By Tree Bressen
Every group makes decisions. A group of friends may decide what movie to watch, a car-sharing group decides how long someone can use a shared vehicle, a credit union decides what interest rate to offer its depositors. The larger and more formal the organization, the more formal their decision-making procedure is likely to be.
Every group faces a variety of decisions, sorted into categories that are handled differently. For example, in a group of friends, how to dress is probably a personal decision, whereas for employees at the credit union, how to dress is likely an organizational decision. Just because something is an organizational decision does not mean that everyone in the organization necessarily participates in the making of that decision; at the credit union, for example, the branch manager may have authority to set that policy, and then the tellers are expected to follow it. For any type of decision, the power to decide it may be given:
(a) to one person (may be someone in a leadership or managerial role, or may be any member acting autonomously);
(b) to a subgroup (for example, the board of a food co-op, or the media committee of an activist collective); or
(c) to the group as a whole.
The more clear a group is on which decisions get made by whom, the more easily their self-governance runs.
When a decision is being made by more than one person (either a subgroup or the group as a whole), then the group needs to have a way to do that. The two most well-known “decision rules” are
(1) Consensus (meaning all members must consent for a decision to move forward); and
(2) Majority vote (meaning agreement by a set majority of participants is sufficient to make a decision official).
In reality there is a spectrum of options, ranging from 51 percent vote through attempts at consensus with a super-majority voting fallback (typically 75 percent to 90 percent), through “consensus minus one,” on to full consensus required. While voting may be faster, consensus offers a few key advantages:
• More effective implementation: When people’s ideas and concerns are taken into account, then they are much more likely to actively participate in making something happen. If a participant with a minority position is overruled, they are naturally unlikely to help carry out the decision with enthusiasm.
• Building connection among the members: Using consensus as a decision rule means taking the time to find unity on how to proceed before moving forward. It is a synthesizing process. Voting creates winners and losers, thus it has an inherent polarizing effect.
• Higher quality decisions: Integrating the wisdom of more people into the decision generally results in better, smarter, more “co-intelligent” decisions that serve a group well into the future.
Humans have been making decisions together by consensus for millennia and carry innate knowledge of how to do that. At the same time, because English-speaking societies are currently immersed in a culture of separation, we need support, training, and models to help us. Every group’s process is a little different according to its own organic development. In order for your group to write its own consensus policy, some questions you’ll need to answer include the following.
If meeting agendas are formed in advance (usually a good idea), how does that happen, when, and by whom?
The planner role includes figuring out what items will be on the agenda, for how long, and in what order. If the agenda planner is not the facilitator of the meeting, they’ll both need to work together to ensure that the agenda is realistic for the time available and that each person presenting an item is fully prepared, and to select formats. While our dominant image of a meeting is one person speaking at a time to an assembled group, many meetings can be improved by the creative use of alternative formats such as small group break-outs, fishbowls (where a subset of the group talks in the middle while others silently witness), spectrum line-ups (asking people to stand along a line that represents a spectrum of opinion on the issue at hand), and others.
Often people want to bring items to the meeting agenda that don’t actually require full group involvement or should start first with a committee discussion—so the planner role includes aspects of gate-keeping (reserving full group time for the things that most need substantive interaction) and education (helping newer or forgetful members learn how to move items forward through appropriate means).
What process happens outside the official full-group meetings?
Every group has informal conversations on topics of mutual interest that naturally arise in the course of working together. Some groups deliberately acknowledge this as part of their process. If someone has strong feelings on an issue, seeking him/her out to talk it over outside the meeting may lead to a more effective conversation later in the official discussion.
Some groups use a log or decision board to decide smaller items that probably don’t need full-group discussion. For example, new procedures proposed by an area manager or team may be announced or even discussed in writing, and unless someone says it needs to come to a meeting, then the written version is considered accepted. Be wary, obviously, of discussing anything emotionally charged in writing or via email, as those are generally not the most suitable venues for handling upsets.
Some groups hold separate gatherings in order to have time to discuss issues without any pressure to make a decision. For example, a committee may host a salon or “distillery” in order to get input from others on a matter of interest to the group. These kinds of sessions are often very useful, especially if those who disagree the most commit to being there.
For more complex proposals, there will almost certainly be some detailed work on them by one person or a committee, rather than hashing out every word on the fly in plenary (whole-group meeting). There is commonly an iterative back-and-forth between plenary and committee work, where ideas and drafts are brought forth, receive feedback, are revised and brought forth again. For example, a member or team broaches a subject by putting it onto the meeting agenda; then possible responses are discussed, and the team writes a specific proposal based on that discussion, which the plenary then considers.
