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The Art of Convening

The Art of Convening: Authentic Engagement in Meetings, Gatherings, and Conversations by Craig Neal, Patricia Neal, Richard Leider and Cynthia Wold

Early peoples hunted, gathered, cooked, and naturally convened. The poet T. S. Eliot described those roots precisely when he asked in his poem “The Rock,” Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

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There were several elephants in the room, known as budget cuts, layoffs, and wholesale destruction of the department. At my request, we began by having the two core presenters agree to speak openly and honestly about three questions: what did they know that they could say, what would be the impact on the department, and, more important, how did they feel at this moment—how did this affect them?

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Checklist for the Gathering at Hand • Who am I in relationship to this gathering? • What is my relationship to the people of this gathering? • What is the purpose of our gathering? • What does success look like? • Have I centered myself (noticed my preferences, judgments, and certainties)? • Am I ready to move on? (If not,

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Checklist for the Gathering at Hand • Who am I in relationship to this gathering? • What is my relationship to the people of this gathering? • What is the purpose of our gathering? • What does success look like? • Have I centered myself (noticed my preferences, judgments, and certainties)? • Am I ready to move on? (If not, why not?)

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EXERCISE 2: A PERSONAL CREATION STORY Personal creation stories are a powerful tool to attract what we desire to create in our lives. When we can envision our future, we are more likely to create the changes, put forth the effort, and acquire the skills necessary to achieve it. This is also a good way to explore who we are and how we will be in relationship with others.

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Journaling Questions • What are my relationships now, and how do I serve? • What is my vision for myself as a Convener? Write the story of your life two years out. List accomplishments and/or milestones. Be specific.

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MY DEEPEST intention is always to serve, to encourage healing (in the meaning of fostering wholeness) and to embody love. I realized over time that by setting a clear intention for each gathering, for each day—I unleashed an energetic field which then drew the outer physical manifestation of that intention to me as I simultaneously was making my way towards “it.” —Pele Rouge Chadima2

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Journaling Questions • When you think of the word intent from this chapter, what words, thoughts, feelings, come up for you? Are they in line with who you are? • What are the practices you employ in your life to help clarify your intent?

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A convening practice we use at Heartland is to read each participant’s name out loud prior to a gathering. Quite often the names are read the night before, and sometimes they’re read the day of. This process has multiple benefits for the gathering, including the reinforcement of the sincerity of our Invitation. As the names are read (either by the Convener alone or by a team), we envision each person as welcome to the meeting, ready to share his or her valuable gifts.

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Checklist for the Gathering at Hand • Have I (internally and externally) sincerely invited each person to engage? • Have I envisioned/imagined how I will welcome participants when they arrive? • Am I prepared to follow through with my sincerity throughout the gathering?

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The principle: When we hold people in our most positive thoughts, it creates a powerful field that brings them into our

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What do the participants need to know to show up ready to fully participate?

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We call this kind of context setting the genesis story. It is important to know the origins and history of the people, place, and context of our gathering so that the shared knowledge of this story connects us to each other. As Conveners, we remember that people want to know how they fit into a situation. Telling and retelling the genesis story of how we all came to be at this gathering can powerfully and efficiently achieve this connection.

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EXERCISE 1: DEVELOPING THE CONTEXT “MUSCLE” Write it! Find a quiet time and place to write for at least 20 minutes. Write down the context (reason, form, and function) for a specific meeting or gathering. Go through the thought process just as you would want someone to articulate the context of the gathering to you. Make sure you have answered the following questions: • What is the genesis story of this engagement? • What is this gathering about? • What do the participants need to know to show up and fully participate? • What is our individual and collective purpose for this engagement, and for the sake of what do we do this work? • Who will we be together? • What will a successful meeting look like?

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What is needed for the participants to feel safe in this gathering? What will enliven the environment? What protocols and agreements must be present?

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Acknowledging that they were each in separate spaces and had only the virtual space connecting them, Craig asked the participants to imagine themselves sitting around a campfire. He began, “Imagine the weather is pleasant, the fire is warm and inviting, and we are all seated comfortably, able to see one another around the fire …” He continued to set the scene for an intimate group sitting around a campfire, together.

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Does the gathering environment feel alive? If not, what can I do to introduce life and beauty?

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Who are we, and what have we come to say and do together? How will we hear all the voices at this gathering? What methods and practices will allow for the full expression of all participants?

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Our desire during this Aspect is to hear from a place of deep listening. We prepare for this by asking all participants to listen and speak from the heart, hold the space for differences, and seek sincerity and brevity in their own remarks.

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As each person speaks in turn, we lead ourselves to imagine a string slipping through the bead. When all of the voices have been heard, the string has gone through every bead, and the result is a beautiful “necklace” (or “bracelet,” or other piece) that is a whole that did not exist at the beginning.

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Next time you run into a neighbor, friend, or family member, start the conversation with a comment about the weather or your home or family. Be conscious of your opening, and listen to the response. Then ask a question about that person’s current condition. How is that person doing, really? Then listen and respond, if appropriate, in kind. Notice how the rest of the exchange moves along. The same can be done with business associates. If we honor the miracle of everyday life by being interested rather than needing to be interesting, even the most mundane conversation can turn into a transformative experience for all. People love to be heard. It’s all in the simple things.

