Consensus Building

by Ron Potter

I meet on a regular basis with a group of highly intelligent and successful guys.  We have a name for ouselves which is SPACE CADETS.  The story is too long about how we became known by that name but we’ve enjoyed it.

Our topics range across the things we’ve been thinking about: a difficult situation we find ourselves in or sometimes simply curiosity.  But it often deals with how we reach consensus with our team or client.  One of the definitions of consensus from Merriam-Webster is “group solidarity in sentiment and belief.”  You can look up the word solidarity but it often leads back to something solid.  You build something together that is solid and that you’ll all defend.

There are two words in the English language that are often associated with building consensus.

One of those words is discussion.  The other word is dialogue.  Most people think of a good discussion as a way to reach consensus.  Most of us don’t think of the word dialogue.  If fact we often mix the two words up and misunderstand their meaning.


There are some interesting ideas that discussion is based on.  They include:

  • Narrow focus
  • Debate of what is “right”
  • Defending certainty
  • Seeking closure

Notice that there is an assumed “right” and “certainty” in the word discussion.  Add to that the narrow focus and seeking closure (instead of understanding) and you begin to see that discussion may not be the best approach to building consensus.  One of the best definitions that I found said that the word discussion is based on the same root word as percussion.  What do you think of when you think about percussion?  Drums!

I played percussion in our high school band.  When we were in an orchestra situation I remember our band director asking me to bring down the volume on the percussion.  But when we were outdoors in marching band, it seemed like he was always asking me to raise the volume.  He wanted more percussion.  Discussion in an open area with lots of listeners may be useful.  But in a small team setting, percussion is not useful.  It seems to have all the negative aspects of the bullet list above.


Dialogue is very different from discussion Dialogue is an exchange of ideas and opinions.  Dialogue has some very interesting aspects that you would probably love to have in most instances.  It:

  • Surfaces all assumptions
  • Names and faces defense routines
  • Slows down conversation to create learning and shared meaning
  • Suspends certainty

Suspending Assumptions

The last point in dialogue is suspending certainty.  All of us have certain ideas that we feel certain about.  This is natural and it’s certainly OK as long as we know they come from our own views and observations.  I think we would have a tough time with life if we didn’t have things we were certain about.  But it’s important that they are really our assumptions and another person (especially one with different experiences and coming up in a different culture) may see them entirely differently.

I was very fortunate that my consulting career had me working around the world and being exposed to different cultures.  I remember one team that was made up of people from Spain, Italy, Germany, Sweden, and the UK.  It was fascinating to see them start talking about a topic from their own culture and history.  Fortunately, this was a team that respected each other and was willing to understand how the different cultures viewed certain topics.

One funny experience I remember was working with a US CEO.  He had gotten tired of people being late for meetings so he instituted the rule that if you were late, you had to stand on your chair or table and sing your college fight song or country national anthem.  From his point of view that would have been very humiliating.  Then one day we were waiting for a meeting to start and I asked him if he saw the people standing outside the conference room door.  It seems that all the Irish were waiting outside the door so they could be late and have to stand on the table and sing their national anthem.  They loved it.

Suspending Assumptions II

A couple of things to think about when you’re suspending assumptions are:

  1. Let go of your own assumptions in order to understand the assumptions of others.
  2. When it comes to your turn, help everyone understand your assumptions and what formed them.
  3. Move from discussion to dialogue to help everyone understand all of the assumptions so that together you can come up with the best team solution.

It’s important to remember that you won’t win every argument and your assumptions won’t carry the day in every instance.  Most often one assumption persuades most of the team but is enhanced by portions of some of the other assumptions.

One way to judge your ability to do this well is how you respond to people after the decision is made.  When someone (who may have been fully aware of your position before the meeting) asks you what the decision of the team was, your answer should be something like, “The team thought this was the best solution.”  When the person says they know that was not your opinion prior to the meeting, say again, “The team thought it is the best solution.”

Keep in mind that we all have different assumptions.  I grew up with three siblings in the same house.  We have certain similarities but, as a whole, we are each very different people.  You’re no better or worse than the other person, you just have different assumptions.

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