Chapter 3. Step Up: Take Responsibility for What You Love

When love is truly responsible, it is also truly free.

—Pope John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope

Taking responsibility for what you love, or, stated more fully, taking responsibility for what you love as an act of service, liberates us to act on our own passions—as long as they also benefit the greater good. Since we don’t know which interactions among us make the difference, this practice points us to a promising source for guidance. I consider it the heart of the practices, because if we step up to it as a daily practice, it can change everything. It opens the way to situational leadership. We no longer need to wait for formal leaders or facilitators to declare an initiative or pose a good question. Any one of us can do so by taking responsibility for what we love as an act of service. When invited to do so, people consistently rise to the occasion. It may be messy, because most of us haven’t been prepared to take responsibility for ourselves. Yet, over and over, people from all backgrounds develop the internal guidance to take responsible action. In doing so, they discover their connection to themselves, others, and the larger whole.

This chapter explores the notion of taking responsibility for what you love as an act of service. It also discusses two practices we commonly develop from using this skill: connecting and listening. As with every practice in part 2, I’ll discuss the practice, tell a story, and share some tips for application.

How can we use our differences and commonalities to make a difference?

By pursuing what matters to us individually, we often discover commonalities in our mutual needs and longings. Yet few of us follow our individual passions! Most of us were taught that pursuing what we love is selfish. So we set aside what makes us different and unique, and sacrifice ourselves for the common good. In practice, this choice often leads to unfulfilled, unhappy people who secretly take out their resentment on others. In contrast, when we embrace what we love, deeper meaning supersedes ego. We connect to something universal.

Just consider the power of this notion: paying attention to what we love. It frees us to interact in whatever way we see fit, to express our individuality fully. It challenges us to rise to the best in ourselves. It summons us to sense within, to bring our passions and abilities front and center, and to use them responsibly, come what may. When was the last time we were invited to do that? To do so takes both discerning what we love and having the self-love to bring it forward. These qualities help us to engage emergence.

By acting responsibly from a place of caring, we discover that both the needs of individuals and the needs of the collective are served. In fact, this discovery is a measure of success. When both individuals and the collective win, higher-order coherence is emerging. Though it may initially be disruptive, our uniqueness turns into creative contributions to the whole community. Another counterintuitive twist: withholding our individuality becomes the selfish act.

Many of us live with an unspoken belief that to belong, we must conform. Taking responsibility for what you love as an act of service can change this deeply ingrained cultural behavior. When we follow the energy of what matters to us, our distinctiveness contributes its creative potential. Time after time, unexpected and creative coherence emerges when people bring forth their unique voices. As this Journalism That Matters story shows, it also keeps the atmosphere hopping.

During the opening of a 2007 Journalism That Matters gathering in Washington, DC, a 30-year veteran expressed his irritation with the state of “citizen journalism.” Throughout the conference, fierce conversations raged between longtime journalists and newcomers. During the closing, that same veteran, with the same intensity, told us that the lively exchanges had uncovered the primary difference between pros and serious amateurs. The differences: (1) who gets paid, and (2) professionals cover stories, citizens share their stories.

One cranky journalist raised the bar on speaking authentically and passionately. He was determined to discover the difference that makes a difference between professionals and amateurs. He helped us all to understand a simple insight about changing relationships because he dared speak what was real for him. He helped everyone present experience the richness of creative engagement in its full voice.

Another lesson from this practice: When what is happening no longer interests us, leave. If we stay somewhere out of obligation, even when we’re physically present, chances are we are absent in all other ways. Rather than our staying to be polite, if we have mentally checked out, this practice liberates us to go.

Taking responsibility for what you love as an act of service is a great life practice. The next time you notice yourself acting from obligation, test it out. Maybe you don’t want to join the family dinner at Aunt Mabel’s. What matters to you? Perhaps when you think about it, the sense of family is worth the questions about when you’re going to get married. Or not. You choose. If you decide to go to Mabel’s, it’s guaranteed that your attitude will be different.

Beyond the personal, stewardship—tending to our collective needs—is a form of taking responsibility for what you love as an act of service. For example, if the river we grew up near is being polluted, it inspires us to act. Caring for the common good—whether the land, an organization, or relationships among us—is a key aspect of this practice.

I’ve struggled for a shorter phrase than take responsibility for what you love as an act of service and have given up for now. It is the essence of engaging, of taking initiative. Until we’ve got some practice with the idea, without the whole phrase as a reminder, we might stay in our seats waiting for someone else to act.

Tips for Taking Responsibility for What You Love as an Act of Service

This simple, radical notion liberates us to act on what matters most. Be aware: it is contagious.

Listen to inner guidance. Ask yourself what matters to you. Discover, in essence, what brings you meaning. Consider the “shoulds” in your life. If they have no deeper meaning, let them go. Do what brings you joy, trusting that it serves the greater good.

