Using conversations strategically for transformation

The social and global challenges we face arise from the ways our cultures and systems make us think (and behave) as if we are separate from each other and nature. These problems and crises will only be “solved” by transforming our cultures and social systems. And because that transformation involves waking us up to our interconnectedness, we will need to skillfully use conversation as a primary tool to address its related issues, conflicts, and challenges. Furthermore, if conversational professionals wish to play a significant catalytic role in this transformation, we need to use conversation strategically. This message explores what that might mean.

Dozens of issues and crises are adding up to an increasingly troubling mega-predicament we’re facing locally, nationally and globally. Together these challenges – some long with us, some newly emerging – are degrading our lives and the world around us. Perhaps most worrisome, they have the potential to trigger unprecedented collapse of the social and natural systems we depend on.

These issues and crises are neither forced upon us from somewhere else nor are they separate from each other. They are deeply interrelated and they all spring from common sources in our human systems and the cultures we have co-created. One way of articulating the underlying problem is that all these issues and crises are rooted in an assumption that we’re separate: We believe we are not fundamentally connected to each other and to the larger community of life, such that we can act without regard to the impacts of our actions elsewhere.

This alienated assumption shows up powerfully in our economics, our politics, our governance, our science, our technologies, and in virtually all other aspects of our collective lives. Our persistent social problems, environmental crises and existential threats – as well as our business-as-usual behaviors – are all shaped by this fundamental flaw. This suggests that our survival as a civilization can only be achieved by a comparably fundamental transformation grounded in our interconnectedness.

Since we are dealing with fundamental realities and interconnectedness, the correction of this flaw cannot be simply planned and ordered from the top or somewhere outside our ill systems. Our situation is far too complex and resistant for such linear approaches. It will require a deep, complex, progressive and interacting set of shifts in the vast majority of people, systems, and cultures – and over a relatively short period of time measured in decades, not centuries – fueled by energies arising from our personal and group experience of the very dynamics that threaten us.

Our challenge as change agents is to catalyze a thorough transformation guided by creativity and feedback arising largely from within the transforming systems themselves. To me this means that one of our most important tools in meeting this challenge is generative interaction – particularly conversation – among diverse people, groups, and perspectives. A transformation based on interconnectedness can only happen if we talk to each other across previous boundaries – and do it authentically, empathically and co-creatively.

I propose that quality interaction – especially quality conversation – can provide transformational services vital to the larger shift we must make collectively. Not all approaches to conversation have such impacts but, used with skill and under the right conditions, many conversational modes* can often produce remarkable results like the following:

  • transforming life-degrading relationships into life-enhancing relationships, including resolving conflicts and shifting power relations
  • freeing up stuck energy and shaking up resistant dysfunctional dynamics so life can move in positive directions
  • enabling people’s beliefs, perspectives, assumptions, and awareness to expand, shift, and evolve
  • solving problems and/or moving beyond problem-solving to appreciation, creativity, vision, and possibility thinking
  • building collective capacity from the inside out – capacities for resilience, for self-organization, for collective intelligence and wisdom, and more
  • expediting the emergence of desirable developments, new fields of activity, and the flowering of potential
  • helping diverse entities use their unique gifts, interests, and identities to generate new or renewed unity and vitality
  • tapping the energies of dissonance and disturbance to fuel life-enhancing transformation
  • serving the needs, passions, values, and life energies of all involved – including the whole of life
  • engaging the co-creative participation of those who are, could, or should be involved
  • contradicting cultural stereotypes and assumptions about separation and the difficulties and dangers of connection

To promote transformation, such services can be applied within or among individuals, groups, and activities working for transformation, and/or established within social systems and cultural stories so they become facets of how our civilization operates and evolves.


Given the nature and urgency of our challenge, it can make a big difference how and where we go about applying these interactive conversational tools. As noted above, to a great extent the tangle of observable issues and crises are symptoms of deeper cultural and systemic ills, mostly related to the presumption of separation. When we confront an issue or crisis, then, we can ask ourselves why it exists. What deeper causes, assumptions, and built-in systemic structures and dynamics keep it going?

These deeper systemic and cultural influences underlie and generate the hardships and suffering of individuals and communities. They tend to remain unseen because people are not built or trained to see indirect causes and “field effects”. They tend to take things personally or to blame other individuals. But their suffering and hardships CAN be used as a doorway into the larger causal landscape and stimulate energy for people joining together to address the deeper causes.

The more fundamental our inquiries and insights and the more deeply and broadly our strategic targeting can reach, the more transformational impact we can have. WIth limited time and resources, it is worth taking into account what applications of our conversational passions and gifts might offer the greatest leverage.

Speaking of leverage, we can also often increase our impact by adding media into the mix and by making our work relevant to what is already engaging people’s attention. It is one thing to be able to engage a diverse group in generative conversation – something many conversational practitioners already do well. It is quite another thing to have that activity profoundly affect millions of people outside the room and shift the larger social systems and cultures they live in.

Strategic transformational thinking seeks to increase the scope of our impact without diluting the potency or meaningfulness of our actions. For example, we can ask what issues or crises are gripping collective attention at this moment and how can we engage with or “surf” that energy to promote deeper transformation? Or we can think up ways to engage broader collective attention by the savvy use of media – for example, by helping the public vicariously experience the magic of transformational conversation, or by “culture jamming” mainstream media to break its trance, or by asking provocative questions in very public ways, or otherwise rousing people into new perspectives and actions. We can even explore how to entice collective attention away from business-as-usual media and activities into those that promote transformation, using interactive games, music, entertainment, and people’s co-creativity in groups.


This challenge, being transformational, applies as much to us as to anyone we might be working with or trying to change. How do our own assumptions about how we (must) live and work hold us within business-as-usual behaviors and systems that are part of the problem? How do our perceived needs for income, ownership, and status limit our capacity to connect with others or participate fully in transformational activities and systems? How do existing structures in our personal and work lives liberate or constrain us, especially when they undermine our willingness to be strategic in our transformational work and in learning and evolving together? What might we do to build greater quality of life for ourselves, our loved ones, and our colleagues in ways that serve transformation towards a more just and sustainable world? Where can we get support to address our own transformational challenges?


The previous paragraphs offer only a taste of the kinds of strategic thinking needed to expand the power of our personal and professional gifts to serve society’s transformation. Those paragraphs are filled with questions because we actually don’t know al that we need to know to really do this well and successfully. So this whole subject is actually an inquiry for more of us to enter with passion, urgency, and humility, so that we can become the transformational catalysts we have been waiting for.

In my next message, I will share sixteen approaches to the strategic use of conversation that were developed during two virtual Open Space sessions as part of the January 2015 Dialogue and Deliberation and Transformation program described in my blog post January opportunity #1: Can Conversations on Crises Change Civilization?.


* I’m thinking particularly of forms of conversation listed in Co-Intelligent Practices, Approaches, Processes and Organizations – as well as approaches like Appreciative Inquiry, Theory U, Polarity Management, and Positive Deviance. I personally am most impressed with the potential presented by Dynamic Facilitation (and its political application in Community Wisdom Councils), Open Space Technology, The World Cafe, Future Search, Nonviolent Communication, Citizen Deliberative Councils, and the many applications of Circle Process.


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

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