Consensus for Small Groups
An introduction and worksheets

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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.


  1. An introduction to consensus Go...
  2. Definitions of consensus [Handout/Worksheet 1] Go...
  3. A draft agenda for a meeting on consensus Go...
  4. Tools for consensus [Handout/Worksheet 2] Go...
  5. End options at a group and individual level when difficulties remain [Handout/Worksheet 3] Go...
  6. 'Modes' of discussion [Handout/Worksheet 4] Go...

(or, Download the workshop as a Rich Text Document Go... 118k)

Notes regarding contents
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 be ignored.

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.

INNATE (an Irish Network for Nonviolent Action Training and Education).

1. An introduction to consensus

'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 group experience.

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 by all.

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 harming others.

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 costly one.

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 stage).

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 ( 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 gradually.

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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