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Nonviolence News


Consensus for Small Groups
An introduction and worksheets

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

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

or print this page

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.


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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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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3. A possible agenda for a meeting on consensus
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 included!).

1. Welcome from facilitator/chair. 2 minutes
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 come

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 further sorting.

8. Modes of discussion; Introduction using worksheet 5 minutes
Possible modes/gears;

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 come.

9. Modes of discussion; Round 30 minutes
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 each.

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 time.

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 on consensus.

14. Closing 2 minutes
Thank yous/acknowledgements/a very short closing game or action

Possible 'games' to be used at an appropriate point;

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 anonymous
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 procedure.

(from 'Building United Judgement', Center for Conflict Resolution, 1981)

1. Unity of purpose
2. Equal access to power
3. Autonomy of the group from external hierarchical structures
4. Time
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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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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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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6. Modes of Discussion
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 restrictions.

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.

Copyright INNATE 2016