Summary Notes on
Consensus Decision-making

by Susan Davidson (adapted from work by Caroline Estes)
Nov 1996

Assumptions:  Consensus is based on the following beliefs:

  • that each person has some part of the truth and that no one has all of it
  • that groups make better decisions than individuals
  • that majority rule leads to winners and losers
  • that consensus creates solutions where everyone wins

Consensus is an appropriate tool and will work effectively only if:

  • there is a group of people willing to work together,
  • the issues at hand require decisions by that group,
  • there is trust that a solution is possible and
  • there is sufficient perseverance to find the “truth.”

All participants should come to meetings with clear and "unmade-up" minds.
Prework should be done, but thinking must remain open throughout discussion to facilitate coming to the full “truth.”

Procedure and Roles

Problem/agenda is stated in clear simple language usually prepared by the facilitator and
approved by participants at start of each meeting.

Facilitator is the servant of the group, not the leader.

  • Patience, intuition, articulateness, humour, and the ability to think on one's feet are all good skills to develop and use.
  • All members are encouraged to be heard.  Speakers' lists are helpful in large groups and in stressful situations.
  • All ideas that seem to be part of the "truth" are incorporated.
  • The facilitator states and restates positions until final agreement is reached.

Scribe records each meeting including:

  • names of each participant
  • minutes, "the sense of the meeting"
  • especially all decisions reached, including any actions planned and who will implement them
  • circulates copies to participants
  • Minutes must be approved by the group, preferably at the beginning of the next meeting; otherwise they remain one person's description of what happened.

Conflicts are opportunities to proceed to better solutions. Beware of solutions that are too easy!
If one or two disagree with a proposal, there are at least four options:

  • "Stepping aside" or “abstaining” - a person may neither favour the decision nor consider it a wrong one, and therefore be willing to have it go forward without their approval. This is not a license for a future "I told you so" position if the decision proves unsuccessful.
  • "Laying aside the issue" - tabling the topic until some designated future time when it will be readdressed, ideally with participants having given further thought to the issue.
  • "Blocking" - a person may feel strongly that the proposal is a wrong one and oppose it.  Blocking stops the group’s decision on this proposal. It is done from a place of highest understanding and belief, without self-interest, bias or vengeance.  There is no group pressure to conform. The person blocking agrees to work further with two or three others outside the meeting toward forming a new proposal.
  • "Graceful distancing" - if a person is consistently at odds with the group, they  review their own goals and the group's goals. If there is no longer compatibility, it is time for that person to withdraw in a manner that causes the least possible disruption to the group.



Last Modified: September 23, 2014