The Magic in the Middle

Beyond the separation

In this “trialogue”, interviewer Elizabeth Debold speaks with the World Café founder Juanita Brown and dialogue expert William Isaacs about the possibilities and importance of the creative space between each of us. . . 

Eilzabeth Debold: Juanita and William, for years you have both worked to create new methodologies for coming together to find solutions to difficult problems. In the last 20 years, I have been involved with collective spiritual practice whose aim is to develop a “Higher We.”  I would like to examine your experiences of the “Emerging We” and the new opportunities that you perceive therein. In a way, this emerging potential for human encounters could be one of the most important events on the planet currently. I want to start with a question for you, Juanita: What caused you to establish the World Café and why is this model, in your opinion, important? 

Juanita Brown: The developments in this area of “we-spaces” create the conditions for creativity and new thinking. The World Café is one of these methods that allows for new forms of creativity, but it is only one of many other practices. I often use the following metaphor: I grew up in Mexico at my grandmother’s house. She lived in an old, typical Mexican house, where there was a beautiful courtyard with a center that adorned a fountain and large flower pots. On all sides there were arcades, and in these small intimate spots you could achieve a special kind of encounter. For me, working with large groups is similar: There are many practices in the common area of human experience that we can describe as conscious dialogue, collective intelligence or the “magic in the middle”. When we sit in the garden in the middle, we experience something special: The boundaries between I and we are translucent. At the World Café, we focus on issues that are important for the participants and consider them mutually from different perspectives. Thus, we can create a living network of conversations when we “listen in the middle” together. We do not know exactly from where the ideas come, because they apparently arise in this garden in the middle.

William Isaacs: This reminds me of the saying of Rumi: “Beyond right and wrong is a garden. There I will meet you.”  This garden is the common whole. I have found that the most interesting challenge is to strengthen this perfectly-present reality. In my work I explore how we can become openings, entry points and forms of expression for the joint presence of right/ wrong or I/we, etc.  After all, while embracing the idea of the whole, we need to think holographically. Each of us is an aspect of the whole, whether we realize it or not. When we realize it, we have a lot more opportunity to work in the world. In recent years, I’ve studied and worked these questions in challenging contexts with management teams of large corporations or politicians and prime ministers.

Eilzabeth Debold: Why do you think that the interest in this space between us is so strong today?

William Isaacs: It seems to me that today we have refined language for expressing these phenomena and also a great longing for authenticity and real connection. But that’s not all: We can observe a new kind of inclusive movement, but also a separating movement.  So much in the world today seems to fall apart; both happening simultaneously. One could say that these cycles are bound together. 
In a nutshell, I would say that the interest in dialogue is so great today because it is necessary and inevitable. At all levels, we must deal with the consequences of our actions, what our situation is under pressure. Sometimes I use a bar of soap as an analogy: If you press it, it can slip up or down. All of us feeling this pressure cannot avoid it or play it. Despite our attempts to circumvent this pressure, it is not be possible, so we need the tools to confront these complex challenges.