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Building Consensus

Learn how your association can have the quality, respectful discussions necessary to speak with ‘one voice’ by building consensus.

This is the tenth article in a series on collaboration and conflict resolution. Read the introduction to the entire series here.

Robert’s Rules of Order is a widely accepted and practiced approach to bring order to organization discussions and decisions. However, it is not always the best way to insure quality, respectful discussions that develop the understanding and support needed for an organization to unify and speak with ‘one voice.’ A majority vote leaves a minority who were outvoted, even if it happened by the rules.

Consensus does not mean unanimous agreement. It does not mean that everyone likes a decision or a plan. However it does seek a significant level of agreement, support, and buy-in for a plan, decision, or course of action. There may be degrees of enthusiasm, but there is general acceptance and willingness to move forward after ensuring that all views have been heard and understood.

A neighborhood association can work with the concept of consensus by considering its root meaning in the Latin 'consentire' which means to think and feel together.  Rightly understood, consensus is as much the quality of the process of engagement to consider and weigh all views as it is a decision-making outcome.

Even when the organization or group has formal rules that require voting and a majority can pass a measure, it can be important as a leader to speak the language of consensus and work to develop an understanding of the degree of support that is desirable or necessary for an initiative to move forward. A 4-3 vote may be legally sufficient, but it could lead to opposition, divisiveness, lukewarm support, or flawed implementation.

A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus. ~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

As a leader you should carefully consider the long-term implications of majority/minority votes and consider how to build consensus support for important issues. Use the support spectrum below to refine the discussion of YES/NO and pragmatically work to include differing perspectives that help shape an outcome with sufficient support.

Spectrum of Support:

  • 0 = Completely opposed (no!)
  • 1 = Serious reservations but will not oppose (Don’t count on me)
  • 2 = Some reservations but can live with it (Let’s move on)
  • 3 = Mild support (OK)
  • 4 = Strong support (I’m onboard)
  • 5 = Full Support (yes!)

The work to develop one voice may be aided by inserting within Robert’s Rules an approach to discussion that seeks consensus. For example, after all discussion has taken place but before taking a formal vote, a consensus approach could be requested to learn where people stand. One common way to do this is a 'straw' vote taken by hand with each person simultaneously holding up a hand showing their degree of support by the number of fingers from zero to five. If some are opposed completely or have serious reservations (zero or one), they can be given a final opportunity to express their concerns with group members listening carefully to seek full understanding. This opportunity to listen to the concerns might generate a modification or new idea to consider which could gain wider support. If so, the current motion could be withdrawn according to Robert’s Rules and a new motion could be offered. The ‘straw’ vote might also reveal that the amount of opposition suggests a postponement of the formal vote to develop better options, additional information, or more input from persons not present.

The willingness to carefully listen to and consider opposing views demonstrates respect for those in opposition that may encourage them to:

  • agree to disagree,
  • accept the majority position so the association can speak with ‘one voice,’ and
  • continue to constructively participate in the work of the group.