Understanding Consensus

There are six decision-making options:  spontaneous agreement, one person decides, compromise, multi-voting, majority voting, and consensus building.   In meetings, we know that the facilitator, group leader or the group needs to choose the most appropriate method before any decision that needs to be made.  Each option has its pros and cons, of course, and was discussed in Making Group Decisions – Six Options.  This article focuses more deeply on  understanding what consensus is, when to use it (or not) and key points to remember about consensus. 

Consensus Pros and Cons

Consensus building involves everyone clearly understanding the situation or problem to be decided, analyzing the relevant facts together, and then jointly developing solutions that represent the whole group’s best thinking about the optimal decision. It’s characterized by a lot of listening, healthy debate and testing of options. Consensus generates a decision about which everyone says, “I can live with it.”

  • PROS of consensus building are that it’s a collaborative effort that unites the group. It demands high involvement. It’s systematic, objective and fact-driven. It builds commitment to the outcome.
  • CONS are that it’s time-consuming and produces low-quality decisions if done without proper data collection or if members have poor interpersonal skills.

Consensus can be used when a decision impacts the entire group; when ideas and commitment from all members are essential; and when the importance of the decision being made is worth the time it will take to complete the consensus process properly.

Understanding Consensus Building

The importance of consensus simply cannot be overstated, and must be fully understood by all facilitators. In fact, facilitation and consensus are based on the same set of core values and beliefs. Facilitators are constantly building consensus with everything they do. The following are all examples of consensus activities:

  • Summarizing a complex set of ideas to the satisfaction of group members;
  • Getting everyone’s input toward a clear goal and objectives for the group’s activities;
  • Gaining agreement from all members as to the purpose of the session;
  • Linking people’s ideas together so they can identify when they’re saying similar things;
  • Making notes on a flip chart in such a way that at the end of the discussion each member sees where and how they’ve contributed and is satisfied with what has been recorded;
  • Discussing and agreeing on which decision mode to use in a formal decision-making process; and
  • Because all facilitation activities must strive to be collaborative, participative, synergistic and unifying, all facilitation activities are essentially consensus building in nature.

Hallmarks of the Consensus Process

Regardless of whether consensus is being used formally to reach a decision on a specific issue, or informally as an ongoing facilitation technique, you know the group is working consensually if:

  • there are lots of ideas being shared;
  • people’s feelings are openly explored;
  • everyone’s heard;
  • there’s active listening and paraphrasing to clarify ideas, and ideas are built on by other members;
  • no one’s trying to push a pre-determined solution; instead there’s an open and objective quest for new options;
  • the final solution is based on sound information;
  • when the final solution is reached, people feel satisfied that they were part of the decision; and
  • everyone feels so consulted and involved that even though the final solution isn’t the one they would have chosen working on their own, they can readily “live with it”.

There are many situations in which the decisions being made are of such magnitude that consensus needs to be designated as the only acceptable method of decision-making. In these cases, the group agrees to keep discussing until everyone indicates that he or she can live with the outcome.  Defaulting to voting (or any other technique that creates division within the group)  for sensitive decisions allows dissenters to excuse themselves of responsibility for important group outcomes. If the whole-hearted commitment of all members is important to a particular decision, facilitators need to use strategies for overcoming resistance. This involves openly asking those resisting consensus:

  • What stops you from supporting this idea? What are your specific objections?
  • What changes, amendments or additions would make this an idea you could live with?

One of the major contributions of any facilitator is in helping a group overcome the temptation to “pressure” dissenters into agreement. By openly accepting and discussing differences, facilitators help members reach decisions that have been objectively explored and tested.

You shouldn’t end a consensus exercise by asking “Is everyone happy?” nor even “Does everyone agree?” At the end of even a great consensus process, people have usually made concessions and are likely not getting everything they “wanted.”

Consensus isn’t designed to make people happy or leave them in 100 percent agreement. Its goal is to create an outcome that represents the best feasible course of action given the circumstances.


Material adapted  from and used with permission:  Strengthening Your Facilitation Skills, Level 1. Jane Haskell, Louise Franck Cyr and Gabe McPhail. Orono, ME: UMaine Extension, 2007.