselves.
- ‘twinkle fingers’ or ‘snaps’ – these signals are used interchangeably to signify agreement with the speaker. Avoids redundancy.
- ‘wrap it up’ – a group member moves two hands around each other circularly when they feel another speaker is rambling and should come to the point. Use this gently!
- ‘point of process’ – a triangle made with fingers when someone wants to raise a question about how the discussion is proceeding rather than the content (ie, ‘we’re 10 minutes past the allotted time in the agenda – let’s move on’; or ‘this is an update – the discussion is scheduled for later in the meeting so let’s do it then’)
- Direct response – a group member points then raises the index fingers of both hands to signal they wish to reply directly to the speaker. Use judiciously – most appropriate when you have critical facts that haven’t been mentioned, or if the speaker has said something that personally offends you to the extent that it may make it difficult for productive discussion to continue without immediate redress.
- Straw vote - Check for agreement among people. Have those who are opposed speak to their concerns, then those who are neutral, then those who are positive.
Keeping everyone on the same page
- Clarify the proposal - Is everyone actually talking about the same thing? Facilitators must make sure proposals are clearly articulated for everyone to hear before discussion, and restate them when necessary. Often useful to write it large so everyone can see.
- Public notes - have a scribe write the agenda, questions under discussion, proposals, and action items in large letters everyone can see (chalkboard, poster paper, whiteboard, etc.)
Making progress with decisions
- Find Common Ground - Ask the group to find common grounds of agreement. Re-focuses discussion positively; sets groundwork for solutions; sometimes shows “sides” are not as far apart as they seem.
- Assess importance of decision – sometimes getting a sense of how important the group considers the issue at hand to be can re-focus a discussion. Heated discussions that develop around trivial issues can be diffused by putting them in context. Use go-round, cards, hand-signs.
- Mapping the problem - Using a central line on the floor, ask people to place themselves where they feel they are in degree of accesptance or disagreement of the proposal. Discuss why they are standing where they are.
- Silence – a focused break. Time for people to think. Facilitator needs to explain intention beforehand.
- Brainstorming - This is used to generate everyone's ideas. Crazy, zany, humorous, dead serious ideas are allowed and encouraged. The essential prerequisites are;
- Everything suggested is written down on a sheet which everyone can see.
- Normal ideas of appropriateness are discarded to allow creative and lateral thinking.
- No comments are made until the brainstorming process is completed.
Fast processing of brainstorm suggestions can be done by running through the list and stopping at points where people want explanation or feel there is something worth exploring further. A straw vote can be used to indicate support for exploring items further.
- Clarify goals and concerns – discussions can become locked when people are attached to adversarial positions. Stating the goal that a proposal is trying to address, and the concerns that people have, can re-focus on the larger picture and un-lock personal oppositions. Locked discussions also often result from misunderstandings.
- Lateral thinking process - Put the focus on interests, not positions. Stop a deadlocked discussion of particular proposals, and ask the group to brainstorm other ways of dealing with the matter in hand which could meet the goals and address the concerns. Creative synthesis of ideas, the genius of consensus! Must first be clear on goals and concerns, facilitator should re-state these before starting.
- Small group/caucus discussions - This is to allow people to articulate concerns and develop ideas. Caucus groups can be formed with members
- randomly chosen
- birds of a feather - May be useful if what is most important is getting proposals for going forward from the different ‘sides’ involved.
- deliberately having mixed opinions in each group - May be appropriate where the most important aim is for individuals to both 'hear' and 'be heard'.
- Break it down! - Consensus can be used to solve complex problems, but it is usually really hard to discuss all the bits at once. If discussion has become confused by complexity, break a proposal down into smaller pieces and work towards agreement on each one individually. Once parts of a proposal are agreed, these can be set aside. This both focuses attention on the remaining issues and can also help to show what has already been agreed and achieved.
- Change the setting – sometimes moving to a different venue can help to break a deadlock.
Tools for structuring the group decision-making process to facilitate consensus
- Consensus training for group – consensus isn’t easy, and it is a process that involves specialized knowledge about how it works, that no one is born with. For most people, learning to be good at it involves a lot of practice to overcome socialization that encourages fear of conflict, silence, and general poor communication skills. Consensus training can make a huge difference by increasing knowledge in the group about the process, and providing opportunity to practice in a low-stress situation.
- Advance prep
- Agenda - do most of the work to set your agenda in advance of the meeting. Send a call out for agenda items, either posted in the shop or online via email. Ask contributors to set an estimated time for the discussion.
- Individuals and subcommittees should communicate any background materials or proposals for discussion in advance of the meeting. Saves time on Q&A and gives people time to think about things rather than having to react on the spot.
- Good Documentation!
- Meeting minutes - take notes at each meeting that specify any resolutions or policies adopted, any action items (plus who is responsible and when the deadline is). Send out the notes in a timely fashion to the whole group.
