from the Diablo Canyon Blockade/Encampment Handbook
What is Consensus? Consensus is a process for group decision-making. It is a method by which an entire group of people can come to an agreement. The input and ideas of all participants are gathered and synthesized to arrive at a final decision acceptable to all. Through consensus, we are not only working to achieve better solutions, but also to promote the growth of community and trust.
Consensus vs. Voting: Voting is a means by which we choose one alternative from several. Consensus, on the other hand, is a process of synthesizing many diverse elements together.
Voting is a win or lose model, in which people are more often concerned with the numbers it takes to “win” than with the issue itself. Voting does not take into account individual feelings or needs. In essence, it is a quantitative, rather than qualitative, method of decision-making.
With Consensus people can and should work through differences together and synthesize seemingly contradictory ideas. We believe that people are able to talk peacefully about their differences and reach a mutually satisfactory position. It is possible for one person’s insights or strongly held beliefs to sway the whole group. No ideas are lost, each member’s input is valued as part of the solution.
Abalone Alliance and Consensus: It is for all the above reasons that the Abalone Alliance has structured its decision-making process on both pure and modified forms of consensus. Throughout the blockade/encampment, all decisions will be made on this basis; it is crucial that all participants understand consensus, and how to use it in their affinity groups and in spokescouncils.
Nuts and Bolts of Consensus: Consensus does not mean that everyone thinks that the decision made is necessarily the best one possible, or even that they are sure it will work. What it does mean is that in coming to that decision, no one felt that his/her position on the matter was misunderstood or that it wasn’t given a proper hearing. It also means that the final decision doesn’t violate someone’s fundamental moral values, for if it did they would be obligated to block consensus. Hopefully, everyone will think it’s the best decision; this often happens because, when it works, collective intelligence does come up with better solutions that could individuals. But, it may occasionally not, and then the decision may just be the one supported by the most people. Those who object can do one of several things:
- — Non-support (“I don’t see the need for this, but I’ll go along.”) — Reservations (“I think this may be a mistake but I can live with it.”) — Standing aside (“I personally can’t do this, but I won’t stop others from doing it.”) — Blocking (“I cannot support this or allow the group to support this. It is immoral.”) — Withdrawing from the group.
Obviously, if many people express non-support or reservations, stand aside or leave the group, it may not be a viable decision even if no one directly blocks it. This is what is known as a “lukewarm” consensus and it is just as desirable as a lukewarm beer or a lukewarm bath.
Forming the Consensus Proposal: During discussion a proposal for resolution is put forward. It is amended and modified through more discussion, or withdrawn if it seems to be a dead end. When a proposal seems to be well understood by everyone, and there are no new changes asked for, the facilitator(s) can ask if there are any objections or reservations to it. If there are no objections, there can be a call for consensus. If there are still no objections, then after a moment of silence you have your decision. Only the beginning, of course, now you have to carry it through.
Once consensus does appear to have been reached, it really helps to have someone repeat the decision to the group so everyone is clear on what has been decided.
If consensus is blocked and no new consensus can be reached, the group stays with whatever the previous decision was on the subject, or does nothing if that is applicable. Major philosophical or moral questions that will come up with each affinity group will have to be worked through as soon as the group forms. (See “Principles of Unity” in the “Affinity Group” section.)
The fundamental right of consensus is for all people to be able to express themselves in their own words and of their own will. The fundamental responsibility of consensus is to assure others of their right to speak and be heard. Coercion and trade-offs are replaced with creative alternatives, and compromise with synthesis.
Roles in a Consensus Meeting: There are several roles which, if filled, can help consensus decision-making run smoothly. The facilitator (or co-facilitators) aids the group in defining decisions that need to be made, helps them through the stages of reaching an agreement, keeps the meeting moving, focuses discussion to the point at hand, makes sure everyone has the opportunity to participate, and formulates and tests to see if consensus has been reached. Facilitators help to direct the process of the meeting, not its content. They never make decisions for the group. If a facilitator feels too emotionally involved in an issue or discussion and cannot remain neutral in behavior, if not in attitude, then s/he should ask someone to take over the task of facilitation for that agenda item.
A vibes-watcher is someone besides the facilitator who watches and comments on individual and group feelings and patterns of participation. Vibes-watchers need to be especially tuned in to the sexism of group dynamics.
A recorder can take notes on the meeting, especially of decisions made and means of implementation and a time-keeper keeps things going on schedule so that each agenda item can be covered in the time allotted for it (if discussion runs over the time for an item, the group may or may not decide to contract for more time to finish up).
Even though individuals take on these roles, all participants in a meeting should be aware of and involved in the issues, process, and feelings of the group, and should share their individual expertise in helping the group run smoothly and reach a decision. This is especially true when it comes to finding compromise agreements to seemingly contradictory positions.
Consensus and Action: The goal of every decision-making process is not just to decide on a solution, but also to carry out that plan of action. Without subsequent action, decisions are totally meaningless. This is often overlooked. It seems that a person’s commitment to any decision is in proportion to their sense of participation in that decision. Consensus attempts to involve all members of a group, not just the “leaders”.
Consensus clearly takes more time than a simple vote. But the added time can be viewed in relation to the increased understanding each member of the group will have about the issue and the increased probability of the decision being carried out; longer decision time but shorter implementation time.
Most deadlock situations are, however, mixed up with emotions. If the root of someone’s objections to a proposal is really their personal dislike for the proponent(s), then hopes for resolution are virtually nil until these personal issues are addressed. For consensus to work, the group must be able to identify and work out emotional problems and feelings.
“He listened and listened. His entire body was an ear”
Spokescouncils: When operating in a large group, each affinity group selects one person to act as their spokesperson. These “spokes” carry affinity groups’ opinions and proposals to spokescouncils of all the affinity groups’ reps; they are not empowered to make any final decisions without first consulting their affinity groups (unless it is a pre-determined empowered spokescouncil). Spokes to try to consolidate, synthesize, and iron out differences between proposals so as to create a proposal(s) agreeable to all. Information is then relayed back to the affinity groups by spokes, the issues at hand reconsidered, and a new position (or perhaps the same old one) is reached. These positions are once again brought to the spokescouncil. If consensus is reached, great. If not, the process may be repeated again or the group may decide to return to the previously agreed upon position.
Attitudes and behavior which help a group reach consensus:
- — Responsibility: Participants are responsible for voicing their opinions, participating in the discussion, and actively implementing the agreement. — Self-discipline: Blocking consensus should only be done for principled objections. Object clearly, to the point, and without put-downs or excessive speeches. Participate in finding an alternative solution. — Respect: Respect others and trust them to make responsible input. — Cooperation: Look for areas of agreement and common ground, and build on them. Avoid competitive, right/wrong, win/lose thinking. — Struggle: Use clear means of disagreement — no put-downs. Use disagreements and arguments to learn, grow, and change. Work hard to build unity in the group, but not at the expense of the individuals who are its members.