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Consensus: First Step-Define; Second Step-Seek and Achieve Agreement

See Virtual Interview with Roy Baroff, Ombuds Mediator Attorney, NC State Faculty & Staff Ombuds; International Ombudsman Association, Board of Directors, at end of the blog.

Your comments are also welcome at end of the blog.

Introduction: A nonprofit created their bylaws to read that their Board of Directors operated on a consensus model. During their first meeting, they realized that they did not have a consensus on the meaning of consensus. Wisely, they hired a facilitator to conduct a two hour seminar tailoring a consensus model that matches their nonprofit.*

The term consensus is used a lot in modern day American society. How many times have people heard.

-Hearing and seeing no objectives, I declare a consensus.

-We all agree so we have a consensus.

-We don’t vote. We operate by consensus.

Based on recent interviews, there is a wide variety of accepted definitions:

-Consensus is when everyone agrees.

-Consensus is when all affected or voting can live with a situation.

-Consensus is when there are no objections.

-“We sometimes talk about "consensus or common ground among enough people to move forward" in community/civil rights matters where there are always going to be dissenters.” Nancy Rogers is a Professor Emeritus at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. She also serves on the executive committee of the College’s Divided Community Project. The Divided Community Project which is housed in the Ohio State University School of Law Moritz College Program on Dispute Resolution.

Starting with the textbook definition is the first step. The Oxford Dictionaries define consensus as “a general agreement.

Synonyms: Harmony, concord, like mindedness, concurrence, common consent, accord, oneness, unanimity.

Antonyms: Minority view or disagreement.

The Free Dictionary defines consensus as an “agreement in the judgment or opinion reached by a group as a whole.

Operationally, these definitions provide a good foundation but no process.

Reaching a consensus by finger and fist voting:**

Some community organizations such as The National Association for Community Mediation (NAFCM) have adopted the “Fist to Five Approach to Consensus.”

Fist to Five is accomplished by raising hands as in voting, with the number of fingers raised that indicates level of agreement.

  • A fist means, “I vote NO.” or in consensus it means, “I object and will block consensus (usually on moral grounds).”

  • 1 finger means, “I’ll just barely go along.” or, “I don’t like this but it’s not quite a no.” or, “I think there is lots more work to do on this proposal.” In consensus this indicates standing aside, or not being in agreement but not blocking the consensus.

  • 2 fingers means “I don’t much like this but I’ll go along.”

  • 3 fingers means, “I’m in the middle somewhere. Like some of it, but not all.”

  • 4 fingers means, “This is fine.”

  • 5 fingers means, “I like this a lot, I think it’s the best possible decision.”

Fist to Five Process:

1. When a proposal has been brought before a group, it has been well discussed and refined as needed, a vote for passage is taken.

2. People raise their hands with the number of fingers that indicate their degree of agreement with the proposal. Hands are held VERY high and the room is scanned by all. That way everyone is checking the sense of the room and not individual opinions.

3. The vote can stand as taken, with all fists and fingers counted, the majority winning. Or, people with fists and one finger can be asked to speak to their objections and offer possible solutions to overcome their objections. This is attempted, and then a second and final vote is taken, which is the final vote.

4. It is often wise to check early in the proposal dialogue, as sometimes a group is actually ready for consensus or a vote earlier than expected and a lot of time can be saved. An early check might find all 4 and 5 fingers except for two 1’s, meaning the proposal would be voted in, or in the case of consensus, no one would block consensus and only two people have needs to be met. Only those people then speak and their objections addressed which saves a lot of time.

5. A low quality vote (lots of 1s, 2s and 3s) tells you the decision is probably a stop gap measure and will need to be watched closely or revisited soon. It is generally wise to attach a date for review to a decision that is low in quality. Some groups find it saves time in the end to not accept a vote that is affirmative but primarily 1s and 2s as the proposal is generally troublesome and comes up again anyway.

6. If it is obvious that the vote is wildly split, with no real majority, despite a winning “yes,” the group knows it has more work to do, and that the decision may not endure. They can expect more controversy and know a plan must be made to address the polarized views.

7. When Fist to Five has been used for a while, a transition to consensus, if desired, is quite easy.”

Many folks especially attorneys and business people who are accustomed to Yes/No voting are wary of this Fist to Five approach.

Larry Ray experience: I worked for the American Bar Association (ABA) for 15 years. The ABA operated on a Yes/No voting process. For many years I saw the same issues come up year after year with the same Yes/No voting process.

Then I became the first Executive Director of NAFCM. I had my doubts about the Fist to Five process. Over a three year period I saw the long range excellent results from this process. An issue would be raised. The Board would discuss it and craft it so that all board members could “live with it” meaning no fists (meaning I can’t live with it.). Unlike at the ABA, the issues did not reappear and reappear on the agenda. Usually a long term resolution had been accomplished.

