When Consensus Doesn’t Work

Tree Bressen consensus process

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.

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11 Responses to When Consensus Doesn’t Work

  1. jc says:


    Good evening. I have finished about a quarter of your current posts.
    First: thank you for the efforts and the beginning of this line.

    Second: it will take me a couple days to process these ideas. I am going to review the two books on economics.

    Lastly: I am a stone thrower (or another analogy “stone placer”). Baby steps…brother…the right people…in the right place…right words lead to right actions. A pebble placed right will create a tidalwave. Keep writing.


  2. In my view consensus can be – to a large degree – orchestrated. And the orchestra conductor is the chief executive (CAO, CEO, ED).

    in the not-for-profit Board milieu, however, the consensus / decision roles they can perform are often not acknowledged. A much higher level of governance quality emerges when the Board agenda is effectively managed, and each item on that agenda is prefaced by an analysis and recommendation. As a city chief administrator I would not permit anything to appear before Council without that, even if the recommendation was simply “to file.” If you offer a governing body no guidance and great latitude you will reap what you have sown: debate, disagreement and sometimes catastrophic decisions. I naively hope that boards in the private sector do better at this.

  3. “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…the more drastic the change needed, the more reluctant people are to agree to it.”

    This is a challenging insight. Consensus often attracts people who are looking for radical change in wider society, and yet play out the dynamics of conservatism in their groups. However I’d hesitate to say that’s a characteristic of consensus per se.

    It’s true to say that the usual fall back position if a decision can’t be made is the status quo. But I have experienced consensus producing radical, creative and unpredictable results in groups of varying kinds. I’ve experienced the process bringing groups together in a closeness that provided the support needed for them to take radical decisions (including decisions that could have led to 10 year prison sentences for activists). And I think once a group has weathered that process once, it becomes easier to shake themselves out of their conservatism to do it again and again.

    I wonder whether it’s an insight into consensus itself or just into the nature of people? And if the latter doesn’t it effect all decision-making methods equally?

    “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”

    I think it’s worth remembering that in consensus we’re not necessarily all agreeing. We are all consenting and we can consent to stuff we don’t agree with. Unity not unanimity, as a friend of mine put it. But in reality groups approach consensus like they are looking for unanimity and that itself causes problems and makes decisions harder to reach. As you’ve pointed out, that difficulty is magnified by decisions around radical change

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  6. Dave Pollard says:

    comment from an anonymous reader sent to me by e-mail:

    i’ve worked a lot with consensus-including in quaker contexts (and pretty unimpressed at how it played out there), took a five day course in it from an expert in consensus (she is nationally known in the intentional community milieu, co-founded an intentional community that runs on it…i found it striking, however, that her husband admitted privately how satisfying it is when he can just make a decision by himself, without consulting anyone!!!), and am pretty soured on it. i’ve found that it is an excellent process for discouraging personal initaitive in service to the Whole…

    it requires a lot upfront for it to really work-
    high level of trust within the group
    shared values
    personal awareness and honesty.

    i think it’s pretty rare to find groups that have all of that.

    one alternative for decision-making is Five to Fold Decision-making, adopted by the Genuine Contact Community and elsewhere. it isn’t, of course, a panacea, but it seems to marry the best of voting and consensus…also, some would quibble with the whole notion of decision-making, suggesting that instead we practice “choice-creation.” (see jim rough’s dynamic facilitation, http://tobe.net). His book, Society’s Breakthrough, if you aren’t familiar with it, might be of interest, too…

    one of the startling aspects of dynamic facilitation/wisdom councils is that it allows for people to come to unanimity even where there are no apparent shared values, not a high level of trust, and even where there might be people with significant personal challenges (being homeless, psychiatric disability, substance abuse issues).

    can it guarantee that? well, no… impressive nonetheless.

  7. pablito says:

    As a consensus practitioner, facilitator, and occasional trainer, street- and otherwise activist ,interested in little d democracy for some time, I have reactions to two comments plus a comment on the article…

    1. Yeah I’ve seen bosses in for- and not-for-profit corporations manipulate consensus. There are usually a number of underlying weaknesses which allow this to occur, such as a lack of consensus training, a lack of information in the participants, unclear group agreements, and usually a commitment to the authoritarian power-over way, not the cooperative way, by enough people that people who challenge forced consensus process are left hung out to dry.