Stand for what matters to you. Learn how to disrupt productively. You can make your voice heard, even on unpopular matters, if you do it with compassion.

Learn, contribute, have fun, or leave. Pay attention to your energy. If you have no juice for what is happening, do everyone a favor—be respectful and leave.

Be generous. When we give ourselves room to follow our passions, it awakens a sense of abundance in us. Honor the space that others need to grow more fully into themselves.

Most formal meeting facilitation structures participation. Everyone attends to the same issues at the same time. Perhaps circumstances exist where this is useful, but the most creative, energized, committed results occur when people follow their passions while being of service. It helps those with shared aspirations to discover each other. Nuggets of truth often hidden in anger, fear, grief, and joy arise as creative innovations. We find common cause, discover a deeper sense of self, a more human “other,” and feel we are part of something greater.

Two capacities develop when we pursue what matters to us: listening and connecting.

Listen: Sense Broadly and Deeply; Witness with Self-Discipline

How do we more fully understand each other and our environment?

Listening cultivates a sense of the whole. It helps surface differences, connections, what we understand, what is mysterious. With practice, we can listen not just with our ears, but with all of our senses, including our heart and our intuition. Technologies make everything from bones to brainwaves available, amplifying our abilities to sense larger patterns.

Some structures, such as those provided by emergent change processes, make it easier to hear one another. Particularly in conflicted situations, when we know we will have a chance to speak about what matters to us, we are more generous in how we listen. Perhaps something others say can aid our work. In essence, useful structures provide space so that we open our hearts as well as our minds, knowing we have room to be heard.

Listening develops self-discipline. It enhances our ability to be with difference while maintaining common bonds. With practice, we learn to moderate our responses, increasing our capacity to witness without the need to judge, fix, blame, correct, applaud, cheer, shout, or say or do anything else. Unquestionably, times exist for all of these actions. Still, isn’t it great to know that you can choose your response? The quality of our listening changes the conversation. Meaning arises that none of us could have found on our own.

Listen without judgment and with compassion. Most of us treat disagreements as a reason to debate, to convince the other person that we’re right. Listening is sometimes used as a strategy for discovering arguments to undermine others rather than a means to understand them more fully. When I first discovered Circle Process, which elicits deep speaking and listening, I found an inquiry that served me well whenever I disagreed with something. I’d say, “That’s an interesting perspective. Tell me more.” The responses always took me deeper into another’s world. The question also works well when I’m at odds with myself, uncovering deeper and sometimes contradictory assumptions that I hold.

One of my favorite stories about the transformative power of listening comes from my longtime learning partner, Mark Jones. He took the importance of listening to a new level in a life-threatening situation. Being willing to deeply listen made all the difference.

In the summer of 2001, I was living and working in the city of New Orleans. I spent every Saturday morning in a small, secluded park practicing classical guitar. I rarely saw anyone else. One Saturday morning, I heard aggressive voices echoing across the park. The voices got louder as six young white men emerged from the trees and walked toward me. I tracked them discreetly as I heard highly inflammatory racial epithets referring to me. They had apparently decided that I was an African-American. (I am.) They were verbalizing an intention to do me considerable bodily harm, if not commit downright murder.

As they got closer, I estimated their ages as 22 to 27. And they looked healthy. I put away my guitar and slowly stood up. (I’m tall and healthy myself.) When they were eight feet away, they began to fan out to surround me. I quietly said, “Don’t do that,” and became very calm. My mind was processing two different streams of thought. One stream said that I needed to be prepared to die, to kill, or both. And the other said that there must be a creative, peaceful solution available from the insight that everyone wants and needs to be heard, seen, and loved.

The young men informed me that they belonged to a group of like-minded individuals who found my existence to be an affront to their personal sensitivities and to their god. They had been monitoring my appearance every Saturday for weeks and had determined that hurting me would provide an object lesson so that people would respect place and decorum. And they prepared to pounce.

I turned to face the “mouthiest” of the group. I had determined that he was the leader and the one that I would attack if I decided to respond aggressively. In a friendly and interested tone of voice, I asked him to tell me his personal story about why he wanted to harm me, how I was an affront to him. I told him that regardless of the outcome of the day, it was important to me to understand him, his life, his suffering, his frustrations, and his dreams.

For the next 45 minutes, he and his colleagues told me of their dreams and aspirations, values, beliefs, norms, proclamations, behaviors, essential conditioning, and experiences that had led them to this moment. It was a powerful and enriching dialogue. I was gifted with many insights about their conditions and conditioning that I had not been aware of. And they learned things about me that had them intensely curious and thoroughly amused. I asked them if they felt heard by me. They said yes and expressed appreciation for the opportunity. I asked them if they felt that they knew me. They said yes.

