This is one particular exploration of
nonviolence and what it can mean. It is not definitive, nor
can it be; it is your own definitions and feelings which are
most important to you. If there are particular resources you
are after in exploring nonviolence, please get in touch with
INNATE (and be as specific as you can in what you're looking
for) - we don't give any guarantees that we can help but we'll
try to point you in the right direction.
- An introduction to consensus
- Definitions of consensus
- A draft agenda for a meeting
- Tools for consensus [Handout/Worksheet
- End options at a group and
individual level when difficulties remain [Handout/Worksheet
- 'Modes' of discussion [Handout/Worksheet
(or, Download the workshop as a Rich
Text Document 118k)
The 'Tools for consensus' piece is arguably the most useful
in exploring consensus; it is designed to allow groups to
choose for themselves what they want to use. And what may
work for one group may be anathema to another, but the material
here is included to allow a broad choice. The various handouts
can be used according to the extent of work being done on
consensus. 'Modes of discussion' can be used if desired but
not every group will decide it wants to have different discussion
modes - people may just want to have particular tools to hand
to call on informally as needed, in which case this area can
While simpler material (e.g. 'Modes of discussion')
could be presented by overhead or data projector, it is recommended
that participants are given copies of handouts as far as possible
so that they can take them away for further reflection.
The material here is designed for group use
and personal reflection; please feel free to adopt and adapt
as you feel appropriate.
'What are the basics of nonviolence?' How do
you begin to answer that question? Well, at the beginning
you might state an unwillingness to harm others, a willingness
to work for peace and justice, and so on, extending out the
implication of what is a radical philosophy and creed to include
politics and the state, ecology, personal relations and a
refusal to treat others as enemies and thus challenging the
forces of action and reaction which create negative spirals
of violence and oppression.
But when it comes to groups of whatever kind,
and our participation in groups (in work, voluntary activities,
political and community life) what are the implications of
nonviolence? Can you draw conclusions or is nonviolence just
irrelevant because 'community and voluntary activities aren't
violent anyway' (work experiences typically may differ in
that they are more hierarchical and thus more likely to be
a forum for oppressive activities)?
INNATE would strongly support the view that
nonviolence is extremely relevant to how we work in groups.
In building social, political and community groups and movements
we have a real responsibility to make the experience a positive
one for everyone. We are about building. We are about trust.
We are about confidence and capacity building, using the skills
and talents people have. We are about valuing people. We are
about taking people (ourselves included!) as we find them
and helping them to grow.
But what is the experience so many people have
in work, and in their political/social lives? They experience
put downs. They experience petty jealousies. They experience
various forms of superiority. They experience their opinions
being treated as worthless, and their experience likewise.
In a nutshell, they experience lots of negativity which not
only has implications for themselves and their level of confidence,
but has implications for their involvement and level of commitment
in the future. And, ironically, this can happen in the case
of 'positive change', religious, 'peace', or 'nonviolence'
groups - and conflict here may be felt to be more difficult
to deal with because it is difficult to acknowledge that such
a group has these problems.
So what is to be done? In this short introduction
we are dealing more with voluntary activities since, as previously
stated, work situations tend to be more hierarchical. But
enlightened work situations will draw on the best of voluntary
Let us play our cards straight at the start.
We would say that an approach to consensus is part and parcel
of a nonviolent approach to group work. There are many different
ways of dealing with consensus, and there will undoubtedly
be successes and failures. But we would go so far as to say
that an attempt at, and approach to, consensus decision making
is an essential part of nonviolence.
Why? To begin with, if group decision making
is to be democratic it must include as much of the group as
possible (inclusivity in other words). But also we have seen
the negative effects of bad group practice. Individuals have
felt forced out of groups. Big bust ups have happened where
no one wins; it may not have been anyone's 'fault' but the
collective result of the policies, personalities and politics
involved has been totally negative. Policies have been forced
through at the cost of people (and then lost in the ensuing
shambles, so there has not even been a real victory for a
majority). Psychological violence which has taken place in
the process has had real and lasting effects on individuals.
Ongoing damage to individuals and groups has been unnecessary
and totally counter-productive to the cause or causes espoused
Of course a new start is possible, but a bitter
taste may be left in the mouth both for those of us who remain
and those of us who leave. None of us is perfect and we don't
live in a perfect world. Group life is not always going to
be 'happy ever after'. But how we confront decision making
and conflict in groups is a marker of whether we really are
following a path of nonviolence in all aspects of life. There
are all sorts of ways of agreeing to disagree; there are all
sorts of ways of allowing people to go ahead with cherished
projects when a whole group or body does not want to be involved;
there are many different ways of managing to respect everyone
within a group even when we disagree radically with them,
or indeed of deciding to separate if we cannot 'live together'.
