Finding our way together – through innovations in shared understanding (Collective Coherence Part Two)

Majoritarian voting can get us to a workable answer quickly without having to worry about minorities and concerns. But sometimes some of us want to tap more inclusive wisdom in our search for collective guidance. In those situations minorities, dissent and concerns are resources for understanding more of the big picture we’re trying to understand. Approaches that focus on helping us find shared understanding are precious in those cases.

Transcending the Limits of Majoritarian Voting

By itself, voting is naturally more quantitative than qualitative. Furthermore, majoritarian approaches tend to be divisive, oversimplifying complexity and motivating and rewarding victories over minorities. In pursuit of this win-lose logic, majorities often ignore minorities (and complexity) as much as possible in their decision-making, thus reducing our overall collective wisdom by excluding minority insights and energies, as well as evoking resistance from those who are ignored.

To the extent an approach helps us step back from that win-lose game to engage our full diversity in creative ways to call forth greater shared understanding, it tends to avoid this problem and to generate greater collective wisdom. And so, for the purposes of furthering wiser forms of democracy, I particularly advocate approaches that creatively use the complementary dynamics of divergence and convergence – of diversity and common ground – to discover deeper, broader, more life-serving understandings and possibilities.

How I Stumbled on “Greater Shared Understanding”

In the Prologue to The Tao of Democracy I described a conversation within a mobile community of several hundred people (including me) on a cross-country peace march in 1986. This self-organized community was ready to come apart over disagreements about its style of marching. The conversation – facilitated by a rainstorm and involving most of the marchers – had minimal structure: Basically, dozens of marchers took short turns at a microphone speaking their diverse and very passionate truths. By the time the rainstorm stopped, that approach had produced a shared understanding of what the whole community would do that transcended the conflict by creatively integrating the gifts of both sides, without even acknowledging that that’s what had happened. There was no vote, no checking for consensus, not even someone summarizing the emerging understanding. We all simply understood the full picture, saw what made sense, and behaved accordingly.

Later I discovered that this experience is common to many Native American councils. Oren Lyons, a leading Native American spokesperson, once said, “In our councils we talk until there is nothing left but the obvious truth.” I also learned that a practice called Dynamic Facilitation routinely generates this result. These stories inspired my 2000 essay “How to Make a Decision Without Making a Decision”. This unusual dynamic lies at the heart of approaches that generate what I call shared understanding and the essay you are now reading explores that phenomenon further, including some novel ways to evoke it.

Ever since my experiences on the Great Peace March, I’ve used majoritarian voting less and less, seeing ever more clearly how it marginalizes or dismisses important parts of the whole picture. I have gravitated increasingly towards holistic approaches that see minority views as aspects of the whole that the group – or country! – has not yet adequately taken into account. Increasingly I saw dissent as an indicator that we had not yet reached our fullest possible wisdom.

Since my working definition of wisdom involves “taking into account what needs to be taken into account for long-term broad benefit”, I’ve sought ways to incorporate minority perspectives and tap dissent for its hidden gifts. I view them as pieces of the puzzle – among many other pieces – that can help us to better understand the fullness of whatever we’re dealing with. They can also serve as signals alerting us to something else we need to pay attention to – a disturbance in the system which, if ignored, will likely come back to haunt or frustrate us later.

Even when urgency prevents adequate inclusion of minority perspectives, a holistic view sees them as loose ends to be picked up after the rushed decision has been made, especially to see what they may imply about perhaps changing course….

Concerns: Mining the Ore of Dissent for Precious Insight

Concerns present alchemical opportunities to transform minority views and dissent into deeper insight. In decision-making processes we often find proposals being met with disagreements or concerns. Usually such events are experienced as problematic. But those concerns and dissenting views highlight realms of caring and life energy, or different perspectives on the issue. If we tap them for their value, we can uncover unaddressed needs (as explored in Nonviolent Communication), legitimate interests (as in Getting to Yes’s principled negotiation), values (as in values-based negotiation), and other facets of what’s going on that we can explore and address on the road to fuller shared understanding and wisdom.

