A Map of dialog processes – Part 1


Richard Moore


  Mapping Dialogue

A research project profiling dialogue tools and processes for social change

  Version 2.0
  April 2006
Johannesburg, South Africa
Produced by: Pioneers of Change Associates

Commissioned by:  The German Technical 
Co-Operation (GTZ) Project: Support to the 
HIV/AIDS Programme of the Nelson Mandela 


This publication is the product of a 
collaboration between the German Technical Co- 
Operation (GTZ) and Pioneers of Change. As it is 
our intention to disseminate it as widely as 
possible, it can be downloaded on 

We are very interested in receiving feedback on 
this toolkit and its usefulness. If you are a 
dialogue practitioner and you have feedback or 
additional tools or resources, we would greatly 
appreciate hearing from you.  Any reading 
materials, contacts, books or articles, or 
reflections and input to the content of this 
report from your experience will be greatly 
appreciated. Please contact 

  Johannesburg, February 2006

Marianne "Mille" Bojer, Marianne Knuth, Colleen 
Magner  Pioneers of Change Associates

Elaine McKay HIV/AIDS Programme Nelson Mandela Foundation

Heiko Roehl  German Technical Co-Operation (GTZ), 
Support to the HIV/AIDS Programme of the Nelson 
Mandela Foundation

























"An answer is always the part of the road that is 
behind you.  Only questions point to the future." 
- Jostein Gaarder

The modern world loves answers. We like to solve 
problems quickly.  We like to know what to do. 
We don't want to "reinvent the wheel".  We don't 
want to "waste our time".  And when we have the 
answers or have a wheel invented we like to pass 
on the information to others.  We do this through 
the media, through training programmes where 
teachers pass on answers to students, or through 
conferences where experts speak on panels while 
hundreds listen (or pretend to listen) in the 
audience.  This approach may be useful for some 
situations, but is problematic for a number of 
reasons, particularly when working on social and 
human challenges in the 21st century.

Firstly, we live in a world of increasing 
complexity, where answers have a short life-span. 
Adam Kahane in his recent book "Solving Tough 
Problems" (2004) points out that tough problems 
are characterised by three types of complexity. 
Dynamic complexity means that cause and effect 
are distant in space and time. To address this 
type of complexity you need a systemic approach 
to the problem and the solution.  Social 
complexity means that there are many different 
and usually conflicting points of view and 
assumptions about the issue, and the problem 
isn't owned by a single entity.  This demands a 
participative approach.  Finally, generative 
complexity means that the old solutions are no 
longer working, and the problem is constantly 
changing and unpredictable, which requires a 
creative approach.  Not all problems are 
dynamically, socially, and generatively complex, 
but most if not all of the major social issues 
South Africa as a country is currently trying to 
work through are.  Hiv/AIDS, black economic 
empowerment, democratic transition, 
globalisation, unemployment, and crime are all 
perfect examples.

Secondly, it seems to us that people have an 
inherent desire to want to solve their own 
problems. When universal, formulaic responses are 
imported or imposed from the outside, they meet 
resistance and often fail.  This is partly 
because they are not exactly appropriate in the 
given context, but just as much because there is 
a lack of ownership from people who haven't 
participated or been consulted in the 
decision-making. Human beings have a living, deep 
impetus for freedom and self-determination, and 
given appropriate circumstances, people are 
usually more resourceful than expected in terms 
of finding their own answers. They buy in to, and 
own, solutions they have been a part of creating. 
The success of implementing interventions on 
social issues often depends more on ownership and 
motivation of those involved than on the 
cleverness of the idea.

Even if only for these two reasons, we need to be 
adept at asking questions, and at talking and 
listening to each other. These are age-old 
competencies. For millennia, people in villages 
across Africa have worked through collective 
challenges, creating solutions through 
conversation. But it is not only when the group 
is faced with problems that dialogue comes in. 
Life in an African community is an ongoing 

Why is this art of talking declining?  Many of us 
seem to have forgotten how to engage in, and be 
present to, such conversations. In these times of 
busy-ness, information overload, electronic 
communications, scientific rationality, and 
organisational complexity, we are forgetting how 
to talk to each other. Fortunately, as a response 
to this trend, a number of methods for 
facilitating dialogue have been emerging 
globally, in particular over the past 20 years.

This collection profiles 10 such methods in depth 
and a number of others more briefly. The 
approaches are diverse in many ways.  Some are 
designed for small groups of 20 people, some can 
accommodate up to 1200 or even 5000 in dialogue 
at the same time. Some focus on exploring and 
resolving conflict and differences, while others 
emphasise looking first to what is working and 
agreed upon.  Some are explicitly dialogues 
between groups while others require each 
participant to be there only as themselves and 

Yet across all these dialogue methods are some 
clear common patterns.  They focus on enabling 
open communication, honest speaking, and genuine 
listening.  They allow people to take 
responsibility for their own learning and ideas. 
They create a safe space or container for people 
to surface their assumptions, to question their 
previous judgments and worldviews, and to change 
the way they think.  They generate new ideas or 
solutions that are beyond what anyone had thought 
of before.  They create a different level of 
understanding of people and problems. They allow 
for more contextual and holistic ways of seeing. 
They lead to "a-ha" experiences.   Each of the 
profiled approaches has a life story behind it. 
Many of these stories begin with a person who 
posed a question. "How do the questions we ask 
shape our reality?" "Given that the coffee breaks 
seem to be the most useful part of the conference 
anyway, what if the whole conference was designed 
similar to a coffee break?" "What is being lost 
when we just take majority decisions and don't 
hear what the minority has to say?" "How do we 
create a networked conversation, modeled on how 
people naturally communicate?" "Why are we re- 
creating the same conference rituals when they 
are passifying us and limiting our creativity?" 
"Why are we not managing to bring in the 
collective intelligence of hundreds of people but 
rather choosing over and over to just listen to a 
few expert voices?"

These inquisitive characters proceeded to 
experiment with new ways of organising 
conversations. They drew inspiration from 
indigenous cultures, lively cafés, international 
peace processes, and personal experiences of 
trial and error.   The result is the potpourri of 
possibilities described in the following pages.

As we were reading about dialogue in doing the 
research for this project, we were struck by how 
often South Africa is mentioned again and again 
as an inspiration to these originators of 
dialogue methods internationally. South Africa's 
peaceful transition to democracy is hailed as an 
example of dialogue.  Concepts of Ubuntu, and the 
indigenous African processes which are as much 
from South Africa as from the rest of the 
continent, are also looked to for wisdom.  To the 
rest of the world, this country is a living 
testimony to the power of conversation. But as we 
spoke to South Africans currently trying to 
promote dialogue, there was a sense of sadness 
that something is being lost.  There is a 
question as to whether South Africa is still 
managing to cultivate internally what it is so 
well-known for externally. Or are we overlooking 
this gift, and "moving on" to the modernity where 
quick fixes and answers are more important?

Our assignment

This research project was commissioned by the 
German Technical Co-operation (GTZ). It is part 
of their supporting the Nelson Mandela Foundation 
(NMF) to explore ways in which dialogue can be 
used to address social challenges in South 
Africa.  During and since South Africa's 
transition to democracy, Nelson Mandela has 
exhibited a formidable ability to forgive and 
suspend judgment, along with an awareness of the 
importance of listening to all sides.  We were 
asked in this context to map out a variety of 
approaches, and to provide an overview, case 
examples and our own subjective commentary on 
each.  We are hoping that this material will be 
useful not only to NMF but to anyone who shares 
our questions and our desire to improve the 
quality of human conversations.

In navigating the field of dialogue, it became 
apparent to us that the term is very broad. In 
one of our interviews, it was pointed out to us 
that dialogue includes dialogue with oneself, 
dialogue with nature, dialogue with the past and 
future, and online dialogue.  For the scope of 
this project, we would like to be explicit that 
we have been asked to focus on dialogue methods 
applicable to face-to-face gatherings of groups 
of people meeting to address collective social 
challenges. We have also for now not broached the 
topic of what a "Nelson Mandela dialogue method" 
would look like, but have rather been asked to 
map the main approaches available globally. We 
have, however, included a brief section on 
indigenous African approaches to conversation.

How to use this document

This report, or toolkit, is divided into three 
parts.  Part I is called "Foundations".  It 
offers a brief "Dialogue Dictionary" to help 
distinguish the term dialogue from other concepts 
such as discussion, debate, and negotiation.  It 
then goes deeper into what some of the generic 
foundations are for a good dialogue process. 
These are aspects that are more overarching and 
fundamental than the choice of method, and which 
can help guide that choice.  Finally, Part I 
includes a brief introduction to the African 
tradition of conversation, honoring the deep 
roots of these processes on this continent.

Part II is the actual toolkit. This is where you 
will find the in-depth explanation of 10 methods 
as well as shorter descriptions of an additional 
14. Each of the 10 methods contains an overview, 
a review of applications, a case example, and our 
subjective commentary. The methods have simply 
been ordered alphabetically, as we found other 
types of categorisation too constraining. This 
means, of course, that the order in which you 
read them is completely up to you as well.

Part III offers initial guidelines on how to 
assess which method to use in a given situation. 
We have outlined a series of different purposes a 
dialogue may have as well as a series of 
contextual factors, and we give some pointers as 
to which tools are most suited to different aims 
and situations.  We also look at different types 
of facilitation, offering points to consider in 
choosing a facilitator for a dialogue.  As you 
read, you may want to flick the pages back and 
forth between sections II and III.

A note on "tools"

We will emphasise multiple times through this 
report that we don't see these methods as recipes 
that should be applied universally, and we are 
not prescribing specific tools.  The ideal is to 
understand deeply the purpose, context, and 
participants of a given dialogue and design the 
process accordingly.  We encourage you to read 
each of our descriptions and to look for the 
context, story and impetus behind how these 
processes were developed. A deeper understanding 
of how processes are designed would help you in 
turn to design the appropriate process for your 
own situation.  We find it useful to continually 
pose the question of how these different tools 
and processes can also be combined in new ways. 
If dialogue itself is about exploration, so 
should our process be about exploration.

There is an obvious paradox in this whole 
assignment. All of these approaches have evolved 
as a way of bringing people together to 
understand problems in context, challenging and 
moving beyond universal answers and 
prescriptions. And yet they are themselves tools 
which in some cases claim to have universal 
applicability across cultures, group sizes, and 
situations. Are they somehow above the trend they 
are criticising because they are focused on 
dialogue, and so in a different dimension? Yes 
and no.

We do believe that there are underlying 
archetypal patterns that recur, that conversation 
is a universal need, and that some of the 
principles in these methods are deeply human. But 
it is also important to be aware that we are at 
risk of falling into the very same trap of 
thinking our favorite tool is what will save the 
world.  Tools have an interesting effect on us - 
they provide safety and comfort, and we become 
attached to them because they help us to function 
in a complex world. A tool can become like a lens 
that affects how we see our surroundings, and if 
we wear only one lens all the time, our 
perception of the very thing we are trying to 
change may become distorted.

The challenge is for us to use these tools wisely 
to be effective, while being able to hold them 
lightly and to let them go when they are not 
serving us any longer.  As you read this, we 
invite you to try with us to find that balance 
between honouring the energy, and the power of 
these tools, while holding their answers lightly.

About the authors

The three of us have been working in a variety of 
situations as facilitators over the past 10 
years.  In 1999, we co-founded an international 
learning network called Pioneers of Change and 
through that, experimented with new ways of 
organising and hosting meetings.  We have used 
many of the approaches profiled here personally, 
and have met and become friends with several of 
the originators. We are currently working in 
different contexts. Mille works as a facilitator 
of dialogic change processes in her capacity as 
associate of Generon Consulting and Pioneers of 
Change. Marianne has founded and co-leads a 
learning village in Zimbabwe called Kufunda 
Village, primarily focused on building 
self-reliance in rural communities.  Colleen 
manages the Gordon Institute of Business 
Science's "Dialogue Circle".