Learning in this area can be even more vital in our journey
of nonviolence than the simple creed of not killing or physically
Consensus is not a simple matter. It is both
a methodology and an aim. It has to be seen as a creative
process and not a deadener of initiative, something which
stifles projects. It does not have to be the death of initiative,
and indeed if it is then something is woefully wrong. Where
there is respect then birds of a feather within a larger flock
can go ahead with a project without everyone agreeing, or,
if need be, under a different hat. How this process happens
has to be seen as creative and organic - part of developing
the best in humanity and not a power struggle for the heart
and soul of an organisation. Because if it comes to the latter
then the heart is already lost and the soul will likely follow.
The use of creative processes in decision making
can bring out the best in everyone. Of course such a process,
whether a consensus process or not, can conflict with strong
leadership. But it can also help a group to both, paradoxically,
set limits to strong leadership and to enable its visionary
or prophetic qualities to come to the fore in the best way.
Strong leadership can conflict with the needs and desires
of ordinary members, and where policies are pushed through
against the resistance of ordinary members then trouble is
likely to be in store. A consensus process, however, can explore
how the prophetic and visionary qualities of the leadership
can be fully used without this necessarily being identified
as group policy. This is difficult but possible. Where the
process encourages communication and respect for different
positions then the will may be there to work things through,
and the way can be found.
There is also the prejudice around that consensus
decision making takes too much time. It is true that it can
take a significant amount of time. But then how much time
and energy is wasted on unnecessary disputes and conflicts
within groups? And there are situations in which a consensus
approach, and use of the relevant tools, can save time. For
example, a meeting to discuss new policies can spend a couple
of hours discussing them, and going off in various tangents,
when a simple straw vote or consensus voting mechanism can
indicate in five minutes how people are feeling and where
the discussion should concentrate.
This piece is written both as a statement and
a challenge to those of us who do believe in nonviolence to
take consensus seriously. Of course we will not always succeed.
But if we fail with respect and goodwill then we have still
won because we can go on and build again without that knowing
feeling in our stomachs that we have been guilty of treating
others badly - and without people having dropped out of activism
because the experience has been such a painful and personally
In this introduction we are not going into different
methodologies of consensus decision making [that follows in
the ensuing material]. While it may be possible to take an
'off the peg' model either for large or small group consensus,
having 'consensus about consensus' is crucial and therefore
it is to be recommended that groups work out for themselves
what they want their consensus model to be.
For any group decision making process it is
essential that it is clear and transparent. This does not
apply only to consensus decision making but it is even more
important with consensus. Members of the group need to know
at what points they can make effective interventions, and
that they will have space to do this. There is nothing worse
than sitting in a meeting bursting to make what you feel is
an essential point but not knowing when, and how, this can
be raised. This lack of clarity leads to issues getting mixed
up, and important interventions coming at the wrong time.
If members know that they will have the chance to speak at
a particular point, and have their point listened to, before
a conclusion is reached, they may be happy to allow discussion
to proceed past a point where they might otherwise have intervened
(which could have halted the development of thinking within
the group and made the group become stuck at an unnecessary
For larger group decision making and for smaller
groups who are prepared to reach a voting consensus, an excellent
resource is the materials (and CD Rom which will show you
results from 8 different counting procedures) available from
the de Borda Institute (www.deborda.org) on voting procedures.
In nonviolence any form of voting - even the de Borda or Condorcet
methods - may not be a conclusion of the matter which has
to be set in a context and process. But voting procedures
which support consensus can be a vital part of establishing
and building consensus. And it can also be a vital part in
not destroying relationships and making simplistic decisions
by ridiculously narrow options being put to people. Some people
are afraid of consensus voting mechanisms and of the mathematics
involved which is why, below, we say this can be introduced
The ancient Persians had an interesting method
of checking out a decision they arrived at. They made the
decision the first time in their normal process. They made
the second decision when they were completely drunk. If the
two decisions coincided then they felt they had arrived at
an adequate decision.
While the only parallel being made here is with
a 'second' or 'check decision' (and not with making a decision
while being out of your mind), a consensus voting methodology
can also be used as a check for important decisions. And for
those who are unused to the possibility of voting to establish
consensus, it can initially be run parallel to an ordinary
decision making process 'to see how it works'. Once familiar
with it then an informed decision can be made as to its usefulness
in future decision making. A voting process can come first
before discussion to check out that the option chosen is one
that people really are prepared to accept and go with, or,
indeed, be used when there has been a failure to arrive at
consensus through talking.
