Lights, Camera, Action!

So, the foundation is in place. Clear structures have guided this decision towards a small group of interested individuals.  This is where the rubber meets the road as we seek a unified proposal from diverse perspectives.

While consensus is more about warmth and openness than about rigid procedures, having a structure to guide discussion can increase productivity. These steps could be followed explicitly.  More likely they will serve as a guiding awareness in our minds, leaving room for organic progression of the decision.     

1.)   Frame the question:  Albert Einstein once said “If I had an hour to save the world I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute finding solutions”.  Start by defining a vision or problem, not by offering a proposal.  This can bring awareness of what binds us together.  Ask, “what is our shared purpose in this meeting?”  On a large pad of paper, write that question down.    

Example scenario:  A startup restaurant has grown over two years, now revenue has begun to slow.  Some folks have expressed interest in hiring a marketing director.

The question: How can we better express the quality of our food and connect with those who might enjoy it without adding to our already full workload?


Empathy and the Brain

Our amygdala is our emotional gear shifter; it moves our limbic system towards fight, flight, or freeze.   Research by Matthew D. Lieberman, Ph.D. at UCLA shows that when we can name or discuss our experience, we decrease the response in our amygdala. When we do this when we begin to shift our control out of fight or flight towards the prefrontal cortex, where we can access previous wisdom, and flexibility.

Talking to share and reflect feelings and needs can prepare us emotionally for problem solving

2.)   Focus on needs:  This step is about sharing and learning.  Before we can move forward together, it is essential that all needs are heard.  Feelings of anger, anxiety, or competition trigger adrenalin.  This causes us to focus on the problem, and leaves our brain ill prepared for access to creative problem solving.   When we know that others empathize with what is important to us we can relax and grow open and curious to others’ perspectives.  One of the strongest ways to offer this connection and understanding is to identify and reflect the core needs of another.  

Listen to the strategies, beliefs, and judgments that individuals offer and translate them to needs. Check if the need you reflected satisfies the contributor. This may require multiple guesses.   Working on the level of needs creates more possibility than immediately considering strategies.  

Create a list of all these needs.  Miki Kashtan  reminds us to “Name needs in terms of what someone wants to create, what’s important to them, or what is their dream, rather than in terms of positions, what ‘should’ happen, or what is not working.”  Everyone wants a dream they can collectively get excited about.

Share ownership of all the needs present, they do not belong to the contributor but to the group.  If a need is listed that cannot be shared by the group, work to find a deeper/clearer need that can.  The more specific and comprehensive the list of needs is, the more likely our proposal will be to optimize the solution.

Note for efficiency:  It is essential that we get all needs on the table, but this may not require every individual to speak.  100 people may be interested, a dozen desiring to participate, and 4 that end up in the discussion, holding the succinct views others expressed to them.  If we share ownership of the needs, once a need is named it’s not necessary to hear multiple voices reaffirm this– unless those individual are in need of empathy.  For some, empathy may be able to come at a different time or setting.  A wise question for group minded individuals is “what does the group need to hear from me on this topic at this time? ” 

Again, it is critical to note that consensus involves decisions of considerable weight.  The vast majority of decisions end up as role decisions, perhaps with opinions of others weighed as the person deems helpful. 

Example of reflecting needs:

“There isn’t enough work for full time position!” -> Translated: You hoping for a solution that will efficient and resourceful.

“It’s doesn’t make sense for 5 of us to have little pieces of marketing responsibility on our plates” ->It’s important to have order and simplicity in our work.

“It’s too big a risk right now” Translated: Do you need security? “Well, once we hire someone full time, it’s hard to undo that if it doesn’t work” Translated:  Ohh, are you hoping to keep flexibility.

3.)   Formulate ideas:  This can happen with the whole group, or it can happen in several smaller groups (2-8 individuals).  Smaller groups will generate more proposals and may invite more contribution.   The group(s) works from the needs written on the board and strives for a solution that optimizes them.  If multiple proposals are created, form a super committee with representatives from the smaller groups, keeping it to 8-12 people.

