Two maps I use when I’m working with groups

Using Ken Wilber’s ‘Quadrants’ and Peter Block’s ‘Conversations’ as Guides to Social Process


When I was growing up no one really taught me anything about social processes or group dynamics. Sure, we all learned that there was something called ‘manners’ and things that you should or shouldn’t do in order to ‘get along’ with people. But I don’t remember being offered any explanation of how groups form, why some people are excluded, or how to leave or disband a group in positive ways. When I think back on my experience of adolescence — a time when I was acutely interested in all things ‘social’ — it felt a lot like trying to play a complex game where no one knew any of the rules.

It wasn’t until well into my adulthood that I managed to find some books on counseling and relationships, but while these books were personally helpful they tended to focus on individual psychology, or individual relationships. They didn’t really talk about groups of people and how and why they work (or don’t work). It was these complex social situations that I was most interested in. It wasn’t until my mid twenties when I started participating in retreats and gatherings that I saw professional facilitators at work that I finally found a knowledge base and (more importantly) a suite of practical skills that I could use to find answers my deeper questions about our collective human experience.

In this post I want to share two mental models that have informed my practice as a facilitator and my thinking about social process. The first is Ken Wilber’s ‘Quadrants’ model and the second is Peter Block’s ‘Six Conversations’ model). I always suggest that people go back to the original texts and read the authors original version of the book for themselves. It’s one thing to have The Best of Van Morrison in your iTunes, but having Astral Weeks on vinyl is another experience all together. So the books to buy are Community: The Structure of Belonging (2008) by Peter Block, and A Brief History of Everything (1996) by Ken Wilber.

What I have tried to do in this post is to simplify the two models to what I see as their essence, and to link this essence more directly with the practice of facilitation. I want to demonstrate how each one can be used in conjunction with the other as part of your social process design process and in your work building community. I hope that this post is accessible for people who are just starting out on this journey, and that it can also provide some fresh perspectives and challenges for people who do this work professionally. I’ve been working with groups for over 10 years and I still feel like a beginner most of the time!

Maps Are Not The Terrain

Before any group of people embarks on it’s social process journey (meeting, workshop, conference, or retreat) I believe one of my roles as a guide is to spread a map out on the table and prepare the group for the journey they are about to have. For me this includes sharing both the proposed programme (sequence of activities and breaks), but also the mental model or map that I am using to inform that programme.

This single intervention is perhaps the most effective way I know to help groups of people get the outcomes they want. My experience is that this approach not only helps people to participate more fully in the experience — because they know what is coming up and can prepare for it — but also because they know why it’s coming up they can help support and guide the process. Perhaps most importantly a map brings me makes it possible for people to consent to the process, and therefore take responsibility (personally and collectively) for the outcome. Finally, sharing my mental model with the group requires me to know what my mental model (i.e. what my assumptions and intentions are) with the group. That way I am clearly part of the experience, and not pretending to be some sort of neutral observer or objective guide.

I think it’s always worth reminding ourselves that these conceptual models are just maps, they are not the terrain that the map is trying to describe. Conceptual models are abstractions that can (hopefully) help us better navigate reality. When working with conceptual models I believe we all need to practice personal and professional vigilance not to let the theory colonize our practice, or the experience of the people we are supporting, or to predetermine the outcome. Reality — especially the subjective reality of our fellow human beings — should constantly surprise us, upset our expectations, and reward us with fresh experiences and new insights.

Ken Wilber’s Quadrants: Some Stops On The Journey

The word holistic gets used a lot, but it remains a powerful idea that encourages us to be more inclusive of diversity and more tolerant of difference. It’s an important principle that I think helps people to transcend habitual patterns of either/or thinking. When a group gets stuck, it’s usually because there is a polarity (apparently opposing ideas) at work and the group is no longer able to think coherently (in wholes). One useful process to help groups understand the challenge of holistic thinking (and behaving) is to create some polarities and then talk about how we might transcend and include them in our work together, and that’s kind of what the quadrants model is about.