Unanimity synonymous with Consensus:

The issue of consensus aka unanimity is vital in the legal realm especially jury verdicts. In 2020, the US Supreme Court in Ramos v. Louisiana, #18-5924 banned non-unanimous jury verdicts in some cases: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday that the constitutional guarantee of trial by jury requires a unanimous verdict for serious crimes, siding with a Louisiana man convicted of murder and paving the way for potentially hundreds of defendants found guilty by divided juries to receive new trials.

Only two of the 50 states, Louisiana and Oregon, have permitted non-unanimous verdicts. Writing for the court in the 6-3 ruling, conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch noted that the non-unanimous verdict requirement in both states traced back to past racist policies intended to reduce the power of non-white jurors to influence the outcome of trials.

The ruling, overturning a 1972 Supreme Court precedent….***

United Kingdom, Australia, Canada approach: If they fail to reach a unanimous verdict, the judge may later (after not less than two hours) give directions that a majority verdict will be acceptable, but still no less than ten to two, although the jury should continue to try to reach a unanimous verdict if possible.”****

(Larry Ray Comment: I tend to favor the UK approach. Consensus is challenging. It is even more challenging when very important issues like a verdict is involved. There are many folks who believe that operationally the law enforcement and legal system is prejudiced against some folks.)

The 1957 movie Twelve Angry Men (based on a 1954 play) is still often used in Leadership or Persuasion courses. Lessons usually focus on how to be persuasive, how to manage conflict and how to avoid “groupthink.” A variant of those lessons would be, how to reach a consensus.

So, how does one negotiate a consensus?

-Ask questions? Value each question and obtain responses to those.

-Summarize, not just at the end but all the way along to ensure common understanding.

-Value each comment and discuss.

-Encourage creativity.

-Think of the pros, cons and interesting aspects of each idea.


Ken Jaray: “In my former role as Mayor of Manitou Springs, CO I often used a consensus process. Over time, I have come to realize that what really matters is the process that leads to consensus. If everyone feels heard, and can live with and support the decision of the group, I believe the group has reached a consensus based decision.” Jaray, Attorney, JD, Capital University School of Law. He served as student mediator and intake counselor in the celebrated Columbus, Ohio, Night Prosecutor’s Program (known as one of the first criminal mediation programs in the US initially funded by the US Department of Justice.)

…consensus is a necessary first step to facilitate collaboration and joint actions….

So consensus decision-making is a valuable dispute resolution process. As any process it has it pros, cons and interesting aspects.

Among the pros or the positive aspects include,

-Involvement of all those affected.

-Presenting a united front.

-Knowing if all are involved, maybe there will be no one undermining the plan.

-Promotes a collaborative spirit.

-Encourages team building.

The negatives or the cons might include,

-The result may not be the optimal decision.

-Potential for bad decisions.

-Groupthink dominates, ignoring data that might point in different directions.

-Lack of critical thinking.

-Compromising may not always be the best path.

-Most businesses are hierarchial so the powerful might overwhelm others.

One interesting aspect to consensus making is that it often avoids conflict, but conflict can lead to creative decision-making.

*This nonprofit hired Larry Ray as the facilitator.

Roberts Rules of Order Section 48 General Consent or Unanimous Vote. By general, unanimous, or silent consent, the assembly can do business with little regard for the rules of procedure. These rules are made for the protection of the minority. When there is no minority to protect, there is little use for the restraint of the rules, except….

+Consensus (Roy Baroff, Ombuds Mediator Educator Attorney response to Larry Ray Questions)

Consensus is often misunderstood.

I think the idea of “consensus” has gotten a bad rap in recent times because I think it’s often misunderstood. It gets framed around the idea that everyone has to agree or the situation/matter can’t go forward. It gets framed around the Fisher/Ury idea of win-win or as I like to state – all win. People think it takes too long and that it takes power away from the leader. People think of it as the minority controlling the majority.

Consensus is Both a Process and an Outcome:

It is an invitation for a group to reach agreement based on a process that elicits and solicits full input and participation. It can take time, certainly longer than a leader making a unilateral decision; however, the time spent up front generally pays a dividend during implementation. If people buy in to the process, they typically support the outcome. Years ago I spent part of summer with a management consulting group that supported consensus building and their motto was – Go slow, to go fast. As for outcomes, full agreement is not required. It’s about reaching outcomes that all can be “okay.” As a longtime mediator, I initially spoke in terms of finding the win-win, then the all win, yet as I gained more experience it became more about “okay to okay” or, in a take from the wild west, let’s meet at the Okay Corral! Not for a fight, for a solution that works.

How do you get to consensus?

It’s about creating and providing a format that allows participation in different forms. Maybe it's a facilitated meeting that includes individual writing, pairs, small groups and full group discussion. It’s about structuring interaction so people feel safe to disagree. I’m also a big fan of “straw polls,” meaning after discussion and if there is a sense of direction in the room, then you ask people to raise their hand in a non-binding vote. If you have 20 people in a group and 10 support something, then you get back to work. If it’s 15, one might ask the 5 who voted no to share their hesitation. By working through the disagreements, the final result that everyone is okay with is often better.


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