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
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
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.
EFFECTS OF THE PROCESS
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.
A NEW PROCESS FOR EVOLVING PEACEFUL CIVILIZATIONS
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
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, awakeningcommunity.org, which no
longer appears to exist.
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