Decent Democracy
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First published June-2010
last update 6-April-2016

Given time and a group of honest debaters (interested in finding the real truth and not defending their position regardless of what falsehoods are required to do so), it is often possible to build a consensus.

Consensus building can take an enormous amount of time but can have dispropotionately large benefits. At the end of the day talk does not take many resources but embarking on an ill thought out plan can consume an large amount of resources.

Furthermore, compromises in which part or the entire group is unsatisfied and believes "their position really is better and the agreed plan has serious problems and may not work at all" is motivating, potentially creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of a failed project due to sufficiently many people believing it will fail. Again consensus avoids this sort of waste.

Another benefit, that can be difficult to imagine until it is experienced, is that consensus building creates a very precise common language about the issue at hand. It is often the case that a large majority of the disagreement is simply a difference in terminology, and these differences in how words are used and understood can be very difficult to discover and it is only in consensus building, precisely because it is a long process, in which terminology differences have time to be found and a new terminology developed that avoids the confusion. Resolving terminology disputes is basically free harmony.

A very real but difficult to "predict" benefit of consensus is that it incorporates everyone’s creativity into a plan; everyone agrees and so everyone is motivated to make the plan as good as possible. There is often a moment in consensus of "runaway creativity" where an entirely new plan, and clearly superior in every way to all the previously debated options, emerges.

However, developing a more precise common language around a problem or plan also makes coordinating and carrying it out more efficient, again avoiding a lot of potential waste from simple miscommunication later on while actions are actually carried out.

So consensus on a plan increases motivation of everyone, decreases confusion, and saves lot’s of time and resources.

However, what is the most critical aspect of consensus is that it’s benefits accumulate with every consensus. With the common language developed in the previous issue, a new issue can be debated much quicker. Likewise, each consensus and experience of the benefits increases motivation to attempt to reach a consensus on the following problem, and each consensus creates all the benefits each time.

If this last point is not kept in mind, it can be difficult to make the effort to reach consensus the first time in a group. For, if only the short term cost-benefits of arguing for a long and incredibly frustrating amount of time are tallied, then it is often the case that every issue it seems there is not enough time to reach a consensus and that compromise of one sort or another seems a "practical necessity" indefinitely.

Though of course in some cases compromise (even the extreme form of following the plan of one person to discusses with no one and accepts no feedback) really is a practical necessity, but in general this is only the case where there is real short-term urgency (such as dealing with a fire or other dangerous situations); however, if an attempt is made to reach consensus is every issue or disagreement that is not a short-term emergency, no matter how mundane, then the benefits accumulate until reaching consensus starts to be achievable as quickly as a compromise process (so all the benefits and none of the down-sides) and the benefits of common-language, less confusion, more motivation also apply for short-term emergencies, making whatever plan more likely to succeed even if it is a quick compromise, which is usually quicker to reach in a group that has practiced consensus building.

Indeed, reaching a compromise necessitates a consensus on the compromise process. If there is no agreement on the process of compromise then the parties that reject the compromise process likely reject the compromise outcome and conflict, not compromise, is a necessary result. The parties to the compromise can furthermore decide to force compliance of anyone or any group who does not cooperate with the decision in the way indicated to them, but again this can be a huge waste of resources if avoidable.

Of course, in some situation conflict is not avoidable, but to prove that it is not avoidable everything must done first to try to build consensus on a plan, failing that a consensus on a compromise process. Justifying conflict "because it maybe necessary" without first demonstrating that no compromise really cannot be reached, is the "maybe necessary" fallacy (similar to the ideal fallacy).

Written by Eerik Wissenz.

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