Consensus Primer

General Description of Consensus
Consensus describes a method which is used by groups to reach agreement on a particular decision. Consensus can be a powerful tool for building group unity and strength, and for choosing wise, creative courses of action. Because all interested parties are given an opportunity to participate in the actual decision-making process, this process fully utilizes the resources of the group, and it is more likely that all of the participants’ needs will be met. A healthy consensus decision making process encourages dissent, and attempts to accommodate the views of minority opinions.

In our culture, a more widely used method for group decision-making is voting, where a simple majority or a weighted majority determines the outcome of a decision. This method tends to pit participants and solutions against each other, creating “winners and losers”. Consensus stresses the cooperative development of a decision with members of the group working together rather than competing against each other’s interests. This can help to fairly distribute any negative impacts related to the decision, and builds an environment of compromise and understanding of differences between members of the consenting group.

Consensus can be particularly beneficial for groups that include people whose minority opinions often go unheard. Traditional, hierarchical decision-making structures have been used historically to uphold systems of oppression, at times silencing the voices of those who are most affected by those decisions. Consensus can be an inclusive, educational, community-building tool which recognizes the value of difference.

Factors that contribute to success
In order for consensus to work, all participants must share some common goals. The participants need to believe that all members of the group share the goal of solving the problems at hand. All participants need to act in a fair and reasonable manner, and must have the organization’s best interests at heart. This requires:

  1. Clear expectations – there need to be in place agreements between all participants to use the process in good faith.
  2. Collective support – all participants must accept responsibility for their participation as a part of a process that may differ from what their personal and individual goals may be.
  3. Mutual trust – there must be an environment in which workers can trust others and be trusted by others.
  4. Mutual respect for people and their work – there must be an environment where all workers feel that they are respected by their peers, and that their work is considered valuable towards reaching the group’s common goals.
  5. Communication – Consistent, reliable methods for ensuring ongoing open channels for giving and receiving constructive ideas. The air must be relatively clear so that the issue at hand can receive the attention and focus required.
  6. Facilitation – in meetings, assistance with reaching agreements; outside of meetings, assistance with attaining and maintaining the other factors listed above.