The learning stance: A conversation with Anthi Theiopoulou

    Warren: What are the particular qualities of the demonstrations in Syntagma Square that you most appreciate and would love to see deepen and expand?

    Anthi: There are a few qualities that are present and that are actually enabling the self-organizing that has been happening. In my opinion, one of the very important ones is the learning stance. It is crucial because without this quality present, we cannot develop and work with any other quality. In order to learn something new, you need to have a learning stance. You cannot learn something if you think you know it already. And because this movement in Syntagma Square is oriented towards something that still does not exist, this implies that it needs a lot of learning.

    I think this is the most interesting part of the situation in Greece. At some point in our history, we lost our learning stance.  Because if we look at it historically and culturally, in our DNA there is this tendency towards inquiry in ancient Greece. However this is no longer the case today. In modern Greece, dialogue does not exist. But there has been a leap from the time Syntagma Square started. A great leap.

    Before Syntagma square, there were only a handful of events that were actually interactive. In scientific gatherings, governmental meetings, parliament, etc. there was of course interaction, but it was more about deliberating than engaginging in dialogue.

    Tana: How have you seen the learning stance manifest in Syntagma Square?

    Anthi: We can identify it very easily by observing whether an individual is actually inquiring or advocating. So someone, in order to learn, needs to create questions and to inquire. Unless inquiry is expressed, there is no learning stance; it is instead a knowing stance, which is exactly the opposite. A knowing stance is expressed by advocating and that does not provide any opening for new information to come in, to reach our brain and as a consequence of course, to process new learning and generate new knowledge.

    When Syntagma started, the great leap was that people started to have deliberations on their own through assemblies. And that was the first step to open the way for dialogue to start taking place. Besides providing us with new information and new learnings, dialogue allows us to see each other more fully. And that, for a democratic society, not only in Greece, but in general, is a very important thing. At some point along the way, we lost touch with seeing each other.

    Tana: That’s a really great way of capturing the essence of dialogue. Can you describe when you first felt this shift towards dialogue starting to happen in Syntagma Square?

    Anthi: It was about a week after Syntagma Square started. You could see people’s faces. The expressions on their faces were really different. In my opinion, this was exactly because people started seeing each other, communicating, and living.  Because seeing one another and communicating is actually the basis of living. So the first time I saw this shift was on people’s faces. They were happy! And it was the first time I was seeing really happy faces in Greece. And whenever I would turn my head to look I could see happy faces and people having dialogue in small groups- small pareas as we say here, a company of friends – who might have been completely unknown to each other moments before, but who met there in the Square and had the same interests and the same learning stance.

    Warren: So if Greeks had mostly forgotten their capacity to dialogue as you had mentioned ealier, why do you think, in this particular case, they were able to do it? What do you think catalyzed that shift?

    Anthi: Hhhhmm…good question. I think the need…it reached such a level due to the social/economic situation that we are facing and because the pain of staying the same was higher than the pain to change. Those were the catalyzers.

    Warren: So that brings me to the million dollar question: If the pain got so high with the old way of doing things that it opened this doorway, what happens when we move into the future and that pain lessens, as any pain does? How can you keep yourselves anchored in that learning stance and not fall backwards into old patterns of relating?

    Anthi: Yes, that is really the million dollar question (laughter). In my opinion, when a shift happens, you cannot go back. There are two categories of people…if we can even say something like that. There are people, who despite the pain decreasing, still keep walking the path of the new- the path they discovered through the shift. And there are people who go back to the old patterns. But whatever an individual chooses to do, he or she will never be the same because they have seen that there is another way. Regardless how clear the person saw it, the fact is that they have seen another side, another reality, another way of doing things. And this realization is never lost, whatever path they end up choosing. Even if some people choose to go back to their old way of doing things, the fact is they are not going to do it the same way as they used to. It might be the majority that will keep the new pattern moving forward or not, but definitely every single person who has experienced this shift has a new realization, a new point of view, even inside the old system.

    Warren: I think that’s a really beautiful way of thinking about it and why we’ve been so interested in an experiential version of change versus an idea-version of change. Because if something is seeded in us, when we touch it, even for just a minute, it changes who we are. Such a change is not necessarily seeded in us when we just read about it, or think about it or just come up with ideas. I love the idea that once you see this other way you never really go back. In your behaviour you might go back at different times because nothing is very smooth for us humans, but I love the idea that it has permanently marked us in a way. And so part of the work of social change is to create as many experiences of the new possibilities as we can so that when people touch it in their own ways it becomes harder and harder for the world to go back.


