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Turning to One Another

Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future by Margaret J. Wheatley

Here are a few of my notes…

What would it feel like to be listening to each other again about what disturbs and troubles us? About what gives us energy and hope? About our yearnings, our fears, our prayers, our children?

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Human conversation is the most ancient and easiest way to cultivate the conditions for change—personal change, community and organizational change, planetary change. If we can sit together and talk about what’s important to us, we begin to come alive. We share what we see, what we feel, and we listen to what others see and feel.

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We have never wanted to be alone. But today, we are alone. We are more fragmented and isolated from one another than ever before. Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes it as “a radical brokenness in all of existence.” We move at frantic speed, spinning out into greater isolation. We seek consolation in everything except each other. The entire world seems hypnotized in the wrong direction—encouraging us to love things rather than people, to embrace everything new without noticing what’s lost or wrong, to choose fear instead of peace. We promise ourselves everything except each other. We’ve forgotten the source of true contentment and well-being.

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Juanita Brown, has shared her experiences in community organizing and corporate strategy, and her belief in everyone’s capacity to figure out how to make a difference. Juanita taught me that all change, even very large and powerful change, begins when a few people start talking with one another about something they care about. Simple conversations held at kitchen tables, or seated on the ground, or leaning against doorways are powerful means to start influencing and changing our world.

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Part Three has ten short “Conversation Starters.” These brief essays provide content for your conversations. (You can, of course, just begin your conversations with the issues and dreams that concern you most.) Each of these conversation starters begins with a question. Each contains a story or two, some facts and quotes, and my own comments and interpretations about the topic. I’ve included some poems as well.

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We have to slow down. Nothing will change for the better until we do. We need time to think, to learn, to get to know each other. We are losing these great human capacities in the speed-up of modern life, and it is killing us.

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But I’ve seen that there is no more powerful way to initiate significant change than to convene a conversation. When a community of people discovers that they share a concern, change begins. There is no power equal to a community discovering what it cares about.

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When I’m in conversation, I try to maintain curiosity by reminding myself that everyone here has something to teach me. When they’re saying things I disagree with, or have never thought about, or that I consider foolish or wrong, I silently remind myself that they have something to teach me. Somehow this little reminder helps me be more attentive and less judgmental. It helps me stay open to people, rather than shut them out.

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If you’re hosting the conversation, you may feel responsible to draw connections between these diverse contributions (even when you don’t see them). It’s important to let go of that impulse and just sit with the messiness. Each person’s contribution adds a different element or spice to the whole. If we connect these too early, we lose the variety we need. If we look for superficial commonalties, we never discover the collective wisdom found only in the depths.

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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.

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We don’t have to let go of what we believe, but we do need to be curious about what someone else believes. We do need to acknowledge that their way of interpreting the world might be essential to our survival.

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There are many ways to sit and listen for the differences. Lately, I’ve been listening for what surprises me. What did I just hear that startled me? This isn’t easy—I’m accustomed to sitting there nodding my head to those saying things I agree with. But when I notice what surprises me, I’m able to see my own views more clearly, including my beliefs and assumptions.

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Noticing what surprises and disturbs me has been a very useful way to see invisible beliefs. If what you say surprises me, I must have been assuming something else was true. If what you say disturbs me, I must believe something contrary to you.

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I hope you’ll begin a conversation, listening for what’s new. Listen as best you can for what’s different, for what surprises you. See if this practice helps you learn something new. Notice whether you develop a better relationship with the person you’re talking with. If you try this with several people, you might find yourself laughing in delight as you realize how many unique ways there are to be human.

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I know we don’t have to agree with each other in order to think well together.

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It’s not difference that divide us. It’s our judgements

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Please start where you feel most comfortable, and with those who are eager to begin. Gradually, you can expand who’s in the conversation, and grow into a more diverse and interesting group. One question to ask of your conversation circle is: Who else should be here? If you ask this question periodically, you will keep noticing others who can contribute new and important elements to your conversation.

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I work from the principle that if we want to change the conversation, we have to change who’s in the conversation.

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We don’t have to be comfortable, well-fed, or safe in order to feel purpose in our lives.

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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.

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We were standing in a long narrow room that had been used as a prison cell for dozens of freedom fighters. They lived in close quarters in this barren room—no cots or furniture, just cement walls and floors with narrow windows near the ceiling. We stood there listening to our guide’s narration. He had been a prisoner in this very room. The cold came up through the floor into our feet as we gazed around the lifeless cell. We stared through the bars of the door as he described the constant threats and capricious brutality they had suffered. Then he paused and gazed down the length of the room. Speaking very quietly, he said: “Sometimes, to pass the time here, we taught each other ballroom dancing.”

