enough just to know


some cultures, I am told
made sense of things, and made decisions in two ways
fundamentally different from ours:

firstly, when the stories had all been told,
the choices surfaced,
these cultures trusted each individual
to ‘know’ what they must do.
no ‘who will do what by when’ directives needed.

and secondly, before deciding,
they’d ‘sleep on it’ for a night
to allow their unconscious knowledge
(what their senses told them, and what they ‘knew’ instinctively)
to be integrated with what, consciously,
they intellectually knew and emotionally felt:
Jung’s four ways of knowing became one.

sometimes, without being able to say why or know how,
we just know.

when I flirt with the young lady on the Métro,
we appreciate each other — how we look and how we play together,
and we delight in the attention we offer each other,
but we know, without words, that this is just fun,
without motive, or intention, or future.
we just know.

and sometimes when something has happened
or even before it has happened,
before we know to think about it,
or start to feel (good or bad) about it,
we somehow know what’s going to happen next,
and what to do:
whether to act, and how,
or to do nothing, to just let it go; somehow
we just know.

turtles monica michael sweet

and now, with time to breathe,
time to just let my senses and my instincts guide me,
show me their hidden wisdom
I can feel the world
collapsing, convulsing, in the little death
of the sixth great extinction
and I know, even as I want to try to help
that nothing can be done,
that it’s already begun, that it began millennia ago
and I’ve only just noticed it.
I can’t put it into words, or even into feelings,
it’s larger than that, this aeon’s unimaginable ending.

the wild creatures
unhampered by human illusions and human hubris
have felt it, this undoing, since it began
with the death of the great mammals, and the ages of ice and fire.
they felt it, something more than sorrow, long ago, somehow
they just knew.

and so they tell me
and anyone else with the time and fortune to listen:
they tell us clueless, suffering humans what they know.

these ancient trees and tiny new-fledged birds,
these rocks, witnesses from before the start of life,
these turtles, coming ashore since before here was here,
they know.

they tell me and show me, until I know, too,
not with my too-clever mind or my weary heart
or even with my body, this strange complicity of a trillion cells,
but with something deeper, larger:
with this quiet voice of all-life-on-Earth.

they tell me, not so that I will do something,
or try, impossibly, to tell others.
they tell me
just so that I will know.

somehow it’s enough
just to know.

photos: top: andy bruckner, NOAA, public domain; bottom: monica & michael sweet photography, print owned by the author

Posted in Creative Works | 2 Comments

Falling Off the Edge

hugh macleod dinosaur
drawing by hugh macleod at gapingvoid

How do you deal with a level of cognitive dissonance so profound that it casts a veil over all your interactions with other people, and makes these interactions seem somehow unreal?

What do you do when you dare not speak honestly about the things you know, the things you believe and care about, for fear the people you’re speaking with will just tune out or turn away? For fear they’ll put some distance between you and them, because they don’t want to talk about it, or even think about it. Because they’re not ready. Or because they just don’t care — or more accurately perhaps they just can’t care.

That may sound arrogant, but it’s not meant to. I don’t claim to have any answers, or a monopoly on understanding how the world really works or what, if anything, we should do about it. I’ve just had the luxury of time, access to resources and a sense of curiosity to find out what most people haven’t been able or willing to explore. It would be nice to talk with people about it. But I can’t.

John Gray, in Straw Dogs, writes:

The mass of mankind is ruled not by its own intermittent moral sensations, still less by self-interest, but by the needs of the moment. It seems fated to wreck the balance of life on Earth — and thereby to be the agent of its own destruction. What could be more hopeless than placing the Earth in the charge of this exceptionally destructive species? It is not of becoming the planet’s wise stewards that Earth-lovers dream, but of a time when humans have ceased to matter.

Science has been used to support the conceit that humans are unlike all other animals in their ability to understand the world. In fact, its supreme value may be in showing that the world humans are programmed to perceive is a chimera.

Humans use what they know to meet their most urgent needs — even if the result is ruin. When times are desperate they act to protect their offspring, to revenge themselves on enemies, or simply to give vent to their feelings. These are not flaws that can be remedied. Science cannot be used to reshape humankind in a more rational mould.

I appreciate that we’re all doing our best. We’re all busy looking after “the needs of the moment” — urgent family matters, work priorities, chores that cannot be put off, trying to cope with our internal demons and the traumas that our culture has inflicted on all of us. As I describe it in Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour, things considered urgent will always get done before things that are merely important, and merely important things will never get done because once the urgent work is done, we are too exhausted to do more than what is easy and fun. I get that. That was my reality for decades, and I’m not ashamed of what I did, and didn’t do, during that time.

It’s not so much that people are unwilling to acknowledge “inconvenient truths” as much as that people are so caught up in the moment-to-moment crises occurring in their immediate circles, and within themselves, that they simply can’t. They are overwhelmed already, and if they had the intellectual and emotional bandwidth to entertain something more, a discussion of the existential crisis facing our planet (one that we can likely take no action to ameliorate) would not be their first choice. Nor would a discussion of what it means to be human.

