Listening for Change: A remarkable essay by a remarkable colleague

Good facilitation can help us hear each other in ways that free up our collective energy for change.  Here is a provocative story about how nonviolence activists can use that power – and the spirit with which it needs to be used to be most effective.

Rosa Zubizarreta and I have been colleagues for more than two decades. She was part of a group in the early-mid 1990s that critiqued drafts of a book I was writing on co-intelligence. Years later, she was the driving force to get my first published book, THE TAO OF DEMOCRACY, actually written, edited, and out in the world. She became my closest companion in the realm of Dynamic Facilitation and Wisdom Councils, vital tools in both our efforts. Her masters thesis on Dynamic Facilitation evolved into a DF training manual and then into her truly breakthrough book FROM CONFLICT TO CREATIVE COLLABORATION. I recommend her Dynamic Facilitation trainings whenever I can.

Rosa has a very special capacity to be present with people, accompanying them on their progressive discovery of what matters, what’s possible, and what they can do, with a very light touch. You can find out much more about her, her writings, and her offerings at her website

Several months ago Rosa initiated a brilliant pilot program for the Co-Intelligence Institute, the CII Fellows calls. In these teleconferencing calls a group of 16 CII-associated people with projects help each other think about those projects, one project per call, two calls each month. Near the end of each call, I take 5-10 minutes to highlight some of the co-intelligent aspects, dynamics and possibilities I noticed in the project and in our discussion about it. This unique activity is both a support group for change agents doing co-intelligent work and a learning experience for everyone involved. The pilot has been going very well and we view it as a great example of the kind of activity we in the Co-Intelligence Institute hope to nurture as part of a growing transformational learning community of co-intelligence practitioners during the coming year.

Rosa’s essay below tells a story that, as she says, “is paradigmatic of the deeply synergistic kind of relationship that can exist between activism and facilitation,” between “the listening arts and social change…”

Her story reminds me of the logic I see within Gandhi’s work, which I can perhaps summarize by imagining him saying to his opponents – for example, the British in their India colony – something like this:

“I’m not trying to get you to just agree with me. After all, I might not be seeing the whole picture here. So what I really want is for you to join me as a peer in a shared search for Truth, working together to understand what’s really going on here and what’s really needed. However, if you won’t honestly join me in that search, I will have no moral choice but to nonviolently resist your operations until you can no longer function at all. Then perhaps you will join me in this greater search for Truth which is, after all, our only real hope.”

In my view, that’s the proper role of nonviolent direct action in co-intelligent social change. And – since most of us – not just people in power – are not very good at listening to perspectives we detest – good facilitation can profoundly aid – dare I say “facilitate”! – effective social change.

But enough out of me. Enjoy Rosa’s story and the valuable insights and possibilities it offers…



The Listening Arts and Social Change…

by Rosa Zubizarreta

I’ve been wanting to write for a while, on how I see the relationship between listening and social change. As much as I love dialogue… and as passionate as I am about mediation / facilitation (especially the transformative, non-linear, emergent varieties thereof…) I also think it is key to acknowledge that, on its own, facilitation is not going to change the world. On the other hand, I don’t think we are going to create the kind of world we need, without the value that listening can bring…

So here is a story I’ve been telling for a while, that is paradigmatic for me of the deeply synergistic kind of relationship that can exist, between activism and facilitation…

Almost ten years ago now, when I lived in Sonoma County, local agricultural experts became concerned about a tiny pest that was starting to migrate north from Southern California. As the glassy-winged sharpshooter was a potential threat to the vineyards that are a mainstay of the local economy, County experts developed a plan for using airplanes to spray the fields with clouds of pesticides. Problem was, lots of people lived in “tham there hills”, and the toxic substances officials intended to use in their spraying campaign, were also highly toxic to humans…

So concerned local people came together, and attempted to contact the powers-that-be, to initiate a conversation about their concerns. However, the response was underwhelming. Local officials at that point did not seem to be particularly interested in the environmental and health concerns that were being presented…

At which point, concerned people formed something called the “No Spray Action Network”, and began collecting signatures of folks who were willing to do non-violent civil disobedience, the moment that any spraying began….

