Consensus and Facilitation

I like this symbol! It breaks the association of anarchy with violence. It was stamped onto our hands at the door going into the workshop

Before the Christmas break, a few of us from Green Action went along to a Consensus and Facilitation workshop run by Seeds For Change. They travel round the UK giving workshops like the one we went to, with the aim of helping groups like Green Action have more fruitful meetings – think of them as “consultancy for activists” if you like!

I picked up a few of their leaflets. Seed for Change define consensus as:

“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 consensus group is committed to finding solutions that everyone actively supports – or at least can live with”

This is Seeds For Change’s pictorial way of representing the process:

And here is their more in-depth outline of it:

They describe facilitation as being:

“about helping the group to have an efficient and inclusive meeting. It’s also about making sure everyone can be involved in discussions and making decisions. It combines a series of roles and tasks. Sometimes these tasks are taken on by one person – the facilitator, however there’s no reason why they can’t be shared between one or more people in the meeting. Good facilitators stay neutral, winning the trust of everyone in the meeting and treating everyone as equals. At no time do they make decisions for the group or take sides in a conflict.”

The facilitators role then is to act as a neutral arbiter during meetings to help an appropriate consensus emerge.

Seeds for Change identify some conditions for consensus and facilitation [in bold, with my comments added] – when these conditions are not present, consensus is unlikely to be an effective means of making group decisions.

A common goal: Consensus won’t work miracles! If there are irreconcilable differences in fundamental values between yourself and the other members of your group, perhaps you should be working with a different group.

Commitment to reaching consensus: People have to believe in the process itself rather than trying to subvert it at every opportunity into a means to merely force their own agenda upon the group.

Trust and openness – the process doesn’t work unless everybody is honest and articulate in expressing what their needs genuinely are and what they want to get out of the meeting. In a world where hierarchy and competition is the dominant way of administering things, this can take practice, but people will get better at it as they gain more familiarity with consensus.

Sufficient time for making decisions and for learning to work by consensus. The process of a group deciding how to move forwards can take longer by consensus. But if the process has worked properly, problems will be avoided in future since everyone is committed to the direction chosen by the group, rather than some memeber secretly harboring resentments that emerge further down the road.

Clear Process: everyone has to understand how the process works so that they can participate in it effectively. For example, if hand signals are going to be used to speed things up, they need to be explained to new members at the start so that they can participate.

Active participation: One important role for the facilitator might be to bring in the quieter members (or perhaps cut off the louder ones!) such that everybody is able to have their desired input to the decision making process. One method is to raise hands before speaking, to set up a “queue” of people for the facilitator to allow time for to make their points. This can prevent everybody shouting over one another.

Good facilitation: see above for an example!

I mentioned hand signals above, so here are some examples:

The hand signals above were just one facilitation tool we went through during the workshop. Some others were:

Group agenda: what do you want to get out of the meeting? If everybody is clear on the agenda from the start of the meeting they can contribute more effectively to developing a consensus.

Go-rounds: everyone takes a turn to speak without interruption or comment form other people – potentially a good way to asses general group feeling and give quiter members a chance to voice thoughts or concerns.

Ideastorming: We didn’t do this one as such – Seeds For Change describe it as “Ask pepole to say whatever comes into their heads as fast as possible – without censoring or discussion. This encourages creativity and free energy. Write down all ideas for later discussion.” Requires Trust and openness to work effectively I guess.

Active listening: We tried this in pairs – the aim is to actually listen to what the other person is saying, rather than interrupting or counting the seconds down until they finish speaking, so you can make your next point etc. I guess this is about unlearning some of the behaviors developed through competitive debating or hierarchical decision making processes, where the most assertive personalities often get priority.

Small groups: A good device to make decisions or complete tasks more rapidly. An improved version of “delegating” if you like – the break-up of small group tasks can be decided by consensus rather that assigned by a “boss”. Small groups can also be empowered to make their further decisions rather than reporting back to a “boss”.

Parking Space: As somebody always going off on “tangents” I liked this idea a lot! If in the midst of a busy discussion you have a thought it can be “parked” – written down on a whiteboard / large sheet of paper and brought up later in the meeting. This can also reassures somebody who takes more time to organise their thoughts during a fast-flowing discussion that their point of view will be considered later.

How do consensus and facilitation relate to democracy? Clearly our political process doesn’t work by consensus. I gave my take on the problems with “representative” democracy in this post. Seeds For Change write that:

“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 any more; 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.

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 work places are entirely hierarchical – students 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.”

Democracy implies to some people “the dictatorship of the majority” or “two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner”. Plato for example was no great fan of “democracy”, which he saw as little more than mob rule. It was the “mob” that had condemned his teacher Socrates to death. In his Republic, he developed a totalitarian system of government, one where an infallible “Philosopher King” would arrive at decisions (allegedly) in everybody’s best interests. I find this a wildly inconsistent view of human nature – people are at the same time so fallible that they cannot be relied upon to govern themselves, and so infallible that there can be a “benevolent” dictatorship!

I think these negative notions about democracy are confused and so I’ll do my best to clear things up. The way I see it consensus, majority based voting and even autocracy are appropriate ways to make some decisions and not others. Take an example – how did you decide what colour socks to wear today – did you vote on it with your friends? Did you have a meeting and reach the decision by consensus? Of course not – you decided it autocratically “like Stalin” as Michael Albert puts it. And this was appropriate when it came to your choice of socks. Whereas it would not be appropriate for you to decide “like Stalin” to, let’s say, purge Green Action of members who support nuclear power!

This is where a general principle suggests itself. My definition of democracy would be:

People having input into the decision making process in proportion to the degree they are affected by the outcomes of that process.

With my earlier example it was appropriate to decide autocratically what socks to put on this morning – this decision impacts on you and you alone. Whereas a decision like “Does Green Action oppose nuclear power – is this a condition of membership?” – impacts on all members of the society critically, so must be reached by consensus. An intermediate level decision – impacting on all members, but non-critically – might be something like “should we meet at 7pm or 8pm?”; if there is no strong feeling amongst any members this could be decided quickly by a majority wins vote.

Can consensus be made into an appropriate way of arriving at some key decisions for society as a whole? An interesting question given the current popularity of the Occupy Movement. Seeds For Change have a section in their online pamphlets addressing this question, under the heading Consensus Processes For Large Groups. They describe a spokes-council:

From Climate Camp’s Website:

The idea being a system of direct democracy, in which the “spokes” communicate between themselves the agendas reached through the consensus of their respective groups. There is then feedback from each “spoke” to their group about the outcome of the discussion amongst the “spokes”, further consensus, a subsequent iteration of the decision making process. This continues until the “spokes” all reach a consensus that all their respective groups agree to.

The above picture needn’t be taken literally – the spokes and groups need not all meet together in the same space at the same time. It is more a sketch of how information would flow as overall consensus is reached – the process could be facilitated by phones, the internet etc. And one could imagine extending it to incorporate several tiers of spokes within spokes. Pictures like the above offer the rather thrilling possibility of realising, within a 21st century democracy, Mikhail Bakunin’s description of a working anarchist society in his revolutionary catechism of 1866 :

“The political and economic organization of social life must not, as at present, be directed from the summit to the base — the center to the circumference — imposing unity through forced centralization. On the contrary, it must be reorganized to issue from the base to the summit — from the circumference to the center — according to the principles of free association and federation.”


~ by freedomthistime on December 29, 2011.

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