What signals, if any, are used to let the facilitator and the group know participants’ input?
The most common signal in any meeting is, of course, raising one’s hand to indicate desire to speak. Larger groups often find it helpful to have additional visual cues, in order to help manage the speaking order and to let people know where others in the room are at. Some groups use hand signals, while others use colored cards. There are often two sets, depending on whether the meeting is in a discussion phase or a decision phase. A typical signal set might include a discussion phase and a decision phase.
1. Process point: Something in the process is off or can be improved.
2. Question: I have a question to help me understand or evaluate the proposal.
3. Point of information: I have an answer to a question that’s been asked, or factual correction only.
4. Comment: I want to offer an idea/opinion/feeling/concern.
5. Vibes: I have an emotional response to the topic that I need to share. (Groups that use this signal normally have a procedure that happens following it, for example, someone automatically offers to reflect back what the speaker just said, before proceeding further.)
2. Consent with Reservations
3. Stand Aside
5. Abstain (usually signified by not using any of the signals)
While in some groups silence might signify consent, this approach is not generally recommended. Having some active sign for consent (saying “yes,” thumbs up, nodding head, etc.) prevents anyone from later ducking responsibility for the decision by saying, “I was in the room, but did not really agree, I just didn’t speak up in time.”
How will our group respond robustly to inappropriate blocks?
As explained below, the consensus process gives substantial power to individuals to make their own discernment as to whether a proposal is in the best interest of the group. That power needs to be balanced with limits and responsibilities. In other words, there needs to be some way to deal with a member who is blocking inappropriately. The most effective groups have both cultural and procedural means of doing this.
Cultural methods include
• Genuinely honoring dissenting viewpoints, including staying in relationship with those who disagree and not isolating them;
• Avoiding use of the word “block” prematurely by using the framing of “concerns” until after a thorough discussion has taken place and you are actually at the call for consensus; and
• Spreading the idea that if you’ve blocked an emerging consensus half a dozen times in your lifetime (for all the groups you are part of), you’ve used up your quota.
Procedural methods include
• Requiring anyone who is blocking to convene extra meetings in an effort to work out an alternative, within a time limit, or else their block is automatically lifted;
• Requiring group validation of a block in some form; for example, saying that a block does not count unless at least one other member agrees it is valid, or 75 percent of the group, or the executive team or steering council of the organization; and
• Using a fallback vote, as explained below.
Is there a voting fallback, and if so, how does it operate?
Many groups using consensus choose to have a voting fallback in place in case there is an urgent need for a decision and no consensus has been found. Typically these fallbacks are not invoked frequently, but their existence serves as a reassurance and as a guard against tyranny of the minority. If you are going to have a fallback, you need to be clear on the circumstances under which it is invoked and what its procedures are. Often such a vote has a super-majority threshold, such as 75 percent or 90 percent rather than 51 percent, to avoid a complete split of the group.
There are also some non-policy questions worth considering, such as:
1. Are we clear on the purpose of our group and its meetings?
2. Aside from having a clear policy, what will the group do to make meetings fun and fulfilling, nurturing a positive spirit?
3. Groups run better when the people involved get along well together. How will our group’s interpersonal relationships be nourished? What will help members feel appreciated?
4. How will incoming members get trained in the decision-making process?
5. How will facilitators (and minute-takers, agenda planners, etc.) be trained and supported?
- Here is a SAMPLE CONSENSUS POLICY
• Tree Bressen’s website, filled with free articles, handouts, and pointers to yet more resources; available at www.treegroup.info.
• Group Works deck, published by the Group Pattern Language Project. Distills the core wisdom of good meetings into an excellent hands-on tool; available at www.groupworksdeck.org.
• Seeds for Change (UK) has a wonderful website on consensus decision-making: their writing is straightforward, thorough, values-based, and includes a historical and multicultural perspective; available at www.seedsforchange.org.uk/free/res#grp.
• Starhawks’s “Five-Fold Path of Productive Meetings,” a free bonus chapter from her book The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups; available at www.starhawk.org/Empowerment_Five-Fold-Path.pdf.
• Training for Change has a great collection of tools and exercises on topics such as diversity, strategy, and team-building; available at www.trainingforchange.org.
• Vernal Project. Randy Schutt, long-time activist, has a dozen short papers on cooperative decision-making. See, for example, “Getting Unstuck: Common Problems in Meetings and Some Solutions”; available at www.vernalproject.org/papers/Process.html.