Please do not edit this article without permission of the author at cii @ igc .org

An Invitation from Tom Atlee

Most social change work - including mine - is grounded in education and advocacy. This approach assumes that people don't know certain things and, if we tell them, they will act. This is often true. Or perhaps I should say, "This is usually part of the picture." For there is often more to it than that.

Other approaches to social change and transformation assume that wisdom and energy for change are hidden in and among the people involved. In this approach some of our most precious assets are powerful questions that lead people to think and feel more deeply and to wake up to new possibilities that are alive and real to them.

Change agent Fran Peavey clarified the art of crafting powerful questions in her landmark work on "strategic questioning" < >. According to Fran, the most powerful questions wake people up and stimulate change the moment they're asked -- no matter how (or even whether) they are answered. She reminds us of the child in the fairy tale who asks, "Why isn't the emperor wearing any clothes?" 

In a meeting that has side-tracked into a flurry of arguments, someone may ask (with real curiosity, because it matters how such things are asked), "Is what we're doing now serving us well or do we want to talk for a minute about other ways to proceed that might satisfy us more?" If many other participants are frustrated, the tenor of the meeting will likely change instantly.


Strategic conversations create change using strategic questions AND a strategic choice of participants and conversational methods.

Imagine creating a conversation that brings together several dozen transformation-oriented philanthropists, several dozen experts on "systems thinking" and "social evolution," and several dozen transformational activists and visionaries. Imagine them spending four days together -- perhaps in a World Cafe < >, perhaps in an Open Space conference < > -- considering two questions: "How else could we use ten million dollars to have a truly profound transformational impact on civilization?" and "How would philanthropy, itself, have to change to most effectively support serious transformational efforts?"

Or try this: Imagine gathering a hundred experienced activists and community organizers who have become frustrated with adversarial politics. Put them together for a week at a large retreat center where they can hike, canoe, swim, and hang out -- except for the six hours a day they talk in self-organized Open Space groups exploring "What kind of change would we truly LOVE to create together?" and "What could our movements also be?" Not only would they find new possibilities; they'd develop new relationships to bring those possibilities into fruition.

I see such "strategic conversations" as thoughtfully designed conversations exploring powerful "questions that matter" in search of breakthroughs. In a strategic conversation, we bring certain people (or kinds of people) together in the expectation that real breakthroughs might happen if those particular people together address those particular questions in a particular productive way.

Here's another example: Imagine a three-day retreat with several dozen leading corporate executives who are not satisfied with the focus on quarterly profits. (They do exist.) They spend three hours each morning and three hours each afternoon in dynamically facilitated conversations < > exploring "How would I run my company differently if I weren't trapped in the quarterly bottom line?" and "What might we do together as a network of corporate leaders to improve the ability of corporations to positively impact society?" Who knows what might come of that...


A few colleagues and I have been contemplating the potential power of such conversations, looking at the leverage they offer. By "leverage" I mean the ability to produce significant results -- often indirectly -- with disproportionately small effort or resources. Because strategic questions release already-existing potential energy for change, they generate lots of output with comparatively little input.

Another source of leverage comes from our choice of who attends. One guideline might be to intentionally select a stimulating diversity of views from different parts of the landscape of the topic we've chosen. We might like to balance suppliers and users of key resources-for-change (knowledge, money, etc.), as well as people from groups we might consider targets of the change. We may magnify our impact by choosing known spokespeople or well-networked people who will actively carry the results of the conversation out into the world (as long as their role or personality doesn't trap them into fixed positions that might impede real exploration).

Furthermore, the topics we choose to focus on might add additional leverage. For example, I like to focus on inquiries about enhancing our collective capacity for wisdom. I'd love to see conversations seeking practical breakthroughs in the capacity of whole societies to make and implement wise decisions. It seems to me this might have more leverage than an inquiry into a specific issue -- for example, how to handle global warming -- because it would impact virtually EVERY issue that's important to us, as well as our ability to collectively learn from our experience.

Along those lines, I've lately started to imagine a series strategic conversations about creating a wiser, more participatory democracy. One approach I've started pursuing is to engage deliberative democracy experts and dialogue professionals together with electronic democracy experts and activist geeks to come up with better approaches for online citizen dialogue AND to find ways to use online networks to push whatever policies and programs were created by face-to-face deliberations among truly diverse citizens.