We would like to acknowledge a number of people 
who have contributed to this research by emailing 
us documents, sending us feedback, and/or taking 
time to talk to us face-to-face or over the 
phone. They include:  Busi Dlamini, Doug Reeler, 
Nomvula Dlamini, Gavin Andersson, Ishmael 
Mkhabela, Njabulo Ndebele, Teddy Nemeroff, Bjorn 
Brunstad, Carsten Ohm, Tim Merry, Mogomme Alpheus 
Masoga, Myrna Lewis, Zaid Hassan, Nick Wilding, 
Bob Stilger, Kate Parrot, Bettye Pruitt, Leon 
Olsen, and Anthony Blake.

What is Dialogue?

The most common dictionary definition of a 
dialogue is simply as a conversation between two 
or more people.  In the field of dialogue 
practitioners, however, it is given a much deeper 
and more distinct meaning. David Bohm went back 
to the source of the word, deriving from the 
Greek root of "dia" which means "through" and 
"logos" which is "the word" or "meaning", and 
therefore saw dialogue as meaning flowing through 
us. Elements of this deeper understanding of the 
word include an emphasis on questions, inquiry, 
co-creation, and listening, the uncovering of 
one's own assumptions and those of others, a 
suspension of judgment and a collective search 
for truth. Bill Isaacs calls a dialogue a 
conversation "with a center, not sides".

What is Dialogue Not?

Advocacy.  Advocacy is the act of pleading or 
arguing strongly in favor of a certain cause, 
idea or policy.

Conference. A conference is a formal meeting for consultation or discussion.

Consultation.  In a consultation, a party with 
the power to act consults another person or group 
for advice or input to a decision. The 
decision-maker generally retains the power to 
take the advice or not.

Debate. A debate is a discussion usually focused 
around two opposing sides, and held with the 
objective of one side winning. The winner is the 
one with the best articulations, ideas and 

Discussion.  As opposed to dialogue, Bohm points 
out that the root of the word discussion, "cuss", 
is the same as the root of "percussion" and 
"concussion", meaning to break apart.  A 
discussion is generally a rational and analytical 
consideration of a topic in a group, breaking a 
topic down into its constituent parts in order to 
understand it.

Negotiation. A negotiation is a discussion 
intended to produce an agreement.  Different 
sides bring their interests to the table and the 
negotiation has a transactional and bargaining 
character to it.

Salon. A salon is a periodic social, 
unstructured, and informal gathering involving 
open-ended conversation with no particular 


The different dialogue methods in this collection 
may seem very diverse and distinct, which means 
we risk using them as separate and unrelated 
tools.  In this section, we intend to give some 
perspective that may be helpful in thinking about 
how these tools are connected, and what is 
required to design integral processes of change 
and learning, whether for very small groups of 
people, or gatherings and processes of several 

These points are aspects which we feel are 
foundations to be considered for any dialogue 
process to be successful. They are not 
prescriptive, but rather areas to consider as you 
work through your design, making choices about 
process, flow, and which of the many tools for 
dialogue and interaction you will make use of.

1. Purpose and Principles

"Clarity of purpose is a sweet weapon against confusion" - Toke Moeller

Within most if not all of the tools that we are 
presenting, but also beyond them, lies an 
essential principle of clarity of purpose. Before 
deciding on which tools to make use of, we need 
to be crystal clear on our intention for bringing 
together a group of people or initiating a 
process of change. Sometimes we may find 
ourselves having begun something without quite 
knowing why, or for reasons that are 
inappropriate or external to the particular 
context and the needs of the people involved.

Before clarifying a purpose, it can be necessary 
to connect with the need. What is the need that 
has propelled us to come together? What do we 
hope to achieve as we respond to it? From a 
genuine need, a clear purpose can be derived. 
It's also important to be clear on whether the 
amount of investment of time and attention we are 
demanding from participants is in proportion with 
the importance to them of meeting this need.

The purpose needs to be attractive, but it should 
not be in the form of too specific, structured, 
and quantifiable goals.  If objectives and 
expectations are too dominant in the room, this 
can deter dialogue and openness.  Some proponents 
and practitioners of dialogue emphasise that it 
needs to be completely open-ended and not 
attached to specific outcomes, but there is still 
clarity on why the group is together.

Principles are our aspiration of how we would 
like to be together as we pursue our purpose. The 
principles can be used to design and guide the 
process and the involvement of participants. Even 
if we simply come together as an informal group 
for a conversation of a few hours, making a 
simple set of agreements for how we wish to be 
together is important. The longer and larger an 
initiative the more critical working through 
principles together becomes.

Most of the tools here have a set of principles 
attached to them, and this is a significant part 
of what makes them work. Some examples include: 
"Rotate leadership" (Circle), "Access the wisdom 
of the minority" (Deep Democracy), "Explore 
questions that matter" (World Café) and "Whoever 
comes are the right people" (Open Space).

Often a convener will share (or co-create) the 
purpose and principles with participants both 
before and at the beginning of an event or 
process, and where possible allow for its 
evolution during the process with the broader 
group of participants. Ideally the group, not 
just the convener, should "own" the purpose and 
principles. Taken as a whole, a clear purpose 
together with the principles provides a compass 
helping us to navigate and make decisions about 
how to move forward.

  2. Good Strategic Questions

The power of a good question cannot be 
underestimated. Good questions are catalytic. 
They open up the learning field. They stimulate 
thought processes, curiosity, and the desire to 
engage with a group, and they are central to what 
defines and distinguishes dialogue.

Often we arrive with answers and expertise, 
statements to be discussed, or positions to be 
advocated or negotiated. But in dialogue, 
questions are actually in many ways more powerful 
than answers.  Questions pull people toward the 
future, while answers - while useful of course - 
are of the past.  A question that has meaning to 
the people involved can ignite the whole process 
of learning and change. The knowledge that people 
involved are genuinely needed to bring forth the 
answers and solutions collaboratively changes the 
entire field of interaction. Where Bill Isaacs 
describes dialogue as a "conversation with a 
center, not sides", that "center" is often 
created by one or more good questions.

It is an art to identify questions with real 
power and meaning to a group of people, a 
community, or a nation. These are questions that 
can come alive inside of us, as we seek to work 
with them. The most powerful questions come 
directly from the field (the hearts and minds) of 
the people involved.

There might be one or more overriding question/s 
framing an entire process. During a process we 
can then continue to work with questions as a 
powerful tool. Many of the tools here use 
questions as an integral part of their make-up.

3. Participation and participants
How serious are we about the people we bring together?

So often we bring people together to listen to 
experts, ask a few questions, and make some 
comments, and we feel that we have involved them. 
We may label it a "dialogue", or a "consultation" 
but actually only a few people have been heard. 
In contrast, this dialogue work comes from a deep 
belief in, and appreciation of, the intelligence 
and wisdom that is accessible to us from each 
person we connect and engage with.

Depending on our purpose, different forms and 
levels of participation will be required. Based 
on our purpose, who needs to be involved? What do 
we hope to do and achieve with them? What will 
each of them be bringing and what will they be 
wanting to gain? Do we really trust that they 
each hold an invaluable part of the puzzle we are 
trying to solve? How do we best involve and 
engage them?

Many dialogue methods support the work of going 
from fragmentation to connection and wholeness 
through inclusiveness. As we find ways of 
connecting and including different voices and 
parts of a system, surprising and new discoveries 
can be made.

If time and resources allow, it can make a big 
difference to interview all or some of the 
participants in advance of a workshop. This will 
help you plan, but will also make them recognise 
this as a process in which their voice is 
appreciated and get them started thinking about 
the topic in advance.

The ultimate level of inclusion is when the 
participants all step into a role of co-hosts, 
such that the group's leadership and facilitation 
is completely shared. That of course is not 
possible with processes of thousands, but 
imagining what that level of involvement and 
engagement would look like can help us stretch 
ourselves in making the most of the people who 
are involved in any given process.

4. Underlying Structure

There is an underlying rhythm to most processes 
of change. Some of the tools and processes we 
have included here have integrated their own 
understanding of deep-rooted change in their 
overall design. However for many of the tools, we 
need to design a daily rhythm and an overall 
workshop flow paying attention to the underlying 
architecture that might best serve our intent. It 
can help to look at a dialogue process as a 
story.  What is the "beginning", the "middle" and 
the "end"? How will people arrive, clarify their 
individual and collective intentions, agree on 
how they want to be together and set out on the 
journey? What will be at the center of their 
process? How will they close, note individual and 
collective commitments and conclusions, and 
prepare to return to where they came from?

There are several models that can help us think 
through the most appropriate underlying structure 
of a process. One simple version is the model of 
divergence and convergence:

The divergent phase of a process is a time of 
opening up possibility. It is about generating 
alternatives, gathering diverse points of view, 
allowing disagreement in and suspending judgment. 
We are often afraid of really opening up, to 
allow for full divergence to occur, because we 
are uncomfortable or even fearful of the 
messiness of too many new and divergent ideas and 
perspectives. Yet the greater the divergence, the 
freedom of voicing wild ideas, at the beginning 
of a process, the greater the possibility of 
surprising and innovative outcomes.

If divergence is all that occurs, however, we 
risk facing frustration and lack of positive 
results. The convergence is therefore as 
important to plan for and design into the 
process. Convergence is about arriving at, and 
making explicit, the conclusions, insights, and 
next steps of the process, and perhaps what the 
new shared questions are. The two movements of 
divergence and convergence can happen multiple 
times during a process or as one pattern. Some 
tools are better suited for divergence, others 
for convergence.

Transformative dialogue processes that truly 
allow for divergence often include a "groan zone" 
or "grey fog" situation in the middle. The groan 
zone is that somewhat painful place, where 
everything is a little too chaotic, unclear and 
unstructured. Sometimes this is a time of 
conflict and "storming", sometimes it's 
characterised more by confusion and feeling 
overwhelmed by complexity or even despairing. It 
is however also here that innovation and 
breakthrough has a real chance of occurring. When 
the group manages to "stay with the messiness" 
for a little while, and then enter into a process 
of convergence, they can go through major 
changes. On the other hand, if divergence is 
less, and convergence is premature, the potential 
is lower for major shifts to occur. Kurt Lewin, 
in his famous theory of change, talks about this 
as the process of "defreezing" (which involves 
some anxiety and letting go of one's old 
assumptions) followed by "refreezing".

Different models will highlight different aspects 
of underlying architecture. Some of our ten 
methods have an architecture and a flow 
associated with them. They have a storyline or a 
set of specified phases they move participants 
through. For example, we profile the Change Lab 
process which works with a very specific 
structure, in broad strokes following the general 
Divergence         Convergence     principle of 
allowing initial divergence followed by very 
clear convergence, with a phase of emergence in 
between. Future Search moves through looking at 
the past, then the present, and finally the 
future.  Others of the methods like World Café or 
Circle are less focused on flow and can easily be 
incorporated as a tool into a variety of 

  5. The Facilitator

The tools, the design, the process. It is easy to 
let concerns around these preoccupy us, and yet 
the most important tool that any one of us have 
at our disposal as a facilitator is ourselves and 
our presence. That is not to say that the others 
don't count. It is simply to state that the 
importance of the preparation, presence, and 
state of mind of the facilitator are often 
neglected. As a convener and host of groups, the 
facilitator influences the space and the group in 
visible and invisible ways.

Although much can be planned in advance, a true 
master will stay present to what shows up in the 
moment. For dialogue to work, the facilitator 
should not be getting caught up in a 
predetermined structure and timetable that has to 
be followed at all cost. The rule of thumb: 
over-prepared, under-structured, speaks to the 
criticality of preparation, coupled with the 
flexibility to respond creatively as the process 
unfolds in real time. This may sound like 
laissez-faire, but actually requires great 
clarity, and the ability to listen to the group 
and the process. This is where the value of 
purpose and principles shows up strongly: A clear 
purpose and set of principles that are alive and 
embodied in the facilitator will enable him or 
her to improvise and respond with freedom that is 
rooted in clear direction.

