History and Theory

Definition of Consensus Decision-Making

This is the standard definition of consensus used since the 1960s and 1970s, and probably before. It was published in 1981 in United Judgement: The Handbook of Consensus Decision Making by the Center for Conflict Resolution.

The goal of consensus is a decision that is consented to by all members. Of course, full consent does not mean that everyone must be completely satisfied with the final outcome—in fact, total satisfaction is rare. The decision must be acceptable enough, however, that all will agree to support the group in choosing it.

This handbook was printed in typescript and circulated in various forms years before publication and is considered one of the classics. It was reprinted in 1999 by the Fellowship for Intentional Community and is available from their bookstore. They also have other books and reprints from Communities Magazine on consensus decision-making.

8 replies »

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  2. Can we maybe agree, that sociocratic consent is a special case of consensus?
    Then the logical structure of it is like the question: Is A (a dog) a different animal than B (a labrador)? It depends…
    A labrador is always a dog, but a dog is not always a labrador.
    So there must be some kind of difference.
    In all the special cases, where the dog is a labrador, the two are not different animals. But dog and labrador are still different concepts.
    This difference may be important in other special cases. If for example you need a labrador to guard something, and what you get is just a “dog”, that in fact is a chihuahua.

  3. Not true. What you were saying was “There is no difference between consent and consensus”, this is copy-paste, so please don’t deny that.
    This is exactly what I object to, and I have said nothing about uniqueness. If it was true, that “There is no difference between consent and consensus” sociocracy consent decision making wouldn’t be an improvement for people who are already using any kind of consensus. Holacracy has been smart enough to give the decision making process a clearly different name to stay out of that confusion.

  4. Frands, what I’m saying is that many of the techniques and process that sociocracy uses are not unique to sociocracy. Many of them have been in use and proven to be effective for many years by people unfamiliar with sociocracy. They are not unique to sociocracy. Even using rounds is not unique to sociocracy. They have also been in use in group process for many years.

    They may be unique for many people, particularly in a business context, but not for those familiar with group discussions and decision-making. That doesn’t take anything away from sociocracy. It isn’t a criticism. I think it is important to show that sociocracy is not a weird governance method that someone is trying to foist on the unsuspecting. It is based on principles and techniques that have proven effective for decades.

  5. So this is the truth? And I assume, the everything else is distortions?
    I don’t find this manner of discussion valuable. Full stop.

    You seem to talk about the word consent in its general meaning, and that goes back a long way before even the word sociocracy was first coined. This may be interesting for linguists, but I don’t think that is very interesting for sociocracy or organisation.
    What I think is interesting is the advanced decision making method called “consent”, that is described and recommended in Sociocracy – and the similarities and especially the differences to the methods labeled as “consensus”.
    If the result of the choice of “consent” as the name for the sociocratic decision making method is, that this method is not distinguished from other methods of consensus and whatever, I think it was a confusing and stupid choice.
    I will for Danish purposes avoid to do that mistake.

  6. “Excuse me, I am a bit puzzled. What is the purpose/expected outcome of stating this information? I don’t know of any current purpose that this rather old information serves well – instead I see some confusion coming up.”

    History is important to the development of ideas and correction of current attitudes. It makes a difference when traditional consensus decision-making is mischaracterized to promote the use of “consent” as somehow revolutionary. It’s not true, nor helpful. It distorts history. It demeans the generations that pioneered consensus decision-making in public life. And it deprives the present of the richness of the past.

    The reason for posting the quote is that it demonstrates that the definition of consensus decision-making from the beginning was exactly the same as consent. Some qualifiers have been added but are they meaningful? Do they change anything in this definition?

    “It is clearly not a definition of a method or a procedure to get to the state of consensus.”

    This is a definition of “consensus”It is not a method for getting there, but how else do you get there besides presenting the proposal, taking questions, having discussion, resolving objections, and ensuring that there are no more objections. It can be done effectively or ineffectively but it is the same as used in groups calling it consent.

    “As long as the intention is as stated, this “definition” allows anything to go as consensus – including sociocratic consent.”

    Exactly. There is no difference. One thing that is different are the conditions for using consent/consensus decision-making. Those participating in the decision must

    1. Share a common aim.
    2. Be willing and able to sit together long enough to craft a decision that resolves all objections.

    The occupy movement did not meet any of those conditions. It’s amazing that they were able to use consent/consensus at all. I suspect (without studying their history) that it worked well in the beginning when the aim for joining was clear, and deteriorated as new aims emerged.

    “I think it is in the interest of sociocracy to apply definitions that distinguish clearly between old-fashioned consensus and sociocratic consent.”

    There is no difference between consent and consensus. Consent is singular and consensus is plural. Full stop. The difference is that sociocracy is a governance method based on consensus in which each person consents. Consent/consensus is a decision-making method, and more accurately a standard. The standard has to be met before a decision is made.

    “I suggest that sociocracy.info either gives a complete picture of that confusion – or maintain that sociocracy uses “consent” which is different – by being more well defined than “consensus” in intention as well as method.”

    For those who know history, sociocracy is very confused in its portrayal of “consent” as a distinct decision-making method. It as confusing as some of Holacracy’s statements that Holacracy is totally different from sociocracy. The truth serves everyone better than distortions. And builds a firmer foundation.

  7. Excuse me, I am a bit puzzled. What is the purpose/expected outcome of stating this information? I don’t know of any current purpose that this rather old information serves well – instead I see some confusion coming up.
    First: Is this a definition at all? I think not – but it of course depends of one´s definition of “definition”. Admitted – it is a description of an intention of the word “consensus”.
    It is clearly not a definition of a method or a procedure to get to the state of consensus. As long as the intention is as stated, this “definition” allows anything to go as consensus – including sociocratic consent.
    I think it is in the interest of sociocracy to apply definitions that distinguish clearly between old-fashioned consensus and sociocratic consent.
    For that we must maintain that consent and consensus may seem similar in intention – but they differ clearly in the definition of the method.
    Second: The consensus of the 60’es and 70’es were well intentioned, but not efficient enough to seriously challenge the general decision paradigm. Consensus today may be better (with good facilitators) but recently it has not always served the occupy movement well. I believe because of poor procedures AND insufficient clarity about intention. Since the 70’es others have tried to clarify the intention of consensus to make decisions about acts – as opposed to a consensus that a decision was the best in principle.
    So to sum up: There is some confusion and disagreement about what consensus was/ is/ in intention/ in practice/ and whether it is a good or not.
    I suggest that sociocracy.info either gives a complete picture of that confusion – or maintain that sociocracy uses “consent” which is different – by being more well defined than “consensus” in intention as well as method.

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