Expanding Guidelines for Group Wisdom

Collective wisdom is vaster and more benign than collective intelligence, but can sometimes be even easier to achieve in small groups. Alan Briskin is a master of that practice and here offers some guidelines to which I add some thoughts to expand the utility and richness of his list.

Alan Briskin is one of the world’s foremost experts on the conditions for group wisdom. His essay below offers a brief and useful distillation.

From my whole-system perspective on “wise democracy” and “public wisdom”, I find myself stretching and reconceptualizing some of the dynamics he highlights and adding a few more. However, at the level of group interactions – including groups that are representative microcosms of whole communities, nations or conflicted issues, such as carefully constituted citizen deliberative councils and stakeholder dialogues – Alan Briskin’s principles are potent guidelines in exactly the form they are stated here.

They are also more broadly applicable. Although they are framed as guidelines for individual and group awareness and behavior, they are equally valid as criteria for choosing group processes. Methodologies can make it easier or harder for these dynamics to play out in a group regardless of the condition or maturity of the individual participants. So it is wise to choose approaches that help us do the things on Alan Briskin’s list.

We could also apply these principles to even broader realms – to larger cultures, systems, and narratives that shape human behavior in organizations, communities and societies. Consider, for example, Briskin’s first principle about “deep listening”: Our majoritarian partisan political systems – especially with winner-take-all dynamics – can make it hard for participants to listen to each other and for good listeners to succeed in the game that is being played, because these systems are so biased in favor of battle. These factors are a sign we need to change the SYSTEM to one that supports and rewards listening.

Applying collective wisdom principles to group processes and to cultural systems and stories are examples of what I think of as co-intelligent leadership. From the co-intelligence perspective, leadership looks like more than a quality possessed by special individuals we call “leaders”. It is a function that ultimately needs to be performed by establishing processes and systems and by self-organizing cultures filled with ordinary people taking initiative and responsibility as needed, in coordination with each other.

The original link to the article identifies Alan Briskin as “a leadership and organizational consultant. He is author of The Stirring of Soul in the Workplace and co-author of Daily Miracles, Bringing Your Soul to Work, and The Power of Collective Wisdom.” The article also describes “Leadership for Collective Wisdom” as “a network of people seeking to embody and radiate outward principles of collaboration, non violence, and wisdom necessary to address existential issues of life and be equipped with the tools, skills, and practices necessary to respond effectively in the world.” Hear, hear!

Please take a moment to read and reflect on Alan’s inspiring list. When you are done, take a look at the following comments where I expand on some of the dynamics he describes. It is all fascinating territory to explore.

Blessings, again, on the remarkable, challenging Journey we are all on together.


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Leadership for Collective Wisdom
by Alan Briskin
Apr 29, 2015

When human beings gather…a depth of awareness and insight, a type of transcendent knowing, becomes available to us that can inform wise action and extraordinary results. – Alan Briskin


1. Deep Listening

Listening with an intention that the other person feels heard and seen; creating the conditions and presence for the other to more fully come into their own highest being.

Listening to what is said and unsaid.

Listening with one’s full self, with heart, mind, body, and soul.

2. Suspend Certainty

Capacity to suspend what we think is right, correct, or proper for a period of time, allowing other ways of knowing and other people to contribute to an expanded understanding.

Suspending habits of understanding which are solely rational and logical – allowing novel ways of knowing to be experienced, e.g. from cerebral ways of understanding to emotional and intuitive ways of knowing, from rational logical mind to mythic spiritual mind.

3. See Whole Systems

Seek diverse perspective.

Remain alert to the intrinsic interdependence of one’s own group, other groups, larger collectives, and our shared Earth.

Ask essential questions.

Design whole systems to take into account the interdependence of the parts.

Attend to all facets of organizational health – leadership, relationships, teams, individual role performance, organizational purpose, outcomes, and consistent strategy.

Sensemaking – the on-going inquiry into how individuals and groups create coherence.

