How to Make a Decision Without Making a Decision
(written for Communities magazine,
by Tom Atlee
When I first saw a decision being made without any decision-making
I was trapped with hundreds of my fellow community members in a
fertilizer factory in Western Colorado. The place stank like anything,
and it was stifling hot. The towering sheet-metal roof was bellowing
with thousands of gallons of water smashing down on it from an unstoppable
herd of thunderclouds charging by thousands of feet above us. Jostling
together in our sopping rain gear, we were not happy campers.
You may have guessed that this was not your usual intentional community.
We were 400 people from all walks of life trying to live together
in a tent city that moved 15 miles down the road every day or two.
We joked that our lives were "in-tents". We were the 1986
cross-country Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament and
we were getting ready to fall apart. (We'd already fallen apart
once in the California desert when our sponsoring organization,
Pro-Peace, went bankrupt and stranded all 1200 of us. 800 of us
went home. The 400 of us trapped in the fertilizer factory were
the ones who'd finally gotten rolling again after two weeks holed
up on a Barstow MX track back in March looking for new support and
leadership. But that's a whole 'nother story!)
At any rate, here it was June already and we were being eaten away
from the inside by a conflict that just wouldn't stop -- the familiar
war between "maintaining an acceptable appearance for the rest
of the world," and "expressing our authentic selves."
Nearly every community has its own version of this. Ours had been
festering for almost two months before we landed in the fertilizer
factory (we'd been decamping on its lawn when the storm rolled in).
Our two polarized camps were: "We should march along in orderly
rows to impress the media and maintain order in the face of traffic!"
and "We should move at our own pace in a strung-out line so
we can appreciate the natural world and chat with people in homes
and schools we pass!" You can pretty much imagine who was on
each side. And each side was ready to leave the march ... "if
you people are going to wreck the march like that!"
But today we were momentarily drawn together by our common enemy,
the rain. Taking advantage of our temporary communion, a few wise
marchers set up a portable speaker system right there amidst the
piles of odiferous chemicals, suggesting that anyone who wished
to should take a 2-minute turn speaking into the microphone about
our conflict. So we did that, with great passion and messiness.
"How can we talk about peace and then force everyone to march
like a military unit?!!" "How do you expect to get disarmament
if the media can make fun of us as a raggle-taggle mob of hippies?!!"
"How do we expect to get to Washington if we can't get along?!!"
"No one has a right to dictate to me how I walk!" "Someone's
going to get hit by an upset motorist in some city if we don't get
some discipline around here." "I get all my energy from
the sky and the trees. If I'm too crowded with other people I lose
touch with that." "Hey, folks, we're all in this together.
We're just like the Russians and the Americans; we have to learn
to resolve our conflicts peacefully."
It went on like that for two hours, with each person speaking only
once. As it proceeded, I noticed that speakers were increasingly
taking into account what previous people had said. Even though there
was no back-and-forth, and no facilitator, the monologues began
to sound more and more like dialogue. I was REALLY blown away when
one speaker after another began saying things that had only occurred
to me moments before. I heard the ambivalences and nuances in my
own head and heart being spoken and wrestled with in the public
conversation I was part of. I started to sense us all working our
way into what some native peoples call "One Big Mind."
From the inside, I could feel that big Peace March Mind struggling
to come to terms with all the elements of this difficult problem
that it faced. It was doing just what my own mind does: "Well,
let's see, if I do THIS, then.... but no, that wouldn't be so good.
So I should try THIS, and then... But I need to take into account
this other thing... etc."
And then someone said: "Why don't we all walk together in
the cities and let people walk at their own pace in the country?"
The next person said, "Well, I was going to talk about my experience
as a media photographer, and the sorts of shots we like, and I was
sort of thinking it would be good to be all together with the flags
up front, but then I realized this new suggestion seems best of
all. High shots of the march strung out along a country road, plus
talking to farmers and all that would be great -- but you'd need
to be massed together for a city shot to make sense." And the
next person said, "Well, we could just call it city mode and
country mode and just do it." And then the rain stopped. After
two hours of unremitting clatter, the silence was deafening. Without
further comment, we streamed out into the dusk to finish putting
up our tents.
As I stepped out into the flooded fields I suddenly realized that
no decision had been made. No motion was made. No vote was taken.
No one checked for consensus. Nothing was announced or recorded.
