On Conflict and Consensus
a handbook on Formal Consensus decisionmaking
by C.T. Butler and Amy Rothstein
If war is the violent resolution of conflict,
then peace is not the
absence of conflict,
the ability to resolve conflict
Consensus, as a decisionmaking process, has been developing for centuries.
Many people, in diverse communities, have contributed to this development. From
them, we have borrowed
generously and adapted freely.
1 The Advantages of Formal
Group Dynamics 2 On Decisionmaking
Characteristics of Formal Consensus
The Structure of Formal Consensus 3 On Conflict and
The Flow of Formal Consensus
The Rules of Formal Consensus
Foundation Upon Which Consensus Is Built 4 The Art of
On Degrees of Conflict
Purpose of Evaluation 5 Roles
Uses of Evaluation
Agenda Planners 6 Techniques
Facilitation Techniques Glossary
Group Discussion Techniques
There are many ways to make decisions. Sometimes, the most efficient way to
make decisions would be to just let the manager (or CEO, or dictator) make them.
However, efficiency is not the only criteria. When choosing a decisionmaking
method, one needs to ask two questions. Is it a fair process? Does it produce
1 The Advantages of Formal Consensus
To judge the process, consider the following: Does the
meeting flow smoothly? Is the discussion kept to the point? Does it take too
long to make each decision? Does the leadership determine the outcome of the
discussion? Are some people overlooked?
To judge the quality of the end
result, the decision, consider: Are the people making the decision, and
all those affected, satisfied with the result? To what degree is the intent of
the original proposal accomplished? Are the underlying issues addressed?
Is there an appropriate use of resources? Would the group make the same decision
Autocracy can work, but the idea of a benevolent dictator is just
a dream. We believe that it is inherently better to involve every person who is
affected by the decision in the decisionmaking process. This is true for several
reasons. The decision would reflect the will of the entire group, not just the
leadership. The people who carry out the plans will be more satisfied with their
work. And, as the old adage goes, two heads are better than one.
book presents a particular model for decisionmaking we call Formal Consensus.
Formal Consensus has a clearly defined structure. It requires a commitment to
active cooperation, disciplined speaking and listening, and respect for the
contributions of every member. Likewise, every person has the responsibility to
actively participate as a creative individual within the structure.
Avoidance, denial, and repression of conflict is common during meetings.
Therefore, using Formal Consensus might not be easy at first. Unresolved
conflict from previous experiences could come rushing forth and make the process
difficult, if not impossible. Practice and discipline, however, will smooth the
process. The benefit of everyone's participation and cooperation is worth the
struggle it may initially take to ensure that all voices are heard.
is often said that consensus is time-consuming and difficult. Making complex,
difficult decisions is time-consuming, no matter what the process. Many
different methods can be efficient, if every participant shares a common
understanding of the rules of the game. Like any process, Formal Consensus can
be inefficient if a group does not first assent to follow a particular
This book codifies a formal structure for decisionmaking. It
is hoped that the relationship between this book and Formal Consensus would be
similar to the relationship between Robert's Rules of Order and Parliamentary
Methods of decisionmaking can be seen on a continuum with one
person having total authority on one end to everyone sharing power and
responsibility on the other.
The level of participation increases along
this decisionmaking continuum. Oligarchies and autocracies offer no
participation to many of those who are directly affected. Representative,
majority rule, and consensus democracies involve everybody, to different
Group DynamicsA group, by definition, is a number of individuals having
some unifying relationship. The group dynamic created by consensus process is
completely different from that of Parliamentary Procedure, from start to finish.
It is based on different values and uses a different language, a different
structure, and many different techniques, although some techniques are similar.
It might be helpful to explain some broad concepts about group dynamics and
ConflictWhile decisionmaking is as much about conflict as it is about
agreement, Formal Consensus works best in an atmosphere in which conflict is
encouraged, supported, and resolved cooperatively with respect, nonviolence, and
creativity. Conflict is desirable. It is not something to be avoided, dismissed,
diminished, or denied.
Majority Rule and CompetitionGenerally speaking, when a group votes
using majority rule or Parliamentary Procedure, a competitive dynamic is created
within the group because it is being asked to choose between two (or more)
possibilities. It is just as acceptable to attack and diminish another's point
of view as it is to promote and endorse your own ideas. Often, voting occurs
before one side reveals anything about itself, but spends time solely attacking
the opponent! In this adversarial environment, one's ideas are owned and often
defended in the face of improvements.
Consensus and CooperationConsensus process, on the other hand, creates
a cooperative dynamic. Only one proposal is considered at a time. Everyone works
together to make it the best possible decision for the group. Any concerns are
raised and resolved, sometimes one by one, until all voices are heard. Since
proposals are no longer the property of the presenter, a solution can be created
ProposalsIn the consensus process, only proposals which intend to
accomplish the common purpose are considered. During discussion of a proposal,
everyone works to improve the proposal to make it the best decision for the
group. All proposals are adopted unless the group decides it is contrary to the
best interests of the group.
Characteristics of Formal ConsensusBefore a group decides to use Formal
Consensus, it must honestly assess its ability to honor the principles described
in Chapter Three. If the principles described in this book are not already
present or if the group is not willing to work to create them, then Formal
Consensus will not be possible. Any group which wants to adopt Formal Consensus
needs to give considerable attention to the underlying principles which support
consensus and help the process operate smoothly. This is not to say each and
every one of the principles described herein must be adopted by every group, or
that each group cannot add its own principles specific to its goals, but rather,
each group must be very clear about the foundation of principles or common
purposes they choose before they attempt the Formal Consensus decisionmaking
Formal Consensus is the least violent decisionmaking process.
Traditional nonviolence theory holds that the use of power to dominate is
violent and undesirable. Nonviolence expects people to use their power to
persuade without deception, coercion, or malice, using truth, creativity, logic,
respect, and love. Majority rule voting process and Parliamentary Procedure both
accept, and even encourage, the use of power to dominate others. The goal is the
winning of the vote, often regardless of another choice which might be in the
best interest of the whole group. The will of the majority supersedes the
concerns and desires of the minority. This is inherently violent. Consensus
strives to take into account everyone's concerns and resolve them before any
decision is made. Most importantly, this process encourages an environment in
which everyone is respected and all contributions are valued.
Formal Consensus is the most democratic decisionmaking process.Groups
which desire to involve as many people as possible need to use an inclusive
process. To attract and involve large numbers, it is important that the process
encourages participation, allows equal access to power, develops cooperation,
promotes empowerment, and creates a sense of individual responsibility for the
group's actions. All of these are cornerstones of Formal Consensus. The goal of
consensus is not the selection of several options, but the development of one
decision which is the best for the whole group. It is synthesis and evolution,
not competition and attrition.
Formal Consensus is based on the principles of the group. Although
every individual must consent to a decision before it is adopted, if there are
any objections, it is not the choice of the individual alone to determine if an
objection prevents the proposal from being adopted. Every objection or concern
must first be presented before the group and either resolved or validated. A
valid objection is one in keeping with all previous decisions of the group and
based upon the commonly-held principles or foundation adopted by the group. The
objection must not only address the concerns of the individual, but it must also
be in the best interest of the group as a whole. If the objection is not based
upon the foundation, or is in contradiction with a prior decision, it is not
valid for the group, and therefore, out of order.
Formal Consensus is desirable in larger groups. If the structure is
vague, decisions can be difficult to achieve. They will become increasingly more
difficult in larger groups. Formal Consensus is designed for large groups. It is
a highly structured model. It has guidelines and formats for managing meetings,
facilitating discussions, resolving conflict, and reaching decisions. Smaller
groups may need less structure, so they may choose from the many techniques and
roles suggested in this book.
Formal Consensus works better when more people participate.Consensus is
more than the sum total of ideas of the individuals in the group. During
discussion, ideas build one upon the next, generating new ideas, until the best
decision emerges. This dynamic is called the creative interplay of ideas.
Creativity plays a major part as everyone strives to discover what is best for
the group. The more people involved in this cooperative process, the more ideas
and possibilities are generated. Consensus works best with everyone
participating. (This assumes, of course, that everyone in the group is trained
in Formal Consensus and is actively using it.)
