From Confrontation to Consensus


In the seaside villages of the Fiji Islands, the elder men gather in a circle in a special hut every day at about 4 in the afternoon. With the sound of a younger man pounding kava root in the background, they speak slowly, in turn, of village affairs. No votes are cast in these sessions. They just keep talking, softly reforming their words until there is nothing more to add, until they all indicate agreement by saying no more. They have reached consensus. Its time for a sip of kava.

When I first witnessed this council of elders 15 years ago, I had not paid much attention to the word consensus, and it would be some years until I realized the power of this soft-spoken process of finding agreement among many points of view. It was my conversion from a radical environmental activist to a seeker of sustainability that also transformed my life from one of creating confrontation to one of practicing consensus.

When the Bruntland Report, “Our Common Future” was published by the UN Commission for Environment and Development in 1987, it recommended that “Round Tables” should be created in all jurisdictions. The Round Tables would be composed of people from all walks of life and all interest groups. They would work to develop a consensus on how to achieve sustainable development, or sustainability as it is now usually described. (It is said, in jest, that the environmentalists were unhappy with the developers getting the noun while they got the adjective; I think the real problem with the term is that “development” is often interpreted narrowly, to mean construction, industry, etc.)

Of all the countries in the world, Canada took up the challenge to create Round Tables more than any other. This was due, in part, to the fact that two Canadians, Maurice Strong, who chaired the 1972 and 1992 UN Environment Conferences, and Jim McNeill, who headed the UNCED Secretariat for Our Common Future, were deeply involved in the project. It was also due to the Canadian inclination to negotiate public policy issues rather than legislate or litigate them. One common phrase used to distinguish ourselves from our American cousins to the south is “Americans litigate; Canadians negotiate.”

By 1990, there were “Round Tables on the Environment and the Economy” established at the national level, in all ten provinces, and both territories. Although they were all constituted somewhat differently, e.g. some had elected politicians as members and others did not, they all had the common mandate to develop high-level strategies for sustainability and to operate by the process of consensus. The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy is still very active today.

During a very active five-year period from 1990 to 1995 the Round Table movement flourished in Canada. I was appointed to the British Columbia Round Table in 1990 and was a member until shortly before it was disbanded in 1994. We produced an impressive array of documents, all representing a consensus among the 30 members who represented all the interests in BC society including environment, industry, communities, labor, aboriginal, and government. These documents described our advice to government on subjects such as Sustainable Energy, Sustainable Economy, Sustainable Cities, and Learning for Sustainability.

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

Round Tables are not a substitute for government. They don’t make policy like the Fijian elders, they provide policy advice to democratically elected bodies, whether these be national, state/provincial, or local. For this reason it is not usually appropriate for Round Tables to be ad hoc (self-constituted) in nature. It is usually best if Round Tables are appointed by, and answerable to, a democratically elected body that is in a position to make decisions based on the Round Table’s advice.

There are many variations on this theme. For example, if a private company wants to foster the creation of a Round Table to consider an industrial proposal, it can do so by working with the appropriate level of government. If an environmental group wants to employ the Round Table process to focus attention on a development it believes is harming the environment, it can also do so by working with the appropriate elected body. It is nearly always desirable that the appropriate elected body be responsible for determining or approving the terms of reference, appointing the members, and appointing the facilitator for the Round Table. Then the Round Table is consultative to, and answerable to, the democratic system. Private sector proponents can fund local Round Tables, providing they do not control the membership or direction of the process. This creates a situation where the credibility of the process is in the hands of elected government. If the government body loses confidence in the process, it is scrapped.

The Round Table Process Itself

The membership of a Round Table has an initial meeting with the appointed facilitator in order to review the terms of reference and to provide any feedback to the convenors of the process, such as the elected government that appointed it. At this stage the members must be satisfied that all legitimate interests have been included in the make-up of the Round Table. If they think that additional members are required they must indicate this. Also, the members must be satisfied with the terms of reference; that they are not too limited in scope but also not too open-ended.

Once the Round Table is comfortable with its membership and mandate, it can move on to the next stage, the identification of issues and concerns. Issues are real points of substance that most members agree are important to the dispute or task at hand. Concerns are like worries, not always accepted by a majority of the members, but must be given consideration even if only one member has the concern.

The process of identifying issues and concerns begins to allow the members to stop stating their positions, and to identify the reasons why they hold those positions. Instead of saying “I am against the uranium mine”, they are asked to say why, such as “uranium mining may cause water pollution”. The process of identifying issues and concerns should be an exhaustive one, no stone should be left unturned. Even after all issues and concerns have been identified, this agenda item should be left open throughout the process, for additions if necessary. It is a general rule that in consensus process, the agenda should always be open so as to make it clear that nothing has been cut off from discussion.

The issues and concerns should then be listed in some logical or methodical way. Sometimes a group of issues will come under a single general heading. The identification of issues and concerns will usually require about two full meetings

Then begins the process of working through the issues one at a time. For each issue, a process for information-gathering is determined. Documents and experts are identified. All members of the Round Table should be able to put any information before the group and should be able to suggest experts who might shed light on the issue. This often requires a budget for bringing people to the table. In addition, it is often beneficial to go on field trips to see the location(s) that are involved in the dispute or discussion. For each issue or concern, all members should be satisfied that the information-gathering phase has been sufficiently exhaustive and that all relevant information is now before them.

The next stage involves the facilitator’s attempt to help find common ground on as many issues and concerns as possible. It is quite usual for the Round Table to reach unanimous agreement around many issues. In the case of a uranium mine, for example, it is likely that the statement “Occupational exposure to radiation must be strictly monitored and controlled” would be unanimously adopted. But other statements, such as “Uranium mining should be banned in this country”, will likely not find unanimous support.

At this point the facilitator’s most important task is at hand. The facilitator must draft a document, outlining the nature of the proposal/dispute/land use issue and for each issue and concern, find wording that can be accepted unanimously by the Round Table members. This means producing a document that expresses clearly where there is unanimous agreement, and where there is disagreement, a description of the nature of that disagreement in words that are unanimously accepted by the members.

Thus, a consensus document can be produced even though there is disagreement on some points. The great benefit of this process is that it then provides the actual policy-makers, government, with a very clear expression of public opinion. Compared to the war of headlines in the media that often characterizes land use and other resource issues, the Round Table approach brings clarity and coherence to the forefront of the debate.

The Consensus Document should then be distributed widely in the community, and formally presented, in person, to the level(s) of government that are involved in decision-making.


Every Round Table process is unique. But it is important to remember that there are some common elements that are necessary to all Round Tables. Some of these are:

  • A willingness on the part of the various interests in the community to voluntarily come to the table.
  • Support from the elected Government for the process, in terms of authorizing the Round Table and appointing members to it.
  • Professional facilitation by a neutral facilitator with experience in consensus process.
  • “Good will” on the part of the participants. Consensus process will not work if there are hidden agendas, unholy alliances or ill will.
  • A willingness on the part of Government to “follow through” and to act on the recommendations of the Round Table.

Patrick Moore, Ph.D.
April, 1998

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