Consensus for Small Groups
An introduction and worksheets

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2. Definitions of consensus
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 a crisis.

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 out.

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 can say:

  • I have had the opportunity to voice my opinions
  • I believe the group has heard me
  • I can actively support the group's decision as the best possible at this time, even if it is not my first choice" and
  • Consensus decision making requires:
  • Sufficient time to explore all the information and opinions
  • Strong facilitative leadership
  • Members willing to contribute their views and discuss their reasons
  • Commitment and effort to develop an atmosphere of honesty and openness in the group
  • Willingness to confront and resolve controversy and conflict"

(CORE-R.O.I. (USA) website)

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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