Whole System Conversations – and the Voice of the Whole

Who participates in “whole system” conversations? Partisans, Stakeholders, Domains and Citizens

by Tom Atlee

Consciously convened conversations have many functions. Many seek simply to get people talking with each other. Others try to bring together what they call “the whole system” to address that system’s collective issues or dreams. Who is involved in these “whole system” conversations?

A “whole system”, in this case, involves all the parties who play – or could play – roles in some social unit or situation. The social unit could be a family or relationship, a group or organization, a community or a whole society. A situation might be, on the one hand, an issue, a problem, or a conflict – or, on the other hand, an inquiry, an opportunity, a shift, or simply a periodic reflection about what’s happening. We can convene conversations around any of these things.

So how do we decide who the parties or players are? How do we “cut the pie” of the whole system? And, if we’re ambitious, how do we elicit a “voice of the whole”?

I see four different approaches to defining who “a whole system” includes. Each approach has its own rationale and appropriate usages. They are not mutually exclusive, but are usually used more or less separately. Perhaps being aware of them and building synergies between them would enhance the power and wisdom of our conversations. These approaches include:

1. Adversaries: The “whole system” here is everyone involved in a conflict. The conflict can be anything from a family quarrel to a political struggle over ideas, values, policies, or resources. The goal of the conversation is to resolve or transform the conflict. To do that, we need to engage both sides – or all sides, as the case may be. Powerful conversation can help adversaries work through their differences, discover each other as human beings, and find better ways to relate to each other. When only a few people are involved in the conflict, we want to include both or all of them. When the conflict is between groups, we want to include a manageable, influential subset of “the whole system” that includes members from each group. Often this includes leaders or representatives of those groups, but sometimes – especially in an archetypal battle like liberals vs conservatives – we choose archtypal voices from the conflicted sides whose ability to then find common ground helps contradict widespread assumptions that they can never work together.

2. Stakeholders: The whole system here is a situation or issue itself, which is generated by interactions among the interested parties and diverse perspectives involved. The goal of the conversation is to resolve the issue or at least see how it could be handled better. We want to bring people together who, if they (or their networks or people like them) can agree on a better path ahead, will co-create a better path forward. We want people who are or might be affected, people who have a stake in what happens with it, and people who have information or power that could make a difference. Usually we want to include leaders, representatives, or at least voices from all the groups or kinds of people involved in the issue. Our job here is primarily to help them all hear each other well enough to recognize the full dynamics that keep their co-created problem alive – dynamics in which most or all of them are playing significant roles – including their diverse legitimate interests. We want to move them from co-creating the problem to co-creating solutions.

3. Domains: Here the whole system is a social grouping that could function more coherently and effectively. The goal of the conversation is to enable greater understanding and collaboration to happen. We’re interested in creating a new multi-domain activity, stimulating trans-domain consciousness, or helping an existing organization or activity improve its internal functionality. In an organization, we want to include people from all the organizational domains – all the departments and all the levels of staff and management. In a coalition, we want representatives of all the organizations and groups that are coming together. In an interdisciplinary, interfaith or multicultural convocation or convergence, we want the full spectrum of worldviews – people from all the various fields or faiths or cultures or perspectives we are trying to connect up. We want to engage them in weaving together a well-functioning collaborative whole that helps them achieve their shared goals.

4. Citizens: In this approach the whole system is the community, state, nation or other generic/geographic/inclusive political entity. The goal of the conversation is to enhance democratic responsibility by individual citizens, public officials, and/or the whole community or society. That goal may be focused on solving a public issue or on making sensible democratic decisions or on generating a community vision. If our target is for individual citizens to be more informed or engaged, we can invite everyone and engage “whoever shows up.” If we actually want to generate some coherent public knowledge, judgment, policy, or action, we may seek to convene a microcosm of the community – usually “randomly selected citizens” often balanced demographically – so that their collective voice can be more legitimately be called the voice of the people. In any case, we encourage participating citizens to view themselves and each other as involved, co-creative peers. Our job is to provide them with an information-rich, communication-enhanced environment to enable a special level of collective citizenship on behalf of their community.

As noted earlier, these four approaches are not mutually exclusive. After all, people in all these conversations tend to be citizens. And obviously adversaries are stakeholders in their conflicts just as department heads are stakeholders in their organizations. Furthermore, citizen deliberators are usually informed by expert partisans or stakeholders. But the four categories of conversation differ in their FOCUS of who is mostly talking to whom, what subgroups or self-identities are being invited, and what roles they are being asked to play. When we invite participants to play roles in a particular conversational story, we shape how they see themselves and each other and how they behave in the conversation. When they are selected because they are citizens of their town, for example, they tend to behave less as a partisans, stakeholders, or holders of official positions and more as peer citizens – and vice versa.

Each approach has its own appeal and logic. We like the stakeholder and domain approaches because they bring separated parts of a system together face-to-face to talk their way into more effective wholeness. The adversaries approach also offers a certain elegance, since the conflict exists only because certain folks disagree about something – or their competition is nasty because they can’t see each other as fully human. If they understood each other’s perspectives and needs and work together to meet those needs, their battle might well evaporate or at least become less toxic. The citizenship approach has a compelling democratic mystique: It offers a way for We the People to more effectively govern ourselves well together. As citizens who share community values and care for the well-being of our community, individually and collectively, we can generate community solutions as well as greater civility and social coherence.

WIth all this in mind I would like to suggest that the challenging public issues of our day – climate change, war, economic instability, health care, and so on – urgently call for a legitimate, potent, and wise “voice of the whole” that can influence government policy, stakeholder activity, and mass public consciousness and behavior in sensible directions. I think that consciously integrating these approaches could elicit that voice, so sorely lacking in today’s politics.

Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine a research project that convenes three parallel, independent, comparable ad hoc councils of randomly selected citizens (e.g., Citizens Juries) who interview diverse stakeholders about climate change and then deliberate to produce policy recommendations. Now imagine ALSO convening a simultaneous set of comparable and parallel stakeholder dialogues about climate change. To top it off, imagine convening three parallel transpartisan deliberations on climate change – liberals and conservatives with some libertarians, greens, and others to spice it up. What would all these conversations come up with?

Imagine comparing the results of all nine forums. Imagine what we would learn from both their differences and similarities, both within each approach and across the three approaches. If their recommendations are significantly similar, wouldn’t that be remarkable! Imagine how it would change everything we think about the possibilities of politics! It is reasonable to expect, however, that the different conversations would produce some different results.

So imagine that we then mix and match the participants across the three approaches, creating three new parallel groups each consisting of members from all nine forums. Now imagine putting these three new groups through a dynamic choice-creating process (e.g., a Creative Insight Council) to see if they then come up with similar results. Again, analysis of the results and processes would provide fascinating insight into the powers and dynamics of conversation and how to best use it to address major public issues.

To my knowledge nothing like this has ever been done. But think for a minute: What if it were truly possible to discover a legitimate, inclusive, coherent, wise voice of a whole society? How much do you think it would add to the quality of our public discourse, our public policies, the behavior of interest groups, and how members of society think and act about public issues?

This particular research approach is only one way to explore this. The most important thing is the inquiry, itself. Are we ready to ask the pivotal question: How can we best evoke a true voice of the whole? I suspect that if we took this inquiry seriously, it would change everything.

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