At this point the group must choose one proposal to work from, which may be a mix of some/many/all of the others.  Or, rarely, none.  Because consensus shifts the attention from the plurality of enthusiasts to the minority of dissenters, the group may consider starting with the idea that has the largest number of people who support a given proposal and work from there.  The group must trust that the selection of a working proposal also allows for changing proposal completely, or heavily modifying it.    

Proposal 1:  Each employee is given 1 hour paid time a week, and a small budget to market our organization; we’ll meet every month to share success stories.

Proposal 2:  We will work to hire a marketing director on a commission system.

Proposal 3: We can shift responsibilities so that all marketing responsibility moves to one existing employee and their other responsibilities are redistributed or dropped.  


4.)   Find objections: Discuss the proposal, identify concerns and needs behind them. If new needs emerge, add them to the list.   Revise the proposal based on new (or more clarified) needs. Consider elements of other proposal as resources to meet concerns.    

Example: “We might never find a marketing director to work on commission.”   You’re hoping for a solution that is reliable. -> “Yeah, I want something that is within our control” ->Your hoping to protect our autonomy.

Go back to small groups, repeat steps 3 and 4, revising and soliciting objections until the group believes it has the highest level of agreement it can reach.  If the group is stuck, return to the needs list or use an unsticking technique- Step V. 


5.)   Finalize decisions:  Document the actual words.  Every point in a consensus discussion does not need to be addressed and considered.  Holding everyone’s points in the final version would look more like a government bill from congress, which are often over a thousand pages long, comical to read, and difficult to implement.  Instead, the small group, primarily and ideally, takes all suggestions and thoughts and considers them, deciding whether or not to include them in the near-final proposal to the large group. 

Example:  We will seek to hire a marketing director on commission until December 1. If no qualified applicant is found, Monica will take over all marketing duties. Phil would then take the upcoming banquet off her plate, while Lou takes over the Vera account.”

If needed, this proposal then goes out to the whole group.  See step III.

Some consensus decisions end with a brilliant solution that meets everybody needs 100%.  Most don’t. While our deepest needs likely can exist together, we may not be able to meet them in the way we desire.  These desires may be in direct competition with one another (such as safety and high adventure), in which case an optimization and/or prioritization must be created. Need shifting can occur as well.  Minorities likely will exist.


Minorities in Consensus – Three Levels

When we hold space for folks to disagree, but allow the decision to pass, we let each person weigh their beliefs along with the group desire to make a decision.  Minorities can then exist on three levels.

  • Declare reservation – the softest form of disagreement, but allowance.  The dissenter(s) wishes to be heard and considered, but if the group is not swayed, s/he agrees to allow the proposal to move forward, having been heard.  The act is made in peaceful disagreement, but allowance.  The decision does not live on emotionally in the dissenter – there is non-attachment, release. 
  • Stand aside – an individual(s) has a serious disagreement with the proposal, but is willing to let the motion pass.  Modifications are often made in such cases.  In standing aside, the individual is also agreeing to let the emotions and consequences pass, so there isn’t a “grudge” or “disgruntlement.”  The act is made in peaceful disagreement, but allowance.

In both of the above positions, the person also agrees to support the proposal by their actions as well, since the community has decided it is the path forward.  Regardless of the outcome, I am they and they are I. 

  • Block – the decision may not go forward.  A guiding principle with blocks is that a given individual may use four of them in his or her physical lifetime.  It is a stand of last resort, reflecting a perceived blind sightedness on the part of the larger group in regard to a shared, community value of considerable weight and pervasive and extensive effects.  Personal values are not relevant.  Strong emotions may be present, yet the passion contains no hostility, and reasoned dialogue prevails.  Significant harm to the organization or individuals must be perceived.  The blocker holds enormous responsibility to create understanding and solutions; they are not sticks holding the process up, but rather wands creating movement.


6.)   Reflect: After a decision is made there is either a period of celebration or mourning.  When a decision is mourned, we hold consciousness around the journey we are all on, perhaps peaceful regret about what happened, and compassionate action to improve our collective state.                                

Failure to reach consensus defaults to the existing path being continued, and likely a re-grouping, or a peace/recognition that the current path is the best viable option for now.

Remember, consensus does not mean a decision is written in stone, never to be considered again