The Art of Convening: Authentic Engagement in Meetings, Gatherings, and Conversations

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"Meetings are a waste of time" is a sentiment many of us share, which is tragic because meetings bring us together as human beings. To achieve the kind of meaning or breakthrough results most of us really yearn for when we gather, the key quality needed is authentic engagement: a genuine expression of what is true for us, and an attentive listening to what is true for others. Why it so often eludes us can be a matter of habit, distrust, lack of attention, or fear. As cofounders of Heartland Inc., Craig and Patricia Neal have led over 170 of their acclaimed Thought Leader Gatherings with leaders from over 800 diverse organizations. Their new book shares for the first time the unique and powerful Art of Convening model-developed in these gatherings and refined over six years of intensive trainings-which brings authentic engagement and meaning to any group that comes together for any purpose. Convening goes beyond facilitating. Convening creates an environment in which all voices are heard, profound exchanges take place, and transformative action results. The heart of this book is the Convening Wheel-a series of nine steps, or aspects, that bring the practices and principles needed for authentic engagement together as a whole. The book provides exercises, stories, and questions to help you master both the inner and outer dimensions of this work-because in convening, the state of the convener is equally as important as the physical preparations. Convening works in any setting and can be adapted to virtually any group process. With this book you have all the tools you need to develop this essential life and leadership skill, one that will lead to improved outcomes in your organization, community, family, and relationships.

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Chapter 1: At the Heart of the Matter

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Who I am in relationship with others

The place to start when we convene meetings, gatherings, and conversations is with ourselves. If we are to lead into authentic engagement, it is important to be genuine. Knowing who we are as human beings helps us to bring this genuineness forward. Additionally, our ability to frame, embody, and model authentic engagement is improved when we explore how we will be in relationship with others.

AUTHENTIC ENGAGEMENT

A genuine expression of what is true for us, and an attentive listening to what is true for another, or others.

We call this first, central Aspect of the Convening Wheel At the Heart of the Matter.

This is where we practice knowing ourselves as human beings and enter an awareness of how we will be in relationship with others. It is a big subject, and a lifelong quest and journey for many of us.

The idea of knowing oneself is the foundational premise of countless leadership books and trainings, as well as other self-improvement, motivational, and spiritual literature. There is a reason for that. It is important. Approaching the principles and practices of the Art of Convening without getting at this core Aspect, one way or another, would be like trying to make a wheel without a hub; it can be done, but, well, that’s one wobbly wheel. This central Aspect serves as a stabilizer and calibrator for our convening practice; we return to it again and again.

 

Chapter 2: Clarifying Intent

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The alignment of our intention with the purpose of our engagement

Our intention is the result that we desire for our actions, words, and/or presence to have in the world. Sometimes we are aware of these desires, and sometimes we are not. Clarifying Intent is essential for a gathering because our intentions have substance that will be acted upon.

THE INTENTION for, and orientation to, the highest good for each and all serves as our fundamental and ever-present touchstone. It is an invocation more than an agenda, a powerful tone that reverberates through visible and invisible realms to attract all who support our effort. Clear strong intent is a potent attractor in the field of Being.

—Tom Hurley1

In the last chapter, we examined At the Heart of the Matter, reflecting on who we are and how we will be in relationship with other people. Now we engage in Clarifying Intent for the gathering at hand. For the best outcome of our gathering to be possible, our intentions must also be in alignment with At the Heart of the Matter.

 

Chapter 3: The Invitation

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A sincere offering to engage that integrates purpose and intent

Once we have explored the nature of our purpose in At the Heart of the Matter, and have clearly identified and aligned the intention for our gathering by Clarifying Intent, we again look inside ourselves so that a sincere invitation can be extended. Although important, the physical form of an invitation is simply the delivery system of this Aspect. The essential and often-overlooked quality needed to make an invitation effective is sincerity.

When we convene, our Invitation does not just ask for a body to show up at a date and time. It is designed for authentic engagement—to create the opportunity for those invited to bring themselves fully present, both when they arrive and continually throughout the gathering. We invite that presence through the sincere tone and warmth of our Invitation. When participants have received this kind of invitation, there is a better chance that they will show up physically, and a much better chance that they will arrive with presence, ready to participate fully in the gathering.

 

Chapter 4: Setting Context

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Communicating the form, function, and purpose of our engagement

When we optimally prepare people for the form, function, and purpose of our gathering, they will be present in a way that greatly improves the chances of our purpose being actualized. Authentic engagement is more likely when we all have the same historical context or history of “how we’ve gotten to where we are.”

ALL SCIENCE is experiential; but all experience must be related back to, and derives its validity from, the conditions and context of consciousness in which it arises, i.e., the totality of our nature.

—Wilhelm Dilthey1

When we assume too much about what others know, the result can be confusion and lack of purpose. We can greatly improve the chances of all participants’ understanding the context of our gathering if we practice articulating it by writing it down and checking it out ourselves or with others.

WHAT’S THIS GATHERING ABOUT?

Having determined our purpose and clear intent, and offered a genuine, sincere invitation, we’re now fully invested in our engagement. When we’ve done our inner homework, we embody a noticeable quality of confidence and inner commitment. We now need to tell everyone what this gathering is all about.

