‘Consent’ is a facilitative approach to support effective decision-making in groups as well as an underlying principle for collaborative governance. It’s one of the essential principles used in Sociocracy, an alternative governance system for organisations aiming to be inclusive and accountable towards all members of the organisation.
Consent complements other approaches to decision-making. While majority voting can potentially reinforce the position of the majority over the minority (those who have divergent opinions) consensus on the other hand aims to work towards decisions that everybody can identify with.
However, consensus-building sometimes leads to lengthy and tedious rounds of consultation, which potentially discourages initiative for action. Furthermore, the expectation that a group needs to unanimously agree on standpoints and take decisions can also exert considerable pressure on individuals to come to an agreement, submit to or short-cut the process.
The main question in consent decision-making is whether anyone has significant objections to a proposed decision. Giving consent means, there are no significant objections. It also means, ‘I might not completely agree, yet I don’t completely reject the proposed decision either and can still go along.’ Hence, even though there is no full agreement with a position or decision, giving consent allows the group to move forward with a decision. At the same time, it ensures that there is always the possibility for anybody to veto a decision. In case somebody has significant objections, the proposed decision has to be reconsidered and alternative solutions sought. If somebody has significant objections, it is in principal considered to reveal information about unintended consequences, or about viable ways to improve decision-making. It is therefore even considered the responsibility of individuals to bring potential objections to proposals, decisions, existing agreements or activities to the attention of the group.
This implies that a given consent can also be withdrawn at any point in the process and objections be voiced.
The strength of consent as a mode of decision-making is therefore to make every voice heard and to enable everyone to voice a more nuanced opinion or position. Instead of simply agreeing or not agreeing consent states that a decision is ‘good enough for now’ or ‘safe enough to try’. It can thus have a liberating and empowering effect on those who want to turn conversations into action.
Consequently, the role of a moderator in a consent decision-making process is not so much about structuring discussion, but ensuring that all voices are heard, one after another.
Introducing the principle of consent in organisations and teams changes the way decisions are made and ultimately has the potential to alter power relations.
Goal/Learning Objective/Expected Output
Giving a voice to everybody in important decisionmaking, while enabling the group or team to act, and allowing those who want to act and take responsibility to move forward.
Way/level of dealing with subject under discussion
Offering a structured and accountable process for individual voices to be heard in decision-making.
Application in moderation cycle
Moderating a circle of consent could be done in as little time as 10 minutes or might, with the full sequence of the 4-step consent decision-making (see below) perhaps take an hour or more. This will depend on the group size and if there are contentious issues that need further discussion.
Applicable in small as well as big groups (maximum around 40).
Level of difficulty
Groups can decide to adopt the principle of consent when important or strategic decisions are to be taken. Moderators are usually elected from among the team members.
The expectations towards a moderator are that he/she will lend her services to the group – but remains a member of the group with the right to voice an objection. The role needs the right balance between ensuring that the structure of the process will be followed, yet at the same time also allowing the process to unfold. A moderator from within the team will also need the courage to address and name the famous ‘elephant in the room’, those issues that possibly everyone is thinking about but no one is mentioning.
If consent decision-making is adopted as a routine practice, the role of the moderator usually rotates among the team members. The responsibility for the outcome and solution therefore lies with the whole team and everyone in the team – whatever their prior expertise in moderation – should get the chance to learn and practice how to moderate consent circles.
- On collaborative governance using the principle of consent
When adopting a decision-making approach using consent it is usually agreed that all policy decisions are made by consent, whereas day-to-day operational decisions can still be done in a different manner.
Ideally, all team members sit in a circle. The topic that is to be decided has been communicated and agreed upon by the participants (e.g. we want to improve our meeting culture).
The process of consent moderation, according to the textbook, consists of four steps that are implemented in circles. This means everybody gets a turn to say something – or states that they have nothing to say:
- A first circle to collect information. Who needs what kind of information to be able to form an opinion?
- Opinion-forming circle(s): This can be done in two rounds: What is my opinion about the topic being discussed? And as a second round: What could be a good solution or the relevant criteria for finding a good solution?
- In the third step, it’s usually the role of the moderator to make a first attempt at formulating a solution based on what the group has expressed.
- The fourth circle is the actual consent circle. A conclusion or solution is put up for consent. The moderator asks everyone in the circle if he/she gives his/her consent. If everyone gives his/her consent the decision is adopted by the group.
If someone in the circle voices a significant objection, the moderator should be welcoming and help this person, as well as the rest of the group, to come to a deeper understanding of the underlying reasons and implications.
Typical questions the moderator would ask are: What exactly do you object to? What perspectives and arguments are underlying this objection? Why is the objection significant to you? Do you have an idea about what is needed to better take your reservations into account? Is there an alternative solution you have in mind?
After that, the rest of the group responds to the objection in the form of acknowledgement, possibly further questions to gain a better understanding or an active search for alternative solutions. Hence, this might be best done in the form of an open brainstorming or another round in the circle.
Once an alternative solution has been found this is put up for consent again.
If the group experiences difficulties coming up with a decision that gets everybody’s consent, it might be helpful to emphasise that this decision is only taken for a limited amount of time and can, at the initiative of any group member, be revisited after some time. Another option could be to allow for the discussion to sink in and bring the circle back together after a few days. It could also be that the overall goal, what the group wants to achieve by this decision, needs to be revisited and checked again to be sure, there is really a common understanding and a consensus about that.
Options for modification
Consent can also be used as a basic principle without always conducting the formal 4-step process. In that case, if there are important decisions a moderator would ask for everybody’s consent. If this is given, a decision is considered adopted – with the general expectation that contested decisions should always be reviewed after some time and evaluated.
A team that experiments with consent and is quite new to it should debrief after every decision taken in consent. The debrief should consider how the group feels about it, if the process was experienced as transparent, if everyone felt heard, if the group is satisfied with the outcome. It’s important to give some time for experimenting and reflecting about the difference between consent and other modes of decision-making.