In general, for our purposes here, consensus process refers to any activity of a group seeking to reach full agreement through listening to and taking all available information and perspectives into account. Unlike majoritarian approaches, any given perspective is seen as something to be understood and integrated, rather than attacked or defended. Many consensus methodologies focus on listening to everyone and honoring efforts to craft inclusive solutions.
So, at its best, consensus means more than merely "general agreement" (its meaning in much of our political culture). In fact, when we're aiming for true consensus we're less concerned about generating agreement than generating wise solutions that take into account all the relevant needs and perspectives. Once we have taken into account the full picture, agreement usually follows naturally - and it's not a reluctant, conditional agreement. When we all shape the outcome, we all become invested in its success. Implementation is much smoother than when a majority has ruled and left an upset minority to impede progress.
Those intent on agreement-by-any-means use force, compromise, tangential deal-making and other strategies to get agreement. This may bring more parties onto their bandwagon, but it seldom results in a truly wise agreement. For those who seek true consensus, this sort of agreement-brokering seems almost like cheating on a test to get a high score, rather than learning the material well enough that you understand it, so that passing the test is a natural - and secondary - outcome. Admittedly, agreement-brokering may be necessary in some very difficult circumstances, say the consensus purists, but it certainly isn't true consensus and shouldn't be promoted as standard consensus practice.
Underlying this perspective on consensus is the realization that when people compete for individual or sub-group gain instead of cooperating for mutual or collective gain, they use their brilliance to undermine each other, thus reducing their Collective Intelligence. True consensus process taps into the creativity, insights, experience, and perspectives of all the parties involved. Significantly, consensus process treats the differences between people not as problems, but as stimulants to deeper inquiry and greater wisdom.
While consensus process is most directly applicable to groups of up to several dozen people, it has been expanded to groups of thousands by dividing people into smaller groups who send spokespeople to a spokescouncil. Both the smaller groups and the spokescouncil are run by consensus, and issues go back and forth between the two levels until full agreement is reached. And, through such democratic innovations as the Wisdom Council and the Consensus Conference, a large population (a community or country) can also get the benefits of consensus process.
There are many different approaches and techniques for consensus process, many of which are described in the resources below.
Although many close-knit, values-based groups practice consensus without a facilitator, most groups need help navigating their own rapids. Sam Kaner's Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making (New Society Publishers, 1996) is filled with simple, powerful theory and practical suggestions presented in a convenient page-by-page format intended to be photocopied for sharing among participants. Available for $24.95 plus $6 shipping from Community at Work, 1 Tubbs St., San Francisco, CA 94107; (415) 641-9773.
Jim Rough's Dynamic Facilitation and Choice Creating Seminar http://www.tobe.net - This seminar teaches a fluid, powerful form of consensus process which is the process behind the Wisdom Council, a powerful democratic innovation.
Group Facilitation Skills: Putting Participatory Values into Practice http://www.communityatwork.com - Taught by Sam Kaner , author of the above book. Brimming with useful tools. Community at Work, 1 Tubbs St., San Francisco, CA 94107; (415) 641-9773.
Randy Schutt's approach to consensus process in nonviolent movement activities, as well as his other papers http://www.vernalproject.org/RPapers.shtml
For a sacred form of consensus, see Quaker Meeting For Business