Collective Intelligence, Education

Salons and the Practice of Conversation

The critical challenges we face today are increasingly understood as
interrelated and as global, spiritual and material in nature. Climate
change and related human activities, including development and human
migrations, have created a planetary crisis that no nation or region can
solve on its own. We are an Earth community. However, making sense of
all this in a time when more powerful tools for communicating and for
accessing information are available to more people than ever before is a
task both daunting and full of possibility.

In open societies a healthy civic life depends on an informed and
engaged citizenry, a citizenry that can see beyond local issues and the
ideological polarizations that seek to frame (and limit discussion of)
many issues. The more complex the challenges and the greater the stakes,
the more important it is that we speak to each other about these
concerns. While the freedom to engage in public conversation exists in
many countries, its existence doesn’t insure that conversation will
occur. It requires initiative and intention to plumb deeper meanings and
broader connections, and such impetus often rises out of
community-based efforts.

One very positive trend in recent years can be seen in the growth of
interest in salons, dialogues, multilogues, conversations, circles,
cafes, open spaces, chat rooms, Internet forums, and other modes of
gathering. People have been drawn more and more to creating ways to meet
and explore issues of common interest. While this is not new—from
Socrates and Plato, to the women in France who hosted salons beginning
in the 17th century, to our contemporary ways of meeting—it seems to be
in our nature to seek connection, to want to talk things over and
discover meaning.

The character of various types of gatherings over time has reflected
the practices and possibilities of their period of history, culture, and
the generation initiating them. The last is particularly true now with
the explosion of internet-based communications, so natural a part of
life for younger generations. Can there be rich conversation over the
Internet? Can we meet as souls? I don’t know, but I suspect in some way
we can. The whole arena of electronic communications and the world’s
being linked up via the Internet is fascinating—and can possibly become
an extended tool of our consciousness. Being over 60, I am aware that
younger generations, as a friend used to say, are wired differently and
hopefully will realize more expanded and richer uses for the Internet.

In our own time, the lag between the exercise of our wisdom and the
exercise of our increasingly powerful communications tools is apparent.
This discrepancy in itself can pull us toward seeking more integrative
perspectives, and toward creating meaningful contexts in which to engage
the present and looming challenges we need to address. So we find
ourselves drawn back to the campfire or to the water cooler, to a
neighbor’s living room or a local café—to spaces that can hold informal,
honest and open exchange. In part, in we are looking for some semblance
of a community setting and connection, even if it is temporary. In the
great religious traditions, one of the common pillars sustaining
individuals on their path to spiritual maturity has been the
community—as a place for reflection, for testing the authenticity of
one’s own insights and beliefs, and for confirmation. Today community is
not as strong a force as it used to be in any segment of society, but
there are signs that it is being sought in various ways.

For the past sixteen years the International Center for Integrative
Studies (ICIS) has hosted salons in an effort to provide opportunity to
engage critical issues. The interest in salons grew out of a conviction
that the complex times in which we live require group endeavor and the
cultivation of group wisdom. ICIS salons are composed of informal
gatherings of 20 to 35 people from different disciplines and
backgrounds. Diversity in background and profession is important. There
is usually a mix of new participants with others who come regularly and
provide continuity, helping to hold the environment and process of
conversation. Salons offer space for authentic exploration, the
co-mingling of ideas, and the development of new thinking. They contain
elements of an intellectual drawing room and the public square, but more
importantly they have been designed to hold a respectful and reflective
space and process that are both safe and intensely alive. Salons foster
an environment where we can dig deep, take the time to ask questions
that often sit on the margins of our awareness, and listen
appreciatively to each other and to ourselves. They don’t always work.
Sometimes the chemistry or setting isn’t quite right; but at their best,
salons offer the possibility to meet as souls, appreciate others’
understandings, and discover new insights.

There doesn’t seem to be any one formula for organizing a salon, and
some experimentation is good to keep gatherings fresh and creative. A
book, a film, a photographic exhibit, or a speaker can be used to
introduce a topic. Someone is needed as host to welcome participants and
to provide the context, neutral facilitation when needed, and a
closing. How much directed guidance a host provides varies with the
group, topic and setting. In a brief but rich article on “The Spiritual
Practice of Hosting Conversations”, Vicki Robin identifies three
dimensions of the ‘mind of hosting’ (Utne Reader, September – October
2004). “The first mind of hosting is listening to what each person says
with absolute attention and utter fascination…. The second mind of
hosting is listening with attention and fascination to one’s own
thoughts …. The third mind of hosting is attuning not to self or other,
but to the meanings that begin to arise from the rich, bubbling stew of
interactions.” To the degree we can, these are qualities to be practiced
and encouraged not only by hosts but also by all participants.

There are other values and practices that seem common to successful
salons and good conversation. Hospitality and creating a welcoming,
spiritually quiet environment help people (particularly those coming
from the pressures of work) make the transition to a more reflective and
open way of interacting—and give our minds an opportunity to become
less driven and more alert. Participants are greeted personally,
provided refreshments, and given an opportunity to introduce themselves.
ICIS salons have been held mostly in private homes, providing an
intimate and warm setting.
Salons are conversations among colleagues. Some will have more
knowledge, but there are no unquestioned ‘experts.’ Asking a
well-packed, thoughtful question can be a most valuable contribution. So
is allowing silence when a conversation reaches a natural pause or the
group needs to reconsider its direction, a practice the Quakers have
long appreciated. Integrating silence and respectful listening can build
trust and encourage participants to speak from both head and heart.
Also important is fostering an environment that encourages suspension of
judgment and blame, and taking responsibility for one’s words, for
one’s intentions. Much of this is common sense and often practiced
without thinking when we sit and talk with a loved one. It takes
intention and practice to extend these qualities to a salon
conversation, and it is its own reward.

Salons can be held in collaboration with other groups. For example,
ICIS has held two salons on An Inquiry into World Citizenship in a Time
of Great Integrations and Great Divisions with Nancy Roof in
collaboration with Kosmos. This type of cooperative effort can provide
more continuity of exploration and extend a greater reach to diverse
For those interested in starting a salon and hosting conversations, you
can begin with colleagues, friends and neighbors, but be as inclusive as
you can. There are some very helpful resources with guidance about
facilitation, hosting, and creating a constructive environment for a
salon. Here are a few: Citizen Conversation, Dialogue, Deliberation and
Reflection (CCDDR) Program of the Co—Intelligence Institute,; a discussion of “circles of trust” in A Hidden Wholeness by Parker Palmer; Let’s Talk America, co-founded by Vicki Robin,; the Study Circle Resource Center,; and Socrates Cafes, www.

There is so much untapped human capacity and creativity all around
us. A salon can be a vessel for giving them expression in a community,
and for contributing to the emergence of a more whole understanding of
the challenges we face.