4. Gather for Group Emergence

Cultivate parallel ways of knowing – intuition, intellect, somatic awareness, respect for ancestral knowledge, regard for nature and physical space.

Be alert to what is emerging in the energetic field of the group – both thoughts and emotions.

Allow disturbances to established ideas or norms to lead to greater discernment and group resiliency.

Create safe spaces for dialogue.

Maintain respect for others, for relationships, for human decency.

Practice restraint in speaking with clear articulation of your own ideas, feelings, and passions.

Attend to the emotions arising within yourself and others.

5. Trust in the Extraordinary

Trust in what can emerge above and beyond your current understanding.

Welcome all that is arising.

Resist being constrained by the limitations of normative values or other’s expectations.

Recognize the power of synchronicity and meaningful coincidence to shape choices and inspire awe and action.

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Among the expansions I would offer to Alan Briskin’s great list above are these:

* On his second point – suspending certainty – I would hope the guideline promoting non-rational forms of knowing would be applied in ways that seek to integrate non-rational with rational ways of knowing. ALL forms of knowing have gifts and limitations, as he implies in his recommendation to “Cultivate parallel ways of knowing” in item 4. Our challenge is to tap the gifts of each while ameliorating their limitations. When we try to integrate them we seek synergy among them – like studying the facts analytically, listening to the stories, meditating openly to see what comes up for us, and then exploring options creatively. I would also note the blessing of Bohmian Dialogue, which suggests that we learn to suspend (though not necessarily dispose of) our assumptions which, while being relatively transparent to us personally, are quite obvious to others who don’t assume the same things we do. Wisdom-generating group processes can use the group’s diversity to help its members recognize the webs of personal assumptions that may impede their collective ability to achieve clear shared awareness.

* On the third point – seeing whole systems – I think it is important to realize that the existence and dynamics of systems are not readily obvious to our built-in biological organs of perception. We tend to focus on parts – especially the people – rather than on systemic interconnections, feedback dynamics and flows, and to attend to dramatic immediate events rather than to more subtle, less visible long-term processes and distant outcomes. Until we are very conversant with systemic dynamics, we usually need help understanding the realities and dynamics of the whole systems we are dealing with. Some of the requisite information may be abstract, but much of it can be understood through noticing systemic impacts in and on our personal and group lives and through illustrative metaphors and stories. Transcending the limits of our systemic obliviousness is one of our greatest and most important challenges – because systems are woven with interconnectedness and we cannot generate wisdom if we are ignorant of the actual (and often non-obvious) interactions and interrelationships at work in the situations we are considering.

* Overall, I want to note a potent principle that has many manifestations – some of which are implicit in Alan Briskin’s list: “Use diversity creatively”. “Diversity” here can refer not only to diverse genders, races, etc., but even more importantly (for the generation of collective wisdom) diverse personalities, diverse perspectives and life experiences, diverse cognitive styles, diverse information, diverse needs and interests, diverse energies and gifts, etc. I see creative interaction among such diversity as the primary dynamic for generating wisdom, conscious evolution, and positive transformation. Using diversity creatively implies an effort to include relevant – even some marginalized but thoughtful – diversity right from the start, to enable the group to generate an abundance of useful new insights and possibilities. Of course, the group’s processes and culture must be capable of working creatively with all that diversity and not getting overwhelmed and breaking down in the process. Thus the application of this principle – to use diversity creatively – involves both judgment and courage on the part of the group, its facilitator, and the process designers in order to deal with it well.

With these additional thoughts in mind, I think Alan Briskin’s guidelines are among the most powerful we could have for generating group and even whole-society wisdom. I think his list is a fertile companion for the GroupWorks pattern language deck which clarifies dozens of design factors to guide lively, healthy, productive conversations.

If you’d like to further explore Tom Atlee’s views on collective wisdom see
Public Wisdom: Its Role, Its Sources, and Its Limitations
A call for wiser research on collective wisdom

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