Assuming the expertise in the room is with one or a few people disables and minimizes the resilience of community
Conversation is not a metaphor or a program; it is an activity in which we connect with each other and explore joy and laughter, as well as grief and hardship. It is a container for connection that only occurs after we have made contact with each other.
Conversations can be small, among friends, family, colleagues or community members, and take place in a moment. Larger conversations, perhaps at the scale of an organization, a neighbourhood or a city, only occur with the foundational element of smaller conversations.
More than an opportunity to make contact with each other, conversation is an opportunity to make deeper connections. Imagine a conference, where you sit in silence for hours beside others also sitting in silence. (Whether in person or online.) This experience is designed for us, as the audience, to receive information passively and not talk about it. In our online world, we’ll go on with the rest of our day, having made little or no contact with anyone else. We may have a brief exchange in person as we get up from our chairs and shuffle out of the room or when we gather around the coffee and snack table. Yet that exchange is both brief and often not on the morning’s topic. And if it is, we’re in a rush to get to the next session. Again, the experience is designed not for us to talk to each other, not to explore and make meaning for ourselves, but to take our seats and listen. We choose not to create the conditions for conversation.
When we do not have opportunities to interact with each other, we bypass deeper opportunities for connection by bypassing conversation. When we gather at the same place at the same time, we use three strategies to avoid being in conversation with each other: put the knowledge of one or few people on display, create and reinforce passive learning environments, and ignore the power dynamics in the group.
SYMPTOM 1: Only a few people are talking
An easy way to notice conversation bypassing is to look at who is talking. If the sage is on the stage, or a panel of speakers, the audience is not talking to each other. If the audience is not talking, they are not in conversation with each other. When the audience witnesses the conversation, they are not participants in the conversation.
Being witness to others’ expertise embodies separation, while participating in a conversation is about connection. The simplest way we separate ourselves from each other is to restrict who actively explores the topic of a gathering. When an organization brings in experts for a speakers’ series, the organization watches a handful of people explore the topics. People may learn passively from watching, but there is no connection between people because they are not invited to talk about the topic. The experts are having the conversation, not the organization. Likewise, when a community pulls together a panel of experts to explore a hot topic and hundreds of people attend, the conversation is among the experts, not the community. The community watches the experts talk about the community; the conversation is separate from the community, even if right in front of them.
When we design out opportunities for interaction and exchanges by putting the expertise of one or a few on display, we do this at the expense of creating opportunities for the people who have gathered to participate in the exploration. The only exploration participants engage in is alone.
ANTIDOTE 1: Look for a back-and-forth of ideas
The nuance here is significant, and you can catch it with two simple questions: Who is involved in the interaction? Who is having the exchange? If it is a few, you can be sure that it is not the community: they are watching (at best) or ignoring. If there’s no back and forth, people are not participating, instead just listening.
SYMPTOM 2: Absence of dialogue and disagreement
As a learner, when I sit back and receive information without actively engaging with or choosing that material, I am a passive participant in my learning process. I am passive when letting others decide what I will learn, when, and how. As adult learners, we attend conferences, lectures and webinars where speakers and topics are predetermined, even months or a year in advance. Yes, we choose to attend, and at a conference, we select the sessions. Yet this choice is shallow because we sit and listen to someone speak to us. Lectures, as Adam Grant describes them in his book, Think Again, “aren’t designed to accommodate dialogue or disagreement; they turn students into passive receivers of information rather than active thinkers.”
Dialogue and disagreement are hallmarks of conversation; they are certainly not present in a passive learning experience. We avoid conversation when ideas are not going back and forth between us or if we are not able to disagree with each other and explore why we disagree. We avoid conversation when what I am expected to learn is presented to me and questions are, at heart, not wanted because the teacher’s knowledge is not to be questioned.
ANTIDOTE 2: Active learning + question knowledge
Our default preference is to sit and listen to experts, our bosses, professors and instructors: the people at the front of the room or the head of the table. Adam Grant recounts research about what we learn versus what we feel we learn in lecture or active learning environments: “Despite enjoying the lectures more, they actually gained more knowledge and skill from the active-learning sessions. It required more mental effort, which made it less fun but led to deeper understanding.” While we might find the familiar, passive learning more comfortable, if we wish to be involved in what we learn, we need to be active participants.
SYMPTOM 3: Follow the person with power
A few years ago, I hosted two groups of people from a non-profit housing organization and a church, joining efforts to build affordable housing in their city. It was a beautiful combination of complementary resources: an organization in the business of building affordable housing and a church with a desire to offer something back to their community in the form of land they no longer needed. While wanting to work collaboratively, there was an explicit expectation that the opinions of the one with power (The Bigwig) be received without question. Most people in the room, from both the housing organization and the church, deferred to The Bigwig — and The Bigwig did not discourage this behaviour. The result: the group was not in conversation with itself because it focused on the opinions and needs of The Bigwig.
A person with power can be a host or participant, and if that power is not acknowledged, expect a wobbly or ineffective gathering. While uncomfortable, it is healthy for participants to question — and hosts to invite questioning — because, without questions, we avoid conversation and rest in passive deference to one another.
SYMPTOM 4: Expect the hosts to have the answers
In the case of the host-attractor pattern, when we have gathered around someone we admire (or worship), there may be expectations of host-attractors to have all the answers. Disappointment and conflict can arise if they do not have — or offer — solutions.
