RE: DSM: Majority Rule vs. Consensus

Kenneth Winchenbach Walden (
Sun, 23 Jan 2000 10:30:34 -0500

I have to speak up briefly in defense of the consensus form of decision
making. An important note to make is that there are many types of meetings
that are labelled as consensus. Some of those can be very destructive to
the group's work and sense of community - especially if they are based on
the idea that 'everybody has to agree'. True, formal consensus is a process
just as detailed as Robert's Rules of Order, and with the intent not to make
everybody agree, or to keep discussing things until everybody gives up and
agrees. Rather, the intent is to come to a decision that is the best that
this group can create, and that everybody is willing to let go forward.

I would highlight two essential differences between consensus and majority
decision making. The first is more obvious, that each individual in the
group is empowered in the decision. While an individual blocking a decision
is exceedingly rare, the basis of the system is that each member of the
group is an essential part of the group process, and is trusted with that
ability. The second difference is the one that is most often missed, I
believe, and the one that makes comparing the two systems hard. In
consensus decision-making the intent is to arrive at the best decision for
all the people involved. The purpose is not to pick between two options, or
to say yes or no. The purpose is to examine a proposal, find all the
concerns that would make the members unsure about going forward with it, and
examine those concerns. Rather than a majority voting down a proposal,
those who don't agree with it will explain what they feel is wrong about the
proposal. Or rather than a minority being against a proposal but outvoted,
those few are able to voice their concerns. This allows the opportunity for
a group dialogue, that may change some members' minds. More importantly, it
may lead to an improvement of the proposal, that settles the concerns of
some of the members, and perhaps allows the decision to go forward.
Consensus is more about a group dedication to making good decisions than it
is about voicing opinions and decisions. In majority voting, you have a
chance to voice your opinion, but nothing more.

Of course there is no guarantee that such discussion and improvement will
ensure that everybody ends up liking the proposal. Consensus allows for
various means of dealing with that. Stepping Aside is the individual's
ability to voice their disapproval of the decision. When a person steps
aside, they not only are showing that they do not approve, but they are not
to take part in the implementation of the decision. It is a sign of the
respect for an individual's values, that they have the option in the end of
not taking part in a decision they do not agree with. However, if there are
several people in a group who are stepping aside, that is a sign to the
group and the facilitator that this decision is a weak one, and it should
either be discussed more, or perhaps dropped. A decision that is not able
to garner the support of a consensus of the group is probably not the right
one for that group. A member also has the power to stand in the way of a
decision that they feel is not correct for the group, and is in fact
dangerous for the group. This however is a very rare thing to happen.

To bring things back to the topic at hand, a school's decision on whether to
use consensus is a big one. For the positive, in a non-coercive
environment, there could be no more suitable method than a non-coercive
decision-making process. While I understand that some people have had bad
experiences with the process, that does not mean that consensus is a bad
system. It either means that the version of the formal consensus process
they were using was not a good one, or that the group has issues they need
to deal with. If members of the group are being coercive, then that issue
needs to be dealt with. Certainly in a majority voting setting those
coercive members could be ignored, but that isn't making the issue go away.
Consensus is for groups interested in facing their group dynamics honestly.
My experiences with consensus have been exactly the opposite, they have been
exhilirating, and have supported and respected all the members, especially
those who would normally have little to say or do in a voting situation. We
were able to hear the members' concerns and make better decisions that took
them into account, rather than ignoring them. When members have been
displeased with the way parts of the process have gone, we have been able to
discuss and take care of those concerns as well, to assure that group
dynamics don't make for bad decisions. Most importantly, although consensus
decision making takes longer on average than majority-rule, the decisions
made are ones that have been agreed to by all the members. Therefore the
decisions are easier to implement, because you are not working against the
inertia of a minority who didn't want to do this thing in the first place.

However, consensus is not for every group. If your group does not have a
common purpose, and some common values, you will not be able to run a proper
consensus meeting. A group that has no shared basis for making decisions,
won't be able to agree on anything. Other important values are respect for
all group members, a sense that all are equally valuable, honesty, and a
belief in common ownership of ideas - not private ownership. I think it's
also important that the group learn about the basics of consensus, and
follow a formal process. Informal consensus will undoubtedly lead in the
direction that the previous messages pointed towards - coercion by the
stubborn, and frustration by everyone. For anyone looking for some
information on the subject, I'll recommend this -

I apologize for the length. I didn't want to take up too much of the list's
time, but I think that it's important that those who have no experience with
consensus not be given a one-sided view of it. However, I respect that
there are many decision-making processes, with different strengths, and that
each is simply a tool in the hands of a group with good intentions.


"In short, I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain
one's self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live
simply and wisely."
-Henry David Thoreau-

>-----Original Message-----
>[]On Behalf Of Scott David
>Sent: Sunday, January 23, 2000 9:01 AM
>Subject: Re: DSM: Majority Rule vs. Consensus
>I have been part of meetings run by consensus, and meetings run by Robert's
>Rules. Consensus is VERY coercive. In practice, a consensus meeting says to
>the minority "we don't get to end this meeting until you CONSENT
>to what the
>majority wants". I have felt obliged to depart more than one group, because
>I was made to feel uncomfortable and unwanted when I refused to CONSENT to
>things I thought were wrong. In a regular Parliamentary Meeting, I am never
>denied my right to voice my objection, maintain that the majority is wrong,
>and yet submit to the will of the majority. As a perpetual member of the
>minority in many gatherings, I cannot tolerate the intrinsic DISRESPECT of
>my individuality that comes from a consensus style meeting.
>The most fundamental right of any minority, is the right to stand
>by and let
>the majority do what it will without ever letting go of their personal
>belief that the majority is wrong.
>Consensus equals government by the stubborn, and encourages people
>to act as
>rubber stamps.
>As far as discussions being ended as soon as it is clear that a motion will
>get the majority, advise that your collegues actually read
>Robert's Rules --
>the rights of the minority to be heard are taken very seriously (much more
>so than in any consensus meeting in which I've participated). Shee
>Martin Wilke wrote:
>> Hi all,
>> I and three parents are going to (try to) start a non-coercive school in
>> Berlin. On our first informal meeting we found that we have quite
>> different ideas of how decisions should be made in a non-coercive
>> school.
>> While I think majority should decide they insist on consensus. Their
>> main argument is that the majority would oppress the minority. That
>> discussions would be ended as soon as it is clear that a motion will get
>> a majority, and thus the minority would simply be ignored. What
>> experience do you have in School Meetings or Assemblies with this point?
>> Martin Wilke
>-- Scott David Gray
>Phone: 508/650-9639
>ICQ: 27291292

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