Consensus Building: A Detailed Guide

Consensus building

Consensus building, in a nutshell, means coming to an agreement. One of the quickest ways for a project or idea to fizzle out is to have a major disagreement about the plan or execution. When the group is not on the same page, it is difficult to move forward, let alone accomplish an upcoming task. This is where a team may benefit from consensus building. Group projects need to start on the same page and have the commitment from everyone on the team. When a team finds a way to reach an overwhelming agreement, they can ensure that the project moves ahead smoothly and that the relevant stakeholders are invested in the best outcomes for the task.

This article will examine the consensus process and how participants can use consensus-building to achieve a goal together. It will outline consensus-building and then look at the steps you can take when moving through the consensus-building process. It will then outline the reasons consensus building is helpful for certain projects and what problems may benefit from the process. Finally, it will outline additional skills, techniques, and considerations that can help with any consensus-building approach.

Understanding the Consensus-Building Process

Before diving into the nitty-gritty of the consensus-building process, we will start by looking at what it is. Consensus building is a problem-solving process through which participants seek to find a solution that meets the needs and interests of all stakeholders and seeks to find unanimous agreement among them. In conflict resolution practices, it can also be called collaboration. The goal is to create interest and buy-in from everyone involved to help rally the team around a common goal and find common ground.

Unlike some problem-solving techniques, consensus-building processes seek to achieve unanimity rather than relying on majority rule. Instead of having most of the stakeholders in agreement, it hopes to have everyone involved and invested in the outcome of a project or idea. Consensus building accomplishes this mission by seeking input and feedback from all stakeholders to ensure each viewpoint is considered in the decision-making process. It can uniquely bring together diverse groups and resolve complex problems while avoiding controversial decisions.

Steps in Consensus-Building Processes

Now that we understand consensus building and its goal, we can dive into the process and begin to outline how you may implement it in your work. While there is no consensus-building handbook, the steps below may help you identify any serious obstacles and key questions that may need to be addressed for your team to reach a consensus within the group. The process can help the team embark on a joint fact-finding mission to create a proposed agreement that all parties can join.

Identify Stakeholders

The key goal of consensus building is to create a solution for joint gains with all stakeholders. This means that before you can progress, you will need to identify the important people involved in the process. Some people may be more obvious, such as a defined work team or ad hoc assemblies for a purpose. Other decision-makers may be more discreet or share support and concerns under the radar.

While creating a large group may make it more difficult to reach an agreement, proper consensus-building involves identifying anyone with an interest in the project’s outcome and ensuring that they stay involved throughout the process. Including the less obvious stakeholders can build trust and create an effective method to resolve the issues. It also ensures that a later addition to the group does not undercut all ideas and decline the proposal.

It can also be helpful to get to know the stakeholders and encourage them to get to know each other. This can create relationships among the participants and help them work together throughout the process. This can move the participants away from pursuing trade-offs and move toward building consensus.

Define Success

One of the fundamental issues that will need to be resolved early on is to create a shared understanding of success in the group. This will lay out the ground rules for how the group works through the possible solutions and focus on reaching an agreement among the participants. For some, this means relying on Robert’s Rules of Order, which is a standard set of rules, while other groups will need to define success and progress for themselves.

The best consensus-building efforts set a clear path for how the parties work on building consensus and what consensus looks like for the group. For some, building consensus may be a negotiated agreement on multiple issues, while others will benefit from a neutral facilitator identifying different perspectives and possible solutions to help them move to the next stage.

Additionally, groups will need to discuss which stakeholders can vote on solutions and agreements and whether unanimity is necessary or if they may rely on majority rule. They will need to define what consensus is for the group. This helps them approach votes and treat such situations as a discussion to build relationships among the participants toward progress.

Define the Problem

After the stakeholders are identified and the participants understand success, you will need to define the problem the group is seeking to resolve. By starting with a clear agreement and understanding of the issues that the group needs to resolve, it is easier to understand what steps toward a solution and what the core problem is, especially in complex disagreements. It gives the group a common goal to work toward.

Brainstorm Together

Once the problem is well-defined, it can help the group to meet and brainstorm possible solutions and build a proposal together. By allowing everyone the opportunity to bring ideas and support each other in the creative process, the majority of the people involved will feel that they have contributed, and this will encourage them to buy in more as you move forward.

Test Options and Evaluate

Once you have ideas from everyone to move forward, you will need to examine and test each viable idea to determine which one is the best one moving forward. The groups should be clear on which ideas are feasible for testing and which ones may not work for this project but could have future use. This will require agreement before embarking on the testing and evaluation stage.