The group just "knew" how we were going to behave as we
marched down the streets and highways of America. And, in subsequent
months, the overwhelming majority of us did just that.
Years later I read that Oren Lyons, faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan
of the Onandaga Iroquois, said of his tribal council tradition:
"We just keep talking until there's nothing left but the obvious
truth." Once "the obvious truth" has been found,
there is no need for a "decision." Such truth not only
sets people free -- it allows a group or community to self-organize.
(For more info on the Great Peace March, see
A Laboratory in Democracy: Revisiting the
Great Peace March by Steve Brigham.)
MIDWIFING THE EMERGENCE OF "OBVIOUS TRUTH"
The word "decision" derives from Latin words meaning
"to cut away." It comes from the same root as "incision"
-- "to cut in." To de-cide is to cut away all the other
alternatives but one. If you are considering options 1-6, a decision
picks option 4 and cuts away options 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6 (to say nothing
of 7-419!). When people "hammer out a compromise", there's
even more cutting going on -- a cutting and pasting of trade-offs.
And "forging an agreement" requires a lot of heat and
even more hammering.
In contrast, what happened in that Colorado fertilizer factory
in the summer of 1986 was more like a group realization (a collective
"a-ha!" experience) or a seed sprouting. No cutting, no
hammering, nothing being pasted together or traded-off -- just a
set of conditions that helped the obvious truth emerge. Instead
of slicing, pounding and constructing, the energy was more like
emergence, sprouting, bubbling up, being born, breaking through.
Of course the breakthrough came after a lot of turbulent hoo-hah
about all the aspects of the issue, all the feelings, all the stories
people were telling themselves and each other, all the information
connected to this or that possiblity. I've come to think of this
as the necessary cultivation of the earth in preparation for planting,
or like making compost, or like midwifing a birth. This is "setting
the conditions" needed to help the natural, obvious truth emerge
-- that bigger truth that takes into account all the different pieces
of the puzzle. The struggly, juicy work early on provides the nutrient
base for the ultimate discovery of that big truth.
Here are five requirements for powerful non-decision-making, for
discovering big obvious truths:
3) Motivation (Commitment/Responsibility/Necessity)
4) Deep Dialogue
5) Enough time
DIVERSITY: Without diversity, there is no creative tension, and
little chance of seeing a bigger picture. Any group has lots of
diversity, but sometimes the right KIND of diversity is needed.
Consultant Meg Wheatley offers a great question that can be asked
over and over: "Who else should be in this conversation?"
But diversity needs help to avoid bogging down in argumentation
so it can discover its true resource-full-ness.
PASSION: Without passion there is no energy to drive discovery.
Too often we are urged to be "dispassionate" because passion
is so often associated with dogmatism and inflexibility. But passion
is where the creative juice is, where the caring is, where everything
that is truly important lives. It just needs help to break out of
fixed ideas and preconceptions long enough to become aligned with
the passions of other people. This generates the power needed to
realize shared visions and solutions.
MOTIVATION: Without commitment (or responsibility or necessity)
there is nothing to keep people together in the conversation long
enough to make it through the inevitable dissonance one encounters
enroute to the shared excitement of creative discovery. The emergence
of true breakthroughs is seldom neat and pretty. All creativity
is messy, some is fun. But if we're going to get through the messy
parts, we have to hang in there. (This is a secret probably every
communitarian reluctantly knows...)
DEEP DIALOGUE: By "deep dialogue" I mean exploration
towards shared understanding, connection and possibility. Deep dialogue
isn't a method. It is a quality of inquiry and conversation characterized
by interest, listening and respect. It can be achieved by agreement,
by group culture, by practice, by accident or by facilitation. In
the Peace March example above, we had already developed a group
culture of "talking stick circles" -- the Native American
practice of passing an object around a circle, with each person
who holds it "speaking the truth from their heart." We'd
practiced doing circles for several months, and that spirit helped
generate the deep dialogue that resulted when our "talking
stick" was a microphone.
ENOUGH TIME: How much time is "enough time"? Sometimes
it is ten minutes. Sometimes it is ten months. Often "enough
time" includes leaving an issue to lie fallow -- letting it
be gnawed at by people between meetings, letting perspectives and
situations shift incrementally -- before coming back to it again.
Enough is enough. And those communities that acknowledge the power
of ripeness and the essential continuity of community conversation
-- and therefore help their shared understandings develop "in
their own good time" -- reap the richest harvests.
