Participatory Meetings with a Clear Purpose

Restlessness. When things tingle inside me asking to happen. Big restless moments can be a sign of change that can cause anxiety, sometimes anxiety based in a fantasy that what will change won’t go well. Curious that for me “going well” is not usually defined. Pure fantasy.

The same fantasy is present when I’m working with others to create and plan spaces of encounter. The person who calls it is usually restless and does not have a clear sense of purpose. On top of that it’s common that there are many wills to be included in one single space.

To ‘manage’ anxiety is a big part of the work. I believe weddings might work this way – whoever is helping to organize probably uses the energy like this: 70% [bride and groom’s anxiety]; 10% [suppliers’ anxiety]; 20% [logistics and preparations]


From Restlessness to Purpose

The first part of the work needs more care and usually more time than the others. To clarify purpose for ourselves and others we are working with is key because it generates the boundary conditions in which our creative journey will be based.

Many times we receive the call to help create something and realize the purpose is not clear, it’s ambiguous or, worse, there are multiple ones. Anxiety grows when we make this explicit – the feeling might be that we are back to start if we redefine why we are doing this.

To give in to that anxiety and assume it’s all ok is a major trap in which I had the chance to fall many times. Either at the beginning of during the conversation, identify this and hold to the trunk of a good purpose – it’s the basis of it all.

Conditions for Collective Creation

In order to give space for paths (ideas, principles, how tos) to be created collectively, it is essential that we define conditions that point to the direction we are aiming for. This definition and clarity of purpose allow us to float into many paths respecting what is emerging and yet go towards the direction we set for.

Initial clarity prevents interventions to give direction during the process, an action as result of an unclear purpose and that generates frustration: “what do you mean? you ask us to create, but I’m not allowed to go there?”

To make direction explicit is to create conditions so participants themselves are able to define which paths do or do not make sense.

The richness of participatory meetings includes this capacity to change course and adapt to what is emerging, allowing unknown paths to surface. The role of a host is to dance with those changes and eventually bring to consciousness the times when there is a possibility that direction might have changed.

Purpose in the Voice of Participants

After clarity arrives it will be time to receive participants for the journey. Here is again time to revisit how much the purpose is clear and understood.

When facing complex situations there are usually multiple stakeholders involved, each one carrying their own hopes and anxieties. It is more than natural that, even if you invite clearly and explore purpose with mastery, still many will arrive with a fantasized idea of what will happen.

Explain why we are all together at the beginning helps, but even better is to open a space where participants themselves can explore in their own voice the reason of being together – both individually and as a group. When purpose is articulated with the voice of the collective, it allows an alignment of horizons before the journey starts.

Checklist of a Clear Purpose

  • Transform restlessness into a single and clear purpose.
  • Attend to time so there is enough for the purpose defined.
  • When the time comes, just pay attention.
picture by jurvetson

Allow for Unlearning Structures

To host learning is to host an event, not people’s interactions. It is what makes it different from teaching, moderating or even most of facilitation work.

The reason is simple: the event aggregates purpose and time-space to create opportunity for interaction. Interaction itself (and learning) are natural and don’t need to be ‘facilitated’.

If you host dinner at your house, friends will come because they like each other’s company. That, and your famous aubergine lasagne, will be the purpose of you getting together. You probably don’t need to set an agenda and facilitate it through for the occasion. In my part of the world, people will expect sitting around the table and chatting as a norm in such events.

Hosting a learning space relates more to the metaphor of dinner at home than going to school, but there are two fundamental differences that make a difference:

  • Your event has a purpose defined by a theme or a question rather than hanging out with friends around good food. If the purpose is crafted and communicated as clear as good lasagne ;), right people will come and join. ‘Right people’ means the ones interested in having meaningful conversations about the theme you’re hosting.
  • As learning has been confined to school, the norm of interaction when you ‘expect to learn’ is that something will be given to you or that you’ll produce something based on someone else’s input. For that, we might want to create a structure that frustrates the norm and invites for the normal.

What are those structures? We can say purpose and time-space (context) are the backbone structure. If it wasn’t for the tendency to sit and receive, that might be enough. But sadly, in most cases, it isn’t. You will have to tell people they can participate, walk away, propose and other things that are normal but foreign to many because it hasn’t been practiced.

To be crystal clear: we are not calling such structures the methods we use in a certain situation. It is not, by any means, a prescription for collaboration by using a technique[1]. It’s not about telling people what to do, quite the opposite, it is inviting for space where people can naturally interact.

It makes sense that structure invites[2] certain behaviours. Stepping into a room of a traditional school and in a space with round tables will feel different, trigger different memories and open (or close) possibilities in people’s heads.

Given a purpose and context, what is the minimum unlearning structure we will need?

