Comparison of Robert's Rules of Order, Consensus Process and Dynamic
By Tom Atlee and Rosa Zubizarreta
With help from Jim Rough, Lysbeth Borie, Sam Kaner, Win Swafford,
John Flanery, Keith Brown, Liz Biagioli, Sarah Logiudice, Dianne
Brause, Devin Dinihanian, Alexis Reed and Peggy Holman
There are many ways to run a productive meeting, but three styles
have a certain archetypal feel to them. Comparing these three styles
-- Robert's Rules of Order, Consensus Process, and Dynamic
Facilitation (also called "choice-creating") -- can
give us insights into the possibilities and trade-offs we encounter
as facilitators and participants in meetings. Hopefully the rough-hewn
analysis here will be expanded, deepened, and transformed over time
into guidelines truly useful to everyone. Its current articulation
will probably be of most interest to facilitators.
Here is a brief description of each of the three archetypal approaches.
RULES OF ORDER was created after the Civil War by a US Army
officer, Henry Martyn Robert. It is the predominant mainstream approach
to meetings in the U.S. It lays out procedures for getting proposals
raised, discusse, amended, and voted on in meetings directed by
a chairperson. It is based on the belief that a majority can be
counted on to make decisions that will work for the whole group,
and that rules for orderly deliberation are the best guide to getting
there. ("It is much more material that there should be a rule
to go by than what that rule is..." Robert's Rules of Order
There are many forms of CONSENSUS
PROCESS. The form discussed here is a secularized derivative
of Quaker practices that is widely used in intentional communities
and activist groups. It explores a problem and diverse solutions
more fully than Robert's Rules, seeking an option that earns the
agreement of all participants. It assumes that everyone has a piece
of the truth and uses facilitation to help the group make productive
use of that insight.
FACILITATION was created by consultant Jim Rough to enhance
creative problem-solving in institutional settings. It has been
picked up by activist and community groups because of its capacity
to handle "impossible problems" and "difficult people"
and to creatively use conflict. A dynamic facilitator follows the
group's interest and energy wherever it goes, so a group often ends
up in a very different place than they started, frequently with
a collective breakthrough of some kind.
In this article, weI'll attempt to lay out these meeting facilitation
styles on a spectrum ranging from the orderly sensibilities of Robert's
Rules (RR), through the exploration-towards-agreement of Consensus
Process (CP), to the discover-and-create energetics of Dynamic Facilitation
(DF). We'll consider many aspects of meeting process, noting how
each approach deals with each aspect.
We treat RR, CP, and DF as if they are distinct approaches. However,
keep in mind that this is a spectrum, so there is a lot of overlap
and potentially controversial more-or-less-ness to the characteristics
we describe. We think of each description below as an archetypal
description of a particular approach's "center of gravity"
rather than as a comprehensive description covering all instances
of its use.
There are many other approaches to facilitation that could be
explored along this spectrum. We view these three approaches as
markers to think with, not as exclusive or all-inclusive categories.
Ideally, the material below would be a table, but is presented
here as a list to make it emailable. The materials on each approach
-- currently mixed with data on the other approaches and distributed
over more than a dozen cross-categories -- can be readily re-arranged
to constitute a good description of that approach.
Finally, this is a draft. We welcome corrections, additions,
modifications and suggestions.
Now let's look at the characteristics of these approaches and how
they each deal with a number of factors we find in any meeting.
At their best, each of these processes evidences the following
RR: Robert's Rules is efficient at getting through an agenda. It
offers order and predictability. People can understand how to operate
the system by studying the rules, and a group can revise its procedures
by discussing them. It's many checks and balances can provide an
enormous degree of protection against demagoguery, impulsivity and
laziness. Robert's Rules gives people shared language, and shared
points of reference with which to communicate thoughtfully and systematically
about their process. Historically, it demystified democratic decision-making
for the general public, permitting -- for the first time -- democratic
control of the process itself, expanding the possibilities for self-governance.
CP: Consensus process is good at making decisions that everyone
agrees to, that can last. It is characterized by thoughtfulness
and care, and making sure everyone is heard. It helps people feel
collective accomplishment as progress towards consensus is reflected
back to the group. It is resilient, since the group holds part of
DF: Dynamic facilitation stimulates, focuses and combines people's
creative energy to deal with big issues, "impossible"
problems, difficult people and chaos -- at a whole-system level.
It evokes out-of-the-box creative problem-solving, a spirit of community,
coherence, energy and fun. It creates an atmosphere conducive to
the transformation of people and problems.
FOCUS / SUCCESS CRITERIA / GOAL
RR: Robert's Rules focuses on efficiently choosing proposals that
are supported by a majority of those empowered to make decisions.
Success = workable decisions made in a timely, orderly manner. The
goal for the group as a whole is to manage itself independently
of internal and external domination.
CP: Consensus Process focuses on weaving many evolving pieces of
the truth into decisions everyone present can agree with, constantly
oriented to what is best for the whole group. Success = decisions
that have staying power because the deliberations were so thorough,
wise and inclusive that everyone involved is willing to engage fully
in their implementation. Consensus seeks at least agreement -- and,
at best, shared understanding so deep that it aligns everyone naturally
to a shared approach to the situation. The ultimate goal of consensus
is communion in collective action.
DF: Dynamic Facilitation focuses on inviting the energy of the
whole person and the whole group to surface, in order to allow shifts
that lead to transformations and breakthroughs in understanding,
feeling, relationship, possibility, etc. As a shared field of perception
("co-sensing") is created that is spacious enough to include
all of the diversity of perspectives, ideas, and concerns present
in the group, participants' creativity blossoms and previously-unthought-of
solutions emerge with ease. In many cases, this involves re-definitions
of the original problem statement, often leading to addressing and
solving underlying issues that originally seemed beyond the group's
capacity to resolve. Nonetheless, success is not defined solely
by the solutions, but also by the ongoing creative conversations
that are generated among participants and among others in the larger
group, organization or community. It is the collective creativity
and transformative power of conversation that constitutes the ultimate
goal of dynamic facilitation.
RR: The chairperson (who has a clearly defined role and constraints)
maintains order, keeps discussion progressing towards a decision
and decides (with the parliamentarian) procedural matters by the
book. This requires someone who knows procedure; it doesn't require
that they have lots of training. Because of its dependence on procedure,
there are ways in which Robert's Rules are less dependent on the
"person in front of the room" than consensus and dynamic
CP: The facilitator (who has broad, loosely defined powers to frame
the emerging meaning for the group and to order the traffic of discussion)
monitors participants' behavior to help them play their cooperative
roles in surfacing truths on behalf of the group. If the group is
experienced with consensus, a slightly-trained facilitator can do
a good job. In many groups, the consensus facilitation role is rotated
or shared by everyone.
DF: The facilitator (who has broad, intuitive powers as a mirror,
evoker and guardian of group safety) ensures each contribution is
accessible to the whole and well-acknowledged; helps the group's
natural energy further the unfolding of collective discovery and
transformation; and creates a space safe enough for authentic participation.
Dynamic facilitation is a "quantum art," in which the
qualities of presence, trust, and openness held by the facilitator
play a key role in the process. While these "being skills"
can be learned and developed, they require dedication and depth
on the part of the facilitator. At the same time, since this approach
is focused on the quality of the on-going process as well as on
outcomes, it can be considered more forgiving of "mistakes".
THE IDEAL PARTICIPANT
RR: In a meeting governed by Robert's Rules, the ideal participant
is rational, articulate and knowledgeable about procedure.
CP: The ideal consensus participant is cooperative and speaks their
piece of the truth on behalf of the whole group. They discern what
is key for the group and what is merely their personal view, and
they let go of the latter. They assume their share of responsibility
for creating a safe, productive meeting.