It should also be pointed out that mediation
practice and theory have much to offer in this area. When
a conflict has reached a certain stage, then a lot of mediation
concepts come into play. The point of having a consensus decision
making policy is to try to ensure that conflicts over decision
making do not need to enter a mediation phase. There is considerable
overlap here and you may wish to consider materials and resources
which are available on mediation.
Finally, it should be said that different people
mean different things by 'consensus' (and the same people
may mean different things according to whether they are talking
about a small group or a whole society). For some it may mean
unanimity. For others it may mean sufficient collective agreement
to proceed on a course of action without others, who may disagree,
feeling extremely strongly that the course being followed
is definitively wrong and dangerous. In larger groups, networks
or at a societal level it may mean finding the choice (cf.
de Borda) which has the maximum level of support across the
board. There is no one 'right' definition of consensus; at
a community and voluntary group level the 'right' definition
is the one which you and your group makes together, and the
commitment to each other which it shows and reinforces.
This piece is written as an introduction to
new materials on consensus for small groups which appear in
the 'Workshop Exercises' (under 'Other Resources') of the
INNATE website. You are welcome to adopt and adapt the material
to fit the needs of your group. If we can offer you any assistance
in your endeavours regarding consensus we would be pleased
to try. We would also welcome comments, further reflections
and experiences to add to the material we have already included.
Good luck - may the nonviolence be with you.
Rob Fairmichael, Coordinator, INNATE.
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There is no one widely accepted definition. Aiming for 'the
maximum agreement among people while drawing on as much of
everyone's ideas as possible' is one possible definition of
the aim of any collective decision making process, not necessarily
of consensus itself, and this does not indicate when you have
'arrived' at consensus.
Your collective definition of consensus as a
group is what is important. If it is a small, informal group
where there is not usually controversy then a fairly loose
but explicit definition may be sufficient, with "Consensus
is to be arrived at simply by a process of informal discussion
allowing everyone to make an input, and everyone being 'reasonably
happy' with the decision." But even in an informal, small
group you may still be wise to have a 'worst case scenario'
policy in place; what will you do if agreement and trust break
down? Enter a protracted period of discussion? Go ahead with
the 'majority' policy? Drop the proposal entirely? Call in
a mediator? Or what? When a crisis is reached is the worst
possible time to try to evolve a strategy for dealing with
In a more formal small group ('small group'
defined as say 6 - 20 members) which requires decisions to
be minuted then a more formal definition is needed. This could
be something like the following:
"Our definition of consensus
aims for complete agreement and support among those present
(or, where members absent have voiced an opinion). This
is complete consensus. However we are willing to move ahead
with a decision where there is clear support among the majority
of members when not more than two members oppose the decision
and the dissenters do not feel it is a critical issue where
they are totally and absolutely opposed - i.e. where they
are willing, despite their dissent, to 'stand aside'. This
latter is 'sufficient consensus' or 'qualified consensus'."
Where the strength of feeling of a minority
is great and there is intense objection within a small group,
it becomes difficult to label any decision as any kind of
consensus - and unwise to proceed with a policy without further
work on it. Consensus is not only about the level of support
but the strength of feeling involved. One of the tools following
may help to define how strongly people feel on an issue.
One useful definition (in 'Building united judgement',
by the Center for Conflict Resolution) is;
"Simply stated, consensus is different from other
kinds of decision making because it stresses the cooperative
development of a decision with group members working together
rather than competing against each other. The goal of consensus
is a decision that is consented to by all group members.
Of course, full consent does not mean that everyone must
be completely satisfied with the final outcome - in fact,
total satisfaction is rare. The decision must be acceptable
enough, however, that all will agree to support the group
in choosing it."
It is therefore clear that a consensus process
does involve compromise. But, and it a big 'but', 'your' compromise
this time may entail 'my' compromise the next time, not in
the sense of some mathematical formula but as a rule of thumb
over time. As with any group process it requires good will
and trust that over time the hills that some people want,
and the valleys which others support on an issue, will even
Other definitions include;
"Consensus, in theory at least, is a synthesis
of everyone's ideas, incorporating everyone's best thinking'.
(From 'Facilitating meetings and workshops' by the
Quaker Peace Action Caravan).
