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What Is Consensus?

Consensus decision making is a way for groups of people, any type of group, to arrive at solutions that work for all the members of the group. Although seemingly new in today's world, consensus decision making probably dates back to early tribal cultures and certainly to about 350 years ago with the establishment of the Society Of Friends (also known as Quakers).

The essence of consensus decision making is the recognition that all members of a group are equal in their ability to bring a piece of the truth to the decision process; that all members have something--be it experience, perspective, etc.--of unique value to offer and are therefore honored and respected for what they bring. As a result, the group aims to arrive at solutions or decisions that reflect the input from all the members, not just the majority. It is important to be clear that it arrives at a unity of opinion rather than a unanimous opinion. Unity here means that everyone in the group agrees with the essence of the decision and can support it, rather than agreeing with every last word of the decision.

What about Robert's Rules of Order? Consensus decision making is actually quite a bit different from Robert's. Under Robert's Rules of Order a decision is put forward from the very beginning, discussion is limited to the specifics of the topic, amendments may be proposed, and majority votes are taken on the amendments and the final decision itself. Under consensus decision making a proposal is put out in the beginning, input of a broader nature is sought from everyone in the group, the idea is gradually molded by this discussion into a unity of opinion, and a final consensus decision is synthesized reflecting all of the input.

What happens when people disagree? There are two options:" blocking" or "standing in the way" and "standing" or "stepping aside." Blocking occurs when a person cannot support a decision and believes that allowing the decision to pass would bring significant harm to the group. This implies that in this instant this particular individual has more wisdom about the overall ramifications or perhaps one very important overlooked aspect of the decision than the rest of the group collectively. Thus one person has the power to stop a decision. In some instances this may be final and the decision is laid down. Often, however, the reason for the block may be resolved and a better consensus decision than the earlier one may be reached.

The second option, "standing aside" or "stepping aside," occurs when a person cannot personally support a decision but does not see the need to block the decision as it would not harm the group in any important way. This person is specifically mentioned in the minutes of the decision as standing aside so that they will not bear any responsibility for the consequences of that decision. If, however, more than one person stands aside, it is often an indication that the present decision being offered may still be incomplete in some way and that perhaps discussion should continue in order to remove the concerns.

The last element of consensus decision making is a that of a facilitator. The facilitator as servant of the group, guides the process while group members focus on the content of the idea and the decision. The facilitator also continually summarizes all of the input provided into a unified body that gradually approaches a consensus as the process unfolds. Finally, the facilitator does not participate in the discussion of the content of the decision except to keep the process on track.

All in all, consensus decision making is a significant step forward for the entire culture as it fully empowers each and every individual who participates. It returns everyone to the decision making process, in contrast to present systems where power is concentrated in relatively few persons and majority opinions rule over the often valid concerns of minority opinions. It also builds trust and cooperation between the people participating, as opposed to fostering competition between the different elements of the group. And, most importantly, it honors each and every person for all they bring to the group.

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