Hosting Conversations about Questions that Matter
Creating a positive future begins in human conversation. The simplest and most powerful investment any member of a community or an organization may make in renewal is to begin talking with other people as though the answers mattered.
– From Who Will Tell the People? by William Greider
Consider for a moment the importance of conversation. Virtually every action we take is predicated on a conversation. It is so much a part of our experience that we are rarely aware of its true importance. The conversations we engage in with our families, organizations and in all portions of our lives give rise to patterns of behavior. Sometimes these are brief conversations whose effects are short-lived, sometimes the conversations are deep and moving, and their effects are stable and long lasting.
By learning to pay attention to our conversation, and acquiring the skills of good conversation, we bring about ever-greater degrees of coherence. As a result, we obtain a high correlation between what effect we intend to have and the effect we actually get. We must always keep in mind that the future is not somewhere we are going; it is a place we are creating in the now with every thought, word and action.
High quality conversations among individuals and within organizations generate meaningful change. Conversations are an important way to actively participate in creating our world and its future through this process of connecting authentically and appreciatively with each other. As we share knowledge, know-how and creativity, we build relationships. Collaborative conversations between us “neurons” are the synapses of the Global Brain.
The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift. – Albert Einstein
For as long as humanity has lived in family groups, tribes and communities, conversation has been a primary medium for making sense of our world, discovering what we value, and imagining our future. The networks of communication formed the underlying pattern that allowed our ancestors to come together in a meaningful, supportive, sustainable way. Networks form the underlying pattern of all living systems, and human organizations, families, and communities – are living systems.
Wise leaders are becoming increasingly aware of the power of these networks of conversation and their systemic importance as a core process for the large-scale collective learning and transformative change we now need at every level of system.
New Paradigm leaders recognize that essential learning and knowledge sharing occurs through informal relationships and networks of conversation. The new role for today’s leader focuses on convening and hosting collaborative conversations among diverse stakeholders to explore core questions and emerging possibilities. Key skills include being able to create the appropriate architecture of engagement and then asking compelling questions, questions that encourage collective thinking and learning.
As the system connects to itself in diverse and creative ways, Collective Intelligence emerges – we access the wisdom of the whole on behalf of the whole. Often, as we allow our collective wisdom to emerge, we discover that we already have the answers we need.
So, what if, in fact, the future is not some place we are going, but a place we are creating, and that our individual and collective future is being born in the webs of conversation that are alive and breathing right now? This includes the conversations within TEA Party rallies and those taking place in Wall Street boardrooms, and those taking place in your living room. Then the future will be the integrated sum of all these.
What we need are those leaders who can create ways for us to enter conversations around questions that address our shared meanings and values and that honor all participants. Modern communication technologies provide excellent tools for creating the conversations we need to be having. These include Appreciative Inquiry and Open Space Technologies.
The World Café
The approach to facilitating conversation I have used most extensively is represented by The World Café. Originally developed and stewarded by Dr. Juanita Brown and David Isaacs and their associates, is a nonprofit, community-owned venture that is a “conversational process based on a set of integrated design principles that reveal a deeper living network pattern through which we co-evolve our collective future.”
The café model represents an innovative yet simple methodology for gathering groups of 12 or more people together to create conversations about questions that matter. These conversations link and build on each other as people move between groups, cross-pollinate ideas, and discover new insights into the questions or issues that are most important in their life, work or community. As a process, The World Café can evoke and make visible the collective intelligence of any group, thus increasing people’s capacity for effective action in pursuit of common aims.
The deceptively simple principles of café groups are nevertheless powerful. Often when groups get together they are dominated by the talkative people with loud voices, individuality tends to be seen as an impediment, people are busy trying to one-up, recruit, convince, or debate others in the group. Now consider the different kinds of things that can happen when people follow the guidelines of the “Café Etiquette:”
Listen to a stimulating discussion between myself and The World Café co-founder, Dr. Juanita Brown on Healing Times Radio. The World Café website provides complete information that will allow you to apply powerful tools for intentionally harnessing the power of conversation for any purpose, business or social. You will discover useful guidance – ways to foster authentic dialogue in which the goal is thinking together to bring forth collective wisdom and create actionable knowledge. And it is free.
At their website, you will also find a way to begin to network with the thousands of other people, groups and organizations who are exploring ways to evoke collective intelligence and link it to effective action in pursuit of common aims.
We Are All Neurons in the Global Brain
In a very real sense, we are all neurons in a global living system, a global brain – and the communications technology we have, from our cell phones to our internet connections forms the axons that connect us across the world with others. Personal computing is giving way to interpersonal computing. Now we can reach across geographic boundaries and access community knowledge bases, including the resource bank of each person’s unique contributions, interests and areas of expertise. In keeping with this, the members of the World Café are currently involved in a pioneering use of a variety of experimental platforms to create the optimal conditions for holding meaningful conversation in an online environment.
Of course, The World Cafe is just one of a number of different approaches to addressing the living network of conversations that is continually evolving as we explore questions that matter with our family, friends, colleagues and community. These invisible webs of dialogue and personal relationships can enable us to learn, create shared purpose, and shape life-affirming futures together. Others include Conversation Cafes, and Open Space. Younger networkers will find Youth for Environmental Sanity (YES!) and Global Youth Action Network quite stimulating. An excellent example of how a community has transformed itself using the principles we are exploring here is revealed at Sustainable Connections.
We will explore more on leadership and good conversation in future articles here.
Listen to Dr. Miller and Juanita Brown Ph.D. in conversation on Healing Times Radio!
Video Introduction to The World Cafe, by Emmett Miller MD
Find me in the World Cafe Online Community at: http://www.theworldcafecommunity.org/profile/EmmettMillerMD
Listen to Healing Times Radio the 1st Thursday of the month, 11am-12pm and Rebroadcasts the following Monday 1pm-2pm at OpenMindRadio.com