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Whole System Conversations – and the Voice of the Whole

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

Who is involved in these “whole system” conversations?

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

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

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

1. Adversaries

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

2. Stakeholders

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

3. Domains

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

4. Citizens

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

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

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

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

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

Pic from NCDD Austin workshop 2010Imagine comparing the results of all nine forums. Imagine what we would learn from both their differences and similarities, both within each approach and across the three approaches. If their recommendations are significantly similar, wouldn’t that be remarkable! Imagine how it would change everything we think about the possibilities of politics!

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

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

This particular research approach is only one way to explore this. The most important thing is the inquiry, itself. Are we ready to ask the pivotal question: How can we best evoke a true voice of the whole?

I suspect that if we took this inquiry seriously, it would change everything.


Tom Atlee is the Founder of The Co-Intelligence Institute, which works to further the understanding and development of co-intelligence. It focuses on catalyzing co-intelligence in the realms of politics, governance and conscious evolution of ourselves and our social systems. We research, network, advocate, and help organize leading-edge experiments and conversations in order to weave what is possible into new, wiser forms of civilization.

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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. John Spady says:

    Appreciate your post Tom. I personally resonate with approach #4 — to involve as many citizen/residents as want to engage around one or more issues. The other segments/approaches (Adversaries, Stakeholders, Domains) I typically assign to various demographic categories in the survey’s that are administered to capture the opinions and values of all participants. I believe that all approaches can be used simultaneously and that each of the populations can be tracked and reported independently while also looking for overlapping commonalities and important differences among all participants.

  2. Bill Gellermann says:

    Tom — I just downloaded your post and am eagerly looking forward to reading and responding. My intuition tells me that there is almost certainly a connection between what you are focussin on and what I explore in “Global Mind Change” — https://ncdd.org/5835 . I’ll be back.

  3. Jan Inglis says:

    Hi Tom and others
    I have wanted to jump in respond to your post but have been quite busy with several projects one of which is to finalize an article regarding Holisitc Democracy which is very pertinent to your inquiry. In it I consider the understandings of the whole and how choice making processes arrive at a new comprehensive whole by deliberating on the parts.

    It is based on research with a small community group. They deliberated on the question “How should citizens be involved when important public decisions need to be made? ”
    I wish we could get the kind of funds to do the larger research you suggest.
    FYI I have included the summary paragraph below.

    In terms of your question of who should be included to get a sense of the whole: I think that using issue-centred processes versus participant centred determines that answer…i.e. who is most impacted by the issue, who can impact the issue and who would be impacted if the issue changed. They voice the important perspectives which make the whole and will create the comprehensive actions the issues need to be resoleved.

    Hope to have your feedback on my aricle when it is published
    Jan Inglis
    Integrative Learning Institute

    Article summary ( to be published in Integral Review this fall)
    We have a narrow window of time, in which many communities and nations still have the stability required to support more reflective holistic thinking about the issues we face in order to enable more comprehensive decisions and actions to emerge. Holistic thinking and methods do not arise on their own. As Goethe indicated, they reflect a more high level form of response. This development of higher level approaches, echoed in research on adult development (Commons et al, 1998), is a key to unlocking the potential of public contributions to respond to complex problems. But, to reach this high level requires holistically designed structures to scaffold their effective engagement. Without such methods, and the commitment to use them to guide our collective evolvement, we face another darker possibility: that of devolving into, or continuing to rely only upon, individualistic, simplistic, divide and conquer techniques. The findings presented in this paper support a more comprehensive model of how democracy and citizen engagement can be achieved and valued in order to provide a more sustainable and life enhancing outcome.

    “In this century, for better or worse, the long process of social evolution has reached the Planetary Phase, with the shape of the future subject to the ways we respond culturally and politically to the challenge of transition. Prospects for a passage to a decent world rest with the capacity for human consciousness and action to rise to this existential challenge of our moment. There is still time, but the hour grows late”. (Raskin, 2010, n.p.)

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