In Dynamic Facilitation (see “Choice Creating” below) concerns are explicitly acknowledged and logged on their own chart pad. They are also used to translate arguments and disturbances into useful information. The dynamic facilitator will often ask a disruptive person – with real curiosity – “What’s your concern? Give it to me…”

My favorite forms of consensus decision-making don’t use voting at all. When a solution seems to be emerging from the group’s discussion, the facilitator articulates it, reflects it back to the group, and asks – again, with authentic curiosity – “Does anyone have any concerns about that?” In this approach there is a shared expectation that the group will try to address any concerns that show up and that that effort will lead to better decisions.

So here I have identified addressing concerns as a meta-pattern in wise decision-making. When we seek to embrace “the whole” by engaging a truly diverse group in exploring different ways to deal with a situation – especially an issue all of them really care about – albeit often so differently! – we actively solicit and address everyone’s concerns, treating them as doorways into making the decision wiser, or at least better “for all concerned”.

Since we tend to cover more ground and generate more collective wisdom to the extent we creatively take into account differences and disturbances, this kind of consensus is a high ideal. But since we can’t always take the necessary time to accommodate all concerns, ideas like consent and rough consensus (below) can help us navigate that challenge.

Consent and “Rough Consensus” – Seeking Wisdom Efficiently

The “consent principle” means that members of a group have made a decision in which none of them see a risk that the group cannot afford to take. They don’t think the decision significantly conflicts with the group’s stated purpose or strategies and it doesn’t undermine the capacity of the group or its members to perform their roles. To give consent, each member checks if the proposal is in or out of their “range of tolerance”. Any objections they have must be supported by reasons that can be understood by other members so that the group can try to address those concerns. This consent process is a thoughtful, rational way for delving into the deeper dimensions and possibilities of an issue through the concerns and feelings of the participants, without getting carried too far off the rails by that inquiry.

In a closely related but somewhat different approach called “rough consensus, the group addresses participants’ concerns to the extent that the whole group deems it worth the effort to do so. Rough consensus takes people’s concerns seriously but, instead of the full resolution sought by full consensus, rough consensus has a bias towards letting people try things without requiring everyone to agree about it – unless, of course, there are clear reasons for greater caution (as in “consent”, above). Rough consensus is achieved when all issues are addressed – but not necessarily accommodated – and when any objectors understand the decision taken and accept the outcome, even though their particular issues may not have been fully accommodated in the final decision. This approach is very friendly to the “agile” approach to organization which usually encourages experimentation, initiative and rapid prototyping, sometimes with the mischievous motto “instead of asking permission ahead of time, ask forgiveness later!” It is also kin to the idea of having public officials respond to legitimate citizen recommendations by publicly stating which things they can do and which they can’t or won’t, and why – as is practiced in vTaiwan and the Co-Intelligence Institute’s Politician’s Pledge. All these approaches allow a level of flexibility in the midst of fairly considering the issues at hand.

Choice Creating – Expanding Our Hearts and Minds into Shared Clarity

Choice creating is a quality of conversation (identified and named by Jim Rough) that evokes an expanded kind of thinking and feeling that enables groups to achieve unity on impossible-seeming issues and to work together through conflicts and challenges. It can happen spontaneously when people face a shared crisis and rise to the occasion to overcome it. We can see this during disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis and terrorist attacks. In such crises we see many instances of people selflessly working together to save others or taking extraordinary action without guidance from outside. In such extreme emergencies people often can’t “follow the book” because there is no book to follow. So they suddenly open up to become transcendently inclusive, creative and effective.

Although choice creating is like decision-making in that we end up knowing what we are all going to do, it is also the opposite of decision-making because we arrive at this conclusion through empathy and creativity rather than judgment. Choice creating is a process of inclusion, where we explore and hold ALL thoughts, options, feelings, and people in our minds and hearts together until we experience a new clarity emerging. Often this clarity arrives in the form of a shift, where we all just know what makes sense and what needs to be done – often something better than anyone foresaw. This shift is accompanied by new feelings, ideas, motivations, energy and connections that were previously unavailable.

Although choice creating can happen spontaneously, in most ordinary times the tensions between people’s feelings, needs, ideas, and cultures are experienced as obstacles, generating conflict and competition. However, in most circumstances, a properly trained Dynamic Facilitator can help conflicted people open to each other, listen well, and ultimately respond creatively to their underlying tensions without letting judgmentalism interfere. Dynamic Facilitation is a powerful modern method for evoking choice creating, as are some forms of indigenous council circle, especially when they are practiced with the sacred consciousness that is supported by centuries of spiritual tradition.

