There are many ways for communities to make decisions and none of them is perfect. Many of us have been brought up in a culture which believes that western-style democracy is supreme, that one-person-one-vote is the only empowerment anybody needs. Yet, in the very nations which shout loudest about the virtues of democracy, there seems to be widespread disillusionment about its ability to change anything in a meaningful way. Democracy seems to be about electing an executive to take all the decisions and then re-appointing it every so often. For the majority of us, this delegation of our own power may not feel very different from someone flipping a coin.
Usually - on both macro and micro levels - in a democratic vote a significant minority is deeply unhappy with the outcome. Whilst they may accept the decision - because they accept the rules of the game - they may still actively resist it or undermine it, and work towards the next voting opportunity.
Compromise is another method of reaching a decision, usually through negotiation. Two or more sides announce their position and move towards each other with measured concessionary and mutual steps. However, this can often lead to dissatisfaction on all sides, with nobody getting what they really wanted.
Consensus, on the other hand, is a more creative way of reaching a decision. It is a process where no decision can be reached unless all present are willing to accept it. Consensus, in theory, is the product of everybody's best thinking and places priority on the cohesion and stability of the group rather than arriving at quick answer - it can be slow and arduous, acknowledging that a problem for one member of the group is a problem for the whole group. However, if minorities are listened to, not only is the end decision often better than that which a majority would have swiftly imposed, the decision is more likely to receive widespread support upon implementation.
The number one requirement for consensus is the commitment of every single member of the group to make it work. Strong and impartial facilitation to keep the process on track and focused is also very important.
There are lots of consensus models in lots of hand books (see flowchart for one). A basic procedure looks like this:
Means and ends
For direct action groups, decision-making by consensus is not only a method of reaching decisions, but also a way of building community, trust, a sense of security and mutual support - important in times of stress and emergency. It does require commitment, patience, and a willingness to put the group first. It is not suitable for quick decision-making, but can help lay the ground on which 'emergency decisions' can be made and owned by the group. It is a method which becomes easier and quicker with practice and continued commitment.
The peace movement has traditionally adopted this method, mainly, I like to think, because it represents a deliberate attempt to match its methods with its goals. If we want a peaceful world where everyone lives in relative equality and justice, we have to practise that way of living in the here and now.
The "block" as cornerstoneI believe that the right of an individual to "block" a decision endorsed by the rest of the group is the cornerstone of the consensus decision-making process... The permission of every member, rather than just the loudest, most articulate, or best known persons, is needed for a decision to be made. Therefore it becomes the group's concern to listen and respond to all participants and to take their thinking into account. Not only does this result in a more egalitarian group, but it also produces a more satisfied group in which every member has a chance to feel included and important, in which responsibility is likely to be more evenly distributed, and in which members are more sensitive to each other and feel more involved with each other.
Chel, Building United Judgement: a handbook for consensus decision-making (The Center for Conflict Resolution, 1981).
I first came across explicit, self-conscious consensus decision-making techniques at the 1985 International Nonviolent March for Demilitarisation peace camp in Denmark: flowcharts, fishbowls, go-rounds, brainstorms, vetos, et al. And even though we spent interminable hours discussing minor issues, by the end of the first week I was a consensus convert. A hundred of us then went off to paint a NATO base and spent three days in military custody - happily showing off our radical democratic skills with a fluency and satisfaction I have not experienced since. I can count on two elbows the number of times I have voted since this anarchic epiphany.
But there is a great danger that consensus gets portrayed as the be all and end all of democratic evolution, and so escapes necessary criticism and development. It is actually a very problematic system. After all, consensus represents a significant technical, psychological and cultural shift from many other forms of decision making.
Under use, over use
However many pieces of paper and role-plays you've consumed, there are still some basic, and recurrent, problems with the use of the veto. It can be under-used, over-used and misused.
