Summary of "A Vote For Consensus"

Summary of

A Vote For Consensus

By Susan Shearouse

This Article Summary written by: Mariya Yevsyukova, Conflict Research Consortium

Shearouse, Susan. "A Vote For Consensus." MCS Conciliation Quarterly. Fall 1993. 2-3.

In the 1970s a riot took place in Rochester, NY schools. After that, a mediation between the coalition FIGHT, consisting of 58 black adult groups, and white conservatives was attempted. When choosing the decision-making process, white conservatives insisted on voting. The response of black groups was: "Every time you vote, we lose" (p. 2). In the caucus, white conservatives expressed their fear that they would lose control over the situation without voting. Then, the mediator explained another way of decision making, through consensus. Under this process control and power are distributed equally among the participants, and a decision will not be made until everyone agrees with it. In the mediation session, the first consensual decision of the two groups was to use consensus as a decision-making process. Next, they decided on who can play the role of mediator. Third, they were able to identify the issue in common to both groups: "safety in the schools" (p. 2).

Theoretically, a vote is appropriate when a decision should be made by a large group of people in a short time (election of a president) or when the issue is not significant and the time is limited. But if the decision touches significant issues and concerns everyone, voting can be damaging. Those who do not agree with the results can block their implementation.

Consensus is based on cooperation among the group members, but not competition; the decision is supposed to respond to the interests of everyone in the group. It does not mean that everyone should be completely happy with the decision, but that all group members are willing to implement it. In order for consensus to work, an atmosphere of trust and appreciation of different opinions should be created. There should be willingness to work through differences.

The consensus process can take long time, but it transforms conflict and the group toward inclusiveness and respect. A vote though can be added when agreement is impossible.

One important pitfall of this approach is "false consensus"; to avoid it, mediators should remember that silence does not mean agreement.