Open Dialogue and the (helpful) power of (liberating) structures…

Next to conversations about Occupy Everywhere, some of the most alive conversations I’ve been having recently have been about Open Dialogue, an evidence-based, hugely effective approach for helping people heal from schizophrenia, developed by Jaako Seikkula and a community of practitioners in Finland.

For those of us still learning about this, Ron Unger’s web post has an excellent listing of resources, and the short three-minute preview of Daniel Mackler’s documentary film is well worth watching, as is his longer film on the subject…

It is worth mentioning, that the spectacular success of the Open Dialogue approach takes place largely without the use of medications.  Also of note is one particular indicator of  “recovery”: data showing that people who have recovered through this approach, have a lower rate of unemployment on average, than their age peers in that part of Finland who have never experienced mental illness.

Many of us have found the work of Open Dialogue to be an utterly inspiring testament to the power of listening – and, the kind of news that should be on the front pages, along with the paradigm-shattering and immensely sobering Anatomy of an Epidemic , Robert Whittaker’s carefully documented work of investigative journalism  showing the tragic results of our society’s attempt to replace committed-listening-and-caring-human-presence, with pills.  If you ever have the chance to hear him speak, I’d recommend it…

Of course, in any responsible conversation of this kind, we need to acknowledge that medication has its uses, can be life-saving in certain circumstances, and if one is already using it, it is not safe to stop doing so without medical supervision. Especially when, one does not have a powerfully effective alternative support structure, readily at hand…

Which leads me back to the main theme of this post… what might we learn from the Open Dialogue approach, about the healing power of listening? In other words, what does it take for “listening” to become so powerfully effective, that it can dramatically lower the geographical incidence of a disease often mischaracterized as “incurable”?

And then, what might be the implications of those learnings, for the work of social change, and larger social movements? What are the kinds of powerful listening, that allow for social healing to take place – for example, helping groups to create new choices for moving forward, that everyone can enthusiastically support? (Some might see that task as equally “impossible”, as healing schizophrenia without medications! 🙂  )

I am not going attempt to respond in depth now to the questions I’ve just posed, though I look forward to writing more about this later.  And I also look forward, to any thoughts you may have in this regard…

For now, I want to leave you with four things: the first is, to point to the work of a friend and fellow facilitator, Miki Kashtan, who has been teaching the powerful listening approach of Non-Violent Communication (NVC) for over a decade now. In one of her recent blog posts about the Occupy movement, Miki writes movingly about her longing to have more effective dialogic approaches available to the movement. And in a follow-up post on “beyond consensus or majority”, she writes about the kind of powerful listening that is at the heart of a group decision-making process she has designed.

The second thing I want to offer, are some brief illustrations of what I mean by, “liberating structures”. As I see it, NVC itself embodies a simple yet powerful example of one such kind of structure. Understanding whatever we hear as a description, a feeling, a need, or a request, is a framework that has immense power. Of course, that is not “all” of what NVC is, by any means. I am just using this example to point to, what I mean by “a helpful structure”.

Another brief example: some of you may be familiar with Open Space Technology. It’s a very simple format that can be used by a group of people to self-organize a conference, within a matter of a few hours. Everyone who wants to offer a presentation or a conversation topic, is able to do so. People feel energized and empowered…

Yet I’ve often asked people to imagine as a thought-experiment, what it would be like for a group of people to attempt to self-organize a conference, without any prior agreement on any such simple structure. I for one, can easily imagine a group of people spending the whole weekend attempting to decide upon the format of the conference, rather than actually having the conference and being able to enjoy it…

So, two groups of people… with very different results. One group is able to self-organize quickly and expediently… another group is foundering for days. The first has what I am calling a “simple liberating structure” that it has previously agreed to use; the second group may instead be arguing about, a variety of different ways that it could use, to structure the gathering…

The third thing I want to do, is to acknowledge that any useful approach, has both a “spirit” and a “structure”. To my mind, both are key, and it is not helpful to overlook either of them. For example, I am sure that many people in the mental health field here in the U.S., do their best to listen to a person suffering from schizophrenia, with a caring and loving spirit. Yet their efforts only go so far, in the absence of a powerful liberating structure, such as the one present in the Open Dialogue approach…  Conversely, attempting to utilize a given  “liberating structure”, without the corresponding “spirit”, does not lead us very far, either.

Last but by no means least, I want to acknowledge that there are many extremely oppressive, non-liberating structures in our world today. Yet at the same time, it seems to me that we make a grave mistake if we throw the baby out with the bathwater, by thinking we need to do away with “all structure”.  Clearly, the current format of the General Assemblies in the Occupy movement is itself a “structure”, and one that attempts to serve a helpful and life-giving end. It may be a structure that can evolve and be improved upon, but it is nonetheless a clear “structure”.

Within the larger Focusing community, some people who have thought about how to bring the Focusing process into social change movements,  have attempted to make a distinction between “helpful” and “unhelpful” structures by renaming the former, patterns instead of structures. At first glance, that seems fine to me…

So all that said, I will leave you with another version of my earlier question…

What helpful patterns or liberating structures  have you experienced, in work groups, in meetings, and in social change movements, that allow for truly powerful and transformative group caring-and-listening to take place?

And, how might you help the spread of those liberating structures… at whatever workplace, community group, or neighborhood you happen to be occupying, right now?

to be continued….

5 thoughts on “Open Dialogue and the (helpful) power of (liberating) structures…

  1. Wow, Rosa, you’ve given us a lot to think about here. I’m eager to learn about Open Dialogue first of all. For now, though, to share a thought that arises:

    You’ve touched on something so core to our ability to thrive: the need to be listened into being. We come to know ourselves in the first place through the active and accurate mirroring of those around us. It is such an essential aspect of consciousness itself, I believe, that without it we founder.

    To be deeply heard is essential for any one of us to know ourselves, and for any group of us to know our collective selves. To deeply see/hear is essential for us to truly know one another. It is through deep listening that relationship of every kind arises. Thank you for reminding us of its importance.

  2. Rosa-jan,
    I’m so happy you started this blog.And am delighted to have heard about Open Dialogue.

    Really enjoyed the spirit, the energy of this post.
    And I’d love to put to you three questions- just very curious how you would answer them–

    1. What is listening?
    2. What are your strengths as a listener?
    3. What are your learning edges as a listener?

    These are questions to myself and all of us. I really value the quality of listening I experience in your presence and so I’m curious how you might approach these questions.
    much warmth,

  3. Thank you, Joe! and thank you, Raffi!

    Raffi, for me, listening involves helping another person feel heard… and also, helping them to hear themselves. I’m not sure those two are actually “different things”… it may well be, that they are two facets of the same process…

    What is clear to me though, is that “listening” is not just something that “I” do… but that it’s a relational process, and it doesn’t happen, unless the person who is attempting to communicate something, actually feels heard.

    Unless that happens… I may be trying to “listen”… I may think I am “listening”… I may be taking steps toward “listening”…. but in a relational sense, listening hasn’t happened yet.

    My own “growing edges”… I’ve heard it said that listening to our family members and our spouses is the “PhD level” of listening… I know it can be the most challenging situation for me… and, I have a hunch I’m not alone in this!

    My own strengths… mmm… maybe an experiential “knowing” of the kind of treasure that can be present there, beneath difficult situations, that leads me to want to listen, with a certain kind of faith in what is possible…

    and/or, if the situation is one in which i am personally involved and so thereby would not be the best “listener”, that leads me to want to help create a situation, where all of us who are involved, can be heard…

    thanks for asking, Raffi!

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