  1. So definitely not Kagan-style cooperative structures  ↩.
  2. This article implies causality, which I don’t think it’s appropriate. Otherwise, worth reading: Structure Causes Behavior  ↩.

Learning For Sale

by suttonhoo

The most valuable things don’t have a place to hang a price tag.

Learning is not only about…

Educational institutions work in a very simple way: a customer pays (or is paid by someone else) and gets the ‘education pack’ of choice. Quality is guaranteed (?) by tests, exams and thesis writing. Customer receives the product at the end, usually a certification that she has learned as a recognition she now has a capacity it wasn’t there before purchase.

Institutionalized learning like this is taking over the world. Learning in institutions seem to be the primary and usually only place where a person would look for learning experiences nowadays.

I had experiences for many years asking questions about meaningful learning moments that most people claim these moments happen outside institutions or, at least, outside institutional time. Think about it for a while – is it the case for you too?

Even if that might be the case for many of us, how much do we intentionally put an effort to create or simply be on those non-institutionalised learning spaces?

Learning is not only about schools and universities

How can I guarantee learning if there’s no strong institution or guru behind it?

Eventually even learning outside schools and universities received the same operational status of its institutionalised counterpart: customer buys package and receive ‘learning-pack’, handouts and certification. Spaces where this is different are, unfortunately, rare.

A good example of an intentional learning spaces are conferences. A conference is a space like the institutionalised learning style – keynote, folder and certificate. There have been some alternatives – one is, name explains, an un-conference.

Unconferences do not have pre-made or decided activities before you arrive. The space usually runs organised around principles of Open Space and everyone takes responsibility for what will happen. No keynote. No folder. No certificate.

How can I guarantee learning in such a place? — one can ask. I’d say: how can you guarantee learning in any place? Perhaps we can start by committing to be open for learning, which usually requires a simple act of paying attention.

Learning is not only about methods and principles

Intentional co-created learning spaces don’t need to follow methods and principles. They can be invitations to tend the garden, to dance in the park or to a conversation in your favourite pub. The importance is in co-creating with others around themes that overlap in meaning with people who are there.

For some of the learning moments that can intentionally happen in our lives, my experience is that the ones where I was co-responsible for creating it was the most profound ones. If you experience some of those spaces, you might find regular conferences quite hard to attend. Try.

The most interesting things you’ll learn aren’t for sale and, even if someone could teach you, it’d internalise only when you co-re-create what it all means with others.

Learning is all about you and the ones you co-create with.


Dialogue Trigger

Love comes when manipulation stops; when you think more about the other person than about his or her reactions to you. When you dare to reveal yourself fully. When you dare to be vulnerable.
Joyce Brothers

Nothing like finding a group where basic common ground emerges – interdependency is an open door for dialogue to happen. It moves us into recognizing the importance of the other and to allow space for a meeting of minds and hearts.

There are many different contexts and spaces where I saw dialogue emerging, many in unexpected ways and going to deeper and unknown directions. Trying to analyze which are the patterns that allow dialogue is tricky, pinpoint a list of “what to do” seems to be unproductive.

Undoubtedly some conditions help to make it happen: one could be to provide a space that is considered safe and where the environment is perceived as nurturing. Another, to invite people to speak from their experience rather than make general or theoretical statements. And so on – as conditions are helpful, nothing can guarantee openness to dialogue.

Yet it has been my experience that a great invitation to dialogue comes when someone in the circle opens up, show vulnerability. It’s not only a matter of relating a personal experience, it goes beyond, immediately lowering the weapons in the room, a sign of trust and a request for care.

Silence and possibility emerge from this moment. It is like sailing at the border of uncharted waters, reminding us why we wanted to become sailors in the first place – to be at this exact moment.

I have heard that the samurai would only lower his sword when entering a tea house. It was a sacred space, a time for peace and ceremony. Dialogue spaces are like tea houses – can be inviting us to lower our internal weapons and to be with others in ceremony.

To be vulnerable is to step into an unknown soil, one that is fertile for new discoveries. The journey to other lands can be done alone, but the only way we can truly see ourselves is through the eyes of others. To be vulnerable is to be vulnerable in relationship.

Showing our vulnerability in the presence of others is what makes common ground and openness to dialogical relationships, the coming together into inner sacred grounds.

There is no magic and no formula. It starts with the wise and vulnerable. It starts with me and you stepping in.

by katerha

On the Fundamental Changes

On the fundamental changes that can be done in our societal systems, the major influence will never be a contribution from inside the systems themselves. We’ve already explored how to identify cracks in the system so we can give energy to its spread.

Those cracks are the different ways we listen from inside the system and the new language that is created to run parallel with the current story being told.

The act of listening is a purposeful one.

