Summary: At the point we enter a transformational conversation, we don't know what sorts of outcome there will be -- what solutions we'll find, what problems we'll be addressing, or even who we'll be or what our world will be like when we're done. Shifts could happen in any or all of these areas of unknownness. Choice-creating process provides ways to help a conversation proceed fruitfully through these 'four unknowns', following the life-serving energy that participants are feeling from moment to moment. Dynamic facilitation provides lively human guidance to pursue such choice-creating conversations.
In most official conversations -- and even in many informal ones -- we know exactly what we're talking about and where we're headed. When it is over, we know we're the same people we were at the start, living in much the same world that existed when we started. The defining elements of the situation are relatively stable. The conversations we have in that situation are relatively predictable. We know what to expect. Some of us call such conversations "transactional" because they're essentially about exchange -- a tossing back and forth of ideas and reactions.
Transactional conversations are often dysfunctional: They often sustain or degrade already bad situations, such as when a couple gets in one of their habitual arguments. But transactional conversations can also be fruitful. Fruitful transactional conversations -- and the processes and facilitation that structure them, such as many negotiation techniques or Roberts Rules of Order -- provide a context in which participants can exchange ideas and perspectives that expand the stable common ground on which they can work together without rocking their boats. There's nothing wrong with that.
But such conversations aren't transformational. They're good for keeping things as they are. They will not get people out of any boxes they need to get out of.
Transformational conversations, on the other hand, are all about significant shifts. At the point we enter a transformational conversation we don't know what sorts of outcome there will be -- what solutions we'll find, what problems we'll be addressing, or even who we'll be or what our world will be like when we're done. A conversation can be transformational, however, even when we think we know exactly what's going to happen. We may have thought we were entering a normal transactional conversation. Even when it's done, we may not realize that things have significantly changed. We may only be aware of certain possibilities (that happen to have been unthinkable at the start).
So what we think we know is not what's relevant here. The proof is in the pudding: If we were in a transformational conversation, something has shifted by the end of it -- whether we were aware of it or not -- and that shift could not have happened without these "four unknowns" being present -- not knowing what topics we would address and what solutions we'd come up with, and not knowing what we and our world would be like at the end. Since these four unknowns are essential for transformational conversation, any assumptions, circumstances, processes or facilitation methods that restrict their open-ended presence, will restrict the capacity of conversations to be transformational. Conversations will then be transactional, since that's our culture's default setting.
The four unknowns are necessary -- but not sufficient -- for real transformation. It is possible to get lost in the unknown, to wander in realms where there is little life-serving energy, but only confusion and reaction. Most people have experienced this, and it is fear of that fruitless disorientation that causes them to retreat into transactional conversations when a transformational conversation is trying to happen. Jim Rough's "choice-creating" process provides ways to help a conversation proceed fruitfully through these "four unknowns", following the life-serving energy that participants are feeling from moment to moment. His "dynamic facilitation" provides lively human guidance to pursue such choice-creating conversations.
Of course these guidelines are not hard and fast. Conversations can be more or less transactional, more or less transformational. In addition to dynamic facilitation, other methods -- open space conferencing, nonviolent communication, tribal council process, etc. -- can support transformational conversations. There is much to explore in this territory. But we can use the presence and generativity of these "four unknowns" to identify the extent to which a conversation is transformational, and this can guide our explorations.
The four unknowns are listed below in order of their increasing transformational potency. Each is followed by a description of the added choices available at that level.
1) "We don't know what solution we're going to get
Once our co-creativity gets rolling, new third-way solutions are virtually inevitable. We can create together more choices in our approach to the problem.
2) "We don't actually know what topic we're talking
about, what problem we're trying to solve."
Our STATED topic or problem will probably shift during the conversation as the decks get cleared for more basic topics or problems to emerge. We find new choices available because we've deepened our understanding of the situation we're addressing.
3) "We don't know who we will be at the end of the
All of us -- even the facilitator -- may change -- not only individually, but in our relationships to each other and to our situation and its context. In this level of "choice creating," our new selves may see not only new options (as in 1, above) or reframe the situation (as in 2, above), but whole new realms of possibility because our new selves (and relationships) can not only see and think differently, but respond and initiate differently, and offer different resources.
4) "We don't know what kind of universe we will live
in when we are done."
Evidence is mounting that significant shifts in the way we see and be in (or be) the world, change the world. Quantum mechanics, chaos theory, synchronicity, morphogenic field theory, self-fulfilling prophesies and manifestation practices all suggest that our consciousness can shape the unfolding of events. The shifts we make in transformational conversations may shift more than ourselves. At the very least, our openness to this possibility may make it more manifest. When we emerge from our conversation, we may find the world presenting us with new options that were simply not available before.
It MAY be that the kind of openness generated by people intentionally not-knowing these things, can increase their tranformative power. What we DO know is that processes exist -- such as choice-creating and dynamic facilitation -- that can bring about transformational conversations even among people who are fully prepared for transactional conversation. The rewards are there to be had, whenever we choose to apply this knowledge..
See also: How to Make a Decision Without Making a Decision