Consensus Building

Barriers to Dialogue and Consensus Building


There are many potential barriers to dialogue and consensus building. One is lack of familiar on the part of stakeholders with the meaning of dialogue and what it requires. (My working definition: the kind of honest talk that makes agreement possible. ) Related to that is the tendency of some participants to resort to strategies, at least early in a collaborative process, that try to get results without the need for dialogue. Those use the tools of common mindsets that rely on advocacy, technical expertise and political influence. Those tools may be brilliantly effective in other contexts but are counterproductive in a collaborative setting.

That tendency is understandable. It takes a while to grasp fully the methods of consensus building and dialogue. Some degree of trust is essential, but many participants come into the process after years of fighting each other. They have little or no trust their traditional adversaries will suddenly start cooperating, no matter what the groundrules of the process require. They may suspect or assume that hidden agendas will try to manipulate the group toward a predetermined outcome. It’s not surprising that participants may assume they will need to rely on ways of dealing with each other that they’ve used in the past.

It can take quite a while before everyone around the table gets comfortable dropping the familiar tactics and beginning the dialogue that can lead to consensus agreement.

Following is a quick sketch of how these strategies supplant dialogue and make consensus much harder, or impossible, to achieve.


Skillful advocates have an arsenal of argument, rhetoric, studies and vivid anecdotes to win people over to their side and refute opposing points of view. Using this style in a collaborative setting conveys the message: I’m not going to change my mind. You need to change yours, and you will, if you really listen to our case. Or the message could be: I’m not really talking to you at all because I’ve heard everything you have to say before. I’m focused on the conveners. This is our chance to be heard and to win them over.

Counterarguments ensue, demands are made, positions defended. This is all very familiar, but it has nothing to do with reaching consensus. Well done, but wrong place, wrong process.

Technical Expertisel

Often a group will be waiting for data instead of talking to each other because they trust technical analysis far more than the people around the table. Technical information, many believe, will point out the only possible solutions, and the group can resolve the problem at hand by accepting expert judgment. So communication tends to focus on the technical expert, not on the other stakeholders.

Technical expertise is always needed in a public policy collaborative. Group members have to gain a common understanding of technical dimensions of the issues. But if the expectation is that this will solve the problem facing the group and set the parameters of policy, there is no incentive to get into collaborative dialogue. Further, technical discussions can fully involve only a subset of group members with the necessary training. The rest may be learning information they haven’t had before, but they may also feel excluded from the heart of a process that seems to turn on technically-oriented decisions.

Sooner or later the group will realize that expert conclusions alone do not necessarily lead to consensus or compel agreement around a technically desirable solution.


Dialogue can’t happen if key members of the group assume that political influence will determine the outcome. The most powerful members may even try to circumvent the process by seeking solutions in political forums such as a legislature. Assuming, however, that they don’t go that far and limit themselves to what’s going on in the group, they may still limit their real dialogue to the other most influential members at the table.

The group is then divided into two tiers, and the less powerful will quickly catch onto what’s really happening. They sense that the key decisions are likely being negotiated outside the room in private caucuses or special committee meetings.

There will be an inevitable pushback and anger about a breach of the fundamental consensus-seeking groundrule of the process. The may also fight back by forming their own coalition and developing a political strategy of their own. The group is effectively split in two, and powerful public officials become the focus of the group. Genuine dialogue aiming at broad consensus is lost.

Collaborative Dialogue

If it becomes clear that the strategies effective in other processes are not working as intended, participants need to settle into serious negotiation with each other. The process can move forward to dialogue if the stakeholders are convinced that this approach will yield better results than what they have tried in the past.

When honest dialogue does begin, the tone shifts abruptly. The rhetoric of loss and injury, the arguments for proving a case, the focus on a convener or other decision-maker – all are replaced by discussions aimed at devising a solution that can be accepted by all, or nearly all, around the table. The group members start telling the truth to each other about what they need, the solutions they can consider, the constraints they face.

They may not achieve consensus, but they are working together to make it happen – however reluctantly they may have approached the process in the beginning.

These are some of the potential barriers. Ideally, collaborative group members, though conscious of their alternatives to staying with the consensus process, will first make a serious effort at dialogue before turning to other strategies. But even in that case the mindsets and distrust they bring into the room may well delay the beginning of genuine dialogue.