Tree Bressen, guest-posting at Dave Pollard’s “How to Save the World” blog, has a helpful summary of consensus process mistakes and barriers, and how to avoid them. This is a followup to Pollard’s earlier post, “When Consensus Doesn’t Work.”
In my experience, a good first step is to admin that consensus is hard, in fact that all social/communication processes are difficult. To have a productive meeting resulting in a decision by consensus requires leadership, and the leader’s agenda should be more about achieving consensus than getting a particular result. The word for this kind of leadership is facilitation. A good facilitator parks her ego outside the door, and has no preferred outcome other than consensus. One reason the consensus process is hard is that the facilitation mind-set is hard to develop. The set of consensus mistakes presented by Bressen could also be characterized as signs of poor facilitation. E.g. “when the facilitator is also the person offering information and context on an issue, it lessens safety for those who may disagree with the general thrust, putting them immediately on the defensive.”
A truly democratic political process would require a facilitated conversation producing consensus decisions. This is what I see the Occupy groups trying to do with General Assemblies; their success would depend on the quality of emergent leadership and the degree to which the emergent leaders understand facilitation and consensus. Occupy points to a crucial issue, that political leaders are not leading by consensus, and their decisions are driven by self-interest rather than commitment to greater good of all. Political self-interest is always present, but consider Plunkitt’s concept of “honest graft.” In a meeting run by a selfish leader, dissatisfaction is probable and mutiny is always possible, especially where there’s a strong expectation that leadership will honor consensus. In the national ongoing “meeting” that is U.S. politics, I would argue that consensus is broken and backlash is likely unless leaders left and right start listening to the real concerns of real people.