Making decisions, no matter how small or big, will often require you to bring on additional help from your fellow team members. Holding a consensus meeting that relies on group participation can help you consider the ideas and needs of everyone involved. This guide teaches you what you need to know about consensus meetings and the steps you should follow to properly conduct one.

What is a consensus meeting?

A consensus meeting brings a group of people together so everyone can contribute to a discussion that ultimately leads to a collective decision. Consensus decision-making requires individual participation and encourages open communication. It is designed to benefit all parties and not ignore anyone’s opinions or ideas. In a consensus meeting, participants make a decision once everyone present has come to agree with the rest of the group.

How is consensus determined in a meeting?

Consensus is determined once all participants have formed a mutual agreement and are content with it. Unlike with a majority decision, a leader does not call for supporting and opposing votes during a consensus meeting. Consensus meetings require more than just a vote of “yes” or “no.”

Notably, decisions made by consensus differ from those made by majority vote. The latter decision-making approach requires most people to agree or disagree, but with a consensus, all participants willingly arrive at an agreement or disagreement.

In consensus meetings, you typically won’t need to analyze extensive charts of data or conduct surveys. Instead, arriving at a consensus involves participating in conversations and actively listening. Each participant will contribute ideas, opinions, and concerns for the entire group to discuss. 

Based on this discussion, the group then collectively determines a solution that best addresses each participant’s contribution. When every person is satisfied with the final decision, a consensus is reached.

What is the importance of a consensus meeting?

If you need to make a big decision soon, you might wonder whether a consensus meeting is the best way to find a solution. Below are some benefits to consider if you’re thinking about holding a consensus meeting.

1 Decision-making

A consensus meeting fortifies the decision-making process and can lead to a more sound decision than one made through a majority vote. Giving all participants the opportunity to share ideas allows for a thorough discussion and creative problem-solving that may not have been uncovered in any other way.

2 Democratic approaches to decision-making

In a consensus meeting, one person’s opinions don’t hold more weight than another’s. It avoids abuse of power among participants who have more authority in the company. It also encourages contributions from those who might not otherwise have their ideas reasonably considered.

3 Ownership among participants

When employees are involved in determining a consensus, they’re more likely to continue their participation and work on the tasks at hand once the meeting comes to an end. Instead of working on objectives, they may have opposed, they’ll be working on tasks they supported. 

4 Valued employee perspective

Let’s say you’re holding a meeting to decide as a company whether to remain fully remote or move to a hybrid option as COVID-19 restrictions loosen. Six out of the 10 people in the room raise their hands to choose to stay fully remote. By simply bringing this decision to a vote, you’ve accidentally discarded the opinions of those who see value in a flexible hybrid arrangement

What if, instead, you encouraged everyone to agree on a new arrangement together? In that case, perhaps an employee in the minority can make the case and make those who voted for fully remote more comfortable with a hybrid option. 

Through the consensus process, you’ve given your employees the opportunity to hold a discussion and arrive at an agreement. You’ve placed equal value on everyone’s ideas, and your employees know their opinions deserve full group consideration.

When should you have a consensus meeting?

Consensus meetings are good for small and large decisions alike, and they can be used while making a significant choice related to how you manage your business. To know whether a problem merits a consensus meeting, keep the following in mind:

Decisions that call for consensus

The below types of decisions might call for a consensus:

  • Disagreement in the organization. You can’t always avoid conflict within your company. Holding a consensus meeting might help everyone decide on a common goal to resolve any tension.
  • Decisions that affect employees. If you’re facing a decision that could significantly affect your employees’ work environment, having a consensus meeting allows them to share their opinions and concerns. They can also propose any solutions you might not have initially considered.
  • Strategic decisions. When it comes time to make decisions that require heavy consideration or analysis, you may want to involve others in the process. A consensus meeting will involve more people who can carefully consider the matter and come to an educated decision.

Conditions to meet

To help you make the best decision, ensure the following conditions are in place before you call a consensus meeting.

  • Appropriate group. Your meeting’s participants should have some stake in the matter at hand and be informed and educated about the topic under discussion. Ensure your participants have had enough time to gather their opinions on the matter so they can properly contribute to the discussion.
  • Cooperative members. Verify with your participants that they are willing to actively listen and constructively contribute to the discussion. Everyone must participate for true consensus.
  • Adequate time. Thorough discussion is required for consensus, so allot ample time for your meeting. Participants will want to discuss their ideas and come to a decision without feeling rushed.
  • Neutral facilitator. Designate a meeting facilitator to keep the discussion on track. This facilitator will ensure that each participant has a chance to freely speak and give the rest of the group enough time to address the participant’s concerns. This person should be as neutral as possible to both the decision and each of your meeting’s participants so they are not showing favor to certain people or ideas.

Alternatives to consider

To come to a proper decision, consensus meetings require enough people to be present and fully engage in the conversation. If the size of your group and time constraints prevent a consensus meeting, consider these alternatives:

  • Majority vote. If a large group is involved in the process and the decision doesn’t require thorough conversation, consider holding a majority vote instead.
  • Minority control. If only a small portion of a group can be involved in the decision-making process, consider holding a minority control meeting. Here, only a small group with special authority or expertise is required to plan on behalf of the larger group.