I then asked them, “Now what?” Six pairs of downcast eyes and one voice said that it was too bad that I had not shown up today. They might have killed me.

I told them that I was going to show up the next Saturday and wanted to know if they would kill me when I showed up. The leader said, “Yeah, we will kill you, but I don’t want to. But we have to.” Three of his colleagues blanched and said that they would not participate.

The leader asked me not to show up. I asked him, from what he understood of me, what was I going to do? He said I was going to show up. I asked him what he was going to do. He laughed and said he’d get back to me on that one.

I did show up at the park the next Saturday, and for most Saturdays until the weather precluded it. I never encountered that group of young men again. But I learned an important lesson about people needing first to be heard, in order to be seen. And that lesson probably saved my life.

Like all mammals, we have an innate need for belonging, being part of a coherent whole: a family, a workplace, a nation. As Mark’s story poignantly shows, often fiercely holding on to an identity produces disturbances that divide us. One color oppressing another, nation against nation, religion versus religion. Even within a shared identity, we forget that it is not only possible but healthy to express anger or dismay to someone or something we love. Mark’s story is a taste of what’s possible. Unexpectedly creative encounters can lead to deeper bonds. They can bring about a more complex coherence, a differentiated wholeness. In other words, our distinctions contribute to a spirit of unity in which we are more than the sum of our parts.

Tips for Listening

Listening, through all of our senses, informs us. It equips us to engage.

Listen without judgment. By all means, notice your responses. Use them to understand the other person more fully. If, for example, you are shocked by what you hear, rather than reacting, ask a question that helps you to understand more fully.

Use more than your ears. We can listen through all of our senses—ears, eyes, touch, taste, smell, intuition, and technologies that expand our senses. We are remarkable instruments for taking in information, finding patterns, making meaning.

Check for understanding. Repeat what you heard and ask if you heard correctly. At first, it can take many tries before another feels understood.

Listening often tunes us to another. It helps us to discover connections with each other and our environment.

Connect: Bridge Differences and Bond with Others

How do we link ourselves and our ideas with others similar to and different from ourselves?

Surprisingly similar ideas surface over and over when people with different perspectives creatively interact. We discover that what is most personally meaningful is universal. And more, we discover that we are not alone but part of some larger whole. As we experience this discovery, something shifts. “I” see myself as part of a larger “we.” In this marriage of “I” and “we,” something else emerges. We relate not just to each other but also to the whole. A social system—a community—emerges. It has its own identity, distinct from the individuals in it. And we are part of it. We share a common story, common intentions. Because we know in essence that we want the same things, our differences cease to be obstacles. They become creative pathways to unexpected innovations that contain what is vital to each of us and all of us. Our capacity and desire to listen to each other grows.

Here is a story of connecting. It was achieved through Future Search, a process that has the potential to transform an organization or community’s capability for action in one meeting. With “the whole system in the room” (a cross-section of the organization or community), people generate a shared vision, an implementation plan, and a high commitment to act—all in less than three days. (See “About Emergent Change Processes” for a description of Future Search.) Sandra Janoff, cocreator of Future Search, offers this example of what is possible when conditions foster connection, even in a traditional organization.

In a Future Search with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, a diverse slice of system users, regulators, and technology experts gathered to address the near-certainty of overcrowded airspace and potential gridlock in the skies. From past experiences in frustrating meetings, they came in with great cynicism.

Would they be willing to collaborate when changes in how air traffic was managed might cause pain to them all? As they worked together, they realized that the leadership for the future of aviation was in the room. Finally, one of the participants said, “We can’t pass the buck anymore. We are the system. If we don’t have the commitment and ownership, who does? We have to make the changes and share the pain.”

They went on to tackle the “first-come, first-served” norm. They created a new system of accountability that would relieve daily congestion based on data from the whole system. Responsibility was shared by all.

As this story illustrates, when people discover that they are the system, everything changes. Not only can they act, but they are eager to do so, even when the work is challenging.

Tips for Connecting

Connecting is at its best when we can express ourselves fully, knowing that it contributes to something larger.

Be yourself. Though the idea is counterintuitive, our distinctions cohere into a larger whole. How can we discover that if we don’t show up fully?

Listen for deeper meaning. Often, disagreements show up in how to accomplish something. Pay attention to what’s underneath, why it matters. Shared values frequently arise when we understand each other. We become willing to work through our differences. In fact, our differences become creative resources.

Seek common ground. Rather than focusing on differences, notice what brings us together. It provides a basis for collective action.

Taking responsibility for what we love as an act of service and its companions, listening and connecting, are fundamental life skills. They are a great foundation for all interactions. In particular, they set the stage for preparing to engage emergence.

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On to Chapter 4. Prepare: Foster an Attitude for Engaging