Formal Consensus is not inherently time-consuming.Decisions are not an
end in themselves. Decisionmaking is a process which starts with an idea and
ends with the actual implementation of the decision. While it may be true in an
autocratic process that decisions can be made quickly, the actual implementation
will take time. When one person or a small group of people makes a decision for
a larger group, the decision not only has to be communicated to the others, but
it also has to be acceptable to them or its implementation will need to be
forced upon them. This will certainly take time, perhaps a considerable amount
of time. On the other hand, if everyone participates in the decisionmaking, the
decision does not need to be communicated and its implementation does not need
to be forced upon the participants. The decision may take longer to make, but
once it is made, implementation can happen in a timely manner. The amount of
time a decision takes to make from start to finish is not a factor of the
process used; rather, it is a factor of the complexity of the proposal itself.
An easy decision takes less time than a difficult, complex decision, regardless
of the process used or the number of people involved. Of course, Formal
Consensus works better if one practices patience, but any process is improved
with a generous amount of patience.
Formal Consensus cannot be secretly disrupted.This may not be an issue
for some groups, but many people know that the state actively surveilles,
infiltrates, and disrupts nonviolent domestic political and religious groups. To
counteract anti-democratic tactics by the state, a group would need to develop
and encourage a decisionmaking process which could not be covertly controlled or
manipulated. Formal Consensus, if practiced as described in this book, is just
such a process. Since the assumption is one of cooperation and good will, it is
always appropriate to ask for an explanation of how and why someone's actions
are in the best interest of the group. Disruptive behavior must not be
tolerated. While it is true this process cannot prevent openly disruptive
behavior, the point is to prevent covert disruption, hidden agenda, and
malicious manipulation of the process. Any group for which infiltration is a
threat ought to consider the process outlined in this book if it wishes to
remain open, democratic, and productive.
adopted when all participants consent to the result of discussion about the
original proposal. People who do not agree with a proposal are responsible for
expressing their concerns. No decision is adopted until there is resolution of
every concern. When concerns remain after discussion, individuals can agree to
disagree by acknowledging that they have unresolved concerns, but consent to the
proposal anyway and allow it to be adopted. Therefore, reaching consensus does
not assume that everyone must be in complete agreement, a highly unlikely
situation in a group of intelligent, creative individuals.
2 On Decisionmaking
becoming popular as a democratic form of decisionmaking. It is a process which
requires an environment in which all contributions are valued and participation
is encouraged. There are, however, few organizations which use a model of
consensus which is specific, consistent, and efficient. Often, the consensus
process is informal, vague, and very inconsistent. This happens when the
consensus process is not based upon a solid foundation and the structure is
unknown or nonexistent. To develop a more formal type of consensus process, any
organization must define the commonly held principles which form the foundation
of the group's work and intentionally choose the type of structure within which
the process is built.
This book contains the building materials for just
such a process. Included is a description of the principles from which a
foundation is created, the flowchart and levels of structure which are the frame
for the process, and the other materials needed for designing a variety of
processes which can be customized to fit the needs of the organization.
The Structure of Formal ConsensusMany groups regularly use diverse
discussion techniques learned from practitioners in the field of conflict
resolution. Although this book does include several techniques, the book is
about a structure called Formal Consensus. This structure creates a
separation between the identification and the resolution of
concerns. Perhaps, if everybody in the group has no trouble saying what they
think, they won't need this structure. This predictable structure provides
opportunities to those who don't feel empowered to participate.
Consensus is presented in levels or cycles. In the first level, the idea is to
allow everyone to express their perspective, including concerns, but group time
is not spent on resolving problems. In the second level the group focuses its
attention on identifying concerns, still not resolving them. This requires
discipline. Reactive comments, even funny ones, and resolutions, even good ones,
can suppress the creative ideas of others. Not until the third level does the
structure allow for exploring resolutions.
Each level has a different
scope and focus. At the first level, the scope is broad, allowing the discussion
to consider the philosophical and political implications as well as the general
merits and drawbacks and other relevant information. The only focus is on the
proposal as a whole. Some decisions can be reached after discussion at the first
level. At the second level, the scope of the discussion is limited to the
concerns. They are identified and publicly listed, which enables everyone to get
an overall picture of the concerns. The focus of attention is on identifying the
body of concerns and grouping similar ones. At the third level, the scope is
very narrow. The focus of discussion is limited to a single unresolved concern
until it is resolved.
The Flow of the Formal Consensus ProcessIn an ideal situation, every
proposal would be submitted in writing and briefly introduced the first time it
appears on the agenda. At the next meeting, after everyone has had enough time
to read it and carefully consider any concerns, the discussion would begin in
earnest. Often, it would not be until the third meeting that a decision is made.
Of course, this depends upon how many proposals are on the table and the urgency
of the decision.
Clarify the ProcessThe facilitator introduces the person presenting the
proposal and gives a short update on any previous action on it. It is very
important for the facilitator to explain the process which brought this proposal
to the meeting, and to describe the process that will be followed to move the
group through the proposal to consensus. It is the facilitator's job to make
sure that every participant clearly understands the structure and the discussion
techniques being employed while the meeting is in progress.
Present Proposal or IssueWhen possible and appropriate, proposals ought
to be prepared in writing and distributed well in advance of the meeting in
which a decision is required. This encourages prior discussion and
consideration, helps the presenter anticipate concerns, minimizes surprises, and
involves everyone in creating the proposal. (If the necessary groundwork has not
been done, the wisest choice might be to send the proposal to committee.
Proposal writing is difficult to accomplish in a large group. The committee
would develop the proposal for consideration at a later time.) The presenter
reads the written proposal aloud, provides background information, and states
clearly its benefits and reasons for adoption, including addressing any existing
Questions Which Clarify the PresentationQuestions are strictly limited
by the facilitator to those which seek greater comprehension of the proposal as
presented. Everyone deserves the opportunity to fully understand what is being
asked of the group before discussion begins. This is not a time for comments or
concerns. If there are only a few questions, they can be answered one at a time
by the person presenting the proposal. If there are many, a useful technique is
hearing all the questions first, then answering them together. After answering
all clarifying questions, the group begins discussion.
Discussion at this level ought to be
the broadest in scope. Try to encourage comments which take the whole proposal
into account; i.e., why it is a good idea, or general problems which need to be
addressed. Discussion at this level often has a philosophical or principled
tone, purposely addressing how this proposal might affect the group in the long
run or what kind of precedent it might create, etc. It helps every proposal to
be discussed in this way, before the group engages in resolving particular
concerns. Do not allow one concern to become the focus of the discussion. When
particular concerns are raised, make note of them but encourage the discussion
to move back to the proposal as a whole. Encourage the creative interplay of
comments and ideas. Allow for the addition of any relevant factual information.
For those who might at first feel opposed to the proposal, this discussion is
consideration of why it might be good for the group in the broadest sense. Their
initial concerns might, in fact, be of general concern to the whole group. And,
for those who initially support the proposal, this is a time to think about the
proposal broadly and some of the general problems. If there seems to be general
approval of the proposal, the facilitator, or someone recognized to speak, can
request a call for consensus.
Level One: Broad Open
Call for ConsensusThe facilitator asks, "Are there any unresolved
concerns?" or "Are there any concerns remaining?" After a period of silence, if
no additional concerns are raised, the facilitator declares that consensus is
reached and the proposal is read for the record. The length of silence ought to
be directly related to the degree of difficulty in reaching consensus; an easy
decision requires a short silence, a difficult decision requires a longer
silence. This encourages everyone to be at peace in accepting the consensus
before moving on to other business. At this point, the facilitator assigns task
responsibilities or sends the decision to a committee for implementation. It is
important to note that the question is not "Is there consensus?" or "Does
everyone agree?". These questions do not encourage an environment in which all
concerns can be expressed. If some people have a concern, but are shy or
intimidated by a strong showing of support for a proposal, the question "Are
there any unresolved concerns?" speaks directly to them and provides an
opportunity for them to speak. Any concerns for which someone stands aside are
listed with the proposal and become a part of it.
Level Two: Identify Concerns At the beginning of
the next level, a discussion technique called brainstorming (see page 55) is
used so that concerns can be identified and written down publicly by the scribe
and for the record by the notetaker. Be sure the scribe is as accurate as
possible by checking with the person who voiced the concern before moving on.
This is not a time to attempt to resolve concerns or determine their validity.
That would stifle free expression of concerns. At this point, only concerns are
to be expressed, reasonable or unreasonable, well thought out or vague feelings.
The facilitator wants to interrupt any comments which attempt to defend the
proposal, resolve the concerns, judge the value of the concerns, or in any way
deny or dismiss another's feelings of doubt or concern. Sometimes simply
allowing a concern to be expressed and written down helps resolve it. After all
concerns have been listed, allow the group a moment to reflect on them as a
List All Concerns
Group Related ConcernsAt this point, the focus is on identifying
patterns and relationships between concerns. This short exercise must not be
allowed to focus upon or resolve any particular concern.
