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.


 

Courage to fail

This time last week I was licking my wounds. I did not pass a weekend course in advanced wilderness and remote first aid. It might have been the early morning starts. It might have been the impersonal feedback from the instructors. It might have been that I was “off” those days. It might have been the conflicting feedback I felt I was receiving. But the bottom line is the same, whatever the reason.

I failed. And it’s no one’s fault by my own. 

Continue reading Courage to fail

Stretch and fold

 

The work we have to do together is to be ourselves. This is what my local community of practice realized this fall, when we took some time to settle into the purpose of why we make the effort to meet each month. Here’s what our circle had to say to us:

 

Stretch and fold
 
A spiritual shower
of inspiration and energy
falling 
in rest and replenishment
of the soul
 
a pause
 
where our only responsibility 
is to stretch and fold
the agency of community
the currency of relationship
to host
wholehearted
wholeness

 

 

Professional citizenship

 

I had clear instructions. Introduce the speaker and remind the audience about the hashtag #lifecycleofaplanner (for twitter), the conference theme. What came out of my mouth was #lifestyleofaplanner. As I listened to the speaker, I realized I wasn’t wrong. My mouth knew something my brain did not know.

Drawing on a lifetime of experience working as a city planner in Toronto, including as Chief City Planner, Paul Bedford described the life of a planner: connecting the dots, capturing the heart and mind, and the need to be bold or go home. He described a lifestyle. The planner as a person and the work s/he does are not separate.  As he put it, the ability to learn is the only constant in change. That is lifestyle.

To be the planner our cities need of us, you:

  1. Live, breathe and love your city. You choose to be a part of your city. You dive into your city to better serve your self, citizens and your city.
  2. Know what you believe. You have figured out your personal beliefs, and they align with your work.
  3. Live your work as a privilege. You approach your work with curiosity and passion. You choose this work, or maybe it has chosen you. You do not take it for granted and fully enjoy
  4. Live as a change agent. When you know what you believe, and you choose to live what you believe, you make change happen. Anywhere and everywhere. 
  5. Serve citizens in the present and future. You are positive and proactive.
  6. Search for, and make decisions based on purpose and principles. You are connected to the underlying purpose and intention of your work. You are flexible in how you get there, noticing which methods are the the best things in each given context.
  7. Experiment with creativity. As you learn and grow in your practice, you explore how to experiment and be creative in your work.
  8. Connect the big picture and the ground in simple ways. You find synthesize and integrate everywhere you go, enabling yourself to better understand your context, as well as others. You find language that has meaning for others.
  9. Welcome the constant renovation of life. You recognize that you are always under renovation, as your city is too. You shed what you no longer need, and allow the new to come forward.
  10. Choose to swim, not float. You choose the direction you move in.

This is the lifestyle of a planner who serves citizens well. This is professional citizenship, a lifestyle, a personal journey on the inside that shows up on the outside in the work we do. If these do not apply to you, you are in the wrong job, or the wrong line of work.

_____

Want to explore your own professional journey a bit further? Check out The Art of Hosting BIG Decisions (While Looking After Self Others, and Place).

 

10 ways to thwart, not support

 

I’m coming out of a weekend of meetings with a facilitator who should not have called himself a facilitator. He tried to do all the work – and this is the first sign of poor practice in hosting others.

Warning signs of when you may be thwarting the people you are with:

