The Occupy movement is talking a lot about consensus process. There are some commonly held misconceptions about what consensus is and isn’t, how and when to put it to best use. A fellow facilitator, Tree Bressen, who commonly leads consensus process wrote a great 2 page document outlining the mistakes commonly made by those new to the process that we recommend.
There’s been a lot written already on consensus, so instead of re-writing, take a look at Starhawk’s posting on an overview of consensus. What she doesn’t say is that consensus is a system of governance – in other words a way of making decisions in a group.
It is a method that focuses on access and inclusion of all voices. That means that it can be incredibly empowering, especially when there is time and space to include everyone. It can be incredibly frustrating when the group is too large or time is short or the pressure is too high to do such things.
It also means that participants have to be ready and willing to engage and listen to all those voices and opinions, stay present and speak their own truth while also moderating how much or often they speak up. And to be done well, it requires skilled facilitation (In fact I recommend that even participants have some facilitation training as training makes for great participants.)
And there has to be consent from the participants for facilitation and the ability to trust those facilitators. All of these things can make it hard to walk in off the streets to the movement and engage the process. It’s one of the reasons that democracy, representative or otherwise, is often favored in group decision-making: it’s easier to explain and do. But that misses the points of inclusivity and access.
In other words, democracy keeps all voices from being heard.
Truth: sometimes that’s a good thing. If everyone needs to have a say in every decision, processes get bogged down and things are difficult to move. So in very large groups it can be a lot faster to just call for a vote. It’s fast, it’s decisive, it can meet most people’s needs.
But for sensitive decision, it’s often not enough. How do we create a space where everyone gets their needs met? I often hear people say that it’s not possible. But in consensus it actually is. We keep working on a solution until everyone can live with it. Not until everyone dances with joy, but everyone gets a say in the process and can really support the decision. In that way it’s a brilliant model. It’s great for groups that have a long-term investment in working together, creating community, forwarding goals of access and inclusion and making sure all voices are heard.
About consensus both why and overview of method: http://starhawksblog.org/?p=631
10 Common Mistakes in consensus by Tree Bressen: http://www.intellitics.com/blog/2011/10/13/tree-bressen-the-top-10-most-common-mistakes-in-consensus-process/
Resources on facilitation, conflict resolution and mediation: http://www.toolsforchange.org/resources/resources.html