Chapter 11. Seek Meaning

There’s a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure the truth.

—Maya Angelou, in I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America

For many, entering the unknown of emergence is akin to experiencing a dark night of the soul—an internal struggle, a questioning of one’s purpose, that often leads to a spiritual awakening. Why do it without believing that it will lead to something useful . . . more than useful, something deeply meaningful?

Without meaning, nothing jells. Oren Lyons of the Iroquois nation states it eloquently: “We talk until there’s nothing left but the obvious truth.” Such truth is the threshold for action. When we can all find meaning in what emerges, something palpable shifts in our relationship with each other and ourselves. Our perception of the whole of which we are a part is more nuanced, more richly textured. Diverse perspectives no longer separate us. They connect us more deeply.

How do we surface what matters to individuals and to the whole?

Given time to reflect, we humans have a natural capacity for recognizing patterns, discovering coherence where none previously existed. But which patterns matter? How do we surface the ones with legs that move us?

When emergent change practitioners bring together diverse, conflicted groups around subjects they care about, it is like watching evolution through time-lapse photography. People enter angry or confused, full of distrust, holding firm to a position. Chances are, these feelings arise because many of them are understandably attached to what currently gives them meaning. Good hosting creates conditions that encourage authentic interactions. It supports them in loosening their grip on what they hold dear. In the process, meaning that connects a more complex and diverse mix of people and ideas can arise. Perhaps a conversation happens among a small, random cluster. Cued by implicit and explicit signals that different perspectives are welcome, the exchanges grow in civility. Participants become more curious about each other. As they open up, they may share what they love or what hurts, what makes them angry or what they fear. Once emptied of whatever baggage they brought, they speak of what they long for, their hopes and dreams.

At some point, there’s laughter—a sign that the energy has shifted. It is like a phase transition from ice to water. Less energy is needed to tend the whole as people begin taking responsibility for their own behavior. They start caring for each other. Groups separate and re-form, the members carrying the seeds of their encounters. Many are touched by the experience. They continue mingling with others, and something remarkable begins to happen.

People connect with others around a few key ideas. They might even discover that they like each other, or at least respect each other. They notice that the same themes are surfacing everywhere. Like attracts like. Before they know it, clusters form. Without any attempt to reach widespread agreement, a sense of commitment to a shared whole arises. People discover that what is most personally meaningful is also universal. While maintaining each person’s distinctiveness, they become a social body connected through shared meaning.

A network grows in real time. No one orchestrates who connects with whom. Neighbors interact around whatever they find meaningful. Some feel so attracted to the cause that they become hubs in a network. They draw others to them, and clusters grow larger as the members bring their connections with them. Then one hub connects with another hub, and something coalesces, with hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people involved. Spirit is renewed; perhaps wisdom—knowledge and knowing deeper than the rational mind—is gained. Some deep truth is reignited. The form is novel, elegant, dynamic yet stable. It is more complex and more inclusive. Such is the potential of seeking meaning.

Consider the implications when technologies like Twitter support spontaneously organizing crowds with a cause. Retrospectively, Twitter may be cited as the reason why protests following Iran’s June 2009 election were supported around the world. Activists on the ground in Tehran used Twitter to interact with each other and with the world outside. Rapid feedback affirmed an increasingly clear message: the future is in the hands of the people.1 The sheer force of numbers coming together pressured a repressive regime from within and without. While the life-and-death struggle for the soul of that nation continues, the trajectory of events like the Iranian election is clear. As social network technologies enable increasingly complex order, governments that don’t reflect the voice of the people will have a tough time maintaining control.

Technology plays an important role in finding shared meaning at scale. With its swift feedback and broad reach, the Internet is accelerating the pace and increasing the numbers of us who can participate. Something novel is emerging, enabled by technology. Something simple, yet quite complex. And deeply meaningful.

What supports such possibilities to emerge? Whether at the magnitude of a nation, an organization, or a small group, seeking shared meaning involves bringing forth authentic voices to air and explore differences. Circle Process provides a lens into what takes place at any scale. It elicits deep speaking and listening that seems to arise from the form itself—a ring of chairs and a clearly defined purpose. (See ”About Emergent Change Processes” for a description of Circle Process.)

Christina Baldwin, PeerSpirit Circle Process consultant-author, puts it this way: “When people put chairs in a circle, it shifts the dynamic of a group. Leadership is embedded within the group and within the process. Shifting shape helps open the emergent conversation by focusing on the rim and the center.”

In their several decades of refining PeerSpirit Circle Process, Christina and her partner, Ann Linnea, have become careful designers of social space capable of holding a group together while it explores issues of diversity, wholeness, and meaning. Says Ann, “In Circle Process, we design a tangible center that elicits the search for coherence in the group. We have been known to carry a bicycle wheel into an organization to demonstrate how the edge and the center of the circle are connected. We count on every person to speak their truth, and we count on each one to energetically address comments to the center so the hub is strong. The center represents a shared purpose, task, or question. The rim represents divergence.”