    Staying true to the vision

    Tana: Picking up on what Warren was saying about the road rarely being very smooth- that we tend to take 2 steps forward and 1 step back in our attempts to change- I’m curious how you’ve seen this dynamic play out in Syntagma Square.

    Anthi: There was a huge effort to create the right processes and set the right ground rules. People experienced that 2 steps forward 1 step back dynamic at such a level that it became a fear. And this fear was expressed by refusing any way of doing things that was from the old system. So they kept to the process they had collectively created and kept reminding each other of the ground rules and reminding each other that the other way is part of the old system, which they no longer want to be a part of.

    At the more external level, it was expressed in their denial to take and consequently manage money. Anything related to money was not acceptable in Syntagma Square. They didn’t want to have it in the Square because they saw it as representing the old system. They demonized it almost. But that was just to protect themselves from this going back and forth- the shift pattern. So that was one expression and a very intense one.

    Another one was that they never accepted any levels of authority- no one was allowed to come and talk on behalf of an organization or a particular group of people. The only exception was a representative of the Gaza boat and a representative from Libyians living in Greece who asked for help from Syntagma because the government was opposing them. These were the only organizations they actually named inside Syntagma and that were represented in some way.

    Tana: So the strategy that people were using to keep themselves from reverting to the ways of the old system was to reject them all together and swing to the other extreme.

    Anthi: I wouldn’t call it the “other extreme”, but it is very close to it, very close indeed. We can use a metaphor here- it’s like the process that has now been institutionalized to help stop drug or alcohol addiction. An addict is used to being in one setting and then when they enter into rehab, the rules of the rehab oblige them to move to the other extreme. Gradually, through this process, once the person returns to their own life, they find a balance; their own golden mean.

    Warren: I think there is something very powerful about that refusal to accept representation, to want people to speak as human beings, not as representatives. I like that a lot. It makes me wonder if one of the institution-building rules moving forward is that we move away from the idea of representation. This was a theme that kept coming up in my thesis work as well. A guy who worked for one of the organizations I studied talked about how when he was asked to sit on coalitions, he would say “I can’t represent my organization, but I can come and sit on this coalition as myself and in doing so bring my own particular expression and experiences of my organization.” That always stayed with me when he said that. It seems like such a great way to re-humanize all these governance roles that we’re playing.

    Anthi: That was pretty interesting for me as well. As a matter of fact, people were striving to reinvent and reuse the old system of direct democracy that was created in ancient Athens. A democracy doesn’t have representatives, a republic has representatives. People were trying and are still trying to find a way to bring back the system of democracy that we used to have in Greece, but in a way that is appropriate for our current reality.  Conditions have changed of course, the population has changed, the way we do business has changed. However there are ways to bring it back and that’s what the people of Syntagma Square are looking for-  because this is not democracy that we have in our country.

    Warren: How did the ground rules in Syntagma Square, for example the “no representatives” ground rule, come up? Was there a group of people thinking them up or did they emerge more organically?

    Anthi: Organically, that was the most amazing thing to observe and be part of. People started experimenting with each other, and as this grew, the right ground rules emerged. After about 4 weeks, it was clear what the ground rules were and it was beautiful to see how smoothly the assembly was running. It took 4 weeks for people to discover this on their own- with no previous experience, no background of systems thinking or dialogue processes.

    Tana: So there weren’t seasoned facilitators like you and Maria helping to facilitate this process? It was really just people coming together around issues that concerned them and the process kind of developed around that?

    Anthi: Exactly. There was no one facilitating it. That was the amazing thing. And that is what has been named as collective intelligence. Some people refer to it as “swarm intelligence”.

    People started experimenting with small group meetings, and then in parallel they were also experimenting with the entire assembly. So these two levels of experimentation were going on simultaneously, and after 4 weeks the processes were at such a point that they were completely documented and running on their own. There was never a facilitator. That was the amazing thing.

    Tana: It seems like if you had a seasoned facilitator helping to organize things, it might undermine the growth of the collective learning stance that you spoke of earlier. The facilitator wouldn’t be in a learning stance themselves because they would be bringing a process that they already know works and then the rest of the crowd would go on auto-pilot and simply follow the facilitator’s lead. In this instance people had no choice but to co-create and learn about what works best for them. This is interesting for me to think about- given that I’m someone who has done a lot of facilitating.

    Anthi: Yes, exactly, this was the case. As a matter of fact, we went to the Square at the very beginning to propose something like that, but in talking to other people, we saw that they were very afraid. They didn’t want a pre-determined process like that. They felt so manipulated by the political prescriptive and practically alien system that they wanted to create something on their own. So we said, this is the right way, so let it happen this way. And it worked beautifully.


