Sixteen Approaches to the Strategic Use of Conversation

It turns out there are many different ways to look at increasing our strategic leverage with conversational initiatives. In January a number of us explored that question and came up with a useful list that I share here with you, along with a list covering my own thinking prior to that conversation.

Last October I attended a conference of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD) where I raised the following inquiry:

”What do we, as members of the dialogue and deliberation community of practice, have to be and do to enable our most positive transformational impact in the face of emerging global crises which fundamentally challenge our business-as-usual habits and systems?”

Several NCDD members took up that inquiry and created virtual gatherings to explore it, including several virtual Open Space conferences. In two of those conferences I convened sessions exploring the strategic use of conversation. I created a briefing document for the participants – “Dimensions of transformational leverage for D&D initiatives” – and then took notes during their conversation about the topic. Afterwards, I summarized and compiled the different approaches raised during the discussion into a single document, “Sixteen approaches to the strategic use of conversation”.

Both documents are included in this post, for the interest of anyone wishing to explore how to increase the strategic leverage of their conversational work.

I articulated my rationale for this topic in my previous post, Using conversations strategically for transformation.


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In this compilation “strategic” means making an effort to maximize the transformational impact of our conversational initiatives, knowledge, and networks. The strategic modes listed below, while distinct in their own frame of reference, often overlap or offer synergistic possibilities.

TOP DOWN – Engage the power holders and the decision-makers in transformational conversations, with or without the engagement of other players.

IMMUNE SYSTEM/RESILIENCE – Enable and engage the whole system as a field in addressing what’s important to it on an ongoing basis. Example: Conversations that build relationships and trust in communities and among players/stakeholders and engage them in co-creative initiatives to advance shared values, needs, and dreams.

COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE – Similar to the “immune system” strategic mode above, but with an additional focus on the knowledge and wisdom needed for the whole system to be aligned to the changing realities of the situations it faces. This involves a capacity to learn as a collective entity. Intelligence involves a cognitive cycle that includes perceiving, reflection, insight, intention, planning, implementation, feedback and assessment which generate insight, etc. In collective manifestations of intelligence, conversation is involved in all these functions.

ACUPUNCTURE – Identify places in the evolving society where there is stuck energy which, if freed up, can enable faster/better transformation. Example: Resolve or transform key conflicts that are dispersing transformational energy in and among certain groups or players.

MOVEMENT CAPACITY-BUILDING – Improve existing conversations in and among particular change agents and change efforts to increase their capacity to succeed at their work.

COMMUNITY/SOCIETAL CAPACITY-BUILDING – Especially in preparation for collective traumatic events as might be expected from the impacts of extinction-level issues. Includes building conversation-related infrastructure and providing conversation-enhancing resources that would enable communities to rebuild a more sane culture from the ruins of a collapsed industrial one.

SUPERSATURATION – Conversations (a) that dissolve people’s perspectives into a common concentrated pool, (b) that build pressure for shift within the system and/or (c) that seed the “field” with stimulants – ideas, visions, small groups with shared intention, commitments, exchanges of requests and offers, etc. – that could shift the whole system when shift is triggered by some event.

WE THE PEOPLE – Use very visible and/or widespread high-quality conversations among diverse people to inspire whole populations to realize they can think, feel, and act together and thus “do it ourselves”.

SYSTEMIC LEVERAGE – Target points in system dynamics – purposes, incentives, feedbacks, etc. – for maximum shift in social system operation. Also target potentially high-impact systems – political, economic, educational, philanthrophic, etc. – that shape other social systems and collective awareness and behavior.

HIGHER POWER – Ask what nature would do, or open ourselves to wisdom and guidance from higher, deeper transpersonal/collective intelligence. Do this both within conversations and when considering what conversations to convene.

EVOLUTION OF CONSCIOUSNESS – Focus on the power of certain types of conversation to transform the participants’ consciousness, spirit, heart, worldview, presence, awareness. Target both key players and ourselves, for we need to see more clearly and be more present and empathic in order to stimulate life-serving transformation. This can include shadow work and working through despair to connect with the life energy of our caring.

POSSIBILITIES/VISIONS/HOPE – Conversations that invoke the power of human aspiration and co-creativity, rather than just problem-solving. This includes conversations engaging people in exploring, practicing, and promoting existing transformational activities, technologies, etc., that counter hopelessness, cynicism, despair and inaction.

PERMACULTURE/SOCIAL SELF-DESIGN – Conversations through which a community designs new ways of being and doing that they then live into together – over and over again into the future.

NETWORKS – Use existing networks; develop transformational networks; engage influential well-networked people (or nodes in networks) in transformational conversation. This strategic logic also applies to – and adds further dimensions to – the dynamics of conversations among delegates and stakeholders who represent others.

FULL SPECTRUM CONVERSATIONS – Appropriately use conversations (a) that orient and connect, (b) that unite people’s collective life energy, (c) that facilitate emergence (usually through safe exploration of diversity and dissonance), (d) that nurture wise self-organization, and (e) that organize specific action commitments. These five kinds of conversation have very different qualities and requirements, yet all are needed for fully responsive, productive, and transformational conversational initiatives.

