The Art of Connecting Communities – Why Bother Connecting? (Day 1)

Over the last few years, ‘The Art of Hosting’ has been transformative to my thinking and practice as a Doctor, as a Commissioner and as a Director of Population Health. Part of the core theory that undergirds this way of working is the 4-fold practice. It involves learning to:

 

  • Host Yourself
  • Be Hosted
  • Host Others
  • Host with Others

 

Hosting yourself means doing the inner work, and tending to your own needs. It is important, if I am to give my best-self to those around me. As a type-7 personality, for me this has meant learning to embrace disciplines like silence and fasting. It has also meant learning to rest, learning some healthy boundaries, to take care of my physical needs, embrace pain rather than running from it and become more aware of my emotions, resisting the need to rationalise everything. In being hosted, it’s about letting go of control, embracing humility and receiving the gift of others. In hosting others, it’s about learning to hold space for someone else, to deeply listen and to resist the need to fix things, but rather to respond and to coach, where this is welcomed (perhaps the very art of the classic GP consultation!). Hosting with others, is about learning to collaborate, to play to each other’s strengths, to enjoy the dynamic of relationship and to create a space together which opens up exponential potential!

 

We have now hosted 5 different trainings across Morecambe Bay in the last 2 years, and hosted many more conversations. Our latest training, in the City of Lancaster (our first without the incredible Linda Joy Mitchell), was an amalgamation of some of the ‘art of hosting’ practices with our own developing practices, here in the Bay. We called this training, “The Art of Connecting Communities” and together we explored some of the theory and practice under the question: “Why Bother Connecting?”

 

We began with the amazing, Yak Patel, CEO of the CVS in Lancaster District welcoming everyone and framing our 2 days together. Yak has become a good friend and is one of the best connectors of people I have ever met. He is deeply humble, kind and compassionate. He has lived and worked in this area all his life and has taken the time to build really wonderful relationships across many communities, which means he is trusted. So when someone, like Yak, puts out a call across the area to invite people to come and learn together about how we connect communities, people respond very eagerly. there has, perhaps, never been a more important time to connect together. Isolation and loneliness is literally killing us, and our walls of division and suspicion are leading us into dangerous territory. Bringing people and communities together is an art form and one which is worthy of serious collaborative learning.

 

To welcome everyone in, we did a ‘check-in’ using circle practice. Circle is an ancient practice, and is great for breaking down hierarchies, welcoming everyone into a space and ensuring that every voice is heard and every person knows that they matter. It can be quite simple and straightforward, though my experience is that it tends to go quite deep, quite quickly. For us, in Morecambe Bay, this has always been helped by having members of ‘The Well’ communities with us. People from The Well know how to be community at a level you won’t encounter in many other places. They know how to be vulnerable, with such a natural humility and so when they open up, it gives permission to the rest of the room to also go deeper. When this happens, we find people meet at a very human level and relationships form within the group easily. in this circle, we gave people pipe cleaners and asked them to make something which represented them. We than asked them to share this with the circle. Our harvest from the circle was very rich and the amazing Jon Dorsett, a truly brilliant host and one of the best graphic harvesters around, transformed it into a stunning piece of spoken word.

 

 

After a short break, the team hosted a world-café. Hosting a good café, depends on taking time to set the room well, explain the process and have a really good couple of questions. Our café took an appreciative enquiry approach. Our first question was: “What gives the Lancaster District It’s Heart and Soul?” – after two rounds of incredibly rich conversation, we than asked: “Where and How do you Experience This?”

The beauty of a world café is the ability to find great connection and synergy in a room. The sense of positivity this conversation brought about the assets we have in this district was palpable and it created a dynamic in which everyone felt like a real participant and collaborator in the process.

