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The Conversational Commons

The phrase “the commons” refers to domains and resources that belong to or affect the whole of a community.  The “conversational commons” then embraces everything that supports or makes possible the enjoyable and productive conversations of a community — notably including the health and productivity of professions that specialize in serving quality conversation, e.g., conveners and facilitators, mediators and negotiators, diplomats and public engagement professionals, and so on.

A legitimate and important function of professional organizations like the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD), the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2), and the International Association of Facilitators (IAF) is (and could be more) the development of the conversational commons — the whole field of activities and resources within which these professionals do their work in service to their communities.

Elements of the conversational commons worthy of our attention include things like the following:

  • Conversational standards, values, and guidelines, such as the Core Principles of Public Engagement
  • Conversational methodologies being known, available and productively used
  • Conversational data, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom — research, databases, know-how, and clear articulations of deep dynamics
  • Capacity for conversation — at the grassroots level, in and among groups and organizations, in officials and leaders, and in communities and societies as a whole
  • Widespread recognition of the value and uses of conversation, including a culture that values it and demands quality dialogue and deliberation wherever it is needed
  • Funding for quality conversations and for research on the subject
  • Cultural qualities that support healthy expressiveness, including respect, listening, emotionality, rationality, and the arts
  • Media that honor, model, encourage, and empower quality conversation, from talk shows to chat rooms to social media to detailed reporting on citizen deliberations and community conversations
  • Conversational traditions, rituals, and institutions — particularly those that improve social capital (especially across cultural divides) and those that shape public decision-making
  • Enough competent people filling necessary conversational “helper roles” like facilitator, mediator, host, etc.
  • Language and other media for exploring shared meaning — and the ability to translate among media or realms of meaning
  • Opportunity times and spaces for conversation — from architectural nooks and free community spaces, to cafes and conferences; from listening booths and online forums to citizen deliberations and stakeholder dialogues; and all the rest…

How often should we be reflecting on questions like these:

  • To what extent are those of us in the conversational professions focused on our own professional development and networking, and to what extent are we focused on working together to create, nurture, and develop the larger social context within which we are all working?
  • To what extent are we seeking funding for our own projects, compared to working together to help major players in the field of philanthropy realize the opportunities and leverage provided by funding conversational efforts?
  • To what extent are we spreading our knowledge at the grassroots so that more and more ordinary citizens know conversational basics and rationales and therefore demand quality conversation in their communities, their work places, and their political lives?
  • How might we invest more time, care, attention, and resources in the development of our conversational commons?
  • What difference would a healthy and expanding conversational commons make in our lives and in the world we live in?
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Tom Atlee
Awed by the evolutionary challenges and opportunities we face as a civilization, Tom Atlee researches and promotes dialogue, deliberation, and other resources for collective intelligence and conscious evolution. Tom founded The Co-Intelligence Institute in 1996 and wrote The Tao of Democracy in 2003.

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  1. Jacob Smith says:

    This is a really nice twist on the public commons: instead of a resource that can be shared or exploited, it's more of a function or opportunity that we can create, without any real resource constraints . . . the conversational commons can be as expansive and inclusive as a community chooses to make it. I especially like that it highlights the idea that the conversational commons is something we collectively create and have some sort of collective responsibility for.

  2. Great post, Tom! Though I don't really use the term "conversational commons," I think a lot of what you listed falls under the frame of building "civic capacity." Civic capacity, or the capacity to create and sustain smart collective action, is crucial for strengthening how we make decisions and take action together in communities and in society. I've been trying to encourage people in our field to think in terms of the broader goal of building civic capacity rather than only thinking about moving from dialogue/deliberation to action/decision for each project. The Goals of D&D graphic I created based on Martin Carcasson's work outlines this frame (https://ncdd.org/rc/item/3636) and I write about this a lot in my 2009 Kettering report (https://ncdd.org/rc/item/3424) in the sections on the "Action & Change Challenge" and the "Systems Challenge" (also often called "embeddedness" and institutionalization in our field).

    Attention to building civic capacity in communities/institutions/society includes such things as training more and more facilitators, building supportive, ongoing relationships with political leaders and agencies, cultivating relationships among local institutions, building support for good process among funders, etc., etc.

    If you agree that we're largely talking about the same thing, I'm wondering if it would be in the field's best interest if we used the same or similar terminology to talk about it? What do you think?

  3. Tom Atlee says:

    Thanks, Sandy. Collective capacity is a powerful concept. Speaking in terms of "capacity" invites people to think about "building" capacity, which is vitally important, especially in our crisis-beleaguered civilization. So I enthusiastically support your championing the development of civic capacity in all the ways you outline.

    But you ask me if I think you and I are talking about the same thing, so I want to address that. My answer is "yes and no." It is a nuanced matter, and a fascinating one — at least for folks like me 🙂 .

    As you know, one of the fundamental ideas I work with — "intelligence" — whose collective, collaborative, multi-modal, and other holistic manifestations add up to "co-intelligence" — refers to the CAPACITY for solving problems and for learning. Borrowing your phrasing, I would love to define "collective intelligence" as "the capacity to create and sustain smart collective action", in the generic sense. "Civic capacity" would then refer more specifically to the level and quality of collective intelligence available for dealing with PUBLIC (civic) affairs (rather than collective intelligence involved, for example, with business matters or scientific research.) I realize that such distinctions may be meaningful to me and not to others.

