What Does it Mean to Build Consensus?

By Karen Reczek, Social Scientist within the Standards Coordination Office (SCO) at the National Institute of Standards & Technology

In standards developing, one of the key guiding principles is “consensus.”  In my experience, this is an often-misunderstood concept. Consensus is NOT unanimity. It does not mean everyone agrees or loves it. What it does mean is that everyone can live with it.

According to Dr. Tim Hartnett, writing in Consensus Decision Making, the goals of consensus are:

  • Better Decisions: Through including the input of all stakeholders, the resulting proposals can best address all potential concerns.
  • Better Implementation: A process that includes and respects all parties, and generates as much agreement as possible sets the stage for greater cooperation in implementing the resulting decisions.
  • Better Group Relationships: A cooperative, collaborative group atmosphere fosters greater group cohesion and interpersonal connection.

Despite its benefits, consensus building is not easy. It takes time, effort, and commitment to make the process work.” [1]

Reaching consensus can be a difficult and slow process. So how do you get a group to build consensus? Here are some tips you may find useful.

First off, you need a good facilitator. Whether that be the chair of the committee or task group or just someone who brings an unbiased professional.

Ideally, the person has no stake in the game.  This person must be good at making everyone feel comfortable expressing their opinions and to allow people to be heard. Honestly, sometimes people just want to be heard. They want to go on record as having objected to a point. Let them. 

The five levels of consensus

Many times, consensus cannot be reached because of basic misunderstandings. Too often people are talking past each other. By allowing participants to clearly state their concern, will provide an opportunity for the others hear their concerns and it can often lead to, “Oh, I misunderstood” or “I didn’t know that is how it is done.”  We so often come to these discussions with our own biases and forget that we need to spend time to “seek first to understand” before we question why or say no.  Having someone explain why they can’t live with the decision (in most times in standards development, it’s a word, or a sentence or the omission of such) goes a long way.

Allowing participants to voice concerns also allows other participants to chime in. Many times, people are afraid to speak up when they have an issue. Once they see someone has the same concern, they feel more comfortable expressing agreement. I had this happen to me the other day in a consensus body meeting. I found the formal written response to a negative public comment somewhat dismissive, and it lacked detail. It was my first meeting, but I decided to bring it up anyway. Especially because the chair said they welcomed new perspectives and often they were too close to the topic.  The comment was asking that they define a term. They didn’t feel it was necessary for reason x.  My questions led to a lengthy discussion, as many members saw my point (once I spoke up) and while I didn’t want them to feel they had to add the definition (although, they wound up agreeing to define one or two by providing more context in the sentence) we did agree on better wording on the non-persuasive response. 

Another approach is to have the chair or facilitator use a great tool called the “gradients of consensus” or the gradients of agreement. The Gradients of Agreement Scale was developed in 1987 by Sam Kaner, Duane Berger and the staff of Community At Work. [2] It enables members of a group to express their support for a proposal in degrees, along a continuum. Using this tool, group members are no longer trapped into expressing support in terms of yes and no. As we know, not everything is so binary.

When the group seems divided on an issue, the facilitator can take a read of the group on the topic up for debate.  For the proposed decision or solution, have everyone rate their position using a scale. Make sure everyone understands the scale. Here is a simplified approached using a hand raise. Five fingers being completely in support (endorse) and one finger means vehemently opposed (Veto).

For Example:

Raise One Finger

Veto; I can’t live with this as is.

Raise Two Fingers

I see issue that I would like to resolve first and disagree, but I won’t block this.

Raise Three Fingers

There are some minor issues I want addressed and have mixed feelings but don’t feel that strongly.

Raise Four Fingers

I am okay with this. I don’t love it but it’s not worth arguing over.

Raise Five Fingers

I fully support this.

For those who veto or have serious disagreement, ask what changes would be agreeable. Continue to discuss and make changes the group agrees with, poll everyone again. Keep this up until you have consensus to move forward. The key is getting participants to get to the point where everyone can “live with it.”  In a lot of standards development meetings, one way to express this is, I would like x and y changed but “it’s not a sword I am willing to die on.”  So basically, it is not that important, and I won’t let it block the progress of the group.  Find out if the person wants to die on this sword. If so, then work together as a group to understand why. Likewise, getting participants to understand that they can be heard, express their displeasure with something but still support the group moving forward is an immensely powerful thing.

The Gradients of Agreement is not just used in a voting process. Using the language of the scale in conjunctions with collaborative discussion can help a group to quickly see the level of support for a proposal. This process also helps to ensure that each member has the opportunity to express their ideas and better understand what is important to each member. This way the group can build a solution that has broad support that can enhance everyone’s commitment.

Sometimes the disagreement is based on personality, past history with one another, or other factors that have nothing to do with the alternatives. How do you deal with this type of disagreement? Take a break. Have someone talk offline with the individual. These types of disagreements cannot be resolved in a group meeting. Sometimes, a higher level of authority might need to get involved, or sometimes that person might just need to walk away. Ultimately, in standards development this type of opposition can be outvoted. And the individual can appeal to that higher level of authority.

Ideally, the group should work to make sure most everyone can “live with it.”

[1] “The Basics of Consensus Decision Making” by Tim Hartnett, Ph.D., Consensus Facilitation, https://www.consensusdecisionmaking.org/

[1] Free resources from Community At Work.

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