    The term forced consensus, also known sometimes by the euphamism “consensus building”, is an oxymoron, because informed consensual “consent” is very different from coerced “consent”, performed by a variety of means including seduction, bullying, bossing, marginalization, and witholding information. Besides “consensus building”, another consensus red flag is when the facilitator is also a person with structural power, like the CEO or ED, because in healthy consensus the facilitator must be neutral.

    2. As for the trainer’s husband’s comment about how satisfying to make decisions without consultation, I think part of that is natural since many of us want to get things done now and not after a potentially lengthy process, and I’d also question whether consensus is being over used. My guideline is that the people affected by a decision are the ones who must have the opportunity to consent to it (or not), but sometimes I’ve been asked to help make a decision which didn’t affect me, which is when I think the process is unnecessary and goes off track, leaving those directly affected feeling intruded upon. For example it’s unlikely that a group consensus decision about what time of day you personally brush your teeth is useful.

    In his unpublished book “Consensus for Cities”, C.T. Butler (consensus.net) makes recommendations which support the article’s point that certain ideological or belief-based (and there are more situations too in my opinion, often stemming from personal baggage) do not resolve with consensus. He recommends making a mediation structure for when these conflicts arise, and mediation (which is not arbitration or what is classically thought of as negotiation) can solve some of these things.

    One thing I missed seeing in this article are the fairly well-known preconditions for consensus to succeed (including knowing when not to use it). I’ve mentioned some here: sufficient process training, the group’s commitment to a common purpose which is unambiguous (clear agreements), neutral (and competent) facilitation. See also works by Diana Leaf Christian, Starhawk, George Lakey, C.T. Butler, Peter Gelderloos and no-doubt many others.

    AK Press publishes a priceless booklet entitled “Come Hell or High Water: A Handbook on Collective Process Gone Awry” http://www.akpress.org/2009/items/comehellorhighwater

  8. Tree Bressen says:

    I’m honored to have my work referred to here. Just to be clear though, the consensus flow chart above isn’t really “my” consensus process, rather it is a distillation of typical consensus process as learned by me and many others over the years. I wrote the chart with help from Tom Atlee as i recall, but neither of us originated the ideas in it.

    Aside from that, while i agree that consensus comes more easily among groups with shared values, principles, and ideology, it has also been used successfully in circumstances far from that. See, for example, the work of the Oregon Consensus program at Portland State Univ. (http://www.orconsensus.pdx.edu/about.php) and the use of consensus in watershed councils such as this one: http://www.mckenziewc.org/charter.pdf.


  9. Scott says:


    Is it possible for one of the group members to be a facilitator? For example, a father in a family? Or is it not possible due to conflict of interest?


  10. pablito says:

    Scott, in my view it is always a problem if the person facilitating is also a person with more power in the group than most, like a father usually, or an executive director, or boss, and it should be avoided wherever possible, but in real (aka hierarchically-arranged families, businesses, etc) it is often not possible. One benefit of boss-as-facilitator is that the power structure MAY be visible and therefore challenged, though lots of people swallow the boss’ BS line of just being another employee/volunteer “just like everyone else”. I think it takes a special organization to be able to do real consensus between bosses and subordinates, because any subordinate who wants to get ahead or stay out of trouble knows they need to kiss up. It’s not, in my view, easy to get real genuine consent from subordinates because of this very real unequal power differential. In the area of consent for sexual activity, many agree that “Where power differentials exist, there can be no ‘mutual consent.'” (Dzeich et al., 1990) and I believe Gramsci’s Hegemony arguments reinforce this.

    It is perhaps even worse when the power structure is concealed, denied, or invisible and everyone can go read The Tyrany of Structureless by Jo Freeman http://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm for more about that — and an additional conclusion I take from Freeman is that the decision making process and power structure needs to be transparent and well trained.

    Even in the most enlightened egalitarian groups, people have different kinds and levels of power, so a good practice is to rotate facilitation between meetings and sometimes within a meeting. Prior group agreement that anyone is empowered to depose the current facilitator at any time with no prior burden of proof is good too. Another good thing I’ve seen/experienced is facilitators who recuse themselves because they have a high stake or interest in the current discussion, and generally it seems good for people bringing items for discussion never to also facilitate them.

  11. pablito says:

    Oh one other thing, many groups use outside facilitators (me ferinstance) especially for intense issues.

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