Developing Collective Wisdom in Groups
Groups are the fundamental “cell structure” where social healing and development happens. Group systems support intimate groups of two or more people: a couple, family, neighborhood, and so on. Think about all the community-oriented activities you have been involved in. They are usually sustained by a core group, even if they were initiated by one person: management teams, church trustees, town councils, knitting circles, presidential cabinets, and so on. Collective wisdom development requires the coherent energy and diverse talents of a group.
What are the conditions that maximize creativity and learning in a group? What principles of group process help create those moments of magic when collective insight, clear decisions, and decisive action emerge within groups? What is needed to support groups becoming greater than the sum of their parts?
Heart Centering and Opening
When people come to work together in a group, they bring the circumstances of the rest of their lives into the work. If someone is upset or sad about a family situation, mad at someone else in the group, or concerned about what will happen in a meeting, a simple opening practice at the beginning of a meeting can help them to relax and set the rest of the world aside to focus on what they really care about in the task at hand. Especially for new groups or meetings held over the phone or internet, hearing everyone’s voice by sharing names and a brief check-in is very helpful for group bonding. Check-in doesn’t have to take long; a check-in can be as short as a two-word personal “weather report” or as long as a two-minute update with agenda input. Centering practices include a simple ritual of lighting a candle, taking a few moments of silence, or dedicating the meeting to its greatest purpose.
Circle and Council Work
One of the simplest, most ancient, and profound methods for helping to elicit a group’s collective intelligence is circle work: the practice of people sitting in a circle listening deeply and speaking from the heart. The circle format encourages a focus on dialogue – people learning and exploring together in an open-ended way – rather than on getting through an agenda or completing tasks. As Tom Atlee (founder of the Co-Intelligence Institute, www.co-intelligence.org) says, “Even the simplest, most unsophisticated circles are experienced as revolutionary by people who’ve known little more than the hectic, banal, adversarial or repressed communication modes typical of our mainstream culture” (Atlee, n.d., “Listening Circles”).
Leading resources include the books Calling the Circle by Christina Baldwin (1994) and The Way of Council by Jack Zimmerman and Virginia Coyle (2009) as well as organizations Peer Spirit (www.peerspirit.com), Art of Hosting (www.artofhosting.org), and Wisdom Circles (www.wisdomcircle.org).
Dialogue is at the heart of circle work, and it is also used in many other forums. There are many definitions of dialogue. We like William Isaacs’ simple one-liner: “Dialogue is a conversation in which people think together in relationship” (Dialogue, p. 19). Dialogue is often contrasted with other forms of communication such as discussion or debate in which participants typically assert their well-defended opinions and positions back and forth with a goal of finding flaws in the other’s arguments and affirming the rightness of their own view. Dialogue, on the other hand, is a shared exploration toward deeper levels of understanding and meaning in which all participants reflect on their own assumptions and allow them to be re-evaluated. David Bohm, the late quantum physicist who pioneered the modern understanding and practice of dialogue, observed that through dialogue “a new kind of mind comes into being, based on the development of common meaning.” Bohm’s new kind of mind appears similar to what we are calling the collective wisdom of the group.
Leading resources include the book Dialogue by William Isaacs (1999) and organizations National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD, www.thataway.org), The Co-Intelligence Institute (www.co-intelligence.org), and Art of Hosting (artofhosting.org).
Marshall Rosenberg’s (2003) Nonviolent Communication (NVC) offers a simple but profound approach to resolving differences peacefully. NVC is an interpersonal practice that can help us to develop non-judgmental consciousness through bringing awareness (and providing alternatives) to our habitually judgmental ways of thinking, as mirrored by our habitually judgmental ways of talking. The basic NVC process to resolving conflicts is to express:
- the concrete actions we are observing that are affecting our well-being;
- how we feel in relation to what we are observing;
- the needs, values, desires, etc that are creating our feelings; and
- the concrete actions we request in order to enrich our lives.
In our experience, the capacity to work through differences consciously through NVC or similar approaches has been the single most important factor in eliciting a group’s collective wisdom.
