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THE FLOW OF THE FORMAL CONSENSUS PROCESS:
1. INTRODUCTION OF THE PROPOSAL: In an ideal setting, the proposal would have already been submitted in writing to the group allow time to review prior to the meeting. At the meeting, the facilitator introduces the person presenting and gives an update on any previous action on it. It is very important for the facilitator to explain the process which brought this proposal to the meeting, and to describe the process that will be followed to move the group through the proposal to consensus. It is the facilitator’s responsibility to make sure all understand the process while the meeting is in progress.
2. PROPOSAL: With the proposal well distributed prior to the meeting, this helps the presenter anticipate concerns, minimize surprises, and involves everyone in creating the proposal. If this is not done, a committee of interested people would develop the proposal for later consideration. At the meeting the present reads the written proposal aloud, provides background information, and states clearly its benefits and reasons for adaptation, including addressing any existing concerns.
3. QUESTIONS WHICH CLARIFY THE PROPOSAL: Question are strictly limited by the facilitator to those which seek greater comprehension of the proposal as presented. Everyone deserves to understand fully what is being asked of the group. This is not a time for comments and concerns. If there are only a few questions, they can be answered by the person presenting, or if many, a useful technique is to hear all questions and then answer them together.
LEVEL ONE: BROAD DISCUSSION
1. GENERAL DISCUSSION: Discussion ought to be the broadest in scope. Encourage comments which take the whole proposal into account; i.e., why is it a good idea, or general problems that need to be addressed. Discussion like this often has a philosophical or principled debate, purposely addressing how the proposal might affect the group in the long run or what precedent in might create, etc. Do not allow one concern to become the focus of the discussion. When particular concerns are raised, make note of them, but encourage the discussion to move back to the proposal as a whole. Encourage the creative interplay of comments and ideas. Allow for the addition of any relevant factual information. For those who might fell opposed to the proposal, this discussion is consideration of why it might be good for the group in the broadest sense. For those who support the proposal initially, this is a time to think about the proposal broadly and some of the general problems. If there seems to be general agreement for the proposal, the facilitator or a participant in the meeting can call for consensus.
2. CALL FOR CONSENSUS: The facilitator asks, “Are there any unresolved concerns?” After a period of silence, if no concerns are raised, the facilitator declares consensus is reached and the proposal is read for the record. At this point, the facilitator assigns task responsibilities or send the decision to a committee for implementation. As well, any unresolved concerns someone speaks to and stands aside from the decision are listed with the proposal and become a part of it.
LEVEL TWO: GROUPS OF CONCERNS
1. LIST ALL CONCERNS: At the beginning of the next level, a discussion technique, brainstorming, is used so that concerns can be identified and written down by the notetaker for the record. Be sure the concerns are written accurately by checking with the person(s) who voiced the concern(s). At this time, only concerns are to be expressed, without judgment on their merit. The facilitator’s role is to interrupt any comments which respond to the concerns. After all concerns have been listed, allow the group a moment to reflect upon them.
2. DISCUSSION: Now is the time when the group strives to resolve these concerns. At this point, focus is on groups of concerns rather than individual ones. Sometimes, there will be a pattern or relationship of between concerns and can be resolved as a group, Other times, simply allowing a concern to be expressed helps resolve it. The discussion should not be allowed to be focused upon one particular concern. The facilitator should keep asking for comments or suggestions which resolves all or several related concerns. The discussion should remained focused on whether or not these comments resolve people’s concerns.
3. CALL FOR CONSENSUS: If most of these concerns are resolved after the discussion, a call for consensus in the manner describe earlier. If not resolved, then a more focused discussion is needed.
LEVEL THREE: INDIVIDUAL CONCERNS
1. Restate Concerns (one at a time): Return to the list. Concerns resolved are removed after checking with the group. Each remaining concern is clearly and concisely stated by the facilitator and addressed one at a time. Sometimes new concerns are raised which need to be added to the list. However, each individual is responsible for honestly expressing concerns as they think of them, not springing it upon the group later in the process. This undermines trust and limits the group’s ability to adequately discuss a concern in relations to other concerns.
2. Questions which clarify the Concern: The facilitator asks for any questions or comments which would further clarify the concerns so everyone understands it before discussion starts.
3. Discussion Limited to One Concern: Use as many creative group discussion techniques as needed to facilitate a resolution for each concern. Keep the discussion focused on each particular concern until each suggestion has been offered. If no new ideas are coming forward and the concern can not be resolved, or if time allotted has been used, move to one of the closing options described below.
4. Are All Concerns Resolved: Repeat this process until all concerns have been resolved. At this point, consensus should be reached, but it would be appropriate to call for consensus.
1. Withdraw the Concern (Stand Aside): When a concern has been fully discussed and cannot be resolved, it is appropriate for the facilitator to ask those who have concern if it is acceptable for the concern to be withdrawn. The technique is to ask if there is any person with the concern who is unwilling to stand aside; that is acknowledge the concern still exists, but allow the proposal to be adopted. It is important that the concern be written with the proposal and in essence, becomes part of the proposal. This concern can be raised again and deserves more discussion time as it has not yet been resolved. In contrast, a concern which has been resolved in past discussion does not deserve additional discussion, unless something new has developed. Filibustering is not appropriate in formal consensus.
2. Send a Proposal to A Committee: If a decision on the proposal can wait until the whole group meets again, then send the proposal to a committee which can clarify the concerns and bring new, creative resolutions for consideration by the group. It is important to include on this committee representatives of all the major concerns, as well as those most supportive of the proposal so they can work towards agreement in a less formal setting. Sometimes if a decision is needed before the next meeting, a smaller group can be empowered to make a decision for the group, but this committee should include all points of view.
3. Declare A Block to the Proposal: After spending the allotted agenda time through the three levels of discussion trying to achieve consensus and concerns remain unsolved, the facilitator is obligated to declare that consensus can not be reached at the meeting, the proposal is blocked, and move on to the next agenda item. Unless the whole group agrees to continue by changing the agenda to continue discussing the proposal the facilitator is obligated to move on. As the proposal is blocked, one alternative is forming a committee with the divergent concerns to decide what the best way is to bring the proposal back to the group at a later time.
- On Conflict and Consensus, Food Not Bombs, 1991
- Clamshell Allaince Seabrook Handbook, 1978
- Bill Moyer, Movement for a New Society, Philadelphia, PA