Level Three: Resolve ConcernsOften, related concerns can be resolved as a group.
Resolve Groups of Related
Call for ConsensusIf most of the concerns seem to have been resolved,
call for consensus in the manner described earlier. If some concerns have not
been resolved at this time, then a more focused discussion is needed.
Restate Remaining Concerns (One at a Time)Return to the list. The
facilitator checks each one with the group and removes ones which have been
resolved or are, for any reason, no longer of concern. Each remaining concern is
restated clearly and concisely and addressed one at a time. Sometimes new
concerns are raised which need to be added to the list. However, every
individual is responsible for honestly expressing concerns as they think of
them. It is not appropriate to hold back a concern and spring it upon the group
late in the process. This undermines trust and limits the group's ability to
adequately discuss the concern in its relation to other concerns.
Questions Which Clarify the ConcernThe facilitator asks for any
questions or comments which would further clarify the concern so everyone
clearly understands it before discussion starts.
Discussion Limited to Resolving One ConcernUse as many creative group
discussion techniques as needed to facilitate a resolution for each concern.
Keep the discussion focused upon the particular concern until every suggestion
has been offered. If no new ideas are coming forward and the concern cannot be
resolved, or if the time allotted for this item has been entirely used, move to
one of the closing options described below.
Call for ConsensusRepeat this process until all concerns have been
resolved. At this point, the group should be at consensus, but it would be
appropriate to call for consensus anyway just to be sure no concern has been
Closing OptionsIf a decision on the proposal can
wait until the whole group meets again, then send the proposal to a committee
which can clarify the concerns and bring new, creative resolutions for
consideration by the group. It is a good idea to include on the committee
representatives of all the major concerns, as well as those most supportive of
the proposal so they can work out solutions in a less formal setting. Sometimes,
if the decision is needed before the next meeting, a smaller group can be
empowered to make the decision for the larger group, but again, this committee
should include all points of view. Choose this option only if it is absolutely
necessary and the whole group consents.
Send to Committee
Stand Aside (Decision Adopted with Unresolved Concerns Listed) When a
concern has been fully discussed and cannot be resolved, it is appropriate for
the facilitator to ask those persons with this concern if they are willing to
stand aside; that is, acknowledge that the concern still exists, but allow the
proposal to be adopted. It is very important for the whole group to understand
that this unresolved concern is then written down with the proposal in the
record and, in essence, becomes a part of the decision. This concern can be
raised again and deserves more discussion time as it has not yet been resolved.
In contrast, a concern which has been resolved in past discussion does not
deserve additional discussion, unless something new has developed. Filibustering
is not appropriate in Formal Consensus.
Declare BlockAfter having spent the allotted agenda time moving through
the three levels of discussion trying to achieve consensus and concerns remain
which are unresolved, the facilitator is obligated to declare that consensus
cannot be reached at this meeting, that the proposal is blocked, and move on to
the next agenda item. The Rules of Formal Consensus The guidelines and
techniques in this book are flexible and meant to be modified. Some of the
guidelines, however, seem almost always to be true. These are the Rules of
Formal Consensus: 1. Once a decision has been adopted by consensus, it cannot be
changed without reaching a new consensus. If a new consensus cannot be reached,
the old decision stands. 2. In general, only one person has permission to speak
at any moment. The person with permission to speak is determined by the group
discussion technique in use and/or the facilitator. (The role of Peacekeeper is
exempt from this rule.) 3. All structural decisions (i.e., which roles to use,
who fills each role, and which facilitation technique and/or group discussion
technique to use) are adopted by consensus without debate. Any objection
automatically causes a new selection to be made. If a role cannot be filled
without objection, the group proceeds without that role being filled. If much
time is spent trying to fill roles or find acceptable techniques, then the group
needs a discussion about the unity of purpose of this group and why it is having
this problem, a discussion which must be put on the agenda for the next meeting,
if not held immediately.4. All content decisions (i.e., the agenda contract,
committee reports, proposals, etc.) are adopted by consensus after discussion.
Every content decision must be openly discussed before it can be tested for
consensus. 5. A concern must be based upon the principles of the group to
justify a block to consensus. 6. Every meeting which uses Formal Consensus must
have an evaluation.
is usually viewed as an impediment to reaching agreements and disruptive to
peaceful relationships. However, it is the underlying thesis of Formal Consensus
that nonviolent conflict is necessary and desirable. It provides the
motivations for improvement. The challenge is the creation of an
understanding in all who participate that conflict, or differing opinions about
proposals, is to be expected and acceptable. Do not avoid or repress conflict.
Create an environment in which disagreement can be expressed without fear.
Objections and criticisms can be heard not as attacks, not as attempts to defeat
a proposal, but as a concern which, when resolved, will make the proposal
3 On Conflict and Consensus
This understanding of conflict may not be easily accepted by
the members of a group. Our training by society undermines this concept.
Therefore, it will not be easy to create the kind of environment where
differences can be expressed without fear or resentment. But it can be done. It
will require tolerance and a willingness to experiment. Additionally, the values
and principles which form the basis of commitment to work together to resolve
conflict need to be clearly defined, and accepted by all involved.
group desires to adopt Formal Consensus as its decisionmaking process, the first
step is the creation of a Statement of Purpose or Constitution.
This document would describe not only the common purpose, but would also include
the definition of the group's principles and values. If the group discusses and
writes down its foundation of principles at the start, it is much easier to
determine group versus individual concerns later on.
The following are
principles which form the foundation of Formal Consensus. A commitment to these
principles and/or a willingness to develop them is necessary. In addition to the
ones listed herein, the group might add principles and values which are specific
to its purpose.
Foundation Upon Which Consensus Is BuiltFor consensus to work well, the
process must be conducted in an environment which promotes trust, respect, and
skill sharing. The following are principles which, when valued and respected,
encourage and build consensus.
TrustForemost is the need for trust. Without some amount of trust,
there will be no cooperation or nonviolent resolution to conflict. For trust to
flourish, it is desirable for individuals to be willing to examine their
attitudes and be open to new ideas. Acknowledgement and appreciation of personal
and cultural differences promote trust. Neither approval nor friendship are
necessary for a good working relationship. By developing trust, the process of
consensus encourages the intellectual and emotional development of the
individuals within a group.
RespectIt is everyone's responsibility to show respect to one another.
People feel respected when everyone listens, when they are not interrupted, when
their ideas are taken seriously. Respect for emotional as well as logical
concerns promotes the kind of environment necessary for developing consensus. To
promote respect, it is important to distinguish between an action which causes a
problem and the person who did the action, between the deed and the doer. We
must criticize the act, not the person. Even if you think the person is
the problem, responding that way never resolves anything. (See pages 7- 8.)
Unity of PurposeUnity of purpose is a basic understanding about the
goals and purpose of the group. Of course, there will be varying opinions on the
best way to accomplish these goals. However, there must be a unifying base, a
common starting point, which is recognized and accepted by all.
Nonviolence Nonviolent decisionmakers use their power to achieve goals
while respecting differences and cooperating with others. In this environment,
it is considered violent to use power to dominate or control the group process.
It is understood that the power of revealing your truth is the maximum force
allowed to persuade others to your point of view.
Self EmpowermentIt is easy for people to unquestioningly rely on
authorities and experts to do their thinking and decisionmaking for them. If
members of a group delegate their authority, intentionally or not, they fail to
accept responsibility for the group's decisions. Consensus promotes and depends
upon self empowerment. Anyone can express concerns. Everyone seeks creative
solutions and is responsible for every decision. When all are encouraged to
participate, the democratic nature of the process increases.
CooperationUnfortunately, Western society is saturated in competition.
When winning arguments becomes more important than achieving the group's goals,
cooperation is difficult, if not impossible. Adversarial attitudes toward
proposals or people focus attention on weakness rather than strength. An
attitude of helpfulness and support builds cooperation. Cooperation is a shared
responsibility in finding solutions to all concerns. Ideas offered in the spirit
of cooperation help resolve conflict. The best decisions arise through an open
and creative interplay of ideas.
Conflict ResolutionThe free flow of ideas, even among friends,
inevitably leads to conflict. In this context, conflict is simply the expression
of disagreement. Disagreement itself is neither good nor bad. Diverse viewpoints
bring into focus and explore the strengths and weaknesses of attitudes,
assumptions, and plans. Without conflict, one is less likely to think about and
evaluate one's views and prejudices. There is no right decision, only the
best one for the whole group. The task is to work together to discover which
choice is most acceptable to all members.