The act of listening is a trigger to a remix of our conversations adapting to changes of what we perceive it’s happening outside of our window. To listen better, we need to step out of our daily firefighting and either invite the outsider in or go out to talk to them.

It is the conversations that we either choose to have or ignore that transform possibilities into stories, that shape a specific language to reduce the enormous complexity of human relations.

It is a gift to be able to simplify and move forward, but from time to time we have to sit with the complex to hear the story we have chosen, to incorporate the stories we decided to ignore, to invite back the possibilities we’ve once had and to see the emerging of new ones.

Re-spice your world.

Our way as humans to move forward with our interpretations, to grow in our understanding, is to have those moments of stillness to re-spice our world with possibilities.

Looking to my screen it’s exactly what I see – one of the possibilities of telling a story about the need for multiplicity of stories. That choice informs where my energy goes, whether it’s about a company re-considering its main story or a small act to invite people to talk about the country’s future on the streets.




On the latter, later today I will join a group of people to see how the manifestations in my country can be at service to the sharing of stories we all carry about our future. It is the practical side of re-writing the systems from society in conversation at a public place. Sounds exciting. 😉   It was exciting! 🙂

Check what came up reading my article on OpenDemocracy: Manifesting a Second-Order Revolution in Brazil


Dialogue Manifestations are now on!

Dialogue Manifestations are now on!

from wikipedia

Bearers of Worlds

I was recently reading an exploration of re-learning the importance of how we gather.

This feeling of re-learning the way we gather comes to me from time to time and it feels like the remembrance of my journey and how it has been changing.

In many contexts, how we gather has been translated into how we prepare space, how we invite, how we use and transform language  – but it is, after all, the natural dialogical us in encounter, the magic of multiple worlds investigating one another with curiosity. And my curiosity is renewed – the art of people coming together and how we can support this space.

In exploring social systems, how we gather came back as the only way human endeavours can scratch societal change. A key action for change is conversation, but neither the ones we’ve been having nor the ones where we plan to influence others and their worlds.

The conversation for societal change is the one where worlds meet and re-discover. For those, we don’t teach because people already know, we don’t institutionalise because people are the bearers of worlds, not organisations. We invite for what we’ve listened and we harvest what we’ve heard.


The Stories We Tell

Our Point of View Changes Everything

I can clearly recall a phrase that I’ve heard years ago in Porto Alegre, city of the World Social Forum. It was in Portuguese by Leonardo Boff and translates as something like:

A point of view is only a view from a point.

Different points of view are abundant in this world. Many of these points of view are shared in order to help us live together in community: they are raw material to what we call culture.

There are also times were a collective point of view ceases to be at service to our society and becomes the opposite, it becomes something that locks us into a narrow view of the world.

Reminds me of a great question that I’ve learned from Sandra Janoff e Marvin Weisbord (originally from Russell Ackoff Gregory Bateson) that helps me when looking at how we differentiate things:

Which are the differences that make a difference?

Differences that make a difference are the ones rich in diversity, differences that create unity by understanding and acknowledging what is different and allowing separation. Differences that don’t make a difference are only stereotypes. That also implies that when we “make a difference”, we are performing a contextual action.

I have seen that much of the work of a person who invites for learning is to pay attention to the context and ask this question of “which differences…” to himself.

Since my old friend Marge Schiller shared with me the video below, I’ve been using it when talking about conversational leadership and dialogic relations.

As learning hosts we can create and invite spaces where stereotypes, a result from us listening to the same old standard story, can be brought to perspective and new stories can be created. In the end, our collective is all about the stories we tell.

by jonycunha

Bummer, We Can’t Change Society After All

We can only reflect and act on communications that are already part of our system. It’s important to reflect on how dis-empowering that is. There is absolutely nothing I can do to change a system I’m already part of. Period.

As I’ve been exploring what this could mean in terms of creating and hosting spaces of learning and systems design, it might not be clear the possible alternatives into changing systems. So here we go.

There is No Changing Society

According to this view, it is indeed not possible for members of society to change society. Because of us being communicators born and made within society, no one has the privilege to oversee our whole societal system. This can’t be done neither practically nor theoretically, as both are, in this case, communications all the same.

It is the end of saving-the-world type of activism. Society will only change as we adapt to changes from the environment. Environment being everything we don’t talk about and therefore don’t see, don’t acknowledge in our daily conversations.

Contributions for Real Change

On the other hand, there is a lot for us to do in influencing the classical sub-systems of society. Sub-systems are systems within society such as the economy, schooling, healthcare, etc.

Society as System

Society and Some of Its Subsystems

But what exactly can we do if we are part of the sub-systems of society as well?

