Beyond Consensus or Majority: Notes about Decision-Making in a Leaderless Movement

by Miki Kashtan

On October 18th I participated in the general assembly meeting in OccupyOakland. On October 22nd I posted a piece about that experience, which I named In Search of Dialogue. Even before writing that piece I have been engaging in my mind with the large question of decision-making in this movement. Since I posted this piece, I have received many comments and have read much that others have written, all of which have taken my thinking forward.

I remain deeply humble as I reflect on this movement. I believe even more than before that no one at this point can predict what this movement will bring about. With all the humility, I still want to ask the question: how can a movement maintain its focus and vision, include everyone that wants to be heard and create an efficient collaborative decision-making process?

Is Leadership Necessary?

Some time ago I talked with one of the core organizers in NYC, a young man who has applied himself seriously to the study of Nonviolent Communication. I was struck by the astonishing challenge of continuing to make decisions on the basis of full consensus with everyone present as the number of people participating kept increasing while more and more of the participants were transient members. As I offered him some tips about facilitation and decision-making to address some of these issues, I noticed that he loved the ideas, and yet didn’t see a way to implement them. This was not due to lack of skill on his part, since I could walk him through the processes easily. Rather, it was because he was deeply concerned that anything that looked like active facilitation would be viewed as taking power and leadership, and would thus run counter to the intense ethos of operating in full shared power and in a leaderless manner. Could there be room for leadership within this leaderless movement.

I so loved what Sharif Abdullah wrote about the role of leadership in movements, that I would rather invite you to read his piece than say similar ideas less eloquently. He writes almost daily about the movement, and you can find his writing at In his piece on leadership in the Occupy movement, Sharif makes two significant points. One is that the movement doesn’t have all the conditions necessary for thriving without leadership. The other is that leadership takes many forms. People are reacting to a perception of leadership as control, as someone telling them what to do. Sharif is advocating a form of leadership that he calls “emergent” and is based on encouraging and stimulating others along with several other features. I see the facilitation of collaborative decision-making as an active form of leadership that is fully aligned with Sharif’s vision of emergent, catalyst leadership. I so hope that this kind of leadership will be welcomed in the communities spreading around the globe.

Is Consensus vs. Majority All There Is?

I read a piece today from Michael Albert called Occupy to Self-Manage. He’s been on the road for six weeks, and has talked with people in a number of European countries about their experiences of their occupations. Many of them had been dwindling – although people still show up for specific actions. In response to his questions, people repeatedly shared that the consensus process of the general assemblies was a large component of what interfered with people making the commitment to stay for a long time.

I can completely see the appeal of consensus as compared to majority vote. On the face of it, consensus honors power-sharing and is concerned for everyone in a group. This direct sense of everyone’s participation has got to be a key reason why this process was adopted so widely. Despite its appeal, the process has encountered serious obstacles because of the issues that arise around blocking, because it can take such a long time, and because random people that show up can interfere with reaching decisions. As a result, OccupyOakland, for example, has adopted a modified consensus process based on 90% of non-abstaining votes. Although 90% is a very high proportion, that still leaves open the question of what happens to the minority, and especially if the issues that a minority has with a particular decision are significant for it. Is there truly a way to include everyone, or does inclusion by necessity mean losing the possibility of an efficient decision, or reaching one at all?

Collaborative Decision-Making

I have been working with groups intensively for the last fifteen years, and have been consciously examining the question of decision-making within groups for at least ten of them. Based on my experience and my reflections, I see a clear path to a process that efficiently generates decisions that people can truly accept, without implicit of explicit coercion, and with care and attention to all that’s important to everyone. I have been teaching this process and people have applied it in many settings. I haven’t yet seen it applied in a group larger than 250 people. I am confident that applying it in the Occupy movement as is, without modifications, would run into some similar problems to a consensus process. Either process, to be fully operational, would require learning how to function in smaller groups and still reach decisions that work for everyone. In a manuscript I recently finished and am now editing I include a vision of a possible world and in it I describe a global governance system based on similar principles that could, with some adjustments, apply to the settings of the occupations. For the moment, I only want to discuss some key insights that by themselves could possibly help in certain situations. Beyond that, I can think of few things that would give me more satisfaction than working with some facilitators to adapt the process to the existing conditions at the various encampments.

Positions, Arguments, Human Needs, and How We Shift

Most of us have been trained to assume that the only way that someone’s position would shift, if at all, is through a compelling argument. Most activists that I have worked with and coached have been given extensive training in how to speak about their opinions, and see it as their work, in many instances, to convince others who may have different opinions.

My own experiences of dialogue have led me to a tentative other conclusion: that we shift positions, when we do, when the following happens, not necessarily in this order:

  • We are fully heard for what’s important to us, or what our vision or dream is, that have led us to adopt the position we have. This allows us to relax emotionally and be more open to hearing and more curious about others’ positions.
  • We come to a place of understanding of what’s important to someone else that is underneath their position, or what their dream is, or what human need is motivating them. Not just intellectual understanding; we actually open our hearts to where someone else is coming from, or are moved by their humanity or the vision they have.
  • We trust that on the deepest level what this other person most wants is not at odds with what we want.
  • We accept the premise of finding a solution that works for everyone.
  • We experience freedom to choose rather than any coercion to adopt a certain position or to shift in some direction towards others. We trust that we are cared about, and so is everyone else.

I have had enough experiences of polarized people coming together to know this is entirely possible, even likely, when enough connection has been achieved through dialogue. It is the foundation of the decision-making process I designed.

Practical Inclusion

I have a deep and abiding interest in inclusion. I know my own desire to be included, to know that I matter, that what’s important to me counts, that I can have a say and affect an outcome. I also know how important it is to me to include others when I am part of a group and even more so when I lead a group.

At the same time I know how exponentially unwieldy discussions can become when the numbers grow. One person speaks, others want to speak, then others want to respond. Meanwhile others sit in amazement as the same points are made over and over again. As Sharif Abdullah said, “Just blurting out whatever you want, whenever you want to, is NOT democracy.” Is there a way out of this nightmare that doesn’t sacrifice the value of inclusion?

I have found that one distinction makes all the difference in the world: the difference between including everyone’s voice and including everyone’s needs. If, as people speak, we are able to capture the true needs for which they speak to their satisfaction of being heard, and if we are indeed committed to including all the needs, there is no reason to hear anyone else articulate a position or opinion that stems from the same need. Once the need has been named, only additional needs can be invited to speak.

I see this confusion between hearing needs, issues, and concerns, and hearing everyone’s voice as a big impairment to group functioning. Reaching decisions, especially in large groups and under stressful conditions, benefits from focus, clarity, and conciseness. That is not a substitute for each person being fully heard as an individual human being, which I see as an irreducible aspect of becoming more empowered, whole human beings. What’s vitally important in my view is to separate those two, so we can have a context for making decisions, and a separate context for hearing people’s stories, pain, concerns, needs, dreams, and everything else about them.

In practical terms, if I stand in line to speak at a decision-making meeting, and what’s truly important to me has been named already, even if in different words and through a different opinion, then I can sit down knowing that my need is already included, especially if I trust that some other context exists for me to be fully heard as a human being. A facilitator can invite people to only speak for issues that hadn’t yet been named. This, to me, is a key to efficient inclusion: we never need to hear the same thing twice, because it’s not about how many people have the same need. If we commit to shared ownership of all the needs, and working on a proposal that addresses all of them, we can let go of more and more voices.

The Role of Facilitation and Leadership

When I facilitate a process of decision making, I focus on a few key areas:

  • I put a tremendous amount of emphasis on creating shared holding of all the needs that are named – before, during, and after creating a proposal.
  • I engage people in stretching to be open to including others’ needs. Towards that end I hear everyone’s objections and identify needs in them; and I invite them to the commitment to create an outcome that works for everyone.
  • I work diligently to identify for everyone what the underlying needs might be. I write them on one sheet of paper, regardless of positions, so that everyone can see and join the commitment. I always name needs in terms of what someone wants to create, what’s important to them, or what is their dream, rather than in terms of positions, what “should” happen, or what is not working.
  • I support people in evaluating proposals relative to needs that have been named, with the aim of reaching a proposal that can address all the needs.
  • I guide the process of reaching an actual decision through a series of questions that check people’s willingness at different levels, until a decision is reached that everyone is willing to embrace, even if it’s not their preferred outcome.

I never see it as my job to tell a group what decision to make, though I have often participated in crafting proposals based on needs that had been identified.

Veto, Blocking, and Minorities

I have heard people raise two key issues in regard to the dilemmas of holding minorities within a consensus process. One is the frustration about there being a small group, sometimes even one person, who can block a decision from happening, a frustration that arises from the desire for efficiency, movement, or trust, among others. Conversely, I have heard grave concerns expressed about people being pressured to go along with a decision even when they are in disagreement because of the fear of judgment of them if they chose to block the decision. In this context I have heard people express the hope that majority voting changes these dynamics, even a sense that minorities are respected when they have the opportunity to vote their dissent without thereby blocking the process.

From the vantage point of the process I have created, and especially with the transformative power of dialogue that aims to bring people together, expressing a dissenting view gets depolarized through the finding of shared human needs that everyone subsequently owns. I have both found people willing to express their concerns, as well as others willing to hear them, when a facilitator can maintain a relaxed attitude of trust in the process. In fact, the process of surfacing the concerns, issues, and underlying needs is one of the key building blocks towards a decision that is attentive to more and more needs and is therefore more likely to lead to robust agreements that are kept by everyone, because they know they matter and are part of the whole.

An Invitation

This coming weekend, Nov 5-6, I am offering a 2-day training in group facilitation, including an entire day focused on the decision-making process I mention here. I would be honored and moved to have people from any occupation movement attend this training and engage with me about whether and how these insights can be applied in the complex and ever-changing context of these movements. The training is called “No One Left Behind: Facilitating Efficient and Productive Meetings.” I am not thinking this is the only way to go. I am thinking of it as a way to go. May this movement find all the necessary support to move forward towards the vibrant dream of a world that works for all of us.

11 thoughts on “Beyond Consensus or Majority: Notes about Decision-Making in a Leaderless Movement

  1. sarah

    Just read through this insightful piece and Shariff's great article. I am very familiar with the experience of people who just want to be heard, or hear the sound of their own voice in a group, or speak without seeming to be following the discussion…maybe they came in late or weren't paying attention… How do you reign in these behaviors since you don't know what someone will say

  2. joanne

    thank you so much. hope you can live stream, videotape, audio tape or otherwise somehow make your training available to a wider audience! be very well.

  3. Sion

    Yes, your friends the other side of the pond would love to share in this learning if it can be streamed streamed / recorded.

    Really enjoying the articles, thanks Miki.

  4. Ron G

    I have heard that there are tens of thousands of organizations whose missions could be called progressive. These organizations target different issues (justice, nature…) and approach their work (publishing, political, legal…) along different methods. The variety is great and the duplication of efforts must, also, be present. Because of the great number, I would assume support must be spread

  5. Rosa Zubizarreta

    Hi Miki, great article! I have just referred to it, and to your upcoming trainging, in my recent blog post, on "Open Dialogue and the (helpful) power of (liberating) structures" at

    I particularly appreciate your description of your role as a facilitator… and what happens when people shift. I look forward to reading more of your writing, and to your

  6. Elly van Laar

    I am confused: who is telling that this movement should be leaderless? To me that sounds like a body of leaders making that decision. The only way I can understand that position, if they indeed want to stay inclusive, which I would find different from "leaderless". Any thoughts on this?

  7. miro zaleta

    the collaborative governance (sociocracy) suggests to break a large organisation into smaller groups and connect the groups in such a way that each group's key decision is adopted only with a consent of a representative from the 'higher' and 'lower' levels. would you or anybody else see it as a possible alternative to making decisions in large assemblies of people?

  8. Ron G

    Milo, in a previous entry, I wrote of a decision making method that I think is very affective and may be the wave of the future. If memory serves it is called wisdom councils or wisdom circles. A “WC” is formed through a random selection of twelve from among those in the community willing to serve in the spirit of equal consideration for all concerned. The WC is posed with establishing the true


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