RE: Concensus is only one decision making tool
From: Rob Sandelin (
Date: Mon, 7 Dec 1998 08:48:32 -0600
Consensus is only one of many ways a group can make decisions. It is a tool,
and like any tool, it has places where its use is inappropriate. If EVERY
decision your group makes is large group consensus, then you may find your
group process is taking a great deal of your time together, time which could
be used for other things. If you have long, all day meetings, you will
filter out people from your group that might be great neighbors, but
uninterested in going around and around on issues for 4-6 hours every week.

When you are first forming a group, you are really a bunch of strangers, who
with luck, may eventually form a community. To try and make consensus
decisions with a bunch of strangers that you have no history with requires a
great deal of trust, and it is often the lack of trust amoung such strangers
that causes problems. When you have been together for awhile, you know each
other pretty well, you know who you can trust, and in what areas you might
not trust them. In this case, consensus works well, because you CAN trust
the group, assuming the history of the group leads that way. Not so for new
groups. You don't know if you can trust the group, and so this can, and
usually does get in the way of effectively using consensus. This is commonly
expressed where a small group makes a decision, brings it to the larger
group, and the larger group shoots it down with What ifs.

I have seen consensus fail spectularily, even destroy groups. I watched two
anti-nuclear groups fall apart trying to use consensus. No decisions got
made, people got more and more fed up and stopped going to the meetings.
Eventually the group just stopped meeting. In fact, in the late 70's I was
convinced that consensus was actually created by the powers that be in order
to destroy social change groups!

Many people who join communities may not have the skills in communication,
self awareness and process that it takes to effectively use consensus. And
most have no training in how to be collaborative. Most Americans  are deeply
ingrained in competitive behaviors, which undermine consensus. And, most
groups that take on consensus do not have very good facilitators, and this
really causes problems. Also, as Kevin pointed out, not everyone in your
group may hold the best interests of everybody in heart, or may have
dysfunctions that cause the group problems. The person who threatens, "If I
don't get my way I'll block everybody and hold up the whole group" is
sometimes not unlike the kid that threatens to hold her breath until she
turns blue.... Its counterproductive, making people question the group and
its ability to accomplish anything. In a group environment where one person
gets to derail everybody else in the group because, "They don't like it",
you will very likely have many people in the group who will be very openly
sceptical if not rebellious about using consensus as your decision making

The key measure for blocking, in my experience, really should be "This is
bad for the group because....."  Not "I don't like this".  It takes a fair
amount of bonding work to get a group of strangers who may have little
experience in thinking in terms of the groups best interest to accept that
they have a group responsibility, and that the group responsibility is equal
to their own self interests. This is where a lot of groups fail at using

The other place I see groups routinely fail using consensus is when they try
to use consensus to decide everything, sort of like trying to use a chainsaw
to pound in a nail. Consensus is good for some kinds of decisions, very poor
at others.

I was called in once to help a group that had held 3 meetings, totalling
over 8 hours of the groups time trying to decide on a color of tile for
their commonhouse bathroom. In my experience, consensus works best when
there is a definate best answer. In the case of the tile, blue or green is a
matter of preference, there is no best answer. So in this case, a weighted
prioritization would be a much more effective tool for making a decision.
The details of multifacted design decisions do not work well as consensus
decisions. In this situation, it might be a lot more effective to reach
consensus on design goals and leave the details to other methods.

There are many types of decisions where only a single person, or a small
group has the interest or knowlege to make the decision. It is not
anti-community to let the electrician in the group make the decisions about
the electical service, or to let the gardeners in the group decide what to
plant in the community garden. In fact, allowing individuals or small groups
to make decisions with autonomy is often the most effective means of moving
the group forward and encourages iniative, leadership and ownership.

Before totally committing to consensus, you should at the very least get one
or two or your members some faciliatation training.

Rob Sandelin
Web Resources on consensus and facilitation available at

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