What is the difference between Consent and consensus?

Life is full of risks, complexities, diversity, and “both/and” situations. We often have to make decisions and try things out with an acceptable level of risk and without complete certainty.

When groups try to bring a “consensus-oriented” value into practical reality the work can become bogged down. When we cannot make a decision or move forward until everyone agrees, or we treat every decision as a group decision, we diminish the agility we need to work in complex environments.

People who’ve experienced that inefficiency are often resistant to using consensus. For them, the process created frustration when it took too long and things didn’t get done.

What’s in your consensus implementation baggage?

Consensus can create unseen power dynamics and get bogged down for a number of reasons, like:

    • Thinking everyone needs to be part of every decision, which can be very inefficient.
    • Not getting to the interests and needs beneath the positions people are holding, and by minimizing concerns.
    • Micromanaging people who are taking on responsibility instead of delegating authority with responsibility.
    • Assuming that differing opinions about the source of the problems and the nature of the solutions need to be resolved to move forward.
    • Avoiding or not having tools to work through conflict.
    • Not recognizing and acknowledging power dynamics explicitly. One way this shows up is that verbal people who can tolerate long meetings end up with more power!

Consent drops the drawbacks of consensus, takes the best aspects of this form of decision making and expands upon them. This results in forward momentum for networks to solve complex, interdependent problems.

Consent dropped the concepts of blocking and standing aside.

Instead, the “Range of Tolerance” tool gives people a framework for naming “objections” they may sense — potential risks with a course of action that could lead to unacceptable consequences. This is different from their “preferences” about what they like and don’t like.

    • In a consent-based culture, decision-makers are accountable for adapting proposals to address objections, even if they do not agree with the assessment of risk. (By definition, those are blind spots!)
    • Decision-makers can choose whether or not to adapt to feedback based on people’s preferences, i.e. when people indicate they could live with it either way.

Consent is a default “yes,” consensus is often a default “no.”

Consent in governance is not asking for permission, which is a default “no” to any proposal until it gets approved.

Consent is a default “yes,” with the caveat that all decision-makers have gaps in awareness or understanding, so they must test proposals for consent with people who will be meaningfully affected. This is a step intended to reveal these gaps and mitigate negative impacts before taking action. Decision-makers agree to slow down and adapt proposals to meet concerns when they arise, in a spirit of prioritizing trust and relationship.

“Out of consent” does not mean “convince me.”

Much of the wasted time in consensus processes comes from people trying to get others to agree with them. Occasionally, concerns are really about a lack of information, but those are cleared up pretty quickly.

There is a rich tradition of consensus-oriented process and conflict resolution tools that work to help people listen better when they disagree. Everyone can disagree on the perfect solution, and still consent to try out new solutions that integrate differences, within their ranges of tolerance.

Human beings, more than anything, are creative problem solvers. Ninety-nine times out of 100, even when people don’t agree with a concern, they can listen and work to adapt proposals to meet their different perceptions and ranges of tolerance.

Consent is often met with “good enough” solutions to move forward, including a timeframe for evaluation and a willingness to adjust and learn as we go.

Consent is to Consensus like Equity is to Equality

Another breakdown happens in consensus cultures when the norm is that everyone has the same “vote” on every decision, as if everyone’s experience and opinion is equally valid.

In consent cultures, we delegate authority and power with intention, so that smaller teams and individuals are named as decision-makers with a scope of decision-making authority. They have a great deal of autonomy to make decisions that are within the vast range of what people can live with (See above). And, with that power, they agree to slow down, listen, and adapt when someone expresses an objection out of their range of tolerance. Over time, this creates more trust and wiser courses of action.

This approach meshes well with equity, which is about each of us getting what we need to survive or succeed—access to opportunity, networks, resources, and supports—based on where we are and where we want to go.

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