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The day begins with breakfast at round tables of six to eight. In an adjacent space is a large Community Circle with a chair for each participant, which will, throughout the session, be reconfigured into small-group Wisdom Circles (see “Arrows for Your Quiver”). The day proceeds as follows: • Everyone is welcomed by a greeter at registration. • The session starts with a welcome, followed by Setting Context for the gathering, including a brief genesis story of how the TLG began, and the agenda/overview of the day. • We communicate the agreements, including an agreement to utilize the Principles of Conversation. • A brief transition exercise follows, then an invitation to join the Community Circle. • Once in the circle, we String the Beads for Hearing All the Voices. • We introduce the conversation starter (presenter), and he or she speaks. • Break. • Two rounds of small-group Wisdom Circles follow the break, shuffling participants and addressing different questions. • We return to the Community Circle to Harvest the Wisdom.

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Reflection is a core leadership competency. Designing opportunities for taking a time-in to reflect has the effect of slowing down the interaction to the speed of life, therefore allowing for a deeper consideration of the purpose of your interaction with that person. With reflection comes listening, which births understanding. Wisdom is the outcome. EXERCISE 2: PRACTICING MEANINGFUL EXCHANGE 1. Find a private and comfortable place to sit close to and directly across from one other person. 2. Decide who will speak first to a predetermined question of mutual interest. Speak of things in your everyday life that have real meaning for you; resist exchanging cliché for cliché. 3. Now look directly into each other’s eyes, and take turns speaking and listening without interruption or distraction. 4. The speaker speaks for a few minutes while the listener simply listens, offering no verbal or physical feedback. When the first speaker is finished, simply thank one another and switch roles. 5. You may alternate speaking and listening for as long as you wish. 6. Remember, it is important to avoid advice giving or feedback. You may wish to go offline if things come up that you feel you need to further work through together.

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Here are some things to look for now: • Are the vast majority of the people engaged? If not, who is not and why not? A gentle hand or intervention may be appropriate to bring outliers in or utilize their contribution. • Do you sense agreement, conflict, or indecision, or are people still in process? Be aware of these three forms of group dynamics. Are you ready to move on, step back, or wait a while longer? • What is waiting to be born that may be on the tips of people’s tongues but as yet unspoken?

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while we wait for the celebration that will burst forth when the world is set aright perhaps it would be good and wise to set a place at today’s table where those who will do the work can be fed and since we are those people perhaps right here around these sturdy tables and glowing campfires and sacred spaces and living rooms everywhere right now is a good time to engage in conversations that matter to speak of possibilities to give language to our hopes and with our words to begin to BE THE CHANGE we wish to see —Minx Boren

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Knowing that creation had taken place and the moment for a collective commitment to action was at hand, Craig requested a moment of silence for everyone to reflect on the offer and commitment that had just been made. He then asked the participants to speak to how they felt at the moment. Not necessarily about what she had said, but how they were feeling at that moment about the process. The energy in the room was electric with possibility. One by one, as each spoke in turn around the circle, the participants said how good it felt to be asked about what they thought and then to be heard! Quite spontaneously, each then spoke of his or her commitment to help make the new principles and strategies a reality.

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Instead of thinking of another thing to add to our (and others’) already-packed to-do lists, we might ask the group to consider these questions as a form of commitment: • What is my stake in the ground for the next 30 days? • What is something that stretches me, creating new learnings and growth? • What is something that creates value for myself and/or my group?

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The Commitment Statement is a powerful tool for bringing focus and closure to any group meeting, regardless of the content or meeting methodology employed. Simply invite each person to speak briefly about a specific commitment he or she is willing to make. We normally use the Stringing the Beads practice of allowing each person to speak in turn without interruption. In this case, the art is in the formation of the right question for that group. Here are a few sample questions that may get at a few popular issues: • “Based on what we know is needed to execute/complete this project/strategy, what is a commitment you are willing to actualize toward its success in the next __ days?” (Unless something needs to be completed immediately, 30 days is often a useful time frame that allows for an idea or strategy to develop and be implemented.) • “What is a commitment you are willing to make in the next 30 days to enhance the esprit de corps of your team at least twofold?”

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The Commitment Card process has become a popular feature at each Thought Leader Gathering. Prior to closing the final Stringing of the Beads, we pass out blank Commitment Cards and envelopes. The intention is to build cognitive commitment and to reinforce the muscle of commitment by having participants write a commitment to themselves. The question often is, “What is a commitment, in my life and/or work, that I’m willing to actualize in the next 30 days”

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The Guest House This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture. Still treat each guest honourably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond. —Jalal al-Din Rumi

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Wisdom Circles are an effective and efficient way for any small-group breakout session to get to the heart of the matter in any gathering. Getting Started • Pull chairs into a circle with no table in the middle. • Use a talking piece to pass if you wish. • Begin by Stringing the Beads. Each person takes one to two minutes to address a pre-determined question or theme. • Each person speaks in turn moving clockwise around the circle. • Do a second round; or, open the circle for insights and reflections. Wisdom Circle Etiquette (things to keep in mind) • It’s helpful to listen and ask questions versus giving advice or “the answer.” • Notice the difference between advice (talking at) and wisdom (being spoken through). • Speak only if you wish; you may pass at any time. • Listen deeply for the wisdom that is emerging. • Allow a pause between each person speaking.

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