A SHORT GUIDE TO CONSENSUS BUILDING, the Public Disputes Program, Harvard

This article on consensus offers a brief look at some aspects of consensus decision making, definitions of the difference between consensus, facilitation, and mediation, and a look at whats wrong with Robert’s rules of order. -ed


by The Public Diputes Program. Part of the Inter-university
Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School

An Alternative to Robert's Rules of Order for Groups, Organizations and Ad Hoc Assemblies that Want to Operate By Consensus

Let's compare what this Short Guide has to say with what Robert's Rules of Order requires. Assume that a few dozen people have gotten together, on their own, at a community center because they are upset with a new policy or program recently announced by their local officials. After several impassioned speeches, someone suggests that the group appoint a moderator to "keep order" and ensure that the conversation proceeds effectively. Someone else wants to know how the group will decide what to recommend after they are done debating. "Will they vote?" this person wants to know. At this point, everyone turns to Joe, who has had experience as a moderator. Joe moves to the front of the room and explains that he will follow Robert's Rules of Order. From that moment on, the conversation takes on a very formal tone. Instead of just saying what's on their mind, everyone is forced to frame suggestions in the cumbersome form of "motions." These have to be "seconded." Efforts to "move the question" are proceeded by an explanation from Joe about what is and isn't an acceptable way of doing this. Proposals to "table" various items are considered, even though everyone hasn't had a chance to speak. Ultimately, all-or-nothing votes are the only way the group seems able to make a decision.

As the hour passes, fewer and fewer of those in attendance feel capable of expressing their views. They don't know the rules, and they are intimidated. Every once in a while, someone makes an effort to re-state the problem or make a suggestion, but they are shouted down. ("You're not following Robert's Rules!") No one takes responsibility for ensuring that the concerns of everyone in the room are met, especially the needs of those individuals who are least able to present their views effectively. After an hour or so, many people have left. A final proposal is approved by a vote of 55 percent to 45 percent of those remaining.

If the group had followed the procedures spelled out in this Short Guide to Consensus Building, the meeting would have been run differently and the result would probably have been a lot more to everyone's liking. The person at the front of the room would have been a trained facilitator -- a person with mediation skills -- not a moderator with specialized knowledge about how motions should be made or votes should be taken. His or her job would have been to get agreement at the outset on how the group wanted to proceed. Then, the facilitator or mediator would have focused on producing an agreement that could meet the underlying concerns of everyone in the room. No motions, no arcane rituals, no vote at the end. Instead, the facilitator would have pushed the group to brainstorm (e.g. " Can anyone propose a way of proceeding that meets all the interests we have heard expressed thus far?" ) After as thorough consideration of options as time permitted, the facilitator would ask: "Is there anyone who can't live with the last version of what has been proposed?" "If so, what improvement or modification can you suggest that will make it more acceptable to you, while continuing to meet the interests of everyone else with a stake in the issue?"

What's Wrong With Robert's Rules?

Robert's Rules of Order was first published in 1870. It was based on the rules and practices of Congress, and presumed that parliamentary procedures (and majority rule) offered the most appropriate model for any and all groups. The author presumed that the Rules of Order would "assist an assembly in accomplishing the work for which it was designed" by "restraining the individual" so that the interests of the group could be met. [Cite] In the more than 125 years since Robert's Rules was first published, many other approaches to group work and organizational activity have emerged. The goal of this Guide and the full Handbook is to codify the "best possible advice" to groups and organizations that prefer to operate with broad support, by consensus, rather than simply by majority rule. When we say consensus, we do not mean unanimity (although seeking unanimity is often a good idea). We believe that something greater than a bare majority achieved through voting is almost always more desirable than majority rule. Moreover, the formalism of parliamentary procedure is particularly unsatisfying and often counterproductive, getting in the way of common sense solutions. It relies on insider knowledge of the rules of the game. It does not tap the full range of facilitative skills of group leaders. And, it typically leaves many stakeholders (often something just short of a majority) angry and disappointed, with little or nothing to show for their efforts.

Even with these weaknesses, many social groups and organizations, especially in community settings, adhere to Robert's Rules (by referencing them in their by-laws or articles of incorporation) because they have no other option. The Short Guide to Consensus Building (and the Handbook on which it is based) offers an alternative that builds on several decades of experience with effective consensus building techniques and strategies. No longer must groups and organizations settle for Robert's Rules of Order or parliamentary procedure when they would be better off with an alternative that puts the emphasis on cooperation and consensus.


In order to explain what has been learned about consensus building over the past several decades, certain terms are important. Indeed, they are central to the presentation in this Short Guide. They are not part of everyday language and, thus, require some explanation. The key terms we will define are consensus, facilitation, mediation, recording, convening, conflict assessment, single text procedure, creating and claiming value, maximizing joint gains, and circles of stakeholder involvement. These definitions have been developed over the past two decades. There is still not complete agreement among dispute resolution professionals about how they should be defined; so, where important disagreements remain, we will point them out.

