Consensus Model of Decision-Making: An Overview

several thumbs-up drawings in an abstract pattern

A consensus decision-making model empowers participants to cooperate with one another in order to reach an outcome that is in the best interest of the group as a whole and that furthers the group’s stated purpose. It is a structured process that ensures that all voices are heard and yet provides for an efficient means to reach decisions. The consensus model encourages active participation by establishing a collective ownership of all proposals, concerns, and discussions. It provides for various levels of assent while still reserving the right to say no; however, that no generally is reserved for exceptional circumstances.

Consensus is not the same thing as unanimity. It is not that all participants must agree to the proposal; rather, they must agree not to stand in the way of the proposal. Consensus is reached when no participants hold strong concerns that are based on the group’s stated purpose or values.

Success of a consensus process depends on several things:

  • Having clearly stated the group mission and values or covenant.
  • Designating certain key roles as essential for the process, the most important of these being the facilitator.
  • Having the commitment of the participants to cooperate, speak in a disciplined manner, listen attentively, and show respect for the contributions of every member.

Consensus works best in an atmosphere in which conflict is encouraged, supported, and resolved cooperatively with respect, nonviolence, and creativity. Conflict is desirable, as it brings the differences in opinions and feelings to the surface; it is not something to be avoided, dismissed, diminished, or denied. Rather, conflict is something to be welcomed when handled well. When members feel as if their different opinions and feelings will be heard and taken seriously, and when there isan agreed-upon and shared covenant of behavior, conflict can allow for creativity in resolving problems and in finding better options than would surface without it.

Consensus also needs time, but it is not inherently time-consuming. Teaching the congregation about consensus—what it is and what it is not—is helpful. As the congregation matures in its use of consensus, this way of handling decisions becomes very effective and efficient. However, commitment is required to educate, learn, and follow even when the going gets a bit touchy.

Depending upon the version of consensus being used, participants are given three or more options for their response to a proposal. In every case, the congregation will have to decide ahead of time the criteria for decision making: Will it proceed with up to a certain percentage of blocking/nay votes, or will one block/nay vote be sufficient to halt the decision? Some groups say that the “purest” form of consensus requires that a group not accept any proposal for which there is as few as one block vote, whereas other groups have found that they will use a “consensus-minus-one” format to prevent one person from stopping the group from doing what is clearly the desire of the vast majority of people. Large organizations might find that their “minus one” becomes “minus 1 percent” or some other measure as a compromise form of consensus governing. Again, it is important to remember that these decisions must be made ahead of time, and the congregation needs to be educated in the practice of consensus decision making.

Two options for the response choice range are listed below. Some groups find themselves creating their own list of options. The only requirement is that there be ways for people to indicate their less-than-wholehearted support without blocking the process.

  • A three-choice option can include the following:
    • Approve. The participant feels confidence in the proposal.
    • Stand aside. The participant is willing to allow the proposal to be adopted, even though she or he has concerns or is indifferent.
    • Block. The participant believes that the content of the decision might conflict with the group’s stated purpose and shared values.
  • A six-choice option can include the following:
    • Assent. The participant sees a need for the proposal and assents to it as the direction or decision that needs to be taken.
    • Go along. The participant doesn’t see the need for the decision but will go along with the group’s decision.
    • Reservation. The participant thinks there is a mistake in the decision or idea but will go along with the group’s decision.
    • Stand aside. The participant cannot agree to the decision but will not stop others from doing it.
    • Block. The participant cannot support the decision, as he or she believes it is immoral or in direct violation of the group’s purpose and values; the participant has a dissenting opinion and is not willing to stand aside, yet does not wish to withdraw from the group.
    • Withdraw. The participant cannot go along with the decision or idea and finds it so out of place with the group’s purpose and values that should it be brought forward, he or she would have to withdraw from the group.