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What Does Consensus Really Mean?

Consensus decision making has a bad reputation for being process-heavy, confusing, inefficient, and frustrating. It’s a very idealistic notion, rarely attainable. Perhaps that’s why I’m so attracted to it! Haha. I joined a cohousing community that makes decisions by consensus. I chaired a Waldorf school board that makes decisions by consensus. I’m often hired by groups to help them achieve consensus.

When it happens it’s wonderful! For one thing, when a decision is made by true consensus there’s no minority out there trying to undermine it. For another thing, everyone understands the decision and why it’s needed; there’s real buy-in. And lastly, each person feels respected; that their opinion was heard and considered.

In my opinion there are three steadfast hallmarks of consensus decision making. 1. Everyone has a chance to raise concerns. 2. The group tries to understand and accommodate all concerns, at least within reason. 3. Each person is thinking about what’s best for the group, rather than just what’s best for them. When we do consensus decision making we do shared problem solving. It’s like this: If it’s a problem for you, it’s a problem for us. Let’s work on all our problems together.

People often confuse consensus with “casual;” meaning there are no real votes and few formalities. Not true. If you want to do consensus decision making right there are indeed formal calls for consensus, three specific ways to answer the call, specific steps leading up to calls for consensus, written proposals, documented decisions, and neutral facilitation. And there are specific attitudes and values that, if not present among your group, you have no hope of achieving consensus.

I have written quite a lot about consensus in my book Together We Decide, An Essential Guide for Making Good Group Decisions. And I have posted a lot about consensus. You might search the word consensus at my website. The Search Box is at the bottom of every page. For one thing, here’s a Good Group Tip I wrote called Consensus Doesn’t Mean Casual.

Like all things of high value, consensus decision making requires practice. Yet if you are making big decisions that will affect a large number of people over a long time, I hope you believe that it’s worth the effort.

If you have critiques of consensus decision making, or praises, let’s hear them! I hope you will tell me about YOUR experiences in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “What Does Consensus Really Mean?

  1. The subject matter that you introduce this morning on “Consensus” reminds me deeply of the paradigm that I was taught as it relates to “consensus”. In college and through my business career the mantra is that “Consensus is the lack of Leadership” (attributed to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher). I must say, I have had a difficult time in understanding that in it’s entirety. But, I will share the observation that much of the tumult we are all experiencing right now is due to a distinct and clear lack of leadership. Like a ship on the stormy sea, a Captain, a Leader is needed to navigate the waters.

    Now, I am in no way making this a political statement to our current leadership. I am going back decades and am not referencing this in terms of just politics. Literally every institution is experiencing this void. Churches, communities, families included. Leaving the vacuum of “who’s in charge here”.
    Yet, we need consensus. Desperately. At times, today, the issues are so passionate, so energized, so polarizing, as people are being asked to “concede” values that they have held in their souls for their entire lives. Not an easy matter.

    Keep up the great work. I wish you all the best. Keep going. It is good work. And I know we can get a consensus on that.

    Many blessings to you today Craig. Thanks for doing what you’re doing.

  2. I do not like consensus at all. I do not feel heard and I feel totally disrespected. I much prefer majority rule. I think it is more fair in decision making process. At least in a majority rule organization even if I am in the minority I feel safe enough to express my views. In the consensensus style, I do not feel safe to express my views. And have felt coerced to say I was in consensus when I definitely was not. If I had the power to do so I would completely abolish consensus decision making in organizations.

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