When I taught undergraduate education policy courses, I used the same icebreaker every first class. I’d write a direct statement related to policy on the board, such as “School uniforms are a good idea” or “Zero tolerance policies for drugs and weapons work.” Each student would be asked to consider their answer and then move to areas of the room that had been marked as “Yes,” “No,” and “Not Sure.” Once there, the groups would discuss their perspectives and why they gave the answer they did.
The purpose of the exercise was twofold. The first was to introduce them to the idea that in policy development, there is rarely a singular “right” answer. The second purpose went deeper: I wanted them to see that even if you and another person agree on the overall issue, you may have entirely different reasons for your positions. One person may say school uniforms are a good idea based on their feelings about modesty and morality, while another wants an even playing field for children of all economic levels regarding clothing and appearance. I would emphasize to my new policy students that it’s not enough to know where someone stands on an issue; to create effective solutions, you also need to know why they have that viewpoint. My students didn’t know it yet, but I was teaching them a fundamental truth about consensus building.
Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation defines consensus building as “a process involving a good-faith effort to meet the interests of all stakeholders and seek a unanimous agreement.” Business website Simplicable describes it as “the social process of obtaining general widespread agreement for a principle, goal, strategy, plan, rule, decision, or design, [which] may be intended to improve the quality of outputs by incorporating the diverse perspectives of a group.” My own internal (and perhaps more basic) definition has always been “attempting to find the solution that benefits the most people.” All of these definitions require several key elements.
- Seeking to obtain and understand the perspectives of different groups of stakeholders. Consensus building is neither top-down nor unilateral. It is built upon solicitation and acknowledgement of myriad experiences, concerns, and desired outcomes.
- Carefully considering how various options may affect individuals or groups differently. What seems like a positive option to you may cause significant problems for someone else, due to each of your particular contexts and needs. Decisions and solutions need to be based on the complexities of people’s realities.
- Having open and honest discussions in which decisionmakers work through possible options and use relevant data to fully understand the issue. Discussing complex issues and critical tasks is no easy feat, but it’s crucial to developing solutions and plans that truly serve the intended purpose and meet the needs of stakeholders.
When working to build consensus, several practical steps can greatly strengthen the process.
- Set ground rules for the discussion. Groups can be thrown off track by members who dominate conversations, interrupt others, or diminish others’ ideas. Begin by setting the rules for how this discussion will function, and reiterate these points if members deviate from them.
- Define expectations. What is the goal the group is trying to reach with this meeting? For example, are you trying to build an initial outline for a project, or are you working toward a specified end product? Clarifying and agreeing upon what the group is trying to accomplish may involve naming both short- and long-term goals.
- Ensure that everyone’s voice is heard and understood. Some people are comfortable speaking repeatedly in a group setting, while others are more reserved. Don’t mistake silence for a lack of thought—some group members need to be encouraged to speak up. Beyond directly asking for an individual response, you can ask for all members to answer specific questions at key points in the meeting.
- Have a leader or facilitator who can keep the discussion on track, push for clarity when needed, and keep the group focused. Group discussions can lose focus for many reasons: for example, domination by some members, tangents to less relevant issues, or mental fatigue. A skilled facilitator can keep the discussion productive without limiting members’ participation. When the conversation diverges, the facilitator poses questions that draw the group back to its stated intentions. If someone’s statements are not fully comprehensible to all members, the facilitator asks probing questions to draw out more information. As group members show signs of fatigue, the facilitator finds a logical break point and allows everyone a bit of time to restore their energy.
- Work within a time frame that allows full consideration of the issue but also ensures that timely decisions are made. As part of the ground rules, it is beneficial to create and agree upon a reasonable and workable timeline. Creating this timeline requires a clear definition of intended outcomes and specific tasks on the way to goals, so that sufficient time is allowed for thoughtful consideration of the issue and possible options. The timeline also limits the possibility of scope creep or digression from central goals.
Consensus building, especially for complicated issues, can be challenging. However, committing to the process and allowing the time and effort to work through it make it far more likely that a chosen solution will be successful. As executive coach John Mattone states, “Consensus-building doesn’t mean there are no disagreements, or that risk has been eliminated, but it does make organizations more cohesive and united, and more likely to deliver on goals that have been developed with fairness and collaboration.”
Bridget Thomas (@DrBridgeQIP) is Senior Education Researcher at QIP and Adjunct Professor at George Mason University. Her work focuses on early childhood policy and translating research for multiple audiences.