The Illusion of Technique

OST_meetingAn OST Meeting

Community: The Structure of Belonging

By Peter Brock

Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc (2008)

Book Review – Part II

By focusing on six essential “conversations,”* Brock is extremely prescriptive in his approach to forming groups. He seems to believe this artificial structure is necessary to keep the group from replicating patriarchal patterns in broader society. Based on 33+ years of grassroots organizing, I disagree. Provided they are properly facilitated, I have a lot of confidence in the ability of small groups to evolve spontaneously without replicating what happens in a corporate boardroom. I’m also extremely fed up with liberal academics and their obsession with technique.

In my mind, the artificial structure Brock imposes is counterproductive. Despite claiming to erase artificial distinctions between group leaders and members, he does the exact opposite. He gives group leaders immense power by setting up an expectation they will pose questions and members will answer them. I also see a risk – given the intrusive nature of the questions – that the community group will become a therapy group.

He justifies the need for a “possibility conversation” to prevent groups from focusing on about problems and complaints – which he feels causes them to behave like corporate boards and start setting up visions, goals and targets. Based on 30+ years of organizing of experience, I can guarantee this behavior isn’t automatic – not if there are working class people in the room.

He argues that the “ownership conversation” is designed to keep the group conversation focused inside the room. He maintains too many community groups focus on issues and people outside the room, which he claims are beyond beyond their control.

Again I strongly disagree. Most of the community groups I’ve worked with have (very successfully) focused on external problems, such as blocking the construction of an LNG (liquid national gas) terminal at Port Taranaki and forcing our local council to remove the fluoride from our drinking water. As far as I’m concerned, Brock’s “ownership conversation” is just a new twist on neoconservative ideological propaganda linking “rights” with “responsibilities” and “freedom” with “accountability.” In my view, the only way to win rights and freedom is by fighting for them – all the media hype linking rights and freedom to responsibility and accountability is designed to conceal this reality.

Personally, I much prefer Open Space Technology (OST), an older more established approach to creating self-organized groups. In OST, the facilitator’s role is strictly limited to a type of facilitation in which they “hold a space” for participants to self-organize, rather than managing or directing the conversations.**

I have to give Brock credit for using the “dissent conversation” to circumvent the strong tendency of self-organized groups to punish dissent. Despite some strong reservations about the intrusive nature of some of the questions, I feel the “dissent conversation” is the most valuable aspect of his approach. This has always been one of the main drawback of OST: its tendency to reward consensus and punish dissent.

*Brock’s six conversations include the “invitation” and the possibility, ownership, dissent, commitment and gift conversations. Each of the five conversations is presented as a series of questions.

1. The invitation names the possibility (eg The Possibility of a Safe Cincinnati) which is the reason for convening the group. It deliberately refrains from advocating for a particular issue or viewpoint and tries to bring people into the same room that don’t normally associate together.

2. The possibility conversation asks the following questions

  • What is the crossroads where you find yourself at this stage of your life or work or in the project around which we are assembled?
  • What declaration of possibility can you make that has the power to transform the community and inspire you?

3. The ownership conversation asks:

  • •How valuable an experience (or project or community) do you plan for this to be?
  • How much risk are you willing to take?
  • How much do you plan to participate?
  • To what extent are you invested of the well-being of the whole?
  • What I have I done to contribute to the very thing I complain about or want to change.
  • What is the story about this community or organization that you hear yourself telling the most often?
  • What are the payoffs you receive from holding on to this story?
  • What is your attachment to this story costing you?

4. The dissent conversation asks

  • What doubts and reservations do you have?
  • What is the no or refusal that you keep postponing
  • What have you said yes to that you no longer mean?
  • What resentment do you hold that no one knows about?
  • What forgiveness are you withholding?

5. The commitment conversation asks

  • What promises am I willing to make?
  • What measures have meaning to me?
  • What price am I willing to pay?
  • What is the cost to others for me to keep my commitments or to fail in my commitments?
  • What is the promise I’m willing to make that constitutes a risk or major shift for me?

6. The gift conversation asks:

  • What is the gift you still hold back?
  • What is something about you that no one knows?
  • What gratitude do you hold that has gone unexpressed?
  • What have others in this room done, in this gathering, that has touched you.

**OST is similar to Brock’s approach in that 1) it starts with a broad, open invitation articulating the purpose of the meeting 2) participants sit in a circle and 3) it places heavy emphasis on small group work. However in OST members set the agenda themselves by proposing a bulletin board of issues and moving into small groups to develop these issues through further discussion.

photo credit: Askavusa Open Space Technology (follow link to learn more about OST)

10 thoughts on “The Illusion of Technique

  1. Stuart,
    From an admittedly simplified viewpoint perhaps only one question is necessary: “when the change(s) our group is trying to bring about occur, will they result in improvements in the health and well-being of our fellow human beings?” Will the change(s) literally improve the human condition. A college basketball coach in this area was on TV years ago (he since passed away), many books have been written on basketball strategies, etc., yet his simple wisdom over-riding all the textbooks was the simple statement, “you’ve got to put the ball in the hole”. When arguments for change clearly convey the benefits for people over existing conditions/circumstances, then change comes. Of course, beneficial arguments for change are seemingly everywhere across the internet but people are frustrated the change(s) have yet to appear, or are not happening fast enough. Still, recent positive developments are proof that continuing efforts bring about important beneficial results.


  2. Very thoughtful critique of what sounds like a book that can cure insomnia but do little to advance community-driven transformation. Why is it that outside experts from privileged backgrounds assume they have all the answers for others whose lives are profoundly different? (Sorry, I’ve had to read far too many of these types of texts in my career that ultimately illustrated how one should not approach authentic egalitarian partnerships with communities… Your OST model sounds much more promising.)


  3. That was interesting to read.

    This made me laugh, “I’m also extremely fed up with liberal academics and their obsession with technique.” Yes, indeed. Also, as to punishing dissent and rewarding consensus, that has grown irritating enough that I’d rather we just resort to, “replicating patriarchal patterns.” Or perhaps that IS replicating patriarchal patterns. Whatever it is, I’ve had quite enough of it.


  4. Patriarchal replicate thought patterns are founded on domination. I prefer the grassroots solution that necessity is the mother of solutions. Funny that working together solves a lot


    • Yes, I’ve noticed this. Face to face contact and working together on solutions seems to undo a lot of the bullshit individualistic, pro-consumption propaganda the corporate media bombards us with.


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