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 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.
The realization? 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.

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 possibility. I’ve come to think of this as the necessary cultivation of the earth in preparation for planting, or like making compost, or like mid-wifing 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:

  • 1) 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.
  • 2) 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.
  • 3) MOTIVATION (Commitment/Responsibility/Necessity): 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…)
  • 4) 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.
  • 5) 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 doesn’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.

The Choice-Creating Process

Choice-creating process was created by consultant Jim Rough of Port Townsend, WA.

  • 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 meaning “to hit.” In contrast, transformational talking is more flowing and exploratory.

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
  • Data.

Most processes try to get clear on the problem first, then discuss it, then 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 that 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 the 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 if:

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.

Tom Atlee is the founder and co-director of the non-profit Co-Intelligence Institute and has served on the boards of The Center for Group Learning and Berkeley’s Ecology Center. His work has grown out of years of exploring and writing about collaborative dynamics and the need to improve society’s ability to recognize, reflect on and creatively respond to challenges. Tom writes extensively on leading-edge issues in politics, philosophy and social transformation, and his primary focus is on co-intelligence and revitalizing democratic systems.