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When it comes to decision making in homeowner associations, parliamentary procedure (Roberts Rules) is often the basis for making them. It provides a systematic and efficient way to get business done. However, parliamentary procedure is based on the democratic notion of “majority rules”. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. While the system works pretty well, there is another process for decision making called “Formal Consensus”.

 Consensus is generally understood to mean that all parties agree to a proposal or the proposal fails. But it’s hard enough to get two people to agree much less a group so consensus is rarely sought or considered. The idea behind Formal Consensus is a process which leads a group through “levels” of decision making which is more inclusive, invites creativity and group solution making. For those used to democracy, it may take some practice since a goal of Formal Consensus is to engage the “silent majority” which typically don’t or won’t express an opinion.

Formal Consensus is a process which requires an environment in which all contributions are valued and participation is encouraged. To develop this process requires an organization to define commonly held principles which form the foundation upon which the process is built.

With Formal Consensus, decisions are adopted when all participants consent to the outcome of discussions about a proposal. People who do not agree with a proposal are responsible for expressing their concerns. No decision is adopted until there is resolution of every concern. When concerns remain after discussion, individuals can agree to disagree by acknowledging that they have unresolved concerns, but consent to the proposal anyway and allow it to be adopted. Therefore, reaching consensus does not require that everyone must be in complete agreement.

Proposals ought to be prepared in writing and distributed well in advance of the meeting in which a decision is required. This encourages prior discussion and consideration, helps the presenter anticipate concerns, minimizes surprises, and involves everyone in creating the proposal. If the necessary groundwork has not been done, the wisest choice might be to send the proposal to committee. Proposal writing is difficult to accomplish in a large group. The committee would develop the proposal for consideration at a later time. The presenter reads the written proposal aloud, provides background information, and states clearly its benefits and reasons for adoption, including addressing any existing concerns.

The Formal Consensus process consists of three levels:

Level 1 – Broad Open Discussion. Allows everyone to express their perspective, including concerns, but group time is not spent on resolving problems. The scope is broad, allowing the discussion to consider the philosophical and political implications as well as the general merits and drawbacks and other relevant information.

Level 2 – Identify Concerns. The group focuses its attention on identifying concerns, still not resolving them. Reactive comments, even funny ones, and resolutions, even good ones, can suppress the creative ideas of others. The concerns are identified and publicly listed, which enables everyone to get an overall picture of the concerns. The focus is on identifying the body of concerns and grouping similar ones.

At this level, only concerns are to be expressed, reasonable or unreasonable, well thought out or vague feelings. The facilitator wants to interrupt any comments which attempt to defend the proposal, resolve the concerns, judge the value of the concerns, or in any way deny or dismiss another’s feelings of doubt or concern. Sometimes simply allowing a concern to be expressed and written down helps resolve it.

Level 3 – Resolve Concerns & Call for Consensus. The group explores resolutions. The scope is very narrow. The focus of discussion is limited to a single unresolved concern until it is resolved. To encourage the process, the facilitator asks, “Are there any unresolved concerns?” or “Are there any concerns remaining?” If there are, concerns are discussed. If, after a suitable interval of silence, no concerns are raised, the facilitator declares that consensus is reached and the proposal is read for the record. If, at this level, consensus cannot be reached, that too should be announced so other business can be attended to.

It is important to note that the question is not “Is there consensus?” or “Does everyone agree?”. These questions do not encourage an environment in which all concerns can be expressed. If some people have a concern, but are shy or intimidated by a strong showing of support for a proposal, the question “Are there any unresolved concerns?” speaks directly to them and provides an opportunity for them to speak.

Formal Consensus provides a creative way to integrate conflicting views. Adopting this approach achieves a much higher degree of “buy in” by those that are subject to the decision. Being heard is the key and this process strives to make sure that all are.