Conversations for transformative, rewarding, and effective teamwork: A tribute to Peter Block

Some friends and I had a group experience a couple of weeks ago that still brings a smile to my face every time I look back on it. It was a working weekend that didn’t feel much like a working weekend at all, but one where we got more done than I do most working weeks. I left feeling better than when I arrived. How this happened has a lot to do with the questions that were asked to help us flow through the weekend and engage the energy of the group in a powerful way.

I’m a change geek, interested in all the different ways we can make change in the world, especially those involving humans and the decisions we make (and what change doesn’t involve humans and our decisions?). A number of people I highly respect in the change-making space recommend Peter Block’s Community: The Structure of Belonging to me as a must-read, and when I finally got around to reading it I was not disappointed. The results of putting his insights into practice were a delightful and effective example of the power of small groups and conversations to effect change in the world.

Create transformational community with transformational conversations

How many of us have spent time stuck in meeting after meeting where the content is irrelevant and the ‘leader’ is talking at us, not to us or with us? Where we feel bored but unable to say so and powerless to change the way things are. Peter Block lists the various ways that communities can get stuck and, more importantly, how to create transformational communities that can act as a vehicle for creating a future that is distinct from the past.

Block emphasises that the role of a leader is different in transformational community: it is about convening, creating a powerful context for the gathering, building connection, and valuing questions more than answers. These actions have the effect of drawing out the wisdom and energy of the people in the room and inviting gifts from the margins of the community into the centre.

Our working weekend experience flowed through a number of the questions that Block identifies as having the power to be transformational, in rough order of difficulty: 1. Invitation, 2. Possibility, 3. Ownership 4. Dissent 5. Commitment, 6. Gifts. The invitation conversation obviously comes before any community gathering can take place. Conversations about possibility and ownership can be useful at the start of a gathering, and are useful to reopen after genuine conversations involving the expression of dissent. Conversations about commitment and gifts tend to be more difficult to have early on and so tend to be had towards the end of a gathering.

The invitation

The invitation to the weekend we had together was to come together to work on the commons of the community/non-hierarchical network the group is a part of, Mindfulness for Change. We were coming together to work things that could be valuable for our community as a whole. This included concrete things like building a website and more abstract tasks such as responding to the needs we were hearing in our community from our interviews with community members. The invitation also made specific reference to creating space for “hilarity, ridiculousness, and getting stuff done”.

Implicit in this invitation was accountability and choice — everyone who came knew why we were getting together and that they would be expected to be an active participant, and that if they weren’t willing to commit to that then they wouldn’t come, with no judgment if they refused the invitation. One member of the group was having a busy month and so made the decision to look after himself and not come for the weekend. The group respected this and valued his decision to authentically refuse the invitation.

Possibility, ownership, dissent, and commitment conversations

After the invitation, Block suggests an order for the rest of the identified transformational conversations based on the order of difficulty, but notes that the order can tend to emerge organically anyway so to not be overly concerned about the exact sequence. He recommends starting with possibility, which he distinguishes from problem-solving:

The distinction is between possibility, which lives into the future, and problem-solving, which makes improvements on the past. This distinction takes its value from an understanding that living systems are propelled by the force of the future… The leadership task is to postpone problem-solving and stay focused on possibility until it is spoken with resonance and passion. The good news is that once we have declared a possibility, it works on us — we do not have to work on it.” — Peter Block, Community, pp. 124–125.

We started our weekend in a circle, each taking turns to answer the possibility question of “how will the future be different as a result our our coming together this weekend?” This circle provided a huge burst of energy on the Friday evening that flowed into and shaped the work that we did on Saturday and Sunday.

The conversation about ownership, which Block defines as “the decision to become the author of our own experience”, involves questions such as “how valuable an experience do you plan for this to be?” and “how participative do you plan to be?” We were fortunate in our group to have an already-established culture of ownership and perhaps because of this, the ownership conversation didn’t happen and didn’t feel as if it needed to happen.

Block describes how conversations about doubt and dissent explicitly ask for doubts and reservations, and help to create an opening for commitment. He views creating space for dissent as critical for how diversity gets valued in a community, and reminds us that we don’t necessarily have to respond to or defend against expressed doubts. Instead, he describes how other members of the community and leaders within the community must simply allow space for their expression, to listen and be interested to find out why this is important to the person expressing them. Genuine “no”s are valued as essential and healthy components of commitment.

