We at the PRC are often asked about consensus: Why do we use it? How does it work? Doesn’t it take a lot of time? Can one person block the group?
The Peace Resource Center uses consensus to build shared decision-making. We saw it in action at the 2017 Annual PRC Membership Meeting in December.
Members selected a slate of 2018 board members while working through concerns about conflicts of interest that can happen when a board member is also on staff. We had a thorough discussion of the pros and cons, heard from different persectives, and consensed to sending this question back to the PRC Board, to clarify what the bylaws allow and what changes if any were needed.
It was one of the longest annual meetings in recent memory.
Consensus is an ancient art, practiced in many ways, and often associated with the decision-making practices of many aboriginal peoples. It is a process that includes all voices in the decision-making, especially those that tend to be silenced in simple majority voting approaches. One interesting perspective can be read here.
Consensus can get a bad rap, especially when it is used when it should not be used!
It is a conscious process that requires time for full communication and feedback, a committment to the process, and shared vision/goals among the group. And given our cultural norms of “time is money” here in the US, consensus can feel drawn out, lenthy. The time needed to build a shared understanding might be seen as antithetical to our culture of “efficiency” and “speed”.
Yet it is time that is the most essential ingredient for building peaceful solutions.
More about the PRC process of consensus, from the PRC Handbook:
Definition: Consensus is a cooperative process in which group members develop and agree to support a decision in the best interest of the whole.
Main reasons to use consensus as a decision-making method: 1. High quality decisions 2. Builds connection among members 3. More effective implementation
Cooperation is the basis for consensus (we all get more of what we want when we cooperate).
- Consensus is for people who are genuinely trying to work together, typically based on some shared interest, purpose or calling; OK if some interests are divergent, as long as sufficient joint interests are present
- Search together for the best solution for the group:
- it’s “us against the problem” we are trying to solve rather than “us against each other”. Recognize that no decision-making system gets everyone their first choice all the time.
- What is the (better) creative way to address all the needs present, rather than lowest common denominator?
Skills necessary for consensus are also necessary for good relationships.
- Consensus seeks to synthesize the wisdom of the group Unity (different from unanimous vote or everyone’s first choice)
- “Sense of the meeting”—essence is something you can support or are willing to let go forward, i can live with it “Everyone has a piece of the truth”
- Value all kinds of input (rational, emotional, kinesthetic, etc.)
- Consensus is a questioning process, more than an affirming process
- Goal is to thrash out an issue until a good solution is found, rather than make everyone feel good by a fast but fake agreement
- Encourages lifting everyone up to their highest potential, instead of knocking down your opponents
- Share, question, and learn from each other’s experience and thinking
Remember the spirit and process of the system are even more important than the structures
There is no substitute for being friends with each other A positive attitude will get you everywhere
Meetings should be fulfilling—if they’re not, then ask why, and change it!
What Helps It Work Well
• common purpose
• openness to ideas, feelings and experiences of others–> transformative experience, give & take
• trust (some degree)
• willingness to let go of some of your personal attachments in the best interest of the group
• focus on issues, not personalities—common ownership of ideas focus on interests, not positions, avoid agree/disagree; find reasons or needs behind the positions
• time—enough to work in depth; patience (but if strong common purpose may decide quickly)
• preparation: agenda planning, facilitator prep, bringing materials, etc.