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Is everybody happy?
Peace News explores some of the pros, cons and practicalities of
Extract: Pages 12-15, Peace News, June 1988
Consensus: A brief introduction by Steve Whiting
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:
- The problem, or decision needing to be made, is defined and named. It helps to do this in
a way that separates the problems/questions from personalities.
- Brainstorm possible solutions. Write them all down, even the crazy ones. Keep the energy
up for quick, top-of-the-head suggestions.
- Create space for questions for clarification on the situation.
- Discuss the options written down. Modify some, eliminate others, and develop a short-list.
Which are the favourites!
- State the proposals or choice of proposals so that everybody is clear.
- Discuss the pros and cons of each proposal - make sure everybody has a chance to
- If there is a major objection, turn to step 6 (this is the time-consuming bit). Sometimes
you may need to return to step 4.
- If there are no major objections, state the decision and test for agreement.
- Acknowledge minor objections and incorporate friendly amendments.
- Check for consensus.
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.
Steve Whiting is co-ordinator of "Turning the Tide", a nonviolence
training project run by Quaker Peace and Service: Turning the Tide, Friends House, Euston
Road, London NW1 2BJ. England (tel +44 171 663 1064; email firstname.lastname@example.org). Flowchart:
From workshops based on the work of the Philadelphia Life Center and Resource Manual for
Living Revolution (Coover, Deacon and Moore)
The "block" as cornerstone
I 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).
Problems with Consensus, by Stephen Hancock
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
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
Alternatives to the veto/block
Vetoing/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
- Non-support: "I don't see the need for this, but I'll go along with it."
- Reservations (recorded in the minutes if so desired): "I think this may be a mistake but
I can live with it."
- Standing aside: "I personally can't do this, but I won't stop others from doing
- Withdrawing from the group
Culture shock at Greenham Common, by Starhawk
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
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
From Truth or Dare. - see reference at end.
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 not to use consensus, by Starhawk
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?
This and the extract above are reprinted from Starhawk's book
'Truth or Dare'. © Miriam Simos, published by Harper and Row, San