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Consensus in large groups: it all turns on affection
It All Turns on Affection is actually the name of one of our favorite essay collections from Wendell Berry (our preeminent Kentucky environmental activist/poet/moralist/farmer/writer), but it’s actually apropos here. To summarize from what we already know about consensus building, we are making some assumptions about your group. These things will not work unless your group is already bought into the idea of the common ground and common goals that exist between members.
Groups that are good candidates for consensus-based decision making processes are all committed to cooperation, tolerance, and active listening. Group members consistently demonstrate willingness to put the groups interests ahead of personal interests. If that sounds like your group, proceed! If it doesn’t, check out our posts on trust and dysfunction.
When it comes to small groups, we’ve covered the basic spirit of and process behind consensus building. But building consensus in large groups can be a bit more of a project. First, it’s hard to give everyone an open-ended platform if your group is 50 people large. There are the obvious constraints around time and attention spans. Also, without a process in place you may be able to infer how quickly the negotiation can devolve into “too many cooks in the kitchen” territory. Endless churning, endless ego, no productivity.
For consensus building in large(ish) groups, consider these methods:
1. Double go-round
This strategy allows everyone a chance to directly contribute. This means that it will take time and may work best for medium-large, and not extra-large, groups. Each person has the same amount of time to share their opinions and thoughts, say less than two minutes. Someone other than the facilitator can be the time keeper. Doing two rounds means that everyone gets a chance to share their initial ideas, and then another opportunity to respond to what they’ve heard from the rest of the group. They can refine their original idea, offer each other feedback, or continue with new creative solutions. This can be especially helpful in the very early stages of brainstorming when the group is still coming around to understanding the various options and limitations. Once you’ve got a set of possible ideas and brainstorms, you can move on to one of the methods below in order to proceed toward consensus.
2. Dot Voting
This is a good method to use when there are a whole array of options for the group to choose from. With this method, the whole group can visually see the spectrum of thought across the group as well as the popularity of various decision options. If you have a large table or white board that is ideal. Facilitators can write out each idea. Then, members will place their dots accordingly. Each member will have a certain amount of votes/dots (these can be sticky notes, pennies, yard sale stickers, X’s in marker, whatever supplies you have on hand). A good rule of thumb is to give members a number of votes equal to 50% or less of the total number of options. No cross-talk during voting, and definitely keep it to a time limit to avoid group members grandstanding, stalling, or making one thousand edits to their original vote. After the first round of voting, you have options:
- Perhaps there is a clear runaway winner. Ease and simplicity! How tidy and nice for you! Put it up for a final restatement and vote, clarify any nagging exceptions anyone has, and move onto implementation planning. Hurrah!
- If there are a few clear losers, get rid of those first. Narrow in on the top contenders and keep voting. Once you’re down to a few strong options, you’ve reached the limit of usefulness for this method and it’s time to move on. Consider jumping into the 1-2-4-all method at this point, starting with a clarifying moment of self-reflection. Or you can more loosely discuss the exceptions and limitations of the current options and go straight into proposal-testing-ammendment territory. This is explained more thoroughly in our previous consensus posts linked above!
3. 1-2-4-All Consensus
Facilitators start by framing the topic of the meeting. What decision is the group focusing on making? What are the broad considerations and stakes that we know at this time? Begin by asking everyone to join in one to two minutes of silent self-reflection. What would they like to have happen? Where do they see opportunities or limitations around getting this job done or this progress made? What ideas would they like to bring to the table? This is a time for everyone to find their voice before diving into conversation with one another. Personally, we think that this is such a great way to start any group convo. Consider having a grounding moment at at the top of every meeting! Thinking before speaking! Imagine the possibilities!
Next, have members spend a minute or two sharing their ideas and thoughts with one other group members. Then, find another duo and share ideas as a foursome. Have the 4-person groups come to agreement on their most winning idea, or top 3 priorities, or whatever works for your group and your goal. From there, one spokesperson from each group can share with the larger group.
With any of these, once your group has narrowed down to two or three choices, you may find that you need another approach to keep culling. These are just a few ways to introduce a structured process into the ongoing dialogue and negotiation, particularly if you are trying to reach consensus with a large group. Using strategies like these help keep things moving so that discussions don’t devolve into analysis paralysis and so that everyone stays goal-oriented and out of the muck of personality conflicts and petty infighting.
This wraps up our series of consensus building! Hope you found something of use here! Feel free to share these posts if that is the case!
The team at Groupeasy