Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future

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"I believe we can change the world if we start talking to one another again." With this simple declaration, Margaret Wheatley proposes that people band together with their colleagues and friends to create the solutions for real social change, both locally and globally, that are so badly needed. Such change will not come from governments or corporations, she argues, but from the ageless process of thinking together in conversation. Turning to One Another encourages this process. Part I explores the power of conversation and the conditions-simplicity, personal courage, real listening, and diversity-that support it. Part II contains quotes and images to encourage the reader to pause and reflect, and to prepare for the work ahead-convening truly meaningful conversations. Part III provides ten "conversation starters"-questions that in Wheatley's experience have led people to share their deepest beliefs, fears, and hopes.

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Can we restore hope to the future?

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What I believe at this time

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what I believe at this time

I’ve found that I can only change how I act if I stay aware of my beliefs and assumptions. Thoughts always reveal themselves in behavior.

As humans, we often contradict ourselves—we say one thing and do another. We state who we are, but then act contrary to that. We say we’re open-minded, but then judge someone for their appearance.

We say we’re a team, but then gossip about a colleague. If we want to change our behavior, we need to notice our actions, and see if we can uncover the belief that led to that response. What caused me to behave that way and not some other way?

Over the years, I’ve noticed that many of us harbor negative beliefs about each other. Or we believe that there’s nothing we can do to make a difference. Or that things are so crazy that we have to look out only for ourselves. With these beliefs, we cannot turn to one another.

We won’t engage together for the work that needs to be done.

I’ve been trying to stay aware of my own beliefs for many years. I’m describing some of them here for a few reasons. First, I want to be held accountable for these. I want my beliefs to be visible in my actions. Second, in stating them, you can learn a bit more about me.

 

Simple processes

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simple processes

I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

Oliver Wendell Holmes

Many of us would like to simplify our lives, and life in general.

Yet I notice how difficult it is to accept and believe in simple solutions and processes. Everything has become quite complicated. Things that were simple, like neighborly conversation, have become a technique, like intergenerational, cross-cultural dialogue.

Once a simple process becomes a technique, it can only grow more complex and difficult. It never becomes simpler. It becomes the specialized knowledge of a few experts, and everyone else becomes dependent on them. We forget that we ever knew how to do things like conversation, planning, or thinking. Instead, we become meek students of difficult methods.

In the presence of so many specialized techniques for doing simple things, we’ve become suspicious of anything that looks easy. And those of us who have technical expertise are especially suspicious. I’ve seen myself pull back from simple more than once because I realized I wouldn’t be needed any longer. Those are useful moments that force me to clarify what’s more important—my expert status or making sure the work gets done well. (I haven’t always chosen the nobler path.)

 

The courage of conversation

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the courage of conversation

It’s not easy to begin talking to one another again. We stay silent and apart for many reasons. Some of us never have been invited to share our ideas and opinions. From early school days and now as adults, we’ve been instructed to be quiet so others can tell us what to think.

Others of us are accustomed to meetings to discuss ideas, but then these sessions degenerate into people shouting, or stomping out angrily, or taking over control of the agenda. These experiences have left us feeling hesitant to speak, and frightened of each other.

But good conversation is very different from those bad meetings.

It is a much older and more reliable way for humans to think together.

Before there were meetings, planning processes, or any other techniques, there was conversation—people sitting around interested in each other, talking together. When we think about beginning a conversation, we can take courage from the fact that this is a process we all know how to do. We are reawakening an ancient practice, a way of being together that all humans remember. A colleague in

 

The practice of conversation

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the practice of conversation

There are many different ways to host a meaningful conversation.

Although I’ve been hosting dialogues since 1993, my trust in and love for conversations is more recent, a direct outcome of what I’ve learned from the work of two colleagues and friends, Christina Baldwin and

Juanita Brown. Each of them, with several colleagues, has pioneered different and extraordinary ways to host conversations that generate deep insights and actions, and a strong sense of community. At the end of this book, I give more detailed information about their work.

They are the expert teachers for how to host conversations. I hope you will go directly to them.

I first fell in love with the practice of conversation when I experienced for myself the sense of unity, of communion, that is available in this process. Most of what we do in communities and organizations focuses us on our individual needs. We attend a conference or meeting for our own purposes, for “what I can get out of this.” Conversation is different.

 

Willing to be disturbed

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willing to be disturbed

As we work together to restore hope to the future, we need to include a new and strange ally—our willingness to be disturbed. Our willingness to have our beliefs and ideas challenged by what others think. No one person or perspective can give us the answers we need to the problems of today. Paradoxically, we can only find those answers by admitting we don’t know. We have to be willing to let go of our certainty and expect ourselves to be confused for a time.

We weren’t trained to admit we don’t know. Most of us were taught to sound certain and confident, to state our opinion as if it were true.

We haven’t been rewarded for being confused. Or for asking more questions rather than giving quick answers. We’ve also spent many years listening to others mainly to determine whether we agree with them or not. We don’t have time or interest to sit and listen to those who think differently than we do.