- Archive (group memory) - Maintain an archive of past decisions that is easily accessible and organized. This helps save time by reducing the number of redundant discussions (‘don’t we have a policy on when people can get keys? I guess if no one remembers we’ll just make another one’) and keeping people on the same page.
- Orientation materials – It is often helpful to refer new people to the archive. You can also take it one step further and write up a simple, friendly packet describing how things work for new people.
- Advance go – rounds: When a committee or individual is going to embark on a new project, ask the group for input in advance. Do a go-round for everyone’s ideas, concerns, and goals. Note these, craft the project to meet concerns & goals. Must be clear to group that the intention of the go-round is to inform future work, not to come to agreement on all points right then.
- Committee – whole group bounce-back process
- Start with advance go-round
- Committee develops proposal
- Proposal comes to group – comments, amendments, changes. Can approve with understanding changes will be made, or tell committee to modify the proposal and bring it back to the whole group.
- Committee incorporates changes
- Online tools for between-meeting discussions
- Wiki – lots of free wiki accounts out there, sign your group up.
- Crabgrass (group networking & collaboration tool from the folks at riseup.net. http://we.riseup.net). Like a wiki but more structured tools for setting meetings, making decisions, etc.. It’s not google – they won’t sell your information, but there probably isn’t a help screen either.
- Agree on ground – rules for autonomy & group decision making
- Budgetary limits
- Can differ by committee or project
- Criteria (example from BICAS)
- If it involves anyone else’s time or labor
- A substantial commitment of group resources (define substantial!)
- Will affect public perception of the group
- Advance planning!! Time crunches are the enemy of consensus!!
- Structure your collective with safeguards against the worst-case before it happens
- Set requirements for demonstrating commitment to group before a person has “voting” rights.
- Consensus minus one in certain situations. Allows a worst-case ouster of a member.
- Build good relationships outside of meetings. Trust between group members, and familiarity with how others think and work, greatly facilitates the ease of making decisions together in a consensus process.
- Create group social events that are scheduled in advance and accessible to all members.
- Structure opportunities for volunteers to get to know each other in the course of their work. If public shop time and group meetings are always too busy for volunteers to actually talk, create other forums such as shop work days, member nights, or volunteer nights, that are lower intensity and give people time to get to know each other.
Tools for Individuals
- Working styles! Understand your own strengths and weaknesses. Understand how others think and work, and amend (not totally change, just amend) your own working style to accommodate them. This is real respect! And it’s good for the group. Definitely works best if there is mutual compromise though!
- Take care of yourself! Make sure you are fed and rested before discussions. Watch your own emotional state, and ask for a break BEFORE you get really mad/frustrated/bored.
- Manage your schedule and commitments wisely. Communicate with the group about it!
- Take responsibility to keep your schedule clear for meeting times, shifts you will staff, etc..
- Take care to set your schedule so you can not only be present, but be in a good frame of mind to work (not tired or hungry, overstressed by other deadlines, hungover, etc.).
- Only take on tasks that you know you actually have time to do, and do well, even if others pressure you to do more.
- If conflicts are unavoidable, communicate your situation to the group (‘I’m really tired today because I had to work before I came here – please excuse me if I’m short with people.”). They are much more likely to be understanding and accommodating if you do this!
- Do your homework, come prepared. Yeah. If everyone does this meetings are ten times more useful.
- Talk to the people you disagree with outside of meetings.
- Keep on the path to solutions, even outside of meetings. If you talk about issues outside of meetings with friends in the group – check your own motivations: am I looking for allies, vindication, sympathy, or a solution? Is your discussion focused on assessing faults in others, convincing others that a third person is wrong, or trying to reach a solution that will respect everyone’s concerns and goals?
- Take responsibility for addressing conflict! If you have a heated disagreement with someone, talk to them afterwards. Build-up is bad, and often built around misunderstandings.
- Don’t empower your friends to avoid conflicts. If they regularly talk to you about problems with another person, but don’t talk to that person:
- try empathy, then solution-building (“ok tell me about it…that sucks, I’m sorry you’re hurt, you don’t deserve that. Ok, what do you think the other person was thinking? How could you get to a solution?”)
- encourage them to talk to the other person. Help them understand why they are avoiding it, and brainstorm ways to address their fears.
- stop listening to them if they refuse to talk to the other person.
- The Forgiven Language of Caring by Barbara Date – a short book on the “how-to’s” for dealing with differences.
- Getting to Yes, Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In Second edition. Fisher, Roger Ury, Williand Patton, Bruce of the Harvard Negotiation Project. (New York: Penguin Books, 1991). Excerpt can be found at: http://web.mit.edu/urbanupgrading/upgrading/issues-tools/tools/Consensus-building.html