Consensus: what it means and how to achieve it - by Joe Mabel

Many organizations, especially anarchist and pacifist groups, reach decisions by consensus instead of by mere majority vote. Successful consensus groups can be wonderfully inclusive and egalitarian and can achieve a powerful synthesis of diverse views and strategies. On the other hand, many consensus groups fall into contention and inaction, or settle to a lowest common denominator.

This document provides an overview of consensus methods, but also tries to address:

This document is an informal set of notes from a series of workshops in the 1990s, the first several I conducted in conjunction with Jiro Ikeda Feingold in 1990-91. Most of these workshops were held within groups already operating by consensus methods and were intended in part to orient new members. Most of the workshops were 2-3 hours in duration.

This document is intended, above all, as an agenda for to facilitate similar workshops.


  1. Terms
  2. Procedure
  3. Trust, Respect, Responsibility
  4. Power, Manipulation, Deference
  5. For and against consensus as a method
  6. Alternatives to consensus
  7. Defining the boundaries of the consensus group
  8. Extending beyond the boundaries: liaison

1. Terms

Agreement. Either all parties are in favor, or nobody who opposes the decision chooses to block it. Everyone has had enough time to raise important issues and express opinons.
Person designated to go through the agenda and recognize speakers. This person typically cannot (unless allowed by the group) speak out on issues. A facilitator tries to keep the discussion on track, and arbitrates disputes. Some organizations use two facilitators simultaneously, with joint or distinct reponsibilities that may embrace those of a parliamentarian and a sergeant-at-arms of a Robert's-rules-type organization.
The issues listed to bring up during the meeting. Usually an agenda is made up before the meeting, but it can be added to while the meeting is in progress. An agenda helps keep an order to the discussion of topic, and gives everyone the chance to bring up important topics.
A minimum number of people needed to make a decision. For some organizations this may be a particular number (possibly varying for different types of decisions). For other organizations, quorum may be less formal.
When a vote is taken, any member may "block", effectively exercising veto. A block should not be made lightly. It typically means that the individual blocking feels that the proposal at hand goes against what the group stands for; at the very least, if individuals in nonetheless intend to pursue the course proposed, they will not be able to do so in the name of the group.
One-time block
If someone feels that an issue is being decided in haste, and that other members who are not present might feel strongly about an issue, a "one-time" block postpones the issue until the next meeting, where it will again be voted upon.
Stand aside
If someone does not agree with the rest of the group, but does not feel that a block would be appropriate, they can "stand aside". This lets the others know that you dissent from the decision, but does not prevent a majority from going ahead with a decision that is short of true unanimity.
Point of order
If discussion strays from an agenda item, or if an agenda item is skipped, or for other procedural issues, any participant can raise a "point of order". Raising a point of order should always result in immediate recognition by the facilitator.
Point of information
An interruption to give a clarification of fact. This should not be used to express an opinion, but if someone asks for or misstates a fact, this can be used to clarify an issue. A "point of information" should always be recognized immediately except during a point of order.
Point of personal privilege
If someone attributes an action or opinion to you that you feel is inaccurate, you can raise a "point of personal privilege". A point of personal privilege should always result in immediate recognition except during a point of order or a point of information.
Affinity group
A small group, typically 5-15 people, which operates internally by consensus methods and which may choose collectively to join or affiliate with a larger group or to participate in an action, maintaining its own internal decision-making process while also participating in the broader process.

2. Procedure

Discuss issues beforehand: it's often a good idea to talk to a few people before presenting your issue or proposal to the whole group. [Note, 2007]: These days, this beforehand discussion may take place in email, online chat, etc.

Make an agenda: at least an approximate agenda should be set beforehand, or as early as possible within a meeting. Even if detailed agenda items aren't known, you can always reserve time for "old business" and "new business".

Methods of choosing speakers:

"Speeches": If you want to talk more than about 2 minutes, then it is a good idea to:

Time constraints: Facilitator should always keep in mind how much business needs to be accomplished and how much time there is for this business.

Other means of conveying information: Not everything needs to be said in a general meeting. You can post information where interested parties will read it (an internal newsletter or website, for example), circulate copies of a document, talk to people in twos and threes, talk to a standing committee, or call a special focused meeting.

