Consensus decision making is a way of reaching group decisions which everyone can at least consent to even if it is not their preferred approach.
The aim is to harness the diversity within the group in order to make space for the range of creativity, energy and concerns held by group members. It has been used widely in political activist groups, intentional communities, worker co-operatives, Jewish and Quaker communities and others.
The form used varies but the core characteristics of the process are that it is:
- inclusive and participatory- the voices of everyone affected by a decision are heard;
- agreement-seeking- the hope is to achieve the full agreement of all participants. Different standards of agreement will be applied by different groups, but each will have a method for reaching a decision. Commonly participants have three responses available to them at the moment of decision-making: ‘agreement’, 'stand aside' and 'blocking'. Standards for action may include unanimity, unanimity-1, unanimity-2 i.e. one or two people can not block the will of the whole group alone…;
- process-oriented- consensus decision-making values the whole process of how a decision is reached, not just the outcomes of the meeting. Tactics which seek to manipulate the process such as power leveraging are discouraged both by the structure of the process and by the facilitator;
- collaborative- seeking to include all voices in the meeting and to seek the 'sense of the meeting'. It is not an adversarial process but one which sees dissent as a pointer to a piece of the truth which needs to be heard;
- relationship-building- a process of consensus decision making seeks to build group relationship through discussion and deep listening, building future trust and co-operation; characterised by whole group thinking- group members have in mind the needs and interests of the group as a whole. What is earnestly sought is to converge on the essence of that the group agrees on, it's shared understanding and desires.
- tends to favour the status quo- it takes courage to dissent from what appears to be a consensus;
- minorities may use their right to 'block' a decision in such a way as to uphold personal interests rather than those of the whole group;
- the process can become overly long and tedious, generating 'more heat than light’.