Circle Process brought highly divergent opinions together in the national board of the Financial Planning Association (FPA), an organization formed out of two previously competing entities. Christina tells the story of how Circle Process supported FPA in using its diversity to find shared meaning.

Former board member and president Elizabeth Jetton described the situation to me when we began: “Two organizations glued themselves together with the shared belief that it was time to be one association. But we had no process for that emergence to occur. Our first meeting was with Robert’s Rules of Order, a gavel, and chairs facing a panel of staff and directors. We brought the question ‘Who are we going to be now?’ But there was no way to talk about it in the format of the meeting. We spent a painful year, with lots of facilitators coming and going and a sense that to discover some kind of cohesiveness, we needed to get away and talk with and listen to each other.”

The board had already shifted the chairs into a circle before Ann and I got involved. But they had not yet understood the notion of a center. Trust didn’t exist. People had misused power as decisions were made (or unmade) in committees, in subgroups, or at the hotel bar late at night. Those decisions were not always shared with the whole board.

I coached a board meeting in October 2002, convened to refine the organization’s sense of purpose and functionality. I found 40 board members and staff in a huge conference room sitting in a large circle with a bare hotel coffee table in the center. They used a hand-held microphone to pass the sanction to talk from person to person.

I watched them check in throughout the morning. Some people were brief, some long-winded. I could sense tension between members with differing ideas. Several spent their time in diatribes refuting previous speakers. The verbal energy was zinging around the space. Shared meaning was absent. At an appropriate coaching moment, I suggested the process would significantly improve if everyone spoke to the center, introducing the bicycle wheel imagery. Two young board members volunteered to design a meaningful focal point during the noon break.

When we came back in the room, the volunteers had carted in brick-sized stones from the hotel landscaping. They made a four-foot fire ring on the carpeting using small branches pruned off the hotel shrubbery to construct a tipi “fire.” Small orange gourds represented the flames. It was an unusual leap for a group of financial planners! Folks were amused, and they took it seriously. The young planners explained that they hoped this fire circle would allow the group to get to the heat of their issues. They invited each person to offer their comments as fuel serving a common goal. They also placed four bowls of smooth stones around the circle, suggesting that whenever a person heard someone else make a comment that advanced shared meaning, they put a stone in the fire to acknowledge the contribution.

The board chair brought up the next topic and passed the microphone to garner commentary. Facing the “fire,” they began to see their divergent voices feed the flame. Men who had been in heated opposition placed stones acknowledging their opponents. People stopped competing. When they needed to vote, board members rolled their conference chairs closer to the fire to see and hear each other without the mike. The staff held the outer rim. Building on this success, the next day they did the “paperwork”—breaking into small groups to craft agreements of self-governance, set goals, and articulate a vision statement that has kept them focused ever since.

Marv Tuttle, current executive director, often speaks about FPA’s dedication to alternative group processes to other association leaders. “When I tell them we do three-day board meetings in circle with small groups operating in Open Space and that we do World Café with hundreds of members, they don’t know what to think. Planners tend to be entrepreneurial, go-getters, quick thinkers. I explain that circle teaches us to hold long, sustained conversations that lead to a clear decision point. We have held substantial conversations about standards in the financial services industry. For example, it took us five years to come to a decision to press a lawsuit—which we won—with the Securities and Exchange Commission. We were clear about our intentions going into the suit, thanks to the long, clarifying, open-ended conversations we had in circle. Sometimes it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up when we get to a point of understanding our commitment to an issue or each other. You don’t get that in usual meetings.”2

As the FPA story demonstrates, meaning emerges when we find our center. Shared meaning emerges when our individual centers connect to a commonly held center. Circles, with their hub and rim, make this notion of center visible. Networks are formed as many hubs connect, taking this pattern to scale. An important clue of new organizational forms resides in understanding that meaning connects us.

Whether in a network, hierarchy, or other shape, shared purpose binds us together. Finding the center happens when we give ourselves time and space to discover how the differences among us coalesce into a coherent whole.

Practices for Seeking Meaning

  • Open: be receptive.

How do we make space for the whole story—good, bad, or indifferent?

Be willing to be more in questions than answers.

  • Listen: sense broadly and deeply, witnessing with self-discipline.

How do we more fully understand each other and our environment?
Pay attention using all of your senses to learn and adapt.

  • Connect: bridge differences and bond with others.
    How do we link ourselves and our ideas with others similar to and different from ourselves?

Listen for deeper meaning to seek common ground.

  • Reflect: sense patterns, be a mirror.

What is arising now?

Get curious. Ask questions that tease out what is coming into being. Be a witness for another.

  • Take responsibility for what you love as an act of service.

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

Get involved with what matters, listening and connecting along the way.

Seeking meaning brings us together around what is most fundamental to us collectively, without asking us to sacrifice our individuality. Tradeoffs and compromises are not required in order for individuals and the collective to discover shared meaning. Rather, we allow simplicity to arise.

Back to the Table of Contents

On to Chapter 12. Simplify