“We change the world one room at a time. This room, today, becomes an example of the future we want to create.”
—Peter Block; Community, The Structure of Belonging

Note: This guest blog post is from Katherine Golub, a professional coach and consultant in Western Mass and a student of mine. To learn more about her work, visit callingsandcourage.com. Thanks, Katherine!

You know those books that you pick up and can’t put down? The ones that forever change your view of the world?

Peter Block’s Community, The Structure of Belonging was recently that book for me. Beth assigned a couple of chapters for her class at Marlboro College, and I ended up reading the whole thing.

As Block writes, “If we want a change in culture, the work is to change the conversation. Or, more precisely, to have a conversation that we have not had before, one that has the power to create something new in the world.” Therefore, our primary task as leaders is to host conversations that embody and nurture an alternative future. We can do this by focusing on the structure of our gatherings, working to get the questions right, and listening deeply.

Block devotes the second half of his book to the six elements of a conversation that lead to lasting change: invitation, possibility, ownership, dissent, commitment, and gifts.

Since reading the book, these elements have informed how I craft agendas, and I’m seeing the benefits. In the rest of this article, I’ll share each of these elements with you in a bit more depth, with quotes from the book. That way, you can integrate them into your next meeting, too!

One: Invitation

Crafting effective invitations is the first step towards hosting gatherings that spark change.

First, who to invite? Block reminds us that when we gather together a diverse sample of the people most involved in a problem “in the right context and with a few simple ground rules, the wisdom to create a future or solve a problem is almost always in the room.” We want people with:

•  “The authority to act—decision-makers;
•  Resources, such as contacts, time or money;
•  Expertise in the issues to be considered;
•  Information about the topic that no others have;
•  A need to be involved because they will be affected by the outcome and can speak to the consequences.”

Block argues that a genuine invitation is voluntary: “In an authentic community, citizens decide anew every single time whether to show up. Of course, it makes a difference if people do not show up, but we keep inviting them again and again.”

Two: Possibility

Most of us have been to meetings where it wasn’t quite clear why we were there. Or meetings that focused on the problems and didn’t seem to lead anywhere new. Far too often, we lose our way by trying to define or fix a problem, instead of imagining an alternative future, or by jumping straight to the how without first getting clear on our why.

Block suggests beginning gatherings with a declaration of possibility—a statement of why you are gathered. Focusing on a clear and shared purpose can open our vision to a wide range of possibility for a different future. This shift in perspective itself can be transformative.

Once a group has built trust and connection, a powerful question we can use to discover communal possibility is: “What can we create together that will make a difference?”

Three: Ownership

Finger-pointing is rampant in our culture. It can be easier to focus on what others should change than to accept responsibility for how we contribute to our problems and focus on how we create a better future. The problem is, as Block writes, “Without this capacity to see ourselves as cause, our efforts become either coercive or wishfully dependent on the transformation of others.”

Block suggests that each successful gathering serves two functions. The first, as we discussed above, is to address its stated purpose. The second is to be an opportunity for each person to decide to become more engaged as an owner.

The ultimate question of ownership is, “What have I done to contribute to the very thing I complain about or want to change?” However, facing the idea that we’re causing our challenges can be difficult to take on immediately. It can be easier to explore the ownership that people feel for a particular gathering. One way to do this is to “ask people to rate on a seven-point scale, from low to high, their responses to four questions:

• How valuable an experience (or project, or community) do you plan for this to be?
• How much risk are you willing to take?
• How participative do you plan to be?
• To what extent are you invested in the well-being of the whole?”

Rather than offering advice or trying to cheer up people who struggle with these questions, just be compassionately interested in whatever answers arise.

Four: Dissent

Far too often, we try to squelch our doubts or quiet voices of dissent. However, as Block writes, “Dissent is a form of caring, not one of resistance… We will let go of only those doubts that we have given voice to. When someone authentically says no, then the room becomes real and trustworthy. An authentic statement is one in which the person owns that the dissent is their choice and not a form of blame or complaint. The power in the expression of doubts is that it gives us choice about them. Once expressed, they no longer control us; we control them.”

When someone disagrees with your proposal, I invite you to thank them and then listen. Hold space for the doubt, and work towards understanding the needs and intentions that the person is expressing. Block reminds us that as leaders, we have a responsibility to listen and protect space for people’s doubt, but we don’t necessarily need to respond to each doubt.

“Some questions for the expression of dissent:
• What doubts and reservations do you have?
• What is the no, or refusal, that you keep postponing?
• What have you said yes to, that you no longer really mean?
• What is a commitment or decision that you have changed your mind about?
• What forgiveness are you withholding?
• What resentment do you hold that no one knows about?”

Five: Commitment

After you set the context of ownership, explore possibility, and hold space for doubt, it comes the time for participants to declare their commitment to action. Block writes that honoring our word is the emotional and relational essence of community, and he suggests the following practices to help participants deepen commitment:

• Use the word “promises” to elicit a more intimate connection to the work and community.
• When individuals have an opportunity to stand for something, invite the person speaking to stand up and say their name before declaring their commitment.
• Ask people making a powerful statement to say it again, slowly and to the whole community.

And, finally: Choose from this menu of questions for the commitment conversation:
o “What promises am I willing to make?
o What measures have meaning to me?
o What price am I willing to pay?
o What is the cost to others for me to keep my commitments or to fail in my commitments?
o What is the promise I’m willing to make that constitutes a risk or major shift for me?
o What is the promise I am postponing?
o What is the promise or commitment I am unwilling to make?”

Six: Gifts

Block writes, “community is built by focusing on people’s gifts rather than their deficiencies. In the world of community and volunteerism, deficiencies have no market value; gifts are the point. Citizens in community want to know what you can do, not what you can’t do.”

In a world in which we are taught to ignore and underappreciate our gifts, our work is to recognize, honor, and bring our gifts into the world. To help each other offer our gifts more fully and deepen our connection to each other, it’s important to take time in a gathering to honor our gifts. I like to close meetings with this, but this conversation can happen at any time. In fact, a focus on strengths and gifts can permeate an entire gathering.

You can ask participants to share what they are receiving from another participant or the group, or you can invite individuals to reflect on their own gifts. These questions can help:
• “What is the gift you currently hold in exile?
• What is it about you that no one knows about?
• What are you grateful for that has gone unspoken?
• What is the positive feedback you receive that still surprised you?
• What is the gift you have that you do not fully acknowledge?”

To recap: Change the conversation, change the world. Invitation. Possibility. Ownership. Dissent. Commitment. Gifts.

I highly recommend reading Peter Block’s book, Community, The Structure of Belonging. And, even before that, I hope that you’re feeling inspired to take at least one suggestion from this article to your next gathering. If you are, please do share below. I’d be thrilled to hear from you!


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