When I am explaining Wilber’s quadrants I usually start by saying ‘imagine the known universe, well lets divide it in half’. I then draw a line across the middle of the whiteboard and write “individual” and “collective” at the top and the bottom. Then I say, ‘lets do it again’ and draw the second line down the board (creating the quadrants) with “interior” and “exterior” on each end. Then I go around the quadrants describing the four permutations that this basic matrix sets up.

There are many of versions of this diagram online. This particular illustration shows the “I” (the inside of the individual), the “it” (the outside of the individual), the “we” (the inside of the collective), and the “its” (the outside of the collective) nice and clearly. Wilber gets into a lot of detail about this model in A Brief History of Everything, but here I am really just interested in the idea that there are four fundamental perspectives — and therefore conversations — that a person or a group can bring to any occasion including a social process like a meeting, workshop, conference, or retreat. Let me try to describe each quadrant and hopefully you’ll see what I mean.

1. Inter-objective — “The World”
Because we’re interested in group work I think it’s best to start on the bottom right hand side of the diagram in the exterior/collective quadrant. I think of this quadrant as ‘the world’. Groups often start here and can spend a lot of time sharing ‘hearsay’ (things they have heard second hand) about the state of the world. As a conversation this will necessarily involve all sorts of gross generalizations and over simplifications about the nature of reality. I tend to think this represents a safe place for groups to warm up because the ideas expressed from this frame are usually popular or received wisdom, rather than my own ideas. This makes it a low risk way for a group to start talking and build relatedness, a bit like an orchestra tuning up.

However we need to be careful here too because I suspect that the covert purpose of these conversations is to subtly or unconsciously create a baseline ‘reality’ for the group. As the facilitator it is well worth listening carefully to what this is, and if necessary interrupt it before it becomes unquestionable. Most of the time it will be sports, or interest rates, or some other safe topic. However sometimes the conversations in this quadrant can reveal (or conceal) deep rifts in the group — clearly climate change is real! Clearly climate change is a hoax! Et Cetera.

Regardless of the what claims are made in this quadrant the fundamental problem with any kind of generalized statement about the world is that they are almost impossible to verify or refute, but despite this conversations in this quadrant are usually presented as statement of ‘fact’, or ‘common sense’. While it might be fun to make these sorts of statements (I am certainly guilty of doing this regularly) these conversations are usually unconscious and unhelpful. As a facilitator my job is to help the group move on from these kinds of pronouncements as soon as it’s ready to do so.

It’s not all bad though! This quadrant can be a very productive place to revisit at the end of an engagement. People often really appreciate the chance to reflect on the event or workshop and notice how their world view has changed, and converged.

2. Objective — “My Expertise”
Where groups seem to go next is exterior/individual quadrant, partly because it’s a stable pattern and partly because I tend to guide them that way. I think of this quadrant as being about ‘my expertise’ and it’s the natural space for each person in the group to introduce themselves and say what they are good at and what bought them to the meeting, workshop, conference, or retreat.

Statements made from this quadrant are usually ‘I statements’ and are often supported with evidence, personal experience, or some connection to a source or origin. These statements are much more functional because people can easily agree or disagree with them because they are also clearly the person’s own point of view or personal experience.

Assuming that the facilitator is making sure that everyone who wants to speak is getting the chance, ‘the group’ is usually engaged in the content by now, with people expressing a range of opinions and drilling down into the specifics and details of the problem/opportunity. However, according to the quadrant ‘map’, this engaged group of experts is still operating at the level of the individual, and therefore it is not yet functioning as a group. This is one of the main benefits of the quadrants model: it helps us understand that there is more to facilitating a ‘group’ than organising for a room full of experts to talk to each other.

You have probably observed individuals and groups bouncing back and forward between these two ‘exterior quadrants’, making generalized pronouncements about a collective/external problem or opportunity, and then taking personal and professional positions on that problem or opportunity without reaching any sort of consensus about what to do about it, or how they might approach working together.

