The physicist, David Bohm, while researching the lives of Einstein, Heisenberg, Pauli and Bohr, made a remarkable observation. Bohm noticed that their incredible breakthroughs took place through simple, open and honest conversation. He observed, for instance, that Einstein and his colleagues spent years freely meeting and conversing with each other. During these interactions, they exchanged and dialogued about ideas which later became the foundations of modern physics. They exchanged ideas without trying to change the other’s mind and without bitter argument. They felt free to propose whatever was on their mind. They always paid attention to each other’s views and established an extraordinary professional fellowship. This freedom to discuss without risk led to the breakthroughs that physicists today take for granted.

Other scientists of the time, in contrast, wasted their careers bickering over petty nuances of opinion and promoting their own ideas at the expense of others. They mistrusted their colleagues, covered up weaknesses and were reluctant to openly share their work. Many refused to discuss their honest thoughts about physics because of the fear of being labeled controversial by their colleagues. Others were afraid of being called ignorant. The majority of scientists of the time lived in an atmosphere of fear and politics. They produced nothing of significance.

THE SPIRIT OF KOINONIA. Einstein and his friends illustrate the staggering potential of collaborative thinking. The notion that open and honest collaboration allows thinking to grow as a collective phenomenon can be traced back to Socrates and other thinkers in ancient Greece. Socrates and his friends so revered the concept of group dialogue that they bound themselves by principles of discussion that they established to maintain a sense of collegiality. These principles were known as “Koinonia,” which means “spirit of fellowship.”

Why were Einstein and his associates able to collaborate so effectively? How were they able to avoid the mistrust, suspicion, and covering up that which often occurs when a group of people attempt to collaborate together? Why were they able to share their work openly and honestly with each other, while their contemporaries did not? What was their secret?

Einstein and his associates had discovered and used a set of ancient Greek principles of intragroup communication, which was developed by Socrates. Socrates and other Greek philosophers would sit around brainstorming and debating various issues. Their discussions, however, rarely got out of hand. Although hot tempers emerged, the participants were bound by seven principles of discussion Socrates established to maintain a sense of collegiality. Socrates called these principles Koinonia which means “spirit of fellowship.” The basic principles were:

1) Establish dialogue.

2) Exchange ideas.

3) Don’t argue.

4) Don’t interrupt.

5) Listen carefully.

6) Clarify your thinking.

7) Be honest.

The following are guidelines for establishing Koinonia in your group:

ESTABLISH DIALOGUE. In Greek, the word dialogue means a “talking through.” Socrates and other Greek philosophers used dialogue to establish and uncover hidden truths. Socrates believed that the key to establishing dialogue is to exchange ideas without trying to change the other person’s mind. This is not the same as discussion which, from its Latin root, means to “dash to pieces.” (In many groups, even the polite ones, the purpose often is to “dash” the other person’s ideas in order to promote your own.)

The basic rules of dialogue established by Socrates and his friends are “Don’t argue,” “Don’t interrupt,” and “Listen carefully.” Participants should focus entirely upon whoever is speaking. This will be difficult at first. With practice, however, communication will become truly two-way.

CLARIFY YOUR THINKING. To do this, you first must suspend all untested assumptions. You might think that certain people are not creative. When you think that, you’re not likely to give their ideas fair thought. Check your assumptions and look at everybody and everything with an unbiased view.

BE HONEST.Say what you think, even if your thoughts are controversial. Once people realize they know what you thinking, they will be comfortable and open around you.

Follow these steps diligently and Koinonia will follow, sooner or later. Most people naturally like to interact. Koinonia can help remove barriers which prevent people from collaborating honestly. When a spirit of Koinonia prevails, people are less likely to withhold information. As a result, intragroup communications are enhanced and ideas flow more freely within a group.

The ancient Greeks believed these principles allowed thinking to grow as a collective phenomenon. Koinonia allowed a group to access a larger pool of common thoughts which cannot be accessed individually. A new kind of mind begins to come into being which is based on the development of common thoughts. People are no longer in opposition. They become participants in a pool of common ideas, which are capable of constant development and change.

The notion that the collective intelligence of a group is larger than the intelligence of an individual can be traced back to primitive times when hunter-gather bands would meet to discuss and solve common problems. It is commonly understood and accepted practice. What is difficult is the willingness of a group to discipline itself to brainstorm for ideas openly and productively. Alex Osborne, an advertising executive in Buffalo, New York, recognized this and formalized brainstorming as a systematic effort and disciplined practice to produce ideas in a group.

Osborne’s idea was to create an un-inhibiting environment that would encourage imaginative ideas and thoughts. The usual method is to have a small group discuss a problem. Ideas are offered by participants one at a time. One member records ideas and suggestions on a flip chart or chalk board. All withhold judgment. After the brainstorming session, the various ideas and suggestions are reviewed and evaluated and the group agrees on a final resolution.

There are many problems with traditional brainstorming. Sessions can be undercut by group uniformity pressures and perceived threats from managers and bosses. Other sessions fail because people find it difficult to avoid judging and evaluating ideas as they are offered. Personality differences also come into play: some people are naturally willing to talk, while others tend to be silent.

Illustrated are two circles of equal size. Circle A symbolically represents the creative forces (the black arrows) of a group brainstorming in an un-inhibiting environment .  Circle B represents the creative forces in an inhibiting environment. Circle A is expanding and liberating creative thought, whereas, Circle B is contracting and restricting creative thought. The restrictive nature of the forces in Circle B even make the circle appear smaller than it is (they are identical in size).  Which brainstorming group would you prefer to join?


All of us had a taste of good group brainstorming sessions at some time in our lives that provided ideas and thoughts we could never have imagined in advance. But these experiences are rare. Increase your chances of having a productive brainstorming session by inculcating a spirit of “Koinonia” into the participants.

(Michael Michalko is a highly-acclaimed creativity expert and the author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Thinking Strategies of Creative Geniuses; Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck, and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work. http://www.creativethinking.net)




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