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 | 7 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)

Posted in Creative Works | 2 Comments

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

Posted in Creative Works | 7 Comments

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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Links of the Quarter: May 28, 2015

Cathedral City CA

subdivision in Cathedral City CA, built (as you can see) in the desert; photo by Damon Winter in the NYT

So, here’s the thing:

  1. All “growth” in the economy, for at least the past half century, has come from producing and consuming more (mostly oil-based) energy, in total and per capita. All of it. Without finding and burning more and more hydrocarbons at an ever-faster rate all over the globe, there would be no “growth”. The belief that growth comes from “innovation” is simply wrong.
  2. The industrial economy is absolutely dependent upon “growth”. All investment markets are based on the presumption that profits will grow at a rate much faster than inflation. No growth, no incentive for investment. Without the presumption of perpetual growth, stock markets would collapse, and with them housing markets, currencies and the rest of the economy. That’s why this economy is so insane.
  3. Since the 1980s, it has become all-important for governments to perpetuate the myth that there is and will continue to be “growth”, and that the population as a whole benefits from it. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Actual inflation rates, using un-manipulated data, have been hovering near 10% for years, not near-zero as reported. Actual unemployment rates are near 25% even in the most prosperous countries. Actual GDP “growth”, adjusted for real inflation, has therefore been negative for decades. On a per-capita basis, very negative. Highly positive for the 1% mind you, but very negative for everyone else. By loaning ever-increasing amounts of money to people at artificially depressed rates (rather than the double-digit rates called for by real inflation), the average taxpayer has the illusion of becoming more wealthy, since assets are rising (though debts are rising faster). Net worth in real terms for all but the super-rich has been and continues to be in free-fall, and for most is now less than zero.
  4. There is no longer any pretence by any government or large organization that the staggering debts they have accumulated will ever be repaid. As debts become due, they are simply rolled over to new debt issues with large new borrowings added on. And the banks create new debt every time they print more money or loan or invest. This can only continue with the assumption of perpetual and accelerating growth, and the assumption that interest rates can be kept far below real inflation rates through the complicity of banks, governments, corporations, media and regulators, indefinitely. Both assumptions are preposterous.
  5. So the global economy now teeters on the edge, supported by two massive lies: That the economy is actually growing and can continue to do so forever, despite the finiteness and growing extraction cost of the oil upon which it absolutely and utterly depends; and that the mind-boggling and accelerating levels of debt that have been racked up are sustainable indefinitely — that people (mostly unwitting taxpayers) will continue to loan and invest money in a globally bankrupt economy in the expectation that future generations will somehow come up with some miracle to enable its repayment and some other miracle to enable growth to continue forever. As soon as those holding these debts lose faith that these miracles will inevitably occur, the economy is toast. Stocks, investments, houses and currencies will plummet to near-zero levels, oil-fueled production will grind to a halt, assets will be liquidated to repay debts, trade will evaporate, and the longest and deepest depression in human history will begin. For most it has already begun.

This is why, considering the alternative “first collapse” scenarios of energy/resource exhaustion and runaway climate change, my bet is still on economic collapse as the first domino in the series that will herald the end of our civilization. I would be surprised if it is more than 20 years before this first domino falls. Extreme weather events and climate change will then just add another level of immiseration to an already desperate situation, as it will take out human-built infrastructure and essential resources (food, water, forests, and the means to keep temperatures within human livable limits) far faster than any human effort could hope to recover from, even with a healthy economy. Then we will see a Great Migration of humans, similar to what occurred during the last Ice Age, except instead of a few million people in motion, it will be a few billion.

It is both too early and too late to do much about this at the community level (all bets are off about what political and social systems will survive even early stages of collapse, and where), but a personal program of self-learning, self-healing, appreciation and self-liberation is always and especially timely when we cannot know what we will have to face. The work, as always, begins within.

My friend Bodhi Paul Chefurka writes:

Now That I Know…
I will live the rest of my time here as mindfully and lovingly as I can.
I will never stop learning – about the world, about other people and about myself.
I will strive to be compassionate to all beings – especially to those people who are still asleep.
I will treat all hardships as opportunities.
I will cause as little harm as I can manage.
I will have compassion for myself over any harm I inflict because I cannot avoid it.
I will express gratitude for the incredible good fortune I have experienced simply by being conscious and self-aware at this moment in history.
I will discard all blame, anger, guilt and shame – these emotions are obstacles to growth.
I will forgive us all for being the flawed miracles that we are.



LOTM schumacher college poster

poster for a course by Schumacher College

This Is The Way the World Ends: Oxford researchers list the 12 most likely “first dominos” to fall as our civilization falls. They have economic collapse at #8. Close but no cigar. The rest of the list is interesting, with most of the crises on the list actually being consequences of the “3 Es”: economic, energy or ecological collapse. On the other hand, Jordan Greenhall has the order about right. So does Tom Lewis in his renewed alarm over peak oil. Thanks to the NTHELove group for the Oxford link, Jon Husband and others for the link to Jordan’s post, and Tim Bennett for the Tom Lewis link.