You may have also noticed that many books are written from these quadrants — here is a problem, and here’s what we (as individuals/experts) should do about it. However, what Wilbur’s model reminds us is that collaboration is about working together and to do that people need to ‘get inside’ the problem not just look at it from the outside. This requires that we migrate to the ‘internal’ quadrants on the other side of the model.

In the most simple of terms I think the job of the facilitator is to help groups to leave behind “The World” and “My Expertise” and get to “The Group”.

3. Intersubjective — “The Group”
From a social process perspective this is the space where most of the hard work gets done. Intersubjectivity is about people (1) becoming conscious of how they see the world and why, (2) realising that this might be very different from how other people see the world, and (3) finding ways to include other people’s reality alongside our own reality, and (4) entering into a larger, shared understanding or collective intelligence. This where people’s real values and priorities emerge. It is also where we start to see our self in ‘the other’ and establish empathy and trust. To do this we often have to work through our projections, conflict, and the desire to exclude. Having the opportunity to constructively work through these dynamics can be a very healing experience for people.

In social process terms this is not too difficult, but most groups will need a guide to help them make the shift. This is usually the point in the workshop where I invite people to get into small groups and complete some task together (define the problem, brainstorm five solutions, describe success, draw a picture). There is usually some attention needed to help each small group to settle into a collaborative process, but people are remarkably social animals and most of us actually enjoy working together. By the time these groups present back their ‘team effort’ and large group gets a sense of having produced something ‘together’ by being ‘a part’ from itself, it has usually arrived in some part of the “We” quadrant.

My experience is that this quadrant is a really fun and creative place for adult human beings to hang out. Especially in a longer format or retreat setting, real magic can happen here as trust and intimacy are given time and space to grow over several days. In shorter workshops the facilitator usually has to push to keep the group to time and the “we” quadrant tends to feels a bit more like a trip to the gym than a walk in the mountains.

Depending on the confidence of the facilitator and appetite of the group (or the client) there are broadly speaking two options for where to go next. The most common destination is back to the relative safety of the exterior side of the quadrant, where most of us spend most of our time. In many corporate events for example the group will do a little bit of ‘team building’ in the “we” space and then quickly get back to talking about the company and what each employee’s expertise, or professional role is in the larger organization. The more radical alternative next step is the fourth quadrant which is the ‘road less traveled’ by most groups and individuals.

4. Subjective — “The Empowered I”
In shorter, more conventional workshop settings I tend to walk pretty softly in this quadrant. I might simply invite the participants to quietly reflect on the day and to write down three practical things that they feel committed to doing when they leave the workshop. If we have time I might invite them to share their intentions with the person sitting next to them, and call it a day.

If I am working in a more spacious context like a retreat and with a group of people that have explicitly signed up for a deeper reflection or personal growth experience, then I would plan specific sessions and actively invite people to spend as much time in this quadrant as they felt was useful for them. This is much more the domain of the coach, therapist, or shaman than facilitator because the internal/individual quadrant is intrinsically a deeply personal place.

My belief is that the goal of social process work is to help people to take more personal responsibility for the experiences they have. In this quadrant my role as a guide is more complex. I am there to invite people to have their own experience while helping them to recognize and respect the boundaries of the space. I am trying to be encouraging but at the same time not coercing people to have an experience they are not ready to have or don’t want to have. It’s a fine line and easy to get wrong (and I think you have to be willing to get it wrong if you want to work in this space).

This is the transformation quadrant where people find ‘inner clarity’ and a ‘deep sense of purpose’ about the problem or opportunity that the group has come together to work with. This might take the form of a new insight, or a new commitment to do something about it. The previous three quadrants will have informed the process, but the clarity, insight, or commitment is a profoundly personal thing and needs to be respected as such. I would not, for example, expect people to be able to share these things straight away, or to immediately jump into small groups and pitch their ideas to each other for example. Again the space of the retreat gives people time to find their clarity — perhaps overnight — and to find potential supporters or collaborators — perhaps over dinner.