 

Sue Mitchell, one of our team, a seasoned, wise and excellent coach and host did a teach-piece on ‘Deep Listening’, which we could also call ‘Transformative Listening’. Listening is an art form and one that many of us never really learn – at least not to the deepest levels. Sue, expertly took us through those levels and helped us develop a framework to challenge ourselves about how well we really listen. Level 1 ‘My Turn’ is when we’re not really listening at all and we’re just waiting to jump in with whatever it is we want to say. Level 2 is when something the speaker says sparks a memory in us and we start contributing about our own (perhaps) similar experience – oh yeah – ‘me too’! It’s about us trying to sense make and find connection, but can mean we really miss what is actually being said! Level 3 ‘My Fix’ is about the listener stepping in and trying to fix the problem. It’s a level at which we don’t really want to connect too deeply, so we try and sort it and move on! Level 4 is where it begins to be about real listening – ‘I WITH you’ – it’s quite a sacred space. It’s where we allow ourselves to feel real empathy, to be with someone in their moment and experience, putting our own thoughts and experiences aside and creating a space for them. Level 5 is where ‘we begin to hear’. It is the art of self-awareness, it’s where we allow ourselves to be changed by the encounter and have our previously held perspectives and understandings changed. If we are to really connect within and across communities, we need to learn this art of listening.

 

Having learned about the art of real listening, we practiced it, using one of my favourite practices – Triads! The concept is pretty simple – three people, together – one is the speaker, one is the listener and one is the witness. The three people take it in turns to be each role, and each time, the same question or theme is explored. The theme we worked with was: “Share a story of a connection you made that changed your life. What was the impact?” – The listener asks the question, the speaker has 10 minutes to speak, with perhaps a few questions of clarification. At the end of the time, the listener sums up what they have heard and then the witness can give any feedback on what they have seen, things which have perhaps remained unspoken or anything else they have noticed. It is a very powerful experience to be listened to and to really hear another human being.

 

Learning to harvest is one of the most important aspects of hosting well. We harvested the learning from the triads, by bringing two triads together and asking this question: “What do we know about what builds connection?” – We then asked the 6 people together to come up with one sentence that reflected this knowledge and learning. Our harvesters then cleverly weaved a web of the learning.

We finished the day by checking out, again in a circle, simply speaking words of gratitude for the day and how we left feeling ahead of Day 2. As always happens on these days, people left feeling encouraged, hopeful and connected. I love it, because it is in the spaces formed between us that creativity is catalysed, ideas are formed and new things begin to emerge.

 

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How Do We Build a City That Works For Everyone?

I recently hosted a couple of conversations for people in the city of Lancaster, UK, in which we explored this question together: “How Do We Build a City that Works for Everyone?” We framed the conversation (which we had using a ‘World Café’)from two current and important concepts. Firstly, the great work of Kate Raworth in ‘Doughnut Economics’ – how do we create a city that is socially just for the people who live here and that is environmentally sustainable for the future? In other words, how do we ensure we have an economy that is distributive and regenerative by design? Secondly, we drew on the important work of Sandro Galea (Professor of Epidemiology at Boston State) and his concept of the Goldfish bowl as a way of thinking about ‘Population Health’ or Epidemiology (see my last blog). Politics IS health, according to Galea.

 

One of my favourite quotes is from Einstein, when he said that “If I had 60 minutes to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes trying to find the right question and then I could solve the problem in 5 minutes.” It turns out that the question we used itself is problematic at a few levels! Here are some of the questions we found ourselves wrestling with: Do we need to build the city, when it is already here?! What do we really mean by ‘the city’ – is it people and communities or more than that? What do we mean by ‘works for’? That felt to some like we were settling for something that was just enough, maybe scraping by, rather than thriving! And who do we mean by everyone?! This didn’t stop us having a a great discussion, but highlights how powerful the perspectives and biases we bring into the room can be!

 

Despite not having a perfect question, (and hopefully, by the time we host 3 much bigger conversations across the city during 2019, we may have honed something more helpful!), some key themes emerged, through our generative conversation. 

