All of the BHC Co-ops use a consensus based decision-making process to govern themselves, as does the BHC board of directors.
Consensus is sometimes confused with unanimity, which means the universal agreement of all participants. As we and many other communities practice it, consensus is not necessarily about everyone agreeing all the time — which would be a very tall order! Consensus is about identifying a solution that everyone can live with — an outcome that is acceptable to all participants, and which does not threaten the overall stability and functioning of the community. Consensus is not necessarily unanimity, but it is a non-hierarchical and fair decision-making process. Consensus aims to be:
- Inclusive and participatory: The process should actively solicit the input and participation of all stakeholders and decision-makers.
- Cooperative: Participants should strive to reach the best possible decision, for the group and all of its members.
- Egalitarian: Everyone should be afforded, as much as possible, equal input into the process. All members have the opportunity to table, amend, or block proposals.
- Solution-oriented: The process emphasizes common agreement over differences & uses compromise & other techniques to avoid or resolve mutually exclusive positions.
Consensus allows people to collectively explore solutions until the best one for the group emerges. In a simple voting method, dialogue tends to end when participants realize or expect that there is a majority (more than half of the people in a group) in favor of a proposal.
Consensus assures that everyone has a voice in the decision-making process, synthesizing all ideas into one plan that all participants agree to implement, & they can get behind & fully support. Since all participants agree to the decision, people are more invested in carrying out what has been decided.
Consensus is important in allowing minority opinions and concerns to be heard and considered, and encourages cooperation among people with divergent views. It attempts to minimize domination and empowers the community in the process of making a decision.
How does consensus work?
Consensus decision-making assumes that each issue or decision has a “best answer” and that each member of the group holds a piece of that answer. A good consensus process is one where members feel safe and encouraged to contribute their ideas, to share ideas freely without attachment or ownership, to openly and fairly evaluate all ideas, and to mix and match ideas to innovate a workable solution.
Consensus works by hearing all participants’ voices and by all participants coming to an agreement collectively about what is best for the group. The decisions made must be those that everyone in the group can live with – as nice as it would be, it’s impossible for all individuals in communities to be perfectly happy with all decisions at all times.
Seven Steps for Successful Decision-Making
- Define the problem: Start by defining the problem to be solved or objective to be achieved. If you can’t agree on what the problem is, you can’t find a solution. It might be helpful to write the problem down or draw a diagram so that everyone understands what’s going on.
- Gather information: List the known information and unknown information you need to get. Assign reliable members to gather what information you need. Differentiate between facts and opinions. If you are not clear about the facts, then your proposed solutions will be equally unclear.
- Create a list of possible solutions: Many groups start here and sometimes make poor decisions because they solved the wrong problem or didn’t have the right information. Use brainstorming to get a wide list of possible solutions. Don’t get trapped into either/or solutions – find the third way, the fourth way, and so on.
- Evaluate the alternatives: What are the costs, benefits, and downsides to each option? More research might be required. Be sure to consider all options equally.
- Select a course of action to implement: Use consensus to choose a plan to put into action. Maybe two or three alternatives get blended into the best solution.
- Implement the decision: Assign the decision to specific people with instructions on what to do and what the group wants.
- Evaluate: (Later) Evaluate the process used to reach the decision, the work done to implement it, and its success at solving the problem or achieving the desired objective.
- The Wikipedia article on Consensus decision-making gives a good short introduction and some background.
- Consensus Decision-Making curates a large collection of resources related to the consensus process.
- If you’re interested in how one of the BHC co-ops thinks about consensus, check out the Masala Co-op Facilitation Manual, which is part of the BHC Wiki.