The following material is adapted from my 2002 book, Teaching and Learning Peace (Madison, WI: Atwood), a text that is being used for the infusion of sustainable peace studies into the curriculum at the University of Ngozi and other campuses in Burundi. These ideas are equally relevant for schools, colleges and universities in the U.S. as well as in our churches, organizations and businesses. Everyone can benefit when conflicts are resolved through improved communication.
Consensus is the third set of skills that Gordon identifies as critical in Teacher Effectiveness Training. An example from the world of peacemaking may help. In Savage Dreams, Rebecca Solnit (1994) traces the interconnections between the history of nuclear weapons testing and the environmental movement. She and her brother were both activists and she describes her experiences with consensus this way.
[My] little brother is an anarchist, and a key organizer for the antinuclear movement, and though he was initially an anarchist in the sense that innumerable punks were in the eighties, he has read his Bakunin and Kropotkin and is now very seriously an anarchist. Anarchy, I should explain, means not the lack of order but of hierarchy, a direct and absolute democracy. Voting democracy, as anarchists point out, simply allows a majority to impose its will on a minority and is not necessarily participatory or direct. They themselves continue the process of negotiation until all participants achieve consensus, until everyone—not merely a majority—has arrived at a viable decision. Anarchy proper usually works out to mean excruciatingly interminable meetings, rather than the mayhem the word evokes in most American imaginations….I have never found the patience and tolerance necessary to work with group consensus for extended periods (12-14).
Finding consensus within any group can have significant payoffs although there are associated costs of time and effort. Whether you yourself are working on a big collaborative project or participating on a committee, whether as a teacher your students are trying to get a study group organized or just finding common ground with a roommate, having some guidelines for navigating this kind of interpersonal terrain can help.
When everyone can agree, you can get more commitment for the decisions you make. You can also get better decisions when everyone’s voice is heard and a variety of perspectives surface. You can even get more creative decisions. Admittedly, diverse viewpoints, experiences and personalities can make for a degree of tension in any process, especially if everyone is in a hurry. Consensus invariably takes more time, but there are important benefits. Here is a listing of recommended guidelines you could use in any number of situations.
- Define the problem
If students are meeting to form a study group, for instance, it can be useful if they begin by focusing on course requirements and what they’ll need to do—when and where to meet and for how long, what to bring and how responsibilities might be best shared. Looking over past exams can give them some additional clues.
It’s important to understand the benefits of brainstorming, particularly that by reserving judgment at this point in the process you can get a lot of different ideas out for
discussion. Sometimes the better and more creative ideas only surface after students have worked through the more obvious ones. The key here is to generate ideas, as many as possible, without stopping to evaluate. No matter how strange these ideas may sound, students can help promote consensus by getting them all out and on their list before they start to eliminate any.
For example, Chuck was a student in our first year seminar. He organized a study group for his toughest class, chemistry. Together, members of the group looked over sample test questions and realized that they really did understand the material. Instead of reserving some time each week to review their notes, they decided to meet the day before the exam for a couple of hours. In that way they would be psyched, focused and efficient. And it worked, at least for the first exam. Taking the time to think through their needs and honestly assess their motivations produced a plan that worked. They were also able to avoid some needless meetings and wasted time. There are times when peacemaking can be proactive, when conflicts are avoided through effective planning and organization.
- Identify consequences
This stage helps you go a bit further and think about the implications of your various choices. For Chuck and his group there was a bit of a gamble as to whether the night before would be enough. However, they did believe that scheduling study time earlier would only generate frustrations and undermine their motivation. When you aim for consensus, you take a little more time to think things through instead of impulsively latching on to whatever everyone else is doing or whatever the conventional wisdom is.
At this stage groups need to make a decision. One guideline many find useful is to keep any agreements tentative, like a trial run. In that way, students can assess their success early on without being so locked in that change becomes impossible. To get some movement toward consensus, they can think of a decision as an experiment. People can often agree to that.
- Reevaluate and modify if necessary
When Chuck and his study group got their results from the second exam—and they didn’t do as well compared to the first exam—they rethought their plans and decided that they would need to meet earlier and more frequently for the third exam, that perhaps they had gotten a bit lucky on the first exam or had been over-confident and then slacked off too much in their note-taking and engagement in class. At any rate, they channeled their disappointment with their second exam results into a revised plan for their study time together.
Additional thoughts on group consensus
It can also be helpful if everyone in a group understands and agrees to these guidelines. In this way, they can get real ownership in the process and their group’s decision. Having group members take on various roles can also help. Someone could be the recorder, for example, another the task master, another the time keeper, another the synthesizer or summarizer. The moderator’s role is the peacemaker for a group, attentive to feelings and alert to resolving any conflicts that arise. On the other hand, groups can also have everyone conscious of each of these roles and let the responsibilities for their functioning be more fluid.
There can be no doubt that deep listening, empathetic expressing, and consensus-making provide a useful model for establishing good communications in the classroom. They also establish the kind of communication skills that underlie effective efforts in peacemaking. To keep those skills in good working order, we also have to be able to understand and manage our emotions.