The ability to hold clear and strong the 
intention and principles of a gathering or 
process is directly related to how able the 
facilitator is to be fully present. Some of the 
most successful facilitators we know take time 
for a meditative practice, and time to tune into 
an intention to serve the group before stepping 
into the facilitator role. To perform well a 
facilitator needs to develop humility, but also 
courage to go with the flow. If the facilitator 
has this kind of confidence and groundedness, 
they will also gain more legitimacy and trust 
from participants.

In the last section of this report, on assessment 
tools, we go further into different qualities a 
facilitator may embody.

6. Physical Space

Many typical conference-room setups are actually 
not conducive to dialogue, but we continue to use 
them out of habit.  We worry more about the 
agenda, and less about the set-up of the rooms or 
halls. Meanwhile, the physical space exerts an 
invisible but incredibly strong influence on what 
can happen in a process.

  Will people meet in circles, in theatre style, 
board-room style, or around small café tables to 
allow for more interaction and participation? 
Some of the newer more interactive methods can be 
run with hundreds of people, so size shouldn't 
deter us from a set up that allows for true 
interaction. Will we meet in nature, in a 
conference room with fluorescent lights, in a 
coffee- shop with music playing in the 
background, in someone's home, in a shebeen for 
the ultimate relaxed conversation? Will there be 
music playing? Refreshments served? Or do those 
seem alien to the aim of getting work done?

When people step into a room that is appealing to 
the senses, something happens to them in turn. It 
is as if more of the person has been invited in. 
Before the conversation has even begun, before 
the intention has been introduced something has 
already shifted. The physical space can also hold 
the collective intelligence of the group as it 
evolves. Places with lots of wall space can be 
helpful especially if there is someone in the 
facilitation team with the role of making visible 
the learning and break-throughs of the group on 
the walls.

We can do well to think more about where we 
ourselves feel comfortable and relaxed, yet alert 
and awake, and pay attention to creating those 
kinds of settings in every single conversation or 
dialogue process that we initiate.


The set of considerations outlined in this 
section - the purpose and principles, the 
questions at the center of the dialogue, the 
participants, the underlying architecture of the 
process, the facilitator, and the physical space 
- provide a list of thinking prompts and 
discussion items for you to go through in 
designing a dialogue process.  We hope you will 
keep them in mind as you read through the toolkit 
in Part II.


"In the end our purpose is social and communal 
harmony and wellbeing. Ubuntu does not say 'I 
think therefore I am.' It says rather 'I am human 
because I belong. I participate. I share.'"  - 
Desmond Tutu

In embarking on this research, we were acutely 
aware that it is in some ways absurd to import 
dialogue methods from the West into Africa, where 
conversation is so deeply engrained in the 
indigenous culture.  Given that Africa is the 
"cradle of humankind", this may well be the place 
where people first sat down in circle to 
communicate.  Before we move into looking at more 
recent dialogue methods, we therefore wanted to 
explore and recognise this tradition.

We started our inquiry into African dialogue 
intending to clarify and rectify the meaning of 
terms such as "lekgotla", "imbizo", and "indaba". 
These words which signify traditional African 
gatherings have today become popularised, and 
some would say co-opted, in South Africa as a 
label for myriad conferences and workshops.  The 
intention with using these labels so broadly may 
be to somehow honour Africa, but what gets 
overlooked is that these words have meanings that 
are very different from a modern conference 
complete with panel discussions, event management 
companies, and hotel buffets.  We naively thought 
that we would be able to define these indigenous 
approaches to clarify the difference, and include 
them in our "tools".

It's important to emphasise that what became 
apparent to us quickly is that this exploration 
is a universe beyond the scope of this initial 
report. Firstly, it is impossible to characterise 
African processes sweepingly because Africa is a 
continent with 2000 tribal groupings each with 
their own particularities in terms of governance, 
decision-making, and community life. Secondly, 
the meeting forms are inseparable from the wider 
culture in which they are used. Thirdly, if we 
really want to engage with these processes in 
their entirety, they challenge fundamental 
assumptions and preconceptions about our world.

Still, we feel it is relevant for us to attempt 
to document briefly here what we have learned to 
date.  This section is inspired by two interviews 
with Dr. Magomme Masoga and Nomvula Dlamini, as 
well as our own experience and a few readings. It 
should be read as a general description and is 
not intended to be cited as factual evidence that 
has been thoroughly researched.

Living Conversations

With the above-mentioned caveats about the 
diversity of Africa, the easiest approach to this 
section seems yet to be to try to imagine a 
"typical" traditional African village.  In this 
village, conversation is constantly alive as an 
ongoing process from the family level to the 
communal level. Women are meeting by the river 
during the day, young men and boys talk while 
herding cows, families gather around the fire. 
Conversations weave together. Through oral 
history, story-telling, and proverbs, the 
principles and rules for the community are shared 
and alive.

These ongoing conversations are not 
goal-oriented, but rather a way of life. The men 
of the village do gather in specifically convened 
meetings (lekgotlas or imbizos) as necessary, 
where they come to an overview of what is going 
on in the village and take decisions.  But this 
is only a small part of the village conversation. 
The women, youth and families converse outside 
and influence the conversation that takes place 
at the lekgotla.

When conversations happen, it is always with an 
engrained awareness that these are not just 
individuals communicating. Each person is 
connected to a family, a community, and a group 
of ancestors. They represent a larger whole. They 
do not just speak for themselves and interact on 
their own behalf.

Communication is not only direct and verbal. 
Art, drama, drumming, and song are used as ways 
to communicate, especially about things that may 
be difficult to confront. Women in particular may 
compose a new song to communicate what is going 
on for them.  The community is in some ways even 
architecturally designed for conversation and 
meeting.  The houses are circular, the fireplace 
is circular, the houses in relation to each other 
make up a circle.   The conversation is embedded 
in the physical space.

The Lekgotla

The Lekgotla process of Botswana is likely to be 
the most well-documented African council process 
of Southern Africa.  It is often criticised these 
days because it has to be convened by the Chief 
and only includes the men of the village, but 
many argue that there are other ways for the 
women and youth to get their issues across to the 
Lekgotla.  (In Venda culture, apparently the 
final decisions must still pass by the matriarch 
of the village.) For our purposes, we feel it is 
useful to draw lessons from this process even for 
dialogues across genders, though it may be 
inappropriate to label such dialogues "Lekgotla".

In the village, the decision to convene the 
Lekgotla is not necessarily transparent.  The 
chief's councellors play a role of listening in 
the community and paying attention to issues as 
they arise. When something is building up they 
bring it to the Lekgotla to make sure that 
conversation happens as early as possible before 
a conflict escalates.

A Lekgotla is always held in the open air, 
because the outdoors belongs to no one.  This 
provides a sense of freedom, openness and 
invitation to people to attend and speak 
honestly.   There is also no time limit on the 
process.  It may go on for days or even weeks 
until the issues being addressed have reached 
resolution.  According to Nomvula 
Dlamini,"People's lives unfolded into time.  Time 
wasn't imposed on people's lives."  This is a 
whole different conception of time to that of the 
modern world, and it is a fundamental frame of 
mind.  Nomvula points out that this freedom from 
time restrictions enables participants to suspend 
judgment and be willing to listen to someone's 
point of view and story in context without 
rushing them.

The Lekgotla meets in a circle.  The circle 
represents unity, and the participants are aware 
that it is only if they are whole and united that 
they can address their problems.  The circle also 
ensures that they face each other and speak 
honestly to one another.  As they gather, they 
greet each person around the circle. They make 
sure that those who really matter to the process 
are present. Though they may be seated by rank 
and speak in order of a hierarchy, the emphasis 
is on every voice being heard equally.

The conversation is opened up.  Each person in 
turn talks about how the issue affects their 
lives directly. Nothing is seen as an isolated 
event. All the stories are heard in context, 
respectfully, and taking the time it needs to 
take.  The different orientation to time allows 
for a deeper quality of listening, and every 
voice is listened to and given equal weight. The 
same person won't speak twice or respond until 
they've heard the views of others. Silence is 
also an integral part of the conversation as in 
between each voice the words are allowed to sink 
in.  Emotion is expressed freely but 
constructively. The process enables each 
participant to reflect on and assess his own 
behaviour in relation to the community.

The Lekgotla is partly a court, passing judgment 
on conflicts, but can also be a more general 
gathering for conversations around the main 
issues facing the village. When resolving 
injustices, the focus is less on determining 
right and wrong or on punishment, and more on 
healing, restoration of relationships, and 
finding ways of moving on.   The accused is 
always heard, first in the process of clarifying 
what happened, but he is also given a chance to 
assess at the end whether he thinks the group's 
decision is fair and whether the rehabilitation 
and restoration he is being requested to 
undertake is within his means. He is never 

The group takes collective responsibility for the 
issues.  The solutions are explored meaningfully 
together, rather than imposed from one side, and 
the orientation is towards consensus and 
compromise. The community's collective need is at 
the center, above any individual's needs, and the 
concern is always what is best for the community. 
To the Western mind, this may sound oppressive, 
but in this culture it is not seen as sacrifice, 
because what is good for the collective is 
completely intertwined with what is good for the 
individual. The concept of freedom is that you 
should have the maximum degree of freedom as long 
as it is not at the expense of the freedom of 

Through the community's ongoing conversation 
there is a level of shared clarity around the 
principles and sense of right and wrong.  These 
principles are then applied through the 
deliberation at the Lekgotla to determine what 
should be done in the particular context.  There 
is no law outlining the standard punishment or 
regulations for each situation.

Drawing Lessons

Some of the deeply held worldviews behind the 
integral nature of conversation in a traditional 
African community may seem incompatible with 
modern life.  The idea that we are not first and 
foremost individuals but members of a community, 
and that we don't need to be slaves to the clock 
are difficult to practice in their entirety.  But 
exploring African culture can challenge our 
mindsets and it's certainly possible to draw 
inspiration and to see how the nature of our 
conversations changes if we try to shift our 

Many of the tools and processes in this 
collection have taken part of their inspiration 
from similar underlying views and cultural 
practices as those we know from the traditional 
African village described above. Some have found 
their inspiration directly from the soil of 
Africa, others from Native American traditions 
that share similar beliefs. Many of them share a 
return to circular time, to the people and the 
purpose for coming together being more important 
than timing and structure. Most of them make use 
of the circle as a way of coming together in an 
unbroken whole.

Many of the processes also recognise and work 
explicitly with story telling as a way of sharing 
inspired knowledge and building on memories of 
the best of what is and was. Dialogue is in many 
ways about creating a culture of coming together 
as a whole - letting each voice be heard, but in 
service of the community and the whole. Many of 
the methods that we are presenting seem to be 
coming back to much of what we already know from 
our own culture and history in Africa. And so 
while at first it may look inappropriate to be 
bringing in western methods to a place from which 
dialogue and conversation may have originated, 
there is something affirming in the way many of 
these methods are coming back to some of our very 
own roots.

One of the most important lessons is to 
appreciate the value of African rural culture, 
rather than seeing it as backward and in need of 
development. There is life and community 
available to us here, and these are among the 
most essential components of any meaningful and 
lasting positive change. Those of us who come 
from here, and who might even have grown up in a 
traditional rural setting, would do well to allow 
our memories of being together in community, in 
conversation - in all their different shapes and 
forms - to inspire us as we continue on our 
journey of facilitating groups, communities, 
organisations, or even nations in coming together 
in conversation.

As we continue into the description of a variety 
of dialogue methods, we invite you to hold these 
two perspectives from the last two sections: the 
foundations for dialogue, as we have experienced 
them through our work and experience, and our 
sense of what the African approach might be. We 
hope you will let both of these challenge you as 
you imagine what is possible in bringing people 
together in bold and possibly unusual ways for 
meaningful dialogue and discovery.

