OTPIC Officially Retired

As of December 2, 2005, the Online Training Program on Intractable Conflict (OTPIC) has been officially retired, and is no longer open to new registrations.

The successor to OTPIC is a course called Dealing Constructively with Intractable Conflicts (DCIC). The new curriculum is built around one of our major projects, Beyond Intractability, and offers a much more extensive and informative set of learning materials than that available through OTPIC.

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International Online Training Program On Intractable Conflict

Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, USA

Consensus Building

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Consensus building (also called collaborative problem solving or collaboration) is essentially mediation of a conflict which involves many parties. Usually, the conflict also involves multiple, complex issues. Examples of consensus building efforts include the international negotiations over limiting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) to protect the ozone layer, or negotiations about limiting the emission of greenhouse gasses. While consensus building is probably most often used in environmental disputes, it is applicable to many other kinds of public policy disputes as well at the community, state, and international levels.

Consensus building is usually carried out by a mediator or a facilitator.  Often a team of intermediaries is involved. As with a mediator of two-party disputes, the mediator of a consensus building effort moves through a series of steps. These include 1) participant identification and recruitment; 2) design of the process to be used (often involving the participants in this phase); 3) problem definition and analysis; 4) identification and evaluation of alternative solutions; 5) decision-making; 6) finalization and approval of the settlement; and 7) implementation.

At the outset the mediator tries to identify all of the parties who should be involved, and recruits them into the process. If some parties are left out or refuse to participate, this is likely to cause implementation problems at the end. The mediator also usually proposes a process and an agenda, but gets the participants involved in a cooperate enterprise right away as they negotiate  the details of the process and agenda. This gives the participants a sense of control of the process. It also is a relatively easy way to give the disputants the sense that they can cooperate and effectively work together. This starts to build trust between the disputants and the mediator, between the disputants themselves, and with the overall process.

Defining, and often re-defining or "reframing" the conflict is usually the next step. Facilitators or mediators usually try to get the disputants to reframe the issues in terms of interests, which are usually negotiable, rather than positions, values, or needs, which usually are not.

Facilitators then get the parties to brainstorm alternative approaches to the problem. Sometime this is done as a group; other times it can be done in small work groups, with different groups of people tackling different issues or different aspects of the overall problem. An effort is made to develop new, mutually advantageous approaches, rather than going over the same win-lose approaches that have usually been on the table before.

After the parties generate a list of alternatives, these alternatives are carefully examined to determine the costs and benefits of each (from each party's point of view), and the barriers to implementation. Eventually, the choice is narrowed down to one approach which is fine-tuned, often through a single negotiating text, until all the parties at the table agree.Thus consensus building differs from majority rule decision making in that everyone involve must agree with the final decision -- there is no vote.  The negotiators then take the agreement back to their constituencies and try to get it approved.

This is one of the most difficult steps, as the constituencies have not been involved in the ongoing process, and often have not developed the level of understanding or trust necessary to understand why this is the best possible agreement they can get. Negotiators need to be able to explain exactly why the settlement was drafted as it was, and why it is to the constituencies' benefit to agree to it. If any one of the groups represented in the consensus-building process disagrees at this stage, they will likely refuse to sign the agreement, and the agreement may well fall apart.

If all the parties sign the agreement, the last stage is implementation. This stage is difficult too, as unforeseen problems inevitably develop. But successful consensus-building processes are usually able to surmount such problems because the process improves the opponents' relationship so much that they are able to work together effectively in the future to overcome implementation problems.


Links to Examples of Consensus Building Processes:

Building Trust in an Environmental Conflict
This is a short summary of a successful consensus-building effort; a conflict over the aerial spraying of herbicides.
John Forester -- Citizen Involvement in Transportation Planning
This is a summary of a failed consensus-building effort which tried to develop an environmentally-sound plan for extending the subway system in Boston.
Susan Shearouse -- A Vote For Consensus
This article compares consensus processes with majority rule processes.
Krag Unsoeld -- Hawaii's Water Wars: A Pacific paradise settles a hellish dispute over a scarce resource
This article describes a consensus process that resolved a long-lasting dispute over water use in Hawaii.
Developing a Process for Siting Hazardous Waste Facilities in Canada - The Swan Hills Case
In this case the public was involved in a mapping process to determine the best place to site a hazardous waste facility.
Susan L. Carpenter and W.J.D. Kennedy--Reaching and Carrying Out Agreements
This article explains how agreements can be reached and implemented using a consensus process.

Links to Outside Examples of Consensus Building

Southern Tobacco Communities Project
This is an effort to find common ground between community leaders in the health field, the tobacco community, and community development leaders from six southern US tobacco-growing states.
Collaboration and Community by Scott London
This is an example of consensus building at the community level.
John Hamill - The Upper Colorado River Basis Endangered Fish Recovery Initiative
This paper describes a consensus building process between governmental agencies, environmental groups and recreational groups.
Curt Brown - Handling Confrontation: Negotiated Adaptive Management
This paper contracts the legal/regulatory model of environmental management with a more flexible, negotiation-based model for managing resources and making environmental decisions.

Building Consensus for a Sustainable Future:  Guiding Principles from the Society of Professionals in Dispute Resolution

Coming to Consensus: Tips on Cooperative Decision Making


Links to Related Approaches:


Analytical Problem Solving


Principled Negotiation


Links to Related Problems:

Framing Problems

Scoping: Who Are the Other Parties Involved and What Do They Think


Procedural Problems

General Information about Escalation Problems

Problems Related to the Use of Force

Copyright 1998 Conflict Research Consortium  -- Contact: crc@colorado.edu