Often, in our floating college’s heyday, we were called in to organizations and other kinds of communities, not to teach or lead workshops, but as consultants, on such matters as program planning and evaluation or interpersonal relations. Whatever the specific focus of our consultation, we noticed certain useful things happening in the community, almost independently, as if our very presence were their excuse or catalyst. In time, we came to see them as open-circle phenomena, and learned to help them happen.
When an outside agent comes to town, her presence creates a game. It may be played in many ways: she may give a speech and leave immediately, or she may go around unannounced to observe a series of individuals and send the group a written analysis later. But any more flexible way of working gives rise to a public space, and within it a public game which, even when it is completely untended and rudimentary, may be recognized as Open Circle. Here her arrival is the icebreaking event, for in general people see in it the possibility, not very well defined, of meeting not-very-well-defined needs, and their minds and emotions are engaged. Under the umbrella of the Outsider's presence, people hear each other speak in a space which is still the community’s, but which has been rendered objective and expectant (although not necessarily safe) by the presence of a stranger—an unaffiliated stranger, neither peripheral nor pivotal, whose task is to observe, and whose observation leads the others to observe actively. Her presence catalyzes a public space, in which people begin to speak with the dignity of members of a commonweal.
What happens in this space depends on the state of the community, and on gamekeeping. In my experience, whether the community is an extended family, an administrative bureaucracy, or a coalition of anti-war groups, people are out of touch with each other to some extent, often seriously so, and out of touch with many things that they need or would want to know. Hearing each other speak to the Outsider, or being led to speak together by her, people hear some of what is not said or heard in the normal process of their community: about what other people and groups are doing and feeling, their needs and problems; about information and resources and support that are available; about strategies that bear on their own problems, and so on. Whether what surfaces is random or comprehensive depends on such factors as the nature of the Outsider’s inquiries, her skill at drawing people forth, the community’s self-consciousness, and so on. But always it has at least a rudimentary purposefulness, organic and collective, for insofar as the Outsider creates a space for testament, people do speak of what is important to them. And in general its surfacing is functional, a base for further organizing; for people do get together to follow up on what they hear, although not usually very well.
One is tempted to ask: what’s wrong with the ordinary communication processes of the community, that these things don’t get heard until an Outsider comes? There is usually enough wrong or inadequate for a skilled Outsider to make all sorts of helpful suggestions about communication. But simultaneously, and in a deeper sense, there may be nothing wrong at all. I have yet to see a group of any sort, even a couple, however attentive to the efficacy of its internal communications, that could not benefit from an Outsider’s visit; and I think the case is rather that every community has need of a periodic ritual, whose function is to clean up or open up the communication left untended by its normal procedures, whatsoever they may be. Rare is the group that attends to this deliberately; and in consequence, most places an Outsider goes she finds pregnant with need. The general ritual that answers to it is precisely an open-interview process (leading to further action); and it will try to enact itself in any open space, including the space of her presence, unless her transactions of inquiry are so rigorously controlled as to damp it entirely. Its latent energy may be considerable, and many an Outsider has found herself struggling to avoid being drawn into a set of issues quite different from those on which she was called to consult, or has found herself ministering to their expression.
It might seem that a community could run its own open-interview rituals; and some try, as by having gripe sessions. But besides the fact that such in-house sessions have usually even less provision for effective follow-up than they do whey they’re summarized by a paid consultant, there is a deeper problem. The Outsider is not of the community’s culture. She is the one who can break taboo, say the forbidden word, ask the functionally-forbidden question; and in the extraordinary space of her presence, others may too. “What is failing? What is unfair? How are you, really; and what do you need and want?” She represents the voice of God, in the sense that taboo is sacred; and in her presence the community vibrates with anticipation and fear, not of judgment from on high but of its truth standing revealed. Afterwards she leaves, and suffers no responsibility for what is revealed or how it is frustrated; nor must she find a way to fit again with the community’s old taboos or their new version. For an insider to pull this off is difficult. I think it may require the arrangement in some “primitive” cultures, in which the shaman, the visionary and the purger of the community’s poisons, is given a leave of absence from ordinary citizenship, either perpetually or during the times when he summons the community’s spirit.
Given all this, there are many ways for an Outsider to help a community make soup from her stone. Unless the community is as small and specialized as a couple, she rarely gets the chance to come and say simply, “Um, I’m here to help you help yourselves, what would you like to talk about?” But she can bend the narrower purpose of her visit in this direction by being smart about whom she chooses to interview together and how she runs group sessions. Often a more orderly process is possible: (1) Speak first with people alone or in small groups. (2) Compare what they say and use it to probe further. (3) Feed the information from one person or group to another, (3’) selecting what will be of genuine relevance so as raise interest in further talk together. (4) Organize one or several open-interview processes, if necessary naming a nominal topic of discussion. (5) Run the processes, using all you have learned from interviewing to guide them. (6) Organize follow-up.
Many styles of consulting stop at (3), using a formal written or verbal presentation. Though they may surface much of the information available through open-circle processes, they are weak in interaction and involve the consultant as the authoritative intermediary of information. In contrast, the pure game of Outsider involves no responsibility for judgment of what surfaces, nor any formal summary or presentation, by the consultant. Rather, her task is to promote recognition of the social event she catalyzes, and to tend its process. This is a definite style of consulting, one might call it experiential rather than cognitive. But the two need not be at odds; for with some care and enough time it is usually possible to play Outsider even through formal Open Interview processes and beyond, and still be able to present one’s own consultant report on the side or at its own meeting, or even as a special voice in the open circle