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Consensus for Telephone Conference Calls with Chat Backchannel

Adapted from (incomplete) notes on Sean Madsen's excellent session on consensus at Boston Skillshare.

Consensus boils down to forming a decision that everyone agrees on.

The Hand-calling Stack

The most important technique for smooth-running discussions in which all voices are heard (whether using a formal consensus decision-making process or not) is making use of a hand-calling stack, in which people signal their intention to speak, and are called on based on what type of statement they need to make and the order in which they flagged their intention to speak.

point of process (hands cupped in an O)
direct response (index finger)
question (hooked hand)
general comment (flat hand)

These are in order of priority: first points of process are addressed, then direct responses, then questions, and last general comments. The frequency with which each type of comment should be used is, of course, the opposite order.

Typing IRC hand signals

/me -
/me ?
/me 1
/me 0


  • Facilitator - Everyone should be doing some facilitation, but the facilitator is responsible for taking a strong role when necessary-- interrupt people when appropriate and guide structure of meeting to be more effective. Should still be subject to the speaking stalk monitored by the hand caller.
  • Hand caller - responsible for identifying whose turn it is to speak next, from the stack based on the hand signals described below.
  • Vibes monitor - tasked with making sure a silent minority finds their voice.
  • Note-taker - notes on significant discussion points and decisions in the meeting, especially assigned tasks ("Job Jot!").
  • Timekeeper - keeps people on topic and the meeting running on time.

Supplementary techniques

Straw poll

Quick, non-verbal sense of people's opinions on a non-contentious issue.

In IRC or other chat, we can use the following (after it has been brought up verbally and someone, probably the facilitator, types "STRAW POLL: Thing to be decided") for in favor, opposed, and neutral, respectively.


And i guess, when in a glass-is-half-empty passive-aggressive mood, -0.


Get the sense of where everyone is, what their point of view is, individually, one-at-a-time, and verbally.


Let everyone who wants to pipe up have a say without handcalling.

Take a break

A valuable tool.


Consensus does take a lot of time. It is difficult. But it is worth it, because the time you take in meeting is saved in implementing the issue, because it's much clearer what has to be done to everyone. And the repercussions of the decision are often much easier to deal with. The authoritarian decision may be quick, but it may be disastrous.


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