Facilitation in a Quantum World

January 1, 2015 Uncategorized

This post originally appeared on the Deep Democracy blog. 

Classical physics and quantum physics saw the material world in fundamentally different ways: one primarily as a collection of autonomous objects, the other as a sea of energy. What do these views offer to our understanding of group dynamics?


At a recent conference I watched a fascinating presentation on research describing the interactions between people in a meeting. Using advanced computer technology, researchers meticulously kept track of what she said and what he said, how she felt and how they reacted, when he exploded and how that affected everybody else. They visualized the interactions in a diagram with many boxes and arrows shooting absolutely everywhere.

That’s what we usually do when we’re being attentive at meetings, isn’t it? We try to make sense of the back-and-forth, often in an attempt to insert our own bits and pieces into the mix in an effective way. Technologies like these are incredible: they document the messiness of what we’re looking at, not only at the level of what is said, but also at the level of what is implied in the tone of voice and the body language, the unspoken intentions and emotions behind the words. In most meetings, in the absence of advanced technology, we rely on our perception to pick up on these things: the more our awareness grows, the more of this picture we can see. But no wonder we have a headache after a day of meetings! And no wonder it is so difficult, so exhausting to be an effective leader or facilitator: it takes almost superhuman abilities to continuously decipher such a complicated web of interactions let alone participate in it.

What if we can put on a different set of eye-glasses? Could we reduce our headache?

Two ways of seeing – A physics analogy

The above way of looking at complicated group dynamics is based on a model of social interactions that we might liken to Classical Newtonian physics, or what one of my favourite authors Mary E Clark describes as the “billiard ball model of the world”. In this view, the universe is “a mixed assemblage of discrete objects colliding with each other as they follow their independent trajectories” (like balls on a billiard table), following the laws of motion. By extension, we are discrete individuals sitting in a meeting, shooting out verbal and non-verbal messages which collide with others’ messages, are refracted or reflected or otherwise effected (or not effected), creating new reactions, new experiences, new messages etc. And so the interaction goes on.

A second, different way of looking would see the interaction as complex rather than complicated. Metaphorically, this view would be more in line with quantum theory in physics, or what Clark has called “the Indra’s net model of the world.” Here, the universe is “a single, interlocking net of mutually dependent phenomena”: every part is intrinsically linked to every other part in a way that is impossible to separate. That is to say that the world is not made of objects per se, but rather exists as a field of energy (and what appear as objects are actually just dense packet of energy). By extension, when we sit in meetings and talk, we are not concrete, autonomy beings that react to each other, but rather some [temporal] manifestation of different bundles of energies: ideas, views, feelings, dreams, sensations etc.

Traditionally we have seen groups as if they were collections of objects, balls on a billiard table. Most methods of facilitation and conflict resolution have focused on the needs and interests of these discrete “objects”, rather than attempting to see the energetic patterns that move them as a whole. The Newtonian lens has been traditionally dominant over the quantum lens. What would lens-switching offer?

Implications of a quantum physics lens for working with groups

The modern view of physics has made headway in the past couple of decades in helping us understand the world. It has been applied, for example, to the understanding of organizations, perhaps most famously in Meg Wheatley’s work. Its application to the very practical and moment-to-moment tasks of facilitating a group (or participating in one) is even newer, and a hallmark of Arnold Mindell’s articulation of Deep Democracy.

From this view of the world, we will stop fretting about cause and effect in group situations because cause and effect is in fact nearly impossible to establish. We will not analyse how what he said made her angry. Instead we recognize that there is an angry role (or angry energy or quality, if you like) in the group – right now “held” by her, the next moment perhaps by someone else. And in fact, the angry role is held within each member of the group, whether or not they are aware or it or acting on it at the time. We “read” the fabric of the group in terms of these roles in the field, not in terms of individuals.

 A great aspect of learning to read a group in this way is that we begin to recognize that there is a kind of orderliness to the way the roles are organized: the same patterns tend to show up in different places and at different scales. Recognizing these patterns makes it much easier to “see” what is really going on in the field. We call these “fractal patterns”. Niels Bohr, a leading quantum physicist, is famous for comparing the atomic structure to the solar system, each with a nucleus and objects orbiting around it. That is a prime example of a fractal pattern in the physical world: the same structure appears at the smallest and largest scale Bohr was able to observe. In a similar way, we can observe a pattern of roles held at various scales in a group setting – and we can work with that pattern to try to shift it at these different scales.

Facilitators and leaders who use a complexity lens to understand group dynamics have the ability to think in terms of fractal patterns. As a result, they are much less likely to see and treat interpersonal dynamics as just interpersonal. Instead, they can explore interpersonal dynamics to make larger organizational and societal dynamics visible and workable. They can address the context of a group’s dysfunction or disagreement in a broader and more sustainable way. On the other hand, these facilitators and leaders can help groups members explore their own internal diversity by way of exploring the dynamics of a group. As such, they can lead group members to enormous personal insights, leading to taking more responsibility for the group’s wellbeing through individual actions.