What do we mean when we say we want to engage the participation of the whole?
We want to engage all parts and aspects of a whole challenge or opportunity
(a) to understand what’s going on;
(b) to realize the best direction to go in light of that reality;
(c) to engage with that current reality to effectively move in our chosen direction and
(d) to continue to engage in perception, reflection and, as necessary, adaptation so that all involved are continually taking into account what needs to be taken into account for broad long-term benefit.
This approach is grounded in a fundamental recognition of intrinsic participation – that all the parts of a whole challenge or opportunity are and always will be participating in creating it and how it unfolds. We are all participants in everything that’s going on, whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not. So the challenge is not to “get people involved” so much as to make the intrinsic participation that is already going on more conscious and “choiceful”, for all parts to become more aware of all the parts and the bigger picture and what long-term benefits and directions are available and what they mean and what makes sense about how to proceed… at each step of the way, together.
And here the concept of engagement skips into a different paradigm. Because – as noted above – we are not talking about every individual’s voice being heard or every person taking action. We are talking about every aspect of the whole being uncovered and considered individually and collectively and every relevant actor acting with that big-picture awareness, that wisdom, individually and collectively.
So in our forums, our ideal is not everyone speaking but everyone feeling heard. This is a fascinating and important distinction. If everyone concerned – that is, if everyone listening because they are involved and want to know – sees that someone’s voice has spoken their views, concerns, and ideas and was taken seriously, they feel heard. A corollary of this is that if they do not feel heard, then they or someone like them is sought out, welcomed, and engaged to ensure that their piece of the puzzle is included in the whole picture. And for this wise democracy to work, things are set up so that they and everyone like them can see how their piece – their piece of what’s going on, their piece of what should happen, their piece of the best direction – fits in the larger picture.
That is participation of the whole. It is a higher and more dynamic form of common sense. Perhaps we could call it common sensing. It involves engaging diverse aspects of a whole – diverse stakeholders, citizens and roles in the whole, as well as diverse ways of understanding the whole (and its parts), as well as different resources useful for what happens next, and so on – engaging all these in interactions that access more of the whole for both understanding and action. And doing that over and over.
Note how this idea (and ideal) embraces both the wisdom aspect of participation (we end up considering more of the big picture) and the power aspect (we end up aligning and engaging more of the energy and resources that we need to move ahead together).
There’s another shift in worldview going on here as we talk about channeling diversity into productive interactions like conversation and collaboration. In this enterprise, diverse ordinary people, diverse stakeholders, diverse experts, and diverse perspectives shift from being seen as problems to being seen as resources for achieving greater understanding of the issue, greater buy-in for the results, and greater participation in making it happen.
Inclusion (from the perspective of this worldview) becomes less a matter of justice – although that’s still a legitimate concern – and more a matter of being smart about discovering a fuller picture of what’s needed and then dealing with that together. Participation becomes the creative and empowered use of full-spectrum diversity rather than just people being able to have their say or everyone being involved in decision-making.
When a lively community World Cafe creatively stirs and shifts the views of hundreds of participants… or when a randomly selected citizen deliberative council hears a spectrum of opinions about a public issue and then considers the best course of action for the larger community of which the participants are members… or when a dynamic facilitator or nonviolent communicator uses strategic reflective listening to open up new possibilities in the midst of intense conflict… or when diverse players in an Open Space conference find passion-partners with whom to make new forms of progress… we see diverse people and perspectives engaging in interactions that embrace more of what’s real and more of what’s possible. (See “Additional Resources” for references to these and other approaches.)
The approaches to high quality productive interactions are legion. All we need to do is to master their appropriate use and to embed them in new forms of democratic culture and institutions where the participatory wisdom that results can have the power to change the world.