Convergent Facilitation – Articulating the Noncontroversial Essence

Convergent Facilitation is a highly efficient decision-making process developed by Miki Kashtan from the principles of Nonviolent Communication. It is based on the experience that people come together at the level of their underlying principles, needs, aspirations, and dreams, not at the level of their surface positions, which are so often divisive.

In Convergent Facilitation the facilitation team starts off asking the different players what they want – their surface positions and what’s important to them – and then digs down for the principles, needs, aspirations, or dreams that underlie what the various stakeholders tell them. From what they learn, the facilitators come up with a draft short list of principles which they think are the “non-controversial essence” of what everyone is asking for – a set of principles that could potentially lead to proposals and ultimately decisions. The stakeholders then respond to that list, tweaking it and adding to it. Whenever they speak at the level of surface positions, the facilitators again dig deeper to understand what’s underneath, perhaps with an insightful guess like “This is what I believe is important in what you are saying.”

The facilitators only add an item to the list when they feel in their gut that it is actually going to be noncontroversial. At a certain point, a convergent facilitator will ask, “Is everyone OK with the list now?” – meaning “Can you all go along with this?” That invites dissent, but very mildly. They don’t want to go off into trying to handle everything everyone has any problem with. As Miki says, “It’s an art: You’re looking for a sweet spot.” Sometimes a certain principle will not be agreed to by everyone until a balancing principle is added to the list, which then makes it ok. Once the group has created its final list, they can start developing agreements that are based on it – noncontroversial agreements they can all go along with.

Story Bridge – Weaving Our Community’s Story – Together

Story Bridge is a process which brings a community together in a new collective story derived from key stories from individual members of the community. It unfolds something like this:

Everyone at a large community meeting is paired up with someone unlike themselves to share a significant personal story. Each person in the pair then reflects what they heard from the other person, but stated in the first person, as if it were their own story. Moving then into a group with 2-3 other pairs, each pair shares one of its stories. This pattern continues until there are about nine clusters of people where each cluster has adopted one of their stories, which they briefly share with the other clusters – again spoken in the first person.

At that point the whole community gathering works together to place all nine stories onto a “narrative arc” curve drawn on the wall representing the essential, complex story of the whole community. After some often contentious back-and-forth, the whole group realizes the “right” arrangement, often with a sudden group “aha!”.

Members of the group then create out of that story arc an hour-long presentation they act out later before a larger open community gathering, replete with art, music, dance, drama, whatever they want and need to make it fully expressive and compelling. The performance is followed by whole-community conversations about what kind of community action would be appropriate given the significance of what they’ve just seen, thereby launching them all into living into the new story that’s dawning among them.


The coherence provided by shared understanding comes from the inside out – from inside of the individuals involved, from inside the group or community, and from inside the situation, itself, often through windows opened by people’s expressions of concern. The fact that the shared understanding comes from the inside means that it has life energy and wholeness that can help it manifest successfully in the world.

Although we’ve explored here a number of straightforward approaches to “shared understanding”, the insights they offer can also be applied to approaches more centered on choice itself, such as the voting innovations we explored in the first essay in this series. When the options from which we must choose come from somewhere else, it is hard to fully own and align with the choices we end up making. But when the options come from us – from our group as choice-makers – the chances are much better that the final direction we find together will be imbued with the life energy and ownership we had when we gave them birth.

Through the dynamics of all this we can find our way together in groups and sometimes communities. But there remains the question of how to find our way together in cities, nations, global networks and other large groupings involving thousands or millions of people. We’ll explore that in the next essay of this series.

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Tom Atlee’s work and the example he lives have been and continue to be a deep inspiration and touch-stone on my own path as an evolutionary activist trying to design for positive emergence in the face of profound uncertainty. Tom is a wise elder of a growing tribe of people around the world who know intuitively and instinctively that by moving towards a world of collaborative rather than competitive advantage we can co-create shared abundance and regenerate our communities, ecosystems and regional economies. To do so effectively we need to ’empower public wisdom’ and learn the arts of accessing collective intelligence in ways that leverage rather than eliminate diversity. Tom’s work can help to midwife the emergence of diverse regenerative cultures. In fact it is already doing so.

— Dr. Daniel Christian Wahl, author of Designing Regenerative Cultures

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

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