Flow Chart of Formal Consensus
The Advantages of Formal Consensus
On Decision-Making
On Conflict and Consensus
The Art of Evaluation
On Conflict and Consensus
There are many ways to make decisions. Sometimes, the most efficient wayto make decisions would be to just let the manager (or CEO, or dictator)make them. However, efficiency is not the only criteria. When choosinga decisionmaking method, one needs to ask two questions. Is it a fair process? Does it produce good solutions?

To judge the process, consider the following: Does the meeting flowsmoothly? Is the discussion kept to the point? Does it take too long tomake each decision? Does the leadership determine the outcome of the discussion?Are some people overlooked?

To judge the quality of the end result, the decision, consider:Are the people making the decision, and all those affected, satisfied withthe result? To what degree is the intent of the original proposalaccomplished? Are the underlying issues addressed? Is there an appropriateuse of resources? Would the group make the same decision again?

Autocracy can work, but the idea of a benevolent dictator is just adream. We believe that it is inherently better to involve every personwho is affected by the decision in the decisionmaking process. This is true for several reasons. The decision would reflect the will of the entire group, not just the leadership. The people who carry out the plans willbe more satisfied with their work. And, as the old adage goes, two headsare better than one.

This book presents a particular model for decisionmaking we call Formal Consensus. Formal Consensus has a clearly defined structure. It requiresa commitment to active cooperation, disciplined speaking and listening,and respect for the contributions of every member. Likewise, every personhas the responsibility to actively participate as a creative individualwithin the structure.

Avoidance, denial, and repression of conflict is common during meetings.Therefore, using Formal Consensus might not be easy at first. Unresolved conflict from previous experiences could come rushing forth and make theprocess difficult, if not impossible. Practice and discipline, however,will smooth the process. The benefit of everyone's participation and cooperationis worth the struggle it may initially take to ensure that all voices areheard.

It is often said that consensus is time-consuming and difficult. Makingcomplex, difficult decisions is time-consuming, no matter what the process. Many different methods can be efficient, if every participant shares a common understanding of the rules of the game. Like any process, FormalConsensus can be inefficient if a group does not first assent to follow a particular structure.

This book codifies a formal structure for decisionmaking. It is hoped that the relationship between this book and Formal Consensus would be similar to the relationship between Robert's Rules of Order and Parliamentary Procedure.

Methods of decisionmaking can be seen on a continuum with one personhaving total authority on one end to everyone sharing power and responsibility on the other.

The level of participation increases along this decisionmaking continuum. Oligarchies and autocracies offer no participation to many of those whoare directly affected. Representative, majority rule, and consensus democracies involve everybody, to different degrees.

Group Dynamics

A group, by definition, is a number of individuals having some unifying relationship. The group dynamic created by consensus process is completelydifferent from that of Parliamentary Procedure, from start to finish. Itis based on different values and uses a different language, a differentstructure, and many different techniques, although some techniques aresimilar. It might be helpful to explain some broad concepts about group dynamics and consensus.


While decisionmaking is as much about conflict as it is about agreement, Formal Consensus works best in an atmosphere in which conflict is encouraged,supported, and resolved cooperatively with respect, nonviolence, and creativity. Conflict is desirable. It is not something to be avoided, dismissed, diminished, or denied.

Majority Rule and Competition

Generally speaking, when a group votes using majority rule or Parliamentary Procedure, a competitive dynamic is created within the group because itis being asked to choose between two (or more) possibilities. It is justas acceptable to attack and diminish another's point of view as it is topromote and endorse your own ideas. Often, voting occurs before one sidereveals anything about itself, but spends time solely attacking the opponent! In this adversarial environment, one's ideas are owned and often defended in the face of improvements.

Consensus and Cooperation

Consensus process, on the other hand, creates a cooperative dynamic. Only one proposal is considered at a time. Everyone works together to make itthe best possible decision for the group. Any concerns are raised and resolved, sometimes one by one, until all voices are heard. Since proposals are nolonger the property of the presenter, a solution can be created more cooperatively.


In the consensus process, only proposals which intend to accomplish thecommon purpose are considered. During discussion of a proposal, everyoneworks to improve the proposal to make it the best decision for the group.All proposals are adopted unless the group decides it is contrary to thebest interests of the group.

Characteristics of Formal Consensus

Before a group decides to use Formal Consensus, it must honestly assessits ability to honor the principles described in Chapter Three. If the principles described in this book are not already present or if the groupis not willing to work to create them, then Formal Consensus will not be possible. Any group which wants to adopt Formal Consensus needs to give considerable attention to the underlying principles which support consensusand help the process operate smoothly. This is not to say each and everyone of the principles described herein must be adopted by every group, or that each group cannot add its own principles specific to its goals, but rather, each group must be very clear about the foundation of principlesor common purposes they choose before they attempt the Formal Consensus decisionmaking process.

Formal Consensus is the least violent decisionmaking process.

Traditional nonviolence theory holds that the use of power to dominateis violent and undesirable. Nonviolence expects people to use their powerto persuade without deception, coercion, or malice, using truth, creativity,logic, respect, and love. Majority rule voting process and Parliamentary Procedure both accept, and even encourage, the use of power to dominate others. The goal is the winning of the vote, often regardless of another choice which might be in the best interest of the whole group. The will of the majority supersedes the concerns and desires of the minority. This is inherently violent. Consensus strives to take into account everyone'sconcerns and resolve them before any decision is made. Most importantly,this process encourages an environment in which everyone is respected andall contributions are valued.

Formal Consensus is the most democratic decisionmaking process.

Groups which desire to involve as many people as possible need to use an inclusive process. To attract and involve large numbers, it is importantthat the process encourages participation, allows equal access to power,develops cooperation, promotes empowerment, and creates a sense of individual responsibility for the group's actions. All of these are cornerstones ofFormal Consensus. The goal of consensus is not the selection of severaloptions, but the development of one decision which is the best for thewhole group. It is synthesis and evolution, not competition and attrition.

Formal Consensus is based on the principles of the group.

Although every individual must consent to a decision before it is adopted,if there are any objections, it is not the choice of the individual aloneto determine if an objection prevents the proposal from being adopted. Every objection or concern must first be presented before the group andeither resolved or validated. A valid objection is one in keeping withall previous decisions of the group and based upon the commonly-held principlesor foundation adopted by the group. The objection must not only addressthe concerns of the individual, but it must also be in the best interestof the group as a whole. If the objection is not based upon the foundation,or is in contradiction with a prior decision, it is not valid for the group, and therefore, out of order.

Formal Consensus is desirable in larger groups.

If the structure is vague, decisions can be difficult to achieve. They will become increasingly more difficult in larger groups. Formal Consensusis designed for large groups. It is a highly structured model. It has guidelinesand formats for managing meetings, facilitating discussions, resolving conflict, and reaching decisions. Smaller groups may need less structure, so they may choose from the many techniques and roles suggested in thisbook.

Formal Consensus works better when more people participate.

Consensus is more than the sum total of ideas of the individuals in thegroup. During discussion, ideas build one upon the next, generating new ideas, until the best decision emerges. This dynamic is called the creativeinterplay of ideas. Creativity plays a major part as everyone strives todiscover what is best for the group. The more people involved in this cooperativeprocess, the more ideas and possibilities are generated. Consensus worksbest with everyone participating. (This assumes, of course, that everyonein the group is trained in Formal Consensus and is actively using it.)

Formal Consensus is not inherently time-consuming.

Decisions are not an end in themselves. Decisionmaking is a process which starts with an idea and ends with the actual implementation of the decision.While it may be true in an autocratic process that decisions can be madequickly, the actual implementation will take time. When one person or as mall group of people makes a decision for a larger group, the decision not only has to be communicated to the others, but it also has to be acceptableto them or its implementation will need to be forced upon them. This will certainly take time, perhaps a considerable amount of time. On the otherhand, if everyone participates in the decisionmaking, the decision does not need to be communicated and its implementation does not need to beforced upon the participants. The decision may take longer to make, butonce it is made, implementation can happen in a timely manner. The amountof time a decision takes to make from start to finish is not a factor ofthe process used; rather, it is a factor of the complexity of the proposal itself. An easy decision takes less time than a difficult, complex decision,regardless of the process used or the number of people involved. Of course, Formal Consensus works better if one practices patience, but any processis improved with a generous amount of patience.

Formal Consensus cannot be secretly disrupted.

This may not be an issue for some groups, but many people know that the state actively surveilles, infiltrates, and disrupts nonviolent domestic political and religious groups. To counteract anti-democratic tactics bythe state, a group would need to develop and encourage a decisionmaking process which could not be covertly controlled or manipulated. Formal Consensus,if practiced as described in this book, is just such a process. Since the assumption is one of cooperation and good will, it is always appropriate to ask for an explanation of how and why someone's actions are in the best interest of the group. Disruptive behavior must not be tolerated. While it is true this process cannot prevent openly disruptive behavior, thepoint is to prevent covert disruption, hidden agenda, and malicious manipulation of the process. Any group for which infiltration is a threat ought to consider the process outlined in this book if it wishes to remain open, democratic,and productive.


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