When I do find people interested in talking about the matters I usually dare not talk about — civilization’s already-beginning collapse and the accelerating and inevitable sixth great extinction of life on Earth, or the non-existence of self and time — these are generally people who gain needed reassurance about their personal worldviews by debating with others; their objective is to satisfy themselves that you are wrong. They are not interested in listening, or exploring possibilities. And, generally, I am not interested in debating. I just want to share truths as I understand them, not as an evangelist but because it’s through informed and open-minded conversation that we come to really learn and understand, and make sense of things.

Dave's Networks 2015
(Worldview codes are from The New Political Map.)

So I talk, with most of those in my circles — the 200-or-so people whose company I keep, face-to-face or virtually, because I enjoy that company (now that I’m retired I rarely have to converse with people whose company I don’t enjoy) — about things that matter to them, about things they are ready and interested in conversing about. I just shut up about the things that are, these days, most important to me. It’s just more trouble than it’s worth.

The metaphor of trying to sell a meteor to a dinosaur, shown in the cartoon at the top of this post, is precisely apt.

And hence the cognitive dissonances. Hence the veil of unreality that pervades my connections with people.

We are social creatures, we humans. We do most of our ‘making sense of the world’ through collaboration and conversation with people we trust and love, with people who share our worldviews. What happens to you when you can no longer have such collaborations and conversations, because your worldview has diverged too far from almost everyone else’s?

In my experience, you give up and accept that your worldview must be wrong, because solipsism is a very fragile philosophy. (That’s especially ironic for me when one of the subjects I long to talk about is the complete illusion of the self. I’d make a lousy solopsist.)

The alternative, of just dwelling alone (at least among humans) with this too-far-ahead (or completely insane) worldview, is probably unhealthy. I feel sometimes as if I’m becoming invisible, or going mad. As if I’m falling off the Edge I began living on a dozen years ago when I started to explore the subjects of this blog. I feel incredible frustration struggling to come to grips with an intellectual understanding that is at once mind-blowing and seemingly impossible to grasp experientially, when there is no one to really share it with.

What I long to do is to move past a discussion of the inevitability of civilizational collapse and the sixth great extinction, and the illusion of self and time, and discuss what does it mean?. Not what can we do about it, but what does it mean?

What does it mean to live in the final generations of a two-millennium long civilization that has grown global and monolithic, substantially eradicating all alternative cultures in its wake? What does it mean to witness the culmination of a thirty-millennium long (not very long in Earth terms) rapidly-accelerating extinction event, the first in 65 million years, that will transform the face of the planet?

What does it mean to be a self-perceiving human ‘individual’ and realize that one’s ‘self’, one’s sense of separateness and self-control from the rest of life on Earth, is a useful and convenient illusion that doesn’t really exist? What does it mean to appreciate that the qualities that most distinguish humans from other creatures — this sense of self, of ‘mind’, of separateness, of ‘consciousness’, and the sense of discrete, linear time — are massively-simplified constructions of the human brain that are not only unreal, they actually create a separateness and an incapacity to realize what is actually real, an incapacity to just be in the world that ‘less intelligent’ creatures aren’t hampered by?

Of course, what these things mean ultimately doesn’t matter. The more-than-human world is indifferent to our struggle to make sense of things, to appreciate their implications. An appreciation of these things won’t change the course of events, won’t change anything in fact.

Or maybe, for us poor too-smart-for-our-own-good creatures, it could change everything. Perhaps an appreciation of these things could allow us to rejoin the community of all-life-on-Earth, transcend our self-inflicted misery and suffering, and re-learn to just be, presently and joyfully as a part of it all.

Maybe. I don’t know. There’s only so much you can figure out talking to yourself.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 17 Comments

The Patterns of Effective Conversation

Patterns of Effective Conversation

A week ago, at the Next Edge Festival in Montréal, I made a point of paying attention to the many conversations I had, or witnessed, in both small and large groups. It was an eye-opening experience. What I learned was:

  • How incredibly important (in various senses of the word) conversation is
  • The degree to which effective conversational skills among the participants affects the quality and value of the conversation (and hence, the urgent need for us all to become better conversationalists)
  • That good writing skill does not necessarily correlate with good conversational skill

In chatting about this with a friend, the excellent writer and excellent conversationalist Paul Heft, he posed the question to me “What do you want from conversation?” My answer was, of course, that it depends on the subject, the context and the participants. What I might be looking for in any particular conversation could be one or more of the following:

  1. Information: to obtain, surface or convey information or understanding of facts (know-what), processes (know-how) or contacts (know-who)
  2. Meaning or insight: to make sense of something (beyond just obtaining facts)
  3. Perspectives or viewpoints: to get different points of view or gain consensus (generally to solve a problem or make a decision)
  4. Change: to challenge and shift someone’s viewpoint or intentions (mine or others’)
  5. Ideas: to surface and imagine possibilities
  6. Effective collaboration: to enable the effective production of some shared work-product
  7. Deepening or creation of relationships
  8. Entertainment or fun
  9. Recognition, attention or reputation: to obtain it, or possibly offer it
  10. Appreciation, empathy or reassurance: to obtain it, or possibly offer it

What I observed was that people seem to have varying biases among these objectives. Males generally seem to seek #9 more than #10, and women the opposite (with some notable and interesting exceptions). Narcissists seem to want both #9 and #10 (and are very clever at hijacking conversations to get what they want). Learning style appears to strongly influence conversational objectives: People who learn by debating tend to like objective #4, for example, while others who learn by contrasting different perspectives more passively seem to prefer objective #3.