Not much from within the system itself: economists won’t do anything but react and refract what happens outside the economic system, translating the environmental change in economic language and adapting accordingly.

The same is true for other sub-systems, frequently represented by institutions like business organizations, hospitals, schools, governments, NGOs, international bodies, etc.

They all speak their own language and re-structure their conversations based on outside perturbations. If the environment does not change — or change is not perceived by the system — nothing happens.

Different Words Create Different Worlds

I believe that possibilities of change come from stepping out of the sub-system you find yourself into. This does not mean creating an alternative sub-system or institution like alternative schooling or alternative healthcare. It means to create a space that is clearly de-institutionalized.

In order to avoid the alternative institution, one hint is to invite conversations where people are not in the same sub-system of society. The remix and re-creation of systems come from a dialogue between different worlds, not necessarily too different, just different enough.

The remix of language that comes from this dialogue is the true spark of creativity that can change things. To see the new language in action we need to host spaces where different worlds can come together to learn/re-create.

by Fábio Pinheiro

Social Systems and System Complexity

In my last article there was an exploration about complexity and the use of language. Patterns, not the number of actual connections between elements, were indicating system complexity.

Patterns are Structures in Systems

Structures in this case does not mean pre-defined forms that “structure” systems but rather the pool of possibilities of action of a system that itself can recognize. A system has (or recognizes) only a limited amount of possibilities in order to reduce complexity in its operation.

In any system the identification of patterns are really useful to describe them objectively and systematically. This act of describing is slightly different in social systems because they are based on meaning. Describing in social systems is an act of giving meaning, an act of re-creation of the system itself.

This recursive description/re-creation shows that identification of patterns or structures in social systems are acts of re-creation of the system and not objective selections. It also shows that although social systems depend on structures to reduce complexity, they can’t be truthfully described in advance by those structures/patterns.

Recursiveness of Meaning Generation

In common with natural systems, social systems would also contain a selection of element relations to reduce complexity. Language, for example, has a structure of meaning making and without it we couldn’t coordinate understandings and actions.

The act of description of a social system is also the act of its re-creation.

It is the recursiveness of meaning generation in social systems that indicates a difference from natural systems. Here the communications that are elements of meaning in social systems are not restricted by patterns identified in advance, but patterns can be re-created as we communicate.

A very simple description of social matters can embed high complexity and still be presenting its full meaning (as opposed to a simplified explanation of a natural phenomena, for example). An easy process of deciding between two places to go on holidays can be easily described, but may not be a simple scientific task.

Social Systems and System Complexity

Social systems hold a paradox — it contains a structure in form of meaning patterns so complexity can be reduced and allow a more reasonable predicability in social interaction. On the other hand, the selection of structures makes the description and re-creation of meaning a more complex task.

The reduction of complexity of the system immediately generates higher system complexity. Communications and meaning, when restricted to identified patterns, allow us to visualize and predict, but it also increases complexity and unpredictability because it represents a chosen fraction of the whole system.

The paradox can be juggled with, of course. As we need both the predicability and the re-creation of meaning, there is space for both structured and poetic communications. It is our job to sense when those conversations are needed and to host spaces for them.

by michael.heiss

Language and System Complexity

Reading about language, dialogue and complex systems used to be paralell readings with some things in common. Today, language and complexity seem to clearly show their interdependency as we have been exploring social systems as meaning systems based on communications.

System Complexity and Language

This connection reminded me of Murray Gell-Mann’s definition of complexity and it’s connection to language. In his book The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex, Gell-Mann correlates complexity with the extension of our language description of its identity and relations.

Scenarios for Complexity

Scenarios to explore Complexity

The picture is an example inspired by the book. Uses dots and connections between them to explore the concept of complexity. Scenario A is a simple one to describe compared to Scenario B – let’s say: A shows dots 1 to 5, no connections between them. How would you describe Scenario B? Certainly identifying the connection between dots and describing it.

What is interesting on Gell-Mann’s approach is that Scenario C, which apparently would induce us to think it’s a complex one, actually could be described much like A: C show dots 1 to 5, all connected to all.

Scenario C then shows the same complexity as Scenario A. The first show randomness (all connected), the other absolute control (no connections).

The description of B, on the other hand, requires more words and would be therefore more complex.

This structure of dots and connections representing elements and its relations is a theory of system complexity, a theory that intuitively describes the complexity of the natural world: patterns between elements are responsible for complexity (certain organelles only connect to certain parts of the organism).

Patterns, not the quantity of relations, indicate complexity.

Would that be true for social systems as well?

If we consider humans as the elements constituting society and communications as relations between them, we would get by analogy that a more complex social system is the one that communications are restricted to identified patterns.

In the next article I’ll explore why this system complexity as a theory might not be suitable to represent social systems.

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