    Engaging with incoherence

    Tana: So given that the future path was being paved as it was being walked in Syntagma Square, did you experience inconsistencies between actions and values in the organizing process?

    Anthi: We can observe that there is this incoherence even in people who are actually walking their path and are committed to a new paradigm in whatever way they are living and expressing it. You sometimes still see an inconsistency between their intention and the actual application. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens when things get really tough.

    And because I have seen this same thing happening even to exemplars of the new paradigm- both individuals and organizations-then I eliminate any possibility of this happening on purpose. So if it is not happening on purpose, then it must be some kind of mental model or archetype that is driving this behaviour. And so with a little more research, I found that this archetype, what I call the “mechanistic archetype”, was created due to historical reasons all over the world. And so what we have is an overpopulation of institutions (not of individuals) that are recreating mechanistic models without knowing why. The new mechanistic model might provide the solution to the problems that the previous one created and so we move on as humanity and create more institutions and more mechanistic models and attitudes and this gets in our DNA. (Click here to read an excerpt from Anthi’s working paper that describes the ‘mechanistic archetype’)

    Tana: Can you give an example of when this mechanistic archetype resurfaced in Syntagma Square and how you responded?

    Anthi: An example that stands out for me is that people were fighting against a representative system, but yet in the Syntagma Square assemblies what they often recreated was a deliberation-style dialogue.

    I tried several different ways at the beginning to interact with it. And what I’ve found to be most useful is to start asking questions to the person or group that manifests this pattern of behaviour. I have found that as soon as I start asking questions, the person or group sees the inconsistencies on their own and then goes on to change their behaviour. So I don’t do anything practically.

    It’s not something that I have standardized. I simply inquire into how this action that is manifesting – the mechanistic archetype-is in line with intention, which is not mechanistic and which is actually a very healthy one. This inquiry actually puts the person in the position to see the inconsistency. And as a result it immediately disappears because it is just an archetype, nothing more. We just need to see it, be aware of it, and it changes. If, for example, I see that what I’m doing now is inconsistent with what I want to do, there is no reason for me to keep behaving in the same way.

    Tana: So you are simply acting as a mirror. You’re not trying to correct it. You’re just helping to surface it and allowing it to self-correct. It is reminding me of Sarah Whiteley’s blog post on wanting to introduce World Café as an approach to help facilitate meaningful conversation in Syntagma Square (and to break the more mechanistic speaker/audience exchange that was dominating the assembly interactions that day), but deciding in the end to walk away. You were there with Sarah and Maria that evening, right?

    Anthi: Yes, we were together trying to do that World Café. The inconsistency was pretty clear that day. Many people were gathered in Syntagma Square participating in an inquiry into direct democracy- that was what the speeches were about. There were a few people who had experiences of direct democracy, so they were presenting those experiences- but through a panel structure! So the inconsistency was at the organizational level, created by the sum of the people participating in the process at that point at time. And in my experience, in such cases, inquiring is the right way forward.

    However this inquiry happens in a different way. Because it is at an organizational level, not an individual level, it means that there is not yet a critical mass of people ready to do that shift, ready to see the incoherence and to make that leap. So what I do is start inquiring, but not at this point, not right there. The next day I might pose a question to one member of that organization, another day a question to another member. This is still inquiring, but on the collective intelligence of the organization that has formed…and gradually the incoherence is collectively recognized.

    Warren: I really, really love that. For me it helps clarify that when we are seeing something at the system level, our instinct is often to work directly on it by gathering everyone together or by starting with the central organizing committee or the leader, which of course is not a systems approach, not a complexity-based approach. So I like what you are describing, which is to seed the question in various places at various times. The point is not to get everyone’s brains together because it isn’t the collection of individual brains, but the larger collective consciousness that needs to be shifted. It is a very practical approach to shifting things that actually has very profound theoretical roots for me.

    I just had this vision, and I don’t know if it is even true because it sounds too neat…that small practices create big changes and big practices create small changes. If we gather everybody in the room in the situation that you’re talking about and try to create a big policy about how we are going to be less incoherent in this way, we are likely to create a very small shift, if any, in the long run. But that these very small moments of asking this person, this person, this person. That seems more likely to create the big sea change that you’re seeking. It probably sounds too neat to be true, but I like the possibility that it’s true (laughter).

    Anthi: Well, in my experience, it is true.

    Tana: It’s also because you are working on a more intimate relational level where you are really connecting to a person and their own experience of an event and every person will have a slightly different experience and interpretation of that same moment.

