Conceptualizing Consensus

Decision Making: Conceptualizing Consensus 

Consensus decision making is a way for groups of people to arrive at decisions and 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 have the ability to contribute. It attempts to make room for all voices on an issue and values the experience, knowledge, and perspective of each person.  Respectful listening by all is an important part of this facilitated process.  Using consensus avoids majority rule (voting) which can disempower minority or alternative viewpoints.  Broad participation by community members is essential for effective decision making. 

At Greyrock Commons, decisions affecting the community as a whole are made by consensus at community meetings which occur approximately six times per year.  Before a decision comes before the community,  it starts as an idea then moves though a process of initial input gathering,  proposal development and amendments, then ultimately a final consensus decision.   Some ideas never get to a final decision based on initial community input,  others gain the needed interest and traction and move forward.  

Unity versus Unanimity

Consensus strives for unity of opinion on a matter of community importance.  Rather than a unanimous opinion, unity means that the group can support the decision and believes it generally contributes to the community's wellbeing.    This does not mean that everyone agrees with all parts of the decision or would make the same decision on an individual basis.   

To check for unity,  each person asks themselves  "Can I live with this decision?"  AND  "If we go forward with this decision, will any harm come to the community?"  

Contrasted with Robert's Rules of Order 

Under Robert's Rules of Order, a proposal is put forward, discussion is limited to the specifics of the topic, amendments may be proposed, and majority votes are taken on the amendments and the final proposal.  With consensus, decisions start with an idea that is shared widely and input is sought from the larger group.  Based on input and level of interest, a proposal may be molded and shared.   Through discussion, proposal details are finalized.  When there appears to be unity, there is a call for consensus. 

Mechanics of Consensus

Members of a community that uses 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 is a facilitated process that requires group members to trust each other, the overall process, and the synergy or collective wisdom of the community. Consensus builds cooperation and belonging between those participating in the 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 unity poll is completed. At this point, group members express one of three options:

Standing 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, they are 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. A decision made without extensive community agreement will be hard to implement.


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 because of some self interest.  When someone blocks a decision, it means the person believes she or he has 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 decision is often reached. It is expected that the person blocking a decision will actively work with the group towards a better decision.  Just saying "no" is not helpful to the community's work. Blocks can be prevented by seeking member input early and often in the process. 

Examples of initial ideas and consensus decisions at Greyrock Commons  

What is a chicken moat? It's two parallel fences approximately four feet apart that surround the entire garden.  The narrow strip of land ("moat") between the fences serves as a "moat." The community chickens are put to work inside the moat where they "patrol" the garden perimeter all summer eating grasshoppers and other invading insects. Because deer won't jump a double fence, the moat also keeps deer outside the garden.