Tom Atlee: Reflections on Consensus — from Ugly to Beautiful

Cultural Intelligence
Tom Atlee

Consensus: Manipulation or Magic?

The consensus process strips away all the extraneous issues and allows people to speak to each other.  Most of the time, people learn that the other side is not as “wrong” as they initially thought.

– Karl Ohs, late Montana Lieutenant Governor and chair of the Montana Republican Party 2005-2006

Social process may be conceived either as the opposing and battle of desires with the victory of one over the other, or as the confronting and integrating of desires.  The former means non-freedom for both sides, the defeated bound to the victor, the victor bound to the false situation thus created—both bound.  The latter means a freeing for both sides and increased total power or increased capacity in the world.

– Mary Parker Follett, author of THE NEW STATE (1918)

When I first began exploring the power of dialogue and deliberation in a democracy, I was quite surprised to find that some people regard consensus and even deliberation as oppressive processes. They feel that any effort to reach agreement necessarily involves suppressing differences.

I had not realized that consensus had negative connotations for so many people.  In my teen years in Quaker meetings and then in activist groups and intentional communities, I learned about “consensus process” (co-intelligence.org/P-consensus.html). This term loosely referred to the idea that a group would not act on any decision until everyone agreed on what the group should do.

My friend and consensus trainer, Randy Schutt (vernal project.org), gave me some of my best insights about consensus. He defined it as “a co-operative, loving, nonviolent process in which people share their best ideas and come up with superior decisions.”  He noted it was most effective in a group that shared experience, values and trust.  The Quakers were more spiritual in their approach, hearing the guidance of God (“the Light within”) in what everyone said, and deliberating prayerfully until that guidance cohered into something that felt right to the whole group.

Of course, I also knew that sometimes consensus process could be a long drawn-out affair and therefore feel inefficient—although the resulting decisions were often much easier to implement, thanks to the broad agreement about them. Furthermore, when there is not a clear understanding of the process, consensus process can sometimes degenerate into a “tyranny of one,” where the person who decides to block consensus in effect has “veto” power over the rest of the group.

These are valid concerns.  So I think it is important to explore this issue further, since I believe consensus is a profoundly important resource for the generation of community wisdom. First, I want to explore some of the mainstream views of consensus. Then I want to distinguish the conventional uses of the word “consensus” from the kind of consensus I advocate in my descriptions of good group process and wise democracy.

Most people understand consensus as a general state of agreement. In the mainstream world of adversarial politics, “consensus” usually means that a significant majority of people—perhaps two-thirds or more—support a particular proposal.  In small group situations people usually think of consensus as unanimity—that is, that everyone agrees about something. In both cases, an agreement is often called “consensus,” regardless of how it came about, how deep it is, or what it is based on.  If it was derived from shallow understanding, mutual fear, reluctant consent, back-room deals, threats, or negotiated compromises, it is often still called “consensus.”

The dark side of consensus

In THE HEART OF CONFLICT, Brian Muldoon suggests that consensus refers to “the consensual grant of authority to ‘leaders’ by the governed … Consensus protects the system from change … The dark side of consensus is that it results in homogeneity.” Here Muldoon is pointing to the kind of conformity-based consensus that politicians try to manipulate in a population, usually through mass media, and often by making dissenting voices feel too unwelcome to speak up.

The same thing can happen in a group.  An atmosphere of conformist “groupthink”* gets in the way of real debate or exploration. It may well be the case that the people who have dim views about consensus and deliberation have gained that perspective as a result of such negative experiences. All too often, agreement-oriented processes have achieved their goal by squelching disagreements and pressuring people toward an uneasy unanimous vote.

Tim Holmes and Ian Scoones of the Institute of Development Studies in England write in “IDS Working Paper 113: Participatory Environmental Policy Processes: Experiences from North and South”,

“The search for consensus…[can] silence rather than give voice to those already marginalized.  This is particularly likely where the values and interests of some parties are subordinated, knowingly or unknowingly, to those of more powerful, articulate or persuasive actors in the participatory process … The pressure for consensus has the potential to inhibit the argumentative process … intimidat[ing] participants to produce a ‘consensus’ that [is] largely rhetorical or based more on grudging compromise … that does not rise above a low common denominator.”

As it turns out, this has too often been the case with interest-based negotiation and mediation as well. In the desire to achieve a “settlement,” mediators often direct the process towards the settlements they feel will be easiest to achieve.  They use their role to place subtle pressure on people to agree to a compromise. Not surprisingly, research suggests that those who are less powerful often end up with the short end of the stick as a result. No wonder “consensus” has such a bad reputation among so many people—especially those who would most value healthy consensus if they knew what it was.

