The Semantics of Consensus
Speaking Cooperatively and Without Hierarchy
by Dana Williams



This essay attempts to suggest ways in which activists may utilize language to improve decision-making that advances the means and values we desire: anti-authoritarianism, collectivity, individual empowerment, mutual aid, and solidarity.

One simple way to explain the semantics of consensus -- or cooperative decision-making -- would be to point to coercive or hierarchical forms of decision making and say “do the opposite of this”. Countering the dominant, de-personalized methods our society uses with their exact opposites, is a good start. When organizations are lead by strong-willed, soft-authoritarian leaders, try to empower each individual to be assertive and independent (yet collective) thinking, to balance out the power of the “leader”. When decisions are made chaotically and haphazardly, try to structure meetings and process so that things make sense to those involved and so that everyone feels they have control over decisions. When we are frustrated by constant factionalization and deal-brokering, try to counter with the willingness to find collective vision and appreciate other's viewpoints and concerns.

Of course, it is not enough to merely counter bad tendencies with good ones. There are specific, proactive tactics that I feel may help us as activists to resist two forms of authoritarianism: 1) blatant authoritarianism without the consensus label, and 2) subtle authoritarianism that hides behind the “consensus” moniker, but is little more than “the same old game” with different lingo and pretenses of openness.

Here are a few categories that explore how we can democratize our speech, and in doing so, hopefully democratize our decisions and actions.

I. Process

The root of the consensus process is the proposal. Make proposals short and concise: get at the journalistic why, what, and how of the matter. Try to make things clear yet not too lengthy. Have it written down. Be sure to state what the outcome will be: is an individual or working group being empowered by this decision, and if so, in what way and to do what? When addressing people's concerns, be fair and take their concerns to heart, and don't take criticism personally.

In reaching consensus, we should avoid phrasing it as “reaching consensus”. After discussion has systematically progressed through points of concern with a proposal, someone (often the facilitator, but it can be anyone), can ask, “are there any concerns remaining?” or “do people have remaining concerns?” If no one speaks for a comfortable period of time, it can be assumed that everyone has a) raised all their concerns they have with the original proposal and b) the concerns raised have been suitably addressed.

Every effort should be made to avoid asking “do we have consensus?” and especially “let's put this up for consensus”. Such questions and statements can [at best] coerce people into not mentioning concerns they may still have or [at worst] place people in a voting/all-or-nothing frame of mind where consensus becomes a competitive majority-rule situation. Thus, to insure that things go well, the process needs to be explained to all before they try to participate in decision making.

II. Methods

Just as nonviolent speech emphasizes “I” statements over “you” statements (ex. “I'm getting stressed out right now” instead of “you're stressing me out”), consensual language emphasizes that an individual occupies within a group. This means being part of a collective organization, but still retaining your individualism. It's a fine line to walk, but the words we choose can allow people to both assert their opinions (personal freedom) and participate in group decisions (collective responsibility).

Choose words that are inclusive of everyone involved in decisions. Don't assume to speak only to those most active in the conversation. Those who are quiet might be quiet because your speech is not including their perspectives properly. Be forward-thinking in your statements and questions; although it's useful to reference the past, try to emphasize moving the group in positive directions in the future. Avoid statements that make past problems appear as a personal attack on others.

Stick to widely known facts. The collective memory of an organization is as strong as the memory of the oldest or most active member of the group and as weak as the newest and least active member of the group. Although it may take longer to explain something, a bit of history-telling can be time well-spent.

Avoid imposing personal values as group values. If the group has never decided to oppose or support something, try to frame your statement in such a way to show this: “even though most of would likely agree that the death penalty is fucked-up, we've never really taken a stand on the issue...” When speaking for the group in a public setting, make it incredibly clear to an audience whether your statements are your's or the group's. Don't confuse people by flip-flopping, or misstatements will get back to others in the group and there will be problems.

Utilize conditional statements that clearly show that there is not yet a group consensus on something: “if the group decides...”, “we might want to...”, “it could be a good idea to...”, “in the case of such-and-such...”. Qualify statements that need qualifying.

Thank people for their opinions when they express them. We never know what issue or idea will strike a chord with people, so we should be respectful with how we discuss delicate topics. When criticizing/critiquing suggestions or ideas, make it clear that the criticism is not directed at the person offering them, but the ideas themselves. Be kind when criticizing, and try to only criticize in a constructive fashion, not out of spite or emotion.

When directly contradicting what someone says, do not do so maliciously. Two people who argue in front of others sometimes have the tendency to want to save face for the audience and not back down. In the process, make sure not to act out because of the situation or to insult the other.