Take notes. At the very least, a secretary should keep track of basic minutes. Multiple, independent sets of notes are even better. It is usually wise for the first order of business of each meeting to be the circulation and approval of the written minutes of the previous meeting, giving an opportunity to correct any errors in the written record. Once consensus on an issue is reached, it should be publicized to members who could not attend the particular meeting. Ideally, detailed minutes are available promptly to any member who wants them.

Presence and attention: "You're either on the bus or off the bus." If you are participating in a meeting, pay attention. If you ask a question, stick around for the answer.

Leaving quietly: If you get tired, or must leave, or can't respect the facilitator, or don't give a damn about the topic, it's probably time to leave quietly, preferably between speakers.

3. Trust, Respect, Responsibility

Trust, respect, and responsibility are mutually reinforcing. In addition:

Honesty is a key to trust. If you tell the outside world the same story you tell one another, the only concern about an informer is that (s)he takes accurate notes.

Self-knowledge is essential. You cannot speak your mind unless you know your mind. You cannot speak your heart unless you know your heart.

Agreeing on goals first fosters agreement on means.

For ongoing groups, "heartsong circle" distinct from business meetings can be a valuable institution. There is no agenda and no facilitator. Speakers go in a circle. Anyone may talk about anything, and if there is a time limit it should not be particularly constraining, just enough to make sure that everyone gets a chance to speak. A "heartsong circle" need not reach consensus on any matter.

Delegation is the key to avoiding the infamous "consensus bottlenecks". A lot of tasks are best accomplished by a small number of individuals enjoying the group's trust.

Sometimes delegation is absolute and irrevocable: making a speech to another group, representing a groups at a particular coalition meeting, getting a document to the printer on time. At other times, delegation is impermanent or conditional: a spokesperson may later relinquish that status, the person who deals with food or medical supplies for a protest action may have entirely different duties another day, someone may be delegated to draft a document and bring it back to the group for discussion and consensus before publishing it in the group's name.

Until an organization has some working patterns and a good level of trust is established, it is often wise to stick to written statements agreed upon in consensus meetings as the only official statements from the group. Over time, there should be less and less need to hash out the precise words of statements in general meetings. Eventually, the group will probably get a sense of who can be trusted as spokespeople who know the group's range of agreement and can distinguish group consensus from their own opinions.

It is crucial that a spokesperson for a consensus group have a clear sense of the limitation of his or her mandate. A spokesperson must be clear asto when (s)he is speaking for the group and when (s)he is speaking only for him/herself. The limits of delegation should be explicit.

When a general meeting cannot hash out a consensus and must delegate to a smaller group to try to hash through the matter, it is sometimes useful to make sure that the committee to hash through the matter includes at least one articulate representative of each of the conflicting views brought forward in the general meeting. However, it is often useful not to have the most extreme representatives of these views on the temporary committee.

Dealing with disruption: This could merit an entire workshop of its own. It is particularly an issue in groups that have open meetings in public places, especially during ongoing actions run by consensus. How do we deal with people who want to change the agenda on the fly? How do we deal with a talkative drunk? A belligerent drunk? How do we resolve legitimate conflicts over ways of running a meeting, especially when these conflicts threaten to replace having the meeting.

4. Power, Manipulation, Deference

Equality and carrying your weight: these interact heavily, and form one of the most controversial issues about consensus methods. In theory, everyone is equal. In practive, as in Animal Farm, some are more equal than others.

Proudhon once wrote that "true anarchy can only occur when order arises spontaneously." Usually, order does not arise spontaneously, and there are tradeoffs to be made between an anarchist ideal and effectiveness. It is not always obvious which of the two should yield.

Usually, work is not shared equally. Some believe that voice in decisions should be independent of effort or effectiveness. Others believe that effort and effectiveness "earn you the right" to a greater voice. Although we may disagree as to how much effort each person put our or how effective they are, or even the extent to which effort and effectiveness earn you a voice, most would have a problem with a "hanger-on" blocking consensus.

In practice, these issues are seldom black-and-white. Hangers-on rarely have the determination over time to be serious obstacles to an effective consensus. If their opinion sways some more active member, then it is entirely legitimate for that more active member to carry on as an advocate.

In every group, there will be issues of power, manipulation, and deference. They may be subtle. They can rip a group to shreds. When they arise in a major way, they probably need to be dealt with before other business can usefully proceed. Your group will probably survive failing in any given external-world task, but failure to confront problems in your own power structure will either destroy the group or make some of you wish it had been destroyed.

