Hosting Conversations about Questions that Matter
“Citizens, in their capacity to come together and
choose to be accountable, are our best shot
at making a difference.”
“One does not make a difference unless it is
a difference in the lives of people.”
Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950)
Hear the voice of the Bard!,
Who Present, Past, & Future, sees;
Whose ears have heard
The Holy Word
That walk'd among the ancient trees;
From Introduction to Song of Experience
by William Blake (1757-1827)
WE ARE ALL BARDS: The Problem & The Solution
By José Alvarez-Cornett
Bard is a word of Celtic derivation. In the ancient history of Europe, a bard was a person with the especial duty of narrating the stories, legends, and long poetic hymns that celebrated the victories of their people or to praise God. Bards exercised a very powerful influence in Celtic societies.
Friends from the World Café community suggested that I should translate my essay, “Todos somos bardos”, into English (We are all bards). Somewhat hesitantly, as English isn’t my mother tongue, I have taken up this suggestion as a challenge. The essay was originally written in Spanish, having in mind, my country, Venezuela, and tailored to a Venezuelan audience. But fearing that other readers, not familiar with Venezuela’s history and its present political environment, would be hard pressed to follow some idiosyncratic quirks and lines of thoughts within the essay, rather than doing a verbatim translation of the original text, I have opted for wholly rewriting it while having in mind a worldwide audience.
And to bring up this wider outlook into the essay, allow me to start by quoting at length from Carl Sagan’s famous Pale Blue Dot(1 ) speech:
We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.
The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity -- in all this vastness -- there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us (emphasis added). It's been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.
Carl Sagan’s words bring inspiration, as well as focus to my mind on the global perspective on life on planet Earth. His “It is up to us.” still reverberates between my ears. His message, with each passing day, can only resound but stronger. Of course, in his phrase, “us” means “we”, citizens of the world, of each and every country and nation. What can we— citizens of the world—do to help, not only ourselves, but also our forthcoming generations?
In the original essay, I began by quoting Albert Einstein’s thoughts on crisis, as his words evoke in me feelings of optimism about the future of Venezuela and the world, because, as Einstein said: crises bring forth progress, and creativity is born from anguish.
Albert Einstein: “Let's not pretend that things will change if we keep doing the same things. A crisis can be a real blessing to any person, to any nation. For all crises bring progress. Creativity is born from anguish, just like the day is born form the dark night. It's in crisis that inventive is born, as well as discoveries, and big strategies. Who overcomes crisis, overcomes himself, without getting overcome. Who blames his failure to a crisis neglects his own talent, and is more respectful to problems than to solutions. Incompetence is the true crisis. The greatest inconvenience of people and nations is the laziness with which they attempt to find the solutions to their problems. There's no challenge without a crisis. Without challenges, life becomes a routine, a slow agony. There’s no merit without crisis. It’s in the crisis where we can show the very best in us. Without a crisis, any wind becomes a tender touch. To speak about a crisis is to promote it. Not to speak about it is to exalt conformism. Let us work hard instead. Let us stop, once and for all, the menacing crisis that represents the tragedy of not being willing to overcome it.”
Springs of crisis and anguish dot the Earth. Yes! But, don’t we also live in a world with oceans of talent and creativity aplenty? Yes! What we lack and what we need is for citizens to understand their contexts and to take upon them the responsibility to change their surrounding environments using their boundless creativity and inborn capabilities as narrators and storytellers. Don’t we all like a good story?
I- Context: We are all bards
All over the world, the way citizens perform in society is strongly guided by the kind of context in which they live. Language, a human invention, is from time immemorial the preferred way by which we create context and meaning. We do this by means of the stories we tell each other. We have been doing this since we sat inside caves around blazing fires. Generation after generations, we have all created oceans of context, which have transformed the world. But, what exactly is this context?
Context is the set of basic beliefs, our mental patterns, or our worldview, which we use to interpret and frame the world we live in. Context is what emerges, with the passage of time and history, from the interaction of maps and events.