“No” is the beginning of the conversation for commitment… to create space for dissent is not to leave it hanging there, but to move on to the other conversations of possibility, ownership, and gifts. If people say no, it does not create their dissent, it only expresses it. When someone authentically says no, then the room becomes real and trustworthy. The moment people experience the fact that they can dissent, or express doubts, and not lose their place in the circle, they begin to join as fully fledged citizens” — Peter Block, Community, pp. 132–133.

In our group, conversations about dissent were often explicitly invited and always implicitly invited, and we have cultivated this as a culture. We have a principle of every proposal or suggestion being viewed as a prototype to be iterated on. Being mindful of our attachment to our opinions helps us to more fully listen to other points of view with curiosity when dissent is expressed.

Small challenges or expressions of doubt occurred several times over the course of the weekend. These were almost always a positive influence on the group once they had been explored, whether they led to change or simply a sense of increased ownership from that person that expressed the doubt and had their doubt addressed.

The fifth conversation Block discusses is commitment, and Block notes that this conversation usually occurs later in the process. He stresses the peer-to-peer nature of commitment in community:

Promises that matter are those made to peers, not those made to people who have power over us (parents, bosses, leaders). The future is created through the exchange of promises between citizens, the people with whom we have to live out the intentions of the change.

For us, this happened on the Sunday morning, right before our final conversation about gifts. We summarised what had been done over the weekend, the action points to take forward, and people volunteered their names to be put beside action points. A Trello board was created to keep track of these commitments. One of the commitments was to work on the website — within five days of the end of our time together, our community had a brand-spanking new website up and running. This may never have happened without each of the participants showing up authentically to the commitment conversation (or without the force of nature and website-building whiz that is Peter Jacobson).

Saving the best until last — the Gift Conversation

I can think of no better way to end a working weekend with a group of 10 people who have each committed to working on something bigger than themselves than with a gifts conversation. The work done, future commitments made, we went around the circle and spent time telling each person the gifts that we saw in them. I’ll remember that conversation for a long long time.

Peter Block was invaluable as a guide here, and again a relentless advocate for moving away from problem-solving and towards gifts and possibilities, positive qualities that animate a community and move towards a more valued future. In opening our circle, reading the following passage from Peter Block created a safe and strongly held container for us to courageously stay with the gift conversation and unapologetically receive the offerings of the gifts that other people saw in us:

“Because we are so awkward about this kind of discussion, the conversation needs to be set up in a special way. We ask the person who hears about what they have given to another to say “Thank you, I like hearing that”. We want to let the statements of gifts to have a chance to sink in. Don’t deflect the appreciation. Help them put aside the routine of denying their gifts. Encourage them not to say that others brought it out of them, or what a great group this is, or how they got lucky for once and will try no to let it happen again” — Peter Block, Community, p.141.

When this passage was read aloud, just prior to opening the circle for the gift conversation, it was met with quiet but knowing laughter from around the room. Everyone could recognise the routine, the pattern of denying gifts that goes on for each of us. The mainstream culture many of us were brought up in and still live in often views a focus on gifts as fluffy or even weak. My experience was the opposite — it took a lot of strength to actually accept the gifts others saw in me, and I think most people in the circle found it difficult, even if it felt good to hear other people say nice things about us.

In the end, I found the gift conversation an incredibly powerful experience of being deeply seen for what I offer to the community. Of feeling valuable and valued by this group of people around me. That might be fluffy and give us warm fuzzies (which I hold as valuable outcomes in themselves) but it also gives each of us in the circle an incredibly strong incentive to come back to this community, and keep offering our gifts. It connects us to the people we have shared the gift circle with. I have a strong pull to work with the people, and can’t wait for the next time we’re all working together again.

Couldn’t we all do with more of that in our lives? Working life that works. That feels good AND is a space where things get done? It’s my view that we simply can’t and shouldn’t do without a focus on possibilities, on gifts. If we’re going to change the world, it’s going to take more than a few brave martyrs. We need to invite everyone to the party. And for everyone to turn up, we’ve got to make it fun. It’s got to be energy-giving and rewarding.

Peter Block’s powerful conversations, in combination with a bunch of people committed to mindfulness practice, creates a space that is all of the above and more. My wish is for other people to experience this in their work as well. Please get in touch if you’d like to have a conversation about how you can create more of this in your life — and maybe come to the next Mindfulness for Change Hui, where we’re practicing this together as a community.