Tuesday, November 28, 2006

What is consensus?

An article in December's Grapevine spoke of a group that wrestled over the issue of whether to hang a sign with the letters "AA" on it so that people could find them. One member of the group threatened to leave the group if the group did so. With a slight majority, the group voted to do so.

I found it interesting that on an issue as contentious as hanging the AA sign outside the meeting room apparently was to this group, that it was comfortable doing so without a great deal of discussion, possibly discussed through several consciences, not just one. People often suffer from contempt prior to investigation, but a thorough discussion of the issue at hand may allow them to develop new ideas or better state their case. We can’t push change down people’s throats.

Without the group, AA ceases to function. When discussing issues that are controversial in our home groups and at other service levels, our experience shows that we should strive for unanimity, meaning the group’s decision is one every member can live with. In this case, with one member threatening to leave and others turning the sign over at every meeting, it’s clear that this issue is far from resolved for group members.

While of course we rarely achieve unanimity on controversial issues, we continue to strive for it and only settle for consensus. Consensus, according to common usage, means we seriously consider all members’ opinions, even the dissenting voice. Consensus is not simply a slight majority imposing their will on the group on important issues.

When there is controversy in a group, it may be best to keep working at unanimity rather than settling for consensus. Just because a group has reached a very shaky majority doesn’t make it a good decision.

For an excellent analysis of consensus, try this link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consensus

I find this part particulary relevant to our society because of the importance of our groups, for without the groups, our program would cease to exist.

"Achieving consensus requires serious treatment of every group member's considered opinion. Once a decision is made it is important to trust in members' discretion in follow-up action. In the ideal case, those who wish to take up some action want to hear those who oppose it, because they count on the fact that the ensuing debate will improve the consensus. In theory, action without resolution of considered opposition will be rare and done with attention to minimize damage to relationships.

Consensus usually involves collaboration, rather than compromise. Instead of one opinion being adopted by a plurality, stakeholders are brought together . . . until a convergent decision is developed. If this is done in a purely mechanical way it can result in simple trading — we'll sacrifice this if you'll sacrifice that. Genuine consensus typically requires more focus on developing the relationships among stakeholders, so that they work together to achieve agreements based on willing consent [emphasis mine]."

Perhaps if this group had worked longer at building consensus, they could have found another way to help out-of-towners (the original purpose, according to the article) find their meeting. We hang a coffee pot outside our hall, and visitors often remark with a smile that they know they've found the meeting when they see the percolator.

I've seen groups torn apart by issues such as smoking and it always hurts my heart. I think we too often see a simple majority as "consensus" when it is not; it's a majority. It's very important that on issues which threaten to drive members away from the group, we keep working toward a true, studied consensus if we can't achieve unanimity.


SCoUt said...

A very interesting and very important post. Thanks for sharing it.

Carly said...

Thanks for your comment on my blog! This is my first visit to yours and I will definitely be back. Your writings are wonderful as are your photos. I'm a writer, photo-lover and dog-lover too!

Blessings to you,

Meg Moran said...

A VERY important post, and one that should be taken to heart by some of those bleeding deacons who have no problem saying my way or the highway. So sad. You should submit this to the grapevine.....