Re: Consensus
From: Stephen Lewin-Berlin (
Date: Wed, 16 Mar 94 12:16 CST
Rob writes:
>In my very limited studies into consensus I have found that there seems 
>to be two opposite operating definitions for consensus.  In one 
>definition, which I call passive consensus, A choice is made if no one 
>blocks it.  In the other definition, which I call active consensus, A 
>choice is made, only if everyone affirms it.

>So far, and I will admit my knowledge and study of this is limited at 
>this time, The passive consensus model seems to lead to false consensus 
>more often than the active model does.  False consensus is where a 
>person goes along with a choice or decision without really supporting 
>it because it would take too much energy or be too risky to block 
>consensus.  To stand against a whole group, even if it is the truth, 
>takes enourmous courage which most people seldom can muster on a
>regular basis.

>One of the challenges inherent in using consensus is creating an 
>environment which supports dissent and encourages people to speak their 
>truth.  If a person who takes the enourmous risk of speaking their 
>truth, and their truth runs counter to the group, they need to be 
>affirmed and supported, otherwise they will not share their truth, and 
>the group is heading into false consensus, where you beleive you have 
>everyone's agreement but really what you have is no one who is willing 
>to risk disagreement.

>There are a couple of sIgns which indicate  false consensus. The first 
>is when what people say publically is not what they say privately in 
>regards to a group consensus. Another sign is when a course of action 
>or decision or agreement is not followed much, routinely ignored or 
>outright rebelled against.

>In the active consensus model, each individual in turn must personally 
>state that they affirm and support the decision as the best interest 
>for the group.  This takes longer, but in requiring each member to 
>speak, it offers the opportunity to speak the truth.

>In the passive model, it is very easy to be silent and let a bad 
>decision go forward.

Your distinction between 'active' and 'passive' consensus is
interesting, but I don't think that group process splits into quite
such clean categories. Most groups use different processes
(consciously or not) to make decisions that have differing importance.

I agree that it is possible to abuse 'consensus' in several ways, and
I would submit that a group which exhibits what you call 'passive
consensus' on important issues, using the warning signs that you
discuss, is in fact abusing what I understand to be the principles
behind consensus.

On the other hand, it is also possible to abuse consensus by what I
would call 'over-use' or over-diligent process. A warning sign of that
would be if a group is unable to reach decisions over matters which do
not feel sufficiently important to *anybody* in the group.  "Why did
it take us nine weeks to pick the bathroom tile color?"

I think one of the key strengths of a good facilitator is the ability
to distinguish which decisions require more time and more process, and
which ones should be expedited. This includes a sensitivity to the
needs and feelings of the members of the group, to avoid both 'passive
consensus' and 'over-diligent' process.

Ultimately, I think that 'passive' and 'active' consensus are not
really different in principle, but they may be operationally different
in process.  The key is to match the process to the decision being

Hmm, re-reading this, it seems rather unclear.  I will follow upif I
can find a clearer way to explain what I mean!

Steve Lewin-Berlin
Rose Tree Cohousing

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