I also learned that when the objectives of the participants in the conversation are not aligned, the conversation can be like a tug of war, almost comical (in a tragic way), and in most cases with very unsatisfactory results for all.

What was more distressing was to notice how often participants are clearly not aware of what their real objectives are at all; they seem to somehow expect other participants to figure it out and satisfy them nevertheless. From my observation, this expectation is usually not met.

In the ‘conversation’ between a writer and his/her audience, any reasonably coherent author is generally explicit about what the objectives of the writing are, and the reader/listener can choose to read/listen or not (and they will generally choose to read/listen only when the author’s explicit objectives and theirs are aligned). Not so in oral conversations, where you can see on the faces of people that they thought a conversation was going to achieve one of their objectives, and now feel trapped helping other participants achieve very different objectives.

Thinking back to my many years in business, the majority of the conversations seemed to have very narrow and explicit objectives (most often #1, and especially requests for “know-who” (“Who do you know who knows about…?”). Yet these conversations also clearly had a lot of unvoiced, unacknowledged and unrecognized objectives, what we call hidden agendas.

Social conversations, on the other hand, often seem to have no explicit objectives, which is perhaps why so many people are shy about them, and why these conversations are often awkward. Family conversations frequently appear even more so, and can also have hidden agendas. Easier to bury your face in your gadget and ‘converse’ online with people whose objectives are more overt and aligned with your own.

I have noticed that many young people have learned to cope with the ambiguity of written conversational text and with the general inarticulateness of the current age. Their rule seems to be: Don’t judge what you’ve just read until you get the context and clarification of what was really meant, which could be several dozen “I mean…” texts down the road. Someone has dubbed this “the successive approximation method of communication”.

Since I have been dabbling in pattern languages, I thought it might be interesting to see if it were possible to identify the patterns of effective conversation. Since conversation is a special type of “group process”, it seemed logical to start this inquiry with the pattern language for group process (“Group Works”), which I played a small part in bringing into the world. I reviewed some of the best and worst conversations I’ve experienced, and was able to cull the 91 Group Works patterns down to a more manageable 52 patterns of effective conversation. The result is shown in the diagram above. Please note that it’s just my own thinking, a “straw man” for discussion, and hasn’t gone through the rigorous validation process that Group Works has.

This pattern set acknowledges that (a) there are two stages to most conversations, the planning or preparation and the conversation itself; (b) conversations seem to have one or more of three ‘arcs': a creative arc driven by curiosity about possibility, a synthesis arc driven by desire to learn or decide, and an emergence arc driven by appreciation of complexity — and different patterns play out in the different arcs; and, (c) the best conversations entail collective sensitivity of the participants to both the participants (“relationships” patterns) and the process (“flow” patterns). Hence 6 different ‘categories’ of patterns.

The best conversationalists I know are extremely adept at invoking many or most of these patterns subtly and at opportune times during a conversation. If you read them through I’m guessing you know people who are particularly skillful at employing many of these patterns in conversations, with noticeable results. You probably know people who are particularly inept at invoking them (e.g. C3. Setting Appropriate Boundaries) with infuriating consequences — they can derail a conversation completely.

Note that these are patterns of good conversations, not techniques or practices. Some can be invoked but others just emerge (or fail to emerge) and need to be dealt with through an appropriate intervention in the moment. The skill is as much in noticing and learning the presence or absence of these patterns as in trying to employ them consciously. They are attributes of conversations more than instruments.

I’ve started keeping a copy of this list in front of me now during conversations (when I can do so unobtrusively), just to notice how I and the other participants in our conversations fare. I’m discovering specific patterns I need to work on more, and am starting to learn why the best conversationalists are so good at it. Feel free to download this PDF of the draft pattern list and tell me what you think — what’s missing, and where am I missing the point?

Now if only there were some way of improving the coherence and articulateness of conversationalists! I’m too old and impatient to learn the successive approximation method. So I’m learning that, for me, the patterns in Category F (Emergence and Shift) are essential to conversations with people who have very different conversational styles and worldviews from mine, and might save me from becoming even more of an impatient, misanthropic and curmudgeonly conversationalist than I already am.

Do you know the etymological origin of the word conversation, what it meant until the 16th century? Take a guess and then check it out — it might make you think differently about what a conversation really is.

Posted in Working Smarter | 2 Comments

Seven Generations From Now

7 Generations From Now
Last weekend in Montréal I piloted a new session entitled Seven Generations from Now: A Collective Improv. The invitation  for the event was as follows:

Welcome, friend! Sit with me in this circle around the campfire, in these early days of the 23rd century CE. (You are your own great-great-great-great-great grandchild.) The two-century Long Emergency has finally wound down. There are only about 150 million humans left now, they tell us, and much of our planet is too hot to be inhabitable. The weather’s still wild but at least we managed to get all the nukes decommissioned. We live a much simpler, relocalized, neo-tribal life now, with the only real technology scavenged for essential medical and shelter purposes. But life is good, here on the banks of this ancient river. So, tell me, friend, how are you doing and what brings you joy these days?

