consensus process flowchart by tree bressen
For the most part, I would argue, our industrial civilization culture has given up on allowing groups to make decisions. In business, decisions are mostly made by individuals at the top of the hierarchy authorized to make them. Voting is rare, and usually a sham to enforce compliance with decisions already made. Boards of Directors ostensibly make decisions based on group consensus, but my experience is that the decisions they have to make are rarely contentious, and when they are (e.g. firing the CEO, setting top executive salaries) Directors rely on outside ‘experts’ to recommend a narrow set of alternatives to them. Wise ‘expert’ consultants know to provide cues as to the preferred alternative so that the group is led to make the “right” decision.
Political decisions are left up to individuals to make by plurality vote, which usually leads to results that are either dysfunctional or inconsequential — rarely is any real choice left to such a chancy process. Hegemony ensures that the two or three alternative groups up for selection really decide among themselves, aided and abetted by money from contributors who want to sway the results, and by a complacent media attuned to the false and simplistic “choices” of consumerism.
In our families and other local social circles, decisions are usually made by one or two dominant individuals, who bully the rest to either comply or leave the group. Most of us never learn that there is another process for group decision-making — consensus.
The consensus process is agreement-seeking (give everyone a result they are satisfied with), collaborative (appreciative and interactive), non-adversarial, egalitarian (no power politics), altruistic (seeking the best resolution for the whole over personal interest) and inclusive (everyone participates and is genuinely heard). Tree Bressen’s consensus process is illustrated above. The idea is to enable and encourage the full wisdom of the group to be heard, and agreement on a best course of action to emerge from the discussion. A good facilitator can help guide this process, avoid inappropriate behaviours that can prevent consensus from emerging, and articulate the consensus when it has been achieved. I’ve written before about the obvious benefits of this approach (including creativity, greater insight, group cohesion, and better implementation) over the usual decision-making methods of hierarchical fiat, coercion, majority/plurality rule, and even the ‘free’ market (since ‘free’ markets don’t really exist).
Consensus works whenever there is substantive agreement in principle among the group, and, more importantly, it works when there is an informed lack of agreement plus a genuine collective interest in achieving such agreement. If some members have already made the decision by fiat, or are inclined to use power politics and coercion to get compliance with their wishes, or are content with majority/plurality rule or the ‘free’ market to make the decision, there will be no collective interest in achieving consensus. You have probably witnessed this a thousand times in your workplace and other groups you belong to. Consensus is hard, time-consuming work, especially since in our modern culture we are so unpractised at it.
Likewise, if disagreements are ideological rather than based on different information, ideas and understandings, consensus may not work. As the decision chart above shows, it depends on what aspects of participants’ ideologies the differences lie in. Our ideologies and belief sets help determine our values — what we think is important, urgent or ‘right’ to do in the world — and hence what decisions and actions we’re open to.
If the differences lie in the more malleable parts of our ideologies — beliefs in what is possible or what is really happening — it may be possible to bridge the differences through the telling of stories that allow the participants to grasp how a difference of perception of the current reality or future possibilities has arisen. For example, a story about the struggle of endangered species of 400 million year old turtles, or a story about how a group of young people successfully persuaded a megapolluter to clean up its act, might appeal to a climate change denier sufficiently to achieve consensus on the need for a carbon tax, when otherwise the denier would be resistant to the idea because s/he conflates it with a belief set that is in deep conflict with her/his own. Stories are subversive — they allow different ways of seeing to to be appreciated without going through the normal filters of our established worldview and beliefs.
On the other hand, if the differences lie in more intransigent parts of our ideologies — our beliefs in the essential nature of human beings and our inherent motivations, or our beliefs in why something is happening (rather than what is happening), then stories and other bridging mechanisms are unlikely to work, and attempts at consensus are likely to be futile. A conservative who believes we are inherently sinful and vulnerable to evil will probably never agree with a liberal who believes we are inherently good and well-intentioned, when it comes to an issue like, say, safe drug injection sites or legalizing prostitution.
There is another situation when consensus is unlikely to work: When the degree of change needed to achieve the goal is necessarily radical. It is in our nature to be resistant to change, and, while change is possible when there is agreement on its urgency or importance, or when the change is easy or fun to make, the more drastic the change needed, the more reluctant people are to agree to it. I have seen too many occasions when a consensus-seeking group opted, after exhaustive discussion, for a decision that was too modest to achieve the needed result, because getting the whole group to agree even in substance on radical change was just impossible. This is particularly true in businesses faced with change-or-die situations: groupthink seems to set in, with the participants trying to reassure each other and persuading themselves to stay the course, usually with tragic results.
As the crises we face in our world become more pervasive, frequent and intractable, there would seem to be a growing willingness to set aside the old, non-consensual decision methods, and to set aside some aspects of our entrenched ideologies, and try something new. The opportunities for using consensus to make better decisions than those we make today are limitless, especially as we get better at the practice. We just need to be aware of the situations where consensus is the most intelligent approach, and when it is not.