Finding Consensus

The final one of Halpern’s skills that needs to be learned in fostering the higher order thinking skill of critical thinking is consensus seeking. Thinking often brings about differing opinions, interpretations, and evidence from others. The process of drawing conclusions must include the ability on the part of the participants to reach a consensus in order to satisfactorily finish off a project.

Higher order thinkers can foster consensus in a group by understanding the aspects of a problem or argument that are central to overall validity. Using carefully developed skills of persuasion and tact, a group can come to a consensus on almost any issue.

In one of the greatest examples of consensus building ever accomplished, President Abraham Lincoln, in the depths of unpopularity and when opposition to war and the abolition of slavery in the USA, evoked the most powerful principles of persuasion available. In 272 words he persuaded the majority of the citizens in the north of the US to continue the war and abolish slavery, going on to be recognized as one of the greatest presidents ever to have been elected.

Here are the principles of persuasion that Lincoln used. He began by defining the issue in a way that everyone can agree on. In his speech, Lincoln’s first six words framed his speech as beginning at the birth of America: “Four score and seven years ago”. By tying his speech into the birth of the USA, Lincoln did two things; he opened with something everyone could agree on, the importance of their great nation. The second thing that Lincoln did with his opening phrase was to invoke positive emotions in his audience. This is the second principle of persuasion, used to great effect in his speech. By invoking the founding fathers and their herculean efforts to forge their new nation, Lincoln gained the credibility that he needed for his message to be accepted – another of the principles of persuasion. Finally, Lincoln delivered a message that would accomplish what he wanted to accomplish. He tied his efforts, which included the continuation of the war and the emancipation of slaves (neither of which he directly even alluded to) a continuation of the founding fathers’ efforts to build a strong and united nation.

Four simple principles of persuasion, three of which were enunciated by Aristotle thousands of years ago; ethos, or the source of the message, logos, the message itself, and pathos, the emotions of the audience. Years later, Cicero contributed the fourth principle, statis, or the status or the framing of the issue. For Lincoln, tying the issue to the birth of the nation was his statis, defining the issue he was addressing to something that all present could agree with. His pathos was based on the same allusion; the message was tied to the development of a great nation and aroused the listener’s emotions. For the listeners of the Gettysburg address, the ethos or source of the message was from the founding fathers, not a beleaguered president trying to save a nation(I do not believe that he was trying to shore up his flagging popularity ratings, seemingly something that is one of the only things our democratically elected leaders do today). Finally, Lincoln’s message, the logos, was the continuing struggle, begun by the founding fathers, to build a great nation, for which the war and abolition of slavery were almost an aside. He accomplished this without ever mentioning any of the contentious issues of the day.

We use these same principles every day as we work to convince others that our message, grant proposal, submitted paper, teaching principle, or principle to teach is good and worthy of support. We don’t necessarily use all of them and I would be surprised if any of us use them to anywhere near the same degree of effectiveness that Lincoln did.

In order for our students to gain the ability to consistently reach consensus, I believe that these principles of persuasion must be taught. We do this by teaching them how to find and reference credible sources in their writing and speaking (ethos). Although we often like to think of ourselves as impassionate communicators, there is no such thing. Every well-crafted article I have ever read introduces itself in a way that allows the reader to buy into with the general opening premise (stasis). We teach our students to begin broad and thus set the stage and proceed to guide the reader toward the narrower issue that they want the reader to arrive atWhen we reach the conclusion of an article, students should be attempting to arouse a positive feeling about what they have just read (pathos). Finally, the students need to be able to deliver a message that we can nod our heads to while whispering to ourselves, “well done” (logos). The logos is not based on the emotions of the pathos but is more of an agreement that what was said is sound.

This is not easily done and is one of the reasons that students need numerous iterations of similar tasks, receiving the kind of feedback that will allow them to develop consensus-building skills. If students are not given the opportunity to respond to the feedback and address the shortcomings in their work, how can we expect them to learn? If they can gain the skill of consensus building, they can use it in many aspects of their university and working lives. How much better equipped will our students be if they leave our institutions equipped to find and build consensus with others in our ever more polarized world.

One thought on “Finding Consensus

  1. In my studies in planning, there are multiple forms of consensus. When someone brings up consensus as a group decision making rule, I always ask what type of consensus. There is absolute consensus that we all agree. There is consensus that we can all at least live with this decision even if it is not our first choice. There is consensus that we don’t agree but are agreeing to not impede the group.

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