On Being Wise Together Using Circle

So, this being wise together thing, that’s kind of important, right.

It seems that many of us know how to be wise individually. And that’s rather important. It seems to matter that any of us have the capacity to think, reflect, and make good choices. There is power in the individual capability.

Wise together — well that seems to be different and more than summing up individual wisdom. Meg Wheatley is one of the ones that taught me that “who we are together is more and different than who we are apart.” It’s further true that “the wisdom we have together is more and different than the wisdom we have alone.”

What a dance. Sometimes a slow waltz. Sometimes a jitterbug. Sometimes complete improvising. But this need to tend to the whole — to develop that nuancing — is ongoing.

I use circle as a primary process to encourage wisdom together. It’s process, yes. It’s process that gives us access to the sharedness of wisdom together.

Let me pull all of that down into a story.

Working with a client, a small group of seven leaders, I could see that this group had plenty of talent, experience, passion, and opinion. Each person was saying very smart things. I could see that the group was moving itself into what I would learn was a familiar kind of stalemate. It was lobbying an opinion and cross-talking to win with that opinion. It wasn’t malicious or ill-intended. In fact, I’d say most of the “winning behavior” was subtle enough to be difficult to see. It was clear, however, that they were getting stuck.

My co-host and I insisted on using circle. Not just sitting in chairs facing one another, but another layer of robustness to hear each voice at the table. So often, the presumption is agreement and clarity, and when you combine that with desire to be efficient, most of us start making assumptions about shared understanding that we hope is present, but really isn’t.

So now what?

The stages and use of circle that we recommended, so as to be wise together, included four steps.

  1. Clarifying Enough of the Issue — What is it that is important here? Is it staff changing? Is it sustainability of company? Is it right relations? Is it economics? There’s rarely a shortage of things that people care about. We just need to name it, and be willing to follow even just the one issue for a bit. The key to identify it is to connect issue to passion.
  2. Pass a Talking Piece — Or a listening piece. Whenever I hear someone in a group say, “We all know…,” that’s so often a clue that passing a talking piece is helpful. “We all know…” is more often a statement of what we hope, so as to be able to move on. That’s fair. But this is when desire for efficiency often trumps experience of wisdom together. Just hear a bit from each other. Ask, “What matters to you about _____?” Even if you are close to shared wisdom, it dignifies the process and intent of trying to know together. Of trying to be wise together. Hear from everyone without the cross talk.
  3. Make a Proposal — If a decision is needed, make a proposal. My friend Amanda reminds me that the proposal from a circle of listening might not even be the proposal that I want, but it can be the one that is arising from listening to one another. The proposal gives us a point of clarity and helps us move out of what can feel like endless wandering.
  4. Show Thumbs — Up thumb is agreement. Down thumb is rejection. Sideways thumb is “I have a question.” Or, “I need a bit more information.” The thumbs are a temperature check to see if we have enough clarity, but from the dignity of having heard from each other rather than just speeding ourselves along in absence of process that most people know isn’t quite right.

Being wise together is not a simple linear formula. The above steps might need reiteration a few times to get at something clear enough. Too much iteration is what has some people feeling anxious or critical. However, my hope in all of this is a wisdom that when people experience, they remember. They remember how we can be kind and thoughtful together that is different that so much of what contemporary structure limits.

I have hopes. I have hunger. Like most people, to be wise together. To touch even moments of  deep collaboration that wake us up to what we are capable of.

I’m grateful for the simplicity of circle to give us container for the dignity of wisdom together.

Adult Tantrums

I don’t remember throwing that many tantrums as a kid, but the biggest was when I was about three. I was in a clothing store with my mom. I was being a brat. I don’t remember over what. I remember being inconsolable and rigid and stubborn and loud. I think I was standing on the edge of a round clothing rack, arms folded tightly in defiance, pouty face, and maybe even stomping my feet a bit. I was a three foot tall demon in that moment.

I remember rejecting everything my mom did as she tried to console me. I would have none of it! I remember her being kind and a bit embarrassed. Trying really hart at likely near her wit’s end. I was making a scene. I imagine that other people were looking on. Maybe even some judging my mom. I remember not being able to stop myself. I was just done and loosing it in a way that sometimes happens at that age. It’s not my most proud memory of my childhood.

Tantrums are for kids, right. It’s what gives rise to the phrase, “terrible twos.” Hmm. Wait, perhaps let’s not be so fast with that.

I’ve been thinking about tantrum behavior I’m seeing in fully aged adults. All of us? I don’t think so. Some of us. Definitely. They don’t have to look like stomping feet and folded arms half way lost in a clothing rack. Adult tantrums are tempered by skills acquired through the years of social adjustment and base line maturation. And they definitely aren’t called tantrums. Because, well, that is only for kids.

Tantrums in adult life tend to come with excess volume, incessant urgency, and insisted frequency. None of these are inherently wrong in and of themselves. We all find ourselves in life moments that call for volume, for crisp clarity, and sustained repetition. Of course. There are times, particularly of crisis, when we simply act from essential instinctive judgement. When the violent storm is coming in quickly, it’s go time on securing the lawn furniture.

What turns reaction into adult tantrum is when any of these in adult life are paired with unchecked assertions, ultimatums, and judgements. The ability to notice these are capacities that theoretically we acquire with age and experience. To notice when our assertions are about us rather than about a group or task. To notice when our projections are convenient self ego soothers rather than truisms of the people upon which we heap said projections. I still love the phrase that Christina Baldwin spoke many years ago — “judgement and curiosity can’t exist in the same place.” I think that is mostly true. Unchecked judgements, from simplified “no dah” perspectives of the world that deny inherent complexity — these are just convenient to the individual and not helpful to the groups of people trying to navigate complex and must-faceted environments.

Adult tantrums look like a person saying it louder, and if not heard, saying it louder again. They are about getting bossy, and more and more authoratative and insistent. They sound like imposing a false urgency when not getting the action you want. The taste like what happens when judgement and character assertions leak or pour out of us — “you are lazy; he doesn’t care about his job; she doesn’t care about this family.”

I’m working with a group where “spiritual maturity” is a key value and intent. It’s a bit murky to talk about, but is clear in value. And to speak it with appropriate kindness, I think we are all trying to mature. These times, these days, these environments of utter complexity require a quality of underlaying maturity to find our way through. I’m not sure of what all of that means, but patience, ability to see the big picture, and a keen ability to dislocate from certainty are a few things that quickly come to mind.

Perhaps this maturing is the work for all of us. It’s a myth that maturing only happens in the developmental years. It’s a myth that you’re cooked and fully able when society deems you an adult at 18 or 21. Maturing carries on. Though young adult life. Into midlife. If we are lucky, it might last enough to turn us into elders (not just “olders”) that help others on the path. Wisdom is something that is practiced. Not just acquired in a chronological age certificate.

Here’s to the inquiry to check our own tantrum tendencies. And to going together to mature ourselves for some rather crazy and complex times like these.