The first step in making a shift towards consensus is having a clear understanding of what consensus is and is not.  Groups often fail in achieving consensus because their definition is unclear. Consensus does not entail that everyone will get what they want.  It does mean that every interested party will trust that their needs have been heard, understand how this decision supports the goals of the whole group, and be genuinely willing to support it.  The objective is an integrated, unified sense of the whole– unity not unanimity.  In this way, consensus will often hinge on willingness.  This is not the denial of one’s own needs, but a desire to meet the needs of others as well.

At the same time, consensus is radically different from compromise.   Compromise is where everyone walks away pissed, frustrated, or sad.  Consensus seeks the highest level of agreement a group can reach. Concessions are never traded, obliging others so that you can get what you want.  Concessions may be offered, but only freely from the heart, because one understands and genuinely wants to supports the needs of another.  Compromise is a zero sum game.  Like many contract negotiations, or debates in congress, it is a simple give and take. Consensus in contrast is a developmental process, it hinges on creativity and the belief that together we can come up with a better solution than we can as individuals. 

Be aware before you begin that largely full agreement by everyone in a consensus process is either the stuff of fairy tales, or the item need not have come up for consensus discussion.  If you believe the fairy tale, you’ll be frequently pissed by the consensus process.  The dual responsibility is for the conflicting person to hold open that the group is wise, and vice versa.  Consensus is reached even with conflicting viewpoints on the table, and rarely is that not the case.  Yet, the sense or will of the whole is still to move forward. 

This solution oriented mindset is essential to success.  If walking into the room, individuals believe that ‘either he will get what he wants, or I will get what I want’, the decision has already failed.  If folks believe that by working together, we have the best chance at meeting all the needs the present, than our sights are set firmly on target.   

Readiness checklist for strong likelihood of success with consensus decision making:

  • Mindset of collaboration, not concession, competition, or either/or
  • Curiosity and openness to process – don’t know where it will go, as it hasn’t happened yet. 
  • Holding the process tightly and the outcome loosely.
  • Guiding values of the group are established
  • Humor
  • Kindness
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Patience and tolerance when some of the above are not initially present.

Checklist for low likelihood of success.

  • Ideological lines are of primary importance–US Congress often holds this line
  • Games / trading are played, where there is give and take, or tit for tat
  • Anyone part of the decision is certain they have access to the Truth
  • You’ve got an argument you’re going in with
  • Belief that after a x amount of time (multiple sittings), consensus “should” be reachable. 
  • Extreme dichotomous beliefs are the central question (e.g., pro life / pro choice)
  • A binding vote is taken
  • Members hold personal conflicts with foundational agreements or values of the group and work to change decisions based on those personal values/beliefs, or make them sticky, as a result.
  • Money is trading hands in a Zero Sum Game.
  • Unconnected organizations or people who will have little or no relationship later on.
  • A necessary, foundational philosophy is not established.
  • Belief that mistakes will not be made along the way.