Consensus building, like other valuable parts of negotiation and conflict resolution, is often messy and time consuming, but the result can be a vibrant, inclusive process of reaching decisions to which people feel deeply committed.
I recently witnessed this in action when Occupy Santa Rosa, my local Occupy group here in N. California, put out a request for people who could teach facilitation and consensus building skills. Since I’ve been facilitating meetings of all sizes by consensus for most of my adult life, I thought this would be a good way for me to contribute.
I started by attending one of their general assemblies, and I was pleased and impressed to see how skillfully they were incorporating many principles of conflict resolution and respectful communication. Here are some of the ideas and tools they are using:
If people feel shut out of the dialogue or as if their voice won’t matter, it can lead to resentment and conflict. Anyone can sign up to speak at these meetings, and I saw people of all ages and in attire from scruffy jeans to business suits present and participating.
At the particular meeting I attended, someone objected to the presence of homeless people. One of the facilitators reminded them of a decision reached at a previous meeting, that as long as they abided by the rules forbidding drugs, alcohol, smoking, and violence, homeless people, as part of the 99%, had just as much right to be there and take part as anyone else.
Consensus building hand gestures
Facilitators can quickly address issues when people can participate non verbally with agreed upon hand gestures. Occupy Santa Rosa has a number of gestures including ones people can use to:
1) Express agreement or enthusiasm.
2) Express disagreement
3) Ask to comment on the current issue or add information
4) Address a point of process
5) ask speaker to get to the point quickly
6) indicate they can’t hear, or
7) block, meaning they can’t be part of the action if issue is adopted.
There is a conscious emphasis on positive speech and points of agreement rather than tearing down or criticizing another’s ideas. Working to avoid negativity that closes off dialogue.
Mediators and facilitators know that for conflicts to be resolved, not merely settled and for relationships to be healed, everyone’s needs and views must be heard and respected. Similarly, true democracy is far more than just a majority vote. Consensus building processes honor and value the wisdom and contribution of all voices, minority as well as majority. The Occupy movement is young and imperfect, but as their chant says, “This is what democracy looks like.”