The Citizens Handbook

Meetings are necessary for planning, and decision making. How well they work influences whether people remain in a group. All meetings should be as lively and as much fun as possible.

The basics of meeting
Fix a convenient time, date and place to meet. You can find free meeting places in libraries, community centres, some churches, neighbourhood houses, and schools. Some groups meet in a favorite restaurant or cafe. To keep a group together, decide on a regular monthly meeting time, or think of another way of staying in touch.

  • Agree on an agenda beforehand. A good agenda states meeting place; starting time, time for each item, ending time; objectives of the meeting; and items to be discussed.
  • If there are more than eight people, start the meeting by choosing a facilitator, a recorder, and a timekeeper.
  • Begin with a round of introductions, if necessary.
  • Next, review the agreements of the previous meeting. Ask for amendments or additions to the agenda, then begin working through the agenda. If you have trouble reaching agreement, refer to "Decision Making" below.
  • Record actions required, who will carry them out, and how much will be accomplished before the next meeting.
  • Finally, set a time, place and an agenda for the next meeting.

Display everyone's contribution
Consider using a flip chart, overhead projector or a blackboard.

Follow a set of discussion guidelines
Regular meetings work better if everyone agrees on a set of discussion guidelines. The chairperson or facilitator should be an example of the guidelines, and remind participants of the guidelines when necessary. Some groups post their guidelines as a large sign:

  • Listen to others
  • Do not interrupt
  • Ask clarifying questions
  • Welcome new ideas
  • Prohibit personal attacks
  • Treat every contribution as valuable

Develop a friendly culture
Encourage humour. Provide food and drink, or meet in a restaurant. Allow for social time.


Your group should discuss, agree on, then post guidelines for reaching decisions. Of course, some groups do not make decisions. They are just a vehicle for bringing people together.

Straw polling
Straw polling entails asking for a show of hands to see how the group feels about a particular issue. It is a quick check that can save a great deal of time. To make straw polling continuous, agree on a set of hand signals everyone will use throughout the meeting. These silent signals enable people to gage how others are reacting moment by moment. They can also provide invaluable feedback for a speaker who is trying to work with a large group.

Voting is a decision making method that seems best suited to large groups. To avoid alienating large minorities, you might decide a motion will only succeed with a two-thirds majority. Alternatively, you might decide to combine voting with consensus. Small groups usually follow informal consensus procedures. Large groups, on the other hand, often try to follow Robert's Rules of Order without anyone really understanding how to Amend a Motion, or the number of people needed to Move the Question. If rules are used, they should be simple and understood by everyone.
Some community groups limit the privilege of voting to people who have come to three or more consecutive meetings to prevent stacked meetings, and to encourage familiarity with the issues being decided. Voting usually means deciding between X or Y. But not always. Some issues will admit a proportional solution, part X and part Y. In such a cases the ratio of X to Y in the solution usually reflects the ratio of people voting for each alternative.

A consensus process aims at bringing the group to mutual agreement by addressing all concerns. It does not require unanimity. Consensus can take longer than other processes, but fosters creativity, cooperation and commitment to final decisions. Here is a sample outline:

  1. A presenter states the proposal. Ideally, a written draft has been distributed prior to the meeting.
  2. The group discusses and clarifies the proposal. No one presents concerns until clarification is complete.
  3. The facilitator asks for legitimate concerns. If there are none the facilitator asks the group if it has reached consensus. If there are concerns:
  4. The recorder lists concerns where everyone can see them. The group then tries to resolve the concerns. The presenter has first option to:
    ~ Clarify the proposal.
    ~ Change the proposal.
    ~ Explain why it is not in conflict with the group's values.
    ~ Ask those with concerns to stand aside.
    By "standing aside" a person indicates a willingness to live with a proposal. By "crossing off a concern" a person indicates satisfaction with clarifications or changes.
  5. If concerns remain unresolved and concerned members are unwilling to stand aside, the facilitator asks everyone to examine these concerns in relation to the group's purpose and values. The group may need to go through a special session to examine its purpose or resolve value conflicts.
  6. The facilitator checks again to see if those with concerns are willing to stand aside or cross off their concerns. If not, the facilitator keeps asking for suggestions to resolve the concerns, until everyone finds the proposal acceptable or stands aside. Often the solution is a "third way", something between either/or, black and white.
  7. If time runs out and concerns persist the facilitator may:
    ~ Conduct a straw poll.
    ~ Ask those with concerns if they will stand aside.
    ~ Ask the presenter to withdraw the proposal.
    ~ Contract with the group for more time.
    ~ Send the proposal to a sub-group.
    ~ Conduct a vote, requiring a two-thirds, or three-quarters majority.

At the end, the facilitator states the outcome clearly. For consensus to work properly everyone must understand the meaning of "legitimate concerns". They are possible consequences of the proposal that might adversely affect the organization or the common good, or that are in conflict with the purpose or values of the group. Consensus will not work properly if concerns come from ego or vested interests, or derive from unstated tensions around authority, rights, personality conflicts, competition or lack of trust. Trust is a prerequisite for consensus.
If your group adopts consensus as a decision making method you do not have to use consensus of the whole group to decide everything. You can (and should) empower individuals, committees, or task forces to make certain decisions.

Live with disagreements
Get agreement on the big picture, then turn to action. Don't exhaust yourself trying to achieve consensus on details. On a contentious issue, embracing a variety of positions will make you more difficult to attack.

See also The Tyranny of Stucturelessness
And Non-Violent Communication
And Consensus in Large Groups (pdf)
And Working Collectively (pdf)

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The Troublemaker's Teaparty is a print version of The Citizen's Handbook published in 2003. It contains all of The Handbook plus additional material on preventing grassroots rot, strategic action, direct action and media advocacy. You can get a copy of The Teaparty from bookstores, Amazon or New Society Publishers.