Avoid blaming anyone for
conflict. Blame is inherently violent. It attacks dignity and empowerment. It
encourages people to feel guilty, defensive, and alienated. The group will lose
its ability to resolve conflict. People will hide their true feelings to avoid
being blamed for the conflict.
Avoidance of conflicting ideas impedes
resolution for failure to explore and develop the feelings that gave rise to the
conflict. The presence of conflict can create an occasion for growth. Learn to
use it as a catalyst for discovering creative resolutions and for developing a
better understanding of each other. With patience, anyone can learn to resolve
conflict creatively, without defensiveness or guilt. Groups can learn to nurture
and support their members in this effort by allowing creativity and
experimentation. This process necessitates that the group continually evaluate
and improve these skills.
Commitment to the GroupIn joining a group, one accepts a personal
responsibility to behave with respect, good will, and honesty. Each one is
expected to recognize that the group's needs have a certain priority over the
desires of the individual. Many people participate in group work in a very
egocentric way. It is important to accept the shared responsibility for helping
to find solutions to other's concerns.
Active ParticipationWe all have an inalienable right to express our own
best thoughts. We decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. Since consensus
is a process of synthesis, not competition, all sincere comments are important
and valuable. If ideas are put forth as the speaker's property and individuals
are strongly attached to their opinions, consensus will be extremely difficult.
Stubbornness, closedmindedness, and possessiveness lead to defensive and
argumentative behavior that disrupts the process. For active participation to
occur, it is necessary to promote trust by creating an atmosphere in which every
contribution is considered valuable. With encouragement, each person can develop
knowledge and experience, a sense of responsibility and competency, and the
ability to participate.
Equal Access to PowerBecause of personal differences (experience,
assertiveness, social conditioning, access to information, etc.) and political
disparities, some people inevitably have more effective power than others. To
balance this inequity, everyone needs to consciously attempt to creatively share
power, skills, and information. Avoid hierarchical structures that allow some
individuals to assume undemocratic power over others. Egalitarian and
accountable structures promote universal access to power.
PatienceConsensus cannot be rushed. Often, it functions smoothly,
producing effective, stable results. Sometimes, when difficult situations arise,
consensus requires more time to allow for the creative interplay of ideas.
During these times, patience is more advantageous than tense, urgent, or
aggressive behavior. Consensus is possible as long as each individual acts
patiently and respectfully.
Impediments To Consensus Lack of TrainingIt is necessary to train
people in the theory and practice of consensus. Until consensus is a common form
of decisionmaking in our society, new members will need some way of learning
about the process. It is important to offer regular opportunities for training.
If learning about Formal Consensus is not made easily accessible, it will limit
full participation and create inequities which undermine this process. Also,
training provides opportunities for people to improve their skills, particularly
facilitation skills, in a setting where experimentation and role-plays can
External Hierarchical StructuresIt can be difficult for a group to
reach consensus internally when it is part of a larger group which does not
recognize or participate in the consensus process. It can be extremely
frustrating if those external to the group can disrupt the decisionmaking by
interfering with the process by pulling rank. Therefore, it is desirable for
individuals and groups to recognize that they can be autonomous in relation to
external power if they are willing to take responsibility for their actions.
Social PrejudiceEveryone has been exposed to biases, assumptions, and
prejudices which interfere with the spirit of cooperation and equal
participation. All people are influenced by these attitudes, even though they
may deplore them. People are not generally encouraged to confront these
prejudices in themselves or others. Members of a group often reflect social
biases without realizing or attempting to confront and change them. If the group
views a prejudicial attitude as just one individual's problem, then the group
will not address the underlying social attitudes which create such problems. It
is appropriate to expose, confront, acknowledge, and attempt to resolve socially
prejudicial attitudes, but only in the spirit of mutual respect and trust.
Members are responsible for acknowledging when their attitudes are influenced by
disruptive social training and for changing them. When a supportive atmosphere
for recognizing and changing undesirable attitudes exists, the group as a whole
On Degrees of Conflict
Each individual is responsible for expressing one's own
concerns. It is best if each concern is expressed as if it will be resolved. The
group then responds by trying to resolve the concern through group discussion.
If the concern remains unresolved after a full and open discussion, then the
facilitator asks how the concern is based upon the foundation of the group. If
it is, then the group accepts that the proposal is blocked.
- Consensus is a process of nonviolent confict resolution. The expression of
concerns and conficting ideas is considered desirable and important. When a
group creates an atmosphere which nurtures and supports disagreement without
hostility and fear, it builds a foundation for stronger, more creative
Herein lies a subtle pitfall. For consensus to work well, it is
helpful for individuals to recognize the group's involvement in determining
which concerns are able to be resolved, which need more attention, and,
ultimately, which are blocking consensus. The pitfall is failure to accept the
limit on an individual's power to determine which concerns are principled or
based upon the foundation of the group and which ones are resolved. After
discussion, if the concern is valid and unresolved, it again falls upon the
individual to choose whether to stand aside or block consensus.
- From this perspective, it is not decided by the individual alone if a
particular concern is blocking consensus; it is determined in cooperation with
the whole group. The group determines a concern's legitimacy. A concern is
legitimate if it is based upon the principles of the group and therefore
relevant to the group as a whole. If the concern is determined to be
unprincipled or not of consequence, the group can decide the concern is
inappropriate and drop it from discussion. If a reasonable solution offered is
not accepted by the individual, the group may decide the concern has been
resolved and the individual is out of order for failure to recognize it.
All concerns are important and need to be resolved. It is not
appropriate for a person to come to a meeting planning to block a proposal or,
during discussion, to express their concerns as major objections or blocking
concerns. Often, during discussion, the person learns additional information
which resolves the concern. Sometimes, after expressing the concern, someone is
able to creatively resolve it by thinking of something new. It often happens
that a concern which seems to be extremely problematic when it is frst mentioned
turns out to be easily resolved. Sometimes the reverse happens and a seemingly
minor concern brings forth much larger concerns.
- The individual is responsible for expressing concerns; the group is
responsible for resolving them. The group decides whether a concern is
legitimate; the individual decides whether to block or stand aside.
The following is a
description of different types of concerns and how they affect individuals and
When a person disagrees with the
proposal in part, but consents to the overall idea, the person has a
reservation. The person is not completely satisfed with the proposal, but is
generally supportive. This kind of concern can usually be resolved through
discussion. Sometimes, it is enough for the person to express the concern and
feel that it was heard, without any actual resolution.
- Concerns which can be addressed and resolved by making small changes in
the proposal can be called minor concerns. The person supports the proposal,
but has an idea for improvement.
A blocking concern must be based
on a generally recognized principle, not personal preference, or it must be
essential to the entire group's well-being. Before a concern is considered to be
blocking, the group must have already accepted the validity of the concern and a
reasonable attempt must have been made to resolve it. If legitimate concerns
remain unresolved and the person has not agreed to stand aside, consensus is
- When a person does not agree with the proposal, the group allows that
person to try and persuade it to see the wisdom of the disagreement. If the
group is not persuaded or the disagreement cannot be resolved, the person
might choose to stand aside and allow the group to go forward. The person and
the group are agreeing to disagree, regarding each point of view with mutual
respect. Occasionally, it is a concern which has no resolution; the person
does not feel the need to block the decision, but wants to express the concern
and lack of support for the proposal.
often be a time when some people experience feelings of frustration or
confusion. There is always room for improvement in the structure of the process
and/or in the dynamics of the group. Often, there is no time to talk directly
about group interaction during the meeting. Reserve time at the end of the
meeting to allow some of these issues and feelings to be expressed.
4 The Art of Evaluation
Evaluation is very useful when using consensus. It is worth the time.
Evaluations need not take long, five to ten minutes is often enough. It is not a
discussion, nor is it an opportunity to comment on each other's statements. Do
not reopen discussion on an agenda item. Evaluation is a special time to listen
to each other and learn about each other. Think about how the group interacts
and how to improve the process.
Be sure to include the evaluation
comments in the notes of the meeting. This is important for two reasons. Over
time, if the same evaluation comments are made again and again, this is an
indication that the issue behind the comments needs to be addressed. This can be
accomplished by placing this issue on the agenda for the next meeting. Also,
when looking back at notes from meetings long ago, evaluation comments can often
reveal a great deal about what actually happened, beyond what decisions were
made and reports given. They give a glimpse into complex interpersonal dynamics.
Purpose of EvaluationEvaluation provides a forum to address procedural
flaws, inappropriate behavior, facilitation problems, logistical difficulties,
overall tone, etc. Evaluation is not a time to reopen discussion, make decisions
or attempt to resolve problems, but rather, to make statements, express
feelings, highlight problems, and suggest solutions in a spirit of cooperation
and trust. To help foster communication, it is better if each criticism is
coupled with a specific suggestion for improvement. Also, always speak for
oneself. Do not attempt to represent anyone else.
Encourage everyone who
participated in the meeting to take part in the evaluation. Make comments on
what worked and what did not. Expect differing opinions. It is generally not
useful to repeat other's comments. Evaluations prepare the group for better
future meetings. When the process works well, the group responds supportively in
a difficult situation, or the facilitator does an especially good job, note it,
and appreciate work well done.
Do not attempt to force evaluation. This
will cause superficial or irrelevant comments. On the other hand, do not allow
evaluations to run on. Be sure to take each comment seriously and make an
attempt, at a later time, to resolve or implement them. Individuals who feel
their suggestions are ignored or disrespected will lose trust and interest in
For gatherings, conferences, conventions or large meetings,
the group might consider having short evaluations after each section, in
addition to the one at the end of the event. Distinct aspects on which the group
might focus include: the process itself, a specific role, a particular
technique, fears and feelings, group dynamics, etc.
At large meetings,
written evaluations provide a means for everyone to respond and record comments
and suggestions which might otherwise be lost. Some people feel more comfortable
writing their evaluations rather than saying them. Plan the questions well,
stressing what was learned, what was valuable, and what could have been better
and how. An evaluation committee allows an opportunity for the presenters,
facilitators, and/or coordinators to get together after the meeting to review
evaluation comments, consider suggestions for improvement, and possibly prepare
an evaluation report.
Review and evaluation bring a sense of completion
to the meeting. A good evaluation will pull the experience together, remind
everyone of the group's unity of purpose, and provide an opportunity for closing
Uses of EvaluationThere are at least ten ways in which evaluation helps
improve meetings. Evaluations:
- Improve the process by analysis of what happened, why it happened, and how
it might be improved
- Examine how certain attitudes and statements might have caused various
problems and encourage special care to prevent them from recurring
- Foster a greater understanding of group dynamics and encourage a method of
group learning or learning from each other
- Allow the free expression of feelings
- Expose unconscious behavior or attitudes which interfere with the process
- Encourage the sharing of observations and acknowledge associations with
- Check the usefulness and effectiveness of techniques and procedures
- Acknowledge good work and give appreciation to each other
- Reflect on the goals set for the meeting and whether they were attained
- Examine various roles, suggest ways to improve them, and create new ones
- Provide an overall sense of completion and closure to the meeting
Types of Evaluation QuestionsIt is necessary to be aware of the
way in which questions are asked during evaluation. The specific wording
can control the scope and focus of consideration and affect the level of
participation. It can cause responses which focus on what was good and bad, or
right and wrong, rather than on what worked and what needed improvement. Focus
on learning and growing. Avoid blaming. Encourage diverse opinions.
Some sample questions for an evaluation:
- Were members uninterested or bored with the agenda, reports, or
- Did members withdraw or feel isolated?
- Is attendance low? If so, why?
- Are people arriving late or leaving early? If so, why?
- How was the overall tone or atmosphere?
- Was there an appropriate use of resources?
- Were the logistics (such as date, time, or location) acceptable?
- What was the most important experience of the event?
- What was the least important experience of the event?
- What was the high point? What was the low point?
- What did you learn?
- What expectations did you have at the beginning and to what degree were
they met? How did they change?
- What goals did you have and to what degree were they accomplished?
- What worked well? Why?
- What did not work so well? How could it have been improved?
- What else would you suggest be changed or improved, and how?
- What was overlooked or left out?
A role is a function of process, not
content. Roles are used during a meeting according to the needs of the
situation. Not all roles are useful at every meeting, nor does each role have to
be filled by a separate person. Formal Consensus functions more smoothly if the
person filling a role has some experience, therefore is desirable to rotate
roles. Furthermore, one who has experienced a role is more likely to be
supportive of whomever currently has that role. Experience in each role also
encourages confidence and participation. It is best, therefore, for the group to
encourage everyone to experience each role.
Agenda PlannersA well planned agenda is an important tool for a smooth
meeting, although it does not guarantee it. Experience has shown that there is a
definite improvement in the flow and pace of a meeting if several people get
together prior to the start of the meeting and propose an agenda. In smaller
groups, the facilitator often proposes an agenda. The agenda planning committee
has six tasks:
There are at least four sources of
- collect agenda items
- arrange them
- assign presenters
- brainstorm discussion techniques
- assign time limits
- write up the proposed agenda
Once all the agenda items have been
collected, they are listed in an order which seems efficient and appropriate.
Planners need to be cautious that items at the top of the agenda tend to use
more than their share of time, thereby limiting the time available for the rest.
Each group has different needs. Some groups work best taking care of business
first, then addressing the difficult items. Other groups might find it useful to
take on the most difficult work first and strictly limit the time or let it take
all it needs. The following are recommendations for keeping the focus of
attention on the agenda:
- suggestions from members
- reports or proposals from committees
- business from the last meeting
- standard agenda items, including:
- agenda review
- review notes
- decision review
Usually, each item already has a presenter. If not,
assign one. Generally, it is not wise for facilitators to present reports or
proposals. However, it is convenient for facilitators to present some of the
standard agenda items.
- alternate long and short, heavy and light items
- place reports before their related proposals
- take care of old business before addressing new items
- consider placing items which might generate a sense of accomplishment
early in the meeting
- alternate presenters
- be flexible
For complex or especially controversial items,
the agenda planners could suggest various options for group discussion
techniques. This may be helpful to the facilitator.
Next, assign time
limits for each item. It is important to be realistic, being careful to give
each item enough time to be fully addressed without being unfair to other items.
Generally, it is not desirable to propose an agenda which exceeds the desired
overall meeting time limit.
The last task is the writing of the proposed
agenda so all can see it and refer to it during the meeting. Each item is listed
in order, along with its presenter and time limit.
The following agenda
is an example of how an agenda is structured and what information is included in
it. It shows the standard agenda items, the presenters, the time limits and the
order in which they will be considered. It also shows one way in which reports
and proposals can be presented, but each group can structure this part of the
meeting in whatever way suits its needs. This model does not show the choices of
techniques for group discussion which the agenda planners might have considered.
Agenda Item Presenter Time
INTRODUCTION Facilitator 5 min
AGENDA REVIEW Facilitator 5 min
REVIEW NOTES Notetaker 5 min
REPORTS 20 min
PROPOSALS 15 min
BREAK 5 min
REPORTS 10 min
PROPOSALS 30 min
ANNOUNCEMENTS 5 min
REVIEW DECISIONS Notetaker 5 min
EVALUATION 10 min
CLOSING Facilitator 5 min
TOTAL 2 hours
FacilitatorThe word facilitate means to make easy. A facilitator
conducts group business and guides the Formal Consensus process so that it flows
smoothly. Rotating facilitation from meeting to meeting shares important skills
among the members. If everyone has firsthand knowledge about facilitation, it
will help the flow of all meetings. Co-facilitation, or having two (or more)
people facilitate a meeting, is recommended. Having a woman and a man share the
responsibilities encourages a more balanced meeting. Also, an inexperienced
facilitator may apprentice with a more experienced one. Try to use a variety of
techniques throughout the meeting. And remember, a little bit of humor can go a
long way in easing tension during a long, difficult meeting.
Good facilitation is based upon the following principles:Facilitators accept responsibility for moving through the agenda
in the allotted time, guiding the process, and suggesting alternate or
additional techniques. In this sense, they do lead the group. However, they do
not give their personal opinions nor do they attempt to direct the content of
the discussion. If they want to participate, they must clearly relinquish the
role and speak as an individual. During a meeting, individuals are
responsible for expressing their own concerns and thoughts. Facilitators, on the
other hand, are responsible for addressing the needs of the group. They need to
be aware of the group dynamics and constantly evaluate whether the discussion is
flowing well. There may be a need for a change in the discussion technique. They
need to be diligent about the fair distribution of attention, being sure to
limit those who are speaking often and offering opportunities to those who are
not speaking much or at all. It follows that one person cannot simultaneously
give attention to the needs of the group and think about a personal response to
a given situation. Also, it is not appropriate for the facilitator to give a
particular point of view or dominate the discussion. This does not build trust,
especially in those who do not agree with the facilitator.