  Appreciative Inquiry

"Human systems grow toward what they persistently 
ask questions about." - David Cooperrider and 
Diana Whitney


Appreciative Inquiry is an approach and process 
which turns problem-solving on its head. Instead 
of finding the best ways to solve a pressing 
problem, it places the focus on identifying the 
best of what already is in an organisation or 
community, and finding ways of enhancing this to 
pursue dreams and possibilities of what could be.

Appreciative Inquiry orignates in the work of 
David Cooperrider. As a doctoral student in 1980 
Cooperrider made a shift in his approach from 
identifying and mapping what was and was not 
working at the Cleveland Clinic, which he was 
studying, to more specifically looking for those 
factors that contributed to the organisation's 
health and excellence. Recognising the power and 
change brought about simply from his shift in 
focus, he began to lay the first foundations for 
what is today Appreciative inquiry. He worked 
under the guidance of his advisor Dr. Suresh 
Srivastava, and the encouragement of clinic 
leaders who were seeing the potential of his 
approach for more widespread organisational 

A key underlying assumption of this approach is 
that the questions we ask influence the answers 
we find. Questions that can elicit strong 
positive responses can be more powerful in 
driving people towards a positive future. This 
approach allows people to work towards something 
that is energizing and inspiring instead of 
working to overcome something that is deficient 
and dysfunctional. In the process, they improve 
systems, organisations and communities.

Appreciative Inquiry is by its nature a 
cooperative process that collects, builds on and 
works with the strengths, life-giving forces and 
good news stories that are found in any community 
or organisation.

The main differences between problem solving and 
Appreciative Inquiry are illustrated below:

Problem solving Appreciative Inquiry "Felt need" 
& identification of problem Analysis of causes 
Analysis of possible solutions Action planning 
Assumes: Organisation is a problem to be solved 
What's in the way of what we want?

Deficit Thinking Appreciate & value the best of 
What Is Imagine: What Might Be Dialogue: What 
Should Be Create: What Will Be Assumes: 
Organisation is mystery to be discovered Front 
Door - what is it we ultimately want?

Possibility Thinking
There are four guiding principles:

1. Every system works to some degree; seek out 
the positive, life-giving forces and appreciate 
the best of what is. Ap-pre'ci-ate (verb): 
valuing; the act of recognizing the best in 
people or the world around us; affirming past and 
present strengths, successes, and potentials; to 
perceive those things that give life (health, 
vitality, excellence) to living systems;  to 
increase in value, e.g. the economy has 
appreciated in value

In-quire' (kwir) (verb): the act of exploration 
and discovery   to ask questions; to be open to 
seeing new potentials and possibilities 2. 
Knowledge generated by the inquiry should be 
applicable; look at what is possible and 
relevant. 3. Systems are capable of becoming more 
than they are, and they can learn how to guide 
their own evolution - so consider provocative 
challenges and bold dreams of "what might be." 4. 
The process and outcome of the inquiry are 
interrelated and inseparable, so make the process 
a collaborative one.

(Source: Appreciative Inquiry, An Overview - compiled by Kendy Rossi)
The AI process

As the below diagram shows, there are four main steps to the AI process.

  Although this is the typical depiction of the 
four D's of AI, there is actually an initial step 
of Defining the focus of inquiry. Doing this 
collaboratively is an incredibly important point 
of departure. And it is important to frame it as 
an affirmative topic, and not a problem 
statement. For example: "creating and sustaining 
high-quality cross gender work place 
relationships," is an affirmative topic, whereas 
"cutting incidents of sexual harrassment" is a 
problem statement.

Discovery - Appreciating and valuing the best of 
what is. This is a system-wide inquiry (through 
interviews and storytelling) into people's 
experience of the group, organisation or 
community, at its most vital and alive, 
reflecting on those highlights and clarifying 
what made those experiences possible. This is 
also known as identifying the positive core of a 
system. This phase includes clarifying those 
elements that people want to keep even as they 
(their organisation, community) change in the 
future, as well as identifying intriguing 
potentials for the future.

Dream - Envisioning "What might be". Together 
people build a vision of a future they want. They 
respond to their sense of what the world is 
calling them to become. They imagine that the 
best of "what is" forms the foundation for the 
way things are in the future. Questions in this 
phase include: "What does our positive core 
indicate that we could be?" "What are our most 
exciting possibilities?" "What is the world 
calling us to become?"

The four D's of Appreciative Inquiry Dream What 
might be? What is the world calling for? 
Envisioning results

Design What should be the ideal? Co-constructing 
Destiny How to empower, learnin and 
adjust/improvise? Sustaining Discovery What gives 
life? (The best of what is) The positive core 

Affirmative  topic choice The four D's of 
Appreciative Inquiry Design - In this phase, 
people determine "what should be," crafting an 
organisation or community in which the positive 
core is vibrant and alive. The design focus is 
placed on elements that can help bring the dreams 
to life, such as practices, structures, policies, 
technologies, etc. The work is to develop 
provocative propositions (bold ideal 
possibilities) and principles of design that 
integrate the positive core.

Destiny - This final phase takes the step towards 
creating the initiatives, systems or changes 
needed to make real the future as articulated in 
the design propositions. This phase can be done 
using Open Space to make the most of the 
creativity and insight of the people involved, 
and allowing self-selected groups to plan the 
next steps in the areas that they are most 
passionate about, and willing to take 
responsibility for. (See separate section on Open 
Space Technology).    The full AI Process

* Select focus area or topic(s) of interest * 
Conduct interviews designed to discover 
strengths, passions, unique attributes * Identify 
patterns, themes and/or intriguing possibilities 
* Create bold statements of ideal possibilities 
("Provocative Propositions") * Co-determine "what 
should be" (consensus re: principles & 
priorities) * Create "what will be"

The full process can be done in what is called an 
AI summit, including several hundred people 
coming together for 2-6 days. In an AI summit, 
the first phase (Discovery) always kicks off with 
personal interviews around several questions that 
elicit stories of highlights and strong positive 
experiences. This is followed by people working 
in smaller groups and teams, to map patterns and 
distil the positive core from the stories. 
Together they continue into envisioning "what 
might be" together, followed by co-constructing 
"what should be." In each of these phases there 
is continuous feedback to the whole, to enable 
the whole system to integrate what is happening 
in other groups.


Appreciative Inquiry can be used in several ways 
- one is using an AI summit as described above, 
where an organisation, community or any system 
comes together for 2-6 days to go through the 
full AI process with the aim to engage in a large 
scale change or developmental process. It could 
be strategic planning, community development, 
systems change, organisational redesign, vision 
development, or any other process in which there 
is a genuine desire for change and growth based 
on positive inquiry, and for allowing the voice 
of people at all levels of a system to be heard 
and included. Although this application can be 
seen as an isolated process, it is very much 
based on a way of being where organisations or 
communities can co-create a desired future 
building on the best of the past. The AI summit 
is often simply the beginning of a continuous 
process of examining and building on strengths 
and possibilities. These can include anywhere 
from 100 - 2000 people.

Secondly, Appreciative Inquiry can also be done 
without an AI summit as an on-going process of 
interviews and dialogues that take place 
throughout a system (organisation, community, 
city). The case below is an example of such a 

Finally the principles of AI can be integrated in 
simple yet powerful ways in most workshops and 
other gatherings, following its basic principle 
of asking appreciative questions, and working 
with storytelling as a powerful agent to engage 
and involve people. A simple guideline is to 
learn the art of asking appreciative questions 
that elicit compelling stories, and questions 
that help envision the future.

Case Example - The Imagine Movement

Partly excerpted from 'Imagine Chicago - Ten 
Years of Imagination in Action,' written by Bliss 
W. Browne and Shilpa Jain.

Imagine Chicago is part of a movement of 
imagination. It considers itself as a catalyst in 
this movement, supporting the sprouting of 
Imagine initiatives on six continents. While each 
Imagine effort is distinct, all the efforts share 
a few common convictions: that human beings can 
unite around shared meaning; that each person's 
contribution is vital to a flourishing community; 
and that creating a culture of public learning 
and civic engagement that connects generations 
and cultures is at the heart of self- and social 

Bliss Brown, the founder of Imagine Chicago, 
began in 1993 with a vision inspired by 
conversations with many well-known city pioneers 
and social innovators. She began to imagine a 
city: * where every citizen, young and old, 
applies their talents to create a positive future 
for themselves and their community.  * where hope 
comes alive in the flourishing and connecting of 
human lives.  * where young people and others 
whose visions have been discounted, develop and 
contribute their ideas and energy.

In seeking ways to bring the vision to life, she 
created what has today become Imagine Chicago. 
The initial project was an attempt to discover 
what gives life to the city, and at the same 
time, to provide significant leadership 
opportunities for youth, who most clearly 
represent the city's future.

During 1993-1994, the Imagine Chicago team 
initiated two parallel pilot processes of 
intergenerational civic inquiry as the starting 
point for a broad-based conversation about the 
future of the city of Chicago. They were: 1) a 
city-wide appreciative inquiry, and 2) a series 
of community-based and community-led appreciative 

The citywide interview process involved 
approximately 50 young people as interviewers. 
They interviewed about 140 Chicago citizens who 
were recognized by the Imagine Chicago team as 
"Chicago glue," including artists, politicians, 
business and civic leaders, and other young 
people. Over a period of many months, deep, 
one-on-one conversations took place between the 
adolescents and adults about the city's past and 
about visions of its future. Both youth and adult 
participants later described these conversations 
as "energizing," "rejuvenating," "and 

QUESTIONS (1993-1994)  1. How long have you lived 
in Chicago?  In this community?  a. What first 
brought your family here?  b. What is it like for 
you to live in this community? 2. When you think 
about the whole city of Chicago, what particular 
places, people or images represent the city to 
you?  3. Thinking back over your Chicago 
memories, what have been real high points for you 
as a citizen of this city?  4. Why did these 
experiences mean so much to you?  5. How would 
you describe the quality of life in Chicago 
today?  6. What changes in the city would you 
most like to see?  a. What do you imagine your 
own role might be in helping to make this happen? 
b. Who could work with you?  7. Close your eyes 
and imagine Chicago as you most want it to be in 
a generation from now.  What is it like?  What do 
you see and hear?  What are you proudest of 
having accomplished?  8. As you think back over 
this conversations, what images stand out for you 
as capturing your hopes for this city's future? 
9. What do you think would be an effective 
process for getting people across the city 
talking and working together on behalf of 
Chicago's future?

In the community-based pilots young leaders 
interviewed local community builders across 
different ethnic communities. All of the pilot 
interview projects broadened the participants' 
views of what was possible, both within 
themselves and within the city. The stories 
conveyed in these small group interviews were 
shared in a series of civic forums where Chicago 
citizens convened and began devising projects to 
bring about positive change in specific 
neighborhoods and public institutions.

The appreciative questions were clustered around 
three main stages of appreciative inquiry, which 
still today is the common organizing structure 
for all of Imagine Chicago's initiatives. This 
approach moves from idea to action in a 
generative cycle, which borrows its inspiration 
from the basic structure of appreciative inquiry: 
o Understand what is (focusing on the best of 
what is) - All of Imagine Chicago's work begins 
with and is grounded in asking open-ended and 
value-oriented questions about what is 
life-giving, what is working, what is generative, 
what is important. o Imagine what could be 
(working in partnerships with others) - New 
possibilities are inspired by interesting 
questions or stories, which stretch our 
understanding beyond what we already know. o 
Create what will be (translating what we value 
into what we do) - For imagination to lead to 
community change, it needs to be embodied in 
something concrete and practical - a visible 
outcome that inspires more people to invest 
themselves in making a difference. Imagine 
Chicago supports the creation of initiatives and 
programmes in partnership with local 
organisations and institutions.

All three processes feed into and out of each 
other; the interdependent relationship enables 
them to transform individual and community 
visions into realities.

  "For the twenty years we have been in Chicago, 
we have only been talking in our community 
organisation about survival. Now we have been 
asked what we have to contribute to the city.  It 
is an exciting question that we are now asking 
ourselves." - Filipino leader


Appreciative inquiry is particularly impactful 
with people who have been disempowered and are 
focusing too much on their deficiencies. It is an 
important contrast to the common approach of 
seeing people as "poor" and in need of "help" 
from the outside.  A general tendency in 
"development work" is to focus on deficiencies, 
survey needs, and seek to solve problems.  Not 
only does this mean we overlook some 
opportunities, but this approach also has a 
negative impact on the self-esteem and creativity 
of people involved.

We have used Appreciative Inquiry with rural 
people in Zimbabwe, and there has been an amazing 
shift as they begin to operate from a clearer and 
stronger sense of the wealth and wisdom they have 
as a community. When they discover that they can 
harness their own wealth in various forms they 
can break out of a scarcity and dependency 
mindset, which generates a sense of freedom and 
possibility, as well as creativity and 
self-esteem.  Their ability to imagine and plan 
for the future comes from an entirely different 
place of strength. Appreciative Inquiry in this 
context is related to other development tools 
such as the "community asset map" and "capacity 

On the other hand, Appreciative Inquiry can focus 
so entirely on the good, that it prevents a full 
view of a situation, and becomes illusory. It can 
also feel restrictive, as if only the positive is 
allowed in.  Our experience has been that when we 
bring in an appreciative approach it needs to go 
hand in hand with releasing what has been 
painful, or feels limiting. This could for 
example be by complementing it with circle 
dialogue, deep ecology work, scenario exercises 
or other tools. This is especially the case when 
working more intimately with a community over an 
extended period of time. Working appreciatively 
should not be about closing our eyes to the 
things we don't want to see.

Finally, Appreciative Inquiry is a great exercise 
in becoming aware of our questions and the impact 
that questions have on human thoughts and actions.


Cooperrider, David, Diana Whitney, and Jacqueline 
Stavros. Appreciative Inquiry Handbook: The First 
in a Series of AI Workbooks for Leaders of Change

Cooperrider, David and Diana Whitney. 
Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in 

Whitney, Diana, Amanda Trosten-Bloom and David 
Cooperrider.  The Power of Appreciative Inquiry: 
A Practical Guide to Positive Change

http://www.appreciative-inquiry.org http://www.imaginechicago.org
  Change Lab

The Change Lab is a multi-stakeholder dialogic 
change process. It is designed to generate the 
shared commitment and the collective insight 
needed to produce breakthrough solutions to 
complex social problems.

Each Change Lab is convened around a particular 
problem that appears to be stuck with no obvious 
solution in sight. It is convened by one or more 
organisations, that are committed to effecting 
change, and aware that they cannot solve this 
problem alone. The convener(s) brings together 
25-35 key stakeholders of the issue who somehow 
represent a "microcosm" of the problem system. 
These people need to be influential, diverse, 
committed to changing the system, and also open 
to changing themselves.

The process which these people move through 
together in the Change Lab draws inspiration from 
the "U-Process", a creative 'social technology'. 
The U-process was co-developed by Joseph Jaworski 
and Otto Scharmer, based on interviews with over 
150 innovators, scientists, artists, and 
entrepreneurs. In applying it, an individual or 
team undertakes three activities or movements:

1. Sensing the current reality of the system of 
which one is a part, carefully and in depth, by 
suspending judgment and redirecting one's vantage 
point to that of the whole system; 2. Presencing 
by letting go of past expectations and agendas, 
and reflecting to access one's "inner knowing" 
about what is going on and what one has to do; 
and  3. Realising, acting swiftly to bring forth 
a new reality, through prototyping, piloting and 
institutionalising new behaviours, activities, or 

While the U-Process is an archetypal change 
process that can be applied at an individual or 
collective level, the Change Lab is specifically 
for multi-stakeholder problem-solving. Overview 
of a Change Lab

  In the Change Lab, the stakeholders go through a 
series of activities together, associated with 
each movement of the U-Process.

In Sensing, they transform the way they perceive 
the problem. They are trained in, and practice, 
an approach to dialogue interviewing which is 
intended to uncover the systemic issues around 
the problem and the deeper motivations of 
stakeholders. They share their diverse stories 
about the problem and seek to genuinely 
understand each other's frame of reference. They 
surface their shared body of knowledge, and 
formulate the 'problem space' and the 'solution 
space' in multiple iterations. Most importantly, 
they participate in experiential "learning 
journeys" - visits to affected communities and 
organisations - during which they immerse 
themselves directly in the field of the problem 
at hand.

In Presencing, the participants usually spend 
time in silence. The Presencing aspect of the 
Change Lab often involves a "wilderness solo", a 
reflective period of time spent alone in nature. 
This is a powerful practice to enable the 
capacities of presencing: letting go and letting 
come. While the Sensing experience may have 
overwhelmed them with complexity and information, 
the Presencing experience is about returning to 
simplicity, creating emptiness, and connecting to 
what really matters. In focus is uncovering 
shared purpose and connecting to their deeper 
will: what do they each deep down want to do 
about this issue?

In Realising they crystallise insights in terms 
of the basic characteristics that need to define 
a new system as well as creative ideas for 
breakthrough solutions. These ideas are now 
translated into "prototypes" - "mock-up" versions 
of the solution that can be tested first with the 
Lab Team and then with a wider group of 
stakeholders.  The prototyping process is about 
going beyond writing up the idea in a document to 
trying to create an experience of the initiative 
for people.  It is also about taking a more 
emergent approach which allows a constant 
adaptation of the initiative in conversation with 
the context.  This is in contrast to a more 
traditional approach where the activities of 
planning and implementation are separate in time 
and space. The prototyping approach enables team 
members to build, test, improve, and re-test 
interventions in the real world.

Innovations which, on the basis of this 
prototyping, hold the greatest promise for 
effecting systemic change, are then developed 
into pilot projects. Finally, these pilots are 
scaled up, mainstreamed, and institutionalized 
with support from committed government, business, 
and civil society partners.


The Change Lab is intended to address problems that are complex in three ways:

- Dynamically: cause and effect are far apart in 
space and time, resulting in the need for a 
systemic solution;

- Generatively: the future is unfamiliar and 
undetermined, and traditional solutions aren't 
working, resulting in the need for a creative 

- Socially: no single entity owns the problem and 
the stakeholders involved have 
diverse-potentially entrenched and 
antagonistic-perspectives and interests, 
resulting in the need for a participative 

Because of the level of complexity being 
addressed and the scope and scale of these 
problems, the full Change Labs are often run over 
a period of several years requiring investment of 
significant time, attention, and financial 
resources.  However, it is possible to run 
shorter and condensed versions of a few days to a 
few months, and still have a remarkable impact. 
It also has both global and local applications.

Generon Consulting, which is the key organisation 
behind the Change Lab, runs these processes both 
within organisations and across organisations, 
but we are focusing here on the work in the 
cross-sector, multi-stakeholder approach.  In 
this situation, if you are trying to convene a 
microcosm of a system across sectors, it is 
important to be aware of whether parties from all 
three of these sectors are willing to be 
involved. If the key actors needed in order to 
construct a "microcosm" of the system cannot be 
convened and committed, the Change Lab may not be 
the right approach.

Case Example: The Sustainable Food Lab [primarily 
exerpted from the SFL website at 

The purpose of the Sustainable Food Laboratory 
(SFL) is to create innovations that make food 
systems more economically, environmentally, and 
socially sustainable - in other words, profitable 
and affordable, in balance with nature, and good 
for producer and consumer communities.  The 35 
members of the SFL Team first gathered at a 
"Foundation Workshop" in the Netherlands in June 
2004. Together they make up a microcosm of the 
stakeholders in global food supply chains: 
farmers, farm workers, processors, wholesalers, 
retailers, consumers, representatives of 
government agencies, activists, financiers, 
researchers and others. They are primarily from 
Europe, the United States and Brazil. 
Individually, each of the team members has a 
proven track record as an innovator, has both 
on-the-ground experience with and a bird's-eye 
perspective of food systems; and is passionate, 
entrepreneurial, and influential.

Each of the team members was frustrated by what 
he or she has been able to accomplish working 
only in his or her own organization and sector. 
In joining the Lab, they committed to 40 days or 
more of work over two years, in whole team 
workshops, learning journeys and sub-team work on 
prototype and pilot projects. Through the SFL, 
they are now engaging in dialogue and action to 
achieve changes more ambitious than they could 
achieve separately.

The Process: After the Foundation workshop, each 
Lab Team member went on one of three five-day 
learning journeys in Brazil. When they had 
returned from and synthesized the results of 
their journeys, the whole team reconvened for a 
six-day Innovation Retreat. This process 
supported and informed their choices about 
initiatives which the participants started 
working on in sub-teams. At a subsequent meeting 
in Salzburg in April 2005, they prototyped the 
new initiatives, which are now being piloted. 
Each initiative is aimed, in some way, at 
creating sustainable food supply chains and 
bringing them into the mainstream. Recently the 
team reconvened for a mid-course review in Costa 
Rica.  At the final Venture Committee Meeting in 
the Spring of 2006, the Lab Team, Executive 
Champions, and other interested parties will 
review the results from the prototyping process 
and decide which initiatives will be taken to 
scale, how and with what resources, and by which 

The six initiatives that are currently being piloted are:

1. Linking sustainable food production from Latin 
American family farmers to global markets

2. Delivering high-quality nutrition from 
regional farmers to schools and hospitals

3. Building a business coalition for sustainable food

4. Creating sustainability standards for food 
commodities and related investment screens for 
food companies

5. Re-framing food sustainability for citizens, consumers, and policy makers

6. Increasing the sustainability of fish supply chains

The diagram below reflects the link between these 
initiatives and the overall map constructed by 
the SFL team to illustrate the linkages in the 
food system:

  SFL Systems Map

It is still early to document the results of the 
SFL initiatives, but it's clear that the Lab has 
generated new thinking, new relationships and 
strong partnerships across sectors, and has 
started shifting the global food system both by 
changing the participants and through the 
initiatives they are now busy carrying out.

The Change Lab has some key distinguishing strengths:

1. The approach is systemic. Throughout the 
Change Lab, participants are building "system 
sight".  They are defining the problem space and 
solution space in a systemic way, and as a 
microcosm of the system, they are also a 
reflection of the wider issue.

2. It is action-learning.  The Change Lab is a 
dialogic process and has dialogue embedded in it 
throughout.  But it is also an action process. 
It doesn't stop at the point where new ideas or 
insights have been generated.  The Lab Team stays 
together through piloting the new initiatives and 
continue to relate these initiatives back to the 
picture of the whole system, so the effort 
doesn't become fragmented.

3. The Change Lab is a process, more so than a 
tool.  It draws on 20 years of experimentation 
with different kinds of tools and integrates the 
best ones in various phases.  The  theme, 
pattern, and glue that holds these different 
tools together is the U-Process. This also means 
that the Change Lab is very flexible and can 
adapt around that core pattern.

There are a number of risks and challenges 
involved in convening a Change Lab as well. 
Working with stakeholders from a diversity of 
organisations and sectors and coordinating the 
different interests involved can slow the process 
down significantly. This can be exacerbated 
because the process is unfamiliar to many, and 
some of the practices may lead to resistance. In 
some cases, it helps to start with a "mini-Lab" - 
a 3-day miniature version of the Change Lab - to 
give participants a sense of what a larger 
process could achieve.

Generon Consulting's approach to the Change Lab 
is constantly evolving as experiences of applying 
it accumulate. Generon has a "Change Lab 
Fieldbook" available, a living document which 
contains many of the lessons learned to date, as 
well as both success factors and potential 
pitfalls of the process.  To request a copy email 
Mille [•••@••.•••]


Senge, Scharmer, Jaworski and Flowers. Presence: 
Human Purpose and the Field of the Future

Kahane, Adam. Solving Tough Problems.

http://www.glifood.org - Sustainable Food Lab 
http://www.dialogonleadership.org - Documentation 
of a series of rich and in-depth interviews with 
innovators in this field, conducted primarily by 
Otto Scharmer


For as long as humankind has been around, the 
circle has surely been with us. Human beings have 
naturally been gathering in circle, around the 
fire, sometimes in deep conversation, sometimes 
in the quiet space of simply being together. At 
its most essential level, the circle is a form 
that allows a group of people to slow down, 
practice deep listening, and truly think 
together. When practiced fully, it can be an 
embodiment of the root of the word dialogue: 
"meaning flowing through".