Nancy White did a wonderful job of graphic recording the event (see above; click here to see a larger version), and local artist Elissa Baltzer did tribal face painting for the participants (see her amazing work on Flemming Funch, below).

thumb_Flemming_1024 The idea of the event was to find a way to move past the dread and grief and shame of civilization’s collapse, and to imagine together how much better life might be for our descendants after civilization is gone and forgotten. Choosing seven generations (200 years) is taking a bit of poetic licence, since civilization took seventy generations to ruin our planet, and it will likely take that long to recover fully from it. And human population in two millennia is likely to be much less than 150 million, for all kinds of complex reasons. But you get the idea.

The Seven Generations meme comes from some First Nations beliefs that it is our responsibility to ensure the world we leave our descendants seven generations from now is (at least) as healthy as the one we live in ourselves. Joanna Macy does an exercise in which half of the participants speak with their descendants seven generations from now, as part of her grief and despair training for those who see civilization’s collapse as inevitable. But its principal purpose is to seek solace in forgiveness. My intent is instead to help us move past our addiction to civilization by seeing that what our descendants will inherit after its demise will be wondrous, magical, much better than the crumbling, sick, overcrowded world we’re struggling with.

Unfortunately, quite a few of the participants couldn’t get into it. Some couldn’t get past thinking about how we would get there or what collapse was like, instead of leaving it behind. Others just couldn’t, or wouldn’t, or didn’t believe that collapse would occur at all, or at least was inevitable (although there were 12 attendees at the session from the Dealing With Collapse facebook group, most of them are still making their minds up about if and/or how collapse will unfold). One of the participants, Juan Carlos Londono (who also, incidentally, has spearheaded a French language translation of Group Works), jumped into the fray in true improv fashion and brilliantly modelled what an imaginative improv collaboration looks like, making up new 23rd century words and inventing a whole social texture for the brave new culture. By then we were near the end of our time, so while it was a wonderful practice and learning experience for me, it was likely less than satisfactory for the struggling participants. I thank them for their bravery and patience!

I still think the idea has merit, and I intend to keep trying it. I am confident that, had I tried this out on my Dark Mountain colleagues in Totnes last year, it would have been quite amazing (they tend to be full-blown collapsniks, and as artists have the improv gene in them as well).

Here’s what I will do differently next time:

  1. Learn more about improv by actually taking a course in it. There’s a major Applied Improv Network conference in Montréal in September. And a Core course curriculum offered frequently in Vancouver.
  2. Hand pick a few people with both improv skills and a knowledge of what the future likely holds for us, and try it with them first. Even if we have to do it by Skype. I’m becoming very aware that good writers are not necessarily good conversationalists, and vice versa (more about that in my next post).
  3. Set the lofty goal of using the improv experiences as the raw material for a play set seven (or seventy) generations in the future, perhaps co-written with my fellow actors. Perhaps not written at all — just performed in the nature of the griots and minstrels of pre-Gutenberg times.

I think we need this. We need to think about the future with joy and not just dread. We need to imagine a life better than is even possible today, for our own good and for our descendants. This might be a start.

Posted in Preparing for Civilization's End | 6 Comments

Harpoon Dodger

Dave Collage
Today I turn 64. In many ways I have come full circle: I feel closer to the not-quite-2 year-old in the first picture above than I have ever felt since. I have been unimaginably blessed — by the fortune of my birth, by the people and events and opportunities that have come into my life at just the right moment, and by my good health.

I have been tracking my fitness, my weight, my overall health, and my level of happiness for over 40 years, since about the time of the third picture above. I’ve always loved collecting and playing with statistics (the mathematical mind’s way of patterning, I suppose), and since I began running 10k/week seriously in the early 1970s I guess I’ve just kept at it. You can ‘age-adjust’ your running performance using ‘WMA’ tables (stands for World Masters Athletics, the group that compiles this data), which tell me that over the past 40 years my speeds for 5k and 10k runs have varied between a low of 42% (while recovering from colitis in 2006) and a high of 60% (which I’ve achieved often, on and off over the years) of the speed of the world record holder for my age.

That may not sound spectacular, but it puts me in the top third of people my age doing regular competitive running. Metabolically I’ve always been a sprinter, and have always been able to run competitive-level speeds over 100m and 200m, so I’m quite content to stay at 50% or more of age-adjusted world record speed over long distances. When I fall below that, I know I’m unwell. Yesterday my WMA score for the 10k was 58%.

When I think back on my life so far, there have been 5 major turning points:

