Consensus Building Defined

Excerpted from the University of Colorado Conflict Research Consotium’s Online Training Program on Intractable Conflict (OTPIC)

Consensus building (also called collaborative problem solving or collaboration) is essentially mediation of a conflict which involves many parties. Usually, the conflict also involves multiple, complex issues. Examples of consensus building efforts include the international negotiations over limiting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) to protect the ozone layer, or negotiations about limiting the emission of greenhouse gasses. While consensus building is probably most often used in environmental disputes, it is applicable to many other kinds of public policy disputes as well at the community, state, and international levels.

Consensus building is usually carried out by a mediator or a facilitator.  Often a team of intermediaries is involved. As with a mediator of two-party disputes, the mediator of a consensus building effort moves through a series of steps. These include 1) participant identification and recruitment; 2) design of the process to be used (often involving the participants in this phase); 3) problem definition and analysis; 4) identification and evaluation of alternative solutions; 5) decision-making; 6) finalization and approval of the settlement; and 7) implementation.

At the outset the mediator tries to identify all of the parties who should be involved, and recruits them into the process. If some parties are left out or refuse to participate, this is likely to cause implementation problems at the end. The mediator also usually proposes a process and an agenda, but gets the participants involved in a cooperate enterprise right away as they negotiate  the details of the process and agenda. This gives the participants a sense of control of the process. It also is a relatively easy way to give the disputants the sense that they can cooperate and effectively work together. This starts to build trust between the disputants and the mediator, between the disputants themselves, and with the overall process.

Defining, and often re-defining or "reframing" the conflict is usually the next step. Facilitators or mediators usually try to get the disputants to reframe the issues in terms of interests, which are usually negotiable, rather than positions, values, or needs, which usually are not.

Facilitators then get the parties to brainstorm alternative approaches to the problem. Sometime this is done as a group; other times it can be done in small work groups, with different groups of people tackling different issues or different aspects of the overall problem. An effort is made to develop new, mutually advantageous approaches, rather than going over the same win-lose approaches that have usually been on the table before.

After the parties generate a list of alternatives, these alternatives are carefully examined to determine the costs and benefits of each (from each party’s point of view), and the barriers to implementation. Eventually, the choice is narrowed down to one approach which is fine-tuned, often through a single negotiating text, until all the parties at the table agree.Thus consensus building differs from majority rule decision making in that everyone involve must agree with the final decision — there is no vote.  The negotiators then take the agreement back to their constituencies and try to get it approved.

This is one of the most difficult steps, as the constituencies have not been involved in the ongoing process, and often have not developed the level of understanding or trust necessary to understand why this is the best possible agreement they can get. Negotiators need to be able to explain exactly why the settlement was drafted as it was, and why it is to the constituencies’ benefit to agree to it. If any one of the groups represented in the consensus-building process disagrees at this stage, they will likely refuse to sign the agreement, and the agreement may well fall apart.

If all the parties sign the agreement, the last stage is implementation. This stage is difficult too, as unforeseen problems inevitably develop. But successful consensus-building processes are usually able to surmount such problems because the process improves the opponents’ relationship so much that they are able to work together effectively in the future to overcome implementation problems.