It is very important that differences of age, cultural background, class, etc. be valued for the varied perspectives they may bring.

Racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, heterosexism, etc. are often subtle. If people feel that they have been a victim of one of these, then it is usually good to start from a working assumption that they are right, and it is usually good to address the matter before it becomes a festering sore. Caucuses of those who may find themselves victims of racism, sexism, etc. should be strongly encouraged. On the other hand, groups should be wary of attempting to balance past discrimination through future privilege. When the victims of discrimination get to the point of feeling the need for reparations rather than simply remediation, it is likely that there is no longer the basis for those on either side of the divide to work together through consensus methods, and that an effort to do so will lead to little more than mutual abuse and recriminations.

Often, ageism is particularly tricky. In one of the first workshops Jiro and I did on this topic, a 60-year-old man complained that young people deferred to him too much. "Age may breed wisdom, but it may also breed stupidity."

Racism, sexism, etc. are not merely prejudice. They are prejudice plus power. Normally, in the broader society, there is no doubt on which side the power falls. On the other hand, within an organization, the power imbalance may sometimes go the opposite way than in society as a whole. This may be poetic justice, but in practice, in a diverse group, it can be just as disruptive to group function as power imbalances in the usual direction. If an organization creates structures that do, indeed, empower its various members, the all of them are in a position for their prejudices to do damage, not only the prejudices of the externally powerful.

5.For and against consensus as a method

Consensus is a good tool for a cohesive group of people. It leads to great clarity and sometimes to discussion that is more valuable than an immediate decision. "Consensus leads to better learning."

On the other hand:

Much or our reticence about consensus methods may stem from electoral/parliamentary methods being more "entrenched in our social vocabulary," rather than those methods providing a more efficient way of reaching decisions. Majoritarianism is our normalcy. We expect no need to compromise once 51% can agree.

True consensus is not coerced and is not necessarily unanimity. Chomsky's derogatory phrase "engineering consensus" refers to the semblance of consensus achieved by marginalizing dissent and making it invisible. I contrast to that, a "consensus group" must show respect for a block by any individual, and standing aside must be respected as a valid possibility.

"One person can be right." A single Quaker — John Woolman — started the movement within the Quakers against slavery. He started out opposing a consensus.

Conversely, if you've got one knucklehead who wants to ruin everything…

6. Alternatives to consensus

Formal structure does not always coincide with actual function. For example, in practice, joint stock companies are not usually the shareholder democracies that they look like on paper. Some groups claim to be run by consensus, but are really dictatorships under a charismatic leader. Conversely, some groups have a very conventional organization chart, but actually operate by consensus or something like it.

7. Defining the boundaries of the consensus group

Some groups start from a clear self-definition. Others "build the road as they travel."

"Blocking a block": some groups require a certain degree of participation before someone acquires the right to block (possibly more than is required for the right to vote). Some groups require subscribing to certain existing consensus views (points of unity) in order to be welcome as a member.

A healthy consensus group, other than a deliberately small affinity group, should usually emphasize inclusiveness, but be ready to put work into orienting newcomers.

Affinity groups lead to better mutual knowledge. Their small size is critical. An affinity group that gets to big (past about 15 people) should probably try to split amicably into two or more affiliated affinity groups.

If one person repeatedly blocks on a range of different matters, perhaps that individual should not be working with this group. If he or she does not do so, perhaps he or she should be asked to leave.

It is sometime useful to form an ad hoc group within a larger group, which may function when the larger group cannot reach consensus. For example, if a large group cannot agree to endorse an action in which some members wish to participate, those members may wish to form an ad hoc group.

8. Extending beyond the boundaries: liaison

Good liaison work usually consists largely of extending key points of a group's consensus beyond the formal boundaries of the group. This requires doing one's best to understand the "agenda" of the group to whom one is liaising and to try to find points of agreement. Once you have established common ground, there is a lot better chance of achieving cooperation.

At the same time, whoever liases to another group with a somewhat different "agenda" may (intentionally or inadvertantly) find themselves with "one foot in each camp." Know where your primary loyalties lie. This is particularly important when (for example) liaising to a police department or other authorities.

Last modified: 23 February 2021

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