A spectrum of consensus

I hope to make it clear in this essay that such manipulated consensus is an entirely different animal than wisdom-generating consensus.  I suggest that collective wisdom comes from the inclusion, exploration, acceptance, celebration, creative use, integration and/or transcendence of our differences, not from their suppression. Manipulated or forced conformity or consent results in agreements that are usually more apparent than real, and that have been achieved *at the expense* of diversity, creativity, and integrity, instead of *as a result of* diversity, creativity, and integrity. In consequence, they are only a pale shadow of the real thing.  Agreements that result from an engineered process are seldom as powerful, solid, or long-lasting as those that emerge from openly and creatively exploring both our differences and our common ground.

I also want to make further distinctions between real consensus and conformist “groupthink.”**  While groupthink is not usually the result of manipulation, it is also a dysfunctional form of agreement that arises out of psychological and group dynamics. In certain group situations, the need to be liked, power relationships, rapid-fire conversation that discourages less assertive voices, politeness, and other factors can contribute to participants’ holding in check their impulses to disagree, without calculated manipulation or domination by anyone. Such a situation would not give rise to wise consensus.

By contrast, many of us have experienced what I am defining here as “real” consensus: that is to say, comfortably agreed-to outcomes achieved through real dialogue that creatively and collaboratively explores differences as well as noting common ground. Such dialogue usually evokes and works through conflict. It may conclude with clarifying statements of both points of agreement (con­sensus) and points of disagreement (sometimes called “dissensus,” as are the minority opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court). Or, the consensus may even consist of a shared recognition that the issue is still unresolved or needs to be set aside to further “ripen” or “season” (as the Quakers often do, sometimes with intensive dialogue off to the side).

On the most powerful end of the spectrum is the experience of real “magic” in group process. Beyond the laborious process of hammering out fair and square working agreements, many of us have experienced this magic, a transformational “flow” state, a process of “co-sensing” together the ever-changing “whole picture” as it emerges during a shared exploration of a problem or topic. In this kind of process, agreements are usually experienced as shared discoveries, and arise naturally and almost incidentally out of a deep exploration of diversity.

Such co-sensing is the most potent form of consensus for generating shared wisdom.  It is evoked more easily by non-linear processes (such as Dynamic Facilitation, transformational mediation, listening circles, Bohmian dialogue) than by more linear forms, such as certain types of traditional consensus process or interest-based negotiation.  However, it can happen in any process, to the extent that people really listen to each other and the process does not actively stifle their emergent energies.

Furthermore, once we have had the experience of co-sensing, something in us is transformed.  We realize that creative consensus without compromise is a real possibility for any group no matter how strong the differences, whenever we are able to create a situation where participants are truly able to speak and listen from the heart.

Beyond Agreement

As we explore co-sensing, we come to understand consensus in ways that are not rooted in agreement, per se.  For me and many others, that alternative conception of consensus has to do with shared insight or awareness: it is not so much that we agree on some conclusion, as that we are looking at the same territory together. This is what I mean by “co-sensing,” or sensing together. What we are seeing and feeling together may just as likely be filled with acknowledged differences as with discovered common ground.

For example, after we have talked for hours, it may become quite clear to all of us what it is that we each, individually, believe. Not only do we ALL understand that we each believe very different things, but we have ALL come to deeply understand WHY it is that we each believe those different things. We have not arrived together at a single unified, shared belief, but we may nevertheless experience a shared “ah-ha” realization that these particular diverse beliefs of ours form a meaningful pattern. We may understand better the diverse cultures or life experiences that led us to our differences. We may suddenly realize how our different beliefs all serve to keep a shared problem alive. We may not know what to do about that, but we can clearly see it.

An experienced, non-directive facilitator will seek out and welcome divergent ideas in order to help us see the whole “map of the territory.” He or she will bring out all our differences into our shared space, often by writing them down on papers in front of the room, or having us do that.  Most people familiar with deep forms of consensus know that welcoming divergence is an extremely important step, and one that often needs to be taken over and over again in the process of consensus-generating dialogue. The point is that we each want to move together, through this process, to a more inclusive vantage point from which we can see not only our own perspective, but also how our perspective fits in with other perspectives. At the very least we want to generate a shared reality that includes all of these various perspectives, even those we do not agree with. Notice that it is not agreement we have found, but shared understanding. It is an important distinction, and a key to dialogue and consensus.

Although most people associate consensus with the product of a conversation—a formal statement that everyone can agree to—we can also think of consensus as a process, as a way of being together as we talk and explore. We might benefit by shifting our focus from getting a final agreement, a consensus statement.  Instead, we could practice our capacity to sense together, to be aware of the collective pictures we are painting with our differences, to see things through all our eyes, together, and to feel things through all our hearts.  This is a new way of understanding “consensus process”—consensus as a way of being in inquiry with each other rather than any of the products that emerge from such inquiry.