In summary Ken Wilber’s quadrants provide the group and their guide with a rich pattern for landscapes to explore. Each quadrant supports certain kinds of activities and this can help in designing the programme. In my experience this model makes intuitive sense to people and they quickly start to understand how people are speaking and experiencing the event from these four different perspectives. By sharing the model it also helps the group to understand my role and to understand why I might ask them to try a new activity or process.

Peter Block’s Conversations — Doors Between Rooms

The word community also gets used a lot. It is a powerful idea that encourages us to think beyond my self and my own nuclear family. Community invites us into the idea of ‘being a citizen’ and belonging to a place or a group. In my work with groups I often use the metaphor of community when setting the culture for the meeting, workshop, conference, or retreat — how can we be a community for these few hours, or days? If we were a community, what sort of community would you like us to be?

Peter Block has written many books and I love them all. Each one is unique, and there are also some strong recurring themes about the nature of change in groups, communities, and organizations. I think one of Peter’s deep insights is that “all change is linguistic”. If true this would suggest that we should pay more attention to how we choose to speak to each other and the kinds of conversations we choose to have.

In his book Community: The Structure of Belonging he describes six conversations that he thinks have the potential to transform groups, communities, and organizations. I’ve found that the six conversations are especially relevant in understanding how groups transition between the quadrants described above. One of the main tasks of the facilitator or guide is helping the group ‘keep moving’ and not get stuck in any one quadrant for longer than is useful so transitions are really important.

1. The Invitation Conversation

Transformation occurs through choice, not mandate. Invitation is the call to create an alternative future. What is the invitation we can make to support people to participate and own the relationships, tasks, and process that lead to success?

Invitation is perhaps most obvious when we think about how people might participate in any event in the first place. Every person who comes to any event that you or I facilitate, is there because they were invited. Even if it was a group email, or a flyer on a community noticeboard they got invited. How much thought did you put into that invitation? How much control did you as the facilitator have over the content or tone of that invitation? How could that invitation have been more personal, powerful, nurturing, or challenging?

But Block’s understanding of the word invitation is about more than simply about getting people into the room. It is about resisting the temptation to require people to do something, or make it a policy that people will do something (that they otherwise might not do).

I would say that invitation is probably the most important principle I use in my social process practice. I often explicitly state that everything at the event I am hosting is an invitation. As someone once said “adults like to choose” and my job is to consistently offer them the choice to participate or not. When people participate on this basis they are responsible for the outcome, and powerful in their choice or experience. Invitation is the only viable frame I’ve found that can enable adults to cross over from the exterior side of the quadrants to the interior side, where the potential for change and transformation lives.

2. The Possibility Conversation

This focuses on what we want our future to be as opposed to problem solving the past. It frees people to innovate, challenge the status quo, break new ground and create new futures that make a difference.

When ever I take on a new job or project, my first question to myself is ‘how much do I actually believe is possible from this event?’ The litmus test for me to be authentic in my work, is ‘am I willing to share my answer to that question with my client, or the people who show up to the event?’ At the event I often ask the participants what they think is possible from being at the meeting, workshop, conference, or retreat. This helps them clarify their personal goals and be responsible for the outcomes by invoking the possibility conversation.

Possibility is also the best way out of those generalized statements about “The World” being a certain way, and by implication static and fixed. Many times a client will bring in a facilitator or consultant to ‘fix a problem’. While understanding the problem might be a useful place to start, it can quickly become a limiting way to define our work. Shifting from problem to possibility might involve the facilitator saying to the group ‘great so maybe we can do something about that problem’ or ‘maybe that issue is more complex than that statement suggests’. These gentle challenges can make space for possibility to enter the room.

3. The Ownership Conversation

This conversation focuses on whose organization or task is this? It asks: How have I contributed to creating current reality? Confusion, blame and waiting for someone else to change are a defense against ownership and personal power.