Long Past the Point of No Return: Ex-Grist reporter David Roberts, back from hiatus, explains why it’s now impossible to limit average global warming to 2C. Or 4C for that matter. And why climate scientists won’t admit that, in public.

Extinct: Dmitry Orlov weighs in on the probabilities of NTHE (near-term human extinction), and lays out several likely scenarios for civilization’s collapse (but not humanity’s extinction). He also seems to think a Great Migration is in the cards.

Debate: Collapse vs Transition: David Holmgren, Nicole Foss and some less cogent debaters square off in an essential but ultimately unsatisfying debate on whether and/or how to prepare for civilization’s collapse. Thanks to Kari McGregor at SHIFT for the link.

Change They Don’t Believe In: James Kunstler explains why political change is not in the air in the US despite the increasingly desperate situation there:

The American thinking classes are lost in raptures of techno-wishfulness. They can imagine the glory of watching Fast and Furious 7 on a phone in a self-driving electric car, but they can’t imagine rebuilt local economies where citizens get to play both an economic and social role in their communities. They can trumpet the bionic engineering of artificial hamburger meat, but not careful, small-scale farming in which many hands can find work and meaning.

As Night Closes In: John Michael Greer writes about the late William Catton, author of Overshoot and one of the first to warn about industrial civilization’s unsustainability. “When I spoke to him in 2011, he was perfectly aware that his life’s work had done essentially nothing to turn industrial society aside from its rush toward the abyss.”

Megadrought Coming: A NASA/Cornell/Columbia research study shows the intensity and longevity of the current drought in most of the plains and the west of North America. If you live there, you should seriously think about moving. Thanks to Sam Rose for the link. And check out these amazing photos of the folly of urbanization of areas that must import their water.

Ships Going Nowhere: The Baltic Dry Index, showing relative demand for the use of ocean-going cargo vessels, is at its lowest level ever, despite the plunging price of oil. What recession? Thanks to Seb Paquet for the link.



LOTM Cherry Blossom Herons Bowen med DSC-0379

photo by a Bowen Nature Club member of a heron’s nest, taken last month

The Importance of Tribal Parenting: What differentiates undamaged indigenous cultures from modern industrial civilization culture comes down to one essential thing: how adults parent their children. If we could relearn their way of parenting, we might be much more resilient and much better prepared for crises and collapse, and so would our children. Thanks to Dark Mountain for the link.

The Virtue of Slacking Off: Working too hard creates a “scarcity mindset” that renders us insensitive, over-reactive and dysfunctional, say the authors of a new book, Scarcity. The answer is to add slack to your routine, as hard and counterintuitive as that may be. Thanks to Tree for the link.

Timothy Was Right: The New Yorker explains how psychedelics are returning to respectability as a treatment for many emotional diseases, including Civilization Disease.

Sharing Economy Corner: A pizza place lets you give pizza slices to the homeless.



LOTM New Yorker complexity

New Yorker cartoon by Jacob Samuel

The Great Natural Supplements Scam: Think you’re using gingko, echinacea, St. John’s wort, saw palmetto, valerian, ginseng, or other herbal supplements to improve your nutritional health? Most likely you’re getting none of these, just cheap fillers, some of them possibly dangerous. Welcome to the world of unregulated “free” markets.

The Police Shooting You Didn’t Hear About: The Fairfax VA police murder of John Geer happened before the current spate and increased awareness of the endemic fear, contempt and violence of our militarized police. It’s the scariest of all.

The Free Speech Crisis: Why self-censorship is more dangerous to democracy and freedoms than imposed censorship.

America’s Subversive War on Arab Peoples and Putin’s Russia: It’s all about money, oil and power, reveals Julian Assange. It has nothing to do with democracy or civil rights. If you don’t believe Julian, you might find Dexter Filkins and Sy Hersh more credible. And the growing xenophobia in Europe isn’t helping matters. Thanks to Sam Rose for the links.

The Decline of Vancouver: Despite its superficial affluence, Vancouver, the city my island is technically a suburb of, is in the late stages of decline. It produces less and less, other than monster homes and extravagant condos. Young people are leaving in droves. Only millionaires can afford to live there. Whole streets of homes are empty, as the city becomes one of the world’s Hedge Cities, where the world’s ultra-rich, many of them criminals, park their money in real estate, convinced that even collapse will be better in Vancouver.

Canada, Where Doctor-Assisted Suicide Is Neither Legal Nor Illegal: “In its unanimous ruling in February, the Supreme Court gave Parliament a year to introduce a new law that heeds the right of consenting adults with a ‘grievous and irremediable’ illness to seek physician aid to end their lives.” The ultra-conservative Harper government has no intention of doing so, of course. In the meantime, everything is in limbo, especially the lives of those terminally or excruciatingly ill. The only hope is that we’ll dump this ghastly government in this fall’s elections, and elect one with compassion. We might even get proportional representation, if we’re smart.

