Consensus Decision-Making Glossary of Terms

Below is a list of key terms often used to discuss the facilitation of consensus decision-making meetings.

Active listening

Seeking to understand what the speaker is trying to communicate. Being attentive. Asking for clarification. Confirming understanding. Being open to rational persuasion. Concentrating on understanding before thinking about counter arguments.

Agenda

A document that specifies what will be discussed during a group meeting.

Blocking

When one or more individuals opposes an otherwise agreed-upon decision that has been thoroughly discussed through a group meeting. Blocking is when an important concern has not been resolved and the supporters of the concern refuse to stand-aside. Blocking may or may not be a policy practiced within a group.

Constitution

A document that all group members agree to. The constitution defines the group, how it will organize it self, and usually provides a greater vision of what the group aims to achieve.

Conflict

When members discover incongruent opinions on a common subject. Conflict is a normal part of any decision-making process. When dealt with in a spirit of cooperation, conflict is an opportunity for greater understanding and improved solutions. When dealt with in a spirit of competition, conflict is often destructive and painful.

Cooperation

The pooling of energy, resources, intelligence, and skills into collaborative efforts that yields greater results than the sum of their parts. It is a combination of people that work as one. Cooperation is the basis of every healthy society and is founded on empathy. Cooperation can also be described as teamwork, sharing, and helping one another.

Competition

The separation of energy, resources, intelligence, and skills into fragments that aim to succeed over others. Competition is founded on selfishness and individuality of persons and groups.

Consensus

The consent of all group members. This does not necessitate enthusiastic satisfaction from all members, but at least united acceptance.

Concerns

These are statements that raise a question, or point out a challenge or problem in a proposal. Concerns should be presented in the context of a certain stakeholder’s interests. Concerns should include an explanation of the reasoning behind the concern. Any participant can bring up concerns.

Creativity

The practice of using diverse knowledge, intuition, exploration, insight, and experience to create new possibilities that were previously not acknowledged.

Democracy

Government by the people. It is a form of decision-making, control and organization that aims to distribute power equally amongst all the people. Ideally, the only restrictions on people within a democracy are restrictions each person has accepted onto themselves. Some related keywords: liberty, freedom, equality, opportunity, justice, and cooperation.

Experts

People who have an above average knowledge in a specific field of significance. They usually have experience, training, education, and/or an enthusiasm for the field of significance. They are useful for giving the group greater insight into their specific field of interest. They may be internal or external to the group and may act as impartial resources or active stakeholders.

Group

A group is simply a collection of people that aim to work in cooperation. Some examples of groups include: a workers co-op, a household, a non-governmental organization, a not-for-profit business or most importantly, a community.

Interests

A group’s or individual’s underlying values and needs. Interests are the core goals that decision-making aims to fulfill. By focusing on interests rather then requests, groups are open to more options for satisfying the real needs of the people and supporting their fundamental beliefs. For example: an employee who is also a good mother might request a higher wage, but her interest is more likely to be security and opportunity for her child. Once we realize this fundamental interest, other opportunities become apparent, such as company paid insurance plans and scholarships.

Information

Clearly stated and commonly agreed upon facts. Information can be presented in any number of ways (e.g. chart, paragraphs, reports, etc). Information should be made easily accessible to the whole and placed in the context of the issues they relate to. Information is one of the key resources for sensible decision-making.

Information Facilitators

These are the individuals that come to the meeting with large amounts of organized documentation that may be referenced throughout the meeting.

Linguistic Facilitators

These are the impartial individuals skilled at drawing out, understanding, and communicating the meaning of others. The may offer services such as reading of written statements, rephrasing, summarizing, clarifying, relating, and combining the different messages presented by participants. These people make issues, concerns, proposals, and other elements of the discussion explicit, i.e. they will clarify and label an idea or collection of ideas for what they are.

Minutes

The detailed notes documenting what communication took place during a meeting. It is a good idea to make these as specific and accurate as possible for future reference, conflict resolution, and clarification. Main points, key decisions, and important information should be highlighted and made easily accessible to the entire group. Minutes are most useful for those who have missed a meeting. Minutes should be accepted by all members of the group before being entered into record. Accepting minutes can be done by distributing the minutes of a meeting after it is complete but before the next meeting. At the following meeting, the first item on the agenda could be to approve the last meeting's minutes.

Moderators

These are ideally impartial individuals who enforce the structure of a meeting. This position is also known as the Chair. They call on speakers, follow the agenda, and generally act as a central guide for the meeting.

