Once a society loses this capacity [for dialogue], all that’s left is a cacophony of voices battling it out to see who wins and who loses. There is no capacity to go deeper, to find a deeper meaning that transcends individual views and self-interest. It seems reasonable to ask whether many of our deeper problems in governing ourselves, the so-called gridlock and loss of mutual respect and caring might not stem from this lost capacity to talk with one another and to think together as part of the larger community.
Peter Senge wrote that back in the mid-1990s. No doubt he could not see what was coming down the line, and how true his words would be for the fractious and fragmented society we’ve created for ourselves in 2018. Maybe if he’d written it in block caps we’d have paid more attention, I don’t know.
Senge says we need to go somewhere deeper than the right/wrong debates that too often characterize public discourse. He says we need to talk with one another and to think together as part of the larger community.
How? There seems to be precious little of that in our societies right now. Look at those town hall meetings!
The answer to How? can be described as a move through three shapes.
The first shape is the Triangle. As Peter Block reminds us, the shape of our society is the triangle. Most organizations and institutions are still based on some sort of hierarchy. Michael Hammer joked once that organizational charts are like Gothic architecture; ‘All those lines make you look up!’
Then what happens is that when those leaders at the top consider holding a large scale or public meeting, the triangle is turned on its plane. Look at any conference room to see where the power is supposed to be. Rows of chairs in straight lines, all facing some sort of stage or platform. There’s a small number of people on the stage, maybe just one person; the rest of us taking our place, lining our way toward the back.
The ‘front of the room’ arrangement is great for inspiration or entertainment. If I’m there to hear a comedian, I want to be looking to the front; I don’t want to be asked if I have a joke to share with the crowd too. And it’s suitable for small, simple problems. Here’s how to work out a math puzzle. But not for the sorts of problems Senge is talking about. Deep complexity. High emotion. Great urgency.
The problem with the triangle – up or flat – is that it also confers roles. It turns the majority of us into witnesses, audiences, consumers, perhaps providers of feedback and askers of questions. But when the problem is complex and highly charged, it’s a lot to ask of that shape to contain. That’s why those Town Halls are so fraught and angry. Because apparently, as the audience member I’ve suddenly been given a few minutes with a microphone to get my point across. And I’m already emotional, but now everyone is staring at me! Most of us aren’t built for that dynamic.
When the problems that we face have deep complexity, high emotion and great urgency we need to change the Triangle into a Circle. We have to give up our delusion that someone up there is smart enough to work out the problem on our behalf.
Instead, we have to turn to one another. As citizens, we have to be willing to share more than our opinions and feedback: we need to declare how we can help. We have to be able to dive into the depths, where the solutions are unclear and the process can feel messy. We have to be able to embrace all that complexity and those diverse views, and not shy away, and find the faith that together we will find a way.
The tools to help us do that are available and have been for many years. My favorite is called Open Space.
Why is Open Space so little known? Well, particularly in Western developed societies we’ve lost our comfort at sitting in circles. Indeed, most times when I describe the fact that OS starts in a circle, leaders will say ‘Kum Ba Yah!?’
Yet, I also know that 95% of the time, participants in OS declare that they’ve rarely experienced anything as productive in terms of addressing problems and creating activity. I also know that 95% of the time, participants in OS declare that they feel so much better than they did before we started. They feel less isolated. They feel to be on a new path.
And that’s when the circle feels like it has become the third shape – the Spiral. Because now it feels like we’ve achieved something together. We’ve moved on.
But Open Space, and other methods like it, are all too rare in our society.
Beyond the Kum Ba Yah response, there have to be other reasons our society doesn’t take up the opportunity to address its deeper problems. One may be that we train our leaders to demonstrate strength in their certainty. We like it when our leaders have a strong position to take in a matter. Maybe, as their followers, we are giving our power away too easily – “Woah, this issue is way above my pay scale; you’re the big kahunas, why don’t you take it from here?” And maybe too many leaders like to be complicit in that. They just like the idea that they are in control…or think they are. They can take a few angry parents screaming at them if they still get to be in charge tomorrow.
The call, then, is for leaders who can find the courage to let go of that control more easily. To stop being generals saying ‘Follow me!’ and start being servant leaders who will help release our gifts and talents. To say ‘I’ll stop pretending I know’ in favor of ‘All of us together has got to be smarter than any one of us.’
M Scott Peck called this the ‘emptying’ stage of authentic community: when, after all the sound and fury of fighting each other and making each other wrong, we finally face up to ‘We really, really don’t know how we can do this.’ And in that way – in one magical instant – clear an open space for a new future to be created.