US No Longer a Democracy: Princeton confirms it. Of course, you already knew that.



LOTM Ohmmmm via michel dumais

cartoon by Mandor via Michel Dumais

To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This: Fascinating and astonishingly viral meme picked up by the NYT suggests shared intimacy will almost always lead to love. Of course, the meme has already been satirized by the NYT crosstown friends at The New Yorker. Thanks to Tree for the original link.

Waves: Great video, great little vibe by Mr Probz, transcends genres.

Why You’re Still Single (Based On Your Myers-Briggs Personality Type): Absolutely hilarious, and a little bit scary. Thanks to Alexis Pankerson at NTHELove for the link.

The Fire Knife Dance: A highlight for any visitor to Hawaii.

The Whole Point of Every Relationship Is…: Make your guess before you click the link, then check out the 10 ways to make it happen. Thanks to Ryan Rathje for the link.

A Cup of Tea as a Metaphor for Consent: A funny and wise explanation of the meaning of consent.

Mother of Dragons: A hilarious explanation of the perils of modern parenthood by Heather Havrilesky.

When Birds Squawk, Others Species Listen: Bird language, it appears, is understood by just about every species except the supposedly sapient one.

The Girl Who Gets Gifts From Birds: If only we understood birds as well as they understand us. Thanks to Natalie Shell for the link.

Origins Of Mysterious Radio Wave Bursts Discovered: Some things are actually not all that mysterious, with a little common sense investigation. A must-read. Thanks to Seb Paquet for the link.

Toronto’s Terror Tunnel: For two months, Toronto police and citizens were baffled by the discovery of a hidden tunnel leading from woods to an entrance near the PanAm Games tennis facility. Terrorist plots were imagined, as were more silly explanations. Turns out it was built by a couple of guys on a lark, wanting to build themselves a “man-cave” as a sanctuary from the urban tumult above. Police dismantled the tunnel but did not press charges.

Spocking the $5 Bill: Finally — money is actually good for something. Honouring Leonard Nimoy. Or Bill Murray.

Blowing Smoke: A nicotine solution to global warming. From the Onion, of course. Thanks to Seb Paquet for the link.



LOTM Chris Kenny 12 twigs via seb

12 Twigs, an artwork by Chris Kenny (thanks to Seb Paquet for the link)

From a speech by Wendel Berry (thanks to Liz McLellan for the quote):

Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.

From Helen Macdonald in H is for Hawk:

I think of what wild animals are in our imaginations. And how they are disappearing – not just from the wild, but from people’s everyday lives, replaced by images of themselves in print and on screen. The rarer they get, the fewer meanings animals can have. Eventually rarity is all they are made of. The condor is an icon of extinction. There’s little else to it now but being the last of its kind. And in this lies the diminution of the world. How can you love something, how can you fight to protect it, if all it means is loss?

And on a related note, from the late Stephen J. Gould in Eight Little Piggies:

We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well — for we will not fight to save what we do not love.

From Jeppe Graugaard, in Transforming Sustainabilities

It appears to me that we have broken open our stories, our ways of telling and interpreting. As a movement in the social imaginary – rather than of people trying to ‘change the world’ – Dark Mountain has opened a door for wildness and untamed otherness to slip back into the lifeworld, offered a way of being which makes it possible to flourish even in the shadow of the enormity. It allows us to embrace and align with our wider relations without requiring us to blow up civilisation in a battle that can never be won.

By retreating to the mountains and reorienting our compass it has become possible to dispel the pull on attention which the enormity exercises on us, to decide to focus our awareness on the dark spots on our maps, on the absences wherefrom new things can grow. Journeying in this range shows that ‘civilisation’ is only one name among many for a pervasive logic which divides the world without anchoring complexity in the greater movement of which we all are part.

At the edge, hearing the faint voices beneath the clamour of engines, it is possible to perceive the soundscape of a world which does not need us to do anything but to listen and to live our questions now.

From Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (thanks to Zack Lehtinen for the quote)

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.

Posted in Preparing for Civilization's End | 2 Comments

Beyond Belief

My latest article, Beyond Belief, is up at SHIFT magazine as part of its ninth edition. Check out the whole magazine! And if you like what you read, or prefer to read hard copy, please get this issue as a digital download (beautiful magazine layout) or sign up for an annual subscription (6 issues).


I‘m not spiritual. Really.

People often ask me if, in my self-proclaimed state of joyful pessimism and contemplative gratitude, I’ve finally discovered spirituality.

I insist that I have not.

Just about everyone I know who self-identifies as “spiritual” also believes our civilization will somehow be ‘saved’ from collapse (by science or technology, or the market, or wise leadership, or human ingenuity, or by a god or gods, or by a massive human consciousness-raising). What good is a ‘spirit’, after all, if he/she/it can’t save you from perceived disaster?

No thank you, no salvation needed here…

Read the whole article at SHIFT.

(image from a Deva Premal fan video, original source uncited)

Posted in Preparing for Civilization's End | 5 Comments