Consensus decision making is a creative and dynamic way of reaching agreement between all members of a group. Instead of simply voting for an item and having the majority of
the group getting their way, a group using consensus is committed to finding solutions
that everyone actively supports, or at least can live with.
This ensures that all opinions ideas and concerns are taken into account.
Through listening closely to each other, the group aims to come up with proposals that work
for everyone. Consensus is neither compromise nor unanimity – it aims to go further by weaving
together everyone’s best ideas and key concerns – a process that often results in surprising and
creative solutions, inspiring both theindividual and the group as whole.
Consensus can work in all types of settings small groups, local communities, businesses, even whole
nations and territories. The exact process may differ depending on the size of the group and other
factors, but the basic principles are the same.
In the following briefing you’ll find lots of useful information, not only about the basics of consensus decision making, but also about how to apply it to large groups of people and about ideas for dealing with common problems. We also have a Shot Guide to Consensus and you can find lots of tips on
how to make your consensus meetings run smoothly in our guides to Facilitating Meetings
What’s wrong with the democracy we’ve got?
How we make decisions is the key to how our society is organised. It influences every aspect of
our lives including our places of work, local communities, health services, and even whether
we live in war or peace. Many of us have been brought up to believe that the western-style system of voting is the highest form of democracy. Yet in the very nations which
shout loudest about the virtues of democracy many people don’t even bother to vote anymore;
they feel it doesn’t actually make any difference to their lives as most decisions are made by an
elite of powerful politicians and business people.
Representative democracies Power and decision making is taken away from
ordinary people when they vote for leaders –handing over power to make decisions to a
small elite with completely different interests from their own. Being allowed to
vote 20 times in a lifetime for an MP or senator is a poor substitute for having the power ourselves to make the decisions that affect every aspect of our lives.
In any case, there are many areas of society where democratic principles have little influence. Most institutions and workplaces are entirely hierarchical –
Troubleshooting and employees don’t usually get a chance to vote their superiors into office or have any decision making power in the places where they spend the greatest part of their lives. Or consider the supermarket chain muscling its way into a town against the will of local people. Most areas of society are ruled by power, status and money, not through democracy.
What’s wrong with voting?
Compared to this, working in a small group where everyone votes directly on important
issues may feel like having democratic control. However, voting creates a majority and a
minority – a situation in which there are winners and losers. If most people support an idea then it
will be voted in, and the concerns of the people who opposed it can be ignored. This situation
can foster conflict and distrust as the ‘losers’ feel disempowered by the process. The will of the majority is seen as the will of the whole group, with the minority expected to accept and carry out the decision, even if it is against their deeply held convictions and most basic needs. A majority will find it easy to steam roll an idea over a dissenting minority rather than looking for another solution that would suit all.
People might sometimes choose to bow to the will of the majority, but, in a voting system, when people constantly find themselves in a minority they lose control over their own lives. A vivid example is the imprisonment, in many European ‘democracies’, of those refusing military service.
It’s true that majority voting enables even controversial decisions to be taken in a minimum
amount of time, but that doesn’t mean to say that this decision will be a wise one, or even
morally acceptable. After all, at one time, the majority of Europeans and North Americans
supported the ‘right’ to hold slaves. The alternatives are already here
“We have these moments of non¬capitalist, non¬coercive, non¬hierarchical interaction in our lives
constantly, and these are the times when we most enjoy the company of others, when we get the
most out of other people; but somehow it doesn’t occur to us to demand that our society work this
Many people accept the idea that voting is the ‘normal’ way of having democratic control over
The decisions that affect us – after all, it is often presented to us as the only possibility out there.
However, a rejection of voting is nothing new. Many people struggling for social change have recognised that changing the way we make decisions is key to creating a different society. If we are
fighting for a better society where everyone has control over their own life, where everyone has equal, access to power, where it’s possible for everyone to follow their interests and fulfil their needs,
then, we need to develop alternative processes for making decisions; processes that recognise everyone’s right to self¬detemination that encourage mutual aid and replace competition with co-operation.
The alternatives to the current system are already here, growing in the gaps between the paving
stones of state authority and corporate control. We only need to learn to recognise them for the seedlings of the different kind of society that they are. Homeless people occupying empty houses and
turning them into collective homes, workers buying out the businesses they work for and running
them on equitable terms, gardening groups growing vegetables collectively; once we start looking
there are hundreds of examples of co-operative organising that we encounter in our daily lives. Many
of these organise through varying forms of consensus decision making.
Why use consensus?
No one is more qualified than you to decide what your life will be.
Consensus decision making is based on the idea that people should have full control over their
lives and that power should be shared by all rather than concentrated in the hands of a few.
It implies wide ranging liberty, including the freedom to decide one’s own course in life and the right toplay an equal role in forging a common future. As well as wanting to enjoy as much freedom as possible, most of us wish to live in, and are dependent on, some form of society. This means finding ways to balance the needs and desires of every individual with those of the closer
community and the wider world.
Consensus decision making aims to provide away of doing this. It builds on respect, trust, co¬operation and mutual aid to achieve agreeable solutions for everyone concerned.
At the heart of consensus is a respectful dialogue between equals. It’s about helping groups to
work together to meet both the individual’s and the group’s needs. It’s about how to work
with each other rather than for or against each other, something that requires openness and trust.
Consensus is looking for ‘win¬win’ solutions that are acceptable to all, with the direct benefit that
everyone agrees with the final decision, resulting in a greater commitment to actually turning it
into reality. In consensus every person has the power to make changes in the group they are working in –and to prevent changes they find unacceptable.
The right to block a decision means that minorities cannot just be ignored, but solutions will have to be found to deal with their concerns. No decision will be made against the will of an individual or a minority, instead the group constantly adapts to all its member’s needs.
Consensus is about active participation and sharing power equally. This makes it a powerful
tool not only for empowering individuals, but also for bringing people together and building
communities. Consensus Decision Making
Who uses consensus?
Consensus is not a new idea. Variations of consensus have been tested and proven around the world and through time.
On the American continent non-hierarchical societies have existed for hundreds of years.
Before 1600, five nations – the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca –
formed the Haudenosaunee Confederation, which works on a consensual basis and is still in existence today.
There are also many examples of successful and stable utopian communes using consensus decision making such as the Christian Herrnhüter settlement 1741-1760 and the production commune Boimondeau in France 1941-1972.
Christiania, an autonomous district in the city of Copenhagen has been self-governed byits inhabitants since 1971.
Within the co-operative movement many housing co-ops and social enterprises use
consensus successfully: prominent examples include Green City, a whole-food wholesaler
based in Scotland; and Radical Routes, a network of housing co-ops and workers’ co-ops
in the UK.
The business meetings of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) use consensus
to integrate the insights of each individual, arriving at the best possible approximation of
Political and social activists such as many anarchists and others working for peace, the
environment and social justice commonly regard consensus to be essential to their work.
They believe that the methods for achieving change need to match their goals and
visions of a free, non-violent, egalitarian society. In protests around the world many
mass actions and protest camps involving several thousand people have been organised
and carried out using consensus, including the 1999 ‘Battle of Seattle’ World Trade
Organisation protest, the 2005 G8 summit protests in Scotland and the Camps for
Climate Action in the UK, Germany, Australia, Nether
lands and other countries.
Decision Making – Concensus