The Simple and Complex of Gathering People Not Used to Gathering

I’m in a rather impromptu conversation with three people. Quanita Roberson, co-host and co-convenor with me of our upcoming Fire & Water Leadership Cohort — she knows stuff, lots of it. And Brad Wise and Joey Taylor of BeSpokenLive — each of the handful of times I’ve been with these two I feel deeply inspired. I think of all of us as colleagues and friends, friends and colleagues — frolleagues.

The conversation is about submitting a grant application to hold a series of community connection gatherings. They are about convening diversity. They are about creating connection. They are about learning. They are about being together. This is a think out loud time. I’m just offering a few thoughts to weave into what they are already thinking and will carry forward.

In the impromptuness of it, I get an intuitive hit that rises from my belly. I love that feeling. I know these people well enough to say it out loud without needing to wordsmith it. It’s good when people can be imperfect together. Or rather, without fear of not having it all figured out.

I offered this:

  • The work (including gatherings like this) is simultaneously about the simple and the complex.
  • The simple part is bringing participants into questions and stories with one another. It just works a pile better to connect people in what they care about through their personal experience.
  • The complex part is, as Joey named, creating belonging (a fair hunk of this comes from a container in which to share stories / experiences).
  • The complex part is also about interrupting patterns of isolation (or reactive posturing, or polarized defensiveness).
  • The gatherings will come alive with a spirit of celebration, of possibility, of recalling childhood stories.
  • The magic and the complex grows from the simple.

Quanita framed it really well. Thinking of the people that might come to such a gathering, and the community restoring that can so powerfully occur, she said, “We meet ourselves by meeting each other.”

Yah, that’s good, right. We think we are just meeting each other, which is rather monumental in itself. And in so doing, we are coming to meet more of ourselves. With aha. With tenderness. Sometimes with fire. With kindness. With clarity that only comes from connection.

Well, it was only an impromptu meeting and invitation to offer some perspective. I kind of felt like in meeting each other (just a regular old Monday) that I met more of myself.

Glad for insights. And friends. And colleagues. And frolleagues on a Monday. Thinking about gathering people that aren’t used to gathering.


It has always interested me to realize that space, or spaciousness, is most often present and needed in the most compact of circumstances.

I’m thinking of the spaciousness in the above photo, that I took in Canada’s Rockies last summer, is what creates my allure.

I’m thinking of the way that human beings crash in conflict, completely stale-mated and entrenched to defend territory of the outer and of the inner, when what’s needed is a moment of silence and no words. Or a walk by the river.

I’m thinking of the way that our human bodies participate in an illusion to appear as mostly substance, when in fact, we are mostly water. And further, how that water colludes to appears as mostly substance, but is in fact, mostly molecular space. The space creates the substance.

I’m thinking of the way that in contemporary western culture, the left brain is so often validated and privileged over the right brain, imposing linearity and rationality as preferred forms of common sense, when it is so often intuition, creative thinking, and the subconscious that change the game. Right brain knows its presence is needed, even if quietly.

I’m thinking of Judy Sorum Brown’s poem about fire, and her awareness that fire, which dramatically evolved who we are as humans, requires space. She say, “What makes a fire burn is space between the logs, a breathing space. Too much of a good thing, too many logs packed in too tight can douse the flames almost as surely as a pail of water would. So building fires requires attention to the spaces in between, as much as to the wood.”

I’m thinking of how the imposed speed of life these days in the 21st century, has taught many of us to squeeze out spaciousness and pause, just to keep up or keep from falling further behind. We wring contemporary life of its last drops of spaciousness, just as we would a wet cloth of it’s last drop of moisture.

I’m aware that many of us teach what we most need to learn. I teach a fair amount on the importance of a pause. Or a break. Or a long lunch. Or time to turn away to let good ideas settle. Or time to welcome the less obvious to blossom into the morning sun. Spaciousness continues to be one of my key teachers.

Just as water was teacher to American author Norman Maclean, writing about what he learned of family and unfolding life in 20th century Missoula, Montana in the closing of his beautiful book, A River Runs Through It, “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

I am haunted by spaciousness.





The road from Fairmont Hot Springs, British Columbia to Calgary, Alberta is ultimately scenic. It’s about a three hour drive, which I took a week ago today, with my mom, to take my daughter and son in-law to the Calgary airport. While driving, we saw mountain goats, deer, and a very large moose with wide expanse of rack standing just off the highway. Yes, it was impressive and a bit scary. Our drive also included gorgeous geography like the picture above that I snapped along the way. Deep green spruced forests. Ranges of sharp rising rocky mountains (Castle Mountain above) against deliciously open blue skies. The road from Fairmont to Calgary winds a fair amount. Lots of new views exposed around corners and turns. There was much to be in awe about.