  1. You do nothing to make people feel welcome. You keep your distance from start to finish. You do not help people get to know each other and warm up to the hard work ahead. When we feel connected, we work light years better. 
  2. You make all the decisions. Discern when a decision is yours to make. If you are making all or most of the decisions, that is a sign that you are driving the agenda, leaving little room for others to engage. Are you sensitive to a balance where there is just enough structure and not too much?
  3. You stick to the agenda no matter what. Are you open to the needs of the group? Flexible to adjust your plan to support them on their journey? Notice how attached you are to the process you envisioned at the outset. Can you live with aiming for outcomes and respect that how to get there might be different? (And who knows, maybe the outcomes could change on you. Can you trust that the group knows if they are doing the right thing?)
  4. You keep notes for yourself. The flip charts you use are a visual resource for everyone. They are not your notes for later, that only you have to be able to read or discern. Don’t hide them. They are a crucial tool to confirm
  5. You do the organizing. Inevitably, when a group gathers to plan and organize, there are oodles of ideas to keep track of. Do you keep track of them in your head, or find visual ways for them to see and organize what they have? If you have visuals, do you do all the work, or let them?
  6. You work rigidly in your mode of learning. Some people need to see what is going on. Others need to hear it. Some need to work in small groups, others in large. How you make sense of things is not necessarily how others make sense of things. You are serving them, so adjust to there mode.
  7. You reject offers to help. When people step up to help you help them, it is an indication that they feel ownership of what is underway and they choose to engage. Your rejection not only closes you off from learning in the moment, but it puts a big chasm between you and the group.
  8. You ridicule those who help. This is an easy way to distance yourself from the people you work with. That paper on the wall? Useless. The illustration that broke the log-jam? Inconsequential. That document put on the screen to make sure we all understood and agreed to key wording? A distraction.
  9. You lose track of who’s turn it is to speak and what they’re talking about. If you are going to go to the trouble of telling someone they are next, make sure they are next. If someone is three speakers away, let them know. And remember – it is confusing to talk about more than one thing at once. Use a speaker’s list on topic.
  10. You do the same thing, all day long. The same process, all day is soul sucking. Mix it up. Serve others

How it turned out…

Before this guy, we had the benefit of strong process that allows us to establish foundational relationships. In the end, we made the meeting work and we had a lot of success. I so deeply appreciate the dedication and determination of our group to working well together and work forward. We overcame our nuisance facilitator.

To support and serve the people you are with – be open to learning along the way, grow antenna to enable you to see what needs to happen, and respond in the moment. 

 

Appreciating the patterns in people

 

The people in the room are the pattern

the voices, perspectives together

we are the same

with busy heads

we choose

to listen

life will be ok

we do need each other

we do need perspectives

to discern

to appreciate

to hear it out

to think through, checking reality

to think through what it will take

to survive

threat by threat

experience by experience

difference by difference

reinforcing appreciation

and flow forward

together

each doing one thing deeply

to work on it all

 

_____ _____ _____

 

A poem caught as participants noticed what they learned after a day of Collaborating in Complexity – Navigating the Systems of Community, my advanced training session delivered with Marilyn Hamilton, at FCM’ Sustainable Communities Conference in Charlottetown, February 11, 2014.

Electoral energy

North Glenora Q3

I have been moderating a series of election forums across my city and I am in awe of the energy candidates for civic office put into their campaigns. Last night was the third evening I have spent with Ward 6 candidates, and they have come a long way since I first saw them in action a month ago.

In my last post, I asked:  In what ways are you an evolutionary agent for your city?

Running for office is one way to be an evolutionary agent for your city. Each candidate plays a critical role in how the city speaks for itself. As I reflect on last night’s forum, I recognize the candidates that are tired and just want the marathon to be over. There are others that clearly have more energy to spend. Some are less clear in what they have to say, while others have honed their pitch. For some, this has been a huge learning experience and you can see it on the stage in their newfound comfort speaking to a crowd.

More importantly, as the differences between the candidates become more distinct, the choices for the city become more distinct. Perhaps this is the real energy the city receives from election season. It fuels our sense of how we see ourselves because we have to make a choice.

And we need candidates with different points of view enable the choice. All candidates, all views, all perspectives, are part of our collective movement.

Elections fuel what we imagine our city needs to be to serve us well.

Electoral energy helps each of us – and our city – learn about who we want to be.

North Glenora Q2

North Glenora Q1

 

_____ _____ _____

This post concludes a series of posts on Chapter 9 – Be the Best Citizen You Can Be. Here are some plot helpers of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities, the book I am sharing here while I search for a publisher:

Next up – Chapter 10 – The Emerging City

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Focus, learn, emerge

 

Organizing for emergence means actively engaging in our individual and collective learning journeys, stopping to notice where we wish to go, and trusting that thresholds we face (and cross) along the way allow us to emerge in that direction. We reach not quite the destination in mind, but something that still suits us, something that somehow makes more sense.

I am concluding Part Two and moving on to Part Three at just the right time. Today is the Spring Equinox: the light of day is waxing and I am leaving behind the darkness I felt, and struggled with, three months ago. Yet that darkness was productive, for I explored the essence of Chapters 4-6, each with a focus on a facet of how we organize for emergence (journey, destination and emergence) and Chapter 7, their relationship with the city’s habitats – our nest.

Destination venn

Chapter 4 – An Uneasy Journey explores the notion that cities are meant to feel uneasy. In fact, they are itching for improvement. The tension we feel in our cities is an evolutionary driver. In itchy patterns, I reach these two conclusions:

  1. If we welcome and seek deeper knowing, we invite uneasiness.
  2. As we work to organize ourselves, in cities or at any scale, we must develop practices to explore uneasiness.

Our social habitat is key to the journey we face in cities, for it is where we see, acknowledge and respond to the our habitat: the development of cities – new work – is a survival skill. Explicitly acknowledging our learning journeys, as individuals and as cities, is a survival skill that allows us and our city habitats to evolve.  I conclude Chapter 4 with 10 practices for the uneasy city journey and the notion that cities are a platform for our never-ending learning journey.

In Chapter 5 – Destination Alive or Adrift, I discerned destination as some kind of improvement. At every turn, that is our work in cities, to improve something. And what we choose to improve always changes, so the very purpose of evolution is evolving. For cities particularly, this means that their purpose is both for our survival and improvement. Our work moves us in a direction, even if we can’t quite see it in the moment. As I explored nested, or scaled purposes, I found that the more immediate the purpose, the more specific the destination. The more ‘expansive’ the purpose, the destination becomes a direction: improvement.

A city’s destination is our evolving purposes, where each citizen is a building block for the larger, whole, city. As we pursue our improvements and purposes – our passions – our city enables us to do so. It does, however, require us each to ask: what is my intrinsic purpose, and how is that instrumental to the intrinsic value of the city? In other words – if we are the building blocks for our city, what sort of building blocks do we choose to be? What are we choosing to build together? What is our destination?

We know what we are building and we don’t know what we are building at the same time. I wrote this in destination is both alive and adrift:

Destination is simultaneously alive and adrift. It is most alive when we work from our passion, our inner drive to improve. When we catch glimpses of bigger destinations,for both self and the city, our direction, through short-term destinations, is discerned for fleeting moments. Between these fleeting moments, we fell adrift, which is to feel alive. 

Chapter 6 – Emerging Thresholds begins with the acknowledgement that we stand, at each moment, at the threshold of a new age, with a choice. Emergence is defined as order out of chaos, the new and novel understandings we reach as more complex systems form. At each transition there is a threshold, across which we see with fresh eyes. As I wrote, I found many helpful tips as we emerge to new destinations:

  1. We learn consciously and unconsciously, spurred on by persistent practical problems.
  2. We chaotically reorganize ourselves by exploring our in-tuition.
  3. We take a step back from the edge, as needed, in order to choose the right leap for the context.
  4. We are learning how to let a scary idea warm us up first, then explore the inner struggle, recognizing that each struggle is powering us up for something bigger and more challenging.
  5. The more we consciously explore the thresholds before us, and their nature within us, we will make wiser choices, to either go forward or turn away, as appropriate.
  6. It is in each of us to reach the places we wish to go.

Our exploration of thresholds allows us to emerge to new destinations, to see and reach new possibilities. Chapter 7 – (Un)known Possibility wraps up Part Two, noticing that we shape our physical habitat (neighbourhoods are up to us) and our social habitat (neighbourhood soccer fields), both of which, with practice, allow us to serve possibility in our lives.

The possibilities, known and unknown, emerge when:

  1. We look at our cities from a different perspective (stand on the city’s river).
  2. We follow what we are courageously smitten with step into the unknown.
  3. We grow antennae to look for and explore thresholds.
  4. We actively seek ways to find possibilities unknown to us.
  5. We chaotically reorganize to reach toward what we long for.

_____ _____ _____

As I was struggling with darkness at the Winter Equinox, I latched onto the words Focus, learn and choose. Since that time, as I continued to explore destination, journey and emergence in Chapters 4-6, I see that it is really the same thing. Here’s how I see Part Two – Organizing for Emergence now:

Focus learn and emerge nest 2.044

As I head into the Part Three, I realize that I don’t know what will be written. The writing to be done  is murky and unclear, but with focus, searching for ways to learn and exploration of emerging thresholds, it will come. A Nest City of (un)known possibility.