"Council" is another word, which expresses the 
promise of the circle. Imagine a circle of 
elders, passing a talking piece around one by 
one. Everyone's attention is on the person 
currently holding the piece, sharing his or her 
thoughts, perspectives, and wisdom. Each person's 
voice is valued and honoured. Long pauses of 
silence are an accepted part of the conversation.

People can meet in a circle as a once-off 
gathering, or coming together regularly over 
periods ranging from a few months to several 
years. In both these forms, and everything in 
between, the circle is in recent years making 
something of a comeback. From business executives 
in corporate boardrooms to community organizers 
in rural hinterlands, people are re-connecting 
with the value of sitting in circle.

Many of the processes described in this 
collection make use of chairs set up in a circle 
because it is generally the most suitable 
configuration for a dialogue. This section, 
however, looks specifically at Circle as a 
process in its own right, not only as a physical 
set up.  We draw here on the guidelines developed 
by Christina Baldwin of PeerSpirit.  Inspired by 
her exploration of Native American traditions, 
Christina wrote a book entitled "Calling the 
Circle", which has made a major contribution to 
re-introducing circle process and developing a 
set of practices that can help us to facilitate 
meaningful circle dialogues. These guidelines can 
be used in their entirety or held more lightly.

Three principles of circle

Three principles help shape a circle. They are: * 
Leadership rotates among all circle members. The 
circle is not a leaderless gathering - it is an 
all leader gathering.  * Responsibility is shared 
for the quality of experience.  * People place 
ultimate reliance on inspiration (or spirit), 
rather than on any personal agenda. There is a 
higher purpose at the centre of every circle. 

As with most of the tools and processes of good 
dialogue, the starting point is with the purpose 
and intention. The intention will determine who 
should be invited to join, when, where and for 
how long they will meet, as well as what 
questions they will focus on.

The clearer the intention and the stronger the 
commitment to it, the stronger the circle. There 
are leadership circles, where people gather to 
support each other in their respective leadership 
practice. There are also circles that come 
together to solve a specific challenge such as 
improving a programme in an organization, or 
working together to make a neighbourhood more 
safe.  It could be a group of workers coming 
together in circle with management to find the 
best way to deal with a need to retrench people, 
or even a group of homeless people joining 
members of a local church congregation to 
together come up with the best ways to support 
the homeless.

Sometimes a circle is more simply a tool used in 
a larger process during the course of a workshop, 
or as a weekly or monthly meeting in an 
organization, or community. In this case the 
intention is more informal - to share 
expectations, to connect with how each other is 
doing, and to surface and address any concerns or 
needs people may have.

The host

Although leadership is fully shared in circle, 
there will always be a host for the particular 
circle. Often the host is also the caller of the 
circle, but where a circle meets continuously 
over a longer period of time, the host role can 
change from circle meeting to circle meeting.

The host will ensure that the circle flows 
through its main phases and that the intention is 
at the centre of the dialogue. The host is often 
also responsible, with the "guardian" (see 
below), for the actual physical space. Special 
attention is paid to the physical centre of the 
circle - a colorful rug, some meaningful symbols 
or objects, and/or a plant may mark the centre of 
the circle and often represent the collective 
intention. This paying attention to the centre of 
a circle, brings with it a sense of the sacred, 
when people gather together around it. Something 
out of the ordinary is being invited in.

The Guardian

The Guardian is the person who pays special 
attention to the energy of the group, and that 
the group is not straying from the intention. The 
Guardian may interrupt during the course of the 
circle to suggest a break or a moment of silence.

Flow of a typical circle

Welcome. The welcome helps the group shift into 
circle space. A good welcome can be a poem, a 
moment of quiet, or a piece of music to help 
people fully arrive, and to become present to 
each other and their circle.

Check-in. One thing that distinguishes a circle 
from many other ways of coming together is the 
importance placed on bringing each voice into the 
room. The circle therefore begins with a check-in 
where each person has a chance to speak to how 
they are feeling, as well as sharing their 
expectations for the meeting that day. The host 
may pose a specific question for each person to 
respond to in the check-in. It is also not 
unusual to invite participants to place an object 
representing their hope for the circle in the 
centre, sharing a little about the object as they 
do so. The result is a meaningful visual 
representation of the group's collective hopes in 
the center.

Agreements. When any circle gathers, its members 
need to formulate guidelines or agreements on how 
they wish to be together. This is an important 
part of shared leadership, and everyone taking 
responsibility for their time together. An 
example of commonly used agreements of circle are:

o Listen without judgment o Offer what you can 
and ask for what you need  o Confidentiality - 
whatever is said in circle, stays in circle  o 
Silence is also a part of the conversation


At the end of a circle, similar to the check-in 
at the beginning, there is now a check-out for 
people to share where they are at. The focus of 
the check-out can be as diverse as each circle. 
It can be on what people have learned, how they 
are feeling about what transpired, or what they 
are committing to do moving forward from the 
circle.  Every participant usually speaks in the 
check-ins or check-outs unless they explicitly 
choose not to.

Forms of Council

The circle is well known for the use of the 
talking piece. The talking piece is passed around 
the circle, with the person holding it being the 
only one to talk. The talking piece can be 
anything - an object from nature, a photograph, a 
pen, or even a cellphone. Some people think 
circle is only about working with talking piece 
council, but this is just one tool of the circle. 
Often the check-in is done with a talking piece, 
but then people can move into talking without it.

This is called conversation council, where anyone 
who has something to say speaks. When people have 
been using circle for a while, even in 
conversation council, the practice is ingrained 
to not interrupt someone, and to let each person 
finish before a new person begins.

Sometimes this conversation does speed up a 
little too much, and the centre - or calm - is 
lost. This is where the Guardian, or anyone who 
feels the need, can call the circle into 
reflection, or silent council, where everyone is 
silent for a while, letting things settle, before 
continuing either with the talking piece or in 
conversation council.

Three Practices

Essentially the circle is a space for speaking 
and listening, reflecting together and building 
common meaning. Three practices have been 
clarified, which can be useful to help people 
come into a higher quality of attention:  o Speak 
with intention: noting what has relevance to the 
conversation in the moment.  o Listen with 
attention: respectful of the learning process all 
members of the group.  o Tend the well-being of 
the circle: remaining aware of the impact of our 


As mentioned earlier, the Circle is the most 
fundamental form of human organising, and in that 
sense, it is of course used all over the world, 
and has been for millennia.  Christina Baldwin's 
work in particular also has quite a global reach. 
She has done trainings in Europe, North America, 
and Africa, and frequently emails out "Peer 
Spirit Tales" of how the circle is being used in 
different settings.  An initiative launched in 
collaboration with the Berkana Institute, called 
"From the Four Directions" led to the launching 
of numerous leadership circles in North America, 
Europe, and, to a lesser degree, beyond.

The Circle is good for: o Enabling a group to 
connect more intimately o Creating equality among 
people who are at different levels in a group, 
organization or community - giving equal value to 
each person, and requiring everyone to 
participate o Slowing people down and allowing 
them to think together

There is a lot of power in using the circle for a 
group meeting over a period of time, but it is 
also valuable to bring depth to a process or 
workshop by including circle check-ins and 
reflections during the course of the gathering.

Case Example - Kufunda Village

At Kufunda Village - a learning centre focusing 
on rural community development in Zimbabwe - the 
circle has become a core part of the work with 
communities as well as the way the centre itself 
is run. Every time the centre does its 
evaluations of its programmes, or of the work in 
the communities themselves, the circle comes up 
as a key factor of success. People seem to 
connect fully with it, perhaps because it is a 
part of the traditional culture.

"The circle - we were brought up there. Round the 
fire was where conversation took place. Every 
evening we would sit around the fire, and talk." 
- Silas, Kufunda Village

At its simplest, there is a daily morning circle 
during community programmes in which each person 
checks in with how they are feeling around the 
programme, key learnings that survived the night 
and hopes and expectations for the day. The 
effect of using the circle with rural community 
organisers is that, where it might typically have 
been primarily adult men who would contribute, 
here everyone speaks.  Slowly but surely, they 
build the confidence and naturalness of each 
person to contribute fully to everything that is 
done together. At the end of several programmes, 
men express their surprise at how much they have 
been able to learn in honest conversation with 
women (in the Shona system women and men often 
confer separately), or the elders from youth. The 
circle is taken back home to the communities that 
Kufunda works with, and it has become a natural 
way of meeting for all of the partner 
communities, allowing for the voice of the youth 
and the Chief alike to be expressed.

At Kufunda, a monthly team retreat day, where 
circle is used a lot (though not only) brings the 
team together in a more intimate way, giving 
space for people to express and work through 
concerns, needs or new ideas that may not make 
their way to the group during daily business.

Each team at Kufunda, meeting weekly, begin and 
end all their meetings with a talking piece check 
in, and check out. It means that people don't 
dive straight into business, but allow themselves 
to arrive and connect with each other, before 
getting into work. The check-out usually allows 
for reflection on how people are feeling about 
what was covered or decided. In times when the 
team struggles with misunderstandings, dedicated 
circle work has been invaluable in clearing the 
air - through a practice of truth-telling, 
choosing to listen without interrupting and 
jumping to defense. These are all aspects which 
the circle help promote.

The following list is a reflection on what the 
circle means both to Kufunda's employees and 
community partners from a series of evaluations 

- The circle brings a sense of belonging - 
Everyone contributes - Everyone is a leader - 
People speak from the heart - Silence is ok - It 
takes you out of your comfort zone - It disrupts 
hierarchy  - It connects people - It is 
intimidating - It is liberating - Everybody's 
voice is heard - It is effective in conflict - 
The circle is regulated by guidelines created by 
the group - It fosters equality

Another example of a powerful use of circle is in 
the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Essential to the 
AA model are weekly meetings of alcoholics to be 
in dialogue and reflection together, bearing 
witness to each person's challenges and progress. 
At these meetings people can ask for help with 
personal problems in staying sober, and they get 
this help from the experience and support of 
others like them. There is no hierarchy, but it 
is rather a place to create a community of 
support for people who all share a desire to stop 
drinking and stay sober. It is a place where 
people can show up as who they are, letting their 
masks down, and not needing to hide their fear.

There are open and closed AA meetings. The closed 
meetings are the ones that most resemble circle 
as we've described it here. AA is sometimes 
ridiculed by those distant from it, but in 
reality, it is a very effective and creative 
organisation. The relationships and capacities 
people build at AA often turn out to be lifelong 
and relevant in a much broader range of 


In our experience, up to 30 people (max 35) can 
be in a circle together. With 8-15 people one is 
able to go much deeper. It can also be used in 
larger processes, breaking the group into several 
circles. For this it does need someone familiar 
with the basics of circle to facilitate each 
group initially.

Another variation if the group is large can be to 
use the "fishbowl", or what is known as "Samoan 
Circles".  Here, participants are divided between 
an inner circle and an outer circle, with only 
the inner circle speaking and the outer circle 
listening. The inner circle can either be 
representative of the whole group, or of a 
sub-grouping, and sometimes it is set up so that 
people can move in between the inner and outer 
circles. This process is particularly useful when 
issues are controversial, or if the group is 

For many who are not used to the circle, the 
slowness of the conversation and thinking can be 
frustrating. With time most people learn to value 
and appreciate the gifts of slowing down 
together, to really listen to each other. 
Generally, people who tend to be less vocal and 
less powerful will appreciate the circle 
immensely because they are given the space to 
speak, while those who are used to dominating a 
conversation will be more frustrated.