Not being myself an expert on psychology, allow me to bring in the help of a specialist. Dr. Manuel Barroso is a well-known Venezuelan clinical psychologist, who studied at Loyola University and trained in Gestalt therapy with therapists such a Virginia Satir, Ilena Rubenfled, and Eric Marcus, among others, in his book, “The Self-esteem of Venezuelans”, he defines maps and events as follows:
“A map is the unit of coded information of all the information we get and which we use to deal with everything that happens around us. From our maps we shape our values, norms, basic rules, attitudes and behaviors. Maps allow us to organize ourselves before events. Maps and events act directly upon our fundamental processes allowing or hampering our development. “
“An event is a piece of information capable of changing the internal world of information. Each one of us handles the events from one’s own folder of acquired maps. And in turn, with each event, new maps are organized which will let us keep our internal organization. Therefore we could say that behind every map there is an event, and behind every event there is a map. The event doesn’t precede the map, nor does the map precede the event. Map and event are both complementary processes of the person… The event needs the map to let the person keep his congruence and the map needs the event to allow the person to move forward and not to remain in the same place.”
Context is expressed by means of language, by the stories we tell ourselves. Through stories our values and principles have from time immemorial been passed from generations to generations. The world comes to me as a bundle of facts but it is up to me to decide what to do with it and give it meaning. What we pay attention to and, therefore, how we behave is shaped by our context, our worldview.
To stress the importance of knowing our worldview of life, let me make use of a somewhat extreme, but quite real an example. Please, come with me, and withhold reality. I now invite you to place yourself inside a rainforest environment. In a flicker of time, you are submerged into an ocean of deep green. Your eyes see no main horizon, no hills or landmarks. An all-enveloping nature is the only kind of environment that you are surrounded by. On such a forest, for instance, the view you get of the sun would not be that of a bright yellow disk moving across the sky but rather patches of flicker light on the rainforest floor. Now, let us imagine that you were born, raised and had lived all of your life within such a rainforest. What would your worldview be like?
In Topophilia, Yi-Fu Tuan, writing about the BaMbuti Pygmies of the Congo rainforest, explains that their sense of time and perspective is curtailed. Their legends, he says, “reveal a lack of interest in the past and, their memory with regard genealogy is short.” Then, he adds, “anything that is seen [in the rainforest] is seen at close range….Outside the rainforest, the Pygmy is bewildered by distance, the lack of trees and the sharpness of relief. He seems incapable of reading cues for perspective.”
Congo Rain Forest
Yi-Fu Tuan gives an example of this shorten perspective by citing a story told by anthropologist, Colin Turnbull, about the Pygmy Kenge of the Congo rainforest. Once, Kenge was taken sightseeing to the open grasslands near Lake Edward, where a flock of buffaloes were grazing several miles away, far below where he and Turnbull were standing. Upon seeing the buffalos, Kenge asked: “What insects are these?”
“When I told Kenge that the insects were buffalo, he roared with laughter and told me not to tell such stupid lies….Kenge still didn’t believe but strained his eyes to see more clearly and asked what kind of buffalo they were that they were so small. I told him they were sometimes twice the size of the forest buffalo, and he shrugged his shoulders and said he would not be standing out there in the open if they were….On another occasion [when Turnbull pointed to a large fishing boat on the lake with several people in it], Kenge thought it was a floating piece of wood.”
When contexts have become worn out and outdated, but we, as a society, keep on telling and retelling the same stories that created them, contexts are transformed into bars that restrict or imprison citizens in their societies. But, let us not worry too much about this because as Rosamund and Benjamin Zander say in their book, ‘The Art of Possibility’: “All life comes to us in narrative form, it’s a story we tell”. And they are right, we are all storytellers or, in other words, we are all bards!
We are the problem because we have collectively created the narratives that bind us and we are the solution because and, this is important, if the narratives we tell ourselves are obsolete and not good anymore, we can together co-create new stories that will produce more suitable contexts. This we can do because storytelling has been at the center of human communication, we love listening to good story and we are all capable of telling stories because, at heart, we are all bards!
II- Our contexts: different yet similar.
