What is consensus?
Consensus is a decision-making process that works creatively to include all persons making the decision. Instead of simply voting for an item, and having the majority of the group getting their way, the group is committed to finding solutions that everyone can live with. This ensures that everyone’s opinions, ideas and reservations are taken into account. But consensus is more than just a compromise. It is a process that can result in surprising and creative solutions – often better than the original suggestions.
Consensus can work in all types of settings: small groups of activists, local communities, businesses, even whole nations and territories. The Zapatista movement in lower Mexico (Oaxaca and Chiapas) answers to a public control called “la consulta”. This group of all men, women and children age 12 and over, meets in local meetings where discussion is held and all the members make the final decision.
Within a small group of up to 20 people consensus tends to be more simple, as everyone can get to know each other and reach a mutual understanding of backgrounds, values and viewpoints.
For larger groups different processes have been developed, such as splitting into smaller units for discussion and decision-making with constant exchange and feedback between the different units.
What’s wrong with majority voting?
Many of us have been brought up in a culture which believes that the western-style system with one-person-one-vote and elected leaders is the supreme form of democracy. Yet in the very nations which shout loudest about the virtues of democracy, many people don’t even bother voting anymore, because they feel that it doesn’t make any difference to their lives.
When people vote for an executive they also hand over their power to make decisions and to effect change. This goes hand in hand with creating a majority and a minority, with the minority often feeling deeply unhappy with the outcome.
People in a majority rule system don’t need to listen to the dissenting minority, or take their opinion seriously because they can simply outvote them. Majority rule systems say that the majority is infallible and they have nothing to learn from the minority.
This creates a situation where there are winners and losers and promotes an aggressive culture and conflict, and lends itself to steam rolling an idea over a minority that dissents with the majority opinion. The will of the majority is seen as the will of the whole group, with the minority expected to accept and carry out the decision, even if it is against their most deeply held convictions and principles. A vivid example is the imprisonment of conscientious objectors against military service in democratic countries such as Germany.
Why use consensus?
In contrast to majority voting consensus decision-making is about finding common ground and solutions that are acceptable to all. Decisions are reached in a dialogue between equals, who take each other seriously and who recognise each other’s equal rights.
People are often inactive because they feel that they have no power in the system and that their voice won’t be listened to anyway. In consensus every person has the power to make changes in the system, and to prevent changes that they find unacceptable. The right to veto a decision means that minorities cannot just be ignored, but creative solutions will have to be found to deal with their concerns.
Another benefit of consensus is that all members agree to the final decision and therefore are much more committed to actually turning this decision into reality.
Consensus is about participation and equalising power. It can also be a very powerful process for building communities and empowering individuals.
For groups of more than 15-20 people it is advisable to split into sub groups for meaningful discussion. For a detailed discussion of possible processes have a look at the Seeds for Change briefing Consensus in Large Groups. www.seedsforchange.org.uk
Consensus is about participation and equalising power. It can also be a very powerful process for building communities and empowering individuals. Don’t be discouraged if the going gets rough. For most of us consensus is a completely new way of making decisions. It takes time to unlearn the patterns of behaviour we have been brought up to accept as the norm. Consensus does get easier with practice and it’s definitely worth giving it a good try.