Clarity of ProcessThe facilitator is responsible for leading the
meeting openly so that everyone present is aware of the process and how to
participate. This means it is important to constantly review what just happened,
what is about to happen, and how it will happen. Every time a new discussion
technique is introduced, explain how it will work and what is to be
accomplished. This is both educational and helps new members participate more
Agenda ContractThe facilitator is responsible for honoring the agenda
contract. The facilitator keeps the questions and discussion focused on the
agenda item. Be gentle, but firm, because fairness dictates that each agenda
item gets only the time allotted. The agenda contract is made when the agenda is
reviewed and accepted. This agreement includes the items on the agenda, the
order in which they are considered, and the time allotted to each. Unless the
whole group agrees to change the agenda, the facilitator is obligated to keep
the contract. The decision to change the agenda must be a consensus, with little
or no discussion.
At the beginning of the meeting, the agenda is
presented to the whole group and reviewed, item by item. Any member can add an
item if it has been omitted. While every agenda suggestion must be included in
the agenda, it does not necessarily get as much time as the presenter wants.
Time ought to be divided fairly, with individuals recognizing the fairness of
old items generally getting more time than new items and urgent items getting
more time than items which can wait until the next meeting, etc. Also, review
the suggested presenters and time limits. If anything seems inappropriate or
unreasonable, adjustments may be made. Once the whole agenda has been reviewed
and consented to, the agenda becomes a contract. The facilitator is obligated to
follow the order and time limits. This encourages members to be on time to
Good WillAlways try to assume good will. Assume every statement and
action is sincerely intended to benefit the group. Assume that each member
understands the group's purpose and accepts the agenda as a contract.
Often, when we project our feelings and expectations onto others, we
influence their actions. If we treat others as though they are trying to get
attention, disrupt meetings, or pick fights, they will often fulfill our
expectations. A resolution to conflict is more likely to occur if we act as
though there will be one. This is especially true if someone is intentionally
trying to cause trouble or who is emotionally unhealthy. Do not attack the
person, but rather, assume good will and ask the person to explain to the group
how that person's statements or actions are in the best interest of the group.
It is also helpful to remember to separate the actor from the action. While the
behavior may be unacceptable, the person is not bad. Avoid accusing the
person of being the way they behave. Remember, no one has the
answer. The group's work is the search for the best and most creative process,
one which fosters a mutually satisfying resolution to any concern which may
PeacekeeperThe role of peacekeeper is most useful in large groups or
when very touchy, controversial topics are being discussed. A person who is
willing to remain somewhat aloof and is not personally invested in the content
of the discussion would be a good candidate for peacekeeper. This person is
selected without discussion by all present at the beginning of the meeting. If
no one wants this role, or if no one can be selected without objection, proceed
without one, recognizing that the facilitator's job will most likely be more
This task entails paying attention to the overall mood or
tone of the meeting. When tensions increase dramatically and angers flare out of
control, the peacekeeper interrupts briefly to remind the group of its common
goals and commitment to cooperation. The most common way to accomplish this is a
call for a few moments of silence.
The peacekeeper is the only person
with prior permission to interrupt a speaker or speak without first being
recognized by the facilitator. Also, it is important to note that the
peacekeeper's comments are always directed at the whole group, never at one
individual or small group within the larger group. Keep comments short and to
The peacekeeper may always, of course, point out when the
group did something well. People always like to be acknowledged for positive
AdvocateLike the peacekeeper, advocates are selected without discussion
at the beginning of the meeting. If, because of strong emotions, someone is
unable to be understood, the advocate is called upon to help. The advocate would
interrupt the meeting, and invite the individual to literally step outside the
meeting for some one-on-one discussion. An upset person can talk to someone with
whom they feel comfortable. This often helps them make clear what the concern is
and how it relates to the best interest of the group. Assume the individual is
acting in good faith. Assume the concern is in the best interest of the group.
While they are doing this, everyone else might take a short break, or continue
with other agenda items. When they return, the meeting (after completing the
current agenda item) hears from the advocate. The intent here is the
presentation of the concern by the advocate rather than the upset person so the
other group members might hear it without the emotional charge. This procedure
is a last resort, to be used only when emotions are out of control and the
person feels unable to successfully express an idea.
TimekeeperThe role of timekeeper is very useful in almost all meetings.
One is selected at the beginning of the meeting to assist the facilitator in
keeping within the time limits set in the agenda contract. The skill in keeping
time is the prevention of an unnecessary time pressure which might interfere
with the process. This can be accomplished by keeping everyone aware of the
status of time remaining during the discussion. Be sure to give ample warning
towards the end of the time limit so the group can start to bring the discussion
to a close or decide to rearrange the agenda to allow more time for the current
topic. There is nothing inherently wrong with going over time as long as
Public ScribeThe role of public scribe is simply the writing, on paper
or blackboard, of information for the whole group to see. This person primarily
assists the facilitator by taking a task which might otherwise distract the
facilitator and interfere with the overall flow of the meeting. This role is
particularly useful during brainstorms, reportbacks from small groups, or
whenever it would help the group for all to see written information.
NotetakerThe importance of a written record of the meetings cannot be
overstated. The written record, sometimes called notes or minutes, can help
settle disputes of memory or verify past decisions. Accessible notes allow
absent members to participate in ongoing work. Useful items to include in the
After each decision is made, it is
useful to have the notetaker read the notes aloud to ensure accuracy. At the end
of the meeting, it is also helpful to have the notetaker present to the group a
review of all decisions. In larger groups, it is often useful to have two
notetakers simultaneously, because everyone, no matter how skilled, hears
information and expresses it differently. Notetakers are responsible for making
sure the notes are recorded accurately, and are reproduced and distributed
according to the desires of the group (e.g., mailed to everyone, handed out at
the next meeting, filed, etc.).
- date and attendance
- brief notes (highlights, statistics...)
- verbatim notes
- proposals (with revisions)
- decisions (with concerns listed)
- next meeting time and place
- evaluation comments
DoorkeeperDoorkeepers are selected in advance of the meeting and need
to arrive early enough to familiarize themselves with the physical layout of the
space and to receive any last minute instructions from the facilitator. They
need to be prepared to miss the first half hour of the meeting. Prior to the
start of the meeting, the doorkeeper welcomes people, distributes any literature
connected to the business of the meeting, and informs them of any pertinent
information (the meeting will start fifteen minutes late, the bathrooms are not
wheelchair accessible, etc.).
A doorkeeper is useful, especially if
people tend to be late. When the meeting begins, they continue to be available
for latecomers. They might briefly explain what has happened so far and where
the meeting is currently on the agenda. The doorkeeper might suggest to the
latecomers that they refrain from participating in the current agenda item and
wait until the next item before participating. This avoids wasting time,
repeating discussion, or addressing already resolved concerns. Of course, this
is not a rigid rule. Use discretion and be respectful of the group's time.
Experience has shown this role to be far more useful than it might at
first appear, so experiment with it and discover if meetings can become more
pleasant and productive because of the friendship and care which is expressed
through the simple act of greeting people as they arrive at the meeting.
Facilitation TechniquesThere are a great many techniques to assist the
facilitator in managing the agenda and group dynamics. The following are just a
few of the more common and frequently used techniques available to the
facilitator. Be creative and adaptive. Different situations require different
techniques. With experience will come an understanding of how they affect group
dynamics and when is the best time to use them.
Equalizing ParticipationThe facilitator is responsible for the fair
distribution of attention during meetings. Facilitators call the attention of
the group to one speaker at a time. The grammar school method is the most common
technique for choosing the next speaker. The facilitator recognizes each person
in the order in which hands are raised. Often, inequities occur because the
attention is dominated by an individual or class of individuals. This can occur
because of socialized behavioral problems such as racism, sexism, or the like,
or internal dynamics such as experience, seniority, fear, shyness, disrespect,
ignorance of the process, etc. Inequities can be corrected in many creative
ways. For example, if men are speaking more often than women, the facilitator
can suggest a pause after each speaker, the women counting to five before
speaking, the men counting to ten. In controversial situations, the facilitator
can request that three speakers speak for the proposal, and three speak against
it. If the group would like to avoid having the facilitator select who speaks
next, the group can self-select by asking the last speaker to pass an object, a
talking stick, to the next. Even more challenging, have each speaker stand
before speaking, and begin when there is only one person standing. These are
only a handful of the many possible problems and solutions that exist. Be
creative. Invent your own.
ListingTo help the discussion flow more smoothly, those who want to
speak can silently signal the facilitator, who would add the person's name to a
list of those wishing to speak, and call on them in that order.