"Consensus is a process for
making group decisions without voting. Agreement is reached
through a process of gathering information and viewpoints,
discussion, persuasion, a combination of synthesis of proposals
and/or the development of totally new ones. The goal of
the consensus process is to reach a decision with which
everyone can agree. Consensus at its best relies upon persuasion
rather than pressure for reaching group unity.....Consensus
does not necessarily mean unanimity........" (Coover,
Deacon, Esser and Moore in 'Monster Manual', "Resource
Manual for a Living Revolution")
Consensus exists within a group when each member
The de Borda Institute or preferendum concept
of consensus is generally taken to refer to larger scale decision
making by voting which people may or may not find helpful
in the 'small group' context (though, as referred to elsewhere,
it can be used for any number of voters from 2 upwards and
any number of options from 3 upwards). However Peter Emerson
has this to say (in 'Defining Democracy',):
"Subject to certain limits which should be laid
down in human rights legislation - [and such limits relate
to what options may be considered] - democratic decision-making
is a process which identifies either the unanimous view-point
(where such exists); or, on more controversial issues, the
average public opinion or common consensus; or, on really
contentious issues and/or especially in any plural society,
the best possible compromise."
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Notes are given in italic. This is designed as a meeting which
can take place in a couple of hours, say two and a half, and
therefore easily enough in a morning, an afternoon, or an
evening. The timing (in minutes) is not precise and will vary
with the group and its size; if you spend more time on one
item than the timing given below, you may find it is balanced
by needing to spend less time on another.
Another approach to group functioning, which
has very direct repercussions for consensus, is looking at
(task and maintenance) roles within the group. This area of
work is not covered here. If the members of the group are
experienced and there is already an awareness of the need
for different roles to be played within a group then there
may be no need to deal with it in detail. If however there
is a problem or a potential problem then it is an area which
needs attention. Resources on group roles are generally readily
available; please ask if INNATE can help (including with the
copy of a fun roleplay scenario with lots of negative roles
1. Welcome from facilitator/chair.
Short introduction(s)/welcome as appropriate
2. Quick exercise; 'What would
you be doing today/now if you weren't here?' As a round. 5
minutes. This acknowledges the effort people have made to
3. Aims of, and introduction to, the
session. 5 -10 minutes
Aim; Where the session aims
to get; e.g. to have a clear and defined trial procedure on
consensus decision making agreed by the end of the meeting.
To review and make final decisions on consensus decision making
at the end of the trial period.
- Introduction by chair/facilitator;
e.g. use the short 'Conditions that support consensus' (following),
or refer to definitions, as appropriate for the group.
- Explain concepts of 'tools' and 'modes'
briefly and relationship between the two.
- Acknowledge, as appropriate, the depth of
knowledge of group procedures already existing in the group
(and while there is the danger of 'teaching Granny to suck
eggs', still 'old dogs can learn new tricks' in this area.
4. Agenda introduction. 3 minutes
Explain the way the meeting aims to build up a package of
tools and modes
5. Spectrum/Barometer on decision making.
20 - 30 minutes.
Start with one or two statements you have prepared
on decision making in relation to the group, let people divide
from 'totally agree' at one side of the room to 'totally disagree'
on the other. Examples could include general statements and
ones specific to the group (though be careful not to personalise
them); e.g. "I'm not too worried about consensus as long
as we get decisions made", and "I would like the
chair to be less directional in meetings".
Allow a few people at least to share on each
statement after people have positioned themselves..
When you have used 'your' statements you can
then allow individuals to make statements for reaction.
This exercise enables a good picture to emerge
of where people stand - and hopefully that it is not a simple
matter of 'majority v. consensus' decision making (e.g. some
of those most insistent that decisions have to be made efficiently
may also be those who insist everyone's views are taken into
account in the process).
This exercise is also very important in that
it may pinpoint publicly some aspects of group functioning
which most need dealt with.
6. Tools using worksheet 20
- 30 minutes
Work through the sheet on Tools, allowing time for questions
and discussion including how particular tools might work for
the group concerned.
7. Straw voting and initial decisions
on tools 'for the bag'. 10 minutes
The idea here is to quickly choose some that are worth looking
at further but are temporarily put into a 'bag' of tools for
8. Modes of discussion; Introduction
using worksheet 5 minutes
a) Extended consensus mode
b) 'Options' mode
c) Normal mode
d) Short mode
See handout following for further information.
Work though the modes taking questions and comments as they
9. Modes of discussion; Round
What do people feel is appropriate and necessary?
10. Decisions on matching modes and
tools 20-30 minutes
The chair/facilitator may want to write up the
modes which people seem to be supporting, get agreement on
those, and then fill in the tools which people feel go with
If not using 'modes', the alternative here would
be to omit Numbers 8 & 9, simply choose the tools you
want to use, and practise using them, perhaps while doing
some 'real' business.