 

Chapter 5: Creating the Container

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Creating the physical and energetic field within which we meet

Creating the Container is about providing an environment for our gathering that is enlivened, has boundaries, and is safe. When the participants of our gathering feel honored as human beings and encircled in safety, authentic engagement can emerge. In order to achieve this, we pay attention to the space, both energetic and physical, in which we will be “held” during the duration of the meeting.

It is important that we prepare both of these spaces, or fields, so that we have an inner and an outer container to hold the gathering.

The inner, or energetic, container provides security and safety so that those within may freely express themselves. The outer, or physical, container reminds us of our humanity and aliveness, and encourages connection.

Selection of venue, size, shape, and what we bring to it are all part of preparing the outer container. This can be done in a physical space or virtually (see “The Virtual Container,” below). Our meeting space will also be defined by the seating pattern, whether rows, theater style, or circle.

 

Chapter 6: Hearing All the Voices

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When each person speaks, is heard, and is present and accounted for

Our container has been created; now is the time to invite each person to say something. Hearing All the Voices is the time in our gathering when each person is asked to speak, is heard, and is perceived by everyone as “present and accounted for.” It is an imperative Aspect of the Convening Wheel that may make or break our ability to enter into authentic engagement and continue into Essential Conversation, the next Aspect on the Convening Wheel.

The art of listening as well as hearing is at play now. The often-delicate environment may be compromised by impatience or judgment. We address this by slowing down the conversation and by inviting all participants to truly suspend judgment of others.

Hearing All the Voices is when we begin to experience the emergence of a wholeness in the gathering. With the coalescence of intent within a safe container and hearing from each person, a more whole picture begins to emerge. As each person speaks and is heard, people become more present and accounted for to the group. This is the beginning of what we call “listening one another into being.”

 

Chapter 7: Essential Conversation

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Meaningful exchange in an atmosphere of trust

Essential Conversation is, in many ways, the meat of authentic engagement. In order to get there, we follow the Aspects of the Convening Wheel that come before so that we may gracefully enter Essential Conversation with planning and respect. The presence of trust and safety plays an important role in the quality of the conversation and the ability to maintain authenticity.

When we’re authentic and engaged, we’re more able and willing to work together to imagine, and be responsible for, the best possible future. When creativity and wisdom become activated, whatever outcomes the group is working toward can be enhanced or accelerated.

Once the container has been successfully created and we’ve begun with hearing the voices of the assembled, there is an opening for a graceful transition to the very practical Aspect of Essential Conversation.

Various potent dialogic and conversational methods (World Café, Bohmian Dialogue, Appreciative Inquiry, and Circle Process, to name a few) can be good tools for establishing Essential Conversation. Two methods we use are the following: asking for reflections “popcorn style” (that is, each person in the gathering speaks whenever he or she is moved to speak, in what sometimes seems like a verbal “popping”) and small-group breakouts. In both settings, conversation is initiated with an invitation to speak or a directed question to speak to. We remind participants of the protocols of engagement, utilizing the Principles of Conversation, such as deep listening, slowing down the conversation, and allowing the space for difference (see “Arrows for Your Quiver”). The crucial step now is to call upon the participants to share their wholehearted wisdom with each other.

 

Chapter 8: Creation

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Something new that emerges from engagements of shared purpose and trust

Creation, in the context of convening, is something new that emerges in our gathering as a result of authentic engagement during Essential Conversation. We don’t know what the creation will be, and it is out of our direct control. We can, however, plan, nurture, and set the conditions in which it emerges, just as a gardener fosters the conditions for a plant to emerge from the ground.

WHEN WE are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.

—Brenda Ueland1

Depending on the purpose of our gathering, the creation could be a new product idea, a new marketing concept, or a way for the family to be together more meaningfully. It could also be a thought, a revelation about our relationship with others, or a modification of something old (which makes it new!). Whatever the form of the creation, it is the role of the Convener to attentively keep the participants authentically engaged so that they are able to generate the new. The Convener intervenes only under certain circumstances—if the group seems to be getting disengaged, the container needs to be strengthened, or the new emerging themes need emphasis or illumination.

 

Chapter 9: Commitment to Action

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An individual and/or collective agreement to be responsible and accountable for the way forward

For the harvest of our creation to be of value, we are compelled to take committed action. Without commitment, the creation that has emerged from our time together may be lost or greatly diminished.

This final Aspect of the Convening Wheel generates new circumstances and situations that may well offer opportunities for further relationships. Since we are working with a wheel rather than a linear model, finding ourselves at the last Aspect does not bring us to the end. In fact, we may find ourselves returning again and again to the Convening Wheel as a resource as we navigate the meetings, gatherings, and conversations of our lives. Like the wheel, the human experience is more a continuing journey than a destination.

Commitment to Action may take many forms. It can be a decision to do something or a decision to do nothing. It can be one person agreeing to be accountable or many people agreeing to be accountable—individually or as a collective whole. It can be shared, or it can be private. More than a casual item on a to-do list, the Commitment to Action could be a question we commit to asking ourselves or a determined stake in the ground.

 

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