When decisions are to be made, especially in an atmosphere of strife and disagreement, one often hears the suggestion that if the various parties could only reach “consensus” that a good, equitable and satisfactory solution would be determined. But what exactly do people mean when they aspire to “consensus”? First, let’s consider a possible definition:

Consensus is a cooperative process in which all group members develop and agree to support a decision in the best interest of the whole.

Or alternatively consider various synonyms: agreement, harmony, concurrence, accord, unity, unanimity, solidarity, or concord. Derived from the Latin word for agreement, Merriam-Webster suggests that the first known use of the word in English occurred in 1843, but it has become more popular only since 1950. It can be used to describe both the decision and the process of decision making. It is, however, the process of reaching an agreement or judgement that is most difficult to define. Some would argue that reaching a “consensus” is the ultimate goal of any group decision, while others see many pitfalls in both the process and the end result! Let’s consider this paradox further.

Benefits of consensus decision making:

First, successful consensus building harks back to the subject of a previous Newsletter about effective listening. Group participants must not only express their own concerns clearly, but they must also listen with intensity and willingness to understand other viewpoints. A truly open discussion can lead to,

  • Inclusive participation that engages everyone in the process,
  • A commitment to work together,
  • An understanding of alternative viewpoints,
  • A better representation of all ideas in a final decision, and
  • A commitment from the entire group to support a final decision.

Perils and pitfalls of consensus decision making:

Unfortunately, there are some situations where a perfect and unanimous “consensus” does not seem to be possible. Recognizing these hazards in advance can reduce unreal expectations, alert group members to the need for an alternative or creative approach, or even the need to postpone decisions while further information, thought, and resources are gathered. Specifically, one should be aware during the search for consensus that,

  • Some group members may have low trust or lack commitment,
  • Some group members may have no common goal or purpose,
  • The process gives disruptors, cranks and curmudgeons equal voice,
  • The process may take considerable time, but decisions may need to be made quickly,
  • Aggressive group members may essentially bludgeon others into agreement, resulting in an apparent decision which is not enthusiastically supported,
  • The final group decision may leave many issues unresolved,
  • The process may lead to a “tepid” decision that embraces the status quo, and, finally,
  • A consensus decision may give the false impression that the debate is over.

Thus, it may be worthwhile to clearly state what consensus is not. A Reverse Definition of Consensus…What it is Not:

Before one enters a group effort among people with initially significantly different ideas about an issue which needs resolving, it should be recognized that usually the consensus process is:

  • Not a majority vote. Every opinion counts, all dissent should be addressed, 51% agreement is not consensus, and beware the “tyranny of the majority!” **
  • Not unanimity. All viewpoints should be recognized and considered, but not everything can be given equal weight. Minority opinions cannot have the opportunity to filibuster or derail the process.
  • Not all or nothing. If common areas of agreement are identified, they should be accepted into a final accord, but, alternatively, if some subjects cannot be resolved, these topics should be tabled for further discussion later.
  • Not permanent. Past decisions are open to challenge and change. Perceptions, customs, and beliefs can change, and new information may revise or even negate past truths.
  • Not an opportunity for war. Goodwill and good intentions are necessary from the beginning of the process…otherwise don’t begin, participate, or extend the

Despite these cautionary and possibly pessimistic observations, search for consensus during conflict resolution can be a gratifying, rewarding, and wonderful experience. When aggressions are resolved, pain is reduced, fears are eliminated, and peace reigns…can there be a better final result?

** The Tyranny of the Majority refers to an inherent weakness in direct democracy in which rule by majority vote can impose its interests at the expense of the minority. Founding fathers Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Adams all warned that a simple majority vote could elect a demagogue, and could be used to overthrow true democracy, and could result in targeting oppressively unfavored ethnic, religious, political, social, or racial groups.

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