Conceptualizing Consensus

Decision Making at Greyrock

Conceptualizing Consensus

Consensus decision making is a way for groups of people to arrive at solutions which work for all members of the group. Historically, consensus dates back to early tribal humans, notably used among Native Americans and practiced for the last 350 years by the society of Friends (a.k.a. the Quakers).

Essence of Consensus

Consensus decision making recognizes that all members of a group are equal in their ability to bring a piece of truth to the decision-making process. It attempts to make room for all voices on an issue, valuing the experience, knowledge, and perspective of each person. The group arrives at solutions and decisions which reflect the input of all interested members. It avoids majority rule where voting disempowers minority viewpoints. At Greyrock Commons, consensus decisions affecting the community are made at community meetings which are generally held once per month. Broad participation by community members in the monthly meetings enlivens and strengthens the consensus process. Thus, community members are encouraged to participate.

Unity versus Unanimity

Consensus strives for unity of opinion, rather than a unanimous opinion. Unity means that everyone in the group agrees with the essence of a decision or can support its implementation as generally sustaining the group's livelihood. A unanimous decision, however, implies a complete agreement on every last word of a decision.

Contrasted with Robert's Rules of Order

Under Robert's Rules of Order, a proposal is put forward from the very beginning, discussion is limited to the specifics of the topic, amendments may be proposed, and majority votes are taken on the amendments and then the final proposal. Under consensus, an idea is put forward at the beginning, input of a broad nature is sought from the whole group, and a proposal is gradually molded by discussion until unity is achieved. A final consensus decisions is then made based on significant group input.

Elements of Consensus

Members of a community based on consensus decision making are expected to actively participate in the life of the group's decisions and hold the welfare of the group in their hearts. They strive to balance their individual needs with what is best for the larger group. Consensus decision making requires group members to TRUST each other, the process, and the synergy or collective wisdom of the community. Consensus builds cooperation and belonging between those participating in community.

After an issue has been fully discussed, alternative options considered, and the group is feeling strong agreement, someone in the group may call for consensus. This is a key decision point. A member of the group or the facilitator will summarize the issue and the key elements of the decision. Then a poll for consensus is completed. At this point, group members can exercise one of three options:

  1. agree (indicated with a thumbs up)
  2. disagree or "block" (indicated with a thumbs down- see implications below); or
  3. stand aside (indicated with a sideways thumb meaning disagreement with the decision based on personal values – again see implications below)

Blocking or "standing in the way of…."

A single member of the group can block or stand in the way of a decision. This is a powerful act that is reserved for those rare times when a person believes the decision will likely bring significant harm to the group or community. Blocking is not appropriate when an individual personally disagrees with the decision and feels it will negatively affect him or her. When someone blocks a decision, it means the person believes she or he has great wisdom or insight related to the overall ramifications of the decision, OR the person sees an important aspect of the decision that others have overlooked. Thus one person can stop a decision by the group. When the reasons for the block are understood by the group, a better consensus decision is often reached. It is expected that the person blocking a decision has significant investment and wisdom and will actively work towards a better decision. To prevent blocks, input from members is needed early and often in the process. The Quakers estimate that one person has about six blocks in a lifetime of living in community.

Standing or Stepping Aside

Members of a group may elect to stand aside during a decision when they cannot personally support it but see no irreparable harm coming to the group if the decision is made. A "stand aside" is appropriate when there is no need to protect the group from its own decisions.

When someone stands aside, he or she is not held responsible for implementing the decision. Those standing aside should be mentioned in the minutes of the meeting along with their reasons for disagreement. By honoring and providing room for disagreement, it is hoped that negative gossiping, complaining, and resistance do not subsequently occur. If several people stand aside, it may indicate that the present decision is not fully formed in some important way. It is best to continue discussion to address the concerns before moving ahead with a decision. Decisions made without extensive community support will be hard to implement.