Facilitating Change

Practical steps for enabling fundamental positive change

One of the articles in Strategies For Cultural Change (IC#9)
Originally published in Spring 1985 on page 35
Copyright (c)1985, 1997 by Context Institute

Robert Theobald, the guest editor for this issue, is the coordinator for Action Linkage, a national network of social change activists. He is well known as a futurist, author of many books, and co-author of At The Crossroads. Recently he has been focusing his energy on midwifing a "social potential" movement as the appropriate next step building on the personal changes brought by the human potential movement. He lives in Arizona and can be reached via Action Linkage, Box 2240, Wickenburg, AZ 85358.

AS PART OF MY WORK I have the opportunity to talk with many people all over North America about how they see themselves and the society around them. In recent years it has become increasingly clear to me (and many others) that most people are aware of major change moving through the society, have been making many changes in their personal lives and beliefs – especially shifting from win/lose styles to win/win – yet are holding back from carrying these changes into their communities, workplaces, churches, etc. because they still feel alone in their personal changes and have few models for positive and effective institutional change.

This lag between personal changes and institutional change presents us with both a danger and an opportunity. Already, many people believe that they are going crazy because their perceptions of the world conflict with those sent out by the people who control information flows – the media, politicians and academics. We know from history that the continuation of a situation where people are alienated from reality results in a search for a "man on a white horse" – a fascist political leader – or a religious savior.

Yet I also sense that, if people could find the right forum and format for doings so, they could rapidly bring their new personal values into their social and institutional lives. Such a rapid cultural shift is not only possible, Gregory Bateson’s work showed that rapid change in systems was quite common. S-shaped curves are basic in statistics: they show that once a certain percentage in a group or society shares a dynamic viewpoint others tend to adopt the change with surprising speed.

There are a number of factors and perspectives that are essential for understanding how to facilitate this shift:

  • There is a convergence of thought between advanced theologians, systems thinkers and social scientists. They now agree that the world and the groups within it can only survive if all human beings adopt the values of honesty, responsibility, humility and love and also come to understand that certainty is never possible. These are not just morally desirable, they have become a survival necessity.
  • We must, therefore, look for the questions which confront us rather than hope to discover slick answers to complex issues. Our society is still coming up with super- sophisticated answers to super-obsolete questions: the task today is to discover the new questions. This requires that one works with other individuals rather than talks at them.
  • This in turn requires that we move toward an inclusive approach: the only intolerable behavior today is intolerance. We are all familiar with the "cliche debate" where each side advances its view without being willing to give an inch. We need to look at the strengths of the other side’s position and the weaknesses of our own so that we can discover the new perceptions in which we can move beyond today’s sterile arguments. To do this, we must enable people to think "heretical" thoughts in safe (open) spaces.
  • Underlying this new pattern of thinking and action is a recognition that dichotomies (clear-cut either/or’s) are central to present Western thought, but get in the way of understanding the complexity of today’s world. Many of our discussions break down because people only see two fundamentally opposing positions. The tough challenge is to be able to realize that the correct answer to all critical questions is "it all depends." One matures as one becomes more capable of deciding what "it depends on" in a particular set of circumstances. Having good questions helps one find answers that are appropriate to the circumstances, while having readymade answers generally leads to inappropriate choices. We must learn to live within paradox.
  • This in turn means that those working in this style will always be looking for connections between individuals, events etc., rather than trying to separate them.
  • Being engaged in this work of fundamental change requires a zen balance. On the one hand, it is critical that one respects one’s skills and capabilities for otherwise one will not act. On the other hand, it is all too easy to come to see one’s own actions as the only ones which will make a difference. We must believe that "Everything one does is critically important but nothing one does matters at all." (Which of these statements is the hardest one for you to make? You then need to work on that side of the balance.)
  • Almost all of our current patterns of behavior emerged from a world in which there was too little activity and stimulation. In consequence, almost everybody is today suffering from overload because there are few ways of screening information. Society needs to develop communication patterns which demand as little time and effort from people as possible.

Given these thoughts, what can be done to work with the process of rapid fundamental change that is already occurring, so that change can be as positive as possible? In my work I am now suggesting four related approaches: open/free space meetings to get people really listening to each other; the problem/possibility focuser as a technique for getting groups to develop new questions; people-linkage human resource systems to make better use of the talent and knowledge already available in communities; and use of the media to provide public visibility for what have been private value changes.

