Listening for Collective Intelligence.

By Dale Hunter.


Listening for Collective Intelligence.

Recently I attended the Australasian Facilitators Network Conference held at Stanwell Tops, New South Wales, Australia (October 15-18). The conference focus was on improving our facilitation skills through strengthening intercultural processes.

The title of the Conference was “Marelin, Yarning all ways”  I gave a short (1 ½ hour) workshop called: Listening for collective intelligence.

For the first part of the workshop I shared about how I came to an understanding of collective intelligence in groups. This personal journey included noticing collective intelligence at work in groups through the lens of music making, and also through being involved in groups in which the languages used were unfamiliar.

Music making

I grew up in a musical family and at the age of nine I was given a clarinet and a clarinet lessons. This led to a musical journey which became a career as a clarinetist in the Auckland orchestra, then called the Symphonia of Auckland. This orchestral career continued until I was 34.

The musical training that prepared me for this career included university study (clarinet, musical history, harmony and aural training) and lots of orchestral experience in orchestras (Avondale College Orchestra, the Auckland Junior Symphony Orchestra and New Zealand National Youth Orchestra. I also had excellent clarinet teachers (Ken Wilson, George Hopkins and Murray Musson) and many opportunities to take part in chamber music groups.

Looking back from the perspective of further life experience in fields outside of music, I realized that one of the things I learnt as an orchestral musician, was how to be a holistic listener. Listening is the key skill set to being able to contribute to and blend with others as an ensemble player.

One listens for many different things including: being in tune with other instruments, synchronizing volume, intensity, phrasing, noticing the movement of key themes and harmonies to bring them forward as needed or indicated by the conductor, listening to support musically fellow musicians that may need this in the moment, listening for the unexpected and the expected.

An effective musician is also actively listening to the structure and form of the whole musical work as it unfolds including the shape, flow and sense of the music,

(A jazz musician listens in many similar ways to the orchestral musician with some extra freedoms to improvise within the overall patterns and agreed structure).

These listening skills became part of my normal day to day activity, like a fish swimming in water. I did not know I had these highly-honed skills: I was unconsciously competent.

Community development:

At the age of 35 I switched to a new career, that of community development worker, focusing on the arts. This career began with attending many community meetings, often held in Pacific languages I did not know, such as Maori, Samoan, Cook Island, Tongan and sometimes a mixture of these together with English. My orchestral listening skills automatically came into play as I listened to make sense of these meetings.

I listened for structure, patterns, flow, pitch, intensity, and strove to understand what was happening and how I could be of assistance in forwarding the projects and issues that were being discussed.

I kept listening for the next 12 years and gradually was also able to contribute by adding my voice to the deliberations. As I found myself gravitating towards the role of the group facilitator, I seemed to have some affinity for this role of process guide.

Reflecting back now after a further career as a professional group facilitator and trainer of group facilitators, I can appreciate that applying my listening skills to group meetings was a natural outreach of my music listening skills. The meetings of people had become the orchestra and chamber music groups of my first career.

Collective intelligence:

The way I listened in group meetings was at first quite unconscious. I discovered, on reflection, that I was listening for the “natural” flow of a meeting, the beginning (introduction and themes outlined), the development of the themes (discussions, different ideas, disagreement, ebb and flow of intensity, strong feelings, dissonance and key changes), the emerging of resolution, (tentative suggestions, start and stop of agreement, desire to get to resolution, frustration, more agreement (or not) and ending, often including prayer or other ritual.

This listening for the process and content of a meeting, I now think of as noticing the unfolding of collective intelligence: the natural desire of humans to think, verbalize, express themselves, problem solve and work things out together. This is totally normal and natural.

Then there are the times that things are not worked out, that frustration occurs, tempers flare, upset occurs and people go away disappointed or angry. (At an extreme, collective intelligence also contains its opposite – that of collective stupidity in the same way that music can collapse into chaos and confusion. This is why an orchestral conductor is usually necessary).

A group facilitators job is a little like that of an orchestral conductor. A facilitator guides a group towards a constructive outcome so that the people involved feel that the issue or project is moving forward in a productive way, even if not every meeting is entirely harmonious. Collective intelligence is a natural part of an organized group of doing things together.