The awe that I perhaps appreciate the most in that drive is the space. You can’t help but be impressed by the open expanse of geography. And, more clearly, it’s the way that that expanse calls out an inner expansive space within me that is so alluring. Space to imagine. Space to feel decompressed. Space to wonder and wander. Space to let go. Space to re-sort some of the inner stirrings. I’ve always loved the people that refer to us humans as nature (not “in nature”). Being in that drive (yes, a mechanical, non-nature vehicle) was pulling out inner nature from within me in a big way.

Most of us live in a culture that values compression. It’s true individually, communally, and organizationally. Doing more. Doing more in less time. Doing more in less time with less resources. Speed and efficiency are so revered and so linked to perceptions of intelligence, accomplishment, and value. It creates pressure, doesn’t it. To fill the moments with more so as to become more (or even curb the impression of losing ground). Yikes!

It was 15 years ago with friend (like a brother, friend) Toke Moeller through whom I first learned this template question that I ask often with people I work with — What could _____ also be? I think the first time I heard him ask it, it was about a school that he was working with in Denmark. What could this school also be? The “also be” is important to me. It honors what is, yet also invites imagination to what is, what what could be, evolving.

Back to space and becoming more, I find myself advocating much these days for the question, what could space also be? What could pause also be? What could emptiness also be? It’s fascinating to me, and also feels as natural and inherent as the feelings that arose when driving near Castle Mountain. What if we were to commit more to a strategic pause and invitation to release reverence for speed and scale (OK, I’m aware that I’m asking a question that calls for more of another kind — space; cultural stories run deep) and the fears that lay beneath them? It’s not a race! It’s not a race to be the last one able to survive amidst scarcity. Yikes again! These are indeed deep cultural stories, but in all fairness, aren’t the only stories that shape cultures — they are just the loud ones.

I know that I’m the kind of human being that deeply values the pause. In facilitation, it often means my desire is to double the amount of time that I plan for a particular section, even though the agenda is often calling for half the time. The pause and the space is fundamental to interrupt patterns and welcome a taste of the new. In individuals. In communities. In organizations. It is my experience, and my continued hope. that the awe and the space, just like it was near Castle Mountain, fills us in different and needed ways.


Cumulative Blame

Most of us know a bit about cumulation. It is the building up of something that gives it more strength or volume that if it had been left alone or ignored. Laundry, if left undone for a month, is no longer a simple load. Weeding the garden once a year is, well, likely to be a garden of weeds rather than vegetables in my area.

I’ve been in many environments in which there appears to be a cumulative blame. It hasn’t been easy to put my finger on it, but I recently got a new insight to understand this. It’s not regular blame for one instance or another. It’s not isolated blame. It’s cumulative in that the pile of “perceived wrongs” is so high that blame becomes the operating system. It’s harsh, right. And needs interruption.

This is one of the reasons that I like Appreciative Inquiry as a methodology and way of being. Appreciative Inquiry is one of the best ways I know to breakthrough the harshness that is blame. When shaped with the right question, it can move that operating system from blame to learning. That’s the essential interruption that helps a group reclaim what it is all about. I use questions like, “What are you learning about what is difficult here?” “What are you learning about yourself in this challenging time?”

Brene Brown, though I don’t know her personally, has been a kind of teacher for me about blame. In one of her talks she tells a great story that concludes, “Blame is simply discharge of discomfort and pain.”

And there is a lot of pain in many systems today, isn’t there. Pain of complexity. Pain of being overworked. Pain of shortage of funding. Pain of management systems that command and control. Pain of needing to disassociate work from life. Pain of feeling you shouldn’t take a day off, even though you are sick. Pain of larger systems in collapse. That can be a big list.

I’ve written before about not blaming each other for complexity. That kind of not blaming, that not contributing to a cumulative blame, requires discipline. I continue to learn about this.

Another teacher and friend, Margaret Wheatley once shared three things about being in complexity that have remained with me. First, stay awake. Second, dwell in complexity. Third, pay exquisite attention to relationships. Again, nothing about blame there. Just staying awake and in relationship. Even to discomfort. So that weeding the garden, which does need to happen, is twenty minutes here and there rather than a whole weekend.