Reaching Consensus: Did You Really Get Agreement? Part 1

A consensus means that everyone agrees to say collectively what no one believes individually.
Abba Eban


A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.
Martin Luther King, Jr.


Anyone can sit at a pottery wheel and create a bowl.

The difference between the bowl made by the beginner and the bowl that sells for hundreds of dollars is the difference between knowing the steps in “Creating a Bowl” and understanding how to tweak the steps to achieve a certain effect.

The experienced potter seems to have moved beyond the Methodology and the Process and stepped into a place where they take what they’ve learned from experience and use what will work. What is effective is usually not just a matter of strictly following methodology.

Similarly, when watching someone with years of experience work to get a group to consensus, we realize that it’s never as simple getting the group to vote up or down on a proposal. And the group is probably not in lockstep in their agreement.

Some members buy into a proposal completely and others have varying degrees of dissent, with each person falling along a “Gradient of Agreement,” suggests the authors in the book A Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making.

This scale opened my eyes to the shades of agreement that I’ve seen when trying to pass a critical milestone. Rather hearing a strict Yea or Nay on whether to pass a milestone from each member, I usually heard degrees of agreement to understand and issues to work through to reach consensus.

In Real World Terms

To put the scale in more familiar and less controversial terms, imagine that your family is trying to reach agreement on whether to go to Gold Star Chili (insert your favorite restaurant here) for dinner. In a family of 6, agreement can range from:


  • Endorsement
  • “I Like It”

  • Endorsement with a Minor Point of Contention.
  • Basically, I like it.”

  • Agreement with Reservations
  • “I can live with it.”

  • Abstain
  • “I have no opinion.”

  • Stand Aside.
  • “I don’t like this, but I don’t want to hold up the group.”

  • Formal Disagreement, but willing to go with the majority.
  • “I want my disagreement noted in writing, but I’ll support the decision.”

  • Formal Disagreement, with a request to be resolved of responsibility for implementation.
  • “I don’t want to stop anyone else, but I don’t want to be involved in implementing it.”

  • Block
  • “I veto this proposal”


    I can imagine how each member of my family would fall along this scale.  Depending on the dining option, there might be more people leaning toward agreement than disagreement, but there are always shades of difference.

    Understanding each person’s position on the scale and their expectations about dinner is key to reaching a consensus about where we go to dinner. It can also play a factor in future discussions about:

    1. Where we go to dinner
    2. Whether everyone participates or some decide to stay home or
    3. We all get takeout.

    Over the next few weeks, I want to share what I learned from the book about the kinds of agreements reached by teams and when consensus is critical to moving forward.

    What has been your experience in reaching consensus?  Would this scale help you understand the position of each your team members during a discussion?  Leave a comment or send me a tweet, my id is jgodfrey.

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