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Bridging the Gaps, Where do we start?

July 18, 2016 by Jonathan Gilburg

I am incredibly saddened about recent events in Dallas, Nice, France, Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, Orlando and too many other places to mention.  As I hear people talk about these events, it is clear that there are many wide, seemingly un-bridgeable gaps in perspectives, understanding, current realities, and sense of empowerment/entitlement in our dominant systems.  Perhaps the greatest gap I’ve witnessed is our individual and collective capacities to even have a conversation with one another about these gaps.  The rhetoric quickly devolves into firm stances and beliefs about the root of the problems and the solutions needed—further widening the gaps and defining the various “camps.”  And we are left facing the same systemic problems, relatively untouched, perhaps even further exacerbated by much of the collective responses.  It is heart breaking to watch people whose hearts have been irrevocably broken witness the damaging after–effects of an already tragic situation.

And I know this is not the whole story.  I know there are people reaching across various divides in an effort to understand, to make collective meaning with each other, to find and enlist deep wells of compassion and empathy in service to making a better future.  I know people are starting to challenge and question their own well-funded, well-oiled beliefs about the basic structures and systems we experience every day.  I know that mind sets are shifting, slowly but surely.  I want to share a few small stories from a person who has, in his own way, started to create genuine conversations in situations that may have been somewhat intractable or too complex to bridge.

To preface, the context of these stories does not revolve around the kinds of tragic situations named above.  The context is a person named Steve Kimball, who works for The US Forest Service, and who attended a training run by GLI called the Leader as Convener Workshop (LCW). In this workshop participants are exposed to various techniques, processes, and ways of thinking that can help groups of people create shared understanding and meaning of complex information and generate cohesive action or next steps informed by the collective intelligence of the group.  Steve experienced this training and went back to his day job and began to implement what he learned.  The following stories come directly from him with limited editing on my part to ensure clear context for all of our readers:

  1. Resolving Conflict with a Partner.  The Forest has a well-established partnership with a tribe to improve watershed conditions. The relationship has declined in recent years, mainly to differing perspectives of priorities. In 2015 there was talk of terminating the partnership.  Early in 2016 I convened a meeting of key staff and leaders of both groups. With a small conversation circle we shared perspectives of the situation and developed actions for improving our work together. Nearly all expressed that they were quite skeptical going into this. The conversation grew deeper as the session went on. Participants became more aware of what had transpired in the past and what needed to happen to move ahead. The relationship has been shored-up greatly now. I’ve received many comments about how this was unusual but highly effective.
  2. Developing a Restoration Strategy:  The Forest wanted to develop a long-term strategy for landscape restoration. To kick this off I led the Forest Leadership Team and key staff through a World Café session with small conversations.  In a little over an hour of table conversations the foundation for a restoration strategy was developed. I intended this mainly as a model of how to use the World Cafe process but I was amazed at the quality of the content that was developed.
  3. Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.  After the successful conversations on restoration, the Forest Leadership Team scheduled a series of small circle conversations for employees to assess results of the recent Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. A half dozen conversations were hosted throughout the Forest. This resulted in thoughtful insights and ideas on how to improve the Forest’s work and workplace. The Forest Leadership Team and Partnership Council are following up on these conversations with an action plan for improvement.
  4. Addressing Workload. The Forest Leadership Team conducted two circle conversation sessions to assess concerns about workload and special projects added to the program of work. This provided an opportunity to step back and assess the effect of cumulative priorities and tasks. The genuine conversation led the team towards better alignment on mission goals and to better understand employee concerns about cumulative workload.  More conversations on this are scheduled.

In conclusion, Steve offered the following insights:

These are some applications of the LCW session tools that our Forest put to use soon after I attended the session. We found there is power in engaging employees in genuine conversation where hierarchy is removed and the focus is seeking to understand, while building on the thoughts and ideas of each other. Our experience has validated that it can be more effective to convene face to face conversations rather than rely on email exchange and traditional meetings.  I encourage others to try applying the convening methods offered in this course to issues at home.

I am incredibly grateful that Steve shared his stories with us.  I think there is way more of this happening than we hear about through traditional means and media.  And though Steve’s context for applying these tools might be less intense, intractable and divided than the situations I reference in my opening, I believe there is room for extrapolating lessons:

  • Genuine, durable solutions will not come from one perspective, ideology, or empowered hierarchy: we need to understand and wrap our heads around the complexity of what we face.  Our personal ideologies and mindsets are, by their nature limiting, and self-reinforcing.  We need to hear and understand others in order to change and expand our own thinking.
  • Those who are empowered, by virtue of their position, status, privilege, authority must make the first move to change the conversation and invite genuine participation from all those affected by systemic failures.  That is the leadership that is being called for now.  The easy move is to hide behind a position, proclaim blame and/or solutions and expect things to improve.
  • We might be surprised at what we learn when we start to really talk and try to understand each other.  As many of Steve’s stories exemplified, there was a pleasant and unforeseen surprise at the value of the conversations, the validity of the output and the sense of momentum and progress as a result of genuine engagement.  I have heard and sensed from so many the frustration and demoralization that goes along with watching systemic failures and feeling powerless to affect positive change.  Or witnessing the inefficacy of traditional approaches being implemented (think about the kinds of meetings you attend).  

As Steve encourages in his close, we need to try something different.  This is how we will bridge the gaps that plague and affect all of us in subtle and dramatic ways.  This may require some courage and humility on our part.  But we might be pleasantly surprised by the results when we do try something new.  Thanks again for sharing, Steve!