From Confrontation to Consensus

During those four years, there were annual meetings at which all the Round Tables in Canada came together to compare notes and to work towards a common understanding of consensus and sustainability. These were wonderful opportunities for learning and everyone who participated gained a new appreciation for the potential to resolve conflict and plan for the future through the Round Table process.

The Practice of Achieving Consensus Among Many Competing Interests

The Round Table, consensus process, is a particular type of dispute resolution process. Many dispute resolution processes involve only two parties such as the mediation/arbitration process in labour/management negotiations. The professional mediator is usually dealing with the relatively simple matter of finding a middle ground between two positions, whether it be pay-scale, job benefits, maternity leave or other matters of contract. As we know, even this process can be extraordinarily difficult and often drags out for a seeming eternity.

Finding agreement on matters of sustainability, which by necessity involves the economy, the environment, and communities, there are both a multiplicity of issues and a diverse array of interest groups involved. These discussions usually involve the whole spectrum of disputes over land use, resource use, life-style, preservation vs. conservation etc. Such complex problems simply cannot be resolved by the traditional two-party mediation process. The Round Table, consensus process is designed to provide a framework for dialogue that does allow progress to be made, despite the incredibly multi-faceted nature of these issues.

Consensus process is not a rigid, rules-based, system such as Robert’s Rules that govern directors meetings and the like. But it is not a free-for-all either. The dialogue must be structured in such a way as to achieve an understanding of each others point of view among the participants. This can only be achieved if certain principles and methods are adopted and adhered to.

First and foremost, it is important that a professional facilitator, who understands the nature of consensus and has had experience with it, is retained to help guide the process. The facilitator is not “in charge” like a chairperson but rather provides a service function, helping to steer the group towards mutual understanding.

Second, and just as foremost, CONSENSUS DOES NOT MEAN UNANIMOUS AGREEMENT ABOUT EVERYTHING. While it may be nice to think about an ideal or theoretical definition of consensus that means perfect harmony, in practical terms this is never possible. The practical definition of consensus must recognize that there will always be differences of opinion and therefore differences in the position taken by various participants in the Round Table process. This is where the talent of the professional facilitator is needed.

The job of the facilitator, in the final analysis, is to help the Round Table produce a consensus document, which expresses the areas of unanimous agreement among the participants, and where there is not unanimous agreement, an expression of that disagreement, in words that are unanimously agreed to by all the participants. The above definition of consensus can usually be achieved, providing the facilitator is capable and the participants are genuine in their desire to reach agreement. Enabling the Round Table Process

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