Decisions are adopted when all participants consent to the result of discussionabout the original proposal. People who do not agree with a proposal areresponsible for expressing their concerns. No decision is adopted untilthere is resolution of every concern. When concerns remain after discussion,individuals can agree to disagree by acknowledging that they have unresolvedconcerns, but consent to the proposal anyway and allow it to be adopted.Therefore, reaching consensus does not assume that everyone must be incomplete agreement, a highly unlikely situation in a group of intelligent,creative individuals.
Consensus is becoming popular as a democratic form of decisionmaking.It is a process which requires an environment in which all contributionsare valued and participation is encouraged. There are, however, few organizationswhich use a model of consensus which is specific, consistent, and efficient.Often, the consensus process is informal, vague, and very inconsistent.This happens when the consensus process is not based upon a solid foundationand the structure is unknown or nonexistent. To develop a more formal typeof consensus process, any organization must define the commonly held principleswhich form the foundation of the group's work and intentionally choosethe type of structure within which the process is built.
This book contains the building materials for just such a process. Includedis a description of the principles from which a foundation is created,the flowchart and levels of structure which are the frame for the process,and the other materials needed for designing a variety of processes whichcan be customized to fit the needs of the organization.
The Structure of Formal ConsensusMany groups regularly use diverse discussion techniques learned from practitionersin the field of conflict resolution. Although this book does include severaltechniques, the book is about a structure called Formal Consensus.This structure creates a separation between the identification andthe resolution of concerns. Perhaps, if everybody in the group hasno trouble saying what they think, they won't need this structure. Thispredictable structure provides opportunities to those who don't feel empoweredto participate.
Formal Consensus is presented in levels or cycles. In the first level,the idea is to allow everyone to express their perspective, including concerns,but group time is not spent on resolving problems. In the second levelthe group focuses its attention on identifying concerns, still not resolvingthem. This requires discipline. Reactive comments, even funny ones, andresolutions, even good ones, can suppress the creative ideas of others.Not until the third level does the structure allow for exploring resolutions.
Each level has a different scope and focus. At the first level, thescope is broad, allowing the discussion to consider the philosophical andpolitical implications as well as the general merits and drawbacks andother relevant information. The only focus is on the proposal as a whole.Some decisions can be reached after discussion at the first level. At thesecond level, the scope of the discussion is limited to the concerns. Theyare identified and publicly listed, which enables everyone to get an overallpicture of the concerns. The focus of attention is on identifying the bodyof concerns and grouping similar ones. At the third level, the scope isvery narrow. The focus of discussion is limited to a single unresolvedconcern until it is resolved.
The Flow of the Formal Consensus ProcessIn an ideal situation, every proposal would be submitted in writing andbriefly introduced the first time it appears on the agenda. At the nextmeeting, after everyone has had enough time to read it and carefully considerany concerns, the discussion would begin in earnest. Often, it would notbe until the third meeting that a decision is made. Of course, this dependsupon how many proposals are on the table and the urgency of the decision.
Clarify the ProcessThe facilitator introduces the person presenting the proposal and givesa short update on any previous action on it. It is very important for thefacilitator to explain the process which brought this proposal to the meeting,and to describe the process that will be followed to move the group throughthe proposal to consensus. It is the facilitator's job to make sure thatevery participant clearly understands the structure and the discussiontechniques being employed while the meeting is in progress.
Present Proposal or IssueWhen possible and appropriate, proposals ought to be prepared in writingand distributed well in advance of the meeting in which a decision is required.This encourages prior discussion and consideration, helps the presenteranticipate concerns, minimizes surprises, and involves everyone in creatingthe proposal. (If the necessary groundwork has not been done, the wisestchoice might be to send the proposal to committee. Proposal writing isdifficult to accomplish in a large group. The committee would develop theproposal for consideration at a later time.) The presenter reads the writtenproposal aloud, provides background information, and states clearly itsbenefits and reasons for adoption, including addressing any existing concerns.
Questions Which Clarify the PresentationQuestions are strictly limited by the facilitator to those which seek greatercomprehension of the proposal as presented. Everyone deserves the opportunityto fully understand what is being asked of the group before discussionbegins. This is not a time for comments or concerns. If there are onlya few questions, they can be answered one at a time by the person presentingthe proposal. If there are many, a useful technique is hearing all thequestions first, then answering them together. After answering all clarifyingquestions, the group begins discussion.
Discussion at this level ought to be the broadest in scope. Try to encouragecomments which take the whole proposal into account; i.e., why it is agood idea, or general problems which need to be addressed. Discussion atthis level often has a philosophical or principled tone, purposely addressinghow this proposal might affect the group in the long run or what kind ofprecedent it might create, etc. It helps every proposal to be discussedin this way, before the group engages in resolving particular concerns.Do not allow one concern to become the focus of the discussion. When particularconcerns are raised, make note of them but encourage the discussion tomove back to the proposal as a whole. Encourage the creative interplayof comments and ideas. Allow for the addition of any relevant factual information.For those who might at first feel opposed to the proposal, this discussionis consideration of why it might be good for the group in the broadestsense. Their initial concerns might, in fact, be of general concern tothe whole group. And, for those who initially support the proposal, thisis a time to think about the proposal broadly and some of the general problems.If there seems to be general approval of the proposal, the facilitator,or someone recognized to speak, can request a call for consensus.
Level One: Broad Open Discussion
Call for ConsensusThe facilitator asks, "Are there any unresolved concerns?" or "Are thereany concerns remaining?" After a period of silence, if no additional concernsare raised, the facilitator declares that consensus is reached and theproposal is read for the record. The length of silence ought to be directlyrelated to the degree of difficulty in reaching consensus; an easy decisionrequires a short silence, a difficult decision requires a longer silence.This encourages everyone to be at peace in accepting the consensus beforemoving on to other business. At this point, the facilitator assigns taskresponsibilities or sends the decision to a committee for implementation.It is important to note that the question is not "Is there consensus?"or "Does everyone agree?". These questions do not encourage an environmentin which all concerns can be expressed. If some people have a concern,but are shy or intimidated by a strong showing of support for a proposal,the question "Are there any unresolved concerns?" speaks directly to themand provides an opportunity for them to speak. Any concerns for which someonestands aside are listed with the proposal and become a part of it.
Level Two: Identify Concerns At the beginning of the next level, a discussion technique called brainstorming(see page 55) is used so that concerns can be identified and written downpublicly by the scribe and for the record by the notetaker. Be sure thescribe is as accurate as possible by checking with the person who voicedthe concern before moving on. This is not a time to attempt to resolveconcerns or determine their validity. That would stifle free expressionof concerns. At this point, only concerns are to be expressed, reasonableor unreasonable, well thought out or vague feelings. The facilitator wantsto interrupt any comments which attempt to defend the proposal, resolvethe concerns, judge the value of the concerns, or in any way deny or dismissanother's feelings of doubt or concern. Sometimes simply allowing a concernto be expressed and written down helps resolve it. After all concerns havebeen listed, allow the group a moment to reflect on them as a whole.
List All Concerns
Group Related ConcernsAt this point, the focus is on identifying patterns and relationships betweenconcerns. This short exercise must not be allowed to focus upon or resolveany particular concern.
Level Three: Resolve ConcernsOften, related concerns can be resolved as a group.
Resolve Groups of Related Concerns
Call for ConsensusIf most of the concerns seem to have been resolved, call for consensusin the manner described earlier. If some concerns have not been resolvedat this time, then a more focused discussion is needed.
Restate Remaining Concerns (One at a Time)Return to the list. The facilitator checks each one with the group andremoves ones which have been resolved or are, for any reason, no longerof concern. Each remaining concern is restated clearly and concisely andaddressed one at a time. Sometimes new concerns are raised which need tobe added to the list. However, every individual is responsible for honestlyexpressing concerns as they think of them. It is not appropriate to holdback a concern and spring it upon the group late in the process. This underminestrust and limits the group's ability to adequately discuss the concernin its relation to other concerns.
Questions Which Clarify the ConcernThe facilitator asks for any questions or comments which would furtherclarify the concern so everyone clearly understands it before discussionstarts.
Discussion Limited to Resolving One ConcernUse as many creative group discussion techniques as needed to facilitatea resolution for each concern. Keep the discussion focused upon the particularconcern until every suggestion has been offered. If no new ideas are comingforward and the concern cannot be resolved, or if the time allotted forthis item has been entirely used, move to one of the closing options describedbelow.
Call for ConsensusRepeat this process until all concerns have been resolved. At this point,the group should be at consensus, but it would be appropriate to call forconsensus anyway just to be sure no concern has been overlooked.
Closing OptionsIf a decision on the proposal can wait until the whole group meets again,then send the proposal to a committee which can clarify the concerns andbring new, creative resolutions for consideration by the group. It is agood idea to include on the committee representatives of all the majorconcerns, as well as those most supportive of the proposal so they canwork out solutions in a less formal setting. Sometimes, if the decisionis needed before the next meeting, a smaller group can be empowered tomake the decision for the larger group, but again, this committee shouldinclude all points of view. Choose this option only if it is absolutelynecessary and the whole group consents.
Send to Committee
Stand Aside (Decision Adopted with Unresolved Concerns Listed)When a concern has been fully discussed and cannot be resolved, it is appropriatefor the facilitator to ask those persons with this concern if they arewilling to stand aside; that is, acknowledge that the concern still exists,but allow the proposal to be adopted. It is very important for the wholegroup to understand that this unresolved concern is then written down withthe proposal in the record and, in essence, becomes a part of the decision.This concern can be raised again and deserves more discussion time as ithas not yet been resolved. In contrast, a concern which has been resolvedin past discussion does not deserve additional discussion, unless somethingnew has developed. Filibustering is not appropriate in Formal Consensus.
Declare BlockAfter having spent the allotted agenda time moving through the three levelsof discussion trying to achieve consensus and concerns remain which areunresolved, the facilitator is obligated to declare that consensus cannotbe reached at this meeting, that the proposal is blocked, and move on tothe next agenda item. The Rules of Formal Consensus The guidelines andtechniques in this book are flexible and meant to be modified. Some ofthe guidelines, however, seem almost always to be true. These are the Rulesof Formal Consensus:
1. Once a decision has been adopted by consensus,it cannot be changed without reaching a new consensus. If a new consensuscannot be reached, the old decision stands.
2. In general, only one personhas permission to speak at any moment. The person with permission to speakis determined by the group discussion technique in use and/or the facilitator.(The role of Peacekeeper is exempt from this rule.)
3. All structural decisions(i.e., which roles to use, who fills each role, and which facilitationtechnique and/or group discussion technique to use) are adopted by consensuswithout debate. Any objection automatically causes a new selection to bemade. If a role cannot be filled without objection, the group proceedswithout that role being filled. If much time is spent trying to fill rolesor find acceptable techniques, then the group needs a discussion aboutthe unity of purpose of this group and why it is having this problem, adiscussion which must be put on the agenda for the next meeting, if notheld immediately.
4. All content decisions (i.e., the agenda contract, committeereports, proposals, etc.) are adopted by consensus after discussion. Everycontent decision must be openly discussed before it can be tested for consensus.
5. A concern must be based upon the principles of the group to justifya block to consensus.
6. Every meeting which uses Formal Consensus musthave an evaluation.
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