Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Hosting a community conversation

Change is hard for most of us. My community is particularly challenged by change. In fact, in one recent issue of our local newspaper three stories ran that amplified the voice of a few loud citizens who opposed three separate new proposals in our community. In our communities and even our country conversations with those who think, act, look or believe differently than we do are extremely difficult or nonexistent. We seem to have lost the skill to hold both mutual respect and differing beliefs in the same place. Some would say that social media pushes these divisions even wider apart by providing a space where we talk to only like-minded folks. Yet, civil discourse is an essential component of our democracy.

About ten years ago the Athens County Foundation began to host conversations in the community to better inform our investments and to be a catalyst for new projects and partnerships. We are a community foundation serving Athens County for the past 37 years and providing over 2 million dollars in grant support to local nonprofits and governments. The board of the Athens County Foundation began looking at the problem of Civil Dialogue and what other communities are doing to encourage it. Over the years we have trained a core team of facilitators in “the art of hosting” practice which is a process to support conversations that matter. We now have 15 trained practitioners working throughout the County.

The Art of Hosting is a group of practices and techniques that allow people to self-organize and harness collective wisdom, ranging from World Caf├ęs to Open Space Technology. In just a few years, Art of Hosting has evolved from a handful of meeting facilitators to thousands of practitioners who are helping corporate and civic leaders worldwide set the stage for honest and meaningful conversation.

This past fall, The Athens Foundation was asked to facilitate a difficult conversation in our community. The Athens City School Board was facing a challenging dilemma. They manage a collection of old and not so old buildings built for about 1000 more students than currently are enrolled. Additionally, the State of Ohio has continued to drastically cut back on school funding. Predictions are that funding will only get worse. Faced with less students, less money and too much space, much of it needing serious work, the school board decided to ask a 16 member, steering committee, representing all the school PTO’s, the teachers union, local citizens, teachers and parents to spend some time contemplating the problem and coming up with some recommendations.

Three art of hosting practitioners were engaged to host 6 months’ worth of conversations with the Athens City Schools Facilities Steering Committee (SFC) and to help them draft a recommendation for the school board about how to plan for their future building needs.

We were asked because these practices can radically shift the quality of any conversation toward a more civil and democratic process, whether with one person, or in a small circle or with hundreds of people. Here are some of the agreements that we use to promote deeper, richer and more respectful group work:

  • Focus on what matters. We have no time to lose for what doesn't.
  • Suspend judgments, assumptions, and certainties. No one knows it all and it is not about             knowing who is right or wrong. It is about exploring together and discovering what we do not know or see yet. In the case of the school committee, we asked them what they needed to know and provided all the background, data and research they asked for.
  • Speak on at a time, with clear intention. This is a hard rule to follow with a room full of   passionate people. But when everyone feels heard, people begin to listen on a deeper level.
  • Listen to each other carefully with your full attention. This means side conversations are discouraged.
  • Listen together for insights and deeper questions. Go beyond what you already know
  • Link and connect ideas. This where discovery and innovation happen.
  • Slow down. Slowing down helps to foster more reflection. It also allows for the space for ideas to emerge.
  • Be aware of your impact on the group. Do not monopolize the speaking time. Make sure everybody has an opportunity to contribute.
  • Focus on what is in the middle, rather than what is in your mind.
  •  Accept that divergent opinions are okay. We don’t usually need to reach a consensus.   Innovation comes from putting different perspectives together. In the school facilities       conversation, the committee decided to present divergent opinions.
  • Contribute with your minds and heart. Bring your full self into the room. Allow yourself to be both a professional and a human being. The SFC shared cookies, personal stories, tears and      laughter.
  •  Play, doodle, and draw. Use a large paper, markers, crayons, play dough event toys in your  group as a space to capture the results of your collective reflection.
  • Have fun! What if enjoying ourselves was the key to improving our learning and performance?

We are passionate about this work because we have seen what it does. In this time of uncivil discourse, Facebook diatribes and tweeted rants, it’s restorative to sit in a room with diverse people and perspectives and listen to understand. What emerges is often unexpected, delightful and absolutely right for now.

In my next piece I will write about how this process played out in the Athens City Schools Facilities Steering Committee.