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One core dynamic we find in almost all generative communities is an interplay between convening and narrating. Convening means coming together as a community, whether in dyads, small groups or large ones, to explore who we are as a community, to discuss pressing opportunities, and to chart our course forward. Narrating, in turn, means the stories we tell about our community, updates about what’s happening, songs, images, and videos of our history and activity, in short, all the symbolic “stuff” that reflects and supports our identity as a community.

Given how broadly we paint convening and narrating – something we do on purpose – it’s no surprise that there are many ways communities can engage in convening and narrating. And they do. Thing is, they’re not all made equal when it comes to nurturing generativity. Corporate communications is narrating done badly. Most city meetings are convening done badly. Powerpoint presentations are both done badly at the same time. Extra points for Powerpoint.

But it’s not all gloom and doom. Both convening and narrating can also be done well. And it was in that spirit of optimism into how convening can be done well that five fellow explorers – Peggy Holman, Chuck Peters, Peter Pula, Nathan Senge & Benjamin Smith – met in virtual quarters to ask a seemingly simple question:

What specific convening practices and patterns are effective in nurturing generativity in a community?

What conclusions did we come to?

Above all, the result of this conversation was some quiet reassurance that we’re not crazy. That is, not crazy in thinking that convening communities in spaces of openness, diversity, and opportunity has revolutionary potential. That simply getting people together and allowing them to truly speak their minds might make something shift in both individuals and communities. And that the quality of those spaces, the ways in which those conversations are held, is of great import. In a world so very focused on getting things done better! faster! cheaper!, the idea that we should attend instead to how we gather seems a little mad to most. It was nice to be in the company of like minds.

That dose of encouragement would have been enough, but we were gifted with much more as well. We were reminded through our experiences that convening well is a delicate task. Specifically, our conversation coalesced around four questions or aspects of convening to which we might attend.

Convening deeply enough

Convening has a focus on connection and grounding. That is to say, when we gather it is easy and natural to want to build strong relationships, to swap stories, to get to know one another, to tell jokes, and share our troubles. All of which are great for building a shared sense of community. But they’re not so great for getting anything done.

All of us had experiences in which the depth of the convening led to inaction. Indeed, it seems a real “danger” of convening that we get too comfortable with one another, we get too docile in our connectedness that we forget the task at hand, whatever that may be in our own community. This is the opposite extreme to better-faster-cheaper.

Thus, the question arose whether we need to pay attention to “convening deeply enough” but not any deeper. In other words, do conveners need to make sure that personal connection is built between participants, but also remain sensitive to going too far? At the same time, Peggy and Chuck suggested that we not train our focus too sharply on any one convening event; deep connection at one event could lead to ‘inaction’ in the immediate term and yet have real, significant ripple effects much further down the road. In truth, we have to be comfortable with just not knowing where it is to manifest.

Narrating and convening: sequential or simultaneous

What is the exact relationship between narrating and convening? Do they need to be thought of as a sequential chain – convening followed by narrating followed by convening and so on – or do they run parallel to one another? As we explore the interplay between the two, this has become a central question. Our basic conclusion was that the answer largely depends on how developed the practices are within a community. Communities that are just beginning to move toward generative practices will require greater intentionality and therefore likely benefit from a more structured approach. In other words, they may do well to think about the interplay in a more mechanical fashion: first we convene, then we need to narrate, and so on. But once the generative practices of convening and narrating have become integrated into a community, they will flow freely like many threads that sometimes cross, sometimes run parallel, and sometimes join into one.

Structure for freedom

A closely related theme was the idea of ‘structure for freedom’. In our experience, developed generative communities are living systems in which all practices nurture generativity, and the five conditions of connecting, grounding, informing, discussing, and engaging hum along self-sustaining and mutually supportive. But that living dynamic is not where communities start. Like learning a new instrument, the beginning stages through which a community must pass must be much more structured. In this case it’s not scales, finger patterns, and études that must be learned, but deep listening, convening and narrating practices that require a more mechanical focus if they are later to become second nature.

A shared canon

As the conversation turned more to narrative, the question arose whether communities thrive better when they have a shared canon of narrative references. Think of an academic community, such as sociology, with their shared canon of Comte, Durkheim, and Weber, country music with The Carter Family, Hank Williams, and Johnny Cash, or Christianity with Moses, Job, and Mary. In each of these cases, a canon – a pool of common narratives – serves as a reference point for shared identity and as a tool for interpreting current experience.

These example communities – sociology, country music, and Christianity – seem to make a good argument in favor of a shared canon. And yet, we’re faced with the difficulty that the majority of the communities we work with today, from municipalities and schools to companies and nonprofit organizations, tend not to have anything like a canon. Indeed, these communities tend to have such a diversity of members that their narrative reference points are rarely all that similar. What to do?

One possibility that came up was that the activity of narrating within a community could be seen as the creation of such a shared canon. Where none previously existed, inclusive and diverse narration could be a practice of building a set of stories and other narratives that can over time begin to function as a common reference point.