Monitors

These are the impartial individuals who attempt to take a step back from the meeting to recognize larger patterns, trends, and issues on the meta-level of the meeting. That is to say, they are not so concerned with what is being discussed, but how it is being discussed. These people keep facilitators and moderators in check. It is their special responsibility to recognize and address more environmental, systemic, structural, personal, and emotional issues that may be affecting discussions.

Participants

These are the general members of a meeting. They may include members of the group, external experts, or outside stakeholders. Participants are responsible for agreeing to the constitution and knowing the meeting guidelines and procedures. As individuals they are expected to represent their different preferences, biases, perspectives, and interests. But as members of a consensus building team, they are also expected to think socially and aim for mutually acceptable situations.
Monitors, Facilitators, Recorders, and other institutional roles may also act as participants to some degree, but this will most likely affect their ability to concentrate on their assigned task and act impartially within that task.

Policy

An agreed upon way of doing things. A formal statement that defines how the group should proceed in the case of a certain kind of situation. Examples of policy types: safety, conflict resolution, food distribution, economic, working hours, communication methods, etc.

Proposals

Clearly stated suggestions for action that take into account all presented information and attempt to satisfy all stakeholder interests presented to the group. Proposals must also fall within the framework of what is practically possible for the group and desirable under the group constitution.

Precedent

Guiding principles established by previous decisions. The amount of precedent a decision will set should be part of the decision-making process. Decisions made by a well-deliberated and strong consensus should set more precedent then a hurried majority vote.

Reformulation

The interactive process of discovering an improved mutual judgment. It is the emergence of new common agreements where there used to be difference. It is the redefinition or reframing of the current item of discussion. It is the combining, modifying, rephrasing, adjusting, and reorganizing of issues, questions, proposals, and ideas in general. It is not necessarily a compromise. It is when, through discussion, the meeting realizes new options that match all parties’ interests. Reformulation through group discussion is the essence of consensus decision-making.

Reflection

The time spent thinking about an item outside of discussion. The human mind has a way of gaining improved understanding of an issue even without discussion or the input of further information. Reflection is this process which allows the mind to make connections and come to grips with the necessary ideas. It often leads to a more clear view of the ideas and potential options. It allows people to think free from disruption and without concern for making an immediate decision.
Reflection is usually achieved between meetings. On occasion, the moderator or someone else may suggest a moment of silence for reflection, especially during a heated debated. This often helps people open their minds to others’ views and to take a less competitive stance.
Reporters/clerks:
These are the impartial individuals who record the minutes of the meeting and maintain the group documents (such as the constitution and precedents).

Stand Aside

The decision by a meeting participant to allow a proposal to go through even though her/his concerns have not been resolved. Standing aside shows that the concern still exists, but it is perceived not to be of such a grave nature that it should stop the group from making a decision. The alternative to standing aside is blocking consensus.

Stakeholders

These are people that will be affected by a decision. There are many degrees by which a person could be affected by a decision. For example: a municipality’s decision to promote biking rather then cars affects its traveling citizens, local car industry, local bike industry, and all breathing animals. How much weight is given to each stakeholder's interests should be openly set in relation to the group’s culture.

Shelve

This is the decision to not continue discussing an agenda item. This generally means that item is temporarily ignored and potentially forgotten forever. All documentation pertaining to the item should still be kept, just in case it is ever introduced again. This does not necessarily cancel related proposals or activities. The group meeting should explicitly define what repercussions shelving will have.

Technical Facilitators

These are the impartial individuals skilled at designing, setting up, using, and maintaining the instruments of communication used in a meeting. Different skills may include the set-up of projectors and PA systems, the designing of effective slide shows, design of reports, design, printing and distribution of voting ballots, and other expert use of communications tools.

Tentative

Being tentative means presenting and discussing ideas in a careful but uncertain way until explicit agreement is reached. It is not assuming a statement is fully correct, but discussing it to see if it is. Being tentative is an important part of consensus discussion because it reduces conflict over ideas before they are even understood and always leaves room for confirmation and improved understanding. It allows people to discuss different options without assuming anyone of them is correct. From this process, agreement will form around what ideas seem to match with the group’s stated needs.

Transparency

The workings of the group should be visible to all members. People should know why decisions were made and why policies stand. All information, procedures, agendas, rules, records and minutes should be easily accessible (and possibly promoted) to all group members and stakeholders (and possibly the public which are almost always stakeholders to some degree).

Working Group

Either an already formed or ad-hoc collection of people responsible for a certain set of tasks. Working groups put plans into action. These people have a defined set of goals they must achieve and a limited jurisdiction for autonomous decision-making. They may structure themselves as a flat democracy or some form of cooperative hierarchy. Their activities should be transparent to the group.