Just as good cultivation or midwifery don't guarantee a great harvest
or a healthy baby, good group process doesn't guarantee the emergence
of Greater Truth. However, we'll only be able to evoke shared insight
with any frequency if we use good processes well.
Choice-creating process was created by consultant Jim Rough
of Port Townsend, WA (see http://www.tobe.net
for information and training opportunities). It is the centerpiece
of a practice called "dynamic
facilitation" which encourages people and ideas to change
as a conversation unfolds. Anything done to help such transformational
conversation happen qualifies as dynamic facilitation. Jim contrasts
"transformational talking" with "transactional talking"
or discussion, in which unchanging people bat solid ideas back and
forth like a ping-pong ball. "Discussion" derives from
the same root as "percussion" -- a root meaing "to
hit." In contrast, transformational talking is more flowing
The choice-creating process works best where a group faces a thorny
shared problem they all care about. The dynamic facilitator writes
what they say up on four chart pad pages, labeled
· Problems (or Situation Statements, or Inquiries),
· Solutions (or Possibilities or Options),
· Concerns, and
Most processes try to get clear on the problem first, then discuss
it, than figure out a solution, etc. Choice-creating process just
plucks these things like fruit as they arise from the ongoing conversation,
with no effort to organize them.
The group usually starts with some problem statement which evokes
people's suggestions about how to handle it. Most familiar processes
treat suggestions as proposals. But in choice-creating each suggestion
is just written on the Solutions page. Furthermore, at any point
someone may say, "Wait a minute. We're barking up the wrong
tree. There's actually a much deeper (or broader or other) problem
here...." The facilitator writes their new problem statement
on the Problems page and -- if the group is interested in it --
follows their energy. There's no effort to hold the conversation
to any linear train of thought.
If someone says, "That's absurd! That would distract us from
our basic mission here!" the facilitator writes that down on
the Concerns sheet, nipping conflict in the bud while noting each
person's contribution. If someone says, "We're forgetting there
are thousands of people in this town who are not part of our community
who are also interested in this issue," that's just written
on the Data sheet.
The facilitator lets people know they've been heard and keeps the
conversation moving forward. He or she doesn't revise what's already
written, or check whether a piece of Data is factual or not, or
try to get the group to pick the best solution from those listed.
Whatever is said is logged on the big sheets in front of the room.
Sometimes the facilitator will dig a bit, trying to put some meat
on the bones. For example, if someone says, "The real problem
is X!" the facilitator might write that down and say, "You're
saying that the real problem is X. Is that right? Ok. So let's say
you're king of the world. How would you handle X?" -- and writes
down the answer on the Solutions page. "And you over there.
What do you think?"....
In the early stages of the choice-creating process people tend
to share things they already knew when they walked in -- their sense
of the problem, their ideas about what should be done, their concerns
and information. This is exactly what should happen, and the facilitator
helps it along. All those pieces of the puzzle need to be out in
the group space. And participants need to feel heard, to free their
attention to hear and creatively interact with each other.
A well-facilitated choice-creating process will usually evoke breakthroughs
a) all the participants are really interested in solving the problem
or breaking through on the topic;
b) the group of participants is consistent over time; and
c) there is enough time available, preferably several meetings,
each several hours long.
Choice-creating works best with a trained dynamic facilitator.
Smart organizations and communities will share facilitators so that
every member of each group can participate in that group's meetings
and the facilitator has no special interest in the outcome.
Other useful Big Truth processes include:
- Listening Circles - An
object is passed around the circle of participants. Each consecutive
holder of the object speaks from their heart. No facilitator is
- Fishbowl - In a group conflict,
members of Side A converse in a central circle while others watch.
Then Side B converses while others watch. Then other sides or
no-sides take their turns. The whole sequence repeats two or more
times. Facilitation is often useful.
- World Cafe - The group breaks
up into subgroups who talk for a while and then mix randomly into
other subgroups and continue talking, ultimately returning to
their original subgroup. Someone needs to ring a bell to signal
- Open Space Conferences - Participants
who are passionate about a given topic create their own sessions
on aspects of that topic. Active facilitation is needed at the
- Consensus Process - Explore a
topic and options until all agree on the best approach. Usually
consensus is a decision-making process, but sometimes the emergent
solution is so clear that "deciding" is a formality.
Facilitation is advisable.
These and other powerful processes are described more fully on
my website at http://www.co-intelligence.org/CIcontents.html
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