  • 1957: Entering the public school system as a young child. My life went from idyllic, believing that everyone was always honest, kind, generous, appreciative and gentle, to shocked at the inexplicable and hurtful behaviour of my peers and most of the adults in the education system. I retreated inside my head and became a stressed, depressed, shy loner for a long time.
  • 1969: My year of unschooling, as I’ve written before, was transformative. I learned how to learn, learned much about myself, and came out of my shell and began to build loving relationships for the first time in my life. It was an incredible emotional roller coaster ride. My love was so intense and so idealistic that Joanne nicknamed me “the devil”. I went overboard, going from painfully shy to annoyingly arrogant. I’d been emotionally closed down for so long that I remained insensitive to others’ emotions.
  • 1980: When I met my (now-ex) wife. The 1970s were a blur, full of anger at “the system” (this was when I became a radical environmentalist), with periods of bliss and periods of dark depression. Anita pulled me out of a suicidal state at the end of that tumultuous decade, and for the next 15 years I devoted myself to helping provide a comfortable home for us and her two amazing children. I owe her my life.
  • 2003: The year I started How to Save the World. The kids were grown, I had been “kicked upstairs” by my employer from helping entrepreneurs (the work I most enjoyed) to work as a Chief Knowledge Officer, and disagreed utterly with my (American) boss on everything I thought we should be doing. My blog helped me formulate my thinking on entrepreneurship, innovation, complexity, depression, human nature and our culture and many other subjects. It helped me rediscover my passion for environmentalism. It helped me figure out how to cope with ulcerative colitis, the incurable chronic disease I was diagnosed with in 2006, and it was my blog that got me the less stressful jobs I worked at for the final four years of my working life. It found me the publisher for my book. And after Anita and I mutually agreed to separate in December 2007, it found me new relationships.
  • 2010: In January 2010 I finally retired from paid work (since my pension kicked in), finalized my separation agreement (it had taken over two years for us to sell our house), moved to Bowen Island (from Ontario), and buried my father. Living alone for the first time in 30 years. Lots of change, but mostly the culmination of events that had been in the works for the previous two years. Since then I’ve been shuttling back and forth between Bowen and the mainland homes of the two women I love. They are brilliant, astonishing, inspiring, delightful, and have taught me so much (only my beloved Chelsea taught me more). I am so blessed.

And here I am, in 2015, feeling on the edge of a sixth great turning in my life. I have no idea what it’s about, just an intuition. I don’t expect my personal relationships to change, nor do I expect any of the kind of life-changing events I experienced in 2010. The change, this time, is likely to be an inner one. I thought it would be a shift to a state of greater equanimity, calmness and reflection, that would make me more useful to the world than I fear I have been so far, and more personally content.

But I’m not so sure. The most joyful times of my life have not been the most contented, calm or peaceful. I’m most alive when I’m on the edge, as much as that state terrifies me. I do know that whatever happens next will be what was inevitable, and totally beyond my control. I’m the happiest and healthiest I’ve ever been, so I think I’m ready. Bring it on, world.

The title of this post comes from my soul song, Neil Young’s Will to Love.

Posted in _ Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Meeting Map: Making Both Process and Content Explicit

This is the first of three articles that stem from last weekend’s Next Edge Festival in Montréal. I’m grateful to the wonderful organizing team and all the participants who made the event a success and a great learning opportunity for me.

Meeting MapI have long been a fan of mindmaps as a tool for recording what transpires at a meeting, displayed up at the front of the room so that everyone can see the ‘official’ record (and correct it when needed). The mindmap can then serve as an instant set of ‘minutes’ by emailing it to all participants (and non-attendees) at the end of the meeting.

Last weekend Arthur Brock and his amazing team at Emerging Leader Labs showed us the work they’ve done with Gameshifting, a tool that promises to do for meeting process what mindmaps do for content — making it explicit. It uses a combination of wallboards, hand signals, and tablets or similar remote machines for participants to report on what they see happening (or would like to see happening), process-wise, during the meeting/event.

At this stage the tool is largely manual, and fun both for revealing what would otherwise not be known about meetings in general, and about our own personal group behaviours in particular.

As I participated in the “making-explicit” “game”, I began to dream about what might be possible, with today’s technology, that would:

  • Combine the display of process, protocols, and progress from Gameshifting with the display of content from mindmaps (or other graphic recording tools), and
  • Incorporate the patterns of exemplary group process from Group Works into the display.

The graphic above (you can download a higher-resolution PDF here) illustrates how it might work. Here’s a walkthrough:

  1. Before the meeting/event begins, the facilitator and sponsor would (a) key the major agenda items into the Meeting Trajectory blocks (upper left on the chart) and turn the first block green; (b) identify the major and secondary objectives for the meeting (upper right) and turn them dark and light green respectively; an X would appear in red beside each, showing them as not yet accomplished; (c) key in the major nodes (bubbles) on the mindmap (lower right) to correspond with the meeting/event objectives; (d) key in the initials of the people in various Roles (lower left); each box with someone assigned would turn green; (e) initialize the Process Mode for the first agenda item (centre left) to correspond to the mode that will be used to achieve its objective, turning that box green; (f) initialize the Process Style to the primary means to be used for this agenda item (Arthur’s model suggests a variety of different Styles for each Mode, or you could even enter a method like Open Space or World Café), turning that box green; (g) initializing the Interaction Protocol (centre right) to the one most appropriate for the mode and style selected, turning that box green, and (h) turning off all the Alert (lower left) ‘lights’ to grey.
  2. Ideally, all participants would have an app that would allow them to feed back their thoughts on the process electronically as the meeting event proceeded: (a) they could comment on the agenda and, as it proceeded, click on the boxes ahead of or behind the current green box in the Meeting Trajectory to request that the group move on, or go back (one person doing this would turn that box yellow; a majority doing this would turn it red, hopefully signalling the facilitator to “trust the wisdom of the group”); (b) they could click a ‘done’ flag on an Objective box when they thought that objective had been accomplished (when most, or all, depending on the will of the group, did this the red X would turn to a green check mark); (c) they could flash a red “!” or a yellow “?” beside any node of the mindmap to indicate they disagreed or had questions about what had been recorded; (d) they could click on any of the other figures to suggest a change in Mode or Style or Interaction Protocol or a change to the person in any of the Roles (again one person doing this would turn the suggested box yellow; a majority would turn the box red); and (e) they could click on any of the Alert buttons to express the appropriate request to the facilitator.
  3. Any participants familiar with the Pattern Language for Group Process (or wanting to practice learning it) would be able click on any of the 91 pattern cards to indicate either (a) a wish to recognize and thank someone for invoking that pattern very effectively (highlighting that card and turning it green), or (b) a suggestion that the facilitator and/or participants consider invoking that pattern (if the group is stuck or needs process help), highlighting that card and turning it red. For example, in the illustration, someone has turned the Story card green (indicating that someone just proffered an excellent story to the group), and the Honour Each Person card red (indicating that in their view someone is likely being ignored or disrespected by others).