Here are the most important definitions:

Consensus (which does not mean unanimity)

Consensus means overwhelming agreement. And, it is important that consensus be the product of a good-faith effort to meet the interests of all stakeholders. The key indicator of whether or not a consensus has been reached is that everyone agrees they can live with the final proposal; that is, after every effort has been made to meet any outstanding interests. Thus, consensus requires that someone frame a proposal after listening carefully to everyone's interests. Interests, by the way, are not the same as positions or demands. Demands and positions are what people say they must have, but interests are the underlying needs or reasons that explain why they take the positions that they do. Most consensus building efforts set out to achieve unanimity. Along the way, however, it often becomes clear that there are holdouts -- people who believe that their interests will be better served by remaining outside the emerging agreement. Should the rest of the group throw in the towel? No, this would invite blackmail (i.e. outrageous demands that have nothing to do with the issues under discussion). Most dispute resolution professionals believe that groups or assemblies should seek unanimity, but settle for overwhelming agreement that goes as far as possible toward meeting the interests of all stakeholders. It is absolutely crucial that this definition of success be clear at the outset.

Facilitation (a way of helping groups work together in meetings)

Facilitation is a management skill. When people are face-to-face, they need to talk and to listen. When there are several people involved, especially if they don't know each other or they disagree sharply, getting the talking, listening, deciding sequence right is hard. Often, it is helpful to have someone who has no stake in the outcome assist in managing the conversation. Of course, a skilled group member can, with the concurrence of the participants, play this role, too. As the parties try to collect information, formulate proposals, defend their views, and take account of what others are saying, a facilitator reminds them of the ground rules they have adopted and, much like a referee, intervenes when someone violates the ground rules. The facilitator is supposed to be nonpartisan or neutral.

There is some disagreement in various professional circles about the extent to which an effective facilitator needs to be someone from outside the group. Certainly in a corporate context, work teams have traditionally relied on the person "in charge" to play a facilitative role. The concept of facilitative leadership is growing in popularity. Even work teams in the private sector, however, are turning more and more to skilled outsiders to provide facilitation services. In the final analysis, there is reason to believe that a stakeholder might use facilitative authority to advance his or her own interests at the expense of the others.

Mediation (a way of helping parties deal with strong disagreement)

While facilitators do most of their work "at the table" when the parties are face-to-face, mediators are often called upon to work with the parties before, during, and after their face-to-face meetings. While all mediators are skilled facilitators; not all facilitators have been trained to mediate. The classic image of the mediator comes from the labor relations field when the outside "neutral" shuttles back-and-forth between labor and management, each of which has retreated to a separate room as the strike deadline looms. These days, mediators work in an extraordinarily wide range of conflict situations. Mediation is both a role and a group management skill. A group leader may have mediation skills and may be able to broker agreement by putting those skills to use. But, again, when the search for innovative solutions rests in the hands of one of the parties, it is often hard for the others to believe that the leader/mediator isn't trying to advance his or her own interests at their expense.

The big debate in professional circles is whether any mediator really can (or should) be neutral. The referee in a sporting match must be nonpartisan; he or she can't secretly be working for one team. The referee tries to uphold the rules of the game to which everyone has agreed. This is what is commonly meant by neutrality -- nonpartisanship. However, some people have argued that a mediator should not be indifferent to blatant unfairness. They believe that the mediator should not turn a blind eye to potentially unfair or unimplementable agreements, even if the "rules of the game" have not been violated. Yet, if a mediator intervenes on behalf of a party that may be about to "give away the store," why should the others accept that mediator's help? The answer probably depends on the level of confidence the parties have in the mediator and the terms of the mediator's contract with the group.

Before the parties in a consensus building process come together, mediators (or facilitators) can play an important part in helping to identify the right participants, assist them in setting an agenda and clarifying the ground rules by which they will operate, and even in "selling" recalcitrant parties on the value to them of participating. Once the process has begun, mediators (and facilitators) try to assist the parties in their efforts to generate a creative resolution of differences. During these discussions or negotiations, a mediator may accompany a representative back to a meeting with his or her constituents to explain what has been happening. The mediator might serve as a spokesperson for the process if the media are following the story. A mediator might (with the parties' concurrence) push them to accept an accord (because they need someone to blame for forcing them to back-off the unreasonable demands they made at the outset). Finally, the mediator may be called upon to monitor implementation of an agreement and re-assemble the parties to review progress or deal with perceived violations or a failure to live up to commitments.

"Facilitation" and "mediation" are often used interchangeably. We think the key distinction is that facilitators work mostly with parties once they are "at the table" while mediators do that as well as handle the pre-negotiation and post-negotiation tasks described above. Some professionals have both sets of skills, many do not. Neither form of consensus build assistance requires stakeholders to give up their authority or their power to decide what is best for them.