Four Pillars — Why Talk?

Over the years, I’ve come to claim four pillars — four weight-bearing columns — that help me respond to people asking the question, “Why talk?” Sometimes the question is nuanced — “Why engage with a group?” Sometimes, the question is buried beneath piles of assumptions and efficiency habits — “Talking is nice but isn’t it really a waste of time? We don’t have time to be nice here.”

These pillars are simple. Yet have significant impact to dialogic design and encountering the subtle energy and less visible belief systems that accompany people into a room. Pillars. Not two by fours. Not willow sticks. Pillars hold up very large structures. In this case, the very large platform of trusting the imperative of working together, not just separately (though this too is essential within working together).

  • Who we are together is different and more than who we are alone. This is one that I learned over and over with Margaret Wheatley. Since the early 90s she has been encouraging people to see systemically, knowing that engagement with one another gives us access to a magic, or difference, of who we are together. It is a principle of “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”
  • If you want a system to be healthy, connect it to more of itself. This is a biological principle that I connect back to Humberto Maturana, the Chilean biologist and philosopher. In human systems, talking and listening are part of that, right. Telling stories. Sharing observations. Asking questions of each other. Creating a healthy system is the work of leadership. For the long term.
  • People support what they create. This is a principle that starts to lead to action. It’s easy to get that people want to act together. People want to do good. Talking together creates essential condition for that action to occur in a more sustainable way. So does listening. So does harvesting. Dialogue is a way to create together. To create thought. To create perspective. To create purpose. To create a narrative arc to hold many, many snippets of experience.
  • If you want to go faster, go alone. If you want to go further, go together. This is an African proverb that I learned in my early days with The Berkana Institute, where we were encouraging process to help us go together. To help us remember a kind of belonging together. Talking, listening, harvesting creates belonging. It takes courage to go together. Patience too. But it’s not grand news to most of us. It just takes perseverance to undo a paradigm of entrenched thought and hallowed habit of individualism.

I love asking people to reflect on these pillars. And to ask them to notice their own pillars that guide their work. Consciousness of story, found in pillars, will never sell you short.

Concessions Aren’t As Glorious As Victories

Shimon Peres died this week. He was 93. He was an Israeli statesman, having served twice as prime minister, and a plethora of other influential positions.

One of the news broadcasts that I saw announcing his death was from ten years ago, an interview with CBC News. It was mostly accolades and appreciations. I imagine the man’s life was complex, a mix of being revered and reviled that comes naturally with such position.

In the interview Peres said something that immediately caught my attention. He spoke it slowly, genuinely. “Concessions are not so glorious as victories. But without compromise, you can’t have peace.” I know, good, right. And I know, really spoken in the context of Palestinian / Israeli peace negotiations.

But, so much of contemporary society continues to fixate on victory. Winning. Getting one’s way. Dominating. Controlling. The deeper shadow includes bullying. In the general psyche, it’s not so sexy to not get your way. Yes, American presidential politics comes to mind — lots of bad behavior from what I would call unchecked ego and systemic delusion. But I see this in many places (including, at times, in myself). In teams. In project leadership. In complex situations that begin to run amuck. In community organizations.

Sometimes, to state the obvious, winning is losing. Sometimes it takes hearing it, eulogized in a way, from a recently passed elder states person to recognize how much it is in play in all of us.

Bigger Group; More Reliance on Spirit


I like a lot of the things about this photo, taken last week at the start of the United Church of Christ, Central Pacific Conference (CPC) Annual Meeting that I got to cohost. I like its cleanness — ready for people that would soon start arriving. I like its center, arranged by colleague and friend Kelly Ryan — multi-layered with cloth, bowls, and candles. I like the rim that is a double circle — this one was arranged for 140 people. Yes, it impacted people. When you arrive used to a podium, round dinner tables for eight, and a stack of papers, a clean circle like this makes you rethink what is about to happen.

One of the dynamics that I like to challenge in participative leadership is how to work with large groups. Some hold a few premises underneath — that you can’t do meaningful participative leadership with large groups. The group is too big. It’s too complicated to have so many small tables. You can’t harvest with such a large group. There are too many voices to hear. These are all good, honest concerns. However, I find myself unwilling to accept the premises. I’m too stubborn probably. I’d like to think stubbornly imaginative, enough to explore other ways. And my direct experience in working with large groups (up to 1,500 — but more commonly with 150-200) points to the opposite.

What I’ve learned, and felt reconfirmed last week with CPC, is that in large groups there is more dependence on spirit — feeling what is happening, rather than literal observation of everything. There is more dependence on sensing (even welcoming) the invisible among people than on the capturing of every word. Here’s the kicker by the way — this is true in all groups; it’s just more obvious in larger groups.

The larger the group means more reliance on feeling the room. With a faith community, it can be easier to do this. They are typically quite accustomed to welcoming the invisible in and among us. But the point, in and out of faith communities, is that, as leaders, we are restoring an ability to see and feel the whole of what is happening in the group. Engaging together. Improving our skill so notice what is emerging. It means that when you have a good partner conversation, though you don’t know what is said in all the other partner conversations, you can imagine that they had a similar quality to what you just had with your partner.

Possible to work with big groups, intimately, and participatively? Absolutely — and because of people like those at the CPC Annual Meeting last week in Pendleton, OR, I don’t even need to say it stubbornly.

Own Your Container


In the last month I’ve been able to use Open Space Technology as a key part of working with groups in multi-day gatherings. One of the things that I consistently see, and love, in Open Space is that people open up in a different way. They get what they want and feel a kind of “aha” — even surprised shock, that it worked. A bit like realizing that the simple turning of the key (or pushing the power button) of a car actually does turn it on. I’ve seen the “aha” in participants ranging from the really onboard types all the way to some heavily skeptical types — there’s nothing quite like seeing skepticism cracked open to satisfied accomplishment.

One of my key insights in the last month has been about, what I would call, “owning you container.” Open Space is a container. Just like World Cafe is. And The Circle Way. Yes, there are nuances between them. But they are containers for people to do a particular kind of good within them.

With Open Space, I’ve noticed a myth that feels off to me. It is that there is no structure. “You can do whatever you want.” This is one of those statements that is kind of true, except when it is not. Yes, there is freedom intended and amplified in the process of creating an agenda / market place. Yes, there is freedom in self-organizing where to host and what to host. Yes, there is freedom in the law of two feet — go where you can learn and contribute. But all of these principles of freedom are intended to create, or add to, a sense of responsibility — the group taking responsibility for its learning.

If you own the deeper purpose or responsibility, then self-organized working groups are not anything at all wishy washy. And the “owning the container” part for anyone hosting, is to set structure within which an enormous amount of freedom can flow. It’s just like an Ultimate Frisbee game. Though the game is very fluid, and depends much on honor, there are still rules that create the container that is Ultimate. It’s not the structured plays of an american football game. But it is a container for a particular kind of game to occur that emphasizes working with the moment. To invite people to play Ultimate you must own the boundaries and rules that are Ultimate — or you’ve got something else entirely.

It was one of my friends, Toke Moeller, that I best remember talking with about the “gift of the river bank.” The river bank prevents flooding, creating boundaries for a body of water to flow, never being the exact same river in any two moments. So it is with Open Space and other participative process — flow within a container that is different than scripted steps within a presumption of certainty, often imposed by a few on behalf of many. By being clear in yourself about what is happening in Open Space, oh my, people are deeply satisfied by the gift of that container.