Books Reviews

Book Review: Gentle Action


F. David Peat, Gentle Action

Gentle Action: Bringing Creative Change to a Turbulent World by F. David Peat is a book about moving from policies, plans and imposed solutions to more intelligent and harmonious action that evolves out of the context itself.1 This involves creative suspension of action, with the aim of developing a clearer perception of the situation, and then creating a basis for action that is more sensitive, flexible and creative. Out of these will flow a more appropriate, harmonious, and gentle action.2

The Desire for Control

When we objectify nature, society, and organizations, and view them as a machine, albeit a very complicated machine, it leaves no room for intrinsic values. It is a quantitative approach that gives no account of qualities.3 Although this mechanistic approach is profoundly wrong, our organizations retain a simple faith in prediction and control.4

…if, at its deepest level, the world is not mechanical, while our strategies and plans continue to be predicated upon a mechanical perspective, then we are bound to get into serious trouble.5

Perceiving and valuing in inappropriate ways has brought us to the crises that we now face.6 The mechanical approach acts to oversimplify and fragment situations to the point where it leaves out what is most important. Models, calculations, and predictions lures us into the false impression that we know what we are doing.7 The objectification has had the effect of neglecting intrinsic values, weakening our relationship to nature and to each other. It has enhanced the tendency to dominate, control, and exploit the world.8 We need to replace our traditional approaches with gentle action.9

…there is a pervading tendency within organizations to view the world in mechanistic ways and to desire certainty, predictability and control.10

Natural and social systems are far more complex than we may have first considered. Some of them are so complex that there will always be a degree of missing information in their description. There will always be elements of these system that escape us no matter how much data we collect.11 In some situations we just have to accept uncertainty and that is a very uncomfortable situation for many organizations.12

When organizations feel control slipping from their grasp, their natural reaction is to exert even more control. This results in a spiral of control literally out of control.13 There is no end to our will to dominate nature and force it to serve our own ends.14 We need to live in harmony with nature rather than seeking to control her. We need to live as partners rather than as master and slave. And we need to combine our own intelligence and sensitivity with the innate intelligence and sensitivity of the natural world.15

…it is generally true that when matter, or energy, or money, or information flow through a system, that system will begin to organize itself spontaneously. It will develop a physical structure, a pattern of behavior and a distinct identity, but without anyone having imposed this from outside.16

It is easy for people to accept simple solutions that accord with their own prejudices, and does not force them to confront a major change in attitude. It is also easy to adopt a solution, based on a simple but conventient argument.17 Situations are complex and our perceptions are influenced by our backgrounds and the context in which we experience events.18

From Rigidity to Flexibility

A helthy organization is able to adjust to sudden changes. A rigid organization, however, continues to function as before until it meets change in inappropirate ways. There are many ways in which rigidity is reinforced—a series of policies and mission statements, a hierarchy in which those below have been conditioned not to question orders from above, an organization where information cannot flow vertically and horizontally.19

Organizations have both formal and informal structures. Its formal structure involves its CEO, board, managers, and so on. But an organization also has an informal structure in which valuable exhanges are made. An organization remains flexible to the extent to which exchanges take place, and the extent to which senior management is part of this process.20

The spectrum from rigidity to flexibility not only operates within an organization but also at the level of the individual.21 Simply repeating a formula will not do, there must be internal flexibility and engagement. When we engage a work we must also take the responsibility of bringing it alive, of making it new.22

…our ability to judge a situation, or make an intervention, is going to depend on the way we “see” that situation. The more we are aware of our own prejudices, the more we can give attention to the context in which we are doing that seeing, the more unbiased the information we will be able to take in.23

Alfred North Whitehead spoke of prehension, as if the mind reaches out like a hand to touch, or even grab at, the world. Part of this function is the ability to make a detailed analysis of a situation. Another function of the seeks meaning and places the details of a situation within their wider context.24 Likewise, Carl Jung wrote of what he called our rational functions, thinking and feeling. Thinking allows us to analyze a certain decision, while feeling tells us what it means to us, and what value it has.25

Creative Suspension & Gentle Action

Creative suspension is the voluntary act to suspend, if only for a moment, our immediate reaction.26 It is related to other approaches whereby unexamined assumptions and rigidities are brought into awareness.27 By means of a very active awareness it may be possible to detect unexamined presuppositions, fixed values and conditioned responses. The idea is to permit the full human potential and creativity to thrive. It would enable people to relate to each other in more harmonious ways, and human needs and intrinsic values to be acknowledged.28