That’s how I found out about this issue: a friend of mine approached me, asking if I would be willing to sign a pledge, stating that all of the undersigned would be peacefully occupying the major thoroughfare of Santa Rosa, and were willing to be arrested on this matter of conscience, principle, and public health and safety….

While I signed the pledge, along with hundreds of other concerned community members, the planned occupation never took place. As it turned out, once a local newspaper article reported how many people had signed and were willing to be arrested, the No-Spray network suddenly received an invitation to come talk with local government officials…

And here is where it gets really interesting: according to my sources, the activist folks said something along the lines of, “why thank you, yes, we’d be very willing to come talk with you… and, we will be bringing a trained professional facilitator with us, to ensure that we can all be heard, and that we can all come up with an agreement that will work for everyone.”

While it took several months, many meetings, and countless re-writes, that is exactly what they did. With all of the various perspectives around the table, folks came up with a pest abatement plan that took environmental and health issues seriously, and that also met the needs of the agricultural community. (Some of the history of this is still available online. And just for clarity’s sake – I was only minimally involved in this story, in the activist role via my signature on the pledge; I was not at all involved with the facilitation of this particular situation.)

So… activism and facilitation. To my mind, it is clear that we need both… Few people in positions of power are willing to seriously consider perspectives other than their own, unless there is a clear and compelling reason why they would benefit from doing so. In negotiation circles, this is called the BATNA — the “best alternative to a negotiated agreement”. In other words, parties who don’t feel they have to negotiate, since their BATNA is quite high, thank you very much, are very unlikely to come to the table. Hence, the need for activists to make visible, the “compelling need” to find a better way.

On the other hand, as a committed practitioner of non-violence, I think it is a sort of “moral violence” to believe that “we have the answer” on any particular issue, rather than to engage in a deep, honest, and good-faith dialogue with all who are affected by that issue.

Of course, to make sure that it is a good-faith dialogue, we need to make sure that everyone has a compelling reason to be there, and that the alternatives are clearly less desirable than a solution that truly works for everyone. As we’ve seen too much of lately in our national politics, negotiation doesn’t work, if only one “side” is willing to negotiate! And so we come back to, the clear and irreducible need for activism…

So, there you have it, my view on the interrelationship between the listening arts, and social change. While the listening arts are absolutely indispensable… they are also – especially when issues of power imbalance are involved – clearly insufficient on their own. However, having both approaches working jointly… the readiness to engage in peaceful, non-violent civil disobedience, AND, the willingness to create a new future together, one that works for ALL… now there’s a recipe for hope.


A few [of Rosa’s] recommended resources:

1) Lyn Carson, at is a pioneer in exploring the interplay between activism, dialogue and deliberation, and democracy.

2) An excellent, in-depth academic article by Peter Levine and Rose Marie Nierras, on the relationship between activism and public deliberation.

3) An essay I wrote some years ago for the Collective Wisdom Initiative, inspired by Tom Atlee’s book, Tao of Democracy [Note: CWI’s entire site has vanished from the web, but the essay is still available in the Internet Archive’s “Wayback Machine”, linked below. – Tom]

4) Just about anything on Tom’s site!

* * * * * * *

Now take a moment for a brief word from an enthusiastic supporter….

We’re in a period of high-pressured living in many ways, which tends to shut down imaginative approaches to problems, constructive thinking about the future, and confidence that things can change. The Co-Intelligence Institute perseveres year after year coming up with constructive ways of approaching life and puts forth wisdom that requires our slowing just a bit to hear and comprehend. We need this organization—its people and the ideas and tools that regularly emerge from them—for living in ways that can help create a better future.

— Diana Morley


* * * * * * *

December 2015 Co-Intelligence Institute Fundraising Campaign note: So far 25 people have supported us with $21,560. Join them in supporting our work. Our target is $25,000. We’re getting close. Please donate now. It will make a big difference and your donation is fully tax-deductible in the U.S.

* * * * * * *

Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440
“Calling forth the wisdom of the whole for the wellbeing of the whole”

Please support our work. Your donations are fully tax-deductible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.