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.

Essential Sustainability

Last week I was at the Intermountain Sustainability Summit, invited by my friend Bonnie Christiansen to host some Round Table Discussions. The summit was the 8th annual, held for the second time at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. The summit is growing. In size. In awareness of. In creating community and essential connection. It was really fun to be a part of, and to spend the day with another good friend and colleague, Kinde Nebeker, who also facilitated these Round Table Discussions.

The opening keynote was Robert Davies, who is among many things, a physicist. His presentation on planetary boundaries was engaging, clear, and informative. It was also painful. He was speaking a narrative on the state of the planet and its resources. What I always appreciate in complex topics like this is the simplifying down to language that is easy to grasp. For example, “if everyone on the planet consumed at the rate of the average american then we would need five planets worth of resources.” Or that “we as human beings are overspending the bank account that is planetary resources. However, unlike human beings or corporations that make this mistake, the planet is not able to file for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy.”

It’s painful material. But it’s honest material. One of my favorite parts was in the brief question and answer period when someone from the audience began his question with an appreciation — “I enjoyed your talk.” It was just cordial. However, Rob Davies responded quickly and playfully, “Then you must not have been listening.” The message is dire.

When it came to the “what to do” part, there were two pieces that caught my attention in particular. The first was a concept from Joanna Macy. “Slow the damage. Repair the damage. Re-imagine the system causing the damage.” Again, simplicity. Accessible narrative. It’s a framework for anything from an individual beginning to recycle to countries trying to meet thirty year goals of carbon reduction and alternative energy development.

The second piece of todo from Rob Davies was a simple statement that invokes citizenry. “If you want to make a difference, the first thing is to talk about it.” Ah, that’s gold, right. Just talk about it. Just explore forms of listening together.

I’m both excited to hear this statement, and a bit saddened too. The excitement is that this is basic work that I often state as “remembered” work. I work in the fields of dialogue and change. We have to turn to one another. That’s the story for me. To be smart together. To be honest together. To be imaginative together. To take on hard things together.

The sad part for me is that the containers for listening in contemporary society, and more accurately, in the awry practice of meeting, is really freaking askew. Town meetings that are shouting matches. Dialogue panels that turn quickly to interruption at scale. Essential pause and silence that are filled with enormous amounts of data that is filling, but just not nourishing enough to further waken human spirit.

Sustainability is not just about planetary resources of water, clean air, and food systems. It is all of that. Essentially. However, sustainability is also about human beings rekindling genuine curiosity together, the essential spirit of working together rather than against.

Thanks Bonnie Christiansen, Alice Mulder, and all that convened such a great summit and invoked such good attention to sustainability on lots of layers.