Consensus for Small Groups
An introduction and worksheets

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5. End options when difficulties remain
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:

Withdraw concern
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.

Invite mediation/facilitation
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 mode
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 be used.

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:

Non-support/reservations/Standing aside
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.

Listing dissent
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 actively involved.

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' works.

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