Tom Atlee: Citizen Wisdom Councils – OUR Treasure

Tom Atlee
Tom Atlee

An unsung treasure for facilitators and civilizations

Back in the mid-90's I discovered Jim Rough's Wisdom Council format and began promoting it through my network as a way to increase the co-intelligence of a community. I loved the design of it – every 3-12 months randomly selecting one or two dozen ordinary people to reflect for a few days on what their community needed and to bring their conclusions back to their community. It is promoted today by Jim's Center for Wise Democracy

There are many different initiatives that are using the term “Wisdom Council” these days, and all of them have their own gifts to offer. What I particularly appreciate about Jim's approach, is that instead of tapping the wisdom of a group of elders, it is about tapping the wisdom of ordinary people, on behalf of the larger whole. The basic idea is to gather together a diverse microcosm of that larger whole. This microcosm is then invited into a conversational “greenhouse” environment, where they are supported to engage their best creative efforts toward understanding and addressing the needs of that larger whole.

By 1999, however, I was becoming concerned that I knew little about Dynamic Facilitation (DF), the process used in the Wisdom Council. I decided to take one of Jim Rough's workshops, which happened to be during the same week of the big 1999 WTO protests in Seattle. It was an exciting week, during which I realized that DF could have transformed people's efforts to deal with the WTO.

I came away extremely impressed with DF's potential. Over the following years I took a few other DF courses and was involved in some gatherings using DF, including a Wisdom Council in Ashland, Oregon. I came to the conclusion that DF was the most powerful process I'd ever seen for transforming conflict into breakthroughs – a skill sorely needed in our world today.

I've written my own description of the process here. I invite you to explore it and the descriptions on Jim's website. In this video interview, UK consultant Alex Nairn offers an excellent description of DF. If you want to delve further into it, check out the DF manual by Rosa Zubizarreta. She's agreed to offer my readers a free pdf of the 2008 version, for which you can contact her through her website. (I coaxed Rosa to a DF training early in 2000 – and it changed her life. She returned the favor by helping me create The Tao of Democracy.)

A fascinating development is that DF and its various offshoots – Wisdom Councils and Creative Insight Councils – have taken off in Austria and Germany. In this video “From Consumers to Citizens,” Manfred Hellrigl, director of the Office of Future Related Issues for the state of Vorarlberg, Austria, discusses with a Swedish audience the Wisdom Council's unique potential for social change.

While my own focus has been on DF and the Wisdom Council as tools for social transformation, it's worth mentioning that this approach has also shown great benefits within organizational settings. As one example, here is a video of a Wisdom Council that was held at Swisscom.

Matthias zur Bonsen, the gentleman who is facilitating the Wisdom Council, is the one responsible for originally bringing Jim over to Germany to teach. Previously, Matthias had brought Harrison Owen to Germany to teach Open Space Technology, and Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff to teach Future Search.

Meanwhile, back here in the U.S., Jim is offering a DF training in the Bay Area at the end of January  and Rosa is offering a DF training in Ottawa March 1-3 . She and Jim do trainings in numerous locations at various times and are responsive to special requests. Rosa's site is Jim's is

Rosa has been exploring the leading edge of DF in a number of ways:

* Her theory of why DF works, which she described in her Masters thesis and her manual, revolutionized my understanding of its dynamics. For some of her more recent theory see her article in the latest “OD Practitioner” journal.

* She advocates methods like Dialogue Mapping  for a high-tech harvest of the nonlinear unfolding of DF'd conversations.

* She has been a pioneer in a promising new application of DF – Creative Insight Councils – which address a particular issue or public concern in conversations involving ordinary citizens, experts, and stakeholders as peers seeking a breakthrough.

* She explores the relevance of DF to the full range of human systems – from national and global affairs, through organization and community issues, down to interpersonal and individual healing and transformation. In her trainings she often uses DF to engage a group in helping an individual, and she sees her personal practice – the inner-listening, personal development process called Focusing – as tapping similar dynamics to what DF taps in groups.

For an intriguing story about how a participant from one of Rosa's recent DF workshop has been exploring the subject of polygamy in Pakistan – using both DF and Focusing – check out the article at the bottom of this message.

As I sense into what will be most needed in 2013, our collective capacity to translate conflicts and “impossible problems” into breakthrough solutions and new directions seems to rank very high on the list. The little-known treasure of Dynamic Facilitation and its various leading-edge offshoots could and should play a major role in enabling that capacity in all of society.

I invite you to consider it seriously in your plans for enhancing your facilitation skills, your options for convening conversations, and your aspirations for your group, your community, your country and our shared planet and future.



Dynamic Facilitation, Focusing, Pakistan and Polygamy


by Rosa Zubizarreta

For the last several years, Pat Omidian, a medical anthropologist, and Nina Joy Lawrence, a community mental health practitioner, have been teaching Focusing to local aid workers and human service workers in Afghanistan….

Read more.


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