I think you get the gist. All of this is done wordlessly, without interrupting the “audio track” flow of the meeting. It’s only a dream, but if used correctly this could absolutely transform the way we conduct, and collaborate in, group activities. The technology wouldn’t be that hard to implement. Much harder would be getting all the participants up to a base line of competency in what is actually going on in group processes, and what constitutes good versus bad group process. Which is something everyone who has to suffer through horrific meetings should learn, and value.

I’m looking forward to seeing what Arthur and his team do next with Gameshifting, and seeing how both mindmaps and Group Works can be incorporated into their vision. This could be awesome.


Posted in Working Smarter | 10 Comments

Speaking Grosbeak


“Hear that? That bird just said ‘So now what?’ Awesome!” Rafe pointed up at a nearby tree.

Daria had found a clearing beside the stream not far from their regular forest path, and Rafe had quickly stripped and was splashing about in the stream. Daria was sitting on one of the cushions they’d brought, her feet dangling above the water.

“That’s a grosbeak”, she replied. “They say a lot. If you could make out a ‘So now what?’ in that essay of a song, you, my friend, are guilty of excessive patterning. You can probably see a prophet in that cloud, too”, she added, pointing overhead.

“Well, actually, yes. At least he has a prophet’s beard.”

“I rest my case. You’re asking ‘So now what?’, not the bird. The bird knows ‘now what’, and isn’t particularly concerned that you don’t. You want to know ‘now what?’? Watch the bird, don’t listen to her.”

Rafe gave her a raised-eyebrow scowly unconvinced look. “It’s such a long and wonderful song, it must be telling us something.”

“It’s telling us life is complex and unfathomable.” She laughed at him, pulling off her shoes and dipping her feet into the stream, splashing him as she raised them back up.

Rafe fell back into the stream trying to avoid getting splashed. He sat there for a moment, and then said “She only needs a note or two to convey that. What is all the rest of it saying?”

“That she is complex and unfathomable and therefore she is joyful and excited to be a part of it. A good mating call message, I would think.”

He laughed. “Wow, I wish I could find a mate that wise and self-aware!”

Daria tossed the second cushion at him, which he caught before it hit the water. Rafe towelled off, plunked the cushion down and sat beside her. They listened to the birds, the wind through the trees, the happy gurgling of the stream.

Rafe broke the silence, speaking slowly and quietly, sighing: “So… now what?”

“Watch the birds. Pay attention.” She stripped off the rest of her clothes and turned to kiss him. They kissed for a while.

“So now I know that ‘I’ don’t exist”, he said at last. “That there is no self. No ‘thing’, in fact. There are only processes. The scientists and philosophers now agree. Even time is an illusion, an invented construct so our poor overwhelmed brains can sufficiently simplify reality to make sense of it usefully. I know this, yet I feel and act as if nothing’s changed.”

“Nothing’s changed”, she replied. “You are who, or what, you are. It’s the only life you know. The only way you know of acting and responding and being. You do OK.” She smiled at him.

“It’s like I’m one of the characters in Plato’s cave. Imprisoned in place and able to see only shadows. But suddenly I’m told, and it makes sense, that there is another reality out there, a real reality. I want to see it.”

Daria rose and started paddling in the stream, doing impromptu dance and gymnastic moves. “You can’t. You’re imprisoned. You want to fly like a bird, too, you keep saying. You want to be a bird. Not happening. Be who you are.”

He sighed. “Yeah, I guess. I’m such an idealist. Too many years daydreaming of what could be, of what I could be. Who I am is that gentle scared kid locked inside my head peeking out longingly.” He stood up and leaned against the closest tree, watching her. “I feel like I’m running out of time to really see.”

Daria stopped dancing and stretched out her hands to him, inviting him into the stream with her. They danced in the water, closely, slowly. He watched her face, the reflection of the sun in the water sparkling across it, and the shadows of the leaves as she turned.

“‘Really seeing’ isn’t something you learn”, she said. It’s not a skill, it’s a way of being. You’re not that way. You’re pretty amazing, Rafe. You’re intelligent, imaginative, caring. You’re incredibly fortunate. You’re healthy. And you’re with me.” She gave him a wry smile. “That’s enough, if only you would let yourself be, and stop dreaming of being something else.”

He held her tight, lifted her up, and sighed. “That’s just it. I can’t stop dreaming. What I am and what I feel and what I can see is not enough. I feel as if my way of being is not being at all. It’s a shadow life, a life imprisoned, no matter how comfortable the prison’s decor. I want to be free.”

