in honor of Donella Meadows
For some time now, I’ve been leading deep dives into complex social issues. One of the contexts where I do this, is helping practitioners grow their skills in hosting and harvesting a dynamic, empathic, and emergent group process of learning and inquiry. Outcomes include high-energy flow states, new shared perspectives, and aligned action. [i]
Since 2006, I’ve been following the work of the Vorarlberg Bürgerräte (Citizens’ Councils), a democratic innovation in Austria where Dynamic Facilitation and the Art of Hosting have combined to produce a highly fruitful synergy between them. The Citizens’ Council model, a sortition-based mini-public somewhat like a Citizens’ Jury or a Citizens’ Assembly, has an agile operating system that offers both a cost-effective design as well as a highly transformative experience for participants. [ii]
Over the last three years, it’s been a joy and a pleasure to conduct in-depth qualitative interviews with some of the organizers and facilitators of these processes. Like most good practitioners, the folks I’ve interviewed have been continuously learning, adapting, experimenting, and modifying their practice based on the results of their experiences. [iii]
My research on the human and organizational systems within this innovative approach to collaborative governance has been done under the auspices of Fielding Graduate University, where I’ve recently completed a PhD in Organizational Development and Change. In addition to exploring how collaborative meaning-making occurs in these Citizens’ Councils, I’ve also been looking at the theory of deliberative democracy, and how the concept of “deliberation” has expanded and changed over time.
For example, it’s been fascinating to discover that Iris Marion Young, a feminist philosopher and early critic of deliberative democracy, did not like the term “deliberation”. She thought it was too limiting, as it connoted an extremely rational process that does not make enough room for human emotions. Instead, she proposed the term “communicative democracy.” [iv]
Likewise, Daniel Yankelovich, an early proponent of public dialogue on social issues, was not fully comfortable with the term “deliberation”. Instead, he wrote about the need to offer opportunities where people could talk with one another to “work through” their thoughts, feelings, and values on a particular issue, in order to arrive at deeper and more grounded positions on matters of public policy. [v]
Even among the theorists and researches who strongly identify with the term “deliberative democracy”, there has been some useful and productive disagreement about what “deliberation” means, or should mean. While I don’t want to go deep into those woods here, I do want to point out that there is plenty of precedent for considering that deliberation can include a variety of wholesome ways to arrive at shared truths. [vi]
One very simple and practical definition is offered by Marcin Gerwin, who suggests that we can understand deliberation as “a conversation in which assembly members share their thoughts, reflections and feelings regarding a particular topic.” [vii] Then there is Dr. Debra Hawhee’s offering: “deliberation as the practice of imagining shared futures together”. [viii]
One concern shared by deliberative democracy theorists and practitioners is that these conversations need to be free from coercion. This includes not just more overt forms such as bullying, but also more subtle forms such as as peer pressure. And this is where the role of the facilitator in democratic innovations is key; the work of facilitators is to host a climate of attention and respect, within which each person’s voice can be heard.
Yet facilitation comes in different forms, depending on the underlying mindset that we are embodying. Are we leading people through a long “waterfall” process, where deliberation follows a highly structured linear sequence? Or, are we hosting an environment in which we can move back and forth freely between the “problem” space and the “solution” space, continuing to gain clarity on each the more we iterate, tapping into human creativity as we engage in something similar to “rapid prototyping”? We can choose to welcome initial solutions not to settle on the first one that appears, but rather as a way to honor each person’s creativity and “best thinking to date”, while surfacing the divergent perspectives embodied in each person’s initial offering. [ix]
We might choose to call this process “creative deliberation” or “practical dialogue”; yet whatever name we give it, it’s beyond the overly simple “either/or” of “dialogue OR deliberation”. Thus, it goes beyond the conventional prescription of “engage in dialogue first to warm up the group, and then shift into deliberation”. Instead, “agile deliberation” points to a third option. Jim Rough calls this mode of thinking “choice-creating”, a lovely term; he allows that it is a natural human process, which often arises when humans are facing a crisis, and rise to the occasion. [x]
For myself, I like the term “agile” because I value both continuity and change. I was first introduced to agility in the context of “opportunity-driven problem-solving”, at a workshop in 2002 by Dr. Jeff Conklin, the creator of Dialogue Mapping. [xi] Ever since then, I have been fascinated by the parallels between the mindset of agility and the forms of group work which I practice and teach.
This is a good opportunity to acknowledge that my own practice in collaborative meaning-making has been deeply influenced by Paulo Freire’s Transformative Pedagogy, Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing, Jim Rough’s Dynamic Facilitation, Saul Eisen’s Human Systems Re-Design, Jeff Conklin’s Dialogue Mapping, and Edwin Rutsch’s Empathy Circles, among others. While deeply grateful to all of my teachers, I also claim my work as my own, including any mistakes, errors and omissions.
As a multi-lingual person, I am comfortable with finding new and different names for the work I do, which is the creative synthesis of all I’ve learned and gathered. I also believe that each one of us comes into this world with our own “original medicine”. I sometimes call my workshops, “the Art of Harvesting and Hosting Complexity with Heart”. At the same time, I am also inviting a larger exploration. What does your own practice of collaborative meaning-making look like? In what unique ways do you bring together Mind and Heart, Agility and Deliberation?
Would love to read your thoughts in the comments section….
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[ii] Zubizarreta, R., Paice, A., & Cuffy, M. (2020). Citizen’s Councils: What are they, and why are they so popular in Austria? Research and Development Notes, New Democracy Foundation website. https://tinyurl.com/Zubi-Paice-Cuffy
[iii] Schön, D. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. Basic Books.
[iv] Young, I. M. (2000). Inclusion and Democracy, p. 40. Oxford University Press.
[v] Yankelovich, D. (2010). “How to Achieve Sounder Public Judgment”. In D. Yankelovich & W. Friedman, (Eds.), Toward Wiser Public Judgment, pp. 11–32. Vanderbilt University Press.
[vi] Mansbridge, J. (2015). A Minimalist Definition of Deliberation. In P. Heller & V. Rao, (Eds.), Deliberation and Development: Rethinking the role of voice and collective action in unequal societies, p. 27 -20. World Bank Publications.
[viii] Hawhee, D. (2021) “Imagining our shared future: Rhetoric, deliberation, and democratic life”. Lecture sponsored by the Deliberative Citizen Initiative at Davidson College.
[ix] Zubizarreta, R. (2013). Co-creative dialogue for meeting practical challenges, OD Practitioner 45(1), 47–53.
[xi] Zubizarreta, R. (2006). Practical Dialogue: Emergent approaches for effective collaboration. in S. P. Schuman (Ed.), Creating A Culture of Collaboration: The International Association of Facilitators Handbook, 256–277, Jossey Bass/Wiley.