Fuschl 2002 input paper: Lenser - Benking

Team 1: 

New Agoras for the 21st Century:Conscious Self-Guided Evolution

Cultivating Dialogue with Magic Round Tables

David Bohm[1] wrote that the form of free Dialogue could be one of the most effective possibilities to investigate the crises which society is confronting today. Even more, he felt that this form of exchanging ideas and information could be of fundamental importance to change cultures in such a way that creativity will be set free.

A kind of “New Agora” will definitely be formed by (re)inventing a form of free dialogue which allows that everybody can bring up his/her suggestion/opinion about any topic.

That means a “New Agora” has to overcome what we experience today in conferences and symposia where one monologue follows the other and the discussion is short and poor; where participants wait for the break or evening to finally talk to each other, but too often only to the people they already know.

Like many others we realized that the “modern”, usual form of meetings and conferences is not the way we can expect to solve our problems, neither on group or global level.

Definitely there are examples in history and in other cultures how to communicate and find shared meaning, for example the method of the Native Americans who come together in a circle sharing their ideas and thoughts and feelings - often with the help of a talking stick. The one who has the talking stick can talk as long as she/he wants and the others will listen carefully without making a comment to it. After finishing she/he will put the talking stick in the open space in the middle of the circle and someone else will take it - at once or after a creative silence. 

This method was restored by the Native Americans themselves (Council process) but also used in some therapeutic groups or in the environment of new age circles. 

A great method if a group has enough time for such a process; the problem in our times and our culture is how to cultivate listening and share ideas when the speakers are fighting for “air-time” in order to “sell” their message” in the tight time-budget of a meeting or conference.

The question is how to communicate, share, listen, ponder, reflect and jointly elaborate the issues instead of doing just ones own preprepared “statement” with typically no reference to what was said before, and no time for discussion as everybody is overusing his time slot, as we have all too often not learned to be brief and concise.

The Magic Round Table method - presented here as one direction to tackle this nightmare of self-presentation and isolation of the individual in groups - is based on the work of David Bohm, specially his book “On Dialogue”,and the work of Anthony Judge and Nadia McLaren on “Time-sharing Systems in Meetings”[2] and the DaZiBao participative conference messaging approach[3].

In his book “On Dialogue” Bohm refers to the meaning of the Greek word “dialogos” where logos means “the word” and “dia” means “through” (not two as we often think - a dialogue can be among any number of people).

“The Image this derivation suggests is of a stream of meaning flowing among us and between us - a flow of meaning in the whole group, out of which will emerge some new understanding, something creative”.

In his concept of Free and Open Dialogue, where people come together in a circle (often 40 or more people) without agenda or moderator is one problem left: how to stop dominant talkers? David Bohm himself found this problem in his dialogue groups and mentioned that it would be helpful to develop some “rules” to avoid this.

So what we do and propose is to modify the generally accepted timesharing methods where every speaker has his/her speaking-time. Instead of just dividing and distributing the time available (maybe only one hour equal 60 tokens) to pre-selected speakers, we give tokens - physical time-beats like stones, nuts, paper-decks etc. - to potential speakers and surprise-guests. To introduce the game we nominate a “moderator” as time-keeper and independent guard to secure that the rules are understood and applied, before maybe they are modified and adapted.

Participants preferably sit in a circle and are kindly asked by thefacilitator not necessarily to introduce themselves, but primarily propose a topic or theme to the group they would like to elaborate. This offer can be anything - a passionate project, a dominant feeling, the wish to do something else (offering a little performance, to go for a demonstration which is happening around the corner, asking for some silence or meditation or anything else - all this are examples we experienced the last 7 years). After the “offer of themes and proponents” the participants are asked to give the token credits as a present and encouragement to the persons who offer something as a topic which they feel should be elaborated and jointly explored.

The very difference to other methods is the DYNAMIC allocation of attention and interest, which encourages co-creation and the exchange of ideas, which become like “flows” or a “social sculpture”[4] where the group jointly elaborates and models in the given time. Time symbolized as a token to other people will encourage and give them a sign of interest and sympathy which allows to share meaning, jointly follow lines ofinterest and learning about common threads, concerns, assumptions and approaches. 

The magic round tables were introduced during the last years in a very broad range of settings, with a great variety of participants sitting at one table or in a circle in political, scientific, peace and mediation “environments”.

Outcome and topic, or the manner how the dialogue evolved was always a surprise. It was nearly always unclear who would get the speaking time and what would attract the most interest.

We realized that the method works with all kinds of participants, politicians, scientists, artists, kids, youngsters and all kind of cultural, social and political background; nobody refused to obey to the rules, not the sheik of a traditional sufi group, nor the right winged youngster who started with the “offer” to beat somebody in the group, nor the follower of a radical left winged political group who first refused to sit at the table with somebody who belongs to an opponent group. For example the last one insisted to not sit with him around the table and disturbed with aggressive remarks, but was stunned with astonishment, when this person got up to give him “time to speak”. In such cases the method works as a tool for mediation, as people realize and changed their assumptions and prejudices[5].

Open and free dialogue is en vogue, we saw recently the method of OPEN SPACE being applied everywhere, like some years ago “future-labs” (Robert Jungk, Rüdiger Lutz); all these methods are relevant and have their place. What we propose is a proper mix of methods, adjusted to the time available and layout of the room of premises. With Harrison Owen[6] we agree that all this methods are already there, and they are of one family as long as they allow the free flow of meaning and hinder the dominance of a selected few.

In order to create a “New Agora” we think that it is necessary to build up a kind of “communitas” in the sense of Martin Buber[7]. For him communitas is the consequence of a dialogue process which expresses the relation between the I and the You. In this sense we agree with David Bohm who considered this shared meaning as the “glue” or “cement” which holds people and societies together.

Farah Lenser, Heiner Benking, Berlin, January 2002


[1] David Bohm, ed. Lee Nichol, On Dialogue, London 1996
[3] McLaren, N.: Participant Interaction Messaging, Manual and Guidelines, UIA, Brussels, October 1992. The DaZiBao Participant Interaction Messaging Newsletter is published continuously during a conference to add to statements, pose new questions, and interact with all participants and “keep the ball rolling” during a given time, like a gathering of a few days.
[4] The idea of a “social sculpture” was developed by the German Artist “Josef Beuys and followed up by the German stage-manager and filmmaker Christoph Schlingensief, with whom we have exercised the Magic Round Tables in a circus tent during the “Chances 2000” election campaign. See Lenser, Farah: “Chance 2000, oder mit Kunst und Politik ein Universum hypothetischer Welten schaffen”. In: Zukünfte, Jg. Frühjahr 1998. (see: "re-inventing democracy" below. 
[5]We have documented the experiences of inter-cultural, inter-generational and transdisciplinary dialogues during the last years on our web-site.http://open-forum.de please see here for example: http://open-forum.de/re-invent-democracy.html, http://www.newciv.org/cob/members/benking/voicetxt.html, http://ceptualinstitute.com/genre/benking/dialogueculture/, and more recently: Benking, H., Stalinski, S.: Dialogue toward Unity in Diversity, L. v. Bertalanffy 100th Anniversary, University of Vienna, November 1-4, 2001, http://benking.de/Dialogue_toward_Unity_in_Diversity.html.
[6]Interview of Harrison Owen by Farah Lenser at: http://open-forum.de/open-space-open-forum.html
[7]Martin Buber, Das dialogische Prinzip, Heidelberg 1984