© 1998, Beth Schmitz

You enter the meeting room filled with people. The agenda lists The Big Decision. You feel the energy and excitement pulsing from person to person. You are exhilarated and scared — exhilarated because these people can move mountains; scared because it seems impossible to get them pushing in the same direction. The challenge of making a good decision that everyone supports seems insurmountable.

My ideas about group decisions received a radical adjustment recently. I learned the power of consensus. Our group consisted of about twenty people. Its very existence was at stake. We passionately wanted the group to continue. Each of us had ideas about what this meant and how it should be implemented. Consensus in this group seemed an impossible dream. Yet, if we could not agree on a plan, our group might die.

Our meeting spread over two sessions totaling close to eight hours. As I write this down, I’m thinking, “Phew, that’s a long time!” But as I look back over what we accomplished, I continue to be amazed at our success. In this time, we voted on a structure for our community. We defined the roles and responsibilities of those people filling that structure. We came up with procedures for selecting these people as well as procedures for ratifying their selection.

We began our meeting by determining the level of safety within the group [see below — Safety in Groups]. We chose a facilitator to maintain the queue of people whose hand was raised for comment. The facilitator ensured that each person could speak without interruption. A second person stood at the flip chart recording issues. The discussion was charged but controlled. Everyone knew they would get their chance to contribute and (for the most part!) waited their turn.

At times, someone would wonder out loud, “Why can’t we just vote, and move on?” It takes patience to implement consensus decision-making. I struggle against my own tendency to wrap-up decisions sooner rather than later. Discussion essential to consensus can seem unbearably lengthy and unnecessary, especially near the end of the process when people begin to iterate each other’s sentiments. Listen to these comments: there is an implicit vote contained in their message. This discussion is critical to the process. Each person must own the process in order to own the decision. Restating the common thread is a way of adding their personal touch to the decision and taking ownership. It is this ownership that makes consensus work.

The process of achieving consensus is neither painless nor particularly quick. Our meeting time could have been cut in half using majority vote instead of consensus. Consider this: people absorb information at different rates. Some of us pick up the meaning quickly, and some of us just think we do. Some of us spend more time with the information and find ourselves excluded from the majority decision-making process because of the speed at which it proceeds. More than once, a single dissenting opinion opened the floor for further discussion. Each time, we uncovered ambiguities, omissions, and errors easily corrected once found. These might have gone undiscovered had we used majority decision-making.

Of course, consensus would have been achieved regardless of the decision outcome — something I call “passive consensus.” Any dissenting votes would likely remove themselves from our community — a terrible loss to the community given the caliber of the individuals. Even sadder, dissenting votes could have prevented the community existing at all — so again, we lose. The community could continue its current status quo, meeting each year and discussing the same issues until people wear down and join the majority opinion or choose not to come at all. Again, we lose.

Passive consensus happens in organizations, too, when issues are brought to closure before everyone has opportunity to contribute to the decision. People remove themselves from the process by changing projects or changing companies. They rebel against the decision by refusing to comply. Some groups never reach a decision, going ’round and ’round on issues until people drop of exhaustion.

There are times when it seems majority vote may be the only way to resolve an issue. Striving for consensus opens a meeting for deadlock situations — when two (or more) groups emerge with unyielding support for different ideas. However, I caution not to assume deadlock too early in the process. Our meeting reached what a majority of the participants viewed as a deadlock. The two opposing opinions were deeply rooted in religion, experience, and personal values. Emotions ran so strong that proxy speakers were sometimes needed to explain a position. Discovering a common ground required explanation, discussion, description, and more discussion. It took time, but slowly, the two sides moved closer together and reached a point that both sides could support.

I believe that any group truly desiring resolution to a problem can achieve consensus. I have seen consensus work on seemingly impossible decisions in very diverse groups. These groups shared the common desire — to achieve a workable outcome. Consensus takes practice. It takes patience. It takes time. The payoff? Higher quality decisions with deeper commitment from the group.

Establishing Group Safety

All kinds of decisions are made by groups in meetings — which standards to support, which methods to use, which projects deserve funding. These meetings can become very emotional with factions competing for their piece of the pie.

In order to discuss difficult issues surrounding tough decisions, all members of the group must feel they can say what is important to them without censorship. Even though you are my boss’s boss, I must be able to state my opinion without repercussions, even if I disagree. Everyone must feel “safe.” Without safety the process suffers, and the decision suffers.

Here are three ideas for creating a safer environment for making decisions.

POLL THE GROUP. Give everyone a slip of paper on which to record his or her current level of safety on a scale of 1 to 10. Toss these into a hat, basket or box to protect anonymity. Record the results on a flip chart or board. If even one person is below the median, the group needs to discuss what makes the environment feel unsafe and establish guidelines for improving safety. Iterate until the group is satisfied that a sufficient level of safety exists to discuss the issues.

ESTABLISH GUIDELINES FOR SAFETY. Brainstorm a list of guidelines that the group will use for this meeting in order to maintain safety for all. It may be necessary to break the group into smaller groups to create these lists if the level of safety is too low. An example of items that might show up on this list:

– I can support the idea I most believe in.
– I am free to disagree, and state my reason.

– No idea is stupid.

LET EVERYONE BE HEARD. Everyone must feel that they are heard and can contribute. Keep a queue of people who want to speak. Follow it. Make sure everyone has a chance to state his or her ideas before any vote is taken.