Co-Intelligence Logo The Co-Intelligence Institute

What's New
Our Work
Contact RESOURCES Don't Miss (Features)
Links JOIN US Subscribe
Take Action
Donate Legal Notices


Open Question Circles



The purpose of this simple, powerful process is to help us realize our own deepest needs and values regarding a group, organization, community or activity that's important to us -- and to discover needs and values that are shared by others and held in common. These realizations can open doors to richer relationships, insights and possibilities.



Participants gather in circles of 4-7 people, each with a "Designated Facilitator" who has a card with three things written on it:

  • "What would make _______ [the name of the shared organization, enterprise or circumstance] more wonderful for you?"
  • "What would that do for you personally?"
  • "Thank you."

After a very brief initial discussion laying out the guidelines for the circle and encouraging participants to listen deeply to each other, each Designated Facilitator asks the person sitting next to him or her the first question. The other person takes a moment to let an answer emerge and then shares it briefly. This process is repeated for the second question. The Designated Facilitator thanks the answerer and hands them the card. The person who just answered the questions then asks the same questions of the next person, thanks them, hands them the card -- and so it goes, around the circle. There is no cross-talk, discussion or criticism during this go-round process and participants may "pass" at any time. Each person is in complete control of their degree of self-exposure.

A round usually takes about 10-20 minutes. Do several of them. They go faster as people learn the process, as they become attuned to deeper layers of meaning in themselves, and as their self-expressions become more comfortably congruent with that deeper meaning.

After two or three rounds people start to realize the circle is a safe and inviting space in which to express themselves and be heard. They begin to say things resonant with a depth of meaning seldom touched in ordinary conversation. They tend to relax and become even more engaged, expressing themselves more freely, deeply, and creatively, and a remarkable sense of excitement and connection can begin to build.

Three rounds are strongly recommended. The more rounds, the more shift, depth and magic seem to happen.

After the rounds, it is often useful have an open discussion period. This allows normal conversation to take place within the newly emergent and expanded context of meaning fostered by the circles. This can stabilize any transformation that has occurred, and so is sometimes referred to as "weaving the social fabric." These discussions can be short, or they can begin longer conversations.

For large groups, you may want to use two or more sets of rounds, mixing the membership of the circles between sets to multiply the connections within the group (as is done in The World Cafe).

Note: Giving people copies of step-by-step guidelines like these may help them take the process out into their own groups and lives.



The primary question is an Open Question, which changes according to the needs of the group, while the follow-up question never varies.

An open question has particular qualities: It embraces the concerns of everyone in the group. It does not presume an answer. And it has heart.

We have found that the primary question must have a positive, open-ended word like "wonderful" to elicit extraordinary levels of creative energy and transform the group dynamic. The most evocative questions reflect an identification with the whole of humanity and nature. This standard question works well: "What would make _____________ more wonderful for you?" Fill in your group, community, organization, the world or whatever you have in common.

Each person in the group must be able to relate to the topic to become deeply engaged in the process. If the question evokes an answer from the heart, it will probably be effective.

The follow-up question never varies. It is: "What would that do for you personally?" This question is an essential part of the process. Although you may be tempted to drop it, much of the power of the Open Question Circle actually resides here. In contemplating and responding to the follow-up question, participants become aware of and communicate their values, needs, and meanings, which are also held in common by all human beings. The experience of sharing this common ground of humanity opens the door to new possibilities of awareness, connection, and action.

This dynamic is closely related to the dynamic of Nonviolent Communication, which inspired this Open Question process.



If ideas generated in the Circles are written on sticky notes, they can be posted and rearranged into affinity groups by the group as a whole. An affinity group is a cluster of ideas with a common theme. This identifies and organizes the interests present in the group, thereby clarifying collective intent -- in both its unity and its diversity. The group can then develop programs or focus groups based on these idea clusters.

Some groups are experimenting with Open Question Circles, Affinity Diagramming and the resulting focus groups as their fundamental internal process for organization and operations.



Simply listening and attending carefully to others for an extended period of time tends to create rapport and connection. Combined with the mutual non-hierarchical nature of the process, the discovery of shared values, and the intellectual and creative connections that occur as ideas evolve in the course of the circle, a real bond can develop among participants, especially with repeated experiences of the process.

By responding to a well-designed Open Question, participants develop an emotional, visceral, and intellectual recognition of shared values. This sharing replaces the assumption of separation with an experience of deep connection. This experience often feels like a great discovery which leaves participants more energized and enthusiastic.

This experience of deep connection naturally tends to expand one's sense of community, from narrow self-interest to the more inclusive interests of the group or community. From such an expanded sense of mutual caring come inspiration and personal motivation to develop new strategies and the willingness to do what it takes to make the world a place where everyone can have a full and satisfying life.



This has obvious uses in situations where we are trying to bring people together. For residential communities, conferences, problem-solving activities, conflict resolution efforts, etc., Open Question Circles can create a context of openness and appreciation of common intent among participants, setting a productive tone for the gathering right from the beginning.

As with Dynamic Facilitation and transformational mediation, this process allows people with pressing agendas to express themselves and feel heard from the start, which helps them be more available to hear and respond to others. Open Question Circles can lead to conceptual breakthroughs by shifting the conversation from fixed positions and strategic stances to a deeper recognition of common interests. Conflicting strategies can thus be seen as related through their focus on similar needs, and this can lead to more inclusive strategies which are more likely to be effective.



The Open Question as a way of organizing our thoughts and actions was inspired by an insight about civilizations.

Civilizations have been built on answers which worked at the time of their inception. But as those answers have become institutionalized and defended by vested interests, they have tended to become increasingly dysfunctional. They may have been effective once, but the environments in which they originally performed well change, often because of the very success of those answers.

For example, successful food production has led to increasing population. Increasing population has led to growing cultural complexity and increased demands on the finite resource base. This, if left unchecked, has repeatedly led to an exhausted resource base, including the food supply. When such fixed answers become completely inadequate to the evolving circumstances, civilizations have failed.

This pattern persists today.

The Open Question approach opens ways to reverse this destructive pattern. Shifting from habitual fixation on nonadaptive answers to a deliberate focus on the underlying questions lays the groundwork for an open, adaptive, and progressive cultural dynamic.

Answers are regarded as working answers only, to be replaced as more effective answers are found. New and potentially superior answers are continually generated in response to a fundamental "core question."

With an inclusive core question, consideration naturally becomes comprehensive and solutions tend to solve more problems than intended rather than creating more problems than anticipated.

Special interests give way to common interests. And continuous and flexible adaptation toward meeting the fundamental needs of all -- which is a natural consequence of this approach -- leads to conditions of peace


Note: This page was edited by Tom Atlee primarily from the Open Question Circles website,, which no longer appears to exist.


Home || What's New || Search || Who We Are || Co-Intelligence || Our Work || Projects || Contact || Don't Miss || Articles || Topics || Books || Links || Subscribe || Take Action || Donate || Legal Notices

If you have comments about this site, email
Contents copyright © 2003-2008, all rights reserved, with generous permissions policy (see Legal Notices)