    Anthi, I’m curious to know if you actually talked to people in the way you’re describing after that evening in Syntagma Square when you attempted to introduce the World Cafe.

    Anthi: Well, yes. I kept going back to Syntagma Square as often as I could. Of course, not every day, I couldn’t manage that. But I kept returning every few days, posing questions and inquiring.

    Tana: And how did people respond to your questions?

    Anthi: Usually very well because I don’t pose the questions with the intention to manipulate the person in order to help him see the inconsistency. That is a trap. It doesn’t help, as it turns out. I know from experience…I tried that at the beginning (laughter). So I pose questions with the intention to actually understand what this person thinks at that point. What is their intentions and thoughts about the way to reach those intentions? And I have seen that by doing that, the person or organization gradually finds their way out of this inconsistency.

    I started with a person I knew. He was very connected to the panel discussion format. So I started inquiring. What does he think? What is he trying to achieve in this point in time ,and how does he think he can achieive it? So people start out wanting to create dialogue and then at some point they saw that the result was not actually a dialogue…and they just pause and think. And that is enough. I have a feeling that we simply forget to stop and think and that has created many problems.

    Warren: Which for me also highlights another benefit of doing this small scale, individual, question approach. Because when we are asking ourselves a question in a big group, we often have an expectation that have to come up with an answer before the meeting comes to a close. But when you’re asking this at the individual level, it is something that can sit with a person and be mused over for days, weeks, months, years, whatever. It is something that just lingers in the air. And if the collective conscious reflects, that is how it reflects. Just like an individual who wants to create something new or learn something new needs time and space for reflection, for coming back to a problem over and over again, for observation, so does the collective consciousness. So I feel like the rhythm with which you’re doing that is maybe one reason it is more effective than the other approach, the more centralized questioning approach.

    Anthi: I  have found it very effective, yes.

    Warren: Many of us can get anxious and overheated in a way when we want to change a system. We want to get everybody together and get everyone thinking about x and come to some kind of conclusion. And that, in addition to being a little bit naïve, overworks and frustrates us. Whereas this is a very gentle approach. It is very manageable. You can say, “I don’t know how to change Greece. I don’t know how to change Syntagma Square, but I know how to ask a question to this person. I know how to do this tomorrow”. So it gives you a way to feed your energy into the system, in a natural way, as yourself, as the person who is trying to have some sort of impact.


    Seeing the other

    Tana: I find what has happened in Syntagma Square very inspiring because it’s an alternative to the typical process of protesting in the streets, a process that I find very hard to get excited about. It’s still considered quite radical from the perspective of main stream society, but is it really? I think a big aspect that is missing in most protests is the act of seeing each other and engaging in dialogue. Too much of the focus is on connecting through our dislike or hatred of ‘the enemy’, rather than connecting to each other in a way that will begin to contribute to the world that we want to build.

    Warren: You talk about seeing each other as the first step, which I love, I think that is right. But for me that includes the supposed enemy. If we are seeing each other, but then taking all of the people in power and putting them in some other category and not seeing them, doesn’t that reinforce the older pattern of not really seeing each other? So how do we avoid that trap, if that makes sense?

    Anthi: Can you explain a bit more?

    Warren: Yes, so mostly right now when we’re talking about seeing each other, we’re talking about the people in the square.  But seeing each other is a basic relational stance of openness to the full humanness of the person across from me. And often when we get in these kinds of change situations, we come together and organize around an enemy and we’re closed to seeing the enemy in the same way that we’re seeing those who are with us in the square. So I wonder, isn’t that a trap? If I’m in Egypt, how can I see Hosni Mubarak in the same way? It doesn’t mean I won’t fight him or want him to leave power, but how, at a fundamental human level, so that I can truly engage in dialogue, do I truly see the bureaucrat, the person I am organizing against politically? How do I not rule that person out of the seeing at a human level?

    Anthi: Yes, this is interesting. It is of course dependent on the level of consciousness reached by each person. If a person has reached a high enough level of consciousness then they can see even a person who is hurting them and put aside the fear, pain, rage and violence that this person creates. But this is not the rule. Whether I like it or not, such a high level of consciousness is still the exception. So I think the first step is seeing people who do not touch our instinctive levels, who do not hurt us.  That is the first step.

    For the second, and in my opinion, final step there is an old Greek saying “[don’t mind them because] Their job they do, [while you] on your path you stand/walk.”

    (For definitions of terms used see the SoL Global website)


    An audio excerpt

    Click here to listen to a 5-minute audio excerpt of our conversation with Anthi where we touch on implications for organizational leadership.


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