Conversation: direction or discernment?

In my last post on the shapes of conversation, I made the distinction between forms of meeting that facilitate direction (the board table and the theatre) and those that facilitate listening and discernment of collective action.

These two options–direction and discernment–are quite distinct from each other in terms of their usual shape, their purpose, and the assumptions made by all involved in where the expertise and leadership resides and how information flows. Further, the role of the “host” also differs, from chairing the meeting to creating the space, or a container, in which the discernment can take place.

DIRECTION DISCERNMENT
SHAPE board table, theatreboard and theatre small circles, large circlecircles
PURPOSE tell, direct, instruct, set people up to go do something listen, share, integrate, figure things out together
EXPERTISE in one, select few in everyone
LEADERSHIP at the top shared, distributed
INFORMATION FLOW from one or few, down to others from everyone to everyone
HOST ROLE chair the meeting co-create the space, or a “container”

Both approaches are right–in the right circumstances. It is a matter of acknowledging the purpose of the gathering and designing for that purpose. (For more on these purposes, see the shapes of conversations.) But these two choices are not mutually exclusive; the circle can be at the board table and direction can be set in a circle.

These two choices are not mutually exclusive. The circle can be at the board table. Direction can be found in a circle.

We don’t have two clear-cut choices. It’s not as though there will be no discernment for collective action at a board table, or that in working in circle there will be no direction established for the group or for individuals. What we do have to recognize is that regardless of the shape we feel the strong pull of expertise, and the assumption that expertise resides only in one or a few of us.

We have a deep-rooted tendency to feel either that “I am the expert”, or to feel that “they are the experts.” There are times when this is true, like my doctor friend with expertise in infectious diseases that I described last week, who has a clear role to inform and direct other physicians about what to do when unfamiliar diseases present themselves. There are many times when we find ourselves with other people and the expertise is shared, but we operate as though expertise–mine or others’–is what rules the day. When we believe this, it dictates the shape the conversation takes, regardless of our physical form. When we find ourselves in the expert trap, looking for direction, or giving direction, we are not stepping into the shared leadership that we are called to offer.

Circle square

With the intention of collective discernment the circle shape can find its way around a table. It depends entirely on how we put ourselves in the conversation. Here are a three principles and three practices my The Circle Way Colleagues and I use, developed by Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea.

Three Principles 

  1. Leadership rotates among all circle members
  2. Responsibility is shared for the quality of experience
  3. Reliance is on wholeness rather than any person agenda

Three Practices

  1. Speak with intention: note what has relevance to the conversation in the moment
  2. Listen with attention: respect of the learning process for all members of the group
  3. Tend to the well-being of the circle: remain aware of the impact of our contributions

These principles and practices are a simple place to start, yet challenging to implement because they embody a significant cultural shift from our automatic expertise stance, to one that welcomes, invites and accommodates the diverse expertise within and around us.

Openness to vulnerability is leadership–and this kind of leadership is shared and easier to carry if we are brave enough to notice when it is needed. 

There is a cultural shift required of us to embody discernment, whether at the board table, or in a circle. We are each required, as citizens, to be self-aware in ways we are not well-practiced, and this self-awareness is a necessary precondition to collective awareness and discernment. At most board tables self-awareness is a scary proposition because it comes with vulnerability, but in this cultural shift vulnerability is not a liability, but a strength. Openness to vulnerability is leadership–and this kind of leadership is shared and easier to carry if we are brave enough to notice when it is needed.

Which principle or practice feels the most scary to you? 

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Resource:

The Circle Way Guidelines outline the components of circle, in addition to the principles and practices described above, that help create the conditions for collective discernment in a circle or even at a board table.

**Caveat** This form of conversation is not easily accommodated in a theatre setting for this simple reason: people can’t see each other.

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