I continue to focus, learn and emerge.

My work continues to focus, learn and emerge.

 

_____ _____ _____

This post summarizes Part Two – Organizing for Emergence. Here are some plot helpers of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities, the book I am sharing here while I search for a publisher:

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Chaotically reorganize with longing

 

Desire and longing are creatively destructive forces. I wrap up exploring Chapter 7: (Un)known Possibilities, with David Whyte:

… without the creatively destructive dynamics of desire and longing, our protected sense of self cannot be destabilized or subverted from our old way of being; we cannot be chaotically reorganized to accommodate ourselves to anything fresh.  A certain state of blinding ecstasy seems necessary for navigating the first crucial thresholds…

In other words, for each step into possibilities both known and unknown, I need to be willing to take risks. We are designed to be smitten with an idea as much as we are designed to be smitten with a person; we become ‘blinded’ in order to take the risk, so its not so risky after all. Whether in a relationship, trying out a new job, or a renewed commitment to self, work, family, city, etc, a leap of faith is what gets us across a threshold.

When courageously smitten, a sense of direction and purpose emerges as we make our way through the personal journey of life. Thresholds emerge to challenge us and our  longing pulls us through to new possibilities.  We emerge to new destinations. This happens when we allow ourselves to chaotically reorganize for what we desire.

The dynamic of focus, and emerge  creates the conditions for emerging possibility. Anywhere, in our neighbourhoods and on the soccer field, we create possibilities, especially if we prepare for possibility and create the conditions to see possibility. We can chaotically reorganize to see familiar and new possibilities that align with our longing, and being smitten with what we are aiming for helps us through each threshold.

Douglas Hofstadter:

It turns out that an eerie type of chaos can lurk just behind a façade of order – and yet, deep inside the chaos lurks an even eerier type of order.

The key is finding ways to reveal the unknown possibilities, the lurking chaos. Our work, then, is to chaotically reorganize ourselves to be smitten with longing.

In what ways do you/we chaotically reorganize to reach what you long for?

 

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Sources / Further Reading

David Whyte, The Three Marriages, p. 48

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This post is part of Chapter 7 – (Un)known Possibilities, here are some plot helpers of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities, the book I am sharing here while I search for a publisher:

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150th Nest City post!

 

Nest City Graphic

 

On April 24, 2012 I started to blog pieces of the book I am working on, Nest City. I declared it a slow release, bit by bit, however long it took.

150 posts in, I am exploring Chapter 7 of 11, essentially two thirds of my way through. With each post, I tighten my writing and I see more clearly the plot, the direction the writing is taking. With each post, I also see more clearly the direction I am heading on this personal journey.

As I head into the last third of Nest City, I realize that this part of the book is the least defined. All the writing I have shared about discerning direction and destination, being on a learning journey and exploring emerging thresholds is alive and well for me personally. I do have a sense of direction for this last third, but I have no idea what I will have to say. That will emerge, and that process will be a learning journey along the way. I will continue to share that as I go.

I have grappled with the decision to publicly work on my book as a blog. Other writers have asked why I would dare to ‘publish’ my work in such a non-traditional manner, why I would give it away. Or why I would give away my chances for traditional publishing. 150 posts in, I do not regret this decision. I am giving a lot to readers, but I am gaining so much myself – and my writing is too.

With each blog post, I learn something about me as my writing is taking its shape. I could have done all of this privately, but then I lose the support I receive from readers. More importantly, for me personally, I know much more about what the writing will say when it does appear in ‘book’ form, as one comprehensive piece of writing, than if I did this privately. I know much more about the layers of meaning that I am exploring.

So writing and exploring with an audience matters.

To mark this milestone, I have launched a separate publication, Nest City News, an email newsletter series that explores the the human drive to thrive in cities. The purpose of this publication is to deepen the relationship between myself and readers, where we support each other in our work to improve cities. I make this commitment to subscribers – I will share my latest thoughts with you before I post them here on my website. I will share your stories as you share them with me. And, of course, as my writing appears in other formats, subscribers will be the first to know and have first access. You can subscribe in the form to the right. Next edition – March 15, 2013

Thanks, everyone, for your support as I blog along.

Nest City News Overall Small