Collective Insight

What is Collective Insight?

Collective Insight is the experience of a group of people working together all having the same key insight at the same time. Although one or two individuals might speak it first, each person experiences the insight, the “ah ha” moment, spontaneously and at the same time, so there is very little impression that one or another individual came up with the idea. On the contrary, people report the feeling of already knowing what the person was going to say, or alternately, the feeling of having someone “take the words right out of my mouth.”

Collective Insight can be compared to a group of musicians from different bands and different styles coming together to play. At first they are each playing in their own sound, so it just sounds like an arbitrary mixture of competing riffs. As they search for a sound that is completely new, the result goes through phases of dissonance and experiment. Without any previous idea of what the result will be, and without needing anything like agreement or consensus on this form or that, the group can spontaneously settle into a completely new sound – something that surprises even them. Together, they begin to “hear” the form that is shaping, that is moving them toward an altogether emergent new way of playing that has never been played before.

What do we already know about Collective Insight?

We already know quite a few things about collective insight. We know it is a special and rare outcome of group interaction.  We know that collective Insight is emergent, embodied, creative, spontaneous, imaginative, playful and powerful. Although most people have difficulty describing it, every person knows it when they experience it. In fact, outside observers who come in after the fact can tell when a group has achieved collective insights. We know that collective insight is powerful because it taps into creativity that is greater than the sum total of the individuals in the group. We know that it depends upon people in the group having a sufficient orientation toward letting go of their individual patterns of behavior, thinking, doing, and saying, while also being willing to abandon what they know in lieu of what they might be surprised to learn, and able to allow themselves to flow with emotional, dialogic, conceptual and relational movements through all kinds of phases and in any and all directions.

We know that collective insight requires the ability to stick with the engagement during the oftentimes long process of working through the uncomfortable periods when nothing seems to be happening, or everything seems to be going wrong. We know that these are periods which are very similar to natural adaptive processes, in which many configurations of outcomes are tried, but few achieve the right “fit” or resonance. In these periods, a bright idea might fizzle out while deep silence or dark tension might spark a wave of inspiration. We know that the process depends strongly on relational dynamics, and that relational dynamics are non-linear and ride strong waves of emotional energy and subtle energetics. Finally, we know that it is impossible to determine what is a “beneficial” contribution and what is not, since everything that happens contributes to the adaptive process, which can benefit from contributions that can feel pleasant or unpleasant, and that therefore, the greatest potential for collective insights happens in groups where people learn to be equanimous with the process and are happy to participate without expectation of outcome.

3 thoughts on “Collective Insight

  1. Bonnie, I would like to add something here…
    You write “We know it is a special and rare outcome of group interaction.” – I agree it is still rare, it doesn’t happen a lot of times in groups, but somehow it is not special to me – probably because it feels so natural when you are experiencing it. It is just of life, so in that regard it isn’t special.
    And if you attend to the conditions and principles it is not so rare anymore…

    And one thing that I would like to stress – again and again – collective insight will only happen when the participants can stand all the not-knowing and related discomfort because the inquiry they are in – the guiding question – has enough relevance for them that they are willing to sit it through.

    With love,

  2. I agree that it is not special or rare in the sense that only certain people can participate. And I also would chime in here and say that this “special” quality often arises spontaneously in sport, in all kinds of group play (poker anyone?).

    1. I am really not sure if ‘collective insighting’ is the same as what happens in sport of jazz playing; it is very similar though – the feeling of being in flow and like being (part of) one big organism. The difference is about being conscious about it and being able to translate the feeling and inner phenomenology in words to each other. There is no ball moving in collective insighting, there is no music that gets played, but something happens to the shared meaning… the shared insights…

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