Sunday, November 22, 2009


Recently, instead of asking a large group to help develop a theme for our division’s first annual report publication, we asked participants to tell a story. Actually, we asked for a fable, complete with moral. What we got was amazing – creativity, heart-felt stories, even a few fears and worries showed up. What didn’t show up were technical definitions or laundry lists of tasks, duties and activities. Staff members used a variety of ways to tell the story; there were different levels of detail, but it was very easy to understand what people cared about.

Reading the blog of the Center for Courage and Renewal, my attention was caught by Parker Palmer’s response to a commenter. Palmer wrote that people who start on the opposite sides of difficult issues like abortion can find common ground. They do so not by explaining all the rational reasons for their position, no technical reasons, nor laundry lists of higher authority. They find common ground by telling the story of the experiences that led them to their position.

But how do we create places for people to be able to tell their stories and for people to be able to hear others’ stories? In my comment to the Courage and Renewal blog, I wrote that I thought one problem with our public discourse these days is that the town hall meeting model is based on a traditional form of leadership and power – a few leaders, everyone else follows. Perhaps early on the town hall meeting was a form of community leadership, but now that are communities are so much larger and diverse, it seems very different. Now, a group of ‘officials’ are seated up front, usually on a raised platform and their role is either to talk to or listen to everyone else. In recent years this model has become more talking or even yelling at rather than talking to each other. The idea of talking with each other doesn’t seem to be in the equation at all.

There are many models of inclusive conversation to be found these days and most, if not all, involve being seated in a circle. The way you know you have managed to create a circle is that every person there can see the face of every other person. Immediately you have a different relationship among participants than when everyone is seated in the lecture format. (Even the name of the chair set up sets the tone, doesn’t it?)

I wonder what would happen in a town hall meeting if the leaders came down off the platform and sat in a circle with participants. It’s not easy for the person who has the role and responsibility of leadership to step out from behind the desk or to come down off the dais, but it’s important. It’s not easy to listen to the story of someone’s pain as they tell you what went wrong in their interaction with your office or organization or with you, but it’s an essential part of being an effective leader. I wonder what kind of conversations we would have if we asked people to tell their stories instead of just asserting or defending their positions. I wonder what might happen in a staff meeting about a difficult subject if we asked people to tell their stories. I know we would have different conversations and sometimes that in and of itself can be enough.

Where in your world might it help to tell or listen to a story?

All the best,


Circle Resources
Center for Courage and Renewal
Peer Spirit
The World Cafe

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