What is authentic consensus, anyway?

First, some relevant dictionary definitions:

Cambridge English Dictionary: “a generally accepted opinion or decision among a group of people

Wikipedia: Consensus is a group discussion where everyone’s opinions are heard and understood, and a solution is created that respects those opinions. Consensus is not what everyone agrees to, nor is it the preference of the majority. Consensus results in the best solution that the group can achieve at the time.”

Business Dictionary: “Middle ground in decision making, between total assent and total disagreement. Consensus depends on participants having shared values and goals, and on having broad agreement on specific issues and overall direction. Consensus implies that everyone accepts and supports the decision, and understands the reasons for making it. See also collective responsibility.

I once worked with an organization of strong, opinionated women who defined consensus as unanimous agreement.  They rarely reached it even after hours and hours of discussion, and the organization was stymied over and over in making decisions.  A requirement of agreement is often that someone in a group has to give up their insight to give in to that of others.  Those individuals were not the type to give in!

Sometimes groups prefer long debates to clarify consensus. Debate, however, comes from a world view that sees the dualism of “us and them” rather than the larger “we”.  It is difficult to come to consensus if you are stuck in defending something you came to the discussion with, rather than searching for insight beyond a position and discovering common ground and solutions.

An often unseen implication of consensus is that everyone is responsible for supporting a consensus afterward, whether or not they agreed with it.  So consensus is not merely a stoic “I can live with the decision”, but “I can support the decision, whether or not I completely agree.”

When I have had the opportunity to really listen to the reactions, the viewpoints and insights of others, I discover new perspectives that enrich and even completely change the position I came in with.  And when there is consensus, there is widespread commitment to moving forward to act on the decisions.