Listening for Collective Intelligence
Facilitator Dale Hunter ( center ) at work, listening for collective intelligence.

Focusing on the whole:

Listening for collective intelligence is easier if we are able to distinguish the individual personas of the people in a group from the collective workings of a group. It is helpful for the facilitator to focus more on the collective (whole group).

For example,

  • Rather than – person A disagreeing with person B (individual personas), the facilitator will be noticing that there were differing opinions expressed, A and B as part of the whole group.
  • Rather than – person A was not listening to person B and they were arguing, the facilitator will be noticing that the group expressed differing views (A and B).
  • Rather than – person B was “being unpleasant and argumentative” and person A was also “being disagreeable” the facilitator will be noticing that factions were forming around differing perspectives.

Listening for the collective does require some considerable skill. This can be learnt, for example, in facilitator training.

I can get into a lot more detail around listening for and unpicking the language of collective intelligence and have just discovered a new word, holopticism, which relates to this. However, I would firstly like to get some feedback from readers, particularly other facilitators, as to how you picked up the skills of listening for the whole group process (or what I call collective intelligence).

A couple of references:

Here is a definition of the word holopticism

Towards an indigenous-informed facilitation practice .pdf
A newly developed resource generated by indigenous facilitators  who are part of the Australasian Facilitators Network.

Here is a short interview with Anita Wooley who is a leader in Collective Intelligence research and her work is worth exploring in depth.

Here is a link to the website of renowned Otto Scharmer (Theory U) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The photo set as the featured image on this page is by Jacinta Cubis


  1. Jacinta Cubis
    hi Dale – I enjoyed your workshop, and the comments that flowed afterwards. I think the examples you’ve included in your blog are really helpful. I don’t remember these from the workshop. They are incredibly relevant for a group I’m working with at the moment, so thank you. On another matter, delighted to see that you’ve been able to make use of one of my photos. I never heard back if you’d received them. I hope you got the one of the drawing I did of the group discussion. That was fun! Jacinta
  2. Thank you Jacinta. Yes the photo at the top is one of yours. And I have the drawing as well. I will add this to the blog soon. The examples were thought of since the workshop. As I keep thinking about how collective intelligence works, more insights come to mind.

    This morning I began thinking about the group within the larger organisation or community and how collective intelligence works there. For example, when there are opposing views, it can be helpful to explore them fully and then enlarge the context and see what emerges.
    As further information emerges in the wider setting, what happens with the opposing views? Do they shift and transform? Or do they contract and harden? What influences each of these happening?

  3. Kia Ora Dale

    A couple of weeks ago I was sitting around my outside fire and suddenly started to feel quite squiffy (drunk). I had had nothing to drink and my mind immediately thought ‘mmm Meg (my wife) is probably having too much to drink’, she had gone out to a party.
    Sure enough about 20 minutes later I got a call from her asking me to pick her up as she had drunk too much too quickly. This particular incident was a first in our 25 years together so I wasn’t basing anything on previous experience of her behaviour. However, I have got used to the knowing that my “own” personal experiences, whether they be thoughts, dreams, visions, or emotions may come from somewhere outside that which would be conventionally of thought of as “me”.
    So, for me, the “collective” is wider than the group present. This is one of the reasons that I am very comfortable in a Māori environment. That is, there is a significantly broad appreciation of what is available in any moment in terms of factors outside the individuals that are present.
    I (whatever that is) am still very much learning to listen to the collective (whatever that is). As a group member I learned this past year to offer to use my strengths when they are needed and feel comfortable relying on others strengths when they are needed. A big step forward for me!
    Thanks g

  4. You said, “So, for me, the “collective” is wider than the group present”. I entirely agree with this.

    It seems to be possible to tap into wider collectives and consciousnesses. For example, I love the energy of trees and like to be able to see and sense trees when I am working as a facilitator. This is usually out the window, but among trees even better.
    I also wonder if we can/do at times tap into wider collectives such as cosmic consciousness, akashic fields or akashic records. Interesting to google these.

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