III. Dichotomies

Here are two simple dichotomies regarding consensus and authoritarianism worth mentioning. First, “humility vs. vanity”, is a dichotomy between appreciating that as a member of an organization there is a responsibility to acknowledge that others in the organization are just as important and powerful as you. Thus, don't perform, be selfish, waste other's time, brash, boastful, hog the show, etc. Instead, be respectful, kind, humble, honest, etc. This isn't to say that we should show passion, assertiveness, or excitement-- of course not! But, realize that our interactions need to be based upon other's needs an the group's needs, too.

Second, “consensus vs. groupthink/unanimity”, is the tension between wanting everyone to be comfortable with a decision and making/coercing people to follow the group's dictates. Consensus means that everyone can live with a decision and that members think the decision emulates the values of the organization and that it is a good choice for it presently. Unanimity is when everyone miraculously agrees with everything. Groupthink is a situation in which the group softly-forces others to say they agree when they really don't. This is often done without anyone saying anything about it. If people are afraid to express dissent or raise concerns out of fear of aggressive challenge or indignation, groupthink is present. Or, if members feel that they must always arrive at the exact same point of emphasis, interest, and details, unanimity is present. Consensus should avoid groupthink by fostering open and accessible channels to dissent and question things, and avoid unanimity by fostering the atmosphere in which members understand that they need not agree on everything being decided.

IV. To Avoid

Using hierarchical language will cause people to react in varying ways: they may fight the language, acquiesce, and submit to the language; they might ignore it and its problems; or they might adhere themselves to the language, or adopt its power and those using it. None of these are good outcomes. Thus, we should avoid language which places control over others: “we have to...”, “let's vote on this...”, “we're going to...”, “when we get there, I'll do all the talking...”, “I'm in charge...”, or “this is the most important thing...”. Creating conversations of “I” versus “you”, interrupting others, bullying them, and insulting their ideas, all serve to dominate others.

Group dynamics can be shaped by those engaged in discussion. We should be wary of people who may be dominating discussion, particularly those who come from an empowered position in society, such as white men. White men and others with privilege are raised to be assertive, taught that their opinions are valuable (or more valuable than others), and are led to believe that they should lead or be taken seriously. Women, people of color, non-straight persons, and the differently-abled are often led to believe that their voices are less important, are scolded for trying to participate in “important matters”, and to be passive in the face of dominant and “important” people, like white men.

This problem could also be called, “listening to the sound of your own voice”. We, especially white men, need to give others a chance to talk, to balance discussion amongst gender and race (the facilitator should help with this), and listen to and truly consider other's opinions and ideas. Just as an experiment, white men should sit on their hands during meetings and shut up while others around them talk. Count quietly the number of times you want to pipe up with your opinion and count how many times either 1) others say what you wanted to say or 2) your desire to speak up was motivated by the a need to say something only for the sake of appearing important.

The semantics of consensus can also be extended to non-verbal communication. Threatening or wild arm-gestures, glares, no eye-contact, open indifference, slouching postures, and so forth all distract from the discussion and deter it to minute, anger, or apathy. Even though consensus does not mean everyone must agree, they ought to at least be paying attention.

Finally, the mediums in which we use language are important to consider. Words spoken to someone face-to-face could be interpreted completely differently over the phone or in an email. We do not get visual clues as to people's seriousness or humor over the phone, where we lack the ability to watch their body language or facial expressions. Over email, we often can interpret statements to be sarcastic, serious, patronizing, melodramatic, joking, etc. based upon our own feelings at the moment. Countless flame wars have been starting over misinterpretations of people's typed words. Thus, it is vital that we don't conflate the words we mean to say things they do not, nor should we lazily not be clear with what type. If something is meant to be a a joke or sarcastic, throw in a smilicon ;-) that indicates this. Obviously, face to face decision-making is best whenever possible.


At its heart, consensus is not only a process, but a frame of mind and an approach that we value. It differs from status quo processes because the means we use to make our decisions are reflected in the ends they create. If we exercise malice and partisanship, this will be reflected in our results. If, on the other hand, we act out of love, understanding, and solidarity, our decisions will foster outcomes that all involved parties can accept, understand, predict, and enjoy. Thus, the process of consensus decision making is only the structure of a new world's decision making, the mere skeleton. The attitudes, interactions, and language we use and practice are the organs, flesh-and-blood, and soul of that living organism. A holistic approach is required in order for the organism of consensus thrive.

Further Reading