BLUE SPRINGS, Mo.–The nation is already gearing up for the 2012 national election, when we will have the opportunity to cast our vote for public officials. But when working with small groups, such as a team at work or your church committee, voting isn’t always the best way to make decisions, says a University of Missouri Extension community development specialist.
“When we go with the ‘majority rules’ philosophy, we also agree that the minority loses,” says Georgia Stuart-Simmons. “Our decisions become a matter of either/or instead of working toward a solution that everyone can support.”
Using consensus to make decisions often means throwing parliamentary procedure out the window. “Instead of making motions with seconds, followed by discussion and voting, the group talks through decisions until they come up with a solution that all in the group agree to support,” Stuart-Simmons said.
“That doesn’t mean every person in the group gets exactly what they want, but it does mean that they get enough of what they want to go along with the decision,” she said.
It also doesn’t mean that the process is simple or quick. Working through issues until a group reaches consensus can be difficult and time-consuming. “But when you take the time to do it, the result is better group cohesiveness and support of the direction the group is taking,” she said.
Stuart-Simmons outlines some consensus-building strategies that work with groups:
-All members need to have a clear idea of the issue at hand. In other words, “What is it we’re trying to accomplish?”
-There has to be trust among the group members to make the consensus process work. “The more we understand the other members of our group, the more we come to trust them,” Stuart-Simmons said. “Incorporate some time in your meetings for the members to get to know each other. Icebreaker activities can be a great help with this.”
-The group must work to listen, respond and incorporate the ideas expressed by all members.
-Listening is critical. “But effective listening can be a challenge,” she said. To make sure you understand someone’s position, restate it and ask for clarification. For example, you might say, “It sounds like you would prefer to move the meeting to a new location. Is that right?”
-All members must become a part of the discussion. This requires a conscious effort by the group leader to draw out the opinions of those who aren’t talking openly. A simple question — “Jo, what do you think about this?” — can be all that it takes.
-Look for common ground. Ask the members to identify what they do agree upon. “Often there is more agreement than disagreement,” Stuart-Simmons said. “Identifying where we do think alike can open up new possibilities for compromise.”
-Ask members to consider other points of view. One technique is to ask something like, “Doris, can you see why Jim feels the way he does about this issue?”
-Bring decisions to a close by asking for agreement. Example: “It sounds like we all want to develop a new brochure. Is that right?” Then go around the group and see if each person agrees. “Often members will be nodding their heads,” Stuart-Simmons said. “If someone isn’t openly agreeing, ask if he or she supports the decision.”
Although consensus builds more agreement than voting, you won’t always be able to give all members of the group everything they want. “While they might not be pleased with every aspect of the action taken, you do want to work until they can at least ‘agree not to disagree,’” Stuart-Simmons said.
In the end, the members of your group will determine whether there is consensus to move forward and accomplish their goals. “Consensus-building is a process,” she said. “And it is continuous.”