A New Type of Conversation, The Rebel Wisdom Summit
In these polarised, fractured times, what does a real conversation look like? One where people feel free to speak their minds, change their minds, and to create the possibility of something genuinely new emerging. How do we discuss ideas and disagree with one another in a way that leads somewhere new, rather than forcing us deeper into tribalism?
These are questions we’ve been wrestling with since we started Rebel Wisdom. Our sense is that at least part of the answer is for us all to start having conversations that go beyond the purely intellectual, and which integrate the latest neuroscience and psychology. As we’ve interviewed some of the best minds in the world, and run retreats of our own, we’ve increasingly felt that this works best face to face, and looks very different to a debate.
About five months ago, we committed to seeing what it might actually look like. And so, after months of planning, 150 people from around the world gathered in London for the first Rebel Wisdom Summit on Sunday, 12th of May.
Featuring four of the most brilliant speakers we’ve interviewed on the channel — Bret Weinstein, Heather Heying, Iain McGilchrist and Jordan Greenhall — the Summit was unlike anything we’ve tried before; an experiment in having an immersive, participatory and evolutionary conversation.
We brought these thinkers together as they all have a fascinating take on why we’re experiencing a breakdown in real conversation in our culture — and how this relates to what’s been called the crisis in meaning. Many feel that we’re losing trust in one another, and that the centralised institutions we used to rely on — from academia and media to government — are no longer helping us to make sense of the world.
The more people we’ve interviewed on the channel, the more we’ve become interested in the idea that the responsibility now falls on us individually and collectively to find new ways to come together — forming our own decentralised ‘collective intelligence’ networks in the process. If we can, we might be able to find a new way to make sense of the world, have conversations that are more than the sum of their parts, and find direction through the chaotic times we live in.
To experiment with this, we assembled a 10 person strong facilitation team and designed the Summit so that twice during the day, we broke off into 15 groups of 10. These facilitated groups didn’t just discuss what the speakers were talking about, but also explored how to have a conversation.
We believe that generative conversations require us to move beyond the purely intellectual. We’re human beings in human bodies, which means we’re all subject to nervous systems that act very specifically when we feel our position, ideology or beliefs are being attacked. This often happens in a discussion with someone we disagree with, or who disagrees with us — particularly on social media.
Many of the people we’ve interviewed have pointed out how important it is to have these conversations in person, and how crucial it is to integrate research from psychology and techniques from the world of personal development if we want to move beyond the polarised conversations of social media. So what does a conversation like that look like? That’s still an open question, but we believe the first step is to approach one another from a place of genuine curiosity and openness — knowing how to step back from our entrenched position and staying open and willing to have our minds changed. We’ve been running smaller events like the Summit for about a year, and we’ve noticed that when we approach conversations with this attitude, novel ideas and perspectives often emerge in unexpected ways.
What happened on the day
We began the day by sharing a handful of the many myths we share across cultures; of a time long ago when we all lost a common language and stopped being able to understand one another. This myth is most famously told in the Tower of Babel, but the fragmentation and tribalism that comes about when we can’t communicate properly is a universal wisdom — and one that feels increasingly relevant today.
We talked as well about the wider conversation Rebel Wisdom has been following for the last year and a half, including the breakdown of old forms of media, and the sense that there’s a direction to the conversation that our interviews are covering. We had a sense that many of the people who came to the Summit feel this as well, and also see the necessity for all of us to come together to see what we can bring to it personally.
The speakers then came up on stage to give their take on why conversations break down, and what an emergent, generative conversation looks like. The idea of individual sovereignty came up as an important factor — the ability to stay aware of ourselves, and to have agency over our own responses by understanding our own biochemistry and emotional states while we’re discussing controversial or complex ideas.
The first breakout group explored this concept, looking at the question ‘what takes me out of my sovereignty’? No matter who we are, there are situations that will activate our amygdala, kick our sympathetic nervous system into a ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response and change the way we both take in and communicate information. Polyvagal theory suggests that when we feel under threat, our nervous system switches to a defensive mode where it’s almost impossible to listen carefully, take in conflicting viewpoints. This can be a subtle response, in which we become guarded and fall into survival mode, or a more energetic response in which we’re aggressively amped up and trying to figure out how to fight or get away. Conversely, when we activate our parasympathetic nervous system it’s easier to enter a relaxed, exploratory mode. We come at situations with a curiosity, relaxation, creativity and open-mindedness that can lead to novel ideas emerging.
After lunch, we introduced the second half of the day — taking the skills from the morning, and applying them to having a conversation with one another in the small groups. The question we introduced was ‘what do I feel I can’t talk about in public?’
To allow everyone, speakers included, to feel free to do this, we turned the cameras off at this point. We (Alexander and David) shared our own personal topics, the speakers participated in a panel discussion in which they shared theirs. As we all agreed to confidentiality on the day, we won’t say here what those topics were.
The small groups of then reformed and held dozens of conversations around this, practicing ‘thinking in public’ and sinking our teeth into subjects and perspectives we might not usually discuss with others in person. The speakers joined these small groups, and facilitators recorded key questions, points and observations which we then fed back to the four speakers to discuss on the final panel.
The Summit was an experiment in a new kind of sensemaking and a new way of coming together to discuss the most important and difficult challenges we face. Thank you to everyone who participated — dozens have already written to us saying what a unique and powerful experience it was. We’ve also asked for and received feedback around where it could improve, to help us decide where this experiment should go next. Wherever that is, one thing we’re sure of is that the next Rebel Wisdom Summit isn’t far around the corner. We believe this has the potential to be the beginning of a new type of conversation, and we’re excited to respond to it as it emerges.
To register for our next Summit — likely this Autumn — mail: firstname.lastname@example.org