Actively participating in groups can be hard enough, and using a veto more so, particularly for people who feel unconfident in groups. It can involve standing up to - perceived or actual - group pressure and impatience. Many people are tempted to keep quiet (at least in a vote they get to raise their hand) and important conflicts are sometimes avoided. The wealth of individual and minority opinion, so often applauded by proponents of consensus, is often sat upon.
In the hands of those used to more than their fair share of power or attention, the veto can be a lethal tool. It can magnify their voices, and be used to guard against changes that might affect their power-base and influence - one or two people could conceivably block progress deemed important by everyone else for a considerable period of time.
The self-censoring and conservatism which often accompany consensus can lead to a bland, undynamic mono-culture, devoid of conflict and breadth and difference. People won't put forward ideas they know so-and-so will object to, and change can come about so slowly that important opportunities and people are lost. Rather than benefiting from everyone's excellence, a group can sink into a lowest commonly acceptable denominator.
Poison and veneer
Probably one of the worst aspects of consensus is when the right procedures are followed, but the inter-personal atmosphere is poisoned. Sometimes the atmosphere is already poisoned, other times the manner in which people use the procedures - provocatively, stubbornly, arrogantly, manipulatively - can provide the poison. Either personal antagonisms sabotage the process, or the end result is an ashen one - with resentments left to fester, whilst the veneer is one of acceptable democratic practice.
For consensus to work well, individuals and groups have to look at their structures, tools, skills, the way in which they work, and beyond - the technicalities of even the clearest of consensus flowcharts will not suffice.
Groups need to make decision-making processes fit their needs, rather than the other way round. People shouldn't be afraid of making modifications - some groups even allow the possibility, after several consensus attempts, of falling back on an overwhelming majority vote. A particularly useful structural development is the possibility of vetoing a veto - if all the non-vetoing parties agree to block a veto, it might be the best way to bring a conflict out into the open and move the group along. Certainly, such a technique guards against politically-at-odds or overly stubborn people dragging the group down.
The delegation of proposal-creation can save a lot of time - get a dedicated group, or even pair, to go away and synthesise the discussions and brainstorms of the whole group. Consensus need not involve everyone at every stage of the process. Deal with several issues in parallel, and then come together with a platter of proposals - known as a smorgasbord in the Swedish ploughshares movement - and the meeting can be speeded up threefold or more.
Tools and skills
"Tools" that groups use aren't just confined to brainstorms and go-rounds and paired listening. Religious or spiritually-minded groups might like to bring in religious practices - be it silence (as with the Quakers) or figures representing the elements and non-human world (as with some deep ecologists and their "Council of All Beings").
Most groups don't think of conflict resolution models and tools until some big conflict comes up - by which time, if it's not too late, it's often unnecessarily messy. An "anti-armoury" of familiar - conflict resolution practices is viral for long-term groups - and such skills are remarkably appropriate to so many other areas of our lives.
Skills need to be constantly developed and shared - and new people especially need to be offered supportive spaces in which they can practise facilitation, or conflict resolution. More skilled members need to be prepared to "disarm'' themselves if they catch themselves hogging the show or feeling threatened by the increasing proficiency of others.
Awareness and process
Consensus requires a significant degree of familiarity, practice, commitment, self-awareness and self-discipline. People have to be familiar with the models and tools they are using, be attentive and expressive, and often must test their criteria and motives before contributing - for a simple objection can take up a great deal of a group's time. The atmosphere in a group, the way in which people relate and communicate - these things need as much attention as technical skills.
Whilst there are many cultures and organisations which practise forms of consensus, the ones most prominent in the peace movements, at least, tend to be the detailed - sometimes rigid - North American ones (see piece below by Starhawk about her experiences among Greenham Common women). Activists need to be sensitive to process-imperialism, and create decision-making structures from a variety of sources - international and local.
The conservative and mono-cultural tendencies of consensus need to be counteracted by a healthy plethora of extra-meeting pursuits - by the creation of culture: music, dance, song, texts, celebrations, spaces in which to befriend land enjoy. A more holistic approach to movement or group building can often have the welcome spin-off of good, efficient, enjoyable meetings.
