Consensus means that everyone agrees, right?

Consensus does not mean that everyone agrees at the same level. The focus of consensus is to achieve a mutually-acceptable level of agreement necessary to move forward.

Using consensus decision-making, a group is able to arrive at decisions through deliberate discussion in which:

  • All participants’ viewpoints are considered
  • No formal vote is taken; however, participants are asked to indicate their level of agreement with a proposal
  • Each person explains why they agree or disagree with the proposal
  • Those with the greatest concern or disagreement are asked how the proposal could be modified to better meet their interests
  • The final decision is agreeable to all involved: the approval is unanimous even though the actual level of agreement may not be the same for all

In order to reach consensus, a group must first determine the level of agreement that the particular decision requires. Some decisions need a high level of agreement, while others need a relatively lower level of agreement. Michigan State University Extension recommends that your group discusses and decides what minimum level of agreement is required before moving forward with the consensus decision-making tool.

The gradients of agreement five-point scale specify the following indicators:

  1. Endorse
  2. Agree with reservation
  3. Mixed feelings
  4. Disagree but won’t block
  5. Veto

What determines the specific level of agreement required for consensus to be declared? Clearly, an especially important decision would require that nearly all of the people choose #1 or #2. For example, in a decision needing widespread stakeholder support for it to be successful, no more than one person can disagree (#4) with the proposed decision and no one can indicate a veto (#5) position.

In “The Makings of a Good Meeting” Kevin Wolf writes that certain key points are important to emphasize before beginning a consensus decision making process:

  • Building consensus is not a win/lose situation; the goal is to come to an agreement which considers all individual viewpoints.
  • When a person makes a proposal, they are not pursuing their own agenda, and are offering an idea that they believe might reach a group consensus.
  • Each participant must honestly state his/her opinion in a complete manner.
  • Participants must listen carefully and respectfully to the viewpoints of others.
  • Each opinion must be clearly understood by other participants.
  • Participants should not support an agreement to which they have an objection.
  • The group should not pressure individuals to agree with a proposal or decision simply to speed up the process or to avoid conflict.

This article has explained what consensus means. Another article will follow which explains further how to apply the practice of consensus decision-making with groups. 

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