DF: The ideal participant in a dynamically facilitated meeting
acts and speaks from their authentic self, even if it seems divergent
or unrelated to the issues at hand. Their role in preparing for
unpredictable breakthroughs is to just be who they are, and not
to edit or censor their contributions.
WHAT THE FACILITATOR REFLECTS TO PARTICIPANTS, AND WHY
(Note: "Reflection" here refers to the action of "mirroring
back what was said.")
RR: The chairperson reflects proposals, amendments, seconds, etc.,
to the whole group, as these things occur, in order to formally
track the status of a proposal on the floor.
CP: The consensus facilitator reflects evolving issues, solutions
and agreements to the whole group, to help them free their attention
from personal agendas and conflicted details so they can sustain
attention on the progress of the whole group's discussion.
DF: The dynamic facilitator often reflects what individual speakers
have said back to the individual, in order to help participants
feel truly heard. This helps free participants' attention, allowing
them to engage in the ongoing flow of the conversation as well as
to be open to the unexpected. The words that are reflected also
serve as a symbol to spark the next stage of the group's self-organizing
energy. At various stages of the process, the facilitator also reflects
his or her perception of the group's evolving journey back to the
group -- again as a symbol -- to help the group track their own
progress or to facilitate closure.
RR: Proposals are solid and dominate the discussion. They are only
impacted by amendment and vote. Proposals are considered and decided
one at a time. The first proposal on a topic to pass is considered
the solution and automatically nullifies all other options on that
topic for that meeting.
CP: Proposals surface naturally during dialogue about the problem
and are discussed as they arise. Discussion often starts regarding
one initial, sponsored proposal, but multiple proposals often emerge
and then co-exist while their merits are explored.
DF: Proposals are encouraged and recorded on a chart pad as possible
solutions, but they do not determine the subsequent flow of conversation,
nor do they become the focus of a deliberate decision-making process.
Although anyone can comment on any proposal at any time, the facilitator
persistently seeks new possible solutions. As the conversation follows
its natural energy and shared perceptions grow, consensus solutions
emerge that contain the shared energy of the group.
RR: Relevance is determined by the topic under consideration and
the stage of the conversation about it, as specified by the rules.
When a chairperson deems a comment irrelevant, he or she declares
the speaker "out of order," which silences them.
CP: Relevance is determined by the group-approved agenda, as judged
by the facilitator. A major distraction is called a "cross-town
bus" and is "parked elsewhere" for handling at another
time, if desired. If there seems to be strong group energy to pursue
on an emerging topic, the facilitator can check if the group wants
to alter their agenda.
DF: Relevance is made visible by the flow of group energy. A group's
continually shifting sense of what's relevant arises naturally from
the evolving, interacting concerns of all participants. The energy
and comments of any group member at any given time are considered
contributions to this process. Their creative energy is sought and
followed, trusting that relevance, if not obvious, will become clear.
Something that seems totally irrelevant one moment may prove to
be the doorway to a breakthrough in the next moment. The facilitator
intervenes not to weed out irrelevance, but to sustain this flow
of group energy. For example, the facilitator may skillfully recast
someone's "objection" as a "concern" to help
the group not bog down in unproductive "back-and-forth"
arguments. Or the facilitator may intervene if the group gets sidetracked
into a heady discussion of well-worn ideas that have no creativity
or passion. Traditional approaches to relevance are never pursued
at the expense of the group's creative energy.
INTERPERSONAL ISSUES, EMOTION & CONFLICT
RR: Interpersonal issues are not dealt with by Robert's Rules,
especially if they're emotional. The focus is on reasoned articulations
germane to the topic, so passionate outbursts may be declared out
of order. Conflict is channeled into the approved procedures of
amendment, discussion, voting and procedural challenges (and sometimes
procedural manipulation by the parliamentary powers-that-be).
CP: Interpersonal understanding is often pursued in a consensus
meeting as a goal in itself, so that participants feel fully seen
and comfortable as part of the group. (Communion is a high value
in most consensus groups.) Strong emotions regarding the topic are
often withheld to reduce the chance of open conflict, and because
people are trying to stay focused on what's good for the whole group.
DF: Abundant interpersonal understanding is generated by giving
participants the opportunity to hear each other in much greater
depth than is usually the norm. Participants' contributions, especially
at first, are directed to the facilitator, who elicits and records
the contributions, invites extended elaboration, and reflects their
contents back to the originator. This creates a space in which other
participants have the opportunity to "witness" without
falling into usual patterns of response and argument. Emotions are
fully welcomed, initially by the facilitator, and eventually by
the participants themselves as the spaciousness of the shared container
is established. Conflict is re-channeled by the facilitator into
an expression of the various partisan concerns, directed towards
the facilitator instead of at other participants. The facilitator
records the concerns on chart pads as well as reflecting them back
verbally to the speakers so that all parties feel heard. Upsetting
interpersonal misunderstanding are turned into shared challenges.
They become impossible-seeming issues requiring creative breakthroughs
to resolve -- i.e., more grist for the mill of dynamic facilitation.
FIXED IDEAS, JUDGEMENTS, IDEOLOGIES
RR: People push their fixed ideas to see whose will prevail.
CP: People try to suppress their own fixed ideas for the sake of
DF: Fixed ideas and passionately-held beliefs are welcomed, listened
to, reflected, and fully acknowledged. In the process, people often
find themselves choosing to let go of fixed ideas quite easily,
as there is nothing to defend.
RR: Disagreements can be openly expressed if they conform to the
agenda, the procedure and the stage of the meeting. If they are
not resolved by discussion and amendment, they are dealt with either
by voting (ending up as minority/majority positions where the majority
wins), by tabling them for later, or by simply ignoring them.
CP: Whatever disagreements actually exist are valued as information
resources for building a solution everyone can agree with. Participants
whittle away all the disagreements until there's nothing left but
agreement -- or participants make room for diversity in the agreement
-- or one or more people let go of their attachment to their perspective.
Often disagreements dominate the discussion until they disappear
through exploration. At the decision-point, any remaining concerns
are formally listed in the minutes.
DF: Disagreements are treated in a similar way as conflict: Each
point is reframed so that it is a valuable addition to the group
exploration -- a concern, an alternative problem statement, a possible
solutions, or an additional piece of data. Each is acknowledged
and recorded on the group's charts. No effort is made by the facilitator
to reconcile disagreements, nor to invite the group to do so, as
entering agreement/disagreement mode is understood to entail a loss
of creative energy. Instead, the facilitator focuses on enlarging
the space to include all perspectives, validating each one in turn,
and keeping the flow going. At the same time, as the conversation
continues, the group itself will tend to spontaneously generate
new perspectives that include a synthesis of previously conflicting
RR: Robert's Rules strategists value compromise as a way of building
the majority they need to prevail.
CP: Users of consensus process respect compromise as one tool to
build agreement, but think of it as weaker than solutions that satisfy
everyone's deepest needs or interests.
DF: The whole purpose of dynamic facilitation is to enter the realm
of co-creativity, where compromise is naturally regarded by all
participants as unnecessary, uninspiring, and not nearly as much
THE ROLE OF INDIVIDUAL VOICES IN DECISION-MAKING, AND THE STATUS
RR: Individual voices and well-being are not intrinsically important.
People are valued for the quality of their preparation (which RR
strongly supports, allowing them to engage at an advanced decision-making
level), their proposals, thier information, their votes, their knowledge
of procedure, and their conversational civility. The majority rules.
Dissenting minority opinions and leftover feelings and dissatisfaction
are ignored. Decisions are considered final until overturned by
a new majority.
CP: There is some real care for the well-being of individual participants.
The facilitator makes sure each person is heard and is in agreement
with the final decision. During the process, individual ideas are
considered group property from the moment they're spoken, and thus
individual voices can be subsumed into "the whole" (given
no special attention) until closure is near, at which point individual
dissent and concerns are expressly solicited by the facilitator.
An individual who doesn't consent can stand aside and let the group
proceed anyway, or they can block the decision. (Note: A block is
not a veto, nor is it properly undertaken to aggrandize an individual's
views or power. In most cases it is only allowed when someone feels
that the proposed decision would be disastrous for the group. Groups
that allow casual blocking find they cannot function with consensus.
Thus the importance of shared community values and sensibilities.)
Decisions are usually considered final.
DF: Each individual voice is fully heard early in the process so
that everyone's contribution is available to the group and everyone
has the free attention to see it. After that, the facilitator follows
group energy, helping individuals to be creative and unique. The
facilitator assures that individual voices are always appreciated
and never meet with judgment. Eventually differences become an asset,
making the process more fun, breakthroughs more likely and resulting
solutions better. It is important to understand that instead of
consciously pursuing a "decision-making process", dynamic
facilitation invites the spontaneous emergence of collective breakthroughs.
These collective breakthroughs are NOT decisions, and do NOT involve
a process of stopping to check for individual "agreement".
In fact, collective breakthroughs are often only pointed out by
the facilitator to the group AFTER the fact, some time after the
group has naturally shifted their energy to resolving a whole new
set of problems that have emerged as a result of having addressed
and resolved the initial problem set. (Of course, once a group has
become more used to this process, they become better able to recognize
their own breakthroughs themselves.) Dynamic facilitation elicits
co-creativity by encouraging participants to involve their whole
selves in the process, and welcoming fully individuals' emotions,
beliefs, perspectives, etc. During the initial stages of this work,
quieter individuals or those who prefer greater structure may feel
somewhat overwhelmed, especially since the process does not proceed
(like decision-making processes) in a linear, step-by-step fashion.
As a result, initial breakthroughs may sometimes be revisited as
participants develop greater capacity to voice any withheld concerns
and contribute more fully to the group (or as circumstances change),
thus increasing (or sustaining) the quality of results over time.
REQUIREMENTS FOR COMMUNITY AND TRAINING
RR: Robert's Rules can function in the absence of community spirit,
thanks to its highly structured procedures. It needs a chairperson
knowledgeable about procedure. Participants need to know at least
basic procedures to participate.
CP: Consensus requires a high level of community spirit and commitment
-- AND it builds community by building attunement to Spirit and/or
to each other. Participants need to understand consensus process,
to monitor their participation to fit the needs of the group, and
to follow the facilitator's guidance regarding the process. Consensus
can work with only a moderately trained or moderately experienced
facilitator, thanks to its cooperative nature and group support.
DF: Although dynamic facilitation generates a great deal of community
spirit, it does not require that spirit as a pre-existing condition
in order to succeed. It works best in the presence of real differences
of opinion which, when they produce breakthroughs, generate powerful
group feelings. The group requires no initial training, but does
require a skilled facilitator to ensure good results.. (It remains
to be seen if dynamic facilitation would develop a peculiar "community
culture" if used regularly in an intentional community -- in
which the group shares responsibility for the process, the way consensus-trained
groups do -- and what the results of that would be.)
(Note: There are other processes, such as Bohmian dialogue, Listening
Circles and Open Space Conferencing, which can quickly evolve to
require no facilitator at all. Much more inquiry is needed about
the role of facilitation and process structures in creation and
maintenance of self-organizing systems.)
RELATIONSHIP OF RULES TO OUTCOME
RR: Those with greater awareness of the complex rules and procedures
-- and with facility in using them, or control over their application
(such as the chairperson) -- can "win" more often than
others, or can block the efforts of others. This is frowned on by
Robert's Rules. The chairperson can vote if he or she is a member
of the assembly.
CP: There are far fewer rules in consensus process than in Robert's
Rules. Shared awareness of rules tends to make manipulation difficult,
and empowers all individuals equally. Manipulation by the facilitator
is possible, but is usually monitored by the group. The facilitator
cannot participate in the substantive discussion or decision-making
unless they turn over their facilitator hat to someone else. There
is no voting.