From Our Discussion

We have compiled ten of the most salient offerings from our conversation on these many themes below. We hope they may serve as entry points into yet deeper terrain on these issues.

A convener has to be strong and attuned. I play with compassion and curiosity when faced with disruption. I play the not-knowing and the mystery of it, with the ability to reflect both alone and with others in spaces of collective reflection, in which our interests can arise and our differences can become a source of imaginativity. This puts convening and narrating in a rhythm.

Peggy Holman

An effective convener is a master of many skills. At their root is less what practices they use, than how they are with the group.

One needs to know one’s own canon in any métier. And here, we need to learn the canon of what’s been done before on the interchange of convening and narrating. A lot has been done on each individually, but not so much on how they feed into one another and spur generativity. Without knowing the legacy of that work, you will not be able to couple the lessons of the perennial with the nuances of the contemporary.

Nathan Senge

Much exploration has been done into convening and narrating separately. Little has been done into their interplay.

I keep speaking of generative journalism and the new narrative arts that’s happening now, which is so different from journalism. It’s a co-created artistic exercise. People are preparing all kinds of narrative forms that you wouldn’t consider from any stretch of the imagination to be ‘journalism.’ In fact, the media people in the room and the citizens create this civic-communications space together, and it doesn’t fit the format of media. It’s sadly too often edited, changed, restricted, or forced into a box where it doesn’t belong or is shunted aside. This co-created narrative work needs to have its own space.

Peter Pula

Effective narrative can be so much more than just reports and video clips. The whole spectrum of the arts – stories, song, poetry, visual arts, dance, architecture, and beyond – should be seen as equal candidates as narrative media.

Take the Christian church, where there’s a range of narrative forms. It could take the form of a sermon, or a newsletter. And what do you want to call the musical aspect? Narrating and convening at same time? What do you call the church architecture itself? There’s narrative built into the very stone-work. Yet it’s also a vessel for convening. So we can look at the church and say that they have sermons and potlucks during which they do convening and narrating, but they’re also doing that in all these other ways which we shouldn’t sleight. Those other ways can be more artistic. For what’s the nativity play? It’s an artistic embodiment of both narration and convening. The children of the congregation gather regularly to learn and practice and perform a narrative of identity for the rest of the congregation that’s set to song.

Ben Smith

The Christian church itself is an exemplar of how various art forms can be leveraged in service of effective narration.

For so much of my history I had thought I focused almost exclusively on the narrative side, but, if you think about it, each journalistic interview is itself a convening out of which comes a narrative artifact. So, you’re being present in your querying and making of the artifact and then weaving it back into the community. The two modes can run concurrently. One may not necessarily have to emanate from the other, though this does happen sometimes and makes for a kind of in-breath, out-breath rhythm over time.  But a convening may also spark something for a narrator that does not directly tie into the convening but weave its own thread. Likely, eventually, that thread will come back.

Peter Pula

Convening and narrating do not have to be sequential. There are ways they can run side by side.

I’m interested in this idea of concurrent narrating and convening. That generativity can happen even when narrating and convening are not formally linked. For narrating doesn’t need to lead into convening, and vice-versa. No one is trying to direct it. It simply happens in a living-systems fashion.

Ben Smith

Living systems are open, and in this they are anti-entropic. This is yet another definition of ‘generativity.’

All along we’ve been assuming we’re in a generative space and the dance is going on and artifacts are emerging but my experience is that it’s hard to get that started even if it’s by invitation. Whoever shows up is the right person and whatever happens is the right thing but the tendency is for people to stay in their dominant narrative safe zone unless prompted out of it. Once they’re out of it, they can appreciate the space enough that they can start developing a permaculture. The convener has to have a strong intention not for a particular outcome, but for a particular field. If they’re not yet sensing that field, they’re doing something to figure it out. And so, to me, a key thing is to hold multiple gatherings where those invitations are clearly given. It’s the old rule of two feet. Stand up or walk out.

Chuck Peters

It’s not enough to sense a particular result. More helpful is to sense a field of potential results.

You could think of it as scales of convening. When you’re learning the fiddle, you do your scales. You want to be serious about this? We’re gonna do this exercise and then this one and then this one beforehand, instead of just convening a bunch of disparate people and assuming we’ll have a conversation.

Chuck Peters

Preparatory convening exercises can be important. It’s risky to just jump in coldly and expect something to happen.

Sometimes people connect so deeply that nothing ever happens, so there is this idea of connecting deeply enough. And then moving to manifesting together without hurting that connecting. I’ve hosted some circles where it goes so deep, it becomes a bit bizarre. We’re all full of love and nothing’s going to happen. We’re so undifferentiated from each other that there’s not really anything interesting to be in love with.

Peter Pula

Pragmatic convening – deep enough to establish connections, but not so deep as to simply marvel at one another.

But [in response to the above comment] you may have planted some seeds that just take longer to grow. The depth of the gazing’s impact may be two years down the road and you won’t be able to trace it.

Peggy Holman

Pragmatic convening, yes, to a point. But even if no results immediately manifest, they may be percolating.

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