But the world now is quite perplexing. We no longer live in those sweet, slow days when life felt predictable, when we actually knew what to do next. We live in a complex world, we often don’t know what’s going on, and we won’t be able to understand its complexity unless we spend more time in not knowing.

 

Part Two: A Place to Pause and Reflect

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Now it’s your turn

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now it’s your turn

The first part of this book was written in the hope that you would feel encouraged and even excited to begin conversations. In this section, Part

Three, you will find twelve conversation starters. Everything in this section is offered to you as a resource for conversations that you will host. Each conversation starter is a short essay framed around a question, and supported by stories, quotes, poems, and my own comments.

But the work is now yours to do. Nothing much will change in the world if you keep these conversation starters to yourself. I hope you will find them provocative enough to share them with friends and colleagues. Indeed, I hope you will now be the conversation starter.

I encourage you to begin a conversation with whatever issue or dream is most relevant to you and your friends. But I also hope that you will, either now or later, try out these specific conversation starters.

I expect you’ll be surprised by the quality and depth of conversation they create. I know you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to move into rich and meaningful conversations. And I hope you’ll be inspired and surprised by what you learn from your conversation partners.

 

1. Do I feel a vocation to be fully human?

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Do I feel a vocation to be fully human?

Paulo Freire was a Brazilian and world educator who believed in people.

Many times he stated that we have “a vocation to be fully human.”

He demonstrated that when poor and illiterate people learned to think, they could understand what was causing their poverty. Once they understood this, they then acted powerfully to change their world.

His approach to education has been called a “pedagogy of love.”

But what does he mean that we have a vocation to be fully human?

The notion of vocation comes from spiritual and philosophical traditions.

It describes a “call,” work that is given to us, that we are meant to do.

We don’t decide what our vocation is, we receive it. It always originates from outside us. Therefore, we can’t talk about vocation or a calling without acknowledging that there is something going on beyond our narrow sense of self. It helps remind us that there’s more than just me, that we’re part of a larger and purpose-filled place.

Even if we don’t use the word vocation, most of us want to experience a sense of purpose to our lives. From a young age, and especially as we mature, people often express the feeling of life working through them, of believing there’s a reason for their existence. I always love to hear a young person say that they know there’s a reason why they’re here. I know that if they can hold onto that sense of purpose, they’ll be able to deal with whatever life experiences await them. If we don’t feel there’s a meaning to our lives, life’s difficulties can easily overwhelm and discourage us.

 

2. What is my faith in the future?

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What is my faith in the future?

Where does the future come from? It often feels these days as if the future arrives from nowhere. Suddenly things feel unfamiliar, we’re behaving differently, the world doesn’t work the way it used to.

We’re surprised to find ourselves in this new place—it’s uncomfortable, and we don’t like it.

The future doesn’t take form irrationally, even though it feels that way.

The future comes from where we are now. It materializes from the actions, values, and beliefs we’re practicing now. We’re creating the future everyday, by what we choose to do. If we want a different future, we have to take responsibility for what we are doing in the present.

I have faith in the future because I know it’s not a predetermined path we’re obligated to walk down. We can change direction from here.

It requires critical thinking. We need to look thoughtfully at what’s going on, and decide what we want to do about it. Luckily, critical thinking is a skill easy to develop in all people. In Paulo Freire’s work with economically poor people, they became skilled thinkers when they saw how reading and analysis would give them the means to fight back against their poverty. People learn quickly when learning offers them the possibility of a better life.

 

3. What do I believe about others?

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What do I believe about others?

We have a great need to rely on the fact of human goodness. Human goodness seems like an outrageous “fact.” In these dark times we are confronted daily with mounting evidence of the great harm we so easily do to one another. We are numbed by frequent genocide, ethnic hatred, and acts of violence committed daily in the world. In selfprotective groups, we terrorize each other with our hatred. Of the two hundred and forty plus nations in the world, nearly one-fourth of them are at war.

In our daily life, we encounter people who are angry, deceitful, intent only on satisfying their own needs. There is so much anger, distrust, greed, and pettiness that we are losing our capacity to work well together. Many of us are more withdrawn and distrustful than ever.

Yet this incessant display of the worst in us makes it essential that we rely on human goodness. Without that belief in each other, there really is no hope.

There is nothing equal to human creativity, human caring, human will.

 

4. What am I willing to notice in my world?

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What am I willing to notice in my world?

During the winter of 2001, I was in England shortly after a devastating earthquake in India. Daily, the BBC carried photos and descriptions of unbearable suffering, along with interviews with Indians in London whose families lived in areas most affected by the quake. It was a sobering experience, day after day, to listen to the stories and look at the images of horror. During this time, I had dinner with a spiritual leader whose compassion had already led him to India many times to establish orphanages and schools there. These orphanages were unlike traditional orphanages—they were clusters of homes where children lived into adulthood as a community. I was impressed by how much caring had gone into these facilities, and the depth of his love for the people of India.

