Giving Consensus the Finger: How Do You Get a Group to Agree?

Firstly you need to get a group to agree on what’s meant by consensus.

“My facilitation toolkit includes a number of techniques - ranging from coloured cards or sticky dots to quite intense dialogue - to help groups reach consensus when making decisions,” says Rhonda Tranks, Principal of Illuma Consulting.

“The 5 Finger Consensus is listed in the International Association of Facilitators Methods Database, and is designed to encourage a significant level of agreement without jeopardising the quality of the solution. In a nutshell, people indicate their level of agreement by holding up between 1 to 5 fingers. 1 finger indicates strongly disagree and 5 fingers indicates strongly agree,” she says.

Five Finger Consensus

The method allows for a couple of rounds when people who disagree can present alternatives but, in the final round, majority rules. It gives structure to discussions, and you quickly realise how close the group is to reaching consensus because you can see different positions at a glance.

Rhonda recalls working with a group of around 20 senior academics with competing interests from diverse departments when some important decisions needed to be made. She had worked with them before and knew how easily lengthy explanations and justifications could divert them.

Given the amount of information circulated before the event, the earlier discussions and time constraints, Rhonda suggested using the 5 Finger Consensus technique. Most welcomed the opportunity to move reasonably quickly to a decision using an approach that was participatory and transparent.

One person (who’d already had plenty of airtime) was unhappy about this approach. He was of the school of consensus that says “if you don’t agree with me then I obviously need to explain this to you again”.

Digitus Impudicus ("impudent finger”)

“The situation quickly became semi chaotic, but order soon emerged as we worked surprisingly quickly through a number of key decisions. There was a lot of laughter amid the rapid-fire argument and always one person (guess who) wanting to make alternative proposals.

“My focus was on the total number of fingers in the air and not on the direction the hands were facing, until it dawned on me that some people were taking the opportunity to express their disagreement with the alternative propositions in less savoury ways,” Rhonda says.

She took this to be in jest, and the air was punctuated with plenty of High 5’s at the end of the session.

“Before you use this technique, you need to understand that there are different cultural meanings for variations on digitus impudicus,” she says. “So you need to be careful about when and where you use it. When appropriate, it’s a great tool to consider when you’re looking for a reasonably fast-paced and transparent method for achieving consensus.”

Illuma Consulting are change consultants specialising in facilitation, coaching, training and development andstakeholder engagement.