Practicing Transformative Inquiry
with Amy Edelstein
From boardrooms to basketball courts, conversation cafes to tribal dispute mediations, “collective intelligence” brought about by a form of deep dialogue or enlightening communication has brought great and unexpected insight and change.
What is it? How do you do it?
That’s what this lesson is all about.
First, let’s get clear about what deep dialogue is not.
Think about it. It’s not: Those intense conversations. With no blank space, everyone talking non-stop with tons to say, and no room for anything new.
In these inquiries: The conversation narrative goes round and round. Decibel level get higher and higher. Space between points gets less and less. Maybe one person dominates. Another sits on the sidelines, arms crossed, critically observing yet saying nothing. One apologizes every time he speaks. Another shoots down what everyone says, no matter what.
You leave those discussions exhausted, confused, and wondering what just happened. Who was right? Was anyone right? Did you contribute anything of value? Did anyone listen to you? Did you listen to anyone? Did you learn anything? Did you go anywhere at all?
This happens all to often. With friends. In work meetings. At book clubs. In the yoga studio dressing room. At the café.
All these good people. An interesting subject. Everyone wanting a meaningful discussion. But we don’t know how to communicate in a way that goes deeper, beyond what we already know. A way to inquire that takes all of us into the unknown.
The reason why collective inquiry doesn’t go anywhere significant is not rocket science.
Dialogue that leads to illumination and emergence—as mysterious as it is, and believe me it can really be magic—can be practiced. You can learn how to do it. And you can get better and better at it.
Here are the 10 big ideas so you can learn:
1. Want to go somewhere new
The first big idea is so simple, you’ll think I’m not taking you seriously. But it’s more subtle than it appears on first blush. You have to want to go somewhere new. Being interested in what we don’t already know is not something we’re trained to do. It takes practice, and it takes risk. Can we dare to not rest on our knowledge base (knowing it’ll inform us but we don’t need to hold onto it)? Can we be interested in discovery? The unknown is really unknown. It’s mysterious and pragmatic. That’s why it makes us a little nervous. Become comfortable with that dis-ease. It’ll lead to extraordinary places.
2. Listen deeply.
The depth of communication depends on the quality of our attention. Listen with your inner ears. Open your whole being. Discover sensitivities you didn’t realize you had. Listen for something that is subtle and soft, that echo of the beyond, of what is more deeply true or insightful behind someone’s words. Listen to the quality of the space between us. The field of consciousness between us is affected by how fully we engage with it.
3. Lean in.
Participation is verbal and nonverbal. We don’t have to be speaking to be fully present. As you become more and more skilled at this, you realize how much your full participation contributes to and guides the group. How? Participation is not just verbal, it’s the silences, the space we hold open for something new to emerge. Our active leaning in encourages others to lean in, our focused attention and energy and interest draws something up to the surface so we all found ourselves surprised by what is said, and by who said it.
4. Pay attention to where someone is coming from.
Let go of your preconceived ideas about other people, where they are coming from, whether you think their contribution or insight is going to be valuable—or not. We limit what we hear and what we allow to happen by placing each other in a box. It’s like packing all our own Christmas presents. We already know what’s inside. We all have depths that we rarely allow to the surface. We all have the ability to access the Unknown and to speak from that in most unexpected ways. Listen to and for that. When you pay attention to where someone is coming from, for what they are trying to get out, even if the words aren’t quite formed, you’ll be surprised at what someone you thought you already knew is saying. Put your attention on that shoot that is trying to poke through, even if it is far smaller than the jungle of weeds covering the surface.
5. Respond to the deepest point.
Resist the temptation to correct or criticize. There’s almost always a better, more clear, more succinct, more hip, more poetic, more accurate, more rational, more dimensional way to express any insight. To enable a current of collective intelligence to begin to form, we must resist the temptation to criticize, correct, or reinterpret. From your fully embodied listening you will have heard the echo of what is deeper, respond to that. It may not have been the bulk of what was said. It might just be the germ of the seed. Bring that to light.
6. Follow a thread.
Allow the discussion to have it’s own course, discern where it is going and build, slowly, in small incremental leaps. Like any journey, you want to keep heading forward into the distance. When you’re climbing a mountain you want to be heading upwards, not taking the switchbacks that wind their way back to base camp. Sometimes we have to let go and go blind, and let the intelligence of the discussion take us. Ignore the voice within that always second guesses and changes direction before anything can unfold.
7. Say something only when it moves the conversation forward
As we saw, participation, attention, and listening are verbal and non-verbal. Contribute only when you have something to add that will move the conversation forward. Trust that what is being built is being built by all of us together. In communication that fosters emergence, it’s the quality of our attention that makes us a full participant. It’s not who says any particular point. The goal is to build something together. To become aware of the living collective space we are always creating. And to make that collective field of consciousness the most rich, fertile, and vibrant field as we can.
8. Be more interested in the space between than in your own point
Imagine that everyone is sitting in a circle, and the space in the middle is a tapestry being stitched. The needle is magic, with an energy of its own. It can stitch from one side of the circle to the other, changing color, changing texture. This is the thread of a collective spiritual inquiry practice. Be more interested in what is happening in the space between us than in your own turn. Put your focus on the tapestry we are weaving together. Stay in touch with the qualities of the field of consciousness. Allow your own point to be thrown into the center, to be stitched into the tapestry and merged into the collective process. Being more interested in where the inquiry is going and the quality of the field we are generating together takes us beyond the known. This is what allows us to access a wisdom and intelligence we had no idea we were capable of. It’s what allows something truly new to emerge.
9. Keep one eye inner and one eye outer.
Keep part of your attention on yourself, and part of your attention on what is happening unselfconsciously and without division. We always want to keep our egos in check, always want to keep our impulses, projections, frustrations, greed, ambition, competition, insecurity, self-doubt, self-consciousness visible to us. We don’t need to do anything with any of that and we don’t need to focus on it. But if it’s operating in us and we don’t realize it, it is going to control our participation, rather than us being able to participate consciously and constructively in a developmental process with others. One eye outer means we’re also aware of what’s happening in the collective process, and the dynamics of the group. If things get bogged down, sluggish, confrontational, dismissive, we are ready and able to drop deeper, refocus, and bring out something positive, forward moving that will re-unify the field.
10. Let go of the results
As with any practice, the collective practice of communication that is illuminating and generative enriches us personally but ultimately is for the benefit of all. As we transform from the inside out, more able to participate in a constructive way with others, we discover trust. We refresh our curiosity. We open at new dimensions of our inner being. We model a generosity of relatedness. We give people confidence in themselves and in life. We discover that wish-fulfilling gem in action, the more we give away, our hearts mysteriously replenish, so we can continue to give for the benefit of all.