Open Space Meetings

Most profound personal change takes place in face-to-face encounters. It is easier to engage one’s whole personality – both left and right brains – when meeting with other human beings than through writing, video, etc. Most of our existing formats for interactions, however, are designed for the exchange of information and data rather than for rethinking fundamental assumptions.

One alternative to this that has developed in recent years is the open/free space meeting/gathering, also sometimes called "common ground" activities. (See Ann Weiser’s article, Open Space Meetings, in this issue for a description of one form of this approach.)

The central requirement for open space activities is a willingness to listen to those with whom we disagree. The required attitude is exactly the opposite of the comment we once received following a seminar: "I was delighted to attend your meeting. I was interested in the views of other people and hope that they learned from the facts that I told them."

The roots of our listening problems go deep within our culture. Perhaps the most fundamental skill that children learn in school is how not to pay attention. They are stuck in a classroom when they would rather be doing something else but they must nevertheless be able to respond when the teacher calls their name. They learn how to be far away with a wisp of their consciousness available to call them back to the classroom when required. This skill stays with people in later life, ensuring that the most difficult part of every gathering is to get everybody into the room in which they are physically together.

Interesting models for open space gatherings are currently being developed in Spokane, Palm Springs, Palm Beach, Milwaukee, Peoria, Portland, Seattle, Buffalo, and statewide in Nebraska and Oklahoma.

Developing The New Question

It is no longer controversial to argue that the general public cannot keep up with the issues of the day. The amount of information which is available and the contradictory styles in which it is sent out, has deprived the citizen of valid knowledge.

Given the need to enable citizens to be involved in decision-making, it becomes essential that we find new ways to structure knowledge. The new knowledge and vision structures should sharpen the questions with which we must deal so that we can form a consensus around them and revise our perceptions of our self-interest.

Fundamental changes in cultures take place when people learn to see the world in new ways and therefore come to see their self-interest from a different viewpoint. There is a need for a new way of structuring knowledge which will make it easier for people to look at the realities which surround them and the ways in which we can all gain from a redefinition of reality.

The primary tool we have developed for this is the problem/possibility focuser. This approach can be used for any subject at any geographical scale ranging from global to local. It has four parts:

  • What are the agreements about our situation? One of the reasons why the nuclear arms debate has been transformed is that there is now agreement about the degree of nuclear overkill and the dangers that it poses.
  • What are the disagreements and what can be done to close them down? Do they result from differences about facts, trends, the nature of the human animal, the nature of ecological realities, the basic way in which one should think about reality? As we sort out these differences, we clarify what the real choices are.
  • What scenarios seem possible/feasible to different people? Do they actually accord with the agreements which already exist? What must we work out in terms of our disagreements in order to be able to see which of the scenarios are realistic? There is increasing agreement among many that some of the "futures" commonly proposed are simply not realistic. Indeed, there are more and more people who feel that once one really understands the nature of reality, one’s next steps are largely determined. Freedom lies in seeing what will be effective rather than in a belief that one can do whatever one "wants."
  • What resources are available to further one’s understandings of this issue if one wishes to go beyond the problem/possibility focuser?

More information on this technique is available from Action Linkage.

Creating A People-Linkage System

The idea of developing a "speakers bureau," "human resource system," etc. is not, of course, a new one. The trick for our purposes, however, is to ensure that those who are involved with these activities accept and use approaches that enable fundamental change. We are just now setting up such a system for Action Linkage members, which I’ll describe as an example of what can be done. To make the system work, we have certain requirements and expectations. The first is that someone who wants to be listed as a resource in the system must sign the Action Linkage covenant which commits them to act in win/win styles.

Second, those who work within this covenant realize that they are not entitled to push a specific view while doing this type of work. They must try to help people to look for the new questions which can enable them to break out of the current cliche debate. Thus it would not be appropriate to push either side of the abortion debate: rather one would try to show that neither of the current styles of thinking will be effective in our new conditions. (It is not required that one give up one’s current stances when working outside this system but many of us have found that the attempt to help people pose new questions is both more effective and more powerful than current argumentative styles, and we use it throughout our work.)

Third, only those who could provide services to groups, communities, etc. are included. There are already many places to list services to individuals, such as counseling, health care, etc.

