Since July 2007 Steve Byers has hosted a monthly conversation at a fair trade café in downtown Olympia, Washington. “I convened this gathering so that colleagues and friends would have a regular opportunity to engage in meaningful conversation around topics of interest to us as change agents in our community,” he says. “I believe our purpose is to learn from each other through conversation.”
After completing the Organization Systems Renewal graduate program at Seattle University, I was looking for different ways to practice. I was, and am, motivated by a quote from the poet David Whyte, who has said many times, “… the conversation is the relationship.” I decided that I would show up every month to host a conversation. I believed that showing up and being part of an ongoing conversation would create and nurture relationships.
I’ve shown up every month, and it’s been three years since I held the space alone (it was a warm sunny day in late spring, so it’s no mystery why Olympians chose to stay outside!). Usually five to ten people join me, and sometimes we’ve had to form two or three small groups to accommodate everyone in the café setting. Participants include retired and current state government employees, educators, consultants and facilitators, graduate students and AmeriCorps workers, a founder of a democratic school in Olympia, people involved in public health, a graphic recorder, and members of the local Community Network. Occasionally I find myself with four or five new participants and no “regulars,” which is fascinating.
Certain principles have evolved as we try to keep focused on what matters. We don’t solve problems, we don’t debate, and we don’t give advice. When someone does have a situation or problem that is relevant to the topic of the day, we engage by asking good questions to help the owner of the problem draw on her own wisdom. I think The World Café, which most of us have experienced, if not designed and hosted, influences our behavior, as well. We seek to connect diverse perspectives on any given issue or subject.
How do we start?
We generally begin with a check-in around the group, as a way of reminding ourselves to slow down a bit and appreciate who’s at the table. “What in the last week has made you feel most alive?” or “What brings you to this conversation today?” Then we start with a topic or a question, sometimes connected to an article or link I provided with the email invitation one week prior.
We start with a topic or question, and the conversation goes where it will. We are never trying to get anywhere. Recently several participants in the Occupy Olympia movement joined a conversation that began with Argyris’s Mutual Learning Model and gradually shifted to the regulars asking questions to learn about the “General Assembly” process.
What do we talk about?
Most of our topics and questions tie directly to these broad areas, which also agree with my emphasis in professional practice: systems thinking, leadership, inquiry, and conversation as a core process.
Within these areas, we have dived into Peter Block’s Six Conversations, the iceberg metaphor for systemic inquiry and change, mind-mapping, the Mutual Learning Model, adaptive challenges and adaptive leadership, “The Little Book of Practice” from ALIA, how to shape powerful questions, what it means to be part of a learning organization, causal loop diagrams, Fred Kofman’s “Conscious Business,” World Café design, the Art of Hosting, columns from Donella Meadows’s “The Global Citizen,” and poetry and art that we have found meaningful and helpful in our work.
What has emerged from these conversations?
There have been many connections and relationships formed, of course, and fresh consulting collaborations, and new learning takes place during every conversation.
People have a chance to explore something new or share their perspective in a welcoming environment. First Wednesday is a good place to practice “having the new conversation, and to learn how to stop having the old conversations” (David Whyte).
Why it works
First Wednesday works because we have a great space at “Traditions Fair Trade,” because Olympia is just the right size for this sort of thing, and because there is genuine interest in our community to learn and to change things for the better. And, I believe it works because I always show up.
The 2012 conversation schedule will be sent out as a mind map with links to reading materials or videos, both to remind people about mind mapping and to create a more memorable invitation. I’m excited about the topics for 2012, and am happy to share the mind map with anyone interested.