Our recent discussions about beliefs served to reconfirm, from another angle, the basic conclusions that I reached when I wrote my book, Escaping the Matrix. That is, social transformation can only be achieved via cultural transformation. We cannot fix the existing system – it is dysfunctional in its very essence – but we can seek to replace it with something new, building from the grassroots. Gandhi’s suggestion, “Be the change you want to see”, needs to be interpreted in a social context: “Become, together, the culture you want to see”.
As regards what kind of culture ‘we want to see’, I think we need to look into our own nature: what kind of culture is natural to us? We are social animals. We evolved in cooperative, mutually supportive bands. We are psychologically wired to be part of a supportive community. Anything else is disempowering and foreign to our nature. In the old days, the worst punishment was to be banished from your tribe. Today, we are all in a state of banishment. This is why psychologists never run out of work: the attempt to fit round pegs into square holes can never succeed. Our spirits can only be liberated by ending our banishment from community, our natural environment. We need to somehow recreate a culture of cooperation and mutual-support.
It is in this spirit that I put forward the idea of harmonization circles. By meeting regularly, and engaging in the right kind of dialog, we can re-create a supportive culture in microcosm. If the circles have a way of propagating, of reproducing themselves, the culture can spread throughout our societies. The circles can become a meme of cultural transformation.
I brought these ideas up with some friends of mine, who are also very much concerned with dialog processes and cultural transformation: Rosa Zubizarreta, Tree Bressen, Tom Atlee, and Molly Morgan. The ideas resonated with them, and a very productive discussion emerged. Indeed, we became for a few days an online harmonization circle. We pooled our thinking about cultural transformation, memes, and dialog, and we all learned something from the process.
They were supportive of the circle concept, and contributed many ideas for improving it. They also helped me see a larger context, that cultural transformation needs to be explored from many directions, and that the circles are but one line of experimental exploration. As I learned more about the explorations the others were pursuing, I began to feel part of a supportive research community. The process of the online circle was enriching our shared culture, just as circles are supposed to do.
I’m eager to get an experimental circle started here in Wexford, involving activists who are involved in various community initiatives. I’ve already begun compiling a list of people to contact for preliminary explorations. On the one hand the circle will be seeking to bring coherence to local activism, and on the other hand it will serve as a test of the circle principles.
Below is a promotional piece for harmonization circles, based on my current vision of circles, as enhanced by a little help from my friends. I present it in the hope that some of you might want to try forming a circle where you live. If so, feel free to contact me and we can discuss it in more depth.
Harmonization circles: enhancing group effectiveness
A harmonization circle is any ongoing group, that meets regularly, and that follows a certain dialog protocol. It is a simple circle process, where people sit in a circle facing one another, and take turns speaking. There are three guidelines that people agree to respect and practice in these circles. These are:
• speaking from the heart about what really matters to you
• listening attentively to what others say
• respecting one another as peers, each entitled to their own beliefs and concerns
The role of the host
One of the circle members acts as host, and the host has a very important role in the development of the circle. The host serves as guardian of the process, by supporting the group in following the guidelines, and by creating an atmosphere where people feel their contributions are being valued. In order to do this effectively, the host needs to have prior experience working with groups, and a basic ‘feel’ for group dynamics.
In particular the host needs to model the process by listening very carefully to what people say, by expressing himself or herself from a ‘deep place’, and by showing respect for all the participants. When the host’s turn comes to speak, it is useful for them to include a reflection on the threads under discussion. This contributes to the coherence of the dialog, demonstrates that people have been heard, and may encourage people to expand further on their ideas and concerns.
Benefits of the circle process
The circle process is a particularly effective way for a group to operate. Such circles are in fact an ancient form, used by indigenous societies as a way of making tribal decisions. As the dialog goes around the circle, the group gains a deeper and deeper understanding of the issues under discussion, and eventually it becomes clear to everyone what is the best way forward. While debate narrows down discussion to a few options, the circle opens up discussion, so that new approaches can be found that deal with everyone’s concerns.
By using the process, the people in the group come to know and understand one another at a deep level, and a sense of mutual trust and respect develops. By practicing the guidelines of the process, the guidelines eventually become the natural culture of the group, the most comfortable way of being together. Such a group, using the process, is unusually effective at making plans and decisions, and bringing the combined wisdom of the group to bear on such matters. In addition, each of the members of the group develops the experience and sensitivity that can enable them to act as host of a new circle, bringing the benefits of the process to some other group as well.
The process is particularly effective when there are strong differences in beliefs and concerns in the group. When each viewpoint can be fully expressed, and when everyone gives it a fair hearing without interrupting, it becomes possible to find common ground. And when there is mutual trust and respect, people naturally want to find solutions that work for everyone, just as they would in their families.
Benefits for activist groups
Harmonization circles are particularly beneficial for activist groups. Activists want their time to be used efficiently, and they want to be able make effective decisions and plans and get on with doing things. However, this is easier said than done. There can be struggles over leadership, debates over agendas, personality conflicts, etc. Group dynamics can always be problematic, and activists lack the imposed structure of groups that exist within organizations. The circle process provides a simple way to overcome these kinds of difficulties, and enable the group to function at its full potential in defining and pursuing its objectives.
Benefits for stakeholder groups
When a problem or conflict arises in a community, it makes sense to gather together people from all sides of the issue – the stakeholders – and see if they can talk things through and find a way to solve the problem or resolve the conflict. Again, this is easier said than done. In such situations there are usually factions, perhaps with entrenched positions, and even animosity between the factions.
These can be very difficult groups indeed, as regards group dynamics, and for such groups some kind of process is frequently employed, with a mediator or facilitator of some kind. This can raise new issues, regarding the neutrality of the facilitator, the bias of the process, or the expense involved.
If the issues are important ones, and the stakeholder group is willing to keep meeting for a while, seeking resolution, the harmonization circle process can be very effective. As people hear each other out, and get to understand one another as people with real concerns, it becomes possible for them to talk with one another rather than against one another.
As mutual understanding grows, the sense of competing factions melts away, and people realize they have a shared problem, and that they can best solve it by cooperating and working on it creatively together. What was a divisive problem in the community can ultimately serve to bring the community together, with a stronger sense of shared community than existed before the problem arose.
Moderator: •••@••.••• (comments welcome)