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Transforming the Public Conversation
By Jim Rough


We are facing "dragon issues" that threaten the viability of our civilization, like the ecological crisis that is unfolding and a maldistribution of wealth undermining the idea of democracy. How are we to address these issues? Are we to talk and think about them in a way that we can solve them? Currently, our public conversation is dysfunctional. Elected representatives argue to the point of partisan gridlock. And the media generally promotes fear, division and ever-increasing consumption rather thoughtful consideration and creative problem-solving. Our current conversation exacerbates the situation, driving most citizens into a state of denial, where these dragons don't get addressed.

There are different qualities of public conversation
Consider these five different possible forms of public conversation, from lowest to highest:

  • Power struggle” where people seek control over others and influence over the collective decisions by using status, vitriolic language, and money to push their agenda.
  • Reasoned debate” where there is a thoughtful competition of ideas. This form of conversation is the goal of the current Constitutional system in the U.S. with its representatives, Parliamentary Procedure and elections.
  • Deliberation” where experts, wise elders, informed citizens, or legislators investigate selected problems and carefully weigh options before deciding.
  • Dialogue” where a wide network of people in small groups explores topics open-mindedly and open-heartedly, growing in their understandings, relationships, shared vision, where people develop feelings of connectedness to one another and all life.
  • Choice-creating” where diverse people address the most pressing issues collaboratively and creatively, determining unanimous, win/win conclusions.

Obviously, the public conversation on these impossible-seeming dragon issues should be choice-creating and not power struggle. We need all of us to get involved, to be respectful of others, to listen to different ideas, to value each person and culture, and to creatively invent new solutions that work for everyone. Then we can all get behind these answers and implement them. And just having the conversation builds trust, the spirit of community, and empowerment.
What we need is some way to reliably evoke choice-creating throughout society. We just need to add this missing conversation to what we already have. Once this is underway we can start creating a shared vision and strategy, and work together to achieve it. With this conversation we raise the collective intelligence for our society, and begin achieving progress on all problems at once. We can do this by building an empowered voice of "We the People" and modifying our underlying systems so they work far better.
Does this sound impossible? It's not. Part of the reason you might think it is impossible, though, is because so many efforts to shift the quality of public conversation haven't worked out.
For example, many have sought to shift the conversation one level, from power struggle to reasoned debate, by exhorting Congressional representatives, talk show hosts, and family members to stop arguing. But Congress is structured to fight. It's comprised of people paid to represent set positions in a majority-rule voting contest. So it's naturally a power struggle. And the same is true for the media. Incentives practically assure a power struggle, because profits are the bottom line. If thoughtful, polite talking were to surface in many of these shows, profits would tumble … so they make the "smart" choice and enhance the fighting.
There are people and organizations dedicated to shifting the conversation to deliberation. They structure events where ordinary citizens learn from experts, understand the problems more deeply and discuss options with civility. They seek to create an island of rational conversation to influence citizens, legislators and policy. For example, in Oregon there is the Citizens Initiative Review. Twenty-four random citizens come together for a week to understand proposed citizens initiatives and make a recommendation to voters. In moderated sessions they deliberate the options and then vote. They share the results of their vote in the voters pamphlet for all to see. And the vote of this small group influences voters … and influences policy. But this example of positive impact is infrequent because the deliberative body can easily be ignored.
Dialogue is the other common approach, offering a quality of conversation that can be transformational. Here the idea is to organize many small groups to consider difficult topics like racism or poverty. People talk with one another in a heartfelt way and grow personally. They are moved and changed by the deep conversation. But for a dialogue to work there is no advocating of positions and no group conclusions. The process requires open-mindedness that can make a great difference in one person's life.
Closed-minded people generally avoid dialogue. When convened it's often one side of the political spectrum talking to itself rather than to those with different views. So structuring dialogue, deliberation, and rational debate are not enough. What's needed is a shift to choice-creating.

Choice-creating is key
Choice-creating is seen as difficult to establish and maintain. Most people have little experience with it and don't know how to facilitate it, other than to notice that it often happens in a crisis. Yes, in moments of crisis some times people will drop their roles and their pretenses, pull together with others, and creatively develop some new solution that works for everyone. But, do we need to wait for things to get worse until we all must acknowledge the crisis? Maybe then it'll be too late.
Our current system holds “Rational Debate” as the ideal. Institutions like Parliamentary Procedure, voting, representatives, and the “rule of law” aim for this. Unfortunately, the usual quality of our public conversation is more like “Power Struggle.” Money is used to influence the results.
Some people seek to reduce the level of power struggle through campaign finance reform, term limits, or denying legal “personhood” to corporations. While these steps can help diminish the power struggle, , they do not facilitate the quality of thinking we really need.
The advent of social media, cell phones, television, and the Internet are a few of the technological advances that affect our public conversation. Now, people have more direct access to information and to one another than ever before. The rise of “organizational development” as a field of study and the use of facilitators in meetings have demonstrated effective ways to help people think at higher levels.
Many governments now seek more citizen involvement by providing forums for people to examine issues, weigh available options and influence policy.

The essential public conversation
Two social inventions make it possible for all of us to engage in choice-creating, for “We the People” to come into being, and for us to “flip the switch” on our way of thinking. They are: 1) “Dynamic Facilitation,” through which a skilled facilitator assures choice-creating in small groups. (See www.DynamicFacilitation.com and 2) the “Wisdom Council,” which uses Dynamic Facilitation to generate choice-creating throughout large systems of people. (See www.WiseDemocracy.org)
A meeting facilitator is a “light switch” for a small group of people. He or she assures a shift in the quality of conversation from one level to another. The traditional facilitator usually aims to help people shift from “power struggle” or “reasoned debate,” to “deliberation” or “dialogue,” or “problem-solving.” They help them focus on topics that are solvable, stay on the topic, break big problems into smaller ones, mute their passionate advocacy, and proceed step by step down a logical path.
The dynamic facilitator helps people shift instead to “choice-creating,” where they find and address the key issue no matter how big and impossible-seeming, address it creatively and collaboratively, and “co-sense” unanimous conclusions. He or she assures that each comment is heard and appreciated by the group, framing it as a solution, concern, item of data, or new statement of the challenge. This way, no matter what comment is made or how it is said, the group benefits.
The dynamic facilitator goes with the flow of energy in the group. Rather than keeping people on track, he or she encourages authenticity by helping participants voice their deep concerns or half-ideas, and protects them from feeling any judgment. Group conclusions emerge through shifts and breakthroughs in the form of solutions, a new sense of what the real problem is, or a change of heart. Unanimous conclusions result.
A Wisdom Council uses the power of Dynamic Facilitation to spark choice-creating throughout a large system of people. It promises to “flip the switch” for a city, corporation, or nation allowing all people to address the most pressing issues creatively and collaboratively and reach near-unanimous positions. If this can really be done, it is the Holy Grail of democracy. It’s where the people can take charge in a way that accentuates and supports individual differences and results in wise collective decisions.
Here’s how the process works: Every four months twelve people are randomly selected from the community, city or nation. They meet for three days or so, are dynamically facilitated to choose issues to address, develop unanimous positions, and then present their conclusions back to the community. The whole community is invited to hear and consider the Wisdom Council's statements in face-to-face dialogues, informal conversations, or over the Internet. Over time, an ongoing choice-creating conversation evolves throughout the system where near-unanimous views emerge.
Experiments with this concept in cities, counties, government agencies, corporations, schools and cooperatives indicate that it works. When you randomly select people, when they choose the issue, and when they reach unanimity then they are a legitimate symbol of “We the People.” When they report their conclusions and their stories of how they determined them, people resonate with the group and their conclusions. All are excited about the conclusions and the process. Many report that the experience in the group and in the audience is life-changing.
The key at this point is to learn how to involve the whole system. Many must hear the report of the Wisdom Council, talk with others, and help spark building support for the positions and the process. To the extent that the conversation reverberates and all people feel involved a “We the People” emerges. The lottery, media, the internet, and neighborhood gatherings are some of the ways to reach this larger community.
When people first hear about the concept of the Wisdom Council, they often notice that the Wisdom Council has no official authority and wonder how it would influence policy. It would inform and involve more people, help build the political will for general-interest positions, and inform legislators about people’s views. But even more important than its affect on legislation is the new way of thinking, talking and making decisions it engenders. This offers the prospect of solving all sorts of seemingly intractable issues.
If all of us can participate in one creative conversation and reach shared conclusions, then we have transcended our current adversarial, coercive political system. We have created for ourselves a new system, a “true democracy,” where the people are thinking wisely and truly in charge.

A plan for going forward
There are four stages to “flipping the switch” and transforming our system.
First, we need to demonstrate the Wisdom Council process working in organizations and small communities. Interested people in communities can just start the process and build support among elected officials and community leaders. Since each Wisdom Council generally says, “this is a great process and should continue” each successive Wisdom Council is chartered by a previous voice of “We the People” and hopefully builds increasing interest in the community.
Second, the Wisdom Council process needs to be scaled up to the national level in the many countries.
Third, as Wisdom Councils demonstrate their ability to confront issues and as the process generates a new form of public conversation, legislatures and courts will find it difficult to ignore this voice of “We the People.” Legislators will realize that this voice of the “general interest” is an asset to them, freeing them from the domination of special interests, and enhances their ability to serve the public.
The fourth step is to establish a global Wisdom Council. Despite different languages, levels of education and cultures, the Wisdom Council offers a new prospect for the world’s people to transcend their differences and come together.

Call to action
It is unlikely that governments will take the lead in this work. In many different parts of the world it’s been ordinary citizens who’ve seen the potential of this strategy and stepped forward. They’ve gathered small groups of people to convene Wisdom Councils in organizations, communities, associations, and schools.
Our nonprofit organization, the Center for Wise Democracy, is available to support their interest, your interest, in furthering this work. (See
www.WiseDemocracy.org) From this process, we are all discovering that ordinary people do care, are wise, and can work creatively together to solve the thorny problems that confront us. We just need to facilitate them into the opportunity.

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About the author
Jim Rough is a consultant, author, speaker and social innovator and founder for the Center for Wise Democracy. (Jim@WiseDemocracy.org)


These ideas are more fully developed in the 2002 book
Society's Breakthrough! Releasing Essential Wisdom and Virtue in All the People by Jim Rough.

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