I’m pretty psyched at having some of my suggestions published in a book called ”101 Great Ideas for Growing Healthy Churches”.
Here’s one of them. In the book, its billed as an idea to help Churches move from hierarchical ways of working, to more participative and relational forms of decision-making. However, it can be used in any context where groups of people work together.
During a retreat at a Franciscan friary, I asked the Abbot whether he had any practical tips on how to really honour diversity at a practical level. He replied:
“If you believe that God works through all of us, it behoves you to live out this truth. One way of doing this is to treat every conversation with a spirit of anticipation, expecting to hear how God is working through them and eagerly wanting to make sense of what He is saying to us, through them”.
On the whole, we don’t do this well. Instead, our conversations are more often about telling others what we think, especially if we have some kind of authority over others. In leadership, this can lead to an overly top down approach to decision making. To try and change this pattern of behaviour, my colleagues Stephen Littlejohn and Phil Simpson and I developed an exercise called the “keynote listener” which worked really well at a Youth Conference in Sri Lanka. It is based on the notion that:
- people are naturally knowledgeable, creative and purposeful because we are made in the image of God;
- every human system (communities, organisations, schools, churches, etc) is “polyphonic” ie, multi voiced. Actively listening to, and acting on these diverse voices make for better decision-making.
It’s a dialogical approach that seeks to reverse the traditional problem solving process by asking people in authority not to present what they know and think, but to listen to; and engage with, the wisdom of others. It is an attempt to genuinely gather, and make sense of, the collective wisdom of the crowd.
The idea is to structure inquiry sessions on the issues your church, team or organisation is facing, in creative ways, for example, using talk, posters, drama, music, dance, etc. The role of keynote listeners is to attend these sessions, listen carefully to the contributions, stories, dilemmas and questions in order to help co-create solutions and possibilities for the future.
Since then, we have used this exercise for church and organisational events with great effect. This works best when it is possible to bring the whole system, or as many as possible, into one place. Rather than having the usual address from the front from Keynote Listeners, we reframe them as “Keynote Listeners”. Their role is to listen to the ideas of participants and to help make sense of how best to go on, in the context of diversity and complexity. A commitment to this principle generates ownership and a sense of being a movement.
If you want to try this, here are some guidance for your Keynote listeners:
Ask them to listen out for (through all forms of communication, verbal and non-verbal):
- Motivating values
- Concerns and worries
- Passion and feelings
- Visions and ideals
- Content (what do people want to talk about?)
Brief them to:
- Try not to influence the conversations but remain in silent listening mode.
- Set their own thoughts and opinions aside.
- Listen with curiosity , appreciation and fascination, even when they hear ideas that they do not agree with.
- Enter the ‘grammar’ of the participants and hear the way they express their ideas. Hear their worlds and how they connect to ideas and thoughts of others.
- Observe how participants relate to and interact with one another.
- Stay faithful to the role and remember that its not the time to put your own thoughts but a moment in which you concentrate on the ideas of others.
Give the Keynote listeners the opportunity to reflect on what they have heard and to share their insights in a feedback session. This too, works well as a conversation rather than someone simply speaking from the front. You could interview them.
The following are questions you might ask:
- What surprised you in what you heard?
- What moved you?
- What most intrigued you?
- What were the hotspots?
- What was your sense of what was unsaid?
- Were there “elephants in the room?”
- What is different for you now after being a keynote listener?
- What would you like to learn/hear more of?
- What would you say is the “voice” or common theme of this community?
- What differences still divide this community based on what you heard?
- What is one piece of wisdom you gained?
- What new insights did you learn?
- Given all you’ve heard, what connections would you like to make?
So… if you have a situation where you want to change the usual top down pattern of how things are done, why not give is a go? There is nothing to lose and I would suggest, everything to gain!
On the surface, this methodology simply helps foster active listening. However, it goes much deeper than that. It opens the door to a more participative and collaborative culture by creating genuine change through dialogue. Edgar Schien explains this brilliantly when he made the helpful distinction between communication and dialogue (conversations) in his article “On Dialogue, Culture, and Organizational Learning”. According to Schien: