Making meaning as a system

If you didn’t personally hear me speak, how is it possible that you heard me? This is the undercurrent of skepticism that surfaced in the closing circle at an event I co-hosted earlier this month. While the gathering generated a great deal of meaning for participants and the client, this question compels me to dig into listening and meaning-making. Who listens and who makes meaning?

If you didn’t personally hear my speak, how is it possible that you heard me?

Here’s the situation: we invited people to 3-hour workshops to explore how a city can be a learning city. We started with a World Cafe, a series of conversations in small groups with a variety of people, as a way for people to get to know each other and dive into the topic. (Our questions reflected the 4 pillars of the UNESCO pillars of learning: learning to know, learning to do, learning to be, and learning to live together.)

After this ‘warm-up’, participants were ready for the big event: to make a 3D model of the city as a learning habitat.

As we making and exploring the models, the groups saw patterns in the metaphors and operating principles. They identified the qualities of the system that wants to come more fully into being. They could see:

  1. Connected webs of relationships with multiple layers of pathways and connections
  2. Circles of life
  3. Synergies and exchanges
  4. Nature and natural, organic processes
  5. Gathering places where people come together
  6. Inclusivity and diversity
  7. Beauty and art, whimsy and creativity, fun
  8. Sustainability and self-sufficiency
  9. Infinite possibilities
  10. A city that evolves by learning

Participants identified a way of knowing, doing, being and living together that creates a city that works for them. For my client, who is figuring out her role in stewarding a project to foster learning in the city, this vision is essential. Her work is to figure out how to nurture this system. Not be the system, or make the learning habitat alone, because one person is not responsible for the well-being of a system. Her role is help it be healthy, to live more fully into its pattern. She is one of many gardeners.

Participants identified a way of knowing, doing, being and living together that creates a city that works for them.

The challenge we face is the inertia of staying in familiar ways of relating with each other and being in relationship with the city around us. Just because we can see and feel a new way of operating does not mean we are ready to jump into it. This tension surfaced in our closing circle: one participant spoke to the work as a state of mind, another voiced skepticism about whether we got what we needed to move the project along. While the former could lean into a new way of ‘hearing’ the system, the latter could not.

The skepticism was about the ability of the process to listen. In a World Cafe the hosts–the ‘official’ listeners–don’t hear the conversations, which means that people are not heard–by the ‘official’ listeners. The assumption: if the ‘authority’ doesn’t hear me directly I am not heard.

Four questions come to mind:

  1. Who has something to say?
  2. Who needs to hear you?
  3. Who will digest what you say and make meaning of it?
  4. Who is responsible to respond to what you have to say?

The purpose of this gathering was not to figure out how one person and a steering committee will roll out a project, but how a whole city can live into a project, and the critical support it needs from the one person and a steering committee. This involves a very different kind of listening.

A conventional way of listening to many people is through an interview or survey, where someone sits down with you to hear what you have to say verbally, or reads what you have written. In this way of listening, you tell me what you know or think directly and then I turn around and make sense of what I have heard from you and everyone else I have heard from. An interview or survey is a familiar way of ‘speaking into’ a system; it’s what we know.

METHOD Interviews, Surveys World Cafe + Model Building
WHAT HAPPENS You tell me what you know and think with no interaction with other people You talk and think and go deeper with other people (who may have very different perspectives)
WHO SPEAKS Individuals Individuals and the whole
WHO LISTENS I listen We listen
WHO MAKES MEANING I analyze and make meaning alone We figure out what it means as a group
WHERE YOU FIT You remain outside the system We are inside and part of the system
OUTCOMES I see what’s happening and I tell you We see what’s happening and we build relationships with each other to figure out what’s next
RESPONSIBILITY  I maintain responsibility We share responsibility
WHY I want to know what people think  (informative) We want to know what we think and figure out our way forward together as a whole (collaborative)

Interviews and surveys are informative tools, with their time and place, not collaborative tools. Their purpose is not in helping a system see the relationships and patterns within itself. The choice for my client: informing herself or the city informing itself. The choice for citizens: rely on her to fix things, or jump in and help to improve (see improve vs. fix).

My client’s work, ultimately, will be to help people see and operate in a system that is not linear and tidy. That is the learning for a learning city. The challenge is to figure out how to nurture this system and do so in a way that honours the familiar, linear ways of learning as well.

As citizens and individuals, we must reconcile this fact: as one voice in a survey, or one voice in a World Cafe, I am only one voice among many. Our choice: entrench in the familiar or expand into new ways of making meaning that include us all.

As citizens and individuals, we must reconcile this fact: as one voice in a survey, or one voice in a World Cafe, I am only one voice among many.


 

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