Consensus for Small Groups
An introduction and worksheets

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4. Tools For Consensus
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
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 feeling
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 about it.

2) Issue of some importance but not overly important.

3) Feel strongly on the issue but willing to compromise somewhat.

4) Feel strongly enough that compromise would be difficult.

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 to proceed.

With a CD-Rom readily available to do the work in producing results, this is now an accessible method for most people.

Straw vote
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
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:

  1. Conch'. Other forms include a chair or chairs that you have to sit in to speak (cf fishbowl).
  2. Ball of wool (once off) [to indicate interaction patterns]
  3. A round of everyone and then any additional points for less than 2 minutes each.
  4. '2 minutes' each and '1 minute' for additional points.
  5. 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.
  6. '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 limit.
  7. Agreed time limits beforehand on agenda items (not just chair's aims).
  8. 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.
  9. 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 prerequisites are;

  1. Everything suggested is written down on a sheet which everyone can see.
  2. Normal ideas of appropriateness are discarded to allow creative and lateral thinking.
  3. 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 here include;

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 meeting.

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 options?).


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