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Consensus Decision Making: Guide to Facilitation.

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This is from the archives. I don’t know if it’s been superannuated, but a while ago I merged a few different facilitation guides into something shorter but hopefully still relatively comprehensive: for people who want to have a meeting where everyone gets to talk, but which still RUNS TO TIME.

Facilitating A Meeting! Consensus Process and Basic Principles.

Consensus Decision Making: CDM.

CDM is a particular process that is favoured by non-hierarchical organisations and many feminist groups. The idea is that a) it fosters an inclusive environment, where everybody feels equally able to contribute and it is possible (via the hand signals) to see how people are feeling even if they wouldn’t feel particularly confident jumping in and speaking straight away ; and b) it allows groups to come to a decision that everyone is *actively* happy with – particularly important in direct action situations, when everyone needs to be committed to the actions on hand.

Hand Signals

Consensus hand signals are based in British sign-language.

  1. Indication. If somebody wants to contribute to the meeting, they raise one hand or one finger.
  2. Point of Clarification. *This is the most abused hand signal!* If somebody can provide FACTUAL CLARIFICATION on a point, and so move the discussion forward, they can raise two fingers, and jump the queue. Can also be used to ask a clarifying question. This must not be used for political contributions or voicing opinions.
  3. Positive consensus and agreement.  Indicated by waving both hands (“Wavy hands”, “Jazz Hands”).This is how you indicate agreement with another speaker or, at the point of making a decision, positive consensus.
  4. No consensus and disagreement. Indicated with an inversion of the above agreement hand-signal, with hands pointing towards the floor (“Downward hands”). This is used to indicate disagreement, or no consensus at the point of making a decision. Facilitators should caution people to be respectful when employing this gesture in meetings, and not to combine it with other emphatic indications of dissent.
  5. Process. Indicated by making a triangle out of index fingers and thumbs, this is used to make a proposal about the way that the meeting is being run, for example to suggest that it might make sense to take a decision on one aspect of an issue before moving on with discussing the rest of it. This hand-signal also jumps the queue.
  6. Technical Point. This is an issue external to the meeting: for example, if time is running out and the group will have to leave the space and re-convene, or if there is a problem with the space, like a fire (in direct action situations, technical points often relate to the proximity of the police or other hostile elements). Indicated by forming a ‘T’ shape with both arms. This hand signal also jumps the queue.
  7. Proposal. The facilitator can call for proposals for action, or try to put them together themself from the way that the meeting is going. A proposal is indicated by using both hands to make a letter ‘P’.
  8. Amendment. If a proposal covers nearly all of what someone feels needs to be done, or if they want to alter it slightly, but not so substantially that they think it should be an entirely different proposal, then they can offer a “friendly amendment”. This is indicated by using both thumbs and fore-fingers to make a letter ‘A’. This looks a bit like the ‘process’ signal but such confusion can be quickly resolved.

 Meeting Process.

In small group meetings, people will be sitting in a circle.

  1. At the beginning of the meeting, do a “go round”. This is where everyone in the circle gives their name, and “checks in”: tells the group something about what they want to get from the discussion, so that everyone knows what page people are on; this is a good way of focussing meetings. During the check-in, some activist groups also ask everybody to give their preferred personal pronouns (e.g. “She and Her”, “He and Him”, “They” or “Zhe” – there are other variations too). This is in order to make the group environment trans-inclusive, so that nobody has to go through the meeting being addressed in the wrong way.
  2. Set out the basic aims of the meeting. In a planning or organising meeting, this should be about what the group is for and what it aims to decide, e.g., how the group is going to build for its next event. In a theoretical or political discussion, this should be about what is going to be discussed, where those ideas have come from and so on. This section will vary for theoretical workshops and other meetings of different kinds.

At this point in the meeting, the facilitator should call for agenda points, or put them together out of what people have contributed during the check-in. It is sensible to put a time-cap on each agenda point – usually slightly shorter than this section will really take, to allow for over running.

  1. Temperature check. When discussion has been going on for a while, the facilitator should do a temperature check to find out if people are ready to move towards a decision. It works on a sliding scale, so that people in the meeting can indicate how strongly they feel about it. Those in complete agreement raise their hands up high and indicate positive consensus. Those in complete disagreement use the “downward hands” gesture, low down towards the ground/their lap. Those who are less certain can show their conviction by indicating consensus somewhere in between.




  1. Taking a decision. First, the facilitator offers or calls for proposals. Then, the facilitator calls for amendments. The facilitator then repeats the amended proposal very clearly, and asks for a show of consensus. This runs as follows:

a)      Please indicate consensus (people in support of the proposal indicate positive consensus).

b)      Please indicate if you have any strong reservations (people opposed to the proposal indicate negative consensus).

c)       At this point, if there is a good deal of disagreement, the facilitator calls for one of the dissenting voices to be heard, and then for somebody in support of the original proposal to respond to them.

d)      If there is NO strong opposition to the proposal, the facilitator should call for “stand asides”: this is a chance for people to indicate that they have no particular objection to the proposal, but neither do they feel strongly enough to agree with it out right.

e)      Call for BLOCKS to the decision. This is an opportunity for people to say that, if the decision goes ahead, they will leave the group and have no further part in the activity for the time being.

f)       Re-iterate every decision that is made, and ask whoever is taking minutes to confirm that it has been recorded. If action points come up, make sure somebody volunteers to bottom-line them, and that their name goes down in the minutes too!

Guiding Principles for Facilitators.

  • Throughout the meeting, keep in mind the relative privilege of different people in the group – there are a lot of factors that make people less confident in group discussions, and you should try to make sure that the meeting is not dominated by one group of people. If for example a lot of men have been speaking and a woman is indicating, it is okay for her to jump the queue, although you should make what you are doing clear. Say, “I am going to take this speaker next in order to address the gender balance of the discussion”.
  • Call for more voices regularly – if the same few people keep indicating and speaking time and again, ask if anyone who hasn’t spoken before wants to speak.
  • Keep the stack short. The stack is the list of people who are going to speak; if there are more than five people in the stack at one time, it is likely that the discussion will have changed tack considerably by the time you reach the end of it. People can always return to points that have been made earlier on. Furthermore, the longer the stack is, the more likely you are to forget who was in it!
  • Take a co-pilot. Further to that point, it’s always worth asking somebody else if they’re willing to co-facilitate at the beginning of a meeting – particularly in a large group discussion. This can mean anything from knowing that there’s someone you can call on to keep the stack if it must necessarily be long, to dividing up the session into sections between you or having them take over proceedings at a certain point. You should also make sure that someone else is acting as scribe – it is impossible to facilitate effectively if you are also taking minutes.
  • If somebody does abuse the direct response or any of the other “queue jump” hand signals, make it clear to them the first time they do it that they have used the wrong form of indication. If they do the same thing again, tell them that you will think twice about calling on them in future. It’s okay to sound slightly tough; if all of the processes are enforced then the meeting will run smoothly.
  • Be calm, and take your time. Do not let people make you feel rushed! Meetings can be stressful and your role is the most stressful one of all. If people are speaking at the same time, then loudly and clearly ask for everybody to be quiet, pause for a moment and then open the stack again. Meetings that seem to start off quite slowly are usually the most efficient, as they take the time to make sure that every voice is heard, and that decisions are underlined when they are made so that they are not forgotten and the same discussion doesn’t have to start again.

Have a happy and efficient meeting!

❤ Reckless.

About Robin Wild

My name's Robin. I'm 30, I'm gender queer, and I'm getting married.

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