Leading resources include the book Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg (2003) and the organization The Center for Nonviolent Communication (www.cnvc.org)
The hidden psychological dynamics inherent to participation in groups can often prevent them from functioning effectively. For example, we all tend to negotiate between conflicting feelings of wanting to belong, yet wanting to maintain our individual identity, whenever we join a new group. What do we have to give up in order to belong? Becoming more aware of dynamics such as these can help us to not act them out unconsciously, but rather to use them to deepen our own self-understanding, leading to more freedom in how we relate to groups. Also, groups have been shown to typically follow distinct stages of development. Understanding these stages can help us to maintain our equilibrium and perspective during challenging moments in group life. We are far from experts in the vast realm of group theory, but we consider it an important component of building collective wisdom.
Leading resources include the book Paradoxes of Group Life: Understanding Conflict, Paralysis, and Movement in Group Dynamics by Kenwyn Smith and David Berg (1997), as well as the organization Systems-Centered Training (www.sct-institute.org).
Working With Differences
A common principle of many contemporary approaches to working with groups is the need to acknowledge and then integrate differences between group members. Particular mindfulness is called for when working with differences in social rank and power, such as differences in sex, race, class, sexual orientation, and so on. Individuals who are members of groups that historically have been systematically mistreated by society-at-large often face special challenges in finding their voice in a group and having their contributions respected. Working with these issues can be challenging, since it usually involves bringing to the surface very painful feelings and deeply ingrained habits of thought. Since many people have only ever experienced these issues being dealt with in highly charged conversations or public forums mainly characterized by blame, guilt, and defensiveness, many groups tend to minimize or avoid these issues. Yet it is possible to create a space in which all group members can intelligently participate in freeing themselves from these limiting patterns of thought and behavior. Neither the role of victim nor oppressor serves our best interests as human beings. It can be profoundly liberating to participate in encounters that heal, in a small yet significant way, some of the ancient divisions and wounds that have split humanity. As Martin Luther King Jr. (1986) taught, we all have a stake in building “the beloved community.”
Leading resources include the book Sitting in the Fire: Large Group Transformation Using Conflict and Diversity by Arnold Mindell (2000), as well as the organizations National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI, www.ncbi.org), Commonway (www.commonway.org), and National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD, www.thataway.org).
Working With Intuition
We believe that some of the most mysterious experiences of deep connectedness and collective wisdom in a group occur when attention is paid to building connections between group members on subtle levels of consciousness. For example, practicing meditation together can open deeper channels of connection between group members. In our experience, this practice makes subtler group dynamics more readily discernible and also helps to develop greater harmonic or empathic resonance in the group field. We have also found that when the intuitive capacities of group members are explicitly welcomed and cultivated through intuitive sensing practices, a group can experience a quantum leap in the number of powerful collective insights that emerge, and group members may experience in their lives a higher-than-usual amount of uncanny synchronicities that seem to suggest mysterious, nonlocal connections having been made with each other. Research suggests that the development of intuitive ability may play a crucial role in the development of collective consciousness and wisdom. As Robert Kenny (1999, 2004) notes, with a refined intuitive capacity, individuals may be able to directly experience their union with the interconnected wholeness of life, and directly apprehend the unspoken thoughts and feelings of others in the group, leading to levels of coordination and wisdom in group functioning that far surpass the individual capacities of its members.
Leading resources include the books Frequency by Penney Peirce (2009) and Blessing by David Spangler (2001) as well as the Collective Wisdom Initiative (www.collectivewisdominitiative.org).
Maximizing group capacity is easiest and most rewarding when members take responsibility for their own participation (are self-responsible) and develop their own capacity as group leaders. We define a leader as anyone committed to listening to and taking action for the benefit of the whole group. Today’s professional leadership models typically stress the necessity for power-with instead of power-over relationships. The Co-Active Coaching Leadership motto is “relationship first; task second.” Collaboration and co-creation are popular terms for the crucial transition toward shared leadership. The challenge for the nominated leader of any group is to “lead from the center” of the group through developing their own facilitation, hosting, delegation, and leadership capacity-building skills.
Leading resources include Art of Facilitation xxx, Art of Hosting artofhosting.org, and many leadership institutes including Co-Active Coaching (cti.org), … Bob, your faves?