11. Look over conclusions and plan review
(e.g. in 3 meetings time) 10 minutes
The conclusions may already be clear but this
needs to be checked, and to schedule a review in a few meetings
12. Final go round 10 minutes
Anything unsaid that people want to get said
before the end
13. Brief assessment 5 minutes
Can be combined with 'Final go round' in which case you would
ask people to 1) share anything they still wanted to say,
and 2) not more than a few words of comment about this session
14. Closing 2 minutes
Thank yous/acknowledgements/a very short closing game or action
Possible 'games' to be used at an appropriate
a. Balls in the air
Everyone keeps their 'catching' hand in the air until they
have received, and thrown, a ball, which comes back to the
facilitator at the end.. The facilitator 'starts the ball
rolling' again and introduces a number of balls (soft ones
- tennis or table tennis balls are fine) which fly around
simultaneously. Each person receives the ball from the same
person each time, and in turn throws the ball to one different
person. The analogy if with members of the group, and the
group itself, having to keep lots of 'balls in the air' at
the same time.
b. 'One of my worst meeting experiences
regarding procedure - outside this group' - keeping the group/context
Ask anyone who wishes to share a brief description (do as
a around and 'pass' as appropriate). This can be fun and show
the atrocious messes we get into but the facilitator needs
to be careful to ensure members avoid anything to do with
the group in question or touching on members. For safety's
sake it can be specified 'an experience from some time ago'.
This is done as a round and some people will most likely pass.
Can be used where a 'game' might be considered 'juvenile'.
After the meeting.....
(An agreed) Someone writes up the tools and modes chosen.
They are photocopied and made available during each meeting
in the trial period. At the end of the trial period these
are reviewed and revised and become part of the normal meeting
CONDITIONS THAT SUPPORT CONSENSUS
(from 'Building United Judgement', Center for Conflict Resolution,
1. Unity of purpose
2. Equal access to power
3. Autonomy of the group from external hierarchical structures
5. A willingness in the group to attend to process
6. A willingness in the group to attend to attitudes
7. A willingness in the group to learn and practice skills
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It is up to the chair/facilitator and group which tools are
used on a particular occasion. Many of these depend on good
will and a desire to seek a consensus; most can also be used
cynically and negatively, if some people are so minded, and
therefore the chair/facilitator has a particular responsibility
to choose those which are most likely to lead to consensus.
Go rounds allow everyone to speak and put their point of view
but with less opportunity to go off on fascinating tangents
and argumentative diversions. The round can start anywhere
and then move on to the next person (they should not always
start or end at the same point). Each person can be formally
time limited. Anyone who wishes not to say anything can simply
'pass'. Depending on time, the importance of the matter at
hand, and individual feelings, an opportunity can be given
for short additional points at the end of the round which
can be time limited.
Taking a break
Getting tired and losing focus are one or two reasons to take
a break but there are others (e.g. preventing an all out bust-up
if things are getting very heated and there is no immediate
way to calm them). It can provide an opportunity for some
people engaged in a discussion to confer informally so that
the process can move forward more swiftly when reconvening.
It can also mark a line under a particular part of the agenda
before moving on. It can aid creativity to simply take a short,
unscheduled break at an appropriate time. If time allows,
people can even go outside or out for a coffee.
Playing a game
Groups and contexts differ and playing games may be possible
or impossible. Where games are possible then an appropriate
game may provide a 'collective break together' and introduce
an element of fun. If the facilitator has knowledge of a range
of games then a carefully chosen game can also be used to
illustrate a point or the stage a group is at. Where 'games'
as such are impossible it may be possible to do a 'verbal
game' -.e.g. sharing what people's favourite breakfast is,
sharing on an activity of hobby people are involved in at
the moment, etc.
Taking an indication of strength of
It is important to take into account not only what people
feel but also how strongly they feel it. This can be done
verbally ('who feels particularly strongly on this?'), or
by a show of hands. One method is to use an index, e.g. 0
- 5 as follows:
0) Not really concerned, not an issue.
1) Feel it is an issue but don't feel too strongly
2) Issue of some importance but not overly
3) Feel strongly on the issue but willing to
4) Feel strongly enough that compromise would
5) Matter of principle/essential issue where
cannot see how can compromise at the moment.
However this has to be used with honesty, good
will and give and take or it simply becomes a blocking mechanism.
A high index rating may mean a decision has to be deferred
and/or a different mode of discussion is indicated.
Use a consensus voting method
Consensus voting procedures (e.g. de Borda, Condorcet) can
be used for any number of voters from 2 upwards, and for any
number of options from 3 upwards (if only two options are
put it results in the same decision as a majority vote). Consensus
voting can be used as a) the definitive decision, or b) the
starting point for a discussion which will arrive at an agreed
decision, taking the vote into account (this is possible at
a small group level where it is not possible in the same way
at a societal level).
One important point about consensus voting methodologies
is that all 'sides' have to feel that at least one of the
options put to the vote represents their point of view. In
other words, no one person or side, not even a facilitator,
controls the options which are put to the vote. These may
need to be moderated into coherent options but again all 'sides'
have to feel their position is being fairly put for the vote
With a CD-Rom readily available to do the work
in producing results, this is now an accessible method for
A show of hands, or other indication, is taken of how people
feel. This is a snapshot of where people are at that point
on a particular matter or proposal, not a decision in itself.
Combined with an indication of strength of feeling it may
help to direct how the discussion on the matter at hand should
take place. It is also important that, while it may indicate
a minority on an issue whose views need to be taken into account,
what follows has to be discussion and not pressure on anyone
to 'give in'; likewise, how the facilitator/chair frames options
for the straw vote needs to avoid divisiveness.
Time restrictions are not something which may be necessary,
depending on the volume of business the group concerned has
to deal with, the time available and the range of views involved.
However they may be necessary either in general or for a particularly
contentious item of business. If possible there needs to be
agreement beforehand on their use so this tool (as with others)
is not seen as being wielded in a partisan way.
The simplest time restriction is to simply allocate
everyone a set time to speak ('2 minutes') with perhaps extra
time ('1 minute') for additional points. Contributions can
be made as people wish or as a round.
If desired there can be a timekeeper. This is often advisable
because a) it is a 'neutral' person who simply records the
facts of time, and b) it frees the chair/facilitator to concentrate
on the issues.
Here's some of the possibilities:
- Conch'. Other forms include a chair or chairs
that you have to sit in to speak (cf fishbowl).
- Ball of wool (once off) [to indicate interaction
- A round of everyone and then any additional
points for less than 2 minutes each.
- '2 minutes' each and '1 minute' for additional
- Each person has some many 'minute points'
to speak at the start of a meeting (e.g. with matchsticks
or counters). After these are used they have to get special
permission to speak.
- 'Traffic lights' with a time keeper (to
be used with some form of time restriction). Green when
the speaker has the floor; orange when they have, say, 1
minute to wind up; red when they have passed their time
- Agreed time limits beforehand on agenda
items (not just chair's aims).
- Move from speaker 'for' a proposal to one
'against' to a 'neutral/undecided' and back again (cf debating).
However, even with the 'three sides' there is a danger in
this being simply divisive.
- Break into one-to-one discussion, generally
with 'opposites' where possible. Each person is given, say,
5 minutes to talk while the other listens; the pair then
reverse roles. Coming back, each summarises the opponents'
views with the other person allowed 1 minute to add anything
they feel is left out.
The facilitator or chair has to be firm but
fair; the aim is to get all views expressed, without unnecessary
repetition. Where new ideas or views are being expressed then
time may need to be extended, in which case the chair/facilitator
is wise to get agreement to this and acknowledge what is happening
(so that they are not seen to be partisan, allowing one 'side'
to speak more than its due).
This is used to generate everyone's ideas. Crazy, zany, humorous,
dead serious ideas are allowed and encouraged. The essential
- Everything suggested is written down on
a sheet which everyone can see.
- Normal ideas of appropriateness are discarded
to allow creative and lateral thinking.
- No comments are made until the brainstorming
process is completed.
Fast processing of brainstorm suggestions can
be done by running through the list and stopping at points
where people want explanation or feel there is something worth
exploring further. A straw vote can be used to indicate support
for exploring items further.
Lateral thinking process
This can be used in conjunction with a brainstorming process.
In the case of lateral thinking, it is a matter of exploring
other ways of dealing with the matter in hand which might
have the same or a similar effect or conclusion. Focus on
interests not positions (cf Getting to Yes, Ury and Fisher).
Small group/caucus discussions
This is to allow people to articulate concerns and develop
ideas. Caucus groups can be formed with members a) randomly
chosen b) birds of a feather, or c) deliberately having mixed
opinions in each group. The choice of a), b), or c) here is
up to the facilitator in conjunction with the whole group.
Having 'birds of a feather' (similar views) together may be
useful if what is most important is getting proposals for
going forward from the different 'sides' involved. Having
deliberately mixed views in each group may be appropriate
where the most important aim is for individuals to both 'hear'
and 'be heard'.
Already mentioned above, one-to-ones are an important tool
for several reasons. Firstly, it allows everyone, including
those who may find it more difficult to speak in meetings,
to formulate and express their ideas (which can assist within
the larger group). Secondly, it allows communicate at a more
intimate level than in the whole group, which may assist real
understanding. Thirdly (an extension of the second point)
it helps to ensure that individuals are hearing and heard
and thus that everyone's concerns are taken properly into
account in the group.
One-to-ones should usually be done as a 'speaking/listening'
exercise. That is, one person speaks for a certain time while
the other listens; roles are then reversed. The length of
time given can depend on the subject (though the facilitator
can check with some pairs whether they need more time to get
an indication for the whole group). The facilitator needs
to indicate when it is time to change over speaking and listening
within the pair, perhaps giving a minute to swap over, and
also give an indication of when time is nearly up so that
no one is suddenly stopped dead.
Silence / Music / Poetry
We all tend to be afraid of silence but it can be a strong
and useful tool in allowing reflection and restoring calm.
An alternative is some music, or poetry. These need to be
used carefully and the purpose explained by the facilitator
so it is not seen as an attempt to 'silence' people but rather
as part of a process of helping communication.
Appropriate music can also be used to set the
scene before a meeting, during a break, or a particular song
can be used to illustrate a point. In this case music is being
used to add an extra dimension to the meeting.
Check for agreement on parts of a proposal
If parts of a proposal are agreed, these can be set aside.
This both focuses attention on the remaining issues and can
also help to show what has already been agreed and achieved.
Set aside [see also 'End options' worksheet]
It can be agreed to set aside contentious parts for discussion
later or at the next (or a specially convened) meeting. If
matters are set aside for a later meeting then a process needs
to be put into operation to assist decision making then. Possibilities
a) A few key people (representing different
points of view) agree to develop their ideas, and possibilities
for going forward. These are compiled and circulated to members
before the next meeting.
b) The chair or facilitator consults with some
members and puts together ideas which are either circulated
to members in advance or presented at the start of the next
c) A working (sub-)committee is set up to take
the issue forward and report back.
If the stalemate is particularly serious or
the need is felt for outside input, the group can get in an
outside consultant or mediator. The role of this person should
be agreed beforehand (e.g. Do they facilitate the next meeting?
Do they make recommendations or simply help the group explore
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As a group nears the end of a discussion or process, a variety
of stands are possible by the group as a whole and by individuals
when it is clear that arriving at consensus is difficult.
Group options include:
The proposers withdraw the concern or issue, or modify it.
Move to an 'outside meeting' stage
[see also 'Set aside' under Tools worksheet]
The issue is dealt with further before coming back to the
group/committee. Options include
1. A compilation of ideas on ways forwarded
is circulated, representing different tendencies/viewpoints
within the group.
2. The chair or facilitator is tasked with talking to members
and putting proposals to the next meeting
3. The issue is referred to a nominated and agreed smaller
group for further reflection. The last can also be a classic
delaying tactic. The chair or facilitator may wish to advocate
the option which they feel will both best represent the group
and have a chance of coming up with a successful proposal;
this is a difficult decision but will depend on their knowledge
of the members of the group and the issue in question. The
group, obviously, has to agree with the process.
Inviting an outside mediator or facilitator can be considered
a 'big deal' but shouldn't be. It is better to invite someone
in sooner rather than later, if it is a difficult issue where
no immediate prospect of agreement is forthcoming. An outsider
cannot work miracles; they may be able to help the group see
things in perspective and discover where agreement is possible,
and suggest a process to work things through.
Go back a stage or change discussion
If the group has agreed procedures, or can agree to them,
it may be possible to 'shift gears' to a less pressured discussion
mode as well as setting aside additional time (either in the
same meeting or at a future point). If it is felt that time,
and working through the issues, can lead to consensus then
this is useful. If it is felt that positions are sufficiently
entrenched that movement is next to impossible then this may
simply increase feelings of frustration and angst.
Use a consensus voting method
If talking has not resolved the issue, voting can still be
used. It may be helpful to have agreed beforehand that, in
the event of a block, a consensus voting methodology will
Declare a block
None of us likes to admit defeat. But it can be important
for the group and its integrity to recognise that there is
no agreement at that point. It is still possible to revisit
the issue later when opinions may have developed or changed,
or the context makes the issue different.
Split rather than splat
There are some groups, particularly informal ones without
large resources, where an amicable split can be an answer
to irreconcilable differences. Even where the group or organisation
does hold resources, it may be worth thinking about if the
alternative is a bitter fight (splat rather than split) which
is going to damage the cause and the individuals involved.
Within an organisation it may be possible for special interest
groups to be set up, each with a different focus, so long
as they still meet the goals of the overall organisation.
For many other organisations, however, splitting may be a
difficult or impossible option for a whole variety of reasons.
Individual options include:
A member who does not agree with a policy proposal may feel
able to support it with reservations, and/or be content that
they have argued their side. If it is not something which
they consider a totally vital issue they may be simply willing
to stand aside and let the policy proceed. Depending on the
policy of 'collective responsibility' within the group or
committee this may entail either supporting the policy publicly
or certainly not attacking it.
Depending on the procedures or standing orders, an individual
can request that their dissent from a policy be listed, noted
or minuted. It is not a good idea to use this routinely but
it can be important nevertheless to provide an individual
enough 'distance' from a policy they do not support to continue
Where an individual or individuals are so fundamentally opposed
to a policy that they feel they need to block it, then, according
to the group's standing orders and procedures, they do so.
This is a last resort and a wise chair or facilitator may
pre-empt such a block by either declaring a collective block
(so the issue does not become personalised so much) or move
it to a different discussion mode or stage.
Withdrawal from group
Individuals can withdraw from the group over a fundamental
issue or issues. This can take place in an acrimonious fashion
or friendly relationships can be maintained depending on how
the issue is approached by all concerned. Threatening to leave
a group to try and influence the direction on an issue is
not a wise move unless you both mean it and feel it is essential
to say so - apart from anything else your bluff may be called.
Swings and roundabouts can be called on whereby someone explicitly
states that "I'm willing to go with this ('x') if you
withdraw your objection to that ('y')/ I get that ('y')".
While this is not an ideal way to do any business, least of
all trying to arrive at a consensus, it can nevertheless be
useful as a last resort to see where the bottom line is for
people and arrive at something of a 'win win' solution. But
it is only a last resort.
An issue which seems to go against 'your' feelings and values
may feel an enormous blow. But one possibility is simply to
wait and see what is the overall balance of a package or various
issues before coming to a final conclusion. If this is your
policy you may be wise, however, to indicate that this is
what you are doing (e.g. "I don't agree but I'm willing
to stand aside on this issue and wait to see what the score
is in a couple of meetings time") or you could be seen
later as deliberately putting a spanner in 'already agreed'
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A group can decide on a few different 'modes' of discussion,
analogous in some ways to gears of a bicycle, which it feels
are appropriate. Considering the metaphor of bicycle gears,
a meeting can start off in any gear, stay in that gear or
shift up and down as appropriate. How many modes or gears
a group has needs to be decided as there could be two, three,
four, or more. The extent to which particular tools are associated
with individual gears/modes also needs to be defined.
The following are only a few modes for illustrative
purposes. You could, if you wanted, have a 'Picnic mode' (where
everyone went on a picnic together to discuss an issue) or
a 'No time limits mode' (well, a day or even a weekend, but
the whole available time is set aside for the discussion,
apart from social activities. The chair/facilitator needs
to have ideas for structuring the time however). It is for
you to decide what is appropriate.
1.Extended consensus mode
This can be a specially convened meeting or a residential
before a meeting which will discuss the issue in question.
Time is taken to allow consideration of an area in depth;
while there may have to be some time limitations, normal time
restrictions are not applied. Brainstorming (with no discussion
until the ideas have been brainstormed) and lateral thinking
may be appropriate in the early stages of discussion.
2. Options mode [see 'Set aside'
under Tools, also End options]
a) Options are presented in written form by
different members of the group representing different strands
of thought. These are compiled and circulated to everyone
before the next meeting.
b) The chair/facilitator confers with some
members beforehand in order to prepare a presentation of possible
options, especially ones which might receive consensus agreement.
Where appropriate, options may be eliminated from the discussion.
c) As above except the chair/facilitator prepares
the options following a discussion in a meeting; these options/proposals
are presented to the next meeting. Brainstorming may be appropriate
at the initial stage.
The three possibilities here under 'Options mode' are similar
and which of them is most appropriate has to be decided.
3. Normal mode
'Normal' meeting rules (whatever they are for an individual
group) operate with the use of appropriate tools from the
agreed list, particularly go rounds, short breaks and time
4. Fast mode
Use can be made of go rounds with short time allocations for
each person. This can avoid something which seems uncontroversial
being 'nodded through' only for it to be discovered later
that there are problems which were not discussed.