DF: Although there are some handy dynamic facilitation techniques
for dealing with various situations, there are few, if any, "rules."
In fact, rules are viewed as an extrinsic management approach that
usually interfere with the intrinsic, self-organizing dynamic of
change that is the trademark of dynamic facilitation. The structure
of the meeting is largely contained in the chart pads on which the
facilitator reflects the evolving content of the conversation --
chart pads usually headed "Problem statements," "Solutions,"
"Concerns," and "Data." The group's dependence
on the facilitator makes participants vulnerable to facilitator
manipulation. But if there is manipulation, then -- by definition
-- the group is no being dynamically facilitated.
SOURCE OF TRUST / SOURCE OF DIRECTION
RR: Trust in standardized procedures results in well-controlled
meetings. "Orderly progress will get us where we want to go."
CP: Trust in the wisdom generated by respectful dialogue among
all involved creates a self-governing community. (In Quaker consensus
process, the source of trust is the Divine speaking through the
members of the meeting.) "Together we can weave a greater truth
than any of us can find alone."
DF: Trust in the creative, mysterious, unpredictable process of
life -- both conscious and unconscious -- leads dynamic facilitators
to evoke self-organizing conversations and ongoing evolution. "Making
room to share our full uniqueness with each other, paradoxically
allows the power of co-sensing, co-creativity, and synergy to emerge
among us. We don't back away from conflict, evil or dragons, but
face them and hang out ... and trust that they will be transformed,
that somehow they possess parts of ourselves that have been missing.
Together we can call forth or create the resources needed to get
beyond any problem."
RR: The focus on a single proposal per topic can preclude the possibility
of totally different and far better solutions emerging and being
considered.... The dominance of procedure can deaden the meeting
if participants have not done good homework.... Majority rule is
intrinsically adversarial, so there's often a dissatisfied minority
ready to impede implementation or to overturn the decision later
when they accumulate enough power to do so.... It's more about decision-making
than listening to each other or generating breakthrough ideas....
The rules become an obstacle when certain people "act out"
in the group by raising trivial concerns with regards to proposals
CP: The focus on community can lead to groupthink and reduced energy.
Some community-oriented people develop the capacity to appear open,
while subtly defending their turf or manipulating others.... It
takes time for the culture of community to develop, so consensus
may be applied where there isn't enough shared sensibility to allow
it to do its magic...Important hot topics can be neglected as "cross-town
busses" (side issues to be dealt with later).... Taking people's
statements in order of hands raised (or other mechanical system)
can bog the rapidly-evolving energy of the group.... Consensus is
more about listening to each other than generating breakthrough
ideas.... Consensus can often get bogged down by certain people
"acting out" in the group by raising trivial concerns
with regards to proposals under consideration, leading to frustration
by other participants .... Consensus can raise issues that can't
be resolved by consensus.
DF: During the initial stages of the process, quiet people often
get less of a chance to talk... Since collective breakthroughs are
not in the traditional form of decisions (and since they often give
rise to an entirely new set of problems!), it can be difficult for
participants to notice their own progress unless the facilitator
points it out...If facilitation is not skilled, meetings can be
experienced as too heady or zippy by more reflective or feeling-focused
people... The non-linearity of dynamic facilitation makes it unsuited
for getting through tightly timed agendas (although its effectiveness
raises questions about the value of agenda-based restrictions on
group energy)... Skilled facilitation is needed to generate clear
successes.... The process is about generating breakthroughs to solve
real problems. As such, it is not very effective in situations where
people are strongly attached to "making a decision" between
a fixed set of options as determined by a fixed definition of "the
problem", and are unwilling to explore any deeper underlying
issues, alternative problem statements, or creative, fresh approaches
to solving the problem.
RR: Building and pushing.
CP: Weaving -- and deeply understanding the landscape.
DF: Bubbling up -- and quantum leaps.
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