I wrote the original essay to try to help my countrymen seek resolutions to myriad problems ailing Venezuelan society. My country has a low trust society with a very thin social fabric. We lack community and our sense of belonging to society is blurred and confused, if not totally absent in many people.
Our present political and economical problems have their sources buried deep within Venezuela’s history. The high levels of individualism within our society have their origin in the atrocities of the Independence War (it was more of a civil war than a struggle against the Spanish empire) and the Federal War of the nineteenth century. It is the byproduct of many Venezuelan families feeling lonely, fearful of their environment, struggling for survival in a land where there were no institutions left to protect them. Writer Arturo Uslar Pietri talking about the Venezuelan society after the Federal War said: “All form of stable organization, and even the feeling of belonging to a community, or class, or group disappeared to leave in this place an aggressive and savage individualism.” This individualism is a context that is transmitted through language from generation to generation.
A few months ago, Venezuelan writer, Alberto Barrera Tyszka, writing for Siete Días (Seven Days, a Sunday section in the newspaper El Nacional, February 14, 2010) explained how he felt as a Venezuelan:
“All of a sudden I have the feeling that I am in a foreign country. I do not understand nor recognized what is going on. I’m shocked. I feel a bewilderment that is slowly turning into powerlessness. Like if I had fallen in the middle of a far away country whose habits and ways of establishing relationship I’m unable to comprehend….. When I see and listen how many of my countrymen behave, I am left utterly perplexed. My identity cracks. I do not recognize them.”
Lack of community, pervasive individualism, separateness and fragmentation is the overall state of affairs in my country.
How about the United States, the most powerful country in our little pale blue dot? Stephen Goldsmith tells us that the country “suffers from a crisis of citizenship.” There are too many reasons, he says ”… for the people to feel so disconnected from their community that they would not dream of wasting their time doing something good for it.”
While, Francis Fukuyama, for example, tells us that the country has a crisis of trust. The United States, Fukuyama says is “heir to two distinct traditions, the first highly individualistic and the second much more group and community oriented [religion, sectarian Protestantism, being the main source of strong bonds of social solidarity].” The second tradition has moderated the individualistic tendencies inherent in the country’s ideology and constitutional-legal system, and the coexistence of the two has contributed to the overall success of American democracy. But, Fukuyama, adds the balance between these two traditions has been shifting rapidly toward individualism: “The balance between individualism and community has shifted dramatically in the United States over the past fifty years. The moral communities that made up America civil society at midcentury, from family to neighborhoods to churches to workplaces, have been under assault, and a number of indicators suggest that the degree of general sociability has declined.”
To these problems we must add war in Iraq and Afghanistan, high dropout rates in public schools, difficulty finding affordable health care for all, vanishing public sphere (i.e. gated communities, with high fences, private security and surveillance equipment, that separates the well-off, from the average citizen, and malls with their own rules and security forces that replace the public streets), pockets of poverty as revealed by the broken levees of Hurricane Katrina and by the startling observations of Robert Kaplan, who after traveling through the West of the US, writes in An Empire Wilderness about dysfunctional Indian reservations, and what he calls the Greyhound underclass: ”at the end of the twentieth century, to cross America by land by public transport often means to travel among the poor”. He describes the dismal behavior of the people he meets in Greyhound buses and he finally asks himself “Can democracy flourish among people like this?”
[Left] In 1990, Carl Sagan, when Voyager 1 was at a distance of 4 billion miles from us, ordered NASA engineers to take this picture of Earth.
[Right] In 2006, when Cassini spacecraft took a picture of Saturn captured Earth as a pale blue dot for a second time.
Now, what about the whole world and its contexts? What can we say about it? Is humanity in crisis? From without, far away satellites see “a pale blue dot”, but from within, up closer, a quick environmental scanning of the world’s press will produce a list of global threats to our living such as climate change, pollution, ocean degradation, deforestation, loss of species, terrorism, pandemics, hunger, overpopulation, spreading poverty, global individualism (wealthier country’s disregarding poorer ones and pushing their own agendas), fragmentation, lack of community (i.e. when we wake up in the morning, do we really consider ourselves earthlings living in the ‘only home we ever known’?).
