How To Reach Consensus

6 Aug

Consensus decision making involves a collaborative discussion, rather than an adversarial debate, and is therefore more likely to result in all parties reaching common ground.

The benefits include:

  • Better decisions – because all perspectives in the group are taken into account, the resulting proposals can address all the concerns affecting the decision as far as reasonably as possible.
  • Better group relationships – by collaborating rather than competing, group members are able to build closer relationships through the process. Resentment, rivalry and division is minimized.
  • Better implementation of decisions – When widespread agreement is achieved and everyone has participated in the process there are usually strong levels of cooperation in the actions that follow. There are less likely to be disgruntled losers who might undermine or passively sabotage effective implementation of the decision.

The big challenge for most people here is the need for all views to be listened to with equal attention. For many people, listening is not a well-developed skill in comparison to talking.

English: The Active Listening Chart shows the ...

English: The Active Listening Chart shows the progression in the quality of listening that an active listener can engage in. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Active listening is a skill which can be learned and improved through practice. An important feature of active listening is to keep an open mind, avoid distractions, pay close attention –really focus, and to wait to form opinions until you have heard what the speaker has to say. In addition to ensuring all views are heard, there is a serious expectation that each and every member will play an active role and participate fully.

Important: For a group to be effective, it is necessary to avoid individual ownership of ideas, problems, concerns, and solutions. Any member of a group can put forward an idea or a proposal, but for it to become the goal of the group it must belong to the group. In the same way, any member of a group can raise an issue or objection, but for a solution to be reached, the entire group must accept responsibility for solving the problem. Emphasize the role of the team in finding a solution to various issues together, not pitting against each other. And remember: every member of a group does not need to be an expert on every topic, but when they really work together, a group can display the IQ of a genius!


This process of reaching a mature, responsible, consensus requires that someone is in a leadership role. Their responsibilities include scheduling, documenting, communicating and planning meetings or discussions, and also ensuring that the process is transparent, fair and open. In open groups or “flat” organizations without formal leadership, this can sometimes create friction. It’s important to acknowledge that leading a group does not have to be a permanent role, and it doesn’t make the leader superior, or give them ownership of the group or its ideas. It can also be unfair for the person in the leadership role to be excluded from discussion. For this reason, it is sometimes useful to have two people share the role of leader, so that one or other can step back, lead a break-out group discussion, or take part in group activities for a time.

In addition to having at least one person leading the effort, there are a few additional roles that might help the process go more smoothly:

  • Facilitators make sure that the decision making process follows the rules of consensus building and a reasonable schedule. There can be more than one facilitator, and a facilitator should feel able to “resign” from their responsibility if they feel they’re becoming too personally involved with the decision.
  • Timekeepers keep their eye on the time. They let the facilitators and group know how much time is remaining and can help with steering the discussion back on track. A separate timekeeper is not always necessary, unless the facilitators are too busy moderating to keep checking the time.
  • Empaths gauge the “emotional climate” of the discussion to make sure that it doesn’t get out of hand. The goal is to anticipate emotional conflicts, prevent them or resolve them, and neutralize any kind of intimidation or other negativity within the group.
  • Note takers or “scribes” document decisions, discussions, and action points of the group so that leaders or facilitators or any member of the group can recall previously stated concerns or statements and keep track of their progress. This role is especially important in a long or complex discussion, where it’s hard to remember who said what.

Ground Rules

The group needs to know from the very start how a decision will be reached. Does consensus for this group require 100% approval, super majority (60, 70, 75 percent), simple majority (51 percent), “overall unanimity”, or only allow for one or two dissenters? Are members allowed to abstain; are there rules for how often they can abstain; or certain topics where this is not accepted?

Everyone also needs to understand what it means to give consent. Consenting to a proposal does not necessarily mean it is your first choice. Members are encouraged to think about the good of the whole group. This may mean accepting a popular proposal even if it is not your personal preference. In consensus decision making, everyone has a chance to voice their concerns during the discussion so that their ideas can be included. In the end, however, they often decide to accept the best effort of the group rather than create factions or divisions – avoiding an “us against them” mentality.

Keep in mind that the goal is to reach a decision the group can accept, not necessarily a decision that fulfills every member’swishes.

Step 1: Framing the Topic – What will be discussed?

1. Collect agenda items.

2. Clarify the essence, goals and appropriate process for each agenda item.

3. Discuss the list of items with some or all group members.

4. Identify and delegate useful pre-meeting research.

5. Schedule the discussion.

Step 2: Open Discussion – Everyone is allowed to contribute freely

1. Inspire an open-minded, creative discussion with guidelines and structure for the discussion, especially the decision rule.

2. Take a quick poll to see if discussion is actually needed! If not, move your decision along to the next logical step.

3. Manage the discussion within sensible time limits.

4. Support FULL and varied participation.

5. Record the ideas generated.

TIP: Keep a checklist of members and note each one as they take part, so that you can more easily identify those who may be hesitating to participate, and encourage their input

Step 3: Identifying Underlying Concerns – Effective actions have consequences

1. Ask the group to identify ALL the stakeholders affected by the issue – not only inside the group.

2. List any known or anticipated stakeholder concerns.

3. Group, rate, rank or otherwise organize the identified concerns to form the basis for the next step.

Step 4: Proposal Development – Many roads can reach the same destination

1. If several alternative actions exist, use a collaborative process of taking turns to build multiple proposals.

2. Help the group select basic outline ideas on which to develop proposals.

3. Use a chart or checklist of what, how, who, when, etc to help the group develop each option to its full potential.

Step 5: Choosing a Direction – Good directions make for easier journeys

1. Check that the group is ready to choose a direction.

2. Review the proposal options with the group.

3. Compare the options to the list of topics, ideas and concerns

4. Make sure each individual feels confident about the selection process

5. Choose which option to develop further – perhaps by vote or show of hands.

Step 6: Create a Final Proposal – Last chance to improve through consensus or compromise

1. Review and deal with any new or remaining concerns.

2. Identify details that might improve the proposal (ask for suggestions, make a list)

3. Select which details to include in the proposal.

4. Compose final wording for the proposal and a process for deciding any unresolved details.

5. Set a deadline for work to begin AND end

Step 7: Closure – You are ready to begin!

1. Confirm the group’s final decision.

2. Provide empathy for any unsatisfied participants.

3. Ratify acceptance of the group decision.

4. Request full cooperation from all group members in implementing the decision.

5. Make the plan, assign roles and responsibilities, set a timetable

TIP: Even people who dissent to a decision can and should feel able to participate in implementation, especially if they have specific skills or experience.

One Response to “How To Reach Consensus”


  1. Leader or Follower? « allaboutwordswa - August 19, 2011

    […] How To Reach Consensus ( -33.661381 115.282520 Share this:FacebookStumbleUponLinkedInEmailLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

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