In this stage, there is often room for conflict because the participants may feel that their ideas are not being given the same weight as another idea, or they may see bias in the testing. This can even cause dealing experts when adversary science is used to undermine the other ideas, so consensus-building techniques will need to be employed to ensure that majority rule does not undermine true science and testing.

Encourage Feedback

Another vital part of consensus building is to encourage feedback and listen when someone has an idea for how to complete a task or project more efficiently or effectively. Feedback allows stakeholders to share any concern or idea that may impact the outcome of the project. When the stakeholders that are running the project listen to this feedback, it continues to encourage participation and push the group toward building consensus.


Once you have tested and evaluated the theories and received feedback, you may realize that you can reach a consensus and find an agreement for the participants to move forward. When you have this agreement, you should formalize, implement it, and create a system to evaluate and revisit its implementation and determine if new ideas need to be explored. This allows the stakeholders to continue to participate in the project as it moves forward.

Reasons to Undergo a Consensus-Building Effort

Now that we have a grasp on the consensus-building process, it can be helpful to understand why someone may work toward building consensus within a team. First, we will outline types of conflict that could benefit from consensus-building techniques, and then we will look at the benefits of working to reach a consensus.

Conflict Ripe for Consensus Building

While no two conflicts are alike, some ideas are common among issues where building consensus may be an effective method for resolution. Consensus-building techniques are most frequently used to address conflict with multiple complex issues and many stakeholders. This is particularly true when the group is having a difficult time defining the issues, or the issues are interconnected, so they need to be worked through together.

Consensus building can be particularly effective when the group is not well-defined or when the relationships between the participants are adversarial, but the central ideas are valuable and need to be addressed. Additionally, it can be helpful when a cyclical issue is not addressed effectively despite numerous attempts. In short, the more complicated and adversarial a problem is, the more it may benefit from the consensus-building process.

Benefits of Consensus Building

Additionally, any problem may benefit from consensus building, and the advantages of conflict resolution and the development process are often unmatched. These benefits include the following.

Sustainable Development

Consensus-building techniques will often help create lasting change and development. As stated above, many conflicts that benefit from this approach will be cyclical, meaning that they consistently cause issues on a project or team, even with attempts to address them. When the participants work toward overwhelming agreement on resolving the issue, they will often come up with a solution that addresses the root cause and helps further other progress.

Innovative Solutions

When you bring multiple people together to solve a problem, you will likely come up with innovative ideas and solutions to address the problem. By requiring consensus among the participants, you will likely also prevent the group from taking the easy way out to avoid having to find other options. This encourages creativity and ingenuity.

Shared Understanding

Each stakeholder will have their own ideas about how a project should go or what the problem is. When the stakeholders operate in individual bubbles, they may be working toward opposite goals or have no consistency among ideas. By encouraging the group to define the problem and process together, you create a shared understanding of expectations and outcomes. This helps further the project and makes the team more effective.

Continued Buy-In

When the team is working together toward a shared goal that they created, they will often be more committed to the goal and the outcome. This can also encourage the participants to continue to invest in the group and the goal, even when the specific project is completed. This is probably one of the biggest benefits of consensus building as the group forms relationships and continues to support each other moving forward.

Common Techniques for Most Consensus-Building Efforts

While the process of consensus building is fairly straightforward, some other techniques and skills can be employed to ensure that the process moves smoothly and that every participant is acknowledged and heard. These consensus-building techniques ensure that everyone is on the same page with the process and the goal.

Encourage Good Faith Effort

A stellar consensus-building group will have good faith attempts to reach consensus from everyone in the group. Without everyone giving it their best shot and working together with good faith, the goal can easily fall apart, and the outcomes will fall apart as well. Encouraging full commitment and participation throughout can ensure success.

Keep It Simple

Because the issues at the core of the conflict are often complex, it is best to keep the process of resolving the issue simple. You want to avoid having stakeholders so confused by the method of reaching a proposal that they never participate or only participate in part. This includes clearly defining tasks and procedures to ensure everyone understands.

Separate People and Issues

Another common issue that consensus building will face is that participants may conflate other people and the issue they present, forming adversarial relationships without intending to do so. By encouraging everyone to view issues as separate from people, you can save relationships and the process altogether.


Getting any team to work together in perfect harmony is not for the faint of heart. In fact, it is impossible in many cases. However, with the processes and techniques discussed in this article, you have the knowledge to reach other participants and encourage consensus-building among your peers or staff. With this information, you can help reach lasting solutions, which will help any project be a success.

To learn more about consensus building, conflict resolution, and more, contact ADR Times!

Emily Holland
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