How can we build concensus within a group?

Two parties coming together and shaking hands with a map of the world behind them

There are many benefits if parties facing a group decision reach an agreement via consensus rather than having an autocratic decision applied.  The decision tends to be accepted, the parties have bought into the decision, the decision is more likely to be carried out. If you are looking for longer lasting solutions with engaged participants, leading to less turmoil, greater stability, and less turnover, read on.


Consensus building defined


In consensus building participants want to have an agreement between all relevant stakeholders. This process requires the right people are involved in the process. That is those that may be impacted by the decision. Participants develop ground rules up front that everyone will agree to going forward. Everyone is heard and respected as part of the process.

It is important that everyone’s comments are valued.

When everyone has been listened to, they are far more apt to listen actively with others. An effort is made to develop genuine, authentic, connecting relationships. Participants hold each other accountable to commitments made.


The conventional consensus approach


A key to initiating the process is to clearly define the problem so that everyone is on the same page. Often a facilitator is used to help with the process. The facilitator ensures that everyone is heard, and that the group stays focused on the problem. The parties define their own ground rules. Participants share what they see as the facts and issues, how they feel about them, and then define interests to develop alternatives. The impacts of the alternatives are determined consideration economic, environmental, and social concerns. Next the impacts are evaluated. This typically points to a particular solution or a hybrid solution. If someone rejects the solution typically the parties return to an earlier step in an attempt to develop alternatives that everyone can live with going forward. Once agreement is reached and the parties have reached a consensus then it is important to follow up and ensure actions are consistent with the agreement.


A draft document approach


Another approach is to have someone with expertise and or understanding prepare a working draft that everyone can comment on individually. Sometimes the original draft is prepared by a neutral party relative to the concern having interacted with all of the participants ahead of time. Sometimes a small group rather than someone is responsible for initiating the original draft. With this approach it becomes clear relatively quickly what participants agree to or disagree on from the original draft. When working on technical issues and there are many participants this can save considerable time.  The use of online tools can be very helpful for this process.


What do we question?


As a mediator my favorite questions is

“What would you like to have happen?” 

With that in mind as options are presented on what they would like to have happen it is possible to go over the pros and cons of various alternatives. By asking a question like this participants can focus on the future and what “we” would like to have happen as everyone considers what the interests are of the various parties. Not only does the focus center on this question, but as alternatives are discussed, and the focus turns to the future. Some may see solutions in the near term. Others may see solutions focusing on a longer term perspective. This can become an ethical question. Both may be right depending on the time frame involved.  This process works best when parties are entrenched and is often used in conflict resolution.


Which method should you choose?


For consensus building consider all three. 

The consensus building technique works best when parties are able to make suggestions, others can comment on the suggestion and the originator of the idea can change the alternative based on other’s suggestions. The impacts can be evaluated, and the alternative can be changed to minimize harm and enhance positive outcomes addressing others concerns. When the parties can continue to communicate freely and remain in close contact during implementation this goes a long way towards a successful conclusion.

A draft approach works well when working towards a text document consensus. 

The Consensus-Building Handbook suggests starting this method early to allow the parties to take the time to offer their ideas, see others’ comments, and refine their own commentary is an excellent way to ensure timely inclusive participation. As indicated, this is especially useful when addressing “technical, regulatory, or statutory language” with a large number of stakeholders. Once all participants have a chance to comment it may become apparent what else should be considered working towards a final document.

The “What would you like to have happen?” questions that then gives rise to

“What would we like to have happen?” focusing on the future works well in an impasse. 

Allowing the parties to see the issues from different directions. Asking questions that allows the participants to consider worries or concerns, feelings, and interests helps to enlighten others of elements they typically have not thought about.


In consensus building it is all about what the parties can live with going forward


Sometimes it can be a win- win for everyone, but other times it can be a matter of only what is acceptable to everyone. That can still be  a good agreement. By focusing on the future and everyone’s concerns the likelihood of acceptance is greatly enhanced. 

Consider this article from the Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation and other related articles that address consensus building techniques that inspired the consideration of this commentary. 

About the author

Mike Gregory is a professional speaker, an author, and a mediator. You may contact Mike directly at and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 12 books (and co-authored two others) including his latest book, The Collaboration Effect: Overcoming Your Conflicts, and The Servant Manager, Business Valuations and the IRS, and Peaceful Resolutions that you may find helpful. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]