When the facilitator or guide employs an invitational approach that invokes possibility in the group, a sense of ownership is cultivated in the group and in each person. Ownership is essential to cultivating a genuine sense of purpose for the group, and for the individual members. Ownership is essential to transition from people simply bringing “My Expertise” in the individual-exterior quadrant and crossing over to a place where the group is responsible and powerful. The facilitator or guide often needs to model this potential by personally inviting the possibility of “The Group” taking ownership of the problem/opportunity, even just for the duration of the workshop, conference, or retreat.

Peter Block talks about ‘ownership’ as being a shift from other positions like blame (it’s someone else problem), explanation (here’s why/how it’s not my problem) and denial (there is no a problem). If you notice these sorts of strategies being used by the group they are clues that a they are not fully owning their experience.

4. The Dissent Conversation

This gives people the space to say no. If you can’t say no, your yes has no meaning. Give people a chance to express their doubts and reservations, as a way of clarifying their roles, needs and yearnings within the vision and mission. Genuine commitment begins with doubt, and no is an expression of people finding their space and role in the strategy.

One of peoples perennial concerns about being in the interior-collective quadrant is ‘group think’ — the idea that there is no room for individuality in “The Group”. This can be a legitimate concern, especially if the facilitator is not paying attention to whose voice is loudest, or is not actively supporting the group to be respectful of authentic difference and diversity.

The only real way to prove to people that their individuality will be respected is for them to see that dissent is okay, and this cannot happen until someone in the group disagrees with something. Dissent and disagreement are both much easier when the facilitator invites it and provides spaces for people to express contrary perspectives. Again you, as the facilitator, might need to model this by skillfully disagreeing with someone (ideally the group’s leader or your client) publicly in the group.

As facilitators we often want groups to be harmonious and aligned. While these qualities can indicate a high functioning group, they can also be signs that people are ‘resigned’ to having to follow the leader or go along with consensus. People also like feeling part of a team and may simply be paying ‘lip service’ by agreeing to decisions rather than saying what they really think.

5. The Commitment Conversation

This conversation is about making promises to peers about your contribution to the success. It asks: What promise am I willing to make to this enterprise? And, what price am I willing to pay for success? It is a promise for the sake of a larger purpose, not for personal return.

People are often asked to commit too early in a process, before they are actually ready. We can all nod our heads and unconsciously go along with generalised statements in the exterior-collective (The World) quadrant. We can show up in a committed way with our particular expertise in the exterior-individual (My Expertise) quadrant. And it’s really common for people in the interior-collective (The Group) quadrant to eagerly agree to a course of action and then leave the room with no intention to take any further action, because “the group” will do it.

In my experience the only commitment that is really worth having comes from people (including myself) who are firmly in the interior-individual quadrant of “The Empowered I”. As a facilitator you may have seen a version of this when people volunteer for roles or jobs at the end of a workshop. The test of this commitment is people leaving the event and making substantial changes to their personal and professional lives to align with their new clarity, insight, or commitment.

Peter Block describes commitment as an alternative to ‘barter’ or ‘negotiation’ where parties trade off issues that matter to them in order to agree to something that neither party is really excited about. He also talks about ‘hedging’ which might look like a group wanting to develop a Plan B, or even a number of contingency plans. While it’s good to be prepared for other eventualities, as the facilitator we should probably question the group’s commitment to Plan A if no one really thinks it’s likely to work.

6. The Gifts Conversation

Rather than focus on deficiencies and weaknesses, we focus on the gifts and assets we bring and capitalize on those to make the best and highest contribution. Confront people with their core gifts that can make the difference and change lives.

It is always easy to be critical of ourselves and other people. Participants often feel like criticism is more authentic, while compliments and appreciation are warm and fluffy, and should be regarded as suspicious. As a facilitator it is easy to fall into this trap too, especially when working with groups who might be conflict averse. However I find that it can actually be more challenging to ask participants to give each other a compliment, than it is to point out a problem or make a complaint. When groups are not functioning well it can be because they have become preoccupied with deficiencies and weaknesses.