What might come from such conversations? Perhaps ways for distributed networks of citizens to do what formal citizen deliberative councils < > do -- generate a legitimate, inclusive, trustworthy voice of We the People. And maybe even ways for 'blogs, MoveOn and other powerful online advocacy resources to lobby and organize for what We the People -- as a whole -- want, rather than just for partisan agendas.

The potential leverage here comes partly from focusing on how to influence the whole system or key dynamics within it… partly from the strategic choice of participants… and partly from the design of the strategic questions and conversations, themselves. It makes a tremendous difference who we bring together and how, what questions or topics they address, what kind of processes are used, in what settings, for how long, etc. Know-how, art, and inspiration are all involved here.


Businesses use powerful conversations all the time. For example, a chance Open Space conversation between shoe company staff and a warehouse guard -- who talked about how uncomfortable his shoes were -- resulted in the company creating a highly profitable new product < >. But there are signs that significant social change can also result. Scenario-based conversations had a profound effect on how South Africa evolved out of apartheid < >.

The guard's story was key to the shoe company's breakthrough. And scenarios are stories of possible futures. I've always been struck by the power of stories of all kinds to shape people's attitudes, beliefs and behaviors -- from high school history lessons to UNCLE TOM'S CABIN to TV advertisements to inspiring visions.

People have actually lived certain novels into reality: Edward Abby's THE MONKEYWRENCH GANG has been credited with birthing EarthFirst! as a self-organized movement; federal office building bomber Timothy McVeigh followed instructions in William Pierce's THE TURNER DIARIES; and hundreds of communards have tried to build utopian communities based on B. F. Skinner's WALDEN TWO. So stories may offer a powerful way to invoke change in an entire system.

So why not convene a several day Open Space conference where some of our society's top storytellers -- from novelists to historians, from journalists to movie-makers -- talk with sustainability experts, activists, publishers and each other. They'd leave with inspiration, information and colleagues to support them writing fiction and non-fiction with compelling, realistic images of what a sustainable society could look like -- including, as well, past successes and eye-openers like Curitiba, Brazil < >. Perhaps some sustainablity activists would work with one or more novelists (and movie-makers!) to create popular stories that communities could start living into right away. There's nothing like a compelling role model to get things rolling.

I hope it is clear by now that the possibilities for strategic conversations are endless. Those of us thinking of organizing some of them are sure we are missing important ones. We are also quite certain that we couldn't convene all the ones that are necessary. So before we go much farther, we want to open up the inquiry and ask what conversations YOU think might be most powerful -- and who YOU know who might want to help make some strategic conversations happen.


We invite you to join us in considering what well-chosen, well-designed, strategic conversations could help trigger the next leaps in the positive evolution of humanity.

We're looking for conversations that can help connect EXISTING RESOURCES and that can help cross-fertilize people and ideas in ways that create NEW RESOURCES. We're talking about specific conversations strategically convened to make a powerful transformational difference.

So, if you are interested in this, take a couple of minutes to reflect: If you could recommend a strategic conversation like this to someone who had the desire and resources to make it happen, what conversation(s) would you tell them to convene? You could consider conversations between two specific individuals, or dialogues that included a dozen or more individuals, or whole conferences bringing together many people from different fields. Or propose any other kind of conversation you think would make a significant difference. You can recommend one conversation, or as many as you like, or tie them together in a pattern...

So, what do you think? What connections, understandings, visions, know-how, etc., are missing that are holding us back -- or are being overlooked, that could move us ahead?

Who should be talking to whom to help remedy that?

What questions or inquiries should they explore together?

What would your chosen conversations look like? (You may, for example, favor a particular process or setting or design...)

In short, tell us:

What strategic conversations
would make the most difference to our future,
and why?

Send your answers to me at cii @ igc .org -- and/or share them with others online at our QuickTopic forum on "Strategic Conversations that Could Make the Most Difference to Our Future" < >. You don't have to register or sign in to participate, and you can choose to receive email for newly posted messages -- just click the Subscribe button when you get there. There is a briefing from me at the bottom, as the first message.

Please share this email with anyone else you think might have good ideas about this -- or who might have resources to put towards a major effort to convene breakthrough strategic conversations on social transformation.

Thank you for your time and ideas. Together we may be able to catalyze some conversations that just might make all the difference in the world.