We have our own unique common global context to become aware of. But there are “invisible walls” blocking us from taking the right collective actions. Peter Seidel in his book, Invisible Walls, tell us that in order to move beyond our current situation and hope to ensure a reasonable future for humanity we must find out why we are not able to effectively deal with these threats. And he lists five real barriers between responsible actions and us. (1) In ourselves, our inherited brain structures are obsolete. We can only deal with a limited number of things at once. We have inherited cognitive systems with data filters that were suited for the simple lifestyle and physical environment of our ancestors. For example, the only thing we perceive is change. If there is no change, we notice nothing; if change is too gradual, we will not see it; (2) Our concept of reality and our place in it. We perceive incomplete, overly simplify pictures of reality, and then, believing them to be accurate, we act based on these misconceptions; (3) in our beliefs; (4) in the makeup of our social structures, including governments; (5) in ethical systems that do not foster harmony among people or between people and nature.
The contexts in these three examples are all different yet they are similar in that they have in common a lack of community, high individualism, separateness and fragmentation. But a healthy civil society needs a lively public sphere and its citizens who need to be actively involved in crafting solutions to problems and creating their own future. To move our societies and the world to a different future, we need to be aware of our contexts and shift them or else we run the risk of seeing insects on the prairie where there are actually buffalos and wooden logs on a lake where in fact there are boats with people on them.
III- Can contexts be modified?
Sure they can. Juanita Brown and David Isaacs in their book “The World Café: Shaping our future through conversations that matter” suggest that alternatively we can think of contexts as the banks of a river through which collective meaning flows. An interesting thing to note here is that if we change the banks of a river we can also alter its course and end up modifying its final destination.
Now, how do we change the banks that channel the course of rivers of collective meaning? The answer is in the hands of the citizenry. When citizens gather and meet together to ask deep questions about things that matter new contexts and narratives are created. Storytelling can bring us together in new common perspectives and allows us to share experience.
Because our societies are complex entities, finding stable solutions to problems is not an easy task. But, is it worth our trouble? Fast and pragmatic solutions almost always turn out to be unstable in time. Shouldn’t we better let solutions emerge in a more natural way? Maybe what we need is to undergo a process of deep questioning to search for the right questions. This questioning process will generate a genuine, truthful community of people, of citizens, and in the process maybe the right answers will naturally emerge. But if they don’t, the group might be propelled into action, and in walking the path to action, they might meet the desired solutions.
This peculiar approach to problem solving can seem strange or usual, but there is a group of people (Peter Block, Juanita Brown, Adam Kahane, Harrison Owen, David Isaacs, Werner Erhard, John McKnight, Sandy Heierbacher, and Carolyn Lukensmeyer among them) who work in the field of large groups intervention and community building that think exactly in this way.
Over the years, using differently methodologies, they have developed an overall intellectual framework for shifting contexts while, simultaneously, building community. This framework relies on the dynamics of citizenry power, which emerge when citizens show up to meetings and discover their own power to act, and focuses on the possibilities of a better future, their creativity and gifts rather than on their needs and present problems.
Peter Block (in ‘Community: The Structure of Belonging’; see also ’The answer to how is yes’) has summarized the main characteristics of this framework as follows:
(1) The power of language: All transformation is linguistic. A shift in speaking and listening is the essence of transformation. This means we can think of community as essentially a conversation.
(2) The power of context: To realize that context is decisive, that the way we function is powerfully impacted by our worldview. “Nothing in our doing or the way we go trough life will shift until we can question, and then choose once again, the basic set of beliefs…that lie behind our actions.” In other words, when we change the nature of our questions we begin to modify our context.
(3) The power of possibility: It is the belief that possibility is brought into being in the act of declaring it. If say, we gather, for reconciliation, the possibility of reconciliation appears and begins to work on us.
(4) Faith in citizens: Citizens are capable of identifying and solving the problems of their community.