It's worth noting that Social Science research 
has actually been done to show that the first 
person to speak can have a large influence on 
what is said and the direction the conversation 
takes.  The circle seems particularly prone to 
this dynamic.  This can be useful, but it can 
also be problematic. The way around it is to give 
people time to reflect in silence and collect 
their own thoughts before people start to speak. 
In general, the host should be aware that while 
the circle has a great equalising influence on a 
group, informal power dynamics still exist, and 
can influence the conversation.

Finally, there are rituals connected to some 
circle practitioners, which can be off-putting to 
some. The circle can be used in as ceremonial or 
as bare-bones a way as one wants.

Baldwin, Christina. Calling the Circle

http://www.peerspirit.com http://www.fromthefourdirections.org Deep Democracy


There are a variety of reasons why people in a 
group may not be saying what they really think. 
Perhaps it is considered taboo, politically 
incorrect, or too sensitive, or they may just 
feel that they will never actually be heard and 
able to influence the majority view of the group. 
Deep Democracy is a facilitation methodology 
which is based on the assumption that there is a 
wisdom in the minority voice and in the diversity 
of viewpoints, which has value for the whole 
group.  The approach helps to surface and give 
expression to what is otherwise left unsaid.

Deep Democracy was developed by Myrna Lewis in 
South Africa with her late husband Greg Lewis 
based on 15 years of intense work in the private 
and public sectors.  It is closely related to, 
and draws on, Arnold Mindells' process-orientated 
psychology and "worldwork", but offers a more 
structured and accessible set of tools.

Picture an iceberg.  Generally, only 10% of the 
iceberg is above the waterline, while 90% is 
concealed in the depths of the ocean and not 
visible.  Many psychologists use this as a 
metaphor for the conscious and unconscious of 
human beings.  Only a part of what drives us is 
conscious while the bulk of it is unconscious. 
Similarly, in a group coming together for some 
purpose, there are aspects that are conscious to 
the whole group and aspects that are in the 
group's unconscious. The group's unconscious will 
often be reflected in the one-on-one and small 
group conversations that happen outside the 
formal meetings, in hints and jokes, in the 
excuses people make for being late or not doing 
what they were supposed to, and in unexpressed 
emotions and opinions.

Much of our work is comfortably done above the 
surface in the realm of the conscious.  But 
sometimes there are underlying emotional dynamics 
that continuously block us from moving forward, 
from solving a problem or coming to a decision. 
In this situation, Deep Democracy is designed to 
bring these issues to the surface and facilitate 
their resolution.  The idea is that the group's 
highest potential and wisdom is hidden in the 
depths and will be brought out by surfacing what 
is in the unconscious.

If issues in the group's unconscious have built 
up over time because of a lack of open 
communication, the group may have to go through a 
conflict process to release them.  Conflict here 
is seen not as something to be avoided, but as an 
opportunity for learning and change. The earlier 
a conflict is expressed and spoken about in the 
open, the less painful it will be.

A key aspect of Deep Democracy is that the 
process focuses on roles and relationships rather 
than on individuals.  We normally think of 
"roles" as social roles, jobs, or positions.  In 
Deep Democracy, a role can be anything expressed 
by a person, for example, an opinion, idea, 
emotion, physical sensation, or an archetypal 
role like the parent/ the child, the teacher/ the 
student, the oppressor/ the victim, the helper/ 
the needy, and so on.  A role is usually held by 
more than one individual, and an individual 
usually holds more than one role in the group. 
The most personal is linked to the universal, in 
that each person actually deep down has the 
capacity and potential to express any role. S/he 
has both an individual identity as well as access 
to the overall pattern and knowledge of the whole.

A system will tend to be healthier if roles are 
fluid and shared.  If one person is alone in a 
role, it becomes a burden to that person. If 
roles are too fixed, the organisation or group 
isn't growing. In Deep Democracy, the role of the 
facilitator is to help people make the roles more 
fluid, to become aware of themselves, each other, 
and their interdependence, and through that to 
access their wisdom.  The facilitator is trying 
to help the group to "lower the waterline" of 
their iceberg.

The first four steps

There are five steps to Deep Democracy.  The 
first four make up a unique approach to 
decision-making and take place "above the 

1. Don't practice majority democracy. Traditional 
majority democracy will take a vote and then move 
forward with a decision. But the idea that the 
minority will just go along happily with the 
majority decision is actually a myth. In Deep 
Democracy, the decision with a majority vote is 
not the end point. The minority voice is 
encouraged to express itself. Don't settle for 
the vote.  2. Search for and encourage the "no". 
The facilitator needs to make it "safe" for 
people to express their dissent, and not feel 
afraid to say "no". The minority view is 
encouraged and given permission to speak.  3. 
Spread the "no". Once the "no" has been 
expressed, other participants are asked if they 
agree with the "no" even if only in part. People 
are encouraged to express agreement with the 
"no". This process avoids scapegoating and people 
being singled out and ostracised for disagreeing. 
4. Access the wisdom of the "no". When the 
majority have decided to go in a certain 
direction, the minority is asked "what do you 
need to go along with the majority?"  This is not 
a second chance for the minority to say "no". 
The minority will add wisdom and elaborate on the 
decision by qualifying it with what they need to 
come along. This helps the group come to a more 
conscious decision.

This decision-making process is an unusual 
attempt to get a decision where the minority 
actually comes along and buys into a decision. It 
looks like a consensus but is not exactly the 
same. In many situations this decision-making 
process will be enough, if there is not too much 
baggage or underlying conflict behind the 
decision. If decisions are taken in this way, the 
minority will feel heard, the group will be more 
conscious about why it's doing what it's doing, 
and conflicts will be settled early before they 
become painful.

Below the waterline

Sometimes it is not enough to stay above the 
surface.  When resistance to a decision 
continues, when people keep having the same small 
arguments, when they start "sounding like a 
broken record", when they feel unheard, or are 
being very indirect, there is a need to go "under 
the waterline", and move into the 5th step of 
Deep Democracy. This is done through a process 
whereby the facilitator "turns up the volume" on 
a conversation.  When a participant speaks in a 
way that is indirect, the facilitator goes in and 
speaks for that person, amplifying what they are 
saying, making it more direct and taking out the 
politeness.      The facilitator in effect 
becomes an instrument for the group.  The 
participants talk directly to one another, rather 
than talking at the facilitator. The facilitator 
is making the message clear and direct, which 
gives people something to respond to. Ideally, 
she is not adding meaning, but literally speaking 
on the participant's behalf.  It's like putting 
an electrical charge on the words, and looking 
for a reaction from other participants. 
Participants are always made aware that they can 
correct the facilitator if she gets it wrong.

In order to do this amplification, the 
facilitator needs to apply a set of "metaskills" 
- attitudes and behaviours with which the 
facilitation skill or tool is used.  The two most 
important ones are neutrality and compassion. 
The facilitator needs to not be judging what 
people are saying as good or bad, and to really 
support people in the totality of their 
experience. This can for the facilitator require 
a lot of "inner" work on her own personal 
awareness, so that she can come into the group 
centred and still without her own baggage.

If the discussion becomes polarised through the 
amplification, the group may decide to actually 
go into a conflict.  This is always made as a 
very conscious agreement, and participants are 
told to remember that the purpose of the conflict 
is growth and about remaining in relationship. 
It is not about winning a battle.  In a Deep 
Democracy conflict, all participants agree to 
express themselves fully and to own their own 
side completely.  This is different from many 
other forms of conflict resolution where 
participants are encouraged to focus on trying to 
understand the other side or point of view first.

During the conflict, the participants are 
explicitly requested not to express 
defensiveness, but must take turns getting 
everything off their chest.  When a conflict 
starts to be resolved, you generally find that 
the different sides start saying the same thing. 
They become more silent and contemplative.  At 
this point, each participant is requested to 
share at least one personal learning - a grain of 
truth that they have received from the conflict. 
The wisdom from these grains of truth is taken 
back to the initial issue the group was trying to 


Deep Democracy is a relatively young process, but 
is spreading quite rapidly. In South Africa it 
has been used in corporate settings as well as in 
schools, with hiv/AIDS councellors, and in youth 
groups. Myrna Lewis is currently training Deep 
Democracy facilitators from a number of countries 
including the UK, the US, Denmark, Israel, 
France, Ireland, and Canada.

The key strength of Deep Democracy is in 
recognising the important role that emotional 
dynamics can play and in incorporating wisdom 
into decision-making. Deep Democracy is most 
useful in situations where: things are unsaid and 
needing to be brought into the open; people are 
stuck in roles and conflict may be arising; there 
is a diversity of views in a group, and different 
sides to an issue need to be considered; power 
differences are affecting people's freedom to 
act; there is a need to gain the buy-in of a 
minority; and/or, people are being labeled by 

Case Example - Immigration in Denmark and the Topic of Honour

Immigration is currently one of the most 
politicised problems in Denmark.  As an issue, it 
is having an impact on how elections fall out, 
and not a day goes by when it is not covered in 
the news.  In particular, there is an emphasis on 
the conflict between the Muslim culture of many 
immigrants and the mainstream Danish culture.

In May 2005, a group of 20 people gathered in 
Copenhagen, Denmark to learn about Deep 
Democracy.  About a quarter of the group were 
non-Danish residents, while the rest were Danish 
citizens, half of whom were ethnically Danish and 
the other half second-generation immigrants or of 
mixed ethnicity.  The group was asked by the 
facilitator to make a decision together on what 
they would like to talk about. Two participants 
self-selected to facilitate the decision-making 
process. One of them started by immediately 
saying he wanted to speak about the issue of 
"honour". He was working with youth of an 
immigrant background and found that they often 
justify violence with an excuse that someone has 
breached their honour.  He wanted to understand 
what that was about and how to deal with it to 
stop the violence.

Participants "cycled" around wanting or not 
wanting to discuss this topic. One person, a non- 
Dane, said that the issue of honour was entirely 
irrelevant to him in his work.  Another person 
suggested that the group should rather discuss 
immigration issues, seemingly unaware that the 
honour question was at the very heart of 
immigration issues.  It was the moment when 
someone personalised the issue, sharing that he 
had felt a breach of honour in relation to 
another participant, the group decided to go into 
a facilitated conflict.

Through the conflict, some participants gained 
awareness of their own racism and privilege while 
others became aware that they had been in a 
victimhood mentality and not taking 
responsibility.  It turned out that some of the 
immigrant participants felt that the Danes had 
left honour behind generations ago and didn't 
understand why honour was important in Muslim 
cultures.   Part of what was striking about this 
process is that Danish culture has in the past 
been, and seen itself as, very generous towards 
immigrants. The space in which immigrants could 
be allowed to criticise Danish culture, and speak 
openly about their concerns is never created 
partly because this would be seen as ungrateful.

Following the conflict where both sides had been 
allowed to speak their mind, each participant 
owned a "grain of truth". The following day, 
there was a deep understanding towards each other 
in the group, and a sense of joint endeavour and 
desire to collaborate around working to improve 
the cultural clashes in the broader society. As 
one participant reflected afterwards, 
"Immigration is such a burning issue for us in 
Europe and this was the first time I experienced 
an honest and open conversation about the issue 
where everything that needed to be said was said 
and we were all stronger for it."    Commentary

Deep Democracy is obviously quite an unusual 
process.  We are used to trying to avoid or 
contain conflict, polarisation, and disagreement. 
Instead Deep Democracy invites it in, and at 
times even provokes it.  The result, when this 
process works at its best, is a lively openness 
and transparency and a very powerful 
strengthening of relationships and collaboration. 
Participants may go through a process where a 
large part of the time is spent in discussion 
that is antagonistic and polarising, and yet feel 
afterwards as if they have experienced a deep 
heartfelt and empathetic dialogue.