She wrapped her legs around him and they stood like that, in the water, his face buried in the lovely soft skin of her body. She lowered her face to his hair, and whispered close to his ear: “Then be who you are. Really inhabit it, experience it. Live it. I’m guessing if you could really do that, it would be enough. You would no longer be restless to be otherwise. You would be free. You would be connected. You would discover how perfect you are.”

He walked to the side of the stream and set her down, gently. He spread out the towels and lay down with his head on one of the cushions. “So how do I do that, oh lovely all-knowing-one?” He smiled to let her know he was teasing.

She lay beside him, her head on his chest. “So”, she began. “First of all, you stop trying to be otherwise, stop trying so hard to be who you’re not, to change. Sense. Be still. Watch. Listen. Let it all fold over you. It’s doing that anyway, so might as well notice it. Let go of trying to be everything you’re not. Breathe. Try not to think so much. Dare to really feel. Just as you’ve discovered your ‘self’ and time aren’t real, realize your fears aren’t real, they’re just constructions around the ancient flight/flight/freeze instincts that don’t actually make sense.” She rolled over on top of him, bracing herself on her arms so she could look into his face. “Nothing to be afraid of.”

“Wow”, Rafe replied. “Seems hard, impossible. You can really feel all that?”

“We’re not talking about me. I’m not you. No one has any answers that work for everyone. We’re all different. I’m just guessing, trying to help, suggesting things that might help you get out of the mental box you seem to have locked yourself inside.” They just looked at each other for a while, and then Daria added: “Kali was right. All those gurus who claim to have achieved enlightenment are just charlatans, just trying to figure out what to do themselves, and trying to make a living at it while they’re at it.”

She was crying. “I actually have no idea what you should do.”

He squeezed her. They were silent for a while until her sobbing ceased. “So what about you, then. What’s your existential crisis. Maybe I can help you by guessing at some answers.”

She sighed. “I think I’m kinda past that. Don’t believe in answers. We love who we imagine each other to be, since we can’t really know. It’s enough that you love me, that you care. I’m not looking for answers. As the bird told you, we all heal naturally, if we give it time and help the process. You’re a big help.”

“I wish I could speak grosbeak. I’d sing my complex and unfathomable love to you. We could just sing it back and forth until all the world knew.” He rolled her over and kissed her, then started sliding down her body, light feathery touches and kisses.

“Wow, Rafe, I’m still a bit sore from our marathon this morning. You’re incorrigible, you know.” He ignored her protests, moved lower. She gasped. “Damn, you know I can’t say ‘no’ to you. And it is kind of sexy out here in the woods.” They made love slowly, gently, as the shadows lengthened across their bodies.

During an intermission, Rafe said: “This is one way I try to show you how much I love you, that I care. Showing is more important than telling. How else can I show you?”

Daria replied: “It feels good just being here with you. You feel good. Just right.” She thought for a moment and then added: “Despite how much you feel you’re caught up in your head, you’re actually very generous. You show me love by a thousand small acts of kindness, attention, appreciation, noticing. You make space for me. Just keep doing that.”

She looked down at his face smiling at her from between her legs. And laughing and pointing at him, she added, “And just keep doing that, too!”

(photo by ericncindy24 from flickr, license cc-by-2.0)

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More Bowen Birds

I posted some of my favourite Bowen bird photos last year. Here are four more, which I took in the last couple of days. Yes I cheated — had some birdseed that I put out left over from the winter, which attracted some species I always hear but rarely get close enough to photograph, notably the mellifluous grosbeaks and house finches.

Rufous HummingbirdRufous hummingbird, whose family is nesting and buzzing in my upstairs bathroom vent.

Stellar's Jay

Stellar’s jay, as raucous as its crow cousins, but with a spiffier haircut. Song, if you can call it that, here.

Black-Headed Grosbeak

Black-headed grosbeak, whose long and lovely song is also louder than the robins’ and finches’. Song sample. Oops, Spotted Towhee — thanks tomc for the correction.

Black-Headed Grosbeak 2

This is a Black-Headed Grosbeak (a photo I took earlier), whose long and lovely song is also louder than the robins’ and finches’. Song sample.

House Finches

Matched set of house finches, the “happy bird” that sounds like a gentle but exuberant, long-winded and slightly intoxicated robin. Song sample.

For those as crazy about birds as I am, I have put up a complete set of my Bowen bird photos on flickr here. It includes a flicker, of course.


Added June 4: Couldn’t resist adding this little guy:

White-Crowned Sparrow

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Suffering Fools Gladly


Once a year I try to travel outside my circle of comfort, both intellectually and geographically. Last year I spent nearly a week with Dougald Hine and Paul Kingsnorth, the genii of Dark Mountain, and met up at the same time with Ben Brangwyn, Rob Hopkins and some of their powerful team in the Transition Network in Totnes UK. Both meetings were delightful despite my unwarranted apprehensions and the fact I don’t travel well.