However, when I began talking about the earthquake, I was surprised when he replied: “I can’t deal with it or even think about it. It’s just one more overwhelming devastation visited upon a third-world country.” I wasn’t shocked by the sentiment, but by the words coming from him. How could he work so actively for India, and then close down in the face of this suffering?

 

5. When have I experienced good listening?

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When have I experienced good listening?

One of the easiest human acts is also the most healing. Listening to someone. Simply listening. Not advising or coaching, but silently and fully listening.

Whatever life we have experienced, if we can tell someone our story, we find it easier to deal with our circumstances. I have seen the great healing power of good listening so often that I wonder if you’ve noticed it also. There may have been a time when a friend was telling you such a painful story that you became speechless. You couldn’t think of anything to say, so you just sat there, listening closely, but not saying a word. And what was the result of your heartfelt silence, of your listening?

A young, black South African woman taught some of my friends the healing power of listening. She was sitting in a circle of women from many nations, and each woman had the chance to tell a story from her life. When her turn came, she began to quietly tell a story of true horror—of how she had found her grandparents slaughtered in their village. Many of the women were Westerners, and in the presence of such pain they instinctively wanted to do something. They wanted to fix, to make it better, anything to remove the pain of this tragedy from such a young life. The young woman felt their compassion, but also felt them closing in. She put her hands up, as if to push back their desire to help. She said: “I don’t need you to fix me. I just need you to listen to me.”

 

6. Am I willing to reclaim time to think?

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Am I willing to reclaim time to think?

As a species, we humans possess some unique capacities. We can stand apart from what’s going on, think about it, question it, imagine it being different. We are also curious. We want to know “why?” We figure out “how?” We think about what’s past, we dream forward to the future. We create what we want rather than just accept what is.

So far, we’re the only species we know that does this.

As the world speeds up, we’re giving away these wonderful human capacities. Do you have as much time to think as you did a year ago?

When was the last time you spent time reflecting on something important to you? At work, do you have more or less time now to think about what you’re doing? Are you encouraged to spend time thinking with colleagues and co-workers, or reflecting on what you’re learning?

If we can pause for a moment and see what we’re losing as we speed up, I can’t imagine that we would continue with this bargain. We’re forfeiting the very things that make us human. Our road to hell is being paved with hasty intentions. I hope we can notice what we’re losing—in our day-to-day life, in our community, in our world. I hope we’ll be brave enough to slow things down.

 

7. What is the relationship I want with the earth?

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What is the relationship I want with the earth?

Other species don’t have the same challenge as we humans. They participate with their environment, they watch, they react. We humans, in contrast, dream, plan, figure things out. Because we have consciousness, we create our own set of rules rather than submitting to the laws of nature that govern all life. We use consciousness to try and bend the world to our own purposes. For three centuries now, as Western science has taken control, we’ve been trying to ignore life’s processes rather than respect them. Consciousness has kept us from being in simple partnership with the earth. We’ve acted as gods rather than as good neighbors.

There is a great deal of well-documented scientific evidence that we’re living in an era of unparalleled destruction of species, habitats, and natural resources. Many scientists refer to this time as the sixth great extinction. During its four-to-five billion years of existence, the earth has experienced five earlier massive extinctions. Cycles of destruction are natural to life. But this present destruction is different. It is something we humans created, and it is distinctly unnatural.

 

8. What is my unique contribution to the whole?

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What is my unique contribution to the whole?

Most cultural traditions have a story to explain why human life is so hard, why there is so much suffering on earth. The story is always the same—at some point early in our human origin, we forgot that we were all connected. We broke apart, we separated from each other.

We even fragmented inside ourselves, disconnecting heart from head from spirit. These stories always teach that healing will only be found when we remember our initial unity and reconnect the fragments.

If fragmentation and separation are the problem, how is it possible that our uniqueness could bring us back together? It seems that everywhere we use diversity to further separate from one another. We are organizing against each other, using ethnicity, gender, tightly-bound identities.

Even when we aren’t warring with each other, we increasingly define ourselves by labels. We stick labels on ourselves, we ask others what theirs are. ( Are you a Leo? An ENTJ? An A type personality? A theory

 

9. When have I experienced working for the common good?

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When have I experienced working for the common good?

For many years, I have talked with people who helped rescue people from disasters—bombings, floods, fires, explosions. They always describe their experiences with grief, yet with energy and satisfaction.

It seems strange that, in the face of horror, they have these good feelings. But they’re describing an experience of working for the common good—doing whatever is necessary to help another human being. And that experience is always deeply satisfying.

In a crisis, the space is wide open for contribution. There’s no time to worry or hesitate, there are few or no rules. People have a deep desire to help, so they perform miracles. We discover capacities we didn’t know we had. The chaos and urgency of a disaster encourages people to try anything, far beyond any plan or training. As one person said: “There’s no risk, because it’s already a disaster. You just keep doing whatever you can to help. If one thing doesn’t work, you try something else.”

 

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