The Inevitability of Consensus

(image via

(image via

A lot of my time in 2007 was engaged in managing a national dialogue on the death penalty. The goal was to create an agreed upon strategy, state-by-state and nation-wide, to abolish executions in the United States by 2025. It was a hard and difficult process, bringing together many varied points of view. The "movement" has a long history of difference, not in intention but in approach, and many big personalities as only rooms of lawyers, researchers, policy makers and grassroots organizers can provide. It was exciting, exhausting and ultimately successful.

Yesterday New Jersey became the first state to abolish the death penalty in thirty years. It has had me thinking a lot about what happened and why it worked. In the end, it came down to creating an environment where consensus felt inevitable, and this more than anything seemed essential to the process.

Creating an “inevitability of consensus” in any environment is a complex undertaking (the phrase was coined by my friend, Ricardo Baretto). Here then are a few things I learned along the way.

First, is to set the bigger context. A sense of inevitability can be created through the frequent restating of a purpose all can agree on. In this case, everyone wanted the death penalty abolished by 2025. How it would get abolished was a matter of deep discussion and argument, but this larger overarching vision was something everyone could unquestionably support. In moments of deep difference, someone would inevitably reference this broader goal, and an opening would be created that would allow movement of thinking and position.

Second is to establish urgency. Everyone in the room knew that certain environmental factors brought a sense of immediacy, i.e. political timing. “Why us?” and “Why now?” seemed obvious enough. By continually referring again and again to the opportunities at this point in time, people felt a need to come together even if individual agendas were sacrificed. We additionally had a process that was time-bound, and as a consequence it was referenced by the participants constantly, i.e. “When we get to the October meeting” or “When we finalize our strategy in October”. This created pressure on all the participants to “get it done” by October…with no opportunity to extend the deadline. We would either reach agreement or not, but all participants were clear that when it was over, it was over. As the months rolled on, all the time and effort of the group increased the pressure to create an agreed upon strategy. No one wanted to waste the effort.

Third is to seek the overlap between individual self-interest and the common good. If this diverse group only focused on the individual benefit each would have gained, they would have inevitably fractionalized. Participants would have eventually retreated into positions of personal benefit and away from consensus. On the other hand, if the group only sought the common good, the entire process would eventually have lost it's energy and momentum. Without individual's knowing their self-interest was served, the motivation to work through hard places of disagreement would disappear. The key was to continually reinforce those times where we knew the whole benefited, and many would benefit individually.

Fourth is to highlight individuals when they publicly shifted positions. We consistently looked for moments when an individual might say, for instance, “I’vechanged my mind” or “I agree with John”. This was very for important for a room filled with advocates and organizers, who strategize and argued for a living. You could almost feel a collective deep breath, as the group learned new forms of conversation through positive modeling. Looking for moments of "joining" and position change created an environment of trust--an essential prerequisite for consensus. When a majority in the room felt this, inevitability became more of a reality.

Finally, act "as if". That we (the facilitators) believed in the group’s ability to reach consensus cannot be overstated. This was observed by the frequent comment from many in the room, “Well, if you think we can do this then I guess we can!” As always happens, the meeting breaks were filled with anxious concern and questions of “Is this working?” We would always respond, “You’re right on track” and reaffirm our view that consensus was going to occur. Sometimes I'd even resort to saying, “trust the process”. Then like “The Little Engine That Could”, when the group moved from the possibility of consensus to it being a forgone conclusion, the steep climb of agreement gained momentum and thrust. As a result, when it happened, it happened fast.

In the end, consensus is a hard thing to achieve, even under the best of circumstances. But if you can make participants feel it is inevitable, then your job becomes an easier one. Inevitable consensus is essentially a way of thinking, created by conversational structures, optimistic belief and the consistent reinforcement of positive behavior.

CoachingDavid Baum