Stacking If many people want to speak at the same time, it is useful to
ask all those who would like to speak to raise their hands. Have them count off,
and then have them speak in that order. At the end of the stack, the facilitator
might call for another stack or try another technique.
PacingThe pace or flow of the meeting is the responsibility of the
facilitator. If the atmosphere starts to become tense, choose techniques which
encourage balance and cooperation. If the meeting is going slowly and people are
becoming restless, suggest a stretch or rearrange the agenda.
Checking the ProcessIf the flow of the meeting is breaking down or if
one person or small group seems to be dominating, anyone can call into question
the technique being used and suggest an alternative.
SilenceIf the pace is too fast, if energies and tensions are high, if
people are speaking out of turn or interrupting one another, it is appropriate
for anyone to suggest a moment of silence to calm and refocus energy.
Taking a BreakIn the heat of discussion, people are usually resistant
to interrupting the flow to take a break, but a wise facilitator knows, more
often than not, that a five minute break will save a frustrating half hour or
more of circular discussion and fruitless debate.
Call For ConsensusThe facilitator, or any member recognized to speak by
the facilitator, can call for a test for consensus. To do this, the facilitator
asks if there are any unresolved concerns which remain unaddressed. (See page
SummarizingThe facilitator might choose to focus what has been said by
summarizing. The summary might be made by the facilitator, the notetaker, or
anyone else appropriate. This preempts a common problem, in which the discussion
becomes circular, and one after another, speakers repeat each other.
Reformulating the ProposalAfter a long discussion, it sometimes happens
that the proposal becomes modified without any formal decision. The facilitator
needs to recognize this and take time to reformulate the proposal with the new
information, modifications, or deletions. Then the proposal is presented to the
group so that everyone can be clear about what is being considered. Again, this
might be done by the facilitator, the notetaker, or anyone else.
Stepping out of RoleIf the facilitator wants to become involved in the
discussion or has strong feelings about a particular agenda item, the
facilitator can step out of the role and participate in the discussion, allowing
another member to facilitate during that time.
Passing the ClipboardSometimes information needs to be collected during
the meeting. To save time, circulate a clipboard to collect this information.
Once collected, it can be entered into the written record and/or presented to
the group by the facilitator.
Polling (Straw Polls)The usefulness of polling within consensus is
primarily clarification of the relative importance of several issues. It is an
especially useful technique when the facilitator is confused or uncertain about
the status of a proposal and wants some clarity to be able to suggest what might
be the next process technique. Polls are not decisions, they are non-binding
referenda. All too often, straw polls are used when the issues are completely
clear and the majority wants to intimidate the minority into submission by
showing overwhelming support rather than to discuss the issues and resolve the
concerns. Clear and simple questions are best. Polls that involve three or more
choices can be especially manipulative. Use with discretion.
Censoring(This technique and the next are somewhat different from the
others. They may not be appropriate for some groups.) If someone speaks out of
turn consistently, the facilitator warns the individual at least twice that if
the interruptions do not stop, the facilitator will declare that person
censored. This means the person will not be permitted to speak for the rest of
this agenda item. If the interrupting behavior has been exhibited over several
agenda items, then the censoring could be for a longer period of time. This
technique is meant to be used at the discretion of the facilitator. If the
facilitator censors someone and others in the meeting voice disapproval, it is
better for the facilitator to step down from the role and let someone else
facilitate, rather than get into a discussion about the ability and judgement of
the facilitator. The rationale is the disruptive behavior makes facilitation
very difficult, is disrespectful and, since it is assumed that everyone observed
the behavior, the voicing of disapproval about a censoring indicates lack of
confidence in the facilitation rather than support for the disruptive behavior.
ExpulsionIf an individual still acts very disruptively, the facilitator
may confront the behavior. Ask the person to explain the reasons for this
behavior, how it is in the best interest of the group, how it relates to the
group's purpose, and how it is in keeping with the goals and principles. If the
person is unable to answer these questions or if the answers indicate
disagreement with the common purpose, then the facilitator can ask the
individual to withdraw from the meeting.
Group Discussion TechniquesIt is often assumed that the best form of
group discussion is that which has one person at a time speak to the whole
group. This is true for some discussions. But, sometimes, other techniques of
group discussion can be more productive and efficient than whole group
discussion. The following are some of the more common and frequently used
techniques. These could be suggested by anyone at the meeting. Therefore, it is
a good idea if everyone is familiar with these techniques. Again, be creative
and adaptive. Different situations require different techniques. Only experience
reveals how each one affects group dynamics or the best time to use it.
IdentificationIt is good to address each other by name. One way to
learn names is to draw a seating plan, and as people go around and introduce
themselves, write their names on it. Later, refer to the plan and address people
by their names. In large groups, name tags can be helpful. Also, when people
speak, it is useful for them to identify themselves so all can gradually learn
each others' names.
Whole GroupThe value of whole group discussion is the evolution of a
group idea. A group idea is not simply the sum of individual ideas, but the
result of the interaction of ideas during discussion. Whole group discussion can
be unstructured and productive. It can also be very structured, using various
facilitation techniques to focus it. Often, whole group discussion does not
produce maximum participation or a diversity of ideas. During whole group
discussion, fewer people get to speak, and, at times, the attitude of the group
can be dominated by an idea, a mood, or a handful of people.
Small GroupBreaking into smaller groups can be very useful. These small
groups can be diads or triads or even larger. They can be selected randomly or
self-selected. If used well, in a relatively short amount of time all
participants have the opportunity to share their own point of view. Be sure to
set clear time limits and select a notetaker for each group. When the larger
group reconvenes, the notetakers relate the major points and concerns of their
group. Sometimes, notetakers can be requested to add only new ideas or concerns
and not repeat something already covered in another report. It is also helpful
for the scribe to write these reports so all can see the cumulative result and
be sure every idea and concern gets on the list.
BrainstormingThis is a very useful technique when ideas need to be
solicited from the whole group. The normal rule of waiting to speak until the
facilitator recognizes you is suspended and everyone is encouraged to call out
ideas to be written by the scribe for all to see. It is helpful if the
atmosphere created is one in which all ideas, no matter how unusual or
incomplete, are appropriate and welcomed. This is a situation in which
suggestions can be used as catalysts, with ideas building one upon the next,
generating very creative possibilities. Avoid evaluating each other's ideas
during this time.
Go-roundsThis is a simple technique that encourages participation. The
facilitator states a question and then goes around the room inviting everyone to
answer briefly. This is not an open discussion. This is an opportunity to
individually respond to specific questions, not to comment on each other's
responses or make unrelated remarks.
FishbowlThe fishbowl is a special form of small group discussion.
Several members representing differing points of view meet in an inner circle to
discuss the issue while everyone else forms an outer circle and listens. At the
end of a predetermined time, the whole group reconvenes and evaluates the
fishbowl discussion. An interesting variation: first, put all the men in the
fishbowl, then all the women, and they discuss the same topics.
Active ListeningIf the group is having a hard time understanding a
point of view, someone might help by active listening. Listen to the speaker,
then repeat back what was heard and ask the speaker if this accurately reflects
what was meant.
CaucusingA caucus might be useful to help a multifaceted conflict
become clearer by unifying similar perspectives or defining specific points of
departure without the focus of the whole group. It might be that only some
people attend a caucus, or it might be that all are expected to participate in a
caucus. The difference between caucuses and small groups is that caucuses are
composed of people with similar viewpoints, whereas small group discussions are
more useful if they are made up of people with diverse viewpoints or even a
random selection of people.
agenda contractThe agenda contract is made when the agenda is reviewed
and accepted. This agreement includes the items on the agenda, the order in
which they are considered, and the time allotted to each. Unless the whole group
agrees to change the agenda, the facilitator is obligated to keep to the
contract. The decision to change the agenda must be a consensus, with little or
agreementComplete agreement, with no unresolved concerns.
blockIf the allotted agenda time has been spent trying to achieve
consensus, and unresolved legitimate concerns remain, the proposal may be
considered blocked, or not able to be adopted at this meeting.
concernA point of departure or disagreement with a proposal.
conflictThe expression of disagreement, which brings into focus diverse
viewpoints, and provides the opportunity to explore their strengths and
consensusA decisionmaking process whereby decisions are reached when
all members present consent to a proposal. This process does not assume everyone
must be in complete agreement. When differences remain after discussion,
individuals can agree to disagree, that is, give their consent by standing
aside, and allow the proposal to be accepted by the group.
consentAcceptance of the proposal, not necessarily agreement.
Individuals are responsible for expressing their ideas, concerns and objections.
