How To Run A Meeting

To organize big actions and political campaigns, we must work with others and cooperate with them to develop and implement a plan. But who wants to work on a plan they had no say in creating? This is where a meeting is important!

Meetings allow members to discuss, deliberate, and refine proposals and plans for actions, campaigns, statements, and more.

Many hear the word “meeting” and immediately start rolling their eyes. And for good reason! “Meetings” held in a corporate or capitalist context can often become one-way dictations from management. Meetings without agendas or goals can result in wasted time and frustrated members as the meeting concludes without any actionable decisions. Sadly, these problems can sometimes transfer into our green socialist organizing spaces if we are not careful to teach other good meeting facilitation skills and consensus processes.

We’ll start with some definitions and explain what consensus processes are, then move into best practices.

Consensus is a Process, not a Result

Consensus-based decision-making processes, or consensus processes for short, are the processes, rules, and procedures that help guide a group of people to a decision with the widest amount of support possible. Consensus emphasizes cooperation and deliberation, encouraging members to discuss concerns and modify the proposal to get more support. Sometimes “democracy” can be undemocratic when a simple majority force a vote to impose their decision on the “minority” with limited discussion or chance for objection or addressing concerns, leaving members frustrated and the group split with animosity. Consensus is designed to try to address these issues by encouraging discussion and working toward addressing concerns, only falling back to a vote in certain circumstances after first trying to get as much agreement as possible. This process tends to be much more satisfying for members, even when they “lose” a vote, because every member was included in the process, was able to participate and state objections and concerns, and be heard and considered. This process, combined with accurate note taking, also ensures that there is a record of objections and gives the minority opinion a space to officially voice their concerns in the party record.

Many confuse “consensus” for “unanimous”, in which everyone agrees with no objections. Consensus can ideally seek unanimous agreement, but it is not required. In many cases, it will be extremely difficult if not impossible to get a large group to 100% agree on anything. Consensus does not require unanimous agreement, but instead simply encourages processes that ensure everyone is heard, every concern discussed and deliberated and addressed if possible, before making a decision.

Main Principles of Consensus

Consensus has two main principles to follow:

Must Be Participatory: Inclusive of as many members as possible, Open-Minded to all ideas, Empathetic to feelings and ideas so all feel heard, Collaborative process to adapt and amend proposals to address concerns, with Shared Ownership of the decision and implementation.

Must Be Efficient: If the process is not efficient, it can frustrate members, discourage participation, and result in mission failure. An efficient meeting structure includes: skillful facilitation that supports a safe environment, an efficient meeting structure with an agenda determined ahead of time, and a decision rule decided ahead of time.


A facilitator is an individual tasked with ensuring the consensus process is followed smoothly. Effective facilitators must support full participation by all members at every step, support a collaborative and safe atmosphere for folks to have sometimes tense discussions on difficult topics, and manage the flow of the meeting including teaching and explaining the consensus process when necessary (such as when new members attend their first meeting).

Facilitators ideally must stay content neutral and only guide the process. In many practical situations, meetings will be self-facilitated by members and therefore it will be normal for facilitators to have some involvement in agenda items. In cases where the facilitator might have been heavily involved in a proposal (for example, a working group or committee chair that put together the proposal), the facilitator may ask a different member that is more neutral to step in and facilitate that single agenda item. Members should discuss what situations might cause a “conflict of interest” versus when the facilitator might simply have more information. The goal is always to have a comfortable, trustworthy process, so members can decide if any special facilitation rules might be needed to maintain fairness in the process.

Effective facilitators must feel empowered to make decisions that will keep the process moving, such as setting time limits on discussion or stepping in to break up arguments and get discussion back on track. As you can imagine, facilitators must be trusted by the group and responsive to feedback in order to effectively guide the process.

Like other skills, facilitation is a skill that improves with more practice. Don’t let yourself feel intimidated or be discouraged by a single bad experience. The important thing is to learn from each experience and keep getting practice! Tips and advice from more experienced facilitators always helps.

