Here is one sample policy outlining a consensus decision-making process that may be useful to draw on. This level of detail would typically appear in a policy document rather than bylaws, so that it can be more easily modified as a group evolves. Often, an organization’s bylaws will make reference to a separate consensus policy and require that decisions be made in accordance with the policy.
Consensus is a cooperative process in which group members develop and agree to support a decision in the best interest of the whole. It embraces individual perspectives, honoring each person’s piece of the truth, while emphasizing the sense of the meeting through a creative search for unity. By choosing to use consensus as our primary decision-making method, we recognize that we are pledging to do the hard, patient work of bringing our best selves forward and listening from the heart. We encourage participants to share ideas, feelings, needs, and concerns, in a spirit of honesty, kindness, and mutual respect, giving all viewpoints a fair hearing. We recognize we are sometimes called to accept with good grace a decision of the meeting with which we are not entirely in agreement. We affirm our willingness to listen with an open mind to the truths of others, and to work in good faith toward decisions that reflect the whole group intention and serve its greatest good.
Items to be considered for the monthly meeting agenda are expected to be received by the agenda planner(s) no later than ten days before the meeting, including any associated documentation. Agenda planners aim to publish the proposed agenda five to seven days before the meeting, along with the background materials (reports, research, survey results, proposals, etc.). Members are asked to please read this and come prepared to discuss the issues.
There are often more potential items for the agenda than time in the meeting. We support our agenda planners in prioritizing, recognizing that the group usually finds it more satisfying to do a thorough job on a few items than to take a quick pass at many. Agenda planners may also assist members in finding alternate ways to address issues without taking full-group time. The planner makes sure there are facilitators and minute-takers signed up for each meeting, as well as the next agenda planner.
Every plenary agenda includes time at the beginning for short personal check-ins and group confirmation and approval of the agenda; at least one break; and time at the end for evaluations and appreciations. Each item on the agenda is assigned a time allocation and labeled with a clear goal, such as: Information, Discussion, or Decision.
We use the following matrix in determining whether an item comes first as an issue discussion or an official proposal:
|Is the issue. . .||SIMPLE||COMPLEX|
|SMALL||Proposal may pass with relative ease.||Likely send to committee for most of the work.|
|LARGE||Might be OK to start with proposal, and it might take a few more meetings, possibly with committee work in between.||Start with issue discussion, not proposal, and expect it to take a series of meetings, almost always with committee or individual work in between.|
We ask everyone present to share responsibility for creating a constructive conversation. Our facilitators take special responsibility to support us by managing our meeting process so the rest of us can focus on the content. The facilitator acts as a servant of the group. In order to do this, facilitators need to remain as neutral as possible—in word, deed, and appearance—and avoid stating or implying your opinion on the agenda items in the meeting. This includes not being the official presenter of any items at the meeting you are facilitating, and finding a replacement facilitator if something gets put onto the agenda that you have especially strong feelings about. If at any time your neutrality becomes an issue (for you personally or in someone else’s perception), your co-facilitator and the rest of the team can support you by stepping in and giving you a break.
The facilitator job includes working with the agenda planner(s) beforehand. Each meeting has a lead facilitator and an assistant facilitator, who sign up ahead of time and together decide how to handle the job. They may recruit additional assistance if needed to cover all the work, which includes:
• Contacting presenters to discuss format and how the item may unfold at the meeting;
• Getting the room ready, including setting up chairs, flipchart, markers, and tape;
• Posting agenda clearly so everyone can read it;
• Welcoming the group and opening the meeting;
• Making it clear which step of the process we are on, and when;
• Keeping “stack” (a list of people desiring to speak) and deciding who speaks in what order, including ensuring that quieter voices are heard;
• Doing reflective listening to individual participants, especially those holding concerns;
• Weaving and summarizing input to the meeting;
• Scribing comments and lists onto the flipchart;
• Suggesting formats, “light & lively” exercises, or breaks to help improve the energy;
• Taking “temperature checks” if needed to get feedback from the group;
• “Vibes-watching,” that is, keeping an eye out for emotional dynamics and responding appropriately;
• Running the call for consensus on each item that reaches the decision point;
• Ensuring that extraneous issues which arise mid-meeting and get put onto the “bike rack” (also known as a “parking lot,” which is a list of matters that arise but which cannot be discussed in the present meeting) make it onto the agenda list afterward to get considered for future meetings; and
• Keeping track of time.
We try to have at least six facilitators on the team at any given time, serving staggered terms, and to pair up more and less experienced facilitators so that newcomers get support to step up.
Steps of the Consensus Process
Each item requiring a decision goes through the following steps. Some items may not need a decision, in which case they might not go through the full sequence. We expect substantive items to take multiple meetings, in which case we start each time with step #1, and then pick up where it makes sense based on what happened last time. Because we prefer to give power to people who are present in a meeting more than those who are absent, proposals can be modified on the floor and adopted; indeed, changing a proposal in response to new wisdom emerging is at the heart of the consensus process.
Typically the introduction takes less than five minutes and covers the following:
• Why are we talking about this? Why does it matter?
• What is the history of the issue (including results of any previous meetings on it)?
• What is the goal for this item at this particular meeting (report, decision, committee to gather input, etc.)?
At the end of the initial presentation, others who have factual knowledge of the issue are sometimes invited to add in further bits about the history and so on, provided it doesn’t go on for too long.
2. Clarifying Questions
These are simple questions just to make sure everyone in the room fully understands what has been presented or proposed.
This is the exploratory phase, where people are invited to ask further questions, show the full diversity of perspectives, raise challenges and concerns, and so on. Agreements and disagreements on general direction are noticed, and the reasons for them examined—not just what the positions are, but why, and any underlying values conflicts brought out.
4. Establish Basic Direction
What is the sense of the meeting, in terms of basic direction on this issue? Here we seek general or philosophical agreement, an agreement in principle.
5. Synthesize or Modify Proposal (as needed)
Integrate what’s been shared so far and make it as specific as needed, recognizing that some details will always be left to implementation and real-life experimentation. Again, we notice agreements and disagreements (this time on the specifics of the proposal) and work with the un derlying reasons; then we generate ideas for addressing and resolving concerns, emerging with a proposal that has substantial group support. Periodically the facilitator may ask, “Are there any remaining unresolved concerns?”
6. Call for Consensus
The facilitator clearly restates the proposal and then asks people to indicate where they are, using the options listed below. Remember our bylaws require a 70 percent quorum for official decisions. Note that newcomers are required to attend an orientation from the facilitation team before they can be vested as fully empowered decision-making members.
The note-taker reads back the decision to the group. In addition, they record any implementation information needed (tasks, who’s responsible, timelines, etc.).
8. Revisiting the Decisions
Once a decision has been reached, it may be revisited if any of the following conditions apply:
(a) Something relevant and significant has changed since the decision was reached;
(b) More than two years have passed;
(c) Five or more members request a revisit.
Decision Point Options
At the point that the facilitator calls for consensus (step #6 above), participants have the following options:
1. Agreement: “I support this proposal, and am willing to abide by and implement it.”
2. Consent with reservations: “I support the basic thrust of this proposal, and have one or more minor unresolved concerns.”
3. Stand aside: “I have major concerns with the proposal, and agree to stand aside and let the group proceed with it.” The choice to stand aside may be based on (but is not limited to) any of the following:
• Disagreement with the proposal, or the process used to reach the decision;
• Personal values or principles; or
• Personal impact or need (e.g., “I can’t afford this,” or “I’d have to leave the group”).
If someone stands aside, their name and reason is recorded in the minutes. That person is relieved of any lead implementation responsibilities, yet is still bound to follow the decision.
4. Blocking: “I believe this proposal would be majorly detrimental to our group, because either it goes against our fundamental principles or it would lead to a disastrous outcome.” Note that none of the following is an appropriate reason to block:
• To get your way or because you prefer a different proposal, or no proposal;
• To fulfill your unique personal preferences or how you want to live;
• Tradition: because things have always been done this way;
• Because the proposed action doesn’t fit your personal needs (or finances); and
• Because you’d have to leave the group if the proposal passed.
In order to protect against inappropriate use of blocking, the group has the option to evaluate blocks: If 90 percent of the group present believes that a block is being applied inappropriately, then the block is invalidated. This power must be used carefully in order to avoid simply overruling those we disagree with.
5. Abstain: “I choose not to participate in the making of this decision.” Typically used because a participant feels uninformed or not ready to participate.
If we’ve done a good job during the discussion period, there should not be any surprises at the call for consensus. If anyone consents with reservations, stands aside, or blocks, the group will pause to ensure that the reasons are clearly known and consider whether the proposal might be modified to address the concerns. If more than three people have minor reservations, or more than one person stands aside, we will ask whether or not the decision at hand requires higher support in order to fulfill the goals of our consensus process (high-quality decisions, effective implementation, and connection among the group), in which case we may hold the decision over to a future meeting. Most decisions don’t need to be made in a rush; at the same time, we recognize that there is a cost to inaction, so we seek to move things along in order to respect people’s time, energy, and morale.
If a decision is time-sensitive due to external factors and consensus is not reached, the group may elect to invoke a voting fallback. In order for that to happen, 95 percent of those present must agree it is called for. If a vote takes place, decisions may pass by 90 percent of those voting. Options at that decision point are: Yes, No, Abstain. (Abstentions don’t count toward the total.)