Consensus Basics

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Consensus Basics


Ambrose Desmond – OWS Facilitation (some content written by Starhawk)


Why Consensus?


Consensus is a creative thinking process: When we vote, we decide between two alternatives.   With consensus, we take an issue, hear the range of enthusiasm, ideas and concerns about it, and synthesize a proposal that best serves everybody’s vision.


Consensus values every voice:

The care we take in a consensus process to hear everyone’s opinions and weave them into a whole is a living demonstration that each one of us is important.  It’s a counter to systems that tell us some people count while others don’t.  In consensus, everyone matters.  But for consensus to work, we must also be flexible, willing to let go.  Consensus means you get your say—it doesn’t mean you get your way!


Consensus creates a sense of unity:

When we all participate in shaping a course of action, we all feel a sense of commitment and responsibility.  Unity is not unanimity—within consensus there is room for disagreement, for objections, reservations, for people to stand aside and not participate.





The beauty of a consensus meeting is that (when it is well-run) the group only talks about things that are important to all of them. Topics that are only of interest to some wait so that those who aren’t interested can leave. In large meetings, the facilitator(s) can bring an agenda draft to the meeting. Topics are given to the facilitation team with enough time for them to think about how to organize them. In smaller meetings, it might be created together at the beginning. The group should confirm all agenda items before proceeding to make sure they are talking about what has the most interest for everyone.


Announcements and check-ins

These are not items that need any discussion or decision. They might need some clarifying questions. Ideally, a clarifying question is quietly brought to the person who made the announcement rather than asked in the large group. That allows the person who made the announcement to decide with the questioner if the response warrants more of the group’s time.


Decisions and consensus

Sometimes the entire group can consent to a specific proposal. Other times, the consensus is that some people really want the proposal because they want more efficiency (for example) and other people are concerned about it taking away autonomy. If that is the consensus, then discussion is needed to find a specific action everyone can live with. The important idea here is that there is always consensus. The consensus is a summation of the collective perspective of the group.  



If a decision can’t be made in a large group, it is usually best to ask everyone who feels strongly to meet outside of the large group to discuss. If your meeting is small, sometimes it makes sense to have discussion, but make sure to check in to see if the whole group wants it. Every second spent discussing something that only matters to a few people kills the energy in the group.




No matter how skilled the facilitator is, the rest of the people in the meeting have certain responsibilities to create a positive outcome.


Bringing up a new topic:

If you believe something is extremely important to talk about, that doesn’t make it OK to hijack the group. If you want to talk about something that doesn’t directly pertain to the current discussion, approach the facilitator quietly and suggest the new topic. That gives her the opportunity to check with the group to see if your topic is actually more important, and to do so at a time that won’t disrupt the current topic too much.


When a facilitator interrupts you:

Facilitating is a hard job. If you think what you’re saying is perfectly relevant to the discussion and the facilitator disagrees, try to give her the benefit of the doubt and let it go. Otherwise, make you case quickly about how it relates and see if the group wants to hear you.


When you disagree with the facilitation or believe someone else is off-topic:

Please do not interrupt someone with the “triangle fingers” process point if it is at all possible to quietly approach the facilitator and make your suggestion.


Direct response (another term for how White men cut the stack)

If you have a direct response to something someone is saying and you are scared you’ll forget it if you can say it RIGHT NOW, please write it down and get on stack. If you are scared the topic will have changed before it is your turn, one of two things could be happening. If the meeting is changing topics before something is resolved, then try to support the facilitator keeping people on topic. If the topic is actually resolved and there is a consensus before it is your turn, try to remember that meetings are to move the movement forward, not to listen to your brilliance.


Talking vs. Talking about Talking:

People are eager to talk to one another—about politics, about plans of action, about what we learn each day in the occupation.  That’s talking—with real content.  But people get really bored and frustrated when we’re talking about talking—deciding which agenda items should come first, or whether or not to break down into small groups, or how long to take for lunch.  Consensus works best when the group invests some trust in the facilitators to make judgment calls that smooth the process and allow the group to get to the talking.  It bogs down when we are talking about talking.


When you’re frustrated about the process:

If you’re frustrated at the end of a meeting, find someone who can listen to you. This is one reason it is great to have an affinity group. Just having someone hear you can help clarify things a lot. Sometimes you might realize you have some important feedback for the facilitator. Other times you might see that it was just a difficult meeting that went as well as it could. It can also be helpful to find someone who has more experience in consensus than you do and talk about it with them.


Hand Signals:



Groups often use hand signals to simplify discussion.  The most common is finger-wiggling or ‘twinkling’, which originated from American Sign Language for applause, and signifies approval.  It allows a group to signify support quickly.

Twinkling down or sideways shows disapproval or neutrality.


Triangle fingers—process suggestion; 

Waving index fingers—direct response: 

These two are so often abused that I suggest retiring them, especially in less experienced groups.  People with process suggestions might come up and quietly whisper them to the co-facilitator rather than interrupting the flow of discussion.

Straw Polls and Temperature Readings

Full consensus takes time and energy. Save it for important issues.  For simple decisions and process questions, use straw polls—quick, non-binding votes, or temperature readings—are we in favor of this, neutral or disapproving.  Democracy is not served by trying to get a large group to do a full consensus process on every detail of a meeting—people who have limited time and energy will leave and be denied their opportunity to weigh in on important issues.




The facilitators guide the process, keep people on track, and decide how to facilitate each item.  They balance the need to hear every voice with the need to keep moving forward.  Facilitation of big meetings is a skill and training and practice are needed.  Facilitators need the support of the group to do their job.  Big meetings are best served by having co-facilitators. Facilitators remain neutral and do not take a position on the issues.


Stack taker: 

Keeps track of who wants to speak, and takes names or gives people numbers.


Notetakers and Scribes:

Note takers keep the minutes of the meeting, being especially careful to record any decisions made.  Scribes may write up crucial information large so everyone can see it.



The timekeeper keeps track of time and of how long we are taking for each agenda item, and alerts the group when it runs over time.



Guard the boundaries of the meeting and run interference with those who might distract or interrupt:  drunks wandering in, police, etc.





2 Responses to “Consensus Basics”

  1. Aaron Cotler

    Thank you Ambrose, this is very helpful for inexperienced facilitators such as myself. Would it be possible to include an explanation of “step up, step back” in the interest of attempting consensus knowing even traditionally marginalized voices have been heard?