Members become part of this system by filling in a form that asks them to give a 200-word self-description, and to indicate the services they can provide and what level of compensation they expect. Each person also categorizes her/himself as falling within one or more of four areas:

  • Community – able to help geographic or interest-based communities think through the directions they might want to take.
  • Global – able to provide a sense of the interaction between local and global issues (with the particular area of concern and/or way of working specified).
  • Communications – able to smooth the flow, from facilitating face-to-face encounters, to organizing meetings, to obtaining effective media attention.
  • Subject interest – able to work with groups and communities on specific subjects, from the personal to the global, from human systems to natural systems. (The form includes a set of keyword categories for computer searches.)

News about the system will be distributed through the Action Linkage network. Those who want to make use of the services that these resource people can provide will contact the people-linkage coordinator who will provide descriptions of potential matches. Arrangements for working together are then made directly between those seeking the help and the resource people.

In order to keep the system honest, those who "hired" people through this system would be required as part of the agreement to provide a tough and honest assessment of the work that was done. These assessments would become part of the computer record of each person and available to others who might want to work with them. Each resource person would have the right to reply if they felt that the report was unfair and to explain their point of view. Subsequent feedback is added to the file until there are five responses, after which one old feedback is dropped as each new response is added. This approach will both help to keep the system responsive to needs and provide feedback so that people can improve their skills.

We are beginning at a national level, but it is hoped that in time regional and local systems will also be developed. As this occurs, the search for appropriate people will be made first at the local level.

To finance the system, the resource people will pay 25% of what they earn from these referrals.

The long-run goal of this type of activity is to be able to provide a person who can help with any situation which is important to an individual or a group. Society will come to recognize that print is usually an inadequate substitute for the "charisma" of a committed human being. Lying behind this statement is a result from system theory. It has been proved that a system cannot work unless the way in which it is governed is more complex than the system to be governed. This, in human terms, means that everybody should be engaged in the task of governance. This, in turn, means that as many people as possible should have good access to the information and skills they need in making decisions for themselves and the others with whom they interrelate.

The profound novelty of this type of system as a strategy for fundamental cultural change is that it is designed to be responsive to needs rather than to force ideas into others. It fits into the "servant leader" model of Robert Greenleaf, and it aims to make conscious Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere.

This human resource system could easily have a global aspect. There are throughout the United States literally millions of people from other cultures who embody differing points of view and can give others an understanding that it is possible to live in very different ways and still be a human being. A long-running series of meetings has been taking place in Oklahoma City which proves this point.

One idea would be to use foreigners as the carrying wave for global ideas. For example, we might enable foreigners to go out into rural areas as a team, for a weekend. They would be housed in homes and would speak in the churches on Sunday. The foreigners would get a better sense of the American culture which they urgently want to do. The people in small communities would come to understand how different the world looks from outside the American pattern.

Working With The Media

In addition to these person-to-person activities, we also need to ensure that the communications from the media change to reflect the new understandings which people will be developing and sharing through this process. The media, as much as any other institution, reflect the styles and the patterns of the industrial era. They are profoundly pessimistic about the nature of human beings and they are therefore interested in reporting breakdowns rather than growth.

Individuals from the media are, however, just as interested in a positive future as any other group. It is our task to work with those who have already made themselves visible and to support their efforts to create different images of appropriate media activity. As the media begin to shift their styles, this will reinforce the other work that we are doing.

As we look at the media, we must not examine solely the potential of the "major media": the primary TV channels, the major local newspaper. Usually, these will be the hardest nuts to crack. We need to look at how we can use cable, the local shopper news, the small papers which will print material provided by citizens (what about a series of columns which can be sent in by local residents or used by local pastors or rotary clubs or . . . ) We also need to look at the potential of the telecommunications satellites and the increasing numbers of homes, motels and other buildings which have down-links.


The challenge is to start. As we do, we shall discover that most of the pieces are already in place for what we want to do and that all we have to do is look.

The real danger then becomes our old booby-traps. We have images of success which are not compatible with this new style of activity. We must understand what the statement, "one can either get social change or one can get credit for it," means at the deepest level.

No one person or group can control or dominate this process if it is to operate well. As pieces of the system grow larger, those involved must push out the authority so that it is diffused. As groups get large, one must split them so that they remain vibrant.

This is a great adventure. All of us are pioneers. We need to gain the sense of wonder which moved the pioneers as they discovered the physical landscape which extended before them. We need this same sense of wonder as we discover a new culture which is based on the values which appear to have inspired the human race as far back as we can discover.

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