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Three Convening Stories

May 15, 2015 by Deborah Gilburg

Its been a personal goal of mine to start collecting stories from our clients, program participants and friends about how they are convening others to have the kinds conversations that matter, be it about shared interests, passions, work challenges or community concerns.

I have three stories to share today, two told to me by the conveners themselves, and one that was relayed to me by some of the participants. In all three cases there were no professional facilitators involved, just committed conveners who care about their topics and the practices of convening, and were willing to take a risk by using a convening methodology and inviting others to participate. 

Story #1: Diversity & Inclusion World Café Conversations

Amber, Kristin and Michelle all work in the Washington Office for the US Forest Service. They attended a Leader-as-Convener training in October, and on their drive home cooked up a plan to put what they had learned into practice. Diversity and inclusion were topics that interest all three women, so they decided they would host a World Café style conversation in their workplace designed to empower their colleagues to speak openly about their perspectives relating to diversity and inclusion.

“As an agency, the Forest Service has professed that these issues are a high priority,” remarked Amber, “but I have been feeling frustrated by the typical meeting methods. Hosting a World Café conversation seemed like a new and exciting approach.”

Wanting to avoid the complications of a high-profile event, they quietly invited a diverse group of 20 trusted friends and co-workers to the first conversation event. “We knew they would be on the younger end of the spectrum, like us, but felt that starting with our peers would be a good way to practice,” explained Kristin. “It provided a safe environment to test our methods, to see if this was a worthwhile endeavor or not.”

The event design included the following conversation rounds:

  1. What’s my name and how am I unique?
  2. What does Diversity & Inclusion mean to me/our agency?
  3. What did I learn from the shared meanings, and what challenges emerged?
  4. Given the challenges, what opportunities exist?  
  5. What does ‘success’ look like? What bold steps might we take?

They captured outputs from the conversations on flip charts and at the end, asked for volunteers to help them host the next event following a train-the-trainer philosophy.

Participants loved the experience, and several volunteered to host the next conversation. “I was concerned that people were tired of talking about this topic because previous conversations had not been very effective,” confessed Michelle. “What we found was that the participants felt empowered and engaged, and appreciated the opportunity to share their experiences and ideas in this style.”

At the time I spoke with Kristin, Amber and Michelle, three World Café Conversations had been held, each more successful than the last, and with plans to host more. Given their success, they were authorized to open up the events to anyone in the Washington Office who wanted to participate, and had a greater variety of attendees, from younger staff to longer term, higher-level managers. Their practice of asking for volunteers to host the next conversation has resulted in an ad hoc team of “conveners” who have started meeting to talk about what’s next.

When asked about the outcomes they most appreciated, each had their own perspective to share:

Amber: “There is a taboo around this topic; however, by igniting the conversation within a safe space, we are getting some good ideas.  We understand that organizational change takes time. Conversations that allow us to listen to and learn from one another’s perspectives about this complex topic are an important first step.”

Kristin: “This work is so important in terms of employee empowerment. When you empower your employees to lead from where they are it has a revolutionary effect on the workplace environment. It has been humbling to witness this process grow over the past few months, it truly works!”

Michelle: “I’m glad to see the enthusiastic reception we’ve received on this from our colleagues as well as agency leadership. These authentic and honest internal conversations have opened the doors to more meaningful collective dialogues and have inspired individual action around diversity and inclusion in our workplace.”

I believe there is more to come from these conveners, so stay tuned!

Story #2: Lincoln National Forest Fire Crew “Round Robin”

Jason, a Cave Specialist from the Lincoln National Forest, had just returned from a Regional Leader-as-Convener training program, targeted at forests undergoing forest plan revision, a long and arduous process requiring high levels of collaboration, both internally among forest staff, and externally with stakeholders.

At a meeting that included people from all levels of the Lincoln Forest’s fire organization, a last minute presenter cancelation offer a unique opportunity for Jason to share a convening methodology he had just experienced with the group.

The group considered the question: What safety, personal or work issue is a concern or impediment that needs to be discussed? 

Each person first identified two topics on yellow paper. These were then consolidated and voted on to determine the top 3 topics for discussion. In pairs, participants went through 3 rounds of exploration, moving to new topic areas for each round and working off the notes from the prior round:

  1. Why is this topic important? What do we need to know about this?
  2. What’s missing from this list? What are the themes here?
  3. What are some possible next steps?

At the end of round three, each group came up with a next step for each topic. Each pair presented the topic they worked on to the group and together refined the next steps into 3 action items as a team.

Jason shared that the discussion was creative, innovative and thought provoking, and feedback from the group was good. They even discussed the possibility of using parts of the process during after action reviews. All this in a one-hour meeting!

Story #3: Joshua Eaton Elementary School Teacher/Parent World Café

This story is near and dear to my heart, as this is the elementary school my children attended, in my community of Reading, MA. Over the years, our community has experienced World Café community conversations on a least two other occasions, the last of which involved the difficult subject of teen substance abuse (see Town of Reading Community Conversations: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3).

In this case, I had no notice of this event – my children are no longer in elementary school, and while I was aware of some serious tensions that had developed as a result of state aptitude testing results, I was not privy to the internal conversations occurring. As I understand it, many groups were feeling this tension, from concerned teachers and administrators, to angry and confused parents. In an effort to ease some of the escalating tension, a group of parents came together with the support of the administration to host a World Café conversation, inviting Joshua Eaton parents and teachers to participate.

I spoke to a few neighbors who participated, and while they had moderate attendance, the teachers and parents who came found it a valuable experience. Honest conversation about a difficult and complex issue gave attendees an opportunity to listen to one another’s perspective, and acknowledge that everyone cared deeply about the students and wanted to do what they could to remedy the situation – in short, they were all in this together and what mattered most was the environment their children were experiencing. I don’t think they strove to capture output, rather to allow conversation and connection to heal relationships and refocus the school community on what is most important going forward.

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For me, all three stories are indicators of the harder to describe, yet deeply systemic value of convening conversations that matter. They have the power to shift how we engage around difficult, complex topics; they help us discover our collective capacity to identify and tackle important work; and they enable us to manage tension and conflict in a respectful, inclusive manner.  In the case of my community of Reading, this practice seems to have taken on a life of its own, and is becoming a part of our civic culture.

What convening stories do you have to share? We’d love to hear them…