It is not news that we are living in a time of polarity, where individuals and communities are drawing lines in the sand and demonizing the other “side”. But what if it were possible to ask different questions, that sought to understand, create a dialogue and spark a powerful vision for what community could be?
Powerful questions lead to powerful conversations that are not only meaningful but are transformational because people feel seen, heard, and acknowledged and this can lead to a shift in assumptions and create new connections that might not have existed before a meaningful conversation.
Paul Born in his book Community Conversations suggests that “Conversation is not just what is said; it is also what happens between people. Conversation is not always about an event or time; it is part of a much larger process of change. It leads to more conversation and is part of a journey to understand. Community conversations area a deliberate form of listening to the people in a community in an effort to learn to agree, to become committed and engaged and to create a place in which discovering the obvious is possible.”
When I read this it, it reminded me of the importance of taking time to listen and to get curious….to find out about the story behind the story….in short to get to know the person in front of me through a meaningful conversation. My friend Noa Baum an international storyteller has said that you don’t have to accept someone else’s beliefs and values if you listen to their story, it is their story.
Just listening to other people’s stories does not have to threaten me and in the process I can learn about myself and come to understand what matters most to them. Stories make you listen and most importantly, they open up an exchange; a dialogue and this leads to finding areas of agreement or ways to discover how to accommodate each other’s differences.
Another friend, Gerry Lantz, President of StoriesthatWork, has said as a species, we are hard wired for story and connection. He says all we have to do is look at our language and see how story is a fundamental part of our world. Phrases like; “You won’t believe that story”, “You want to hear the real story behind that?”; “Have I got a story for you”; “What’s his story” are all part of our culture and cultures throughout the world.
Stories connect us and help to create community whether a geographically defined community such as a village, town or city; an assisted living community, a church community, or online communities. They all share the same attributes of belonging, connections and the sense of being part of something larger than yourself.
This intense listening and seeking to understand is the underpinning for civic engagement where people from all backgrounds have a voice in decisions and actions that affect their lives. In the recent report by the Knight Foundation and Gallup entitled Soul of the Community it was demonstrated that when people feel greater attachment in the communities in which they live, the communities are more successful. In short, civic engagement is a key to achieving greater community attachment and an enhanced quality of life.
Civic engagement requires more than elected officials or organizational leaders making presentations to the public and answering questions in town hall meetings. Civic engagement means gathering multi-sector stakeholders, providing baseline data, asking questions that are not already answered, identifying community assets, inviting diverse stories and input, identifying emerging themes and providing ways to enable positive action to take root.
As Peter Block, author of “Civic Engagement and the Restoration of Community” has said “We will create a future distinct from the past when we engage in restorative conversations based on accountability and commitment. Being accountable means acting as an owner and part creator of whatever you wish to improve; to care for the well being of the whole and to act as if this well being is in our hands and hearts to create. Being committed means we are willing to make a promise with no expectation of return; a promise void of barter and not conditional on another’s action…it is a choice made in the absence of reciprocity and this is the essence of power.”
It appears that this area will become an even stronger player in the global economy and it is increasingly clear that we are part of an interconnected world. Now more than ever, broad based civic engagement is called for to enable citizens to imagine and co-create a thriving community for the good of the whole.