 

  1. Relationships are vital! We want to live in a city which really does “work” for everyone. So, we want to give value to the currently unheard voices and we want to value diversity and inclusivity. Taking time to get to know neighbours and colleagues grows a richness of community. We want to live in a city that values love and kindness in how we treat ourselves and other people.
  2. We need to build on the amazing assets and skills that we already have in the city. If we made space and time to discover and share these skills with each other more, we would develop a richer life experience within our communities. This is an expression of ‘gift economy’ and ‘reciprocity’, which Charles Eisenstein writes powerfully about in his book ‘Sacred Economics’). It builds on voluntary power, and may require a reimagining of how we work and what we value in how we invest our time, energy and resources. We also have so many incredible physical assets in this area, which we don’t tap into enough or perhaps make fully accessible for all who live in the city.
  3. People want to be part of the change, not have change happen to them! This requires much better engagement and democratic discussion about how budgets are spent, for example or how land is developed. Somehow, there needs to be a better safeguarding against ‘invested interests’ and ‘dodgy deals’ with far more transparency about how decisions are made. Such a process, it is believed, would enable far better personal and corporate responsibility when it comes to caring for the fabric of the city and the people who live here, similar to what has been developed in Wigan. There was a recognition that when we talk about personal choice and responsibility that this is much more possible for some people and communities than others. However, it was felt that increasing self-esteem and a sense of belonging would enable more personal responsibility and choice.
  4. Housing really matters. The physical environment is actually causing fragmentation and silos. There were many more questions than answers here – but that’s ok – this is an iterative process, and we don’t have to solve everything in one go. So…how do we create really good social housing? How could we redesign the spaces of the city to encourage togetherness and community? How do protect green spaces in the process and take care of the city’s drainage (strong memories of the recent floods)? How could we ensure that everyone has a home to live in, and what might that mean for both the homeless and also for single people?
  5. We want an education system that really values the unique beauty of each child, treats each one with compassion, mindful of what traumas they may be experiencing and values creativity and activity in education just as much as academic outcomes. We care about who our children become, not just about what exams they pass. So we recognise that we have a measurement problem but we’re not quite sure yet what to do about it! 
  6. We need to invest in our children and young people by providing physical spaces in which our young people can feel safe and not bored! Many have been affected by the closure of children’s and youth centres. If we are to really invest in our children and young people, there was a sense that we also need to provide parenting classes across the board to pregnant couples and through ‘family centres’ and schools across the district.
  7. We want to create a greater sense of value for our older citizens. There were many people present who felt they have things to offer, but don’t have an obvious outlet. Involving those retired from paid work more in the life of the city would break isolation and feed the gift economy. 
  8. Business needs to thrive in a way that really values entrepreneurial gift and allows it to flourish, whilst holding it true to the ideas and principles of the doughnut and the goldfish! How could the business community serve the needs of the city and how can the city enable business to really thrive, creating jobs, whilst caring for the environment and the needs of the people who live here? Kate Raworth’s work could really help us!
  9. Transport systems need to be redesigned to encourage more cycling and walking or the use of green public transport alternatives. Transport routes also need to join up our communities more effectively to improve opportunities for those who live in areas that are currently more financially deprived. 
  10. If we are to really improve health and wellbeing and care for the environment, then we need to see this written into EVERY policy decision. If politics IS health, as per Sandro Galea, then we need to take this seriously and stop making policies which do not care for these things.
  11. We want to be part of city that does welfare well! We think there are many possible new ways of doing things more effectively, as described in Hilary Cottam’s book, ‘Radical Help – Reimagining the Welfare State’. One of the things felt to be important is increasing skills in money management (85% of people living in social housing in this district are in debt to the city council -though this is certainly not only due to poor money management , but an unjust system that isn’t working for the majority). Morecambe Bay Credit Union offers an alternative economy as a way of using micro finance in our local geography.
  12. We need better ways to communicate and connect people together. There is smart, digital technology that could help us here….perhaps a Lancaster portal, that connects us together more effectively and helps facilitate the sharing of our assets and gifts.

 

Wowsers! Not bad for 2 conversations of 90 minutes each! Just imagine what a phenomenal city Lancaster might become over the next 10-20 years, if we set out on a journey together to build this kind of city! What is stopping us, I wonder?! #enoughnow #togetherwecan

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