Consensus Process

The Chadwick Method - A New Approach to Bargaining

Instead of the traditional bargaining strategies used during previous BVEA / BVSD School Board negotiations, BVEA participates in an interest-based process.  This more collaborative strategy requires third-party facilitation, and nationally-known facilitator, Bob Chadwick, agreed to assist.  What follows is an excerpt from Bob’s narrative about the process.  Read the complete story at


A Gathering of People

They enter the room cautiously, singly, in pairs, or small groups. Some exclaim, in a loud whisper, "Oh, no!" Each appears startled by the sight of a circle of chairs, with no tables. They see four easels placed around the outer edge of the circle.


They check the door anxiously to assure they are in the right location. Some go back outside the room, and I wonder if they will return. They do, cautiously, like some wild deer entering a clearing from the forest.

Those that enter will cluster together, seeking out people they know, even if recently. If in conflict, they avoid those in conflict with them, dividing the room into two or more groups of protagonists. The severity of the conflict determines the distance between them. They look around nervously, seeking out the instructor/facilitator.

I am busily hanging visual charts, simple statements written on easel paper for the session. In some ways I am just as nervous as they are, wondering: How will this go? Why am I doing this?, I could fail, Will I be adequate? I sense and react to the nervousness, uncertainty, and apprehension that fills the room.

At the same time I observe those who enter. I normally seek out one, preferably a woman (for balance), to help facilitate the group with the first activity. If it is a conflict group and I have interviewed the participants, then I have some idea who I want. If it is a training group, then I choose someone who looks likely.

They head straight for the coffee bar, wanting something to do with their hands, occupying themselves. They make chance acquaintances as they do, greeting each other, inquiring as to name, location, position.

One or two brave souls will enter the circle, choosing a chair that gives them a view out the window, or that is near the door. They place their jackets on the back of the chair, their briefcase or purse under the chair. If they move to the coffee bar, they place other ownership artifacts on their chair, signaling that this is their territory. Others roam around the circle, close but not too close.

In the minds of many are fears of a "touchy-feely session." Fears of a "spill your guts," or "tell it all session." The circle of chairs reminds them of previous involvement in "encounter groups," a recollection from the '60s and '70s.

When I signal a time to start, there is no rush. All appear to be waiting to see if anyone will move to the circle. When some do, others move in a herd fashion, following the leaders. There are some who wait until the last moment. They get another refill on coffee, letting the group decide which chair will be open for them.


The consensus community

There are two kinds of groups that I work with. Most groups are in a conflict common to them all, seeking some resolution. They bring a diversity of viewpoints with them. The participants generally know each other, at least by hearsay, or reputation. They have deep and strong emotional feelings about each other and the conflict event. They have grouped-up and know who their enemies and friends are.

Other groups attend workshops to learn the skills for seeking consensus. The participants can be from around the country, strangers to all but a few in the room. They have little emotional attachment to each other, and are not aware of their common conflicts. They are strangers, wondering who their friends or enemies are. My challenge is to create some emotional attachment to common issues so they can learn in a significant way.

The conflict and training groups vary from 8 to 50 participants, averaging around 30. The process is also successful with groups of 300 to 400 participants interested in creating, or accepting, a common mission.

While the emotional intensity may differ in these different circumstances, the beliefs, the behaviors, process and the art for building consensus remains essentially the same. The techniques for working with the larger groups will be addressed in each section of the book.

I refer to each of these groups as a "community of interest." They may not live in the same physical area, but they are brought together by a common issue, or need, or conflict. It is this conflict that creates their need to act as a community. They meet in a common location to confront and resolve their issues. This will be their communal "sense of place."

Each person in the community of interest will be affected by the resolution of the conflict. When the conflict is confronted and resolved, the lessons learned, they leave, often to different locations, but knowing their individual concerns have been met.


The circle

A circle of chairs. That is all there is. The circle is purposeful. There are no tables for a reason.

In the circle all people are equal. There is no head table to set the power figure apart, no behavioral message that says anyone is more important than another. A person entering the room cannot tell who the leaders or the followers are. Anyone not fully acquainted with the organization cannot tell the manager from the employees. We all appear important. "We are all number one among equals" is the way one participant described it. This is an observable behavior that influences how we relate.

The circle changes the cultural arrangements of the past. There is no table. The participants are forced to use their laps, and the floor under the chair for their territorial relics. Eventually, after moving to other small groups, they learn to place these objects out of the way.

Everyone can see everyone else. This exposes the full person, not just the upper part of the body hidden behind the table and a briefcase. It is a more vulnerable and self-conscious position.

Because there is no sense of a "head" of the circle, people select their seats as they like. Old patterns and relationships are disturbed. The process will soon move them, because the circle is extremely flexible. They will not be allowed to establish a new order of power.

That does not mean that the circle will be seen as the best way to organize seating. In fact, for many participants, the sight of the circle sends unpleasant memories of past encounter groups they attended in the '60s. For others, it represents the therapy circles of Bob Newhart, a place to get shrunk, a "touchy-feely" experience.

The size of a group may be too large to develop a circle to begin with. The largest circle I manage is 55. The normal size is 24 to 30. I begin all these groups in a circle.

Groups larger than this normally set up in the auditorium style to begin with. This is the accepted and traditional practice. Once the preliminary activities are out of the way, however, the large group separates into small groups of 8 to 12, each with a facilitator and an easel. There are several ways to do this. They are described later in the book.

The circle is most appropriate in situations of emotional conflict with diverse needs. It is most effective when communication is emotional, and the need to listen is high.

It is not appropriate if the purpose is to transfer non-emotional information, either to a small or large group.

The circle represents symbolically and behaviorally the move toward equity, toward acknowledgment of diversity, toward the need for community, toward the need for consensus. It is the centerpiece of the consensus approach.