META-ISSUES – Convene conversations concerning issues that have a make it-or-break it impact on all other issues and imply deep systemic and cultural transformation – e.g., climate disruption, economic inequity and materialism, degradation of democracy, etc.

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Tom Atlee
December, 2014
(Organized into categories by Nancy Glock-Grueneich)

If we would use conversational practices to help leverage the deep shift from planetary/civilizational disaster to a sustainable, life serving world, we must learn to think in terms of systems dynamics in the issues we focus on, the outcomes we seek, and the methods we use. That is, we should
(a) give priority to issues that impact most/all other issues (like climate disruption and the degradation of democracy),
(b) focus on upstream strategic targets (like externalized costs),
(c) do what we can to multiply the impact of any initiative, and
(d) use methods of conversation and interaction that are most potently transformative.

Any one of the factors listed below, even taken by itself, constitutes and increases transformational leverage in a conversational intervention. Putting them together, however, vastly increases that leverage. So the challenge of transformational strategic conversational efforts and designs is to see how many of these leveraging factors we can synergistically integrate into what we are doing.

Prioritizing Upstream Issues

1. Intervening higher up on Donella Meadows’ list of 12 leverage points in a system (See the book, Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows – or – or, for a summary,

2. Addressing larger structures and systems, like national governments or political or economic systems, that include and influence the smaller systems, like corporations or partisan politicians, that are usually targeted by change agents as responsible for undesirable conditions and for solving them.

3. Addressing deep cultural assumptions and stories. This is actually the second-highest point of leverage on Meadows’ list but deserves being highlighted at the whole-culture, whole-civilizational level which combines high leverage dynamics from both of the previous items.

Focusing on Pivotal Targets

4. Promoting compelling personal awareness of the connection between people’s individual (or group) suffering (or aspirations) and the systemic/cultural dynamics that generate that suffering (or block or could enable realization of those aspirations). Examples include feminist consciousness-raising groups, co-counselling activities, Joanna Macy’s work, Paulo Friere’s pedagogy of the oppressed, and Augusto Boal’s theater of the oppressed.

5. Seeking results that generate obvious transformational action or impact. Demonstrable success is obviously more transformational than results limited to the minds of a few participants and/or a report that sits on a shelf or in a newspaper’s back pages. Effective results can stir people to action to create change or can shift a whole system into new forms of functionality.

6. Aligning with or helping empower existing transformational energies, activities, or potential, e.g.

· Helping existing social change groups (especially if they or people within them have an explicitly transformational orientation) or building connections and coalitions among such groups.

· Helping new groups or fields form out of dispersed activities (as was done by the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, which convened the field of “dialogue and deliberation” out of practitioners not previously conceived of as being members of one field).

· Riding (“surfing”) the carrier wave of existing public interest around an issue, helping people involved in that issue consider deeper causes and/or transformational possibilities.

7. Catalyzing systemic institutionalization or cultural adaptation of better ways of doing things, including conversation itself.

8. Assisting the creation and/or diffusion of breakthrough solutions, technologies, or memes, things that could make a tremendous difference (in the right direction) if broadly adopted. For example:

· Stimulating the realization of positive possibilities, where the term “realization” embraces emergence, awareness, and actualization or implementation. Appreciative inquiry, Dynamic Facilitation, and Positive Deviance are all tools for this.

· Engaging conversation around a specific piece of sustainable or restorative technology.

Multiplying Awareness and Impact

9. Getting D&D actions covered in the media, or involving local media in the conversational process

10. Designing conversational activities to be self-replicating

11. Involving lots of people directly or indirectly in the conversation, including in particular well-networked or respected stakeholder participants, to draw in others and so that their personal shifts (that happen in the conversation) ripple out through their networks

12. Networking through common social media such as Facebook and Twitter, creating viral videos for YouTube, or shared slides or other materials on content sharing sites.

Engaging More Deeply

13. Bringing systems thinking and transformational possibilities into the conversation without restricting the creative or critical faculties of the participants.

14. Making more creative use of differences, dissonance, and disturbance. These dynamics are all signs of something new trying to emerge and they are also energies that most people and institutions want to turn away from since in our current systems talking about them only makes things worse. The fact that high quality conversation can transform conflict and disturbance into breakthroughs and collaboration opens up unprecedented realms of possibility.

15. Successfully engaging more diverse participants, especially if they are erstwhile adversaries who come to potent consensus and/or represent “the whole system” of an issue of concern to a transformational group or the larger public. This is a specific variety of the previous approach but I believe it warrants being highlighted.

16. Engaging more intensely by using methods that involve the emotions and energetics, such as may be stimulated by games or the arts, or because the subject is of such intense relevance to the stakeholders (see Item 4, above).

17. Going deeper with dialogical methods, such as Bohmian Dialogue or sacred circle or Nonviolent Communication, intended to transform participants and their relationships directly as a result of the process.

18. Embodying or exemplifying transformational or life-serving ways of interacting with each other or engaging with the world. In addition to applying the conversational tools you are advocating to your own group’s activities, using generic tools like the Groupworks Pattern Language deck can help improve this “walk your talk” factor.


Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440

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