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Working Toward Consensus and Healthy Communication in Decision Making

Consensus is a process for group decision-making that seeks to 

  • include everyone in the process
  • come to an agreement
  • encourage community growth and trust

Consensus does not mean that everyone thinks the decision is the best possible or even that everyone is sure it will work. But consensus tries to make sure everyone is heard and understood and that no one’s fundamental moral values are violated.

Attitudes and Behaviors which Help Build Consensus

Responsibility. Each person has to voice her or his opinion, participate in the discussion, and take part in carrying the agreement forward. Speak for yourself and own your opinions.
Self-discipline. Blocking consensus should only be done for principled objections. Objections should be voiced clearly, to the point, without put-downs or excessive speech-making. Participate in finding an alternative solution.
Respect. Respect others and trust them to make responsible comments.
Cooperation. Look for areas of agreement and common ground and build on them. Avoid competitive, right/wrong, win/lose thinking.
Struggle.  Use clear means of disagreement – no put-downs. Use disagreements to learn, grow and change. Work hard to build unity in the group, but not at the expense of members.

Communication Skills

Don’t interrupt others – maybe even leave a moment of silence after a speaker finishes.
Become a good listener – don’t withdraw if you aren’t talking.
Get and give support. Be aware of patterns of domination and address them. We should challenge and support each other.
Avoid answers and solutions. Voice your opinion in a way that says you believe your idea is valuable, but not more important than others’ ideas.
Relax. The group will do fine without anxiety attacks. And it just might survive if we weren’t even there!
Give everyone a break. You don’t have to speak on every single subject, and you don’t have to share every single idea you have with the entire group.
Don’t put others down. Check yourself when you’re about to “one-up” someone else. “Why am I doing this? What do I need?”
Interrupt others’ oppressive behavior. If someone is oppressive to others and inhibiting his/her own growth, we have a responsibility to interrupt in a caring and direct way.

Communication Roadblocks

Hogging the show – talking too much, too long, or too loud.
Problem Solver – continually giving the answer or solution before others have had a chance to contribute.
Speaking in capital letters – presenting your own solutions/opinions as THE final word, often aggravated by tone of voice or body language
Defensiveness – responding to different opinions as though they are personal attacks.
Nitpicking – pointing out minor flaws, stating the exception to every generality.
Restating – especially what has just been said by a non-dominant person.
Attention seeking – using dramatics to get the spotlight (including leaving the room).
Task and content focus – to the exclusion of nurturing individuals or the group through attention to process.
Putdowns and one-upmanship – “I use to believe that, but now…” or “How can you possibly say that?”
Negativism – finding fault with every idea.
Focus transfer – changing the subject to your pet issue in order to make your favorite speech.
Residual office holder – hanging on to powerful positions.
Self-listening/not listening – formulating a response after the first few words or sentences, not listening to anything after that, and then jumping in at the first pause.
Inflexibility and dogmatism – taking a last stand, delivering an ultimatum, even on little issues.
Avoiding feelings – intellectualizing, going passive, making inappropriate jokes.
Condescension and paternalism – “Now, do any of you women here have something to add?”
Being on the make – using sexuality to manipulate people.
Dividing the group – seeking support and attention from one group (gender, race, or some other caucus) while competing with another.
Running the show – continually taking charge of tasks before others have a chance to volunteer.
Packratitis – protectively saving key information for one’s own use and benefit.
Speaking for others – “A lot of people think that we should…” or “What she was trying to say was…”
Male Dominance Patterns establish and thrive in a competitive atmosphere. Consensus decision-making is the opposite of that. We don’t want to cut off discussion and ideas; we want to encourage them. We need everyone’s piece of the truth in order to have the whole truth.

Addressing many of these behavior patterns consciously, openly, in a spirit of growth and learning, can free men, women, and other groups from the conditioning that we’ve been put through.

Material for OREPA’s consensus handbook was drawn from !Basta! No Mandate For War, A Pledge of Resistance Handbook © 1986, The Emergency Response Network. Published by New Society Publishers, Philadelphia, PA.