by Leon Rosenshein

Consensus vs. Consent

Consent and Consensus. Two very similar words. The first 6 letters are the same. The levenshtein distance is only 3. In general terms they both mean the same thing. If you have consensus you also have consent. The converse, however, is not true. In detail, they’re very different.


  • general agreement : UNANIMITY


  • compliance in or approval of what is done or proposed by another : ACQUIESCENCE

It’s that last word in each definition that drives the difference. To get consent you need to make sure that no one is completely against the idea. That there’s no one who says, “You can do that, but you’re doing it without me. I will always argue against that action or point of view.” If you have consent everyone will go along with the decision. It might not be their first choice. It might not be the 10th. It might even be their last choice, but they’re OK with it. They will acquiesce to the decision.

Consensus on the other hand, means everyone thinks the plan/point of view is the best choice. No one has any doubts or thinks there might be a better way. Everyone is 100% on board and wondering why you haven’t started yet. This is a wonderful thing when it happens.

Think of it this way. For every idea/plan/proposal you have all of the people who get to weigh in get a vote. They can vote in one of 4 ways:

  • Yes: I think this is a great idea and we should do it now

  • OK: I’m willing to go along an support this idea. I don’t see any problems, so let’s do it.

  • No: I have a specific problem that needs to be addressed. Address my issue and I’m a Yes or at least OK

  • Absolutely Not: I completely refuse to be involved. I will not be part of a group the does this.

To get consent you need to get everyone to Yes or OK. If you have people in the “No” camp you need to address their concerns. You need to address their issue, but you don’t need to get them to think it’s the greatest idea every. Those in the “Absolutely Not” camp should be expected to provide an alternative. Since they think everything you’ve proposed is wrong, it’s on them to replace it all. In reality you’ll sometimes find someone who feels that way, but far more often, when someone says “Absolutely Not” they’re really just a “No”, with more emphasis. There’s a specific problem they see that they feel you’ve ignored. Address that issue and they become an OK. Getting everyone to “Yes” or “OK” can be hard. You’ll probably need to change the plan and there will be compromises, but it’s doable and when you’ve decided you have solid support behind you.

To get consensus, on the other hand, you need to get everyone into the “Yes” category. And that’s orders of magnitude harder. You have to get everyone to agree that the current idea is the best idea possible. That there’s no point thinking about it more.

Sometimes doing that is the right thing to do. If you’re on a road trip and you have time to make one stop for food you better make sure you have consensus. That everyone can get something to eat at the place you stop. If your group has 85% BBQ connoisseur, 15% omnivores, and one grain-free vegan (for medical reasons) you can’t stop at the BBQ joint that only serves brisket, pulled pork, buttermilk biscuits, and mac and cheese. It doesn’t matter how enthusiastic the BBQ experts are. The grain-free vegan can’t eat there. It’s not that they don’t want to or they’re being difficult. Eating there is physically bad for them and if they ate that food you’d be days late since they’d be in the hospital. You need to go the all-night diner down the road a little since everyone can get something. That’s consensus.

One the other hand, if that grain-free vegan says something like “I can’t eat at the BBQ place. It’s a physical impossibility. But there’s a market a couple of doors down. While you’re getting your food I’ll run over to the market and get something I can eat.” suddenly you’ve got consent. You can’t get consensus, but you’ve changed things so that you can get consent. And often, consent is all you need to move forward.

So next time you’re trying to build consensus make sure that’s really what you need. If you don’t need it and consent is enough, just go for that.