This year, in less than a fortnight (June 11-14) I will be in Montréal at the Next Edge Festival. It will be great to renew acquaintances with the event organizer (and Next Edge co-founder) Seb Paquet and half a dozen like-minded old friends who are offering sessions at the festival, and to finally meet face-to-face with some of the remarkable thinkers in the (invitation-only) Next Edge: Dealing With Collapse Facebook group whose thoughts and insights I appreciate so much — Sam Rose, Liz McLellan, Flemming Funch and Ben Roberts, among others. My session is titled 7 Generations From Now: A Collective Improv, and the write-up is:

Welcome, friend! Sit with me in this circle around the campfire, in these early days of the 23rd century CE. (You are your own great-great-great-great-great grandchild.) The two-century Long Emergency has finally wound down. There are only about 150 million humans left now, they tell us, and much of our planet is too hot to be inhabitable. The weather’s still wild but at least we managed to get all the nukes decommissioned. We live a much simpler, relocalized, neo-tribal life now, with the only real technology scavenged for essential medical and shelter purposes. But life is good, here on the banks of this ancient Canadian river. So, tell me, friend, how are you doing and what brings you joy these days?

The idea is simply to host and facilitate a conversation, with participants seated in a circle, imagining ourselves as our descendants seven generations hence, after civilization’s collapse. That’s it. Just a conversation. No “save-the-world” presentations, workshops or collaborations. My dear friend Nancy White has agreed to do a graphic recording on the “cave wall” of the session, in paint and chalk, and I’m trying to find some Montréalais who can do some spiffy post-civ face painting for us, so this conversation will have some artistic flair. It’s to be a playshop, not a workshop.

My sense is that the festival, like the lion’s share of the Next Edge Facebook group it draws from, will be full of earnest people urgently pushing new tools, technologies, practices, hackathons, collective consciousness-raising projects and potential ongoing collaborations to make the future better. For the same reason I almost never participate in the main Next Edge Facebook group, the idea of being asked to engage some of these people and explain why I think their ideas are interesting but ultimately aren’t going to survive civilization’s collapse, fills me with apprehension and triggers my “I’m going to be disappointing people” switch. My joyful pessimism is generally seen by many energetic and optimistic people as just pessimism, defeatism, or curmudgeonliness. Although I respect their zeal, I would prefer to spend my time in Montréal with people who understand the futility of world-changing, just being together with them.

I’m hoping that my session will attract principally those people prepared to do just that, and that the people who think their idea is an essential one I have been overlooking, will give it a pass. If that means no one shows up, that would be preferable to me to having to deal with a large circle of people imagining their world-saving visions two centuries hence, and hijacking the opportunity for us to just sit together, in contemplative gratitude, beyond hope, just imagining what a low-tech, low-complexity relocalized post-civilization society might be like — so that instead of dreading the future and grieving what we have precipitated, we can quietly celebrate the end of this ghastly but well-intentioned civilization and the emergence of thousands of diverse, sustainable, joyful human societies living connected with the rest of life on Earth in a way that today we can scarcely imagine.

I suspect my anxieties are overwrought, and that this event will be joyful and gentle and inspiring, and create some lasting new connections. The collection of intentions of attendees that one participant has assembled is encouraging. I’m trying to keep my expectations modest, despite the extraordinary effort the organizing team has put into this epic project, and mostly hover in the corridors of the Centre Vanier connecting, as Gonzo puts it, with “old friends I’ve just met”.

I’ll let you know how it goes. If you’re in Montréal, or can make it then, I’d be pleased to meet up. Already conspiring on a magazine article on group process with Jon Husband.

Posted in Preparing for Civilization's End | 3 Comments

The Power of Pattern Languages

I was recently interviewed about Pattern Languages, and specifically about Group Works, the pattern language of  collaborative, deliberative and participative processes that I was involved with (I’m a member of the coordinating team that produced the card deck based on the pattern language).

The interview has been picked up by Shareable. Here’s a teaser and a link to the whole article, titled The Power of Pattern Languages:

(Photo by Gene Stull)

Paxus Calta: Why are most meetings, conferences and other deliberative processes so bad?

Dave Pollard: Seven years ago, a group of professional facilitators convened to answer that question and see if they could come up with a better way. They ended up producing Group Works: A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings, a 100-card deck of exemplary group practices that has since been used by thousands of people in over two dozen countries.

Paxus: What is a pattern language, and why do you think pattern languages are important?

Dave: Organizations used to use so-called “best practices” to improve the way things are done, but their use has waned recently because leaders realized that the context in which any such practice is useful is usually pretty narrow.

A more current approach to improving processes is to collect and mine large numbers of stories about what works well in a particular discipline or area of professional practice or other activity, and then look for the patterns in those stories – things that seem to work well across a wide spectrum of different contexts and at many different scales. A cohesive set of such patterns that can be used together to improve processes is called a pattern language. The term was coined by Christopher Alexander and his colleagues who developed the first such language in the field of architecture.

To give you an idea of what a pattern is, in collaborative and deliberative work we discovered a key recurring pattern in many stories of successful meetings is Holding the Space – creating a safe space in which all participants are enabled and encouraged to offer their knowledge, ideas, perspectives and insights to the whole group. Each field has its own patterns; in activism, for example, one recurring pattern is Reframing: changing the way people talk about an issue from the way your opponents speak about it to the way your supporters speak about it.

We’ve learned that understanding and evoking patterns of exemplary process leads to better outcomes than other approaches in many disciplines, and we’ve been blown away at the diverse and powerful ways our Group Works pattern language has been used, including some ways we never imagined…

Read the whole article on Shareable

Thanks to Cat Johnson for publishing this interview

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