Consensus Doesn't Mean Unanimous

Q: How many communities out there have switched from a unanimous decision-making process to one where there is a real desire for every voice to be heard but if a community becomes stuck and a unanimous decision cannot be reached another method is employed.


Firstly, the consensus process is not about reaching unanimous decisions. This misconception is probably the number one reason consensus is often thought to be an impossible decision-making standard. Unanimity is not consensus; it is solidarity. Solidarity is necessary when people are making a full commitment to a dangerous action, for example, in resistance movements when any hesitation or weak link can endanger everyone else. This not what achieving consensus means.

To understand the difference between consensus and solidarity it helps to view a consensus decision as two decisions, or two stages of one decision:

1. Given my own needs/purposes/resources/beliefs is this the solution that meets my requirements for moving forward?
2. Given the needs/purposes/resources/beliefs of other members of the group, can I work with this decision? Can I live with it? Can I respect and abide by the decision?

The purpose of making a decision is normally to give permission for a group or a sub-group to move forward in certain ways, to take action or not take action. Can you consent to moving forward in this way?

As the only governance method designed for consent/consensus decision-making, the sociocratic method specifies that consent/consensus only works when all the decision-makers

1. have the same aim/goal/purpose in relation to the decision,
2. have chosen to make decisions together,
3. are able and willing to work through the process for the amount of time it takes.

If not, another method will be required in order to move forward productively. It is not whether you agree with a decision to the depths of your soul and are willing to make sacrifices for it. Those who consent may even have different reasons for consenting, for example, one person consents because they believe this is the best solution and another may consent because they see no better solution at this time.

If some member’s purpose is to convert empty land to a swimming pool, and other members’ purpose is to plant a vegetable garden or a forest of trees as a sustainable action to support the environment, consensus may take more time than anyone is willing or able to spend on the decision. Prolonged discussion of the two options may create deep divisions; the cohesion of the group is likely to degenerate rather than become stronger.

More positive long-term solutions might be to change the proposal; use preference or another method of voting; or accept the decision of an expert who can make the decision using a broader perspective — expense, sustainability, city or state regulations, expected future developments in the larger community, etc. For example, the local code and liability insurance for a swimming pool may require safety measures that the group is unable to sustain. Or the soil may need years of enrichment before it will produce crops. Or the forest might create visual obstacles for traffic at the corner or violate zoning requirements.

Sometimes you can break the decision up into several parts and achieve consensus on each part individually — then continue to work on one part that is stuck.

Given time and tolerance restrictions, consensus may not always be possible, but the reason is not the group's failure to achieve unanimity.

(See more options for resolving objections for using consent/consensus decision-making in "We the People: Consenting to a Deeper Democracy”.)

Sharon Villines
Sociocracy: A Deeper Democracy