One way out of this dynamic is to deliberately make space at the meeting, workshop, conference, or retreat for people to share their unique gifts (talents, insights, and perspectives). These spaces of sharing and appreciation are often the first casualty of a program that is over full, a workshop that is too short, or a facilitator, client, or group that is impatient for outcomes or want’s to focus on problem solving.

The gifts conversation is especially effective at the beginning, and the end of a group process. A cornerstone of my practice is using the simple “check-in” and “check-out” process to book end each session I facilitate. Giving each person in the workshop the opportunity to introduce themselves at the beginning, and to offer some reflections at the end takes a relatively long time, but I just always find it one of the best parts of the event. People always surprise me with the depth of their insights, the honesty of their feelings, and the sincerity of their commitments.

The gifts conversation is also a practical way for a group to prepare to leave the internal quadrants and return to “the world” at the conclusion of their time together with a clear set of outputs or outcomes. The gifts might be from collective (a new collaboration, product, or initiative) or individual (personal commitments, contributions, or decisions).

In summary these six conversations provide a mutually reinforcing web of connection that can help shift our consciousness from being separate individuals to becoming a community of practice. My experience is that these conversations are based on very old patterns of relatedness. What I noticed when I started working with them was that I started noticing them showing up in the groups that I was facilitating. It wasn’t that I was initiating the six conversations, it was more that I could now recognize them as useful landmarks. I could also pause with the group to appreciate and participate in the richness of each conversation as they spontaneously arose in the group. Sometimes these conversations are not spoken explicitly and not always during the boundaries of the workshop of event. Often it is better to have these ‘conversations’ before and after the event as part of the participants preparation and follow up process.

Conclusion: Making It Up As We Go Along

I have just introduced two mental models that have been formative for me in developing my practice working with groups. I’ve tried to keep it simple and not get into too much detail. I have given a few examples that hopefully describe how I understand each model and how I use them in my work. Hopefully sharing these will encourage you to try some new ways of working in your practice too.

For me Ken Wilber’s quadrants are great at describing the spaces that people and groups find themselves in, and where they might usefully want to go next. Peter Block’s six conversations are great at describing some linguistic shifts that help people and groups transition between the quadrants and not get stuck in any one place for longer than they need. They also gave me a map that I can use to find myself and to find the group, if I we ‘lost’ or when I don’t know where to go next.

Until a mentor introduced me to these models and showed me how to use them in my practice, group facilitation and social process was a mystery to me. I thought that facilitators simply provided groups with a random set of activities and experiences that somehow helped the group work something out together.

While I still think we are all making it up as we go along, these two conceptual models were instrumental in helping me understand that social process can be designed on several levels. Not only can we be creative with games, activities, and how the furniture is arranged, but we can also craft a unique journey for people. This journey can help solve the specific problems they are grappling with, but can also build their collective capability as a group in ways that support their future growth and development. Perhaps the most exciting thing for me about working with these conceptual models is that we can add to them, combine them in new and interesting ways, and create new maps that can hopefully open new dimensions of the human experiences for us to grow into.

Recommended Reading

Alan Briskin and Sheryl Erickson (2009) The Power of Collective Wisdom: And the Trap of Collective Folly

Arnold Mindell (1995) Sitting in the Fire: Large Group Transformation Using Conflict and Diversity

bell hooks (1994) Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom

Brenda Zimmerman, Frances Westley, and Michael Quinn Patton (2006) Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed

Dale Hunter and Anne Bailey and Bill Taylor (1995) Art of Facilitation: How to Create Group Synergy

David Bohm (1990) On Dialogue

Harrison Owen (1997) Expanding Our Now: The Story of Open Space Technology

Jack Zimmerman and Virginia Coyle (1996) The Way of Council

Ken Wilber (1996) A Brief History of Everything

Meg Wheatley (2005) Finding Our Way

Otto Scharma (2009) Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges

Peter Block (2008) Community: The Structure of Belonging

Peter Senge (1990) The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization

Thomas King (2008) The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative

Vivian Hutchinson(2011) How Communities Heal: Stories of Social Innovation and Social Change

William Isaacs (1999) Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together