How to have a consensus meeting

Creating a detailed plan for your meeting can help it run smoothly and efficiently. To best prepare for your meeting, consider these steps.

Plan ahead

As you prepare for your consensus meeting, follow these four steps:

  1. Gather participants. Identify the group whom you want to involve in the decision-making process. Send everyone in this group a meeting memo inviting them to the meeting and ask them to confirm their attendance.
  2. Gather feedback. Ask your meeting invitees to send talking points they would like to discuss during the meeting. Create a list of these points and distribute them to the rest of the group. Doing so will allow everyone to adequately prepare for the discussion.
  3. Create an agenda. Make a meeting agenda that specifies what you hope to accomplish. It should include a list of discussion points you feel are foundational or important to the matter. The meeting facilitator should be sure to raise these points during the meeting. Your agenda should also include an estimated amount of time allotted for each talking point and group discussion.
  4. Set ground rules. Make a list of expectations you expect your participants to follow during your meeting. Key items on this list should include actively listening to fellow group members and openly sharing opinions and concerns. Encourage your participants not to give up their opinions or positions to please the larger group.

Pro tip

Use a meeting management tool like Fellow to create a detailed agenda that the whole team can access and collaborate on to come to a decision.

Running your meeting

Once everyone is properly prepared, it’s time to hold your meeting. Follow the below structure to run your meeting efficiently and effectively.

  1. Meeting introduction. State the purpose of the meeting and clearly explain the decision the group must make before the meeting can end.
  2. Discussion. Each participant discusses the matter by raising their ideas, opinions, and concerns. The facilitator intervenes if the conversation strays from the meeting’s purpose.
  3. Proposed solution. The group collectively discusses the points that were raised and attempts to arrive at a common agreement. If it appears the group has come to a decision, the facilitator looks for a response from each participant on whether they agree or disagree with the group’s solution. If there is agreement among all members, the group has reached a consensus and continues to step five. However, if even one member disagrees, the meeting continues.
  4. Continued discussion. If consensus has not been reached, the group returns to discussion to address the outstanding issues or concerns. The facilitator ensures that each of these points receives adequate consideration. The group then returns to step three.
  5. Consensus and conclusion. Once everyone can sign off on an agreement, the group has reached a consensus and the meeting can conclude. Once the meeting ends, you should send each of the participants meeting notes. Outline any action items and assign them to the appropriate person.

Challenges to a successful consensus meeting

While the goal is to reach a decision that satisfies all of your meeting’s participants, you may face some challenges that can interfere with everyone reaching a consensus. These challenges include:

  • Time commitment. Your consensus meeting will include several people with a lot of opinions. And that’s great! But getting all these ideas into a solution that pleases everyone can be a lengthy process.
  • Meandering discussion. As participants explain their ideas and concerns, they might veer into side stories or detailed examples. These anecdotes can be beneficial in some cases. However, if left to continue for too long, the discussion can stray far from the original topic. Participants can then begin to lose interest in the discussion.
  • Unbalanced participation. Some of your participants might not feel comfortable talking to a large group. Others may lessen or silence their opinions to avoid conflict that could come from raising an opposing viewpoint.
  • Bias. Everyone has biases, whether ideological or career-oriented, and it would be nearly impossible to ask meeting participants to leave their biases at the door during your meeting. People may resist change because of their preferences to certain ways things have been done or having personal beliefs or opinions that keep them from clearly seeing another side. These biases can lead to the group making a decision that doesn’t best serve its individuals.
  • Strong division. A consensus meeting is an approach to decision-making – it doesn’t guarantee your group will come to a consensus. Members might be unwilling to budge on their stance. 

5 tips for an optimal consensus meeting

To help you avoid or minimize the above challenges, consider these five tips:

  • Keep an eye on the clock. Don’t rush your participants through the discussion. That said, your facilitator should be mindful of the amount of time being spent on each discussion item and keep the conversation progressing toward a solution.
  • Monitor discussion. Participants might get sidetracked in their explanations and reasoning. That’s why you should encourage your facilitator to be proactive about tailoring the discussion to the matter at hand.
  • Foster equal participation. To encourage everyone to freely share their ideas, your facilitator should emphasize the need for participants to equally contribute. The facilitator should also make room in the discussion for quieter and reserved participants to share their ideas as much as the group’s more talkative members.
  • Encourage new ideas. If the group is struggling to reach a consensus, introduce decision-making techniques like brainstorming to help diffuse tensions and spark ideas. Encouraging collaborative activities can introduce new ways for the group to approach an idea and better understand their fellow members.
  • Don’t force a decision. Sometimes, participants may be too divided in their opinions to come to an agreement. If the group can’t come to a consensus, clearly inform the group the matter remains unresolved and conclude the meeting. Send a meeting recap highlighting the unresolved points and ask members to further consider them outside the meeting. If time allows, consider holding another meeting after participants have had time to revisit their thoughts.

Make the best decision

A consensus meeting can be an effective approach to making thorough, effective business decisions. These meetings invite your employees into the decision-making process and communicate their value to your company. They gather many opinions and ideas on a problem and can result in a solution that pleases everyone. As you work to make discussions and decisions easier, Fellow offers tons of tools and advice to help you conquer your next meeting.