Consensus doesn’t mean unanimity

Putting exact dictionary word definitions aside, I heard a fascinating perspective today from a world-class negotiator.

tommy-kohIn the dictionary, the words consensus and unanimous seem almost interchangeable. They both imply the state where everyone agrees with a decision that has been made. Today, I heard a respected negotiator make a nuanced distinction between them.

Tommy Koh is is an international lawyer, professor, and a diplomat from Singapore. He was also the former ambassador to the United Nations.

In 2014, Harvard Law School honored Ambassador Koh with their Great Negotiator Award.

During of the award ceremony’s panel discussions, Ambassador Koh said “consensus doesn’t mean unanimity”.

By that, he meant that you needn’t let a negotiation get derailed or stalled altogether because of one or two detractors. If everyone else in the room agrees with what’s being discussed, that is sufficient fuel to proceed and eventually close the deal.

This is fascinating, practical, and often easy to forget in the heat of a negotiation. Especially if the detractor appears to hold more power than everyone else e.g. they’re the most senior person in the room, or wield more than their fair share of political clout.

If you can remember, though, that consensus (for the greater good) doesn’t mean unanimity, then it becomes easier for you to hold on to what’s truly at stake for the entire group, and to then deal with the dissenters more effectively on the road to final agreement.

Have you found yourself unwittingly derailed by one detractor in your team, business or organization? What did you do to resolve the situation? Comment below & let me know.

(Image from legal.un.org)

About the Author

Maya loves life in the innovation lane. An avid student of life, learning & leadership, she has worked and lived on 3 continents, bringing her globally-minded flair to her clients and personal passions.

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