Silence, in response to a call for consensus, signifies consent. Silence is not
complete agreement; it is acceptance of the proposal.
decisionThe end product of an idea that started as a proposal and
evolved to become a plan of action accepted by the whole group.
evaluationA group analysis at the end of a meeting about interpersonal
dynamics during decisionmaking. This is a time to allow feelings to be
expressed, with the goal of improving the functioning of future meetings. It is
not a discussion or debate, nor should anyone comment on another's evaluation.
meetingAn occasion in which people come together and, in an orderly
way, make decisions.
methods of decisionmakingone person makes the decisions
oligarchya few people make the decisions for everyone
representative democracya few people are elected to make the decisions
for everyone majority rule democracy the majority makes the decisions for
consensuseveryone makes the decisions for everyone
proposalA written plan that some members of a group present to the
whole group for discussion and acceptance.
stand asideTo agree to disagree, to be willing to let a proposal be
adopted despite unresolved concerns.
a manual for group facilitatorsBrian Auvine, Betsy Densmore, Mary
Scott Poole, Michel Shanklin
The Center for Confict Resolution:
731 State Street, Madison, WI 53703
A Manual on Nonviolence and ChildrenStephanie Judson
of the Religious Society of Friends
Peace Committee, Philadelphia
Society Publishers: 1977
4722 Baltimore Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19143
Beyond Majority RuleMichael J. Sheeran
Philadelphia Yearly Meeting
Religious Society of Friends: 1983
1515 Cherry Street,
Philadelphia, PA 19102
Building United JudgmentBrian Auvine, Michel Avery,
A Handbook for Consensus Decision
Barbara Streibel, Lonnie Weiss
Center for Confict Resolution: 1981
731 State Street, Madison, WI 53703
Civil Disobedience: Theory and PracticeHugo A. Bedau
New York, NY
Clearness: Processes for Supporting Individuals &Peter Woodrow
New Society Publishers: 1977, 1984
Baltimore Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19143
In Place of WarAmerican Friends Service Committee
Meeting Facilitation: The No Magic Method
4722 Baltimore Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19143
More Power Than We KnowDave
The People's Movement Toward Democracy
Anchor Press/Doubleday: 1976
Garden City, NY
No Bosses Here!Karen Brandow, Jim McDonnell, and
a manual on working
collectively and cooperatively
Vocations for Social
Alyson Publications 1981
P.O. Box 2783 Boston, MA
Vocations for Social Change
PO Box 211, Essex Station, Boston, MA
Nonviolence In AmericaStaughton Lynd,
A Documentary History
Bobbs-Merrill, NY: 1966
Nonviolent Direct ActionA. Paul Hare and Herbert H. Blumberg
Nonviolent ResistanceMohandas Ghandi
New York, NY
Peace & PowerCharlene Eldridge Wheeler, Peggy L. Chinn
People With PeopleJohn D.
A Compendium of Group Process Theories
PO Box 196, Jamestown, RI 02835
Resource Manual for a Living RevolutionVirginia Coover, Ellen Deacon,
A Handbook of Skills and Tools
for Social Change Activists
New Society Publishers: 1985
4722 Baltimore Ave.,
Philadelphia, PA 19143
The Politics of Nonviolent ActionGene Sharp
War Resisters League Organizer's ManualEdited by Ed Hedemann
Resisters League: 1981
339 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012
We Cannot Live Without Our LivesBarbara Deming
(these numbers refer to pages in the printed version of On Conflict and
Consensus)active listening 56
active participation 25
agenda 11, 17, 19, 31, 34, 37-39, 40, 42, 45-47, 49, 52-53
contract 17, 20, 42-43, 45
agenda planner 37, 39
block 17, 20,
blocking concern 29, 30
brainstorming 14, 55
break 38, 40, 45,
checking the process 51
questions 12, 15
clarity of process 42
commitment 2, 21-22, 25,
cooperation 2, 5, 8, 22, 24, 27-28, 32, 44, 50
decisionmaking 1-3, 5,
7-9, 21, 23, 26-27, 41
disrespect 32, 49, 53
equal access to power 5, 26
evaluation 20, 31-34, 38, 40, 46
facilitator 11-17, 19,
28, 32-33, 37, 39-41-47, 49-56
facilitation techniques 49
good will 8, 25, 43
group discussion techniques 10, 15,
19, 39, 54
introduction 10-11, 38, 40
meeting 2, 6, 11, 17, 19-20, 29, 31-56
notetaker 14, 40, 46
participation 2-3, 5, 9, 25, 27, 34,
37, 49, 55-56
passing the clipboard 52
patience 7, 25-26
power 2, 5, 17, 23, 26, 29
reformulating the proposal 52
respect 3, 5, 22, 23,
25-27, 30, 32, 46, 49, 53
role 6, 19, 27, 32, 34, 37-48, 52-53
small group 7, 44, 46, 51, 55
social prejudice 27
standard agenda 40
stand aside 16, 29-30,
stepping out of role
structure 2-3, 6, 9-10-11, 26-27, 31, 39, 55
techniques 3, 6, 10-11, 15, 19, 34, 38-39, 41, 49-56
unity of purpose 19, 23
whole group 5-6, 13, 16-17, 24, 28, 42, 44, 46,
Front Matter from the Printed BookC.T. wrote the first edition of this
book for the Pledge of Resistance in Boston when it had over 3500 signers and
150 affnity groups. All policy decisions for the organization were made at
monthly spokesmeetings, involving at least one spokesperson from each affnity
group. Members from the coordinating committee were charged with managing daily
affairs. Spokesmeetings were often attended by over one hundred people; they
were usually seventy strong. For almost two years the process of consensus
worked well for the Pledge, empowering very large numbers of people to engage
confdently in nonviolent direct action. The forerunner of the model of consensus
outlined in this book was used throughout this period at spokesmeetings and,
particularly well, at the weekly coordinators meetings. However, it was never
systematically defned and written down or formally adopted.
For over two
years, C.T. attended monthly spokesmeetings, weekly coordinating meetings, and
uncounted committee meetings. He saw the need to develop a consistent way to
introduce new members to consensus. At frst, he looked for existing literature
to aid in conducting workshops on the consensus process. He was unable to fnd
any suitable material, so he set out to develop his own.
The frst edition of
this book is the result of a year of research into consensus in general and the
Pledge process in particular. It was mostly distributed to individuals who
belonged to various groups already struggling to use some form of consensus
process. The fourth printing included an introduction which added the concept of
secular consensus. The secular label distinguishes this model of consensus from
both the more traditional model found in faith-based communities and the rather
informal consensus commonly found in progressive groups.
label of secular consensus gave the impression that we were denying any
connection with spirituality. We wanted to clearly indicate that the model of
consensus we were proposing was distinct, but we did not want to exclude the
valuable work of faith-based communities.
Therefore, since the sixth printing
we have used the name Formal Consensus because it adequately defnes this
distinction. We hope that Formal Consensus will continue to be an important
contribution to the search for an effective, more unifying, democratic
Formal Consensus is a specifc kind of decisionmaking.
It must be defned by the group using it. It provides a foundation, structure,
and collection of techniques for effcient and productive group discussions. The
foundation is the commonly-held principles and decisions which created the group
originally. The structure is predetermined, although fexible. The agenda is
formal and extremely important. The roles, techniques, and skills necessary for
smooth operation must be accessible to and developed in all members. Evaluation
of the process must happen on a consistent and frequent basis, as a tool for
self-education and self-management. Above all, Formal Consensus must be taught.
It is unreasonable to expect people to be familiar with this process already. In
general, cooperative nonviolent confict resolution does not exist in modern
North American society. These skills must be developed in what is primarily a
competitive environment. Only time will tell if, in fact, this model will
fourish and prove itself effective and worthwhile.
We are now convinced more
than ever that the model presented in this book is profoundly signifcant for the
future of our species. We must learn to live together cooperatively, resolving
our conficts nonviolently and making our decisions consensually. We must learn
to value diversity and respect all life, not just on a physical level, but
emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. We are all in this
-- C.T. Butler and Amy Rothstein
-- August 1991
Food Not Bombs Publishing (c) C.T. Butler, 1987.
295 Forest Avenue
Portland, ME 04101
This internet version is free. You may copy it to other computers, and
you may print it.
If you'd prefer a pretty printed book with a binding
that lays flat for use during meetings, or if you'd like to arrange a workshop
or consultation, contact C.T. The book costs $15 US, including postage.
you need a freelance typographer and page production artist, contact Amy.
C.T. Butler's email: email@example.com
Amy Rothstein's email: