A short guide to consent-based decision making
About the process
This is a simple set of steps that can be used to guide a decision-making session based on seeking ‘consent’. Consent is the absence of ‘critical’ concerns!
These steps should not be seen as the only way to do it - they are just suggestions. The steps can be done in a different order - it is also important to be flexible as a facilitator, and adapt the steps to the given situation.
But hopefully these will give you confidence to try out the process.
We are not trying to find the perfect solution, we are aiming for something that is good enough for now and safe enough to try.
A quick reaction round is the time to say how you are feeling about the proposal as it stands. If you are going to need to say you don’t like it, now is probably the time. You have one breath to say what you feel about the proposal as it stands.
A critical concern should not be based on personal preference, but the concern that the aim of our circle will be compromised if we carry out this decision in this form.
There is no such thing as a block. Concerns are welcomed as they provide more data and an opportunity to improve the proposal and enable everyone to agree to it, rather than abstain or feel negatively towards it.
Together we will endeavour to integrate the group’s concerns, because we all need to be able to get on with our jobs.
To integrate concerns we can:
- Revise the content
- Shorten the term
- Measure the concern
- A combination of the above
Appoint a facilitator and a ‘note taker’
It is better if these are different people - so that each can focus on their role.
Agree a time boundary
It is usually helpful to time-box consent sessions, but this is not mandatory. It all depends on the importance of the issue, and other factors.
Invite a proposal
The facilitator invites someone to make a proposal. The proposal may also have been crafted and circulated in advance.
Questions asked of the proposer to ensure everyone understands the proposal. This is not an opportunity to make points or discuss the proposal.
Quick reactions round
Quick test of how people are feeling about the proposal. If there really are no concerns then it can also be used to get consent.
This might be done as a round, or everyone asked to give their reaction simultaneously.
Test for consent
The test is to ask each individual in turn the question “Do you have any critical concerns about adopting the proposal?” .
'Critical’ in this sense means it will stop us achieving our mission or aim.
It can be helpful to ask the question as a ‘yes/no’ first, and get the actual concerns in the next step.
Draw out concerns
Once you have established that there are concerns the next part of the work is to draw out the concerns.
This is often a big shift in the tone of the meeting, from a situation where people are perhaps thinking critical thoughts about the proposal (and perhaps each other!), to one where we work as a team because we are appreciating the energy someone has put in to the proposal and we wish to support it. We’d rather do something, rather take some action, than just argue. We have simply found some concerns that we need to address before we can move into action.
When gathering the concerns it is the facilitator’s job to accurately reflect the concern. This means modelling very careful listening - and perhaps playing back the concern until it is fully understood.
It may also mean asking questions of the person who is holding the concern to help get it clearer and stated in a simpler way. Everybody is responsible for trying to be clear about their concerns.
It may be helpful to remember that when people voice concerns they are often speaking for the group - more than one person may have the concern, or at least recognise it. All concerns are valid and equal!
And group them (optional)
Grouping the concerns is just a way to simplify the process of resolving the concerns. There are many ways to do this. And sometimes there are too few to warrant this.
Make resolutions one at a time (optional)
Grouping helps the group resolve the concerns and this will often be in the form of additions or modifications to the proposal. Remind the group that this is a creative process - we’re looking for constructive ideas and suggestions. (You can also skip this stage and go straight to a new proposal).
Test for consent on each resolution (optional)
If it works out neatly, it may be possible to test for consent on each new resolution - “Do you have any critical concerns about adopting the resolution?”
Redraft the proposal
This may mean just adding new clauses, or adjusting the words. It is important to use the right words. Often changing one word can change the whole meaning and change whether people will support the proposal.
It can also mean coming up with alternatives to the proposal - a set of options. This is not ideal as it can take us away from action. Generally, there are several good ways to address concerns:
- radically simplifying the proposal, adjusting the scope or scale or the timeline
- asking “is it good enough for now and safe enough to try?”
- measuring the concern (eg if someone is worried about losing some resource, can we test the proposal and measure whether we are actually losing the resource)
- asking “will adopting this proposal get in the way of moving towards our ‘Mission?’”.
It’s important to actually write down the new proposal as it emerges. It takes a minute - but that is good thinking time.
Without rushing it, the aim is to find a proposal that everyone can support.
Test for consent again
“Do you have any critical concerns about adopting the proposal?”.
A sub-question is ‘can you live with this proposal?’ Another one is ‘can you support it?’ Support means that once agreed you will do everything you can to avoid getting in the way and accidentally sabotaging the implementation.
It’s OK to vary this process. Remember though, that the facilitator is not a ‘facipulator’ - they’re not trying to get to any particular result. They are just trying to support the group go through the steps.
Handling objections / concerns (for facilitators)
Understand the objections
The first and most important thing with objections is that they are heard. This is why it is hard work for the facilitator - it means really listening which as you know is hard work!
My rationale for this is that objections are really valuable - and if you as the facilitator are not hearing them, you won’t be the only one. Other people in the group are also not hearing them. So by clarifying your understanding - ie reflecting back until there is full understanding you are helping and supporting the group.
A rule of thumb is to never start writing up the objection straight away - reflect it back at least once before writing (and do this on the first objection - so it sets the model for them all).
It's not the facilitator's job to give the group a good experience
We as facilitators sometimes don’t want to hear the objections! Lots of reasons for that. This may be because we want the group to have a good experience and then when what seems like a difficult objection is raised we worry.
(FONT: feeling: scared) that the process will get delayed/derailed (FONT: thought) and I need it to go well (FONT: need).
It is not the job of the facilitator to give the group (or anyone for that matter) a ‘good experience’, it’s to facilitate the process (not ‘facipulate’ it so that people feel great). If the group wants to feel bad, our job is to let it. We simply explain the process to the group and let them learn the process by trying it out.
Ask yourself the question ‘what right do I have to try to make other people feel good, bad or indifferent?’ or ‘what right do I have to change someone else?’
Help people vocalise their objections
Now there is often a case where a participant won’t be able to state their objection. It is OK for you as a facilitator to describe your own experience. So I might say ‘I think (FONT) that there might be another unstated objection here, and I am scared that if it stays unstated we as a circle might be missing some very important information.’
In doing this you need to be careful. In the same way as above we don’t have any right to push too hard, because we can’t force someone to state an objection by repeating our probing too much or by embarassing the person in front of the group.
Remember you have power as a facilitator - power to embarrass for example (as a proxy for all those teachers we all had in school!). We can make an invitation but we are not the Spanish Inquisition, nor are we school teachers!
As a rule of thumb I think it is OK to make the observation - eg ‘I sense there may be something missing here’ (FONT: observation) at least once, maybe twice, but then stop. It’s also important to watch the participant VERY carefully to see if there is any sign of distress (and maybe check by asking them if they are feeling any distress).
The facilitator's job is to facilitate the process
The job of the facilitator is not to give the group a good experience by getting to a point where you can all celebrate an agreed proposal. The goal of the facilitator is to facilitate the process.
If you run out of time it is better to say “Sometimes we run out of time”. What we do is we remember that:
- we have surfaced really useful information
- in a real organisation life doesn’t stop at the end of the training - it carries on and proposals can come back another time modified with the new info
- as people get better at Sociocracy/consent over time their ability to speak honestly and reveal their concerns and to speak about them more concisely improves
- this means that people run more proposals more quickly and crucially bring in more information (in the form of reasoned objections).
Learning Sociocracy takes time and investment. And it’s one of the Sociocratic principles that we commit to continuous improvement - we keep reflecting and trying to get better, which is not for the faint-hearted!