Formal Consensus, passivity & groupthink
From: Norm Gauss (
Date: Sun, 18 Jul 2004 20:28:32 -0700 (PDT)
According to Butler and Rothstein's concept called "Formal Consensus",
explained in their book, "On Conflict and Consensus" "Decisions are adopted when all participants
consent to the result of discussions about the original proposal. People who
do not agree with a proposal are responsible for expressing their concerns.
When concerns remain after discussion, individuals can agree to disagree by
acknowledging that they have unresolved concerns, but consent to the
proposal anyway and allow it to be adopted.  Therefore, reaching consensus
does not assume that everyone must be in complete agreement..."

If, after finishing the consideration of each concern, there are still firm
unresolved concerns with no agreements to disagree, "the facilitator has an
obligation to declare that consensus cannot be reached at this meeting, that
the proposal is blocked, and move on to the next agenda item."  In achieving
consensus by this model, members do not approve or disapprove.  Only the
concerns are addressed.  If the concerns are resolved, then the measure is

This is a different mindset than in the traditional model of voting "yes" or
"no" or "abstain", in which the degree of opposition to the proposal is
tabulated.  Thus a member makes an assertive statement for or against a
proposal.  An abstention counts as a passive statement.

In the Formal Consensus model, the only tabulations are concerns and are
regarded as assertive.  If all the concerns are resolved, the measure is
adopted.  Thus, theoretically all the members present can be very passive
(asleep, bored, reading a book) and the measure will pass without them even
stating their opinion.

If a proposal is adopted with an unresolved concern, according to the Formal
Consensus model, this is recorded in the minutes and remain a part of the
approved measure.  Theoretically, this concern can be raised again and
deserves more discussion time as it has not yet been resolved.

In this model, groupthink is more likely to occur, because in the
environment of passivity  there is no compelling reason for people to get
involved.  More people are likely to let things go the way of a proposal's
sponsors.  If the sponsors do a good sales job in their presentation and
some people are not interested and feel no compulsion to register an
approval or disapproval, "groupthink" can indeed take hold and result in an
unwise decision because of the inattentiveness of the members present.

We at Oak Creek Commons actively seek members approval by asking for "thumbs
up", "thumbs horizontal (meaning a concern), and "thumbs down".  Thus more
assertive actions result and we have fewer passive abstentions.  This
departs from the described model in that a member can declare a block
instead of the facilitator.
This pattern often results in heated discussions, but "groupthink" is less
likely to take hold, and we are better able to hammer out our differences.

Norm Gauss
Oak Creek Commons
Paso Robles, CA

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