The Consensus Building Approach

Agorà: Idee per la Mobilità del Futuro
October 2012

Lawrence Susskind, a world expert on decision making, and founder of the Consensus Building Institute, explains creative problem solving and the consensus building approach to Italian magazine Agorà.
Agora MagazineConsensus building is an approach to group decision making that puts a premium on problem solving. Most people approach group decision making (whether in a committee, a club, a locality, a community of faith, a legislative body, or any other kind of assembly) with the idea that majority rule is their only option. That is, 51% can be happy, but the other 49% will not get what they want. My question is, “Why?” To me, it makes more sense to seek unanimity, and then, if necessary, to settle for overwhelming agreement once every effort has been made to resolve differences creatively. The most important problem in group decision making is how to invent a way of meeting the most important interests of all the parties likely to be affected by a decision. I would never start out with the goal of achieving a bare majority. If a group doesn’t aim for more than that, it will have no chance of achieving something better the typical arguments against consensus building are (1) that the process takes too long, (2) there are two sides to every question and people will always disagree, and (3) consensus building produces lowest common denominator agreements – meaning bad agreements. As it turns out, all three assumptions are wrong.

Consensus building usually begins with a timetable that all participants have helped to set. If a group gives itself two weeks to work something out, then they either reach an agreement within that time or revert to whatever the “standard” way of reaching agreement would otherwise be. I have seen some of the most complicated disputes in the world settled within a relatively short period when the parties involved make up their minds to live with the schedule they have helped set. Consensus building should never begin with an open-ended schedule or a deadline imposed by outsiders.

The notion that there are “two sides” to every questions is very misleading. While newspapers act as if this is true, in real life we know that there are an infinite number of ways of reframing in any disagreement or choice that must be made. When people want to find a mutually advantageous way of proceeding, in spite of their differences, they have to find a way to re-formulate the question or link a response to the initial question with promises on other things. So, either-or choices can always be presented in a way that leaves room for creative problem solving.

The lowest common denominator argument also misses the point. Any agreement that is better for all sides than what no agreement would otherwise leave them with, is a good agreement. This typically involves “packaging” various options or making trades. Thus, there is no “common denominator” involved. Skilled negotiators know that adding issues or breaking a single issue into sub-parts is the key to building consensus. For example, if we are negotiating how much I will pay you for something you have that I want, price is not the only issue we ought to be talking about. When I pay the money, how I pay you, and what else I might buy from you can reframe the initial discussion entirely.

If you want to “book” the sale now (because your commission this quarter depends on the price I am willing pay), but you don’t mind if I pay that amount over a year or two (with low or no interest), we can reach an easy buy-sell agreement. This is accomplished by exploiting differences in our attitudes toward the “time value of money”. You don't care when I pay, you just want me to agree to the higher price now. I would be willing to pay a higher price if I don't have to complete the sale for 24 moths. The price we agree upon has different meaning to each of us. That’s not a lowest common denominator agreement at all, that’s using differences in how we value things to reach consensus.

The same is true in much more complex multiparty, multi-issue negotiations. For instance, one group of residents might be opposed to a Agora Magazine article photoredevelopment project in their neighborhood. If the choice is framed in yes or no terms, then they are against the project. However, if spokespeople for a number of “sides” are allowed to get together with the help of a skilled facilitator they can explore an array of related questions (including whether some improvements that the neighborhood has wanted for a long time might be paid for by the project developer, whether those who live near the site might be compensated for whatever disruption they might experience, and whether the design of the redevelopment might be changed to respond to neighborhood concerns). These kinds of voluntary negotiations can help generate agreements that are better for everyone (including the developer) than what was initially proposed. Again, that’s not a lowest common denominator agreement that anyone is forced to accept for the good of the group; rather, it is a package that must create more value for almost everyone than what is likely to happen if no agreement is reached and the usual political and legal process plays out.

In my new book with Marianella Sclavi, Creative Confrontation: The Right to Speak, The Right to Be Heard, we provide more detailed evidence about the advantages of a consensus building approach in a wide variety of group decision-making situation. Often, the key to consensus building is the involvement of a neutral party, trusted by everyone, who can help structure a problem-solving effort (with the permission of the parties themselves). Around the world we see the emergence of professional neutrals, called mediators, who serve at the pleasure of the disputants. Because they have the relevant skill and temperament, they can turn confrontations into consensus building opportunities.

If I am correct, why isn’t this approach to group decision making used more often (in either the public sector or in business)? That is, why don't people who disagree engage in informal problem solving, assisted by a professional neutral, aimed at achieving a voluntary consensus? One reason is that most people are unaware that consensus building is an option. Second, most people haven’t developed their problem-solving capabilities. Finally, people in positions of power like to exercise control (even when it leads to costly and time-consuming deadlocks that are not in their self-interest).

You can change this! The next time you are in a group decision-making situation, ask whether the parties might prefer to adopt a consensus building approach. Suggest that they set a deadline, seek the help of a mediator, and try to find a way of resolving their differences that will leave almost everyone better off.