Alternatives to the veto/blockVetoing/blocking a proposal that has enjoyed a lot of discussion and synthesis is a serious act. It should be done thoughtfully, and on the basis of principled argument - about ethics, facts, likely consequences, relevant strong emotions - rather than on the basis of minor preferences or egotistical impulses. When the decision-making process has looped a couple of times, taking different opinions into account, creating modifications, and still you disagree with what's on offer, you might consider other forms a objection which don't hold up the group's progress:
In May of 1985, I participated in a walk with women from the Greenham Common Peace Camp in England. We walked from Silbury Hill, one of the ancient power places of the British Isles, across Salisbury Plain to Stonehenge... [Salisbury Plain] is currently used as an artillery field and military base; through our walk, we symbolically reclaimed it.
For me, participating in decision-making with the Greenham Common women brought culture shock. In contrast to our West Coast [US] style of consensus, involving facilitators, agendas, plans, and formal processes, their meetings seemed to have no structure at all. No one facilitated, no agendas were set; everyone spoke when-ever she wanted to and said what she thought. Where we valued plans and scenarios, they valued spontaneity, trusting in the energy of the group and the moment. Instead of long discussions about the pros and cons of any given plan, those women who wanted to do it simply went ahead, and those who didn't, did not participate.
I found a delicious sense of freedom and an electricity in discussions unhampered by formalities. The consensus process I had known and practised seemed, in retrospect, overly controlled and controlling. Its rules and procedures seemed to impose the Censor under a new form.
At the same time, the Greenham-style process also had drawbacks. The group's preference for action rather than talk produces an inherent bias toward more extreme and militant actions. With no facilitation, louder and more vocal women tend to dominate discussion. Women who have fears, concerns, or alternate plans often felt unheard.
Each group needs to develop a decision-making process that fits its unique circumstances. The balance between planning and spontaneity, between formal processes and informal free-for-alls, is always alive, dynamic and changing. No one way will work for every group.
From Truth or Dare.
The "block" as power enhancer[A] problem with IRB [the individual's right to block] is that assertive individuals and powerful interest groups are the ones most likely to use blocking. One of the strongest arguments in favour of IRB is that individuals who, under conditions of majority rule, would not be listened to, are listened to in consensus because they have the power to block any group decision. In my experience working with consensus, I have not seen a single occurrence in which a non-assertive, timid individual has had the gall to block an otherwise consensual decision of the group. In all instances, the individuals who have used blocking either had strong personalities, had powerful positions within the group, or represented powerful interests outside the group. Instead of serving to equalise power among individuals within a group, IRB gives more power to powerful individuals.
Elaine, Building United Judgement: a handbook for consensus decision-making (The Center for Conflict Resolution, 1981).
When there is no group in mind
A group thinking process cannot work effectively unless the group is cohesive enough to generate shared attitudes and perceptions. When deep divisions exist within a group's bonding over their individual desires, consensus becomes and exercise in frustration.
When there are no good choices
Consensus process can help a group find the best possible solution to a problem, but it is not an effective way to make an either-or choice between evils, for members will never be able to agree which is worse. If the group has to choose between being shot and hung, flip a coin.
When a group gets bogged down trying to make a decision, stop for a moment and consider: Are we blocked because we are given an intolerable situation? Are we being given the illusion, but not the reality, of choice? Might our most empowering act be to refuse to participate in this farce?
When they can see the whites of your eyes
In emergencies, in situations where urgent and immediate action is necessary, appointing a temporary leader may be the wisest course of action.
When the issue is trivial
I have known groups to devote half and hour to trying to decide by consensus whether to spend forty minutes or a full hour at lunch. Remember consensus is a thinking process - where there is nothing to think about, flip a coin.
When the group has insufficient information
When you're lost in the hills, and no one knows the way home, you cannot figure out how to get there by consensus. Send out scouts. Ask: Do we have the information we need to solve this problem? Can we get it?