    "Capacity" and "commons" can be closely related, but each carries its own unique connotation. Where "capacity" connotes ability and invites building or developing such ability, "commons" connotes shared ownership and utility and invites responsibility (as Jacob Smith noted). A "commons" includes those shared things upon which a whole community depends and which it therefore honors and values (or should!). The term "commons" invites stewardship and protection of that which the community collectively owns, uses, and values.

    So I don't see "capacity" and "commons" as BEING the same thing. However, they can easily be viewed as REFERRING to different aspects or perspectives on the same thing. A comparable use of these terms is the "carrying CAPACITY" of the earth (to support human populations and activities) and the "global COMMONS" which includes all of our planet's nature, life, and natural resources. We can increase the carrying capacity of the earth by intelligent use of its resources — which includes good stewardship of our global commons.

    A big part of what motivated my use of the term "conversational commons" in my blog post was a desire to have NCDD "take ownership" for this collective resource upon which all of us — and NCDDers in particular — depend. Such "taking ownership" includes and goes beyond "building civic capacity" to include a protective emotional commitment to what is ours and precious. We would respond to the lack of funding with "What could funders be thinking, that they don't support the conversational commons??!" We would respond to manipulative degradations of public discourse or media attacks on high quality public engagement (as happened in Western Australia) with "Not with OUR conversational commons, you don't!!" — with the same passion with which a neighborhood would respond to some agency putting a toxic waste dump in the middle of their public park.

    There is no conflict between building civic capacity and stewarding and protecting the conversational commons. They each have their own unique energy. I see them as vital and complementary aspects of one of the most important undertakings in our history — the evolution of civilization itself.

  4. Also, Tom – be sure to look over the post on facebook at http://www.facebook.com/notes/sandy-heierbacher/the-conversational-commons/10150095323372348#!/notes/sandy-heierbacher/the-conversational-commons/10150095323372348 (in my notes, where NCDD blog posts appear automatically). You have a couple of comments there and you might want to respond.

  5. Thanks for clarifying, Tom. I do see this as a role that NCDD plays for our field to some degree, don't you? Certainly, with projects like the creation of the Core Principles for Public Engagement in response to Obama's open gov directive, the resources we created in response to the contentious healthcare town halls, and our involvement in projects like the Democracy Communications Network, we play a role as a facilitative leader attempting to amplify our field's collective voice.

    Certainly there is much more we could be doing and responding to. My dream for NCDD would be to see our members self-organizing to address challenges (such as the Western Australia example) as they arise. You know how much work the PEP principles project was, since you were instrumental in that highly collaborative project. It takes a great deal of resources and effort to motivate and coordinate this community, though one of my main goals for 2011 is to figure out how to make NCDD more and more self-organized and member-driven.

    Maybe you have some off-the-cuff ideas for this that you could share? Let's talk soon and brainstorm about this regardless.

  6. Tom Atlee says:

    Yes, all these are caring for our conversational commons, Sandy, and I am SO happy that NCDD did them. It explains why I was so heavily engaged in the PEP project. Yet, as you say, there is more we could do. I like to imagine an NCDD where less needs to be done to "motivate" us to do this sort of thing.

    For example, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, in a prank phone call — Part 1 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WBnSv3a6Nh4
    and Part 2 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3a2pYGr7-k — seriously told a journalist whom he thought was billionaire David Koch that he was going to try to lure the absent Democratic legislators into a legislative trap by offering to "talk with them" — but "not negotiate" with them. That cynical comment both arises from and feeds a degradation of our field's reputational commons and of our society's conversational commons.

    All too often people in power use "talk" and "dialogue" as a tool for manipulation or pretense. This is included as an explicit strategy in a corporate PR book called "Managing Activism" by Denise Deegan. As this practice has become widespread, it has become increasingly obvious and people become increasingly cynical and disillusioned with dialogue and less inclined to do it.

    I just discovered that my new partner hates facilitation and public gatherings for exactly this reason: She's only seen it used in manipulative ways. And because those were in forums on issues she cares about — and she's not really seen co-intelligent dialogue on public issues — she's now biased against the whole field. This kind of thing is tragic for our country AND a real threat to our field.

    I would love to see an instant response from NCDD/NCDD members whenever a major cynical or manipulative use of D&D shows up in the media, e.g., where there is a major violation of our Core Principles of Public Engagement. PEP isn't something to guide only our members. It offers a minimal set of standards we want to see governing our nation's conversational commons. We should not only promote it, but defend it.

    I just realized that http://thepoint.com might be a useful tool for us. It enables people to sign up to do something but not do it until a given number of others sign up to do it. I could say I'll write a letter to the editor — or a blog comment or a note to Gov Walker or… — about his cynical use of "talk" if 20 or 50 other NCDDers also will. That could be posted on ThePoint.com and announced and promoted on the NCDD listserv. Then we'd all only do our letters and comments if that many others signed up, increasing the impact of all of us. ThePoint might be a good coordinating and motivating resource for NCDDers to care for the conversational commons. Might NCDD.org have a portal into ThePoint to facilitate this?

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