(5) Quality of aliveness: Social fabric is created one room at a time and the small group is the unit of transformation. How we engage matters. In setting up the structure of our meetings and gatherings, we must pay lots of attention to even small details in room set up. As Peter Block explains,“[w]hether we’re talking about strategy, program, invitation, dialogue, gathering, or building a master plan, the human experience of aliveness in each choice or step has as much significance as any technical, economical or purely practical consideration.”
To build community a quality of aliveness and wholeness is needed. Community building occurs in a myriad of small steps, sometimes in quiet moments that we notice out of the corner of the eye. Human systems require depth and quietness. As Parker Palmer says in Let your life speak: “The soul speaks its truth only under quiet, inviting and trustworthy conditions. The soul is like a wild animal—tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for…[sometime], the creature we are waiting for may emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.” Community!
(6) The value of questioning: we must think carefully about the questions we ask and postpone our urge to be immediately practical and seek quick actions. Questions take on an almost sacred dimension when they are valued for their own sake. Good open questions open the door to the future and are more transforming than answers. What do we want to create together now that we are here? How will the world be different as a result of our meeting here today?
(7) The struggle is the solution: “Serious dialogue about the question brings its resolution. Resolution is not so much the answer, but the experience that our actions begin to shift in a more productive and harmonious direction.” Therefore, conversations should not be considered as a waste of time but as “actions”.
Adam Kahane, in his book,: “Solving tough problems: An open way of talking, listening, and creating new realities“ writes: “A problem that is generatively complex cannot be solved with prepackaged solution from the past. A solution has to be worked out as the situation unfolds, through a creative, emergent, generative process.”
New public narratives can generate new contexts that in turn help to modify old unsuitable ones. Citizens can achieve this goal by using social technologies of collective transformation(*) (methodologies such as The World Café, Open Space Technology, Future Search) to convene other citizens to ask open and deeper questions about themes that matter, only then can we have hopes to change the course of our societies to better alternative futures. The call is for citizens to act as social architects of the public space to hold new conversations, create new structures of belonging, new stories and a better future.
In his book, ”The answer to how is yes”, Peter Block invites citizens to be a cause rather than an effect. He tell us that: “…. we must act as if our institutions are ours to create, our learning is ours to define, the leadership we seek is ours to become. It means releasing ourselves from the grip of our ambitions and deciding to care for something large enough to give greater purpose to our work and to our experience.”
IV- A message for bardic citizens
Let us then take our responsibility as citizens and stop being spectators and become players. Let us ask ourselves. What is my contribution to solving the problems that bother me, to things that matter to me? Do I live a meaningful life or do I live my life as told by others? How does a better country look like? How does a better world look like?
The goal is to balance a life that works with a meaningful living. Citizens voluntarily coming together to act on what matters have great power. By using social technologies of collective transformation citizens can start conversations about things that matter generating in the process new narratives and stories that will create new contexts for a better world.
“Todos somos bardos” and yes, we can transform the world !
(*) Links to web sites
Other large group intervention methods are presented here
La Autoestima del Venezolano (The Self-esteem of Venezuelans), Manuel Barroso, Editorial Galac, 1997
Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values, Yi-Fu Tuan, Columbia University Press, 1990
The Art of Possibility, Rosamund Zander and Benjamin Zander, Harvard Business School Press, 2000
Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities work through Grassroots Citizenship, Stephen Goldsmith, Hudson Institute, 2002
Trust: The social virtues and the creation of prosperity, Francis Fukuyama, Free Press, 1996
An empire wilderness: Travels into America’s future, Robert D. Kaplan, Random House, 1998
Invisible Walls, Peter Seidel, Prometheus Book, 1998
“The World Café: Shaping our future through conversations that matter” Juanita Brown and David Isaacs, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2005
‘Community: The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008
’The answer to how is yes: Acting on what matters’, Peter Block, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2003
Let your life speak: Listening for the voice of vocation, Parker J. Palmer, Jossey-Bass, 2000
“Solving tough problems: An open way of talking, listening, and creating new realities, Adam Kahane, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2004