Underlying this truer, more dynamic form of consensus is the assumption that greater truth emerges through the inclusive interactions among all our differences.  So any consensus statement, anything we all agree on, is likely to be a temporary resting point.  If we are to be realistic, we need to acknowledge that eventually the situation will change and views will shift. We will stumble on new information, or some other change will happen, such that some new perspective, some new voice, will need to be heard by all of us, if we are to continue to co-sense what is going on.  At its best, consensus involves living through our changing experiences together.

Seeing consensus as a process is not unlike seeing science as a process.  Each theory science “discovers” is indeed a valid discovery.  But it is also just one more hypothesis.  Experienced scientists know that all theories end up being modified and even overthrown when their useful time is up.  Science is not so much a body of knowledge as a way of seeking knowledge.

Living Consensus

So it is with consensus, living consensus.  Living consensus is a way of seeking understanding, clarity and coherence together on an ongoing basis.  To see consensus as mere agreement is to reduce and impoverish it, to undermine its aliveness.  To the extent we do that, we risk sliding into the seduction of agreement, which soon leads to the tyranny of agreement, which soon lands us all in “groupthink” and co-stupidity, not wisdom.

The antidote to an obsession with agreement is a spirit of inquiry.  The dance between inquiry and agreement, between convergence and divergence, between knowledge and uncertainty, is dialogue—especially the kind of dialogue that leads to “co-sensing.”

Living consensus is a kind of group coherence that arises from everyone seeing, feeling or understanding things together as they explore a subject. Again, what we are co-sensing could be the landscape of our differences: our consensus might be a coming to terms with the need to do something different than any of us would choose by ourselves, simply because it is has become clear that any of our isolated approaches would be a disaster, given where everyone else is at.

Usually, living consensus unfolds as people explore not only their differences, but also tap into their commonality. When we humans are able to share our deeply felt emotions, our individual predicaments and needs, we paradoxically are also able to touch the common ground of our shared humanity.  Exploring outward creatively and empathically from this deep kinship, we are generally able to discover some understanding or option that really meets all of our needs and deeply excites every one of us.

We must not forget that this process is grounded in real human diversity.  The diversity in the group sets up a tension that, if well engaged, becomes a creative, not a destructive, force.  The energetic potential in that creative tension can lift people out of old ways of thinking and seeing the world, into totally new understandings and options.  It can also link people to deeper common sources of intelligence and wisdom.  When these things happen in a group, it can be a very powerful experience that is felt quite vividly by all involved.

Facilitation can help this experience occur simply by creating a space where everyone can be fully heard.  Many indigenous cultures relied on elders who filled the role of simply listening to all parties until the “co-sensing” process began to unfold.  It is helpful to understand the role of the facilitator as that of “designated listener,” someone whose work it is to listen deeply to all participants and to “take all sides,” in order to support the natural self-organizing process that leads to “co-sensing.”

When this is applied to a community, it becomes obvious why any true community dialogue or deliberation needs to include as much as possible of the full range of diversity within that community.  The creative tension that generates the creative wisdom needs to be the same tension that already exists in the community among its various perspectives regarding the particular situation being considered. Those different perspectives contain the larger information and various energies that need to be taken into account, perspectives and energies whose transformation and integration will not only resolve the situation but can carry the community to a higher level of vitality and resilience in the process.

When the interaction among the various participants who reflect those diverse perspectives results in a wise consensus that thoroughly and creatively takes all those different aspects into account, something very significant has taken place.  We now have something that the whole community is likely to accept and recognize, both as deep truth and as “common sense.”  The diversity we were facing has, in the end, made all the difference in the world.

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**  The term “groupthink” was coined by Irving Janis to refer to the way a group’s desire for unanimity can undermine their ability to “realistically appraise alternative courses of action.” (Janis, 1982).  He identified eight groupthink dynamics: feelings of invulnerability, rationalization, stereotyping, moral arrogance, illusions of unanimity, conformist pressure, self-censorship and self-appointed mindguards.  The subject is a vital dimension of what I call co-stupidity and deserves more research to expand on Janis’ excellent initial insights.

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NOTE:  This is a slightly edited version of Chapter 18 of my book THE TAO OF DEMOCRACY – a chapter written with significant contributions from Rosa Zubizarreta, who was also the primary editor and driving spirit behind the whole book.  I was reading the book again for the first time in perhaps seven years, thanks to a publisher’s interest in issuing an updated tenth anniversary edition in 2013.  I was struck by how timely this chapter, in particular, is.  I decided that its broader distribution might be very useful to many practitioners and people struggling with group process and public participation in a world where our differences are once again proving a major challenge – and at the same time offering us tremendous opportunity.