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A few years ago, I was introduced to the practice of “bearing witness.” This is not a religious practice. Rather, it’s a simple practice of being brave enough to sit with human suffering, to acknowledge it for what it is, to not flee from it. It doesn’t make the suffering go away, although it sometimes changes the experience of pain and grief. When I bear witness, I turn toward another and am willing to let their experience enter my heart. I step into the picture by being willing to be open to their experience, to not turn away my gaze.

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I’ve heard two great teachers, Malidoma Some from Burkino Fasso in West Africa and Parker Palmer from the United States, both make this comment: “You can tell a culture is in trouble when its elders walk across the street to avoid meeting its youth.” It is impossible to create a healthy culture if we refuse to meet, and if we refuse to listen.

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Our lives are not as desperate as those poor, and we may not notice that we’re losing the possibility of a fully human life. To see whether you’re losing anything of value to yourself, here are some questions to ask yourself: Are my relationships with those I love improving or deteriorating? Is my curiosity about the world increasing or decreasing? Do I feel more or less energy for my work than a few years ago? Are those things which anger me different than a few years ago? Which of my behaviors do I value, which do I dislike? Generally, am I feeling more peaceful or more stressed? (Amanda’s note: great year end reflection questions)

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When the ideas mean something to us, the distance between thinking and acting dissolves. People don’t hesitate to get started. They don’t sit around figuring out the risks or waiting until someone else develops an implementation strategy. They just start doing. If that action doesn’t work, they try something different. This might sound strange to you, because many of us deal with governments and organizations that can’t implement anything. It’s true for all bureaucracies—there’s a huge gap between ideas and actions. But this is because people don’t care about those ideas. They didn’t invent them, they know they won’t really change anything, and they won’t take risks for something they don’t believe in. But when it’s our idea, and it might truly benefit our lives, then we act immediately on any promising notion.

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We ignored life’s cyclical nature, where decay is the most essential element in a healthy system, and instead assumed we could always be improving, never resting, never ill, hoping to avoid even death.

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One of the biggest flaws in our approach to life is the Western belief that competition creates strong and healthy systems. Television screens are filled with images of animals locking horns in battle or ripping apart their prey. It is true that in any living system there are predators and prey, death and destruction. But competition among individuals and species is not the dominant way life works. It is always cooperation that increases over time in a living system. Life becomes stronger and more capable through systems of collaboration and partnering, not through competition.

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Rainer Maria Rilke You mustn’t be frightened if a sadness rises in front of you, larger than any you have ever seen; if an anxiety, like light and cloud-shadows, moves over your hands and over everything you do. You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall.

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Whenever we get past the categories and stereotypes, when we greet each other as interesting individuals, we are always surprised by who we are. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of stereotyping someone because of their appearance, and then being surprised when they didn’t fit that judgment.

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Most of us have had the experience of listening to someone and realizing how different they are from us. We don’t share any of their experiences, values, or opinions. But surprisingly, at the end of listening to them, we feel more connected to them.

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Tao Te Ching, 600 B.C. China Stephen Mitchell, translator If you want to be a leader… stop trying to control. Let go of fixed plans and concepts, and the world will govern itself. The more prohibitions you have, the less virtuous people will be. The more weapons you have, the less secure people will be. The more subsidies you have, the less self-reliant people will be. Therefore the Master says: I let go of the law, and people become honest. I let go of economics, and people become prosperous. I let go of religion, and people become serene. I let go all desire for the common good, and the good becomes common as grass.

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What happens when we claim our right to be fully human? Everyone benefits. Even those who feel superior, who demean and discount us, benefit when we claim our full humanity. When we refuse to accept degrading conditions and behaviors, those in power no longer have a target for their oppressive acts. Even if they want to continue in their old ways, we don’t let them. Our refusal gives them the opportunity to explore new, more humane behaviors. They may not choose to change, but as we stand up for ourselves, we give them the chance to be more fully human as well. When we are courageous enough to honor ourselves, we offer everyone else their humanity.

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Ask “What’s possible?” not “What’s wrong?” Keep asking.

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Be intrigued by the differences you hear. Expect to be surprised. Treasure curiosity more than certainty.

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Videos It’s a Wonderful Life. Explores servant leadership using clips from the classic movie starring Jimmy Stewart. Twelve Angry Men. The practices of highly effective teams, using the classic movie starring Henry Fonda.

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