On Conflict and Consensus

Written in 1987 by C.T. Lawrence Butler (a founding member of the anarchist collective Food Not Bombs) and Amy Rothstien, On Conflict and Consensus is required reading at the collective that I recently moved into.

Consensus is a formal alternative to the traditionally known “Robert’s Rules.” Instead of using majority rule and competition, consensus centers around cooperation and finding agreement among all members of the group.

Horizontal Power Structure

Because consensus aims to value each person in the group equally and with respect, it is seen as a horizontal power structure in contrast to traditional hierarchical power structures. The consensus process must have nonviolence at its roots if it is to succeed and any power that is used to dominate is seen as “violent and undesirable”. Nonviolence expects people to use their influence to “persuade without deception, coercion, or malice, using truth, creativity, logic, respect and love.”

“…Nonviolent conflict is necessary and desirable. It provides the motivations for improvement… Do not avoid or repress conflict. Create an environment in which disagreement can be expressed without fear.”

Balance of power

However, “because of personal differences (experiences, assertiveness, social conditioning, access to information, etc.) and political disparities, some people inevitably have more effective power than others. To balance this inequity, everyone needs to consciously attempt to creatively share power, skills, and information. Avoid hierarchical structures that allow some individuals to assume undemocratic power over others. Egalitarian and accountable structures promote universal access to power,” On Conflict and Consensus states.

In the consensus model, members are asked practice listening, as well as being invited to share their own opinions. If both active listening and sharing are not practiced, people will not feel fully heard and they will lose interest and participation in the group.

The Process

“Above all, Formal Consensus must be taught. It is unreasonable to expect people to be familiar with this process already. In general, nonviolent conflict resolution does not exist in modern North American society. These skills must be developed in what is primarily a competitive environment… We are now convinced more than ever that the model presented in this book is profoundly significant for the future of our species. We must learn to live together cooperatively, resolving our conflicts nonviolently and making our decisions consensually.”

Because we grew up in a culture which praised competition over cooperation, everyone needs ongoing training on consensus decisions decision making, nonviolence and ending oppression.

It’s import to separate identifying concerns with resolving concerns, and these two different discussions take place at different times during the consensus process. Instead of asking, “Do we have consensus?” the facilitator asks “Are there any unresolved concerns?” to allow for an easier avenue for the group to speak. Any concerns become a part of the proposal, instead of attempting to destroy it. At the end of the process, if consensus cannot be met easily the proposal can either be sent back to committee, those who have problems with the proposal have the option to stand aside so the proposal can pass, or a block can be declared by the facilitator, which moves the proposal discussion to the next meeting.

At my new Cooperative I will be living at, we each rotate the roles of facilitator, note taker, time keeper and vibes watcher at our consensus meetings. As the book states, “one who has experienced the role is more likely to be supportive of whomever currently has that role. Experience in each role also encourages confidence and participation.”


Consensus aims to revolutionize the world in that all missions use some process to accomplish work. Most groups currently have hierarchical structures, and so the outcomes from these groups fit within the current system. By creating a horizonal leadership system where all people feel heard, and all people learn from one another, we are imagining not only a new way of communicating, but also the new ideas and world structure to come from that.

“The group would create an environment where everyone was encouraged to participate, conflict was freely expressed, and resolutions were in the best interest of everyone involved. Indubitably, this would be revolutionary,” On Conflict and Consensus states.

Living in the Cooperative this year will be a practice in this new form of group decision making. We’ll see how it goes.

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midwestern librarian, writer, activist

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