While there is temptation to stick to only experienced facilitators, this can lead to negative results. For example, the group might slowly lose the preferred “collegial” egalitarian atmosphere, where a group of equals discuss issues and learn from each other, in favor of seeing the facilitator that is always facilitating as “the leader”. Groups should plan to regularly rotate facilitators so that all members get practice and develop facilitation skills.

Decision Rules

A decision rule is the way you finalize a decision in your process, turning a proposal into an “official” statement, policy, action, etc. For example, does a facilitator or executive committee finalize decisions? Do you hold a vote with a required majority or supermajority? Group should pick a rule ahead of time and stick to it. It can be unfair to members and prompt accusations and mistrust if decision rules are modified during a contentious debate, so better to stick with the rule and make changes to the process for next time if needed.

Exactly which rule makes the most sense might depend on what kind of decision it is. Setting big policy decisions? Be inclusive and require a vote and wide agreement among members. Deciding what color the balloons should be at a party? Maybe let the party planning committee decide to save some time and energy on a less important decision instead of asking all members to vote. Your group should discuss which rule or rules should be used and in what circumstances – this is what a set of bylaws are for!

Some tips on a few common decision rules are listed below, with some pros and cons of each for your group to consider.

Executive/Committee Rule: let an individual/committee decide for the group

PROS – quick decisions, deciders may have specialized knowledge for decision

CONS – can feel undemocratic and non-transparent for large groups

Majority Rule: simple majority (50% + 1) wins a vote

PROS – simple, folks understand it

CONS – close/split votes can leave folks feeling frustrated a

Supermajority Rule: larger than simple majority; could be set to 60%, 2/3, 75%

PROS – higher threshold means less rushed decisions, more inclusive in results

CONS – close votes failing can frustrate folks when majority supports

Unanimous Consensus: require all members agree before proposal is adopted

PROS – everyone is heard, all concerns addressed

CONS – one person or a small group can hold group decisions hostage

A Full Consensus Process

While there is no one blueprint and different groups may have different procedures, the following process outline is fairly simple and common and touches on all the most important parts of holding a good meeting.

Set A Good Agenda With Goals Before The Meeting: Set a process for how things get onto the agenda. Does a steering committee decide? Do members petition to put items on the agenda? Whatever you decide, make sure the agenda is set and shared with all members at least a couple days in advance of the meeting. This enables all members some time to read the agenda, research topics of the agenda (for example, read a related news article or a draft of a statement or proposal) and prepare for the discussion. Providing the agenda ahead of time also lets concerns be aired beforehand and the final proposal amended before the meeting, potentially making the meeting itself more efficient and encouraging working between meetings to lighten the load of meetings.

Open Discussion: Open up the floor to members to give feedback and discuss each agenda item, one by one. The goal is “brainstorming” to get a wide range of views and ideas on the topic.

Identifying Underlying Concerns: Taking the open discussion feedback, members should identify concerns raised and stakeholders. Try to find if concerns have any particular issues in common.

Collaborative Proposal Development: Members can then propose solutions to concerns brought up. The group should try to build a solution that addresses as many concerns as possible. Consider solutions one at a time in order until the group picks a direction and finalizes a proposal.

Finalize Decision: Use the predetermined decision rule to finalize the proposal and make it “official”. If for any reason the proposal is not finalized, revisit the earlier steps to construct a new proposal.

Ratify Proposal: After a proposal is finalized, you may want to ratify by following up and asking members if they feel satisfied with the results. Review any action steps and confirm who is responsible for carrying them out. If there is dissatisfaction with the process or results, take note of those concerns and consider ways to improve the process for next time.

Some Consensus Pitfalls

Open discussion and collaboration relies on honesty, trust, and safety. However, it is important to avoid certain pitfalls that might end up actually stifling open, honest, safe discussion and collaboration. A few common ones are listed below.

