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Five Doors into the Power of Conversation and Group Work

In several interactions today with colleagues I began to see a pattern of modes of engagement with dialogue and deliberation work that seemed to me more usefully complex than merely “theory” and “practice.” The insight was triggered primarily by hearing about “liberating structures” for the first time and learning more about The Art of Hosting. I found my thinking expanding to cover five broad categories of mediums or doorways through which we can engage with this work.

These five mediums/doorways are briefly articulated below. I’m curious what you see when you consider them. How useful do they seem? Do other categories come to mind? Does this kind of analysis serve our understanding and our efforts to learn, teach, train and practice in this field?


Coherent ideas about different factors relating to conversation and group work – definitions, types, goals, purposes, contexts, values, dynamics, etc. – can provide a foundation of insight to guide professional work in the area. Diverse theories are often rooted in different ideologies, worldviews, and assumptions about how the world works, how change happens, how people function individually and collectively, and so on. People who focus on theory tend to believe that understanding the larger patterns of such work can make it more effective and meaningful, more appealing and logical to clients, and/or help practitioners work together. For examples, see:


We use well-developed conversational and group processes to help relationships, groups, organizations, and communities meet their needs through effective collaboration. Methodologies are usually created by individuals or companies out of their experience serving their clients, informed by the worldviews and theories that shape their thinking and motivate their work. People who focus on methodology tend to use one or a few methods or to look for methods that fit particular situations they are addressing. For examples, see:


Readily learned simple group work actions or procedures that anyone can use. They are usually participatory activities “cherry picked” from certain methodologies associated with favored theories or worldviews about people and organizations, selected because they readily produce results associated with those theories or worldviews. People who focus on liberating structures seek to empower others with practices that will sustain the gains they experienced in major group interventions, thus helping shift the culture of their group, organization or community. For examples, see:


We can identify certain design principles or “things to keep in mind” when planning, facilitating, or reflecting on particular conversations or group activities. These “patterns” can also be viewed as generic guidances for specific common problems. Articulating how specific patterns can serve to reinforce other patterns generates a web of interrelated guidances called “a pattern language”. People who focus on pattern languages tend to promote flexible, learningful approaches to conversation and group work only loosely tied to methodologies and structures. For examples, see:


The quality of presence, attention, and leadership provided by a host or facilitator tends to have a profound impact on the power of conversations and group work. This quality involves different characteristics, depending on one’s worldview, situational requirements, and methodology – differences especially notable between linear and nonlinear processes. But whatever its form, it is almost always a significant factor. People who focus on practitioner presence tend to engage in practices that enhance their awareness and relationship skills in group settings so that their doingness and impact arise naturally from their beingness. For examples, see:

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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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