Hosts can put a lot of pressure on themselves to meet the expectations of others. At times, hosts behave in ways that put their expertise on display and take the energetic center stage. Participants also fall into the misconception that a host must be perfect and become angry and frustrated when the host does not deliver on the expertise we have projected on them. When we don’t talk about and explore these expectations and our reactions to unmet expectations, we avoid deeper layers of conversation.
Whether in the host-attractor pattern, or the host-as-all-of-us pattern, a conversation feels wobbly when we expect the hosts to have all the answers. Everyone expects that we will not question anyone with perceived authority. These expectations are held and reinforced by both hosts and participants.
ANTIDOTE 3: Ask, How much of me?
To design for conversation, we need to design for people other than the official experts (often on the stage) to be in conversation with each other. The work of hosting a group of people in conversation with themselves is delicate. It is easy for the host to get in the way of where the group is going, inserting themselves and their agenda into the flow. The hosts of such gatherings need to ask: How much of me do I insert while hosting these people to be in conversation with themselves?
ANTIDOTE 4: Bring in someone neutral to host the conversation
A colleague of mine brought together a group of people to start a conversation about reimagining the relationship between her city government employer and local media. While she’s fully capable of hosting this conversation, she recognized that she wanted to be in the conversation; she did not want the distance that comes with being an effective host. She asked me to support the conversation, to host it, so she could participate fully without driving the conversation. Her intention was to be open to the new possibilities that could come with the people she convened, an easier feat if she didn’t also have to host the conversation.
ANTIDOTE 5: Activate the expertise of many
The shapes of our conversations and how we host them create social habitats that allow for — and disallow — interaction and exchanges among us. As participants, it is familiar and easy to rest in the comfort of listening to the sage on the stage. It is less demanding of us to expect others to do the thinking and tell us what to do or what to think about. As convenors, it’s familiar and easy for us to tell people what needs their attention and set them up to hear all about it. In contrast, a community in conversation with itself does the challenging work to integrate a wide range of perspectives and experiences.
A community in conversation with itself chooses to activate the expertise of many rather than a few. When we put community expertise at the center, we create the conditions for community to learn from each other, rather than the few special speakers on the stage or in a webinar. To do this, we need to create opportunities for people to interact with each other and exchange ideas. While this sounds simple, in practice it is challenging; we rarely do it, rarely shift the power in community from “me” or “them” to “us.”
We have to practise this while learning it: putting community and connection at the center of our attention instead of our desire to feed the ego of expertise.
A civic practice that facilitates connections between people and their ideas is hard work. We face a tension deep within each of us: we long for connection with other people but find comfort in deferring to others’ expertise rather than in ourselves. In this deferral, we minimize our relationship with self, others and place. We have to practise this while learning it: putting community and connection at the center of our attention instead of our desire to feed the ego of expertise in self and others.
I’ve prepared a few versions of teaching materials around my book, Nest City: How Citizens Serve Cities and Cities Serve Citizens. Each time, I ask myself this question: what is my role as the instructor in my students’ learning experience? For example, I have a clear role in teaching the material I have on offer. I am teaching both the material and how to use the material. I am teaching how to create the conditions for a community — or city — to be in conversation with itself. And since I have chosen not to be a conventional instructor, as the sage on the stage or the expert in the room, I have another role to play: guide, shepherd, or host.
Let me be clear — I am not abdicating my role as an instructor. I offer the expected concrete material for participants to explore. But when we meet face-to-face, whether in-person or online, I emphasize the expertise in the room that is well beyond my own. It is also a power shift, from me separate from the community (power over, as the instructor) to me within the community (power shared). We all learn, alone and together, what the content we explore means to us in our lives and work. We also share responsibility for the quality of our learning space. I have more responsibility because I am the host-attractor, the reason we have gathered, and yet participants are active in the quality of space we create for ourselves.
Whether as an “instructor” or as a host of conversation, my objective is to nurture the group’s expertise.When we intend to reveal the expertise in everyone gathered, rather than of a few, convenors, hosts and participants must practice three new skills: making room for the diverse knowledge we each possess (our work), growing our skills in receiving and providing feedback in ways that allow new understanding, and contributing to the world around us in ways that nourish the places we call home.
Conversation enables community resilience
Most of our conversations will be shallow, and these play a vital role in our lives. Some exchanges will be profound, allowing a deeper connection that leads to relationships with others. The most profound conversations will be part of our most intimate relationships.
Assuming that the expertise in the room is in one or a few people disables and minimizes the resilience of a community. To foster community resilience, we must foster connections between people, not just our ideas. To do this, we must choose to design for opportunities for conversation.
The beauty: when we make contact with each other, we invite connection; with interactions and exchanges, we invite conversation and deeper connection; and with conversation and deeper connection, we invite relationships.
- In what circumstances am I most comfortable being the expert in the room? In what circumstances am I most comfortable deferring to someone else’s expertise?
- Think about a recent community event… Who did most of the talking? Who did most of the listening?
- How do the communities you work with find ways to cultivate the expertise found in everyone? What difference does this make to the community?
- How do you create opportunities for people to be in conversation with themselves?
 Grant, Adam, Think Again, p. 192.
 Grant, Adam, Think Again, p. 191, citing Louis Deslauriers et al., “Measuring Actual Learning versus Feeling of Learning in Response to Being Actively Engaged in the Classroom,”PNAS 116 (2019): 19251–57.