A traditional organization has a hierarchy of control and rules of procedure. By contrast, a self-organized operation doesn’t begin with presetablished set of rules, but emerge in a creative way out of the flow of information, material, money, and staff.29 A rigid organization has rules, procedures and hierarchical structures imposed from above or from outside.30 Change arises from openness to different possibilities and opportunities, and from the inherent creativity within the organization.31 Creative suspension is the ground out of which something new can grow.32

Gentle action is a sort of action that harmonizes with nature and society, that does not desire to dominate and control, but seeks balance and harmony, and is based on respect for nature and society. In place of relatively mechanical, hierarchical and rule-bound organizations there is something more organic in nature.33

Successful organizations of the future will have more open and organic structures. … They will draw naturally upon the creativity of their employees and, in turn, employees will be self-directed and more satisfied by the exercise of their natural creativity and initiative within a caring environment. … New forms of leadership will respect the initiative and autonomy of others so that each person brings their best abilities to a particular task. … And as the particular challenge of a given situation changes, so too the internal structure of the organization will transform and particular individuals will be free to adopt new roles. As a result enhanced and more effective communications will take place in these new organizations.34

When an organization engages in creative suspension this will allow its own natural creativity, and the skills of its employees to come to fore.35 It may not be the CEO but an ordinary employee who possesses a key piece of knowledge. It may be his or her knowledge, combined with the knowledge of others, that keeps an organization in operation.36

One approach to creative suspension is Bohmian dialogue, in which a group of thirty to forty persons meet with no leader or program. The group does not have a specific goal or aim, but simply deals with whatever comes up during the dialogue itself. All of us hold onto some fixed nonnegotiable positions. However, in a dialogue circle there will always be people who occupy intermediary positions. Such people can moderate the dialogue.37 The idea is not to persuade a person to change his or her belief, but rather to allow everything to slow down. In other words, to allow people to suspend their normal reactions for a moment. As this happens, people become less rigid, and more creative and flexible in their responses.38

One sensitivity that goes along with creative suspension is a deeper knowing of when the time is right to act.39 Most of us are slaves to mechanical time, yet time is very much determined by the sun, the seasons and other rhythms.40

Creative suspension doesn’t mean doing nothing, but rather involves a special quality of listening. The point is to suspend judgment so that people can become open to a new and deeper way of listening, both within and without. This allows people to examine all their assumptions, principles, and values.41

Gentle action that doesn’t embody trust, honesty, and ethics is empty. We must therefore discover just where intrinsic values stand in our lives.42 Trust, honesty, and ethics breed loyalty. It is important to believe in the inherent value of our work.43


I appreciate that the book doesn’t contain Seven Steps to Gentle Action. If F. David Peat had taken this route he would simply have done the very thing that he has critized from the very beginning—standing outside of a system and making up rules for action.44 We need to replace fixed process approaches and also take into account the overall context of a situation.45

…we must always be respectful of the situations in which we find ourselves, we must tread softly… We must learn to listen…so that our actions may be more gentle and more creative.46

Taoist philosophy has its wu-wei, acting without taking action. Water runs downhill and the earth circles the sun. Likewise, we can go with the flow in gentle action. If each one of us can make a tiny ripple—and if these ripples begin to interact in a coherent way, the wave we create can become very powerful.47 I like the book very much!

1. F. David Peat, Gentle Action: Bringing Creative Change to a Turbulent World, p. 16.
2. Ibid., pp. 16–17.
3. Ibid., p. 23.
4. Ibid..
5. Ibid..
6. Ibid., p. 24.
7. Ibid..
8. Ibid..
9. Ibid., p. 25.
10. Ibid., p. 27.
11. Ibid., p. 29.
12. Ibid..
13. Ibid., p. 30.
14. Ibid..
15. Ibid., p. 31.
16. Ibid., p. 32.
17. Ibid., p. 58.
18. Ibid., p. 69.
19. Ibid., pp. 73–74.
20. Ibid., p. 74.
21. Ibid., p. 79.
22. Ibid., p. 80.
23. Ibid., p. 82.
24. Ibid., p. 84.
25. Ibid..
26. Ibid., p. 87.
27. Ibid., p. 88.
28. Ibid., p. 89.
29. Ibid..
30. Ibid., p. 90.
31. Ibid..
32. Ibid., p. 91.
33. Ibid., p. 92.
34. Ibid., p. 95.
35. Ibid., p. 96.
36. Ibid., p. 97.
37. Ibid..
38. Ibid., p. 98.
39. Ibid., p. 99.
40. Ibid..
41. Ibid., p. 102.
42. Ibid., p. 105.
43. Ibid., p. 124.
44. Ibid., p. 167.
45. Ibid., p. 168.
46. Ibid., pp. 171–72.
47. Ibid., p. 172.

By Jan Höglund

I share my reading, book reviews, and learning in my blog.

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