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Creating New Futures Through Community Conversation: An Interview with Peter Block | Memory of the Future Project
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Creating New Futures Through Community Conversation: An Interview with Peter Block


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by Vicky Schubert and Rachel Baker

from Leverage Points Issue 99 (Copyright Pegasus Communications)

http://www.designedlearning.com/Articles/creatingnewfutures.htm

 

With several bestsellers under his belt, Peter Block has long been appreciated for his innovative organizational consulting work. In his latest book, Community: The Structure of Belonging (Berrett-Koehler, 2008), Peter turns his attention to the reconciliation of fragmented communities through the powerful tools of civic engagement. He recently spoke with Leverage Points about his ongoing work in the public sphere.

It was possibilities, not problems that drew Peter Block to shift his focus from organizations to community and civic life. “What distinguishes the community work,” he observes, “is that the people are really committed to something they care about.” In 1990, shortly after Corazon Aquino was elected president of the Philippines and as the country struggled to restore democracy after years of martial law, Peter was called in to do a workshop with a group in the government and he discovered how committed people show up at workshops. In his corporate work in the United States, when he would break people into small groups, they’d say, “How long do we have? Can you please explain the assignment? What’s for lunch?” “There’s nothing wrong with that,” Block says. “I’ve lived in it; I am part of it. But these folks in the Philippines were hungry to produce something important in their lives and in the lives of others. No sooner had they broken into small groups than they were off doing the work. They cared about learning. That awakened something in me.”

A few years later, Peter was invited to speak at a conference on transforming local government. As he met and worked with this group of city managers, he developed a respect for them and their work. The technical aspects of their jobs were difficult enough—holding cities together and keeping them on track operationally. But these managers also cared deeply about civic engagement and building community.

As a result of these interactions, for the last five years, Peter has given his time and energy to the question of how to build social capital. In his new book, Community: The Structure of Belonging, he suggests that our major challenge is to focus on what we can create, rather than what problems we can solve. He has stopped talking about what’s wrong and how to fix it. Instead, he observes, “No future is created by simply solving problems. You have to tap into people’s longing, imagination, and possibility, to organize around something larger.”

An Invitation That Promises Something Different

From Block’s perspective, most of the conversations that we’re used to having in a corporate context center on the practical, definable, predictable aspects of life—all of which are important, but tend to emphasize short-term results. “Nothing new gets created by better problem solving or by focusing on low-hanging fruit,” he says. “No matter how sophisticated we are as a learning organization, if our conversations are limited to measurable outcomes, we are simply getting better at a system, not creating a new future.”

In order to create the possibility of a future different than the past, Peter contends you need to broaden the conversation and get people into the room who aren’t used to showing up. That means you have to craft an invitation that promises something different. And when people do come together for a conversation, Rule #1 is: Do not sit with someone you know.  He explains, “If you want a future that’s distinct from the past, you have to be with people who you aren’t used to being with and have conversations that you’re not used to having.”

An invitation that makes space for something new to emerge needs to be specific and contain some hurdles. For example, Block wanted to engage a diverse group of people who cared about one of the more disinvested neighborhoods in his home town of Cincinnati. He invited a varied group of activists that included, among others, a preacher who champions social equity and people on the margin, young professionals interested in restoring vibrancy to the area, a social activist and a businessman who heads the chamber of commerce. The invitation said, “Please come for a conversation to get connected and build our relationships. In Phase One, there will be no measurable outcomes. We are not coming to solve a problem.”

Block then added a second hurdle: “I want you to leave your interests at the door. Because we’re not solving a problem, you don’t have to represent your constituency; you just have to show up and make contact.” And as a third hurdle, he said, “This isn’t a seminar, it’s not a lecture, there’s no matrix on the wall, and no flip charts are allowed. We are simply coming to see whether anything useful grows out of our connection. Expect high interaction with the other people in the room.” The response was terrific, and resulted in four stimulating and generative two-hour conversations.

Questions Are More Important Than Answers

In his work with communities, Peter builds conversations around questions of accountability to create a context of possibility, generosity, hospitality, and something new being created. He asserts that a great question has three qualities: It’s ambiguous, it’s personal, and it evokes anxiety. He often begins with a low-risk question, such as “What’s the commitment that you hold, that brought you into this room?” Block explains, “That’s ambiguous, it’s personal, it creates a little nervousness—but it’s easy. You don’t pay a price for answering that question; in fact, it honors you.”

Once people have connected and learn they can trust each other, they tend to be eager for higher-risk questions. At the top end of the risk scale is a question like, “What are you unwilling to forgive?” he points out, “That’s a rough one. You wouldn’t do that one in session one or two.”

Block tries to create a facilitation-free experience in order to strengthen the group’s ownership of the process. Breaking people into groups of three, he admonishes them before each question, “Don’t be helpful to each other, don’t decide anything, and don’t give advice.” He makes sure that they sit close to each other physically, and that they’re not helping each other. Then, he floats around the room and becomes a kind of censor against advice. Peter will walk over to an individual and say, “Are you trying to be helpful to that person?” When they say, “Yes, I am,” he says, “I know you are. I appreciate that. Now you’re not following my instructions, and I’m in charge here. Stop being helpful and just get interested.” The trick, in Peter’s view, is to get people to substitute curiosity—which is the ultimate form of care—for advice.

Going Where the Conversation Takes You Together

Block’s long-term goal is to engender a conversation around the question, “What is the nature of communal or system transformation?” In his view, the world is currently organized around individuals—individual training and individual transformation. But there’s a larger, interactive, interdependent way of looking at things that needs to be nurtured. To help do so, Block offers five conversations for creating shared understanding: Possibility, Ownership, Dissent, Commitment, and Gifts. These conversations can take place in any sequence, because each feeds all the others.

In his book, Block presents stories of citizens who, with no funding and no formal authority, have taken this approach to creating something new in the world. What they all share is enormous patience. He notes, “Not one of them asks the question, ‘How do we take this to scale?’ Nothing kills possibility more than an early attention to scale. Scale will draw us; we don’t have to produce it. As soon as we produce scale, we depersonalize the process to the point of losing its depth.”

It is in personalizing that the richest outcomes lie. When Joan and Michael Hoxsey were hired to train inner-city youth in Cincinnati, they figured that one way to get the youths to show up was to tell them, “If you don’t come to this workshop, you can’t play basketball.” After the first session, they realized this was not an invitation likely to create eager participants. The young people were glazed over, not listening, waiting for their time on the court. So, they decided to find out who these people really were. They spent six months—two times a week, two hours a night—just listening. They also brought cake.

After six months, everything had changed. The young adults had never experienced professional, white, middle-class people being interested in who they were. Together with these young people, Joan and Michael had created a context and a quality of conversation that allowed the youth to accept them and open up. As facilitators, they weren’t pushing a particular future; they let go of any concerns about scale or speed. And something surprising emerged from these conversations. Taking their lead from Joe, who had an interest in screenwriting, they made a movie together about the choices facing young people in urban neighborhoods. It was a different outcome from the original intent of the engagement. But it changed the lives of 15 people, those being “trained” and those “doing the training.”

“It’s a beautiful example of how all the conventional wisdom about where cause resides is lopsided,” Peter observes. “To create something new, we have to invert our thinking. Followers create leaders. Students create teachers. It doesn’t even matter if that’s true or not. It’s an incredibly useful exercise, because it changes where you pay attention. And sometimes, where I pay attention is about the only thing in my life that I can control.”