When not to use consensus (from a book by ‘Starhawk’ called ‘Truth or Dare’)
When there is no group in mind; A group thinking process cannot work effectively unless the group is cohesive enough to generate shared attitudes and perceptions. When deep divisions exist within a group’s bonding over their individual desires, consensus becomes an exercise in frustration; When there are no good choices; Consensus process can help a group find the best possible solution to a problem, but it is not an effective way to make either-or-choices between evils, for members will never be able to agree which is worse. If the group has to choose between being shot and hung, flip a coin. When a group gets bogged down trying to make a decision, stop for a moment and consider: Are we blocked because we are given an intolerable situation? Are we being given the illusion, but not the reality, of choice? Might our most empowering act be to refuse to participate in this farce? When they can see the whites of your eyes – In emergencies, in situations where urgent and immediate action is necessary, appointing a temporary leader may be the wisest course of action; When the issue is trivial – I have known groups to devote half an hour to trying to decide by consensus whether to spend forty minutes or a full hour at lunch. Remember consensus is a thinking process – where there is nothing to think about, flip a coin; When the group has insufficient information – When you’re lost in the hills, and no one knows the way home, you cannot figure out how to get there by consensus. Send out scouts. Ask: Do we have the information we need to have to solve this problem? Can we get it?
Common problems and how to overcome them
Consensus can be time consuming. Since it is a lengthier process to look at ideas until all objections are resolved, your group meetings may be longer and some decisions might regularly take more than a week to decide.
However consensus need not involve everyone at every stage of the process:
Get a small group, or even a pair, to go away and synthesise the discussions and brainstorms of the whole group into a few possible solutions to be discussed later by the whole group.
Split up the meeting to deal with several issues in parallel and come back with a platter of proposals. This can speed up the meeting threefold or more.
Not every decision needs to involve the whole group. Set up working groups on different areas, such as publicity, fund-raising, research. These sub-groups can then decide the nitty-gritty business that they are responsible for, within certain limits that the group has defined beforehand.
Time pressure to find a solution to an urgent problem leads to stress and group pressure to get on with it.
Try to make sure enough time is allowed in the agenda to tackle all issues adequately.
Prioritise which decisions need to be taken there and then and which ones can wait a while.
You could also try to find a temporary solution.
Overuse / under-use / misuse of the right to veto
Actively participating in groups can be hard enough, and using a veto more so, particularly for people who feel inconfident in groups. It can involve standing up to – perceived or actual – group pressure and impatience. Many people are tempted to keep quiet (at least in a vote they can raise their hand) and important conflicts are sometimes avoided.
In the hands of those used to more than their fair share of power and attention, the veto can be a lethal tool. It can magnify their voices, and be used to guard against changes that might affect their power base and influence.
In a well functioning group vetoes should be rarely if ever seen – not only because they are a last resort, but also because ideally a member’s unhappiness should be picked up on before it gets to a veto stage.
Try to uncover the group dynamics at work. The way people behave in groups generally reflect some hidden needs or past experiences.
Work on creating a safe atmosphere. Challenge put-downs, discriminatory and aggressive behaviour. Make use of facilitation as a tool for involving all members of the group equally.
Don’t be afraid of making modifications to your consensus procedure. Some groups allow the possibility of falling back on an overwhelming majority vote or on drawing lots, if an issue cannot be resolved by consensus.
The group is too large.