Bringing A Group To Consensus

March 21, 2019 4:39 pm

Does This Decision Require a Consensus?

I’ve often had clients come to me for advice when their group can’t seem to make timely decisions, and when they do, they can’t stick to them. When people are first introduced to participatory forms of leadership and decision-making, they often assume that most decisions should be made by ‘consensus.’ Not only is this impractical, it’s also not always the right decision-making methodology. I often start by letting new facilitators know there are a variety of methods for making decisions, and that no single method is “right” all the time – it’s dependent on the particular situation. Many types of decisions are better made by an individual, delegated to a subgroup, or by majority voting or compromise. The type of decision-making process you use will depend on the number of people affected, time sensitivity, and level of commitment required. Nevertheless, out of all the decision-making options to consider, consensus building typically results in better buy-in and, ultimately, follow-through. Yet what do we mean by a consensus? Is it a process or a type of agreement?

Consensus Building: A Process for Building Agreement

Consensus building is a decision-making process. It typically involves several stages that enable a group to initially ‘diverge’ in thinking then ‘converge’ collectively to create a decision/solution that everyone agrees to. The challenge with consensus building is that it takes – you guessed it – a looong time! Why? Well, when we look at a typical consensus building process (i.e. visioning or objective setting) we’re clear that there will be several steps that the ‘whole’ group will have to collaboratively work through including diverging and converging stages. When ‘diverging’ as a group, activities could include:

  • sharing ideas
  • hearing out and paraphrasing back what each other states
  • asking questions for clarification
  • brainstorming, etc.

Once all the ideas are on the table, the ‘converging’ of ideas could include:

  • merging similar ideas together
  • sorting or ranking ideas according to degree of importance
  • testing for agreement and dealing with disagreement
  • ensuring everyone has a mutual understanding of the potential final idea under consideration
  • challenging assumptions to create innovative solutions, etc.

Consensus building therefore speaks to a process of ‘collaboration’ and may be defined as:

“A multi-step process whereby all participants are engaged, and collaborating together to achieve a mutually agreed to outcome.”

Differentiating Consensus Building from Achieving a Consensus

Consensus building as a process is very different from what people refer to as ‘achieving a consensus.’ Achieving consensus is referring to the quality of a decision or the ‘degree of agreement.’ If, upon making a decision, the group states we have a consensus it should mean ‘I can live with the idea’, and I’m willing to defend it and commit to any follow through.’ Anything less than this really means we haven’t come to a consensus.

Testing for Agreement

So how do you know when you’ve achieved a consensus? The important question that groups need to ask before entering into any kind of decision-making is ‘how do we determine what constitutes agreement?’ since the definition of agreement can vary widely. For example, though people may nod their heads up and down when the facilitator turns to the group and asks ‘do we have an agreement?’ what really underlies the nodding can be difficult to decipher. Upon closer examination, what the nod really may mean is ‘I can live with it, if many changes occur’ (compromise), or ‘I’m nodding because I want to get the heck out of here!’ (non-agreement), or other possibilities.

Rather than assuming what ‘acceptable’ agreement means, it’s best to present to the group a tangible way for testing for agreement. As a group you’ll need to collectively agree on how wide a range on the continuum ‘acceptable agreement’ will fall. As well, your group will need to define what it will do if agreement falls outside that range. You can do this by creating a ‘continuum of agreement’ ranging from “I don’t buy it” on the right side to “I absolutely love it!” on the left side. Then have each participant place an X on the scale to identify where they fall in agreement. The scale may look like this:


1 2 3 4 5
I hate it It’s okay but many changes still required I like it but 1 – 2 tweaks required I can live with it I love it


If the majority of responses, when testing for agreement, fall in what your group’s ‘acceptable range of agreement’ then closure is imminent. If, however, the range of agreement is unacceptable, it will mean further discussion with the facilitator challenging the group to come up with ideas that all members can live with.

I’ve presented one way for testing for agreement and building consensus. I’m wondering what different methods you use?


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