Ideas Without Action: No matter how good the quality of an Open Discussion may be, nothing happens if there is no clear structure for how to pursue those ideas and turn them into an action proposal. Often the best place to develop a proposal is NOT at a general membership meeting, but a small group of members interested in the proposal. Facilitators can help by asking who should develop a proposal and report back at a future meeting – it could be an individual or assigned to a committee or working group. If no one – whether individual or committee – is willing to take responsibility for researching and developing a proposal, then the best thing may sometimes be to drop the conversation and move on in the agenda. This doesn’t preclude future meetings from revisiting the idea, but it does allow the meeting to save time and energy when a particular idea doesn’t seem to be fruitful or a priority to the group at the moment.

Don’t Rush Decisions: When new proposals are brought up in a meeting, there may sometimes be a tendency to feel rushed in making a decision right there at the meeting. Unless the proposal is expressly presented as an urgent matter (for example, an organization requests you to endorse an event and gives a due date within a few days to respond), the group should take time in discussing, deliberating, and considering options – as well as providing more time and ways for additional members to comment and participate such as via online forums outside of the meeting. One way to do this is to introduce the topic at a meeting with Open Discussion, but, similar to discussed in Ideas Without Action, assign a working group or committee to take notes from the Open Discussion and collaboratively work on a proposal that can be brought back to a future meeting. This allows members interested in the topic a chance to participate without bogging down a meeting or rushing a decision, while the final decision on the proposal is ultimately still left to all members at a future meeting.

The Problems of Politeness: Requiring “politeness” is asking folks to hide their true feelings and emotions for fear of being “called out” by the group and being judged by White-Anglo-Saxon standards. Our organizing spaces should be safe spaces to have emotion and work out frustrations and ideas. It’s ok for members to be annoyed or angry, or even to be wrong. If necessary, recess the meeting for a short break. When passions cool, allow members to apologize if necessary, learn from the experience, and move on.

The Need for Kindness: While we need to promote safe spaces where it is ok to be “impolite” or make mistakes and learn from it, practicing kindness to forgive, it is NOT OK to intentionally behave badly and abuse or hurt others. Holding folks accountable for intentional behavior is important.

Respect for Differences: Clearly this includes opposing racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. Less commonly recognized though are more subtle differences such as awkward social manners or imperfect language, different work schedules, different knowledge of technology usage, etc. Don’t let differences get someone’s views cast as not as important! Facilitators can help make sure everyone gets a chance to participate and provide friendly suggestions to address awkwardness or imperfect language. Technology used to facilitate groups should be chosen to ensure maximum participation, with training and support available for members that need help. Consider how to open up decision processes to, for example, hold votes on a mailing list or voting software for a few days to allow participation from folks with work schedules that might prevent them from attending the typical meeting time in person. Remember our key principles of consensus, that it must be Inclusive and Collaborative!

Facilitative versus Directive Leadership: Directive leadership tends to be hierarchical and top down, and asks: “How do I set goals, delegate tasks, and hold folks accountable?” Meanwhile, Facilitative leadership is more consensus-oriented and non-hierarchical, and asks: “How do I foster the group’s ability to envision, collaborate, and implement projects they can own themselves?” When developing proposals and making decisions, consider how to promote more facilitative leadership ideas. How can processes be improved to allow members to envision, collaborate, and implement projects? Some of this depends on technology used, but also this requires that members understand how to participate in the consensus process itself. Be sure to train new members on consensus processes and any bylaws, rules, or procedures necessary to understand what resources are available and how to get started with proposing, collaborating, and implementing new projects. Knowledge gaps in how processes and bylaws work can be frustrating to new members that don’t know how to get started and don’t feel encouraged or welcomed into the group as equals that bring their own skills and knowledge to the group.

Resources for further learning

“A Consensus Handbook” from Seeds For Change UK, free download at: 

“How To Hold A Good Meeting: Rusty’s Rules of Order” by IWW, free download at: 

”Consensus-Oriented Decision-Making” by Tim Hartnett, available from AK Press at: 

“Come Hell or High Water: A Handbook on Collective Process Gone Awry” by Delfina Vannucci and Richard Singer, available from AK Press at: 

“Citizens’ Assemblies: A Guide to Democracy That Works” by Marcin Gerwin, free download at: 

“The Art of Facilitation” by Robert Gass, free pdf at: