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Civic Dialogue

For more resources for communities,
see the co-intelligence community page

Below is a list of processes that can increase the capacity of communities to respond intelligently to the changing environment around them, including crises. Most of these processes are on the leading edge of organizational development, group work and community organizing. These were chosen because guidance -- written material, expertise, training, or replicable models -- exists for each of these methods, for people who wish to put them into practice. Most of these methods are quite simple (although not always EASY) to do, and are therefore good grassroots tools. This also makes them easier to communicate and implement in cases where they are being initiated from the top.

The impact of many of these processes can be greatly broadened and deepened by a number of factors, three of which I've listed here:

a) Servant Leadership. Often the initiative for processes such as these in communties comes from the bottom, the grassroots. In such instances, while the benefits for those involved tends to be great, participation tends to be limited to relatively small groups, resulting in minimal benefits for the community or society as a whole. On the other hand, where there is active cooperation or initiative by the government and media -- promoting the activity, reaching out to seldom-engaged populations, providing space and other resources, reporting on what happened, encouraging follow-up, etc. -- there is a dramatic improvement in community expectations, community participation, and community follow-up (of both further dialogue and deliberation, and actual actions taken by citizens and officials). Another dimension of servant leadership that we should keep in mind, especially when the initiative comes from the top -- is that these processes must serve to empower -- rather than to control -- the participants and their community. Otherwise they will fail or backfire.

b) Regularity - A good process done continually or at periodic intervals over time has a tendency to generate positive effects far beyond its use in a single event. It becomes part of the culture of those using it, weaving itself into their assumptions, interactions, and expectations. A familiar example is voting. A one-time election for a leader would be better than no election for a leader. But when a society has elections every 2-4 years, that nurtures the idea that the leaders are answerable to the electorate. (Even when, as happens in our society, powerholders find loopholes in the electoral system that reduce the actual power of citizens. There remains the assumption that the citizenry SHOULD be powerful). Furthermore, people become habituated to elections and use this method in other areas of their lives, such as their voluntary associations (clubs, community groups, etc.). In the vast majority of cases below, a group, community or society would benefit greatly by practicing the method regularly and incorporating it into the normal rhythms of their collective life. By using them as an event, we empower individuals and groups. By using them as a process, we empower whole communities and societies.

c) Complementarity - Each one of these processes has a power of its own. Those who advocate it tend to focus on that power. Far rarer are those who see opportunities to use such processes together in some synergistic way. To return to our previous example: voting is powerful and so is a free press. Either could exist without the other. Their combination is far more powerful (and empowering) than either of them could be without the other. Hopefully at least some community leaders will recognize this and weave a number of the tools below into patterns that will enhance the overall efficacy of each one. For more about this subject, see Designing Multi-Process Public Participation Programs or The Change Handbook by Peggy Holman et al (esp the fall 2006 version that has almost 60 processes).

Anyone combining servant leadership, regularity and complementarity into an ongoing community involvement program using a number of these tools will have transformed the system in which they operate into a highly evolved form of democracy seldom seen before.

(Note: For issues and criteria related to public participation,
Principles of Public Participation.)

I have sorted these methods into a number of categories, depending on what each process is particularly good for, but many of them, such as Open Space and World Cafe, have a broad range of uses.

For national, state or large community citizen deliberation and policy guidance

1. Citizen Deliberative Councils - A random or demographically representative group of 12-24 citizens convened to study an issue (sometimes questioning expert witnesses) and produce policy recommendations. All of the several varieties are professionally facilitated to a consensus or supermajority statement that is formally presented to media and/or officials, sometimes in a public forum. Citizen deliberative councils are possibly the most powerful of the well-tested methods of democratic wisdom-generation.

2. National Issues Forums - The most widely used form of citizen deliberation in the US, National Issues Forums of all sizes are held to study public issues using a set of issue books published by the National Issues Forums organization each year. Every issue is explored from 3-5 approaches, with the underlying arguments, evidence, and values clarifiied, inviting participants to recognize the legitimacy of other views and to do together the difficult "choice work" regarding the trade-offs of different approaches. Participants views are summarized for public officials and the media, and participating organizations influence the next year's topics.

For community self-organization and problem solving

3. Open Space Technology - A self-organized conference about a topic about which all attendees have passion. After an initial briefing, attendees create workshops, discussion groups or task groups according to their interests. Attendees are encouraged to let go of outcomes, welcome the unexpected, and move around to find sessions where they can actively learn or contribute. Open Space allows otherwise hidden issues to emerge and get dealt with, and ensures that any topic raised will have someone to deal with it.

4. Multi-sector collaborations - people from government, business, civic groups, non-profits, the media, utilities, religious institutions, and so on, come together to work on a shared problem. These are stakeholder-based, rather than citizen-based forms. Three specific varieties

  • Future Search Conferences - Multi-sector collaborative events involving 30-64 stakeholders -- a cross-section of the community plus a few important outsiders -- who explore and record their shared past and the forces at work in their collective lives, and then imagine desirable futures and how to get there. Differences are acknowledged and set aside, and work groups formed to pursue desired futures.
  • Watershed councils - Ongoing deliberative processes engaging a variety of stakeholders in an effort to collectively steward the health of their watershed. They are often convened by local government.
  • Consensus Councils - Months- or years-long facilitated councils usually convened by legislatures to seek consensus solutions to controversial issues facing legislation.

5. Listening Projects - Citizens go door to door asking significant, open-ended, engaging questions about an issue that concerns them and accepting whatever the person says. It might look like a poll, but the object is consciousness raising, relationship-building, and engagement -- not public opinion monitoring. People interviewed often find their views expanding and some even get actively involved in addressing the issue.

6. Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) - Citizens discover, map and mobilize assets hidden away in all the folks who live in their community, as well as in associations and formal institutions, and bring those resources out of the closet and into creative synergy with each other, with dramatic results. Asset-based community development reaches beyond problem-solving and avoids paternalism and dependence. It can be supported by all parts of the political spectrum and initiated at any level of civic life.

For group/community reflection and "issue exploration"

7. Listening circles (a.k.a., talking circles, council, wisdom circles, etc.) - Adapted from tribal council circles. Participants' communication is mediated by a held object which is passed around the circle. Whoever holds it "speaks their truth from the heart.". There is no cross-talk or discussion. In one variation (often called "popcorn") the object is passed to whomever wishes to speak next, rather than aorund the circle.

8. Dialogue is shared exploration towards greater understanding, connection, or possibility. Many forms of communication fit this definition. And many forms don't, including arguments, debates, posturing, holding forth, defensiveness, bantering discussions and other forms of communication where we don't discover anything new or connect with each other. Dialogue's spirit of exploration is useful when we want to understand something or someone better. Dialogue is often needed to reach sufficient shared understanding to come to a decision together. Dialogue is often guided by a set of agreements and many dialogue guides and guidelines are available online.

9. The World Cafe Groups of 4-8 people sit around circular tables (ideally with flowers, candles, paper tablecloths and marking pens as in a real cafe) exploring well-crafted questions on a topic that deeply matters to them. The conversation is broken into rounds of 20-60 minutes, with participants mixing to other tables for each round, and coming togeher at the end to harvest insights. In this process, groups of dozens or thousands can experience the intimacy and engagement of small group dialogue along with the diverse views, broader understandings and connection provided by large group conversation.

10. Study Circles are voluntary, self-organizing adult education groups of 5-20 people who meet three to six times to study and discuss a subject, often a critical social issue. Between meetings participants read materials to stimulate their next meeting's dialogue. The materials are usually compiled by the sponsor or organizer of the particular study circle; but groups who want to form a study circle on a particular topic can create their own materials or get ready-to-use packs from national organizations.

11. Scenario and Visioning Work -

XI ) Scenario and Visioning Work

For group decision-making

  Holistic Management Allan Savory's step by step process for holistic decision-making.
· consensus (including color-coded straw polls) (distinguish from unanimity)
· strong majority (66%, 75%, 80%)

For conflict work / exploration of differences

· dynamic dialogue
· Widening Circles exercise (Joanna Macy)
 Process Worldwork (Arny Mindell)
· conflict exploration circles
· dynamic facilitation
· fishbowl
· values barometer
· mediated dialogue - see Search for Common Ground which gets people on opposite sides of a polarized issue to debate each other -- but with a twist: they have to "mirror" back to each other what the other said before they can reply. While clarifying their differences, they discover they share a lot more than they thought -- and sometimes come up with projects to do together!

· Nonviolent Communication
· alternative dispute resolution (ADR) and negotiation

For emotional processing/sharing

(see also listening circles and nonviolent communication, above)

· open sentences practice - Joanna Macy
· Despair and Empowerment work
· story sharing

Meeting techniques

(see also listening circle and scrip circle)

· reverse agenda
· dynamic facilitation
· brainstorming
· positive, negative, interesting (deBono)
· chime and stone
· Gestures of Conversational Presence

Community resilience, economic and material methods

· Local complementary currencies
· "Hayboxes and Other Energy Efficient Cooking Methods"
· Etc. (this could be LONG)


· Commitment chunks (people commit to 3-4 meetings/weeks/blocks and then review how it was)



  • Creating Community Anywhere by Carolyn Shaffer and Kristin Anundsen (Tarcher/Perigree, 1993). "The most comprehensive book I know of about the community movement." -- M. Scott Peck. Building community with friends, family, support groups, neighborhoods, co-workers, cyber-companions, shared households and visionary communities. Excellent guidance on conflict, decision-making, celebrations, communication and dealing with community evolution and "shadow side."
  • The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge (Doubleday Currency, 1990). This book introduced the world to the idea of an organization that can learn. It was followed by the The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook by Senge, et. al. (Doubleday Currency, 1994), jam-packed with strategies, tools and exercises to help us build such organizations.
  • Future Search by Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff (Berrett-Koehler, 1995). A how-to book for finding common ground and co-creating the future of organizations and communities.
  • Complexity by M. Waldrop (Simon & Schuster, 1992). This book opened my eyes to the way nature generates totally new phenomena through the co-evolution of complex synergies.
  • Democracy and Technology by Richard Sclove (Guildford, 1995). Shows how technologies support and undermine democracy, and asks: "What role should democracy have in the development of technology?"
  • The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken (HarperBusiness, 1993). How an economy world work that fully collaborated with nature.
  • Shifting by Paul Krapfel ($12.50 from 18080 Brincat Manor Dr., Cottonwood, CA 96022). Engaging examples of nature dancing entropy into life, and how we humans can join that dance. His updated, nicer, more expensive version is Seeing Nature: Deliberate encounters with the visible world (Chelsea Green, 1999) which is available from bookstores.
  • Who Do You Think You Are? by Keith Harary and Eileen Donahue. (HarperSF, 1994). How to use The Berkeley Personality Profile, which explores human differences without "typing" people.
  • The Three Faces of Mind by Elaine de Beauport (Quest, 1996). An integrated theory of multi-modal intelligence based on the functions of the three parts of the human brain.
  • Frames of Mind by Howard Gardner (Basic Books, 1993). The first fully-researched theory of multiple intelligences that opened the door to expanded views of intelligence.
  • Open Space Technology by Harrison Owen (Berrett-Koehler, 1997). The how-to manual for one of the simplest, most powerful self-organized collective processes we have.
  • Facilitators Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner, et al. (New Society, 1996). A brilliant, very understandable guide to facilitated consensus process, organized so that pieces can be copied and used by the group.
  • Dialogue: Rediscovering the Transforming Power of Conversation by Linda Ellinor and Glenna Gerard (J. Wiley and Sons, 1998).
  • The Joy of Conversation by Jaida N'ha Sandra (Utne, 1997). The Utne Reader-sponsored guide to co-creative salons of all types. Excellent writeups on study circles, listening circles, etc.
  • Study Circles by Len Oliver (Seven Locks, 1987). The history and practice of small-group, democratic, adult education and social learning.
  • The Quickening of America by Frances Moore Lappé and Paul Du Bois (Jossey-Bass, 1994). Powerful examples and new theory about how Americans are "doing democracy."
  • The Leader as Martial Artist by Arnold Mindell (HarperSF, 1992). The Aikido of conflict resolution, relationship and change.
  • The Aquarian Conspiracy by Marilyn Ferguson (Tarcher,1980). The book on the holistic "new paradigm" revolution which laid the groundwork for co-intelligence.
  • Necessary Wisdom by Charles Johnston (ICD Press, POB 85631, Seattle, WA 98145; 1991). The dance of opposites into creative co-evolution; building living bridges between us, where we come alive together.
  • Confessions of Empowering Organizations. by Redburn, Ray, et al. (Association for Quality and Participation, 1991). 92 case studies of partnership and empowerment, self-managed work crews, self-directed reorganizations -- with names and phone numbers.
  • Leadership and the New Science by Margaret Wheatley (Berrett-Koelher, 1992). How to relate to organizations as natural systems.
  • Transforming Human Culture by Jay Earley (SUNY, 1997). Tracking the evolution of integral culture from prehistory into the 21st Century.
  • Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and Willima Ury (Penguin, 1981). The classic introduction to principled negotiation. (See review of Roger Fisher's books by Rowan Smith and William Ury's GETTING TO PEACE.)
  • Reworking Success by Robert Theobald (New Society, 1997). An accessible re-examination of how to make communities and societies work better in the 21st Century.
  • Heart Politics by Fran Peavey (New Society, 1986). One of the most creative inquiries into what it means to live a life trying to change things for the better, sensitive to the interconnectedness, mystery, beauty and quirkiness of life.
  • Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community's Assets by John P. Kretzmann and John L. McKnight (Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research, 1993; $15 from ACTA Publications [800] 397-2282)
  • The Spirit of Community: The Reinvention of American Society by Amitai Etzioni (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1993). The kick-off of the communitarian movement.
  • The Power in our Hands: Neighborhood-Based World Shaking by Tony Gibson (Jon Carpenter, UK,1996). How-tos and stories for those who want to make a creative difference in their communities.
  • Going Local: Creating Self-Reliant Communities in a Global Age by Michael H. Shuman (The Free Press, 1998). The title says it.
  • Self-Reliant Cities by David Morris (Sierra Club Books,1982). The classic visionary text on the relationships of American cities to energy. This and many other books on that topic can be found at





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