It's important to recognise that when Deep 
Democracy encourages conflict, it is based on an 
assumption that conflict is already present and 
actually inevitable. But sadly, conflict is often 
contained until it is too late to do anything 
about it or for it to be resolved peacefully. 
The idea here is to try to bring it on as early 
as possible so that it will be less painful and 
explosive and more generative and 
transformational.  This is done by helping people 
to express themselves honestly to each other 
through the facilitation tools of the five steps.

In our view, it's vital to have a well-trained 
and experienced facilitator when working with 
Deep Democracy, especially in groups where the 
stakes are high. This is probably the tool in 
this collection which takes the most in-depth 
training to be able to facilitate, and it is 
never mastered completely.  Even with a good 
facilitator, Deep Democracy is usually at first a 
frustrating experience for participants.  This is 
part of the experience, but it just makes it all 
the more important that the facilitator is 
confident and clear on what they are doing and 

The value of Deep Democracy in relation to 
dialogue facilitation is as much the philosophy 
and assumptions behind it as the specific tools. 
There are some simple tips from Deep Democracy 
thinking which are useful for any group dialogue 
process. In particular, we find the idea of 
"spreading the no" and not letting participants 
get stuck in a role very useful. Rather than 
following the tendency of answering criticism and 
singling people out in a group, invite the 
critical voice in by asking if anyone else shares 
that viewpoint.  When there is dissent to the 
direction in which a group is going, ask "what 
would it take for you to come along?"

Resources http://www.deep-democracy.net  Future Search

Future Search brings the "whole system" into the 
room to look at the past, present and future 
experiences of participants, through a 
task-focused agenda. The design is based on the 
intention to have all participants take ownership 
of this past, present and future, thereby finding 
common ground for collective future action. A 
Future Search conference has a specific theme 
which all stakeholders work on over a 3-day 
process. An important principle of the process 
depends on all the participants accepting an open 
invitation to spend a few days together in an 
explorative process.

Future Search was designed by Marvin Weisbord and 
Sandra Janoff as a process where diverse groups 
of people with a stake in a community or 
organization can plan their future together. They 
have written a book called Future Search which 
explains the process in detail, and is summarized 
in this short overview.

A Future Search process has a specific structure 
to follow, which has been designed  and evolved 
based on the experience of hundreds of similar 
gatherings. The process would typically bring 
together 60-70 participants. This number works on 
the principle of bringing the "whole system" into 
the room, by selecting at least 8 stakeholder 
groups, who are equally represented by 
approximately 8 participants each. The agenda 
works through the following steps:

* Review of the past * Explore the present * 
Create ideal future scenarios * Identify common 
ground * Make action plans

The Process

The Future Search process recommends that the 
agenda includes at least 2 "sleep-overs", and 
spans over three days. A typical Future Search 
agenda would look as follows:

Day 1, Afternoon (1-5pm)

* Focus on the past: Mixed groups sit, share life 
stories and discuss milestones which they have 
experienced over a specified number of years. 
Each person from these groups then plots their 
experiences on massive flipcharts on the walls, 
which have been divided into categories of 
society/self. The end result will be a long row 
of experiences which have filled flipcharts on 
the wall. This gives everyone in a room a sense 
of the collective past experiences, and the 
parallels between individual trajectories and 
societal trajectories.

* Focus on present, future trends: The whole 
group together now reviews trends which currently 
affect our lives and communities. These 
experiences are documented by the facilitator 
onto a "mindmap". After these have been put onto 
the mindmap, participants are given stickers of 
colored dots to "vote" which trends they feel are 
most important. The session ends here, and gives 
participants the opportunity to reflect on this 
overwhelming diagram of complexity overnight.

Example of Mindmap above with sticker dots
Day 2, Morning (8:30am-12:30pm)

* Continued - trends: The larger group is now 
divided into their stakeholder groups (around 
similar interests/context). These stakeholder 
groups review the trends and decide which ones 
are important and which they want to take 
ownership for.

* Focus on present, owning our actions: Each 
stakeholder group then discusses which of their 
group's contributions to these trends they feel 
proud of or sorry about. This is where each 
stakeholder group takes personal responsibility 
for the current issues at hand. The groups 
present their "prouds" and "sorries" to the 
bigger group, which relates to the trends they 
have been prioritising.

Day 2, Afternoon (1:30-6pm)

* Ideal future scenarios: The group returns to 
their mixed groups from the day before. The 
purpose of this exercise is to imagine their 
desired future 10-20 years from now, and act out 
this scenario to the bigger group as if it is 
happening today. It is important to encourage the 
groups to think with their minds, bodies and 
emotions, tapping into unconscious aspirations. 
They also need to highlight which barriers they 
overcame from the time of the Future Search up 
until the time of the scenario.

* Identify common ground: Once these scenarios 
have been acted out, the mixed groups highlight 
what the common future themes are that have 
emerged. They also look at potential projects or 
strategies which will help them get to these 
futures. Finally, they note what disagreements 
still remain.

Day 3, Morning (8:30am-1pm)

* Continued - confirming common ground: The whole 
group reviews the lists from the previous 
afternoon. A discussion is facilitated to try to 
understand what each statement means, and whether 
or not there is agreement. If there is no 
agreement, then it is noted, and the group moves 
on. This exercise also explores the tension 
between the actual and the ideal. The group needs 
to decide whether they want to delve further into 
the conflict areas or focus on the common ground 
already created within the limited time remaining.

* Action-planning: Participants now have the 
opportunity to invite others interested in a 
particular project or theme to join them in 
action-planning. This process is similar to "Open 
Space", explained in a separate section, and the 
purpose is to encourage people to work across 
boundaries in addressing these themes. These 
groups then report back, highlighting how this 
information will be implemented and disseminated, 
and then the conference is closed.

Conditions required for a successful future search conversation
1. The "whole system" needs to be in the room.

Future Searches only work if "the whole system" 
is in the room. It is critical that as many key 
stakeholders of an issue are present in the room 
and that the different voices of a "whole system" 
are contributing. Diverse perspectives allow new 
relationships to be built, and a stakeholder can 
learn more about itself and the world by 
interacting with other constituencies.

If there is only part of the story being told by 
a group of people who normally interact with each 
other, a collective future cannot be envisioned, 
and a Future Search can't work.

2. The "Big Picture" as context to local action.

To get participants on the same wavelength, it is 
important to get everyone talking about the same 
world. Therefore it is important for the group to 
describe this world in as much detail as possible 
before doing anything about it. The conference 
therefore starts by exploring the "global trends".

3. Exploring current reality and common futures, not problems and conflicts

Future searches delve into future scenarios, 
rather than problem-solving or conflict 
management. The process acknowledges differences, 
but does not work through them, as the purpose of 
the meeting isn't about team-building. Common 
ground is the backdrop for planning in this 

4. Self-managed explorations and action plans

Self-managed groups are used throughout the 
process, reducing passivity, hierarchy and 
dependency on facilitators. The intention is to 
shift control from external facilitators.  Small 
groups are recommended to rotate roles of 
facilitator, reporter and timekeeper.

5. Attending the whole meeting

It is important that every participant be 
involved in the shifts which change their 
perspective on what needs to be done, and to 
build common ground. For this to work, everyone 
needs to be there for the whole meeting. It is 
also discouraged to have non-participants or 
observers present.

6. Meeting under healthy conditions

As has been highlighted in the introduction to 
this toolkit, good food and a healthy atmosphere 
with natural light help people's energy and 
ability to concentrate. The space should be easy 
to move around and have the flexibly to change 
for small or large groups, with lots of wall 
space for flipcharts.

7. Working across 3 days

It is not the amount of time which is important, 
but the space to absorb the learning over 2 
nights which is a benefit. We assume that the 
unconscious works on unfinished business 
overnight, which is how the programme is designed.

8. Taking responsibility publicly for follow-up

Having people select the action groups they sign 
up for and to publicly acknowledge their next 
steps helps to share ownership and commitment to 
the follow-up process.

Preparation for a Future Search

The preparation process of a Future Search 
conference is key to the success of the meeting. 
Getting all the stakeholders taking ownership of 
the meeting, as well as attending, is a process 
which takes time. A Future Search is usually 
"sponsored" by a particular organization or 
person (sometimes a key stakeholder), who pulls 
together the other stakeholders, and "hosts" the 
preparation. It is recommended that at least 2 
preparation meetings with a representative from 
all stakeholders are present to do the following:

* define the purpose and expectations * introduce 
facilitators * agree on programme * decide on an 
invitation list * organize logistics


Future Searches have been used extensively around 
the world, on each continent. Countries include 
Sudan, Russia, Sri Lanka, Botswana, Sweden, 
Northern Ireland and Australia. It has also been 
used within sectors for example healthcare, 
education and business. For a more extensive list 
of applications, please see: 

Case Examples - Nation-building in Bangladesh and 
the Inuit in Canada These cases are adapted from 
the Future Search book, 2000.

Nation-building in Bangladesh

UNICEF agreed to sponsor a Future Search training 
in Bangladesh, a country with a population of 110 
million people, and many social challenges. The 
intention was to train local facilitators who 
would in turn host future searches to envision 
new realities for Bangladesh's future, and move 
the largely poor population out of poverty.

In 1994, 50 Bangladeshi consultants, trainers and 
managers came together for the training. One of 
the challenges was that participants struggled to 
envision large future dreams, for example, a 
country without child labour. The participants 
agreed that "we need to learn how to dream". A 
number of follow-up conferences were planned, and 
future searches were run on topics including 
"Stopping Children with Diarrhea from Dying", 
"Early Childhood Development", "Child Labour", 
"Stopping the Spread of HIV/AIDS, and others. 
These conferences have proved to be very popular 
as planning tools in Bangladesh, and have 
subsequently spread to other parts of South East 
Asia, including Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Regional Economic Development: the Inuit People, Canada

When the Inuit people of the Artic region were 
granted a new homeland, they embarked on a Future 
Search to develop a strategy for economic 
development. The Future Search process was 
conducted in both the local language and English, 
and included drum dancing and other traditional 
features. The conference included a range of 
stakeholders of the newly formed homeland, and 
produced frameworks for education and training, 
social development, preservation of culture and 
language, small business development, 
transportation, infrastructure and other 
organizational aspects of action-planning.

The Inuit people have sponsored several 
subsequent future searches, and local community 
leaders have learnt the future search techniques 
of facilitating community-based planning at many 
local levels.


A Future Search is quite a structured process 
with a sophisticated meeting "architecture", that 
has been consciously designed to flow in a 
particular order.  This is a strength, but it can 
also appear too rigid.  It's important to realise 
that while the instruction on how to do a Future 
Search may seem to imply that there is only one 
way to do it, the Future Search website and 
newsletter include active discussions among 
practitioners who have adapted it in various ways 
to different cultural contexts.  There is clearly 
some variety in how it is applied.

One of the aspects of Future Search which we find 
most powerful is it's use of visual techniques 
and creative processes.  The history timeline 
which the group puts together on the first day 
across an entire wall usually tells a striking 
story, as does the colorful mindmap of current 
trends.  Similarly, the challenge to people to 
act out their scenarios of the future rather than 
just drawing them up on a flipchart invites in 
multiple intelligences and invokes imagination.

It is important to note what Future Searches 
cannot do. For example, future searches cannot 
make up for weak leadership. If leadership 
doesn't act on the actions from a Future Search, 
or buy in to the process, it will not work. This 
process stops at the point of action planning and 
leaves the implementation as the responsibility 
and ownership of the stakeholders participating.

Future searches also cannot reconcile deep value 
differences. If people disagree deeply based on 
religious or political differences, it is 
unlikely to be solved in a Future Search. Future 
Search quite explicitly chooses to put 
disagreements aside and focus on commonalities. 
In many contexts this is sufficient but if 
underlying issues or disagreements will block 
action, it may need to be replaced or 
complemented by other processes.

Finally, great facilitation trainings are 
available for Future Search, but we also feel 
that if one has strong general facilitation 
skills, it is possible to be able to facilitate a 
Future Search based on the excellent written 
materials available in the book and on the 

Weisbord, Marvin and Sandra Janoff.  Future Search.



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