Summary of "The Consensus Building Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide to Reaching Agreement"

Summary of

The Consensus Building Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide to Reaching Agreement

By Lawrence Susskind, Sarah McKearnan and Jennifer Thomas-Larmer, eds.

Summary written by Conflict Research Consortium Staff

Citation: Susskind, Lawrence, Sarah McKearnan and Jennifer Thomas-Larmer, eds. The Consensus Building Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide to Reaching Agreement. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1999, 1147 pp.

This text is intended to serve as a reference text, documenting best practices in the field of consensus building. It is designed to be accessible and informative for both practitioners and a broader audience. The text includes an overview of guidelines for consensus building, chapters examining various phases and types of consensus building in more detail, an extensive selection of case studies, brief biographies of the contributing authors, a selected bibliography, and a comprehensive index to the text.

Part One offers an abbreviated step-by-step guide to the consensus building process. This short guide summarizes the prescriptions found throughout the rest of the text. This chapter also defines commonly used terms, and includes a chart to help readers locate relevant sections of text and case studies, based on their topic of interest.

Part Two consists of seventeen chapters; each contributed by an expert in the field, and each discussing an aspect of consensus building in greater detail. Chapter One discusses how to decide when consensus building is appropriate, and how to design a situation appropriate consensus building strategy. Chapter Two explains how to conduct a conflict assessment and which parties to interview. The author describes some of the tensions that arise during the conflict assessment phase and suggests techniques for handling those tensions. Chapter Three focuses on the process design phase. It explains how to form a process design committee, and examines the use of the graphic process map (or "road map") as a consensus process design tool.

Chapter Four explores the tasks involved in convening a consensus-based process. These tasks include determining whether a consensus process is appropriate, identifying relevant participants, acquiring resources to support the process, and working with the participants to plan the process. Chapter Five discusses the various roles consensus building practitioners may play in facilitating or mediating the consensus process. It describes the tasks practitioners may perform, and offers suggestions on selecting a consensus building practitioner. Chapter Six turns to consider the issues faced by stakeholder representatives. It identifies a number of practical problems that representatives commonly face, offers ways of handling those problems, and concludes by discussing difficulties in getting constituents to ratify the consensus solution.

Face-to-face meetings are at the heart of the consensus process. Chapter Seven explains what preparations need to be made before the meeting, describes the attitudes and behaviors that contribute to running a productive meeting, and notes some of the typical problems that can arise during a meeting. Chapter Eight focuses on techniques and strategies for producing consensus. Strategies include creating joint gains, setting fair distribution standards, and using dispute resolution techniques to handle impasses.

Chapter Nine describes the uses of joint fact-finding and technical experts in consensus building processes. Chapter Ten discusses ways to effectively incorporate technology into the consensus process. It considers the use of computers, the Internet, email listservs and Web conferences, as well as computer-based analytic and decision-making tools.Chapter Eleven offers strategies for dealing with the media during and after the consensus process.

Value differences are often believed to make consensus solutions impossible. Chapter Twelve argues that it is possible to build consensus in situations involving deep value differences. Drawing on a case involving HIV/AIDS policy, it develops suggestions for handling value differences productively. Chapter Thirteen examines the legal issues involved in consensus building. Topics include its relationship government agencies and the courts, procedural requirements, restrictions on government officials, liability issues, disclosure requirements, confidentiality protections, and implementation and enforcement considerations. Chapter Fourteen examines the issues involved in implementing consensus-based agreements. It suggests techniques that can be used before, during, and after the process to insure effective implementation of the agreement.

Visioning and collaborative problem solving are both types of consensus processes. Chapter Fifteen describes the visioning process, in which people build consensus on a vision of their preferred future. It describes when visioning is appropriate, the phases of the visioning process, and ways to implement the consensus vision. Chapter Sixteen examines the use of collaborative problem solving in organizations, discussing dispute systems design and the role of managers in collaborative processes. Finally, Chapter Seventeen considers ways to evaluate consensus-based processes and agreements. It identifies some of the challenges to developing such evaluations, and suggests a new framework and techniques for assessing consensus building.

Part Three of this text consists of seventeen cases (over 400 pages), each with commentaries by experts in the field, which illustrate issues discussed in the earlier chapters. Cases range from community visioning to corporate restructuring to local governance, environmental and development policy disputes to organizational trauma recovery, deep value disputes to health policy debates. They include successes and failures. Some cases address the role of cultural differences in decision making processes. Others focus on highly technical disputes. Most cases explore consensus making in ad hoc groups, whose members assembled to address the problem at hand. However, a few cases focus on disputes within existing organizations.