The Art of Convening: Authentic Engagement in Meetings, Gatherings, and Conversations by Craig and Patricia Neal with Cynthia Wold is a book on the art of gathering people for the sake of authentic engagement. As with the way of circle, convening has ancient roots. People have always gathered and naturally related to each other. Convening is really an art of relationship. Authentic relations are relations where we express what is true for us, and listen to what is true for others. The authors believe that meaningful connection and engagement are not only possible, but also imperative for obtaining sustainable satisfying results.
The role of the convener is to gather and hold people in a safe and generative space, which enables essential conversations, emergence of new outcomes, and a true desire for action. The convening wheel in the book visualizes the path of convening as a whole. Its circular forms guides the convener’s way of being and doing. It’s worth emphasizing the the convening wheel is flexible. The path of convening isn’t rigid or static any more than our relationships. The parts of the convening wheel are called aspects. The aspects build on each other, but it is possible to correct the course at any juncture along the convening path. Each aspect is examined in detail in the book. Here is a short summary:
- At the Heart of the Matter. Knowing who I am allows me to be in authentic engagement with others. It is a big subject and a life-long journey to increase our own clarity, confidence, and sense of belonging so that we may hold others in a safe generative container. Unless we reflect on who we are, we don’t give others something real to connect to.
- Clarifying Intent. Our fully embraced intention feeds our power to actualize it. To clarify intent, we need to identify those motives or desires that might distract us from what is primary. The tendency for many of us is to move too quickly from the heart to the head and then to the outcome. If we are to maximize the depth and effectiveness of our gatherings, we need the patience to hold off the impulse to move too quickly.
- The Invitation. The essential and often overlooked quality needed to make an invitation effective is sincerity. When our invitations are made wholeheartedly, all manner of possibilities open to the gathering. The combination of sincerity, hospitality, and generosity is a strong attractor for full presence.
- Setting Context. People want to know how they fit into the context. It is risky to assume that purpose and meaning of the gathering have been fully understood by everyone in advance. The convener needs to restate the purpose and intent of the gathering as articulated in the invitation. The participants need to understand what the gathering is for and about. They can then choose to place themselves in the best state of mind, heart, and being to engage in this context.
- Creating the Container. This is about providing an environment for the gathering that is enlivened, has boundaries, and is safe. It is important to prepare both an outer and inner container for the gathering. The outer, physical, container reminds us of our aliveness and encourages connection. The inner, energetic, container provides safety so that those within may freely express themselves. Safety is achieved by having strong boundaries, that is clear protocols and agreements for the gathering.
- Hearing All the Voices. Each voice is needed and wanted. When all voices are heard, everyone sees and is seen by one another. Our spirits expand when we are received with interested, non-judging listening. The more we are tuned to each other, the more we are able to serve the purpose of the gathering. A more whole picture begins to emerge. People become an integral part of the group and have a stake in a successful outcome. All are in this together.
- Essential Conversation. Introducing thoughtfulness and meaning into what we say and how we hear each other enables essential conversation. This is the time to open the floor for reflections and comments. Splitting the group into smaller groups of 3-5 people encourage deep listening and sharing. Being with the heart of the matter evokes the wisdom of the participants. When people sense their interdependency, they see that their future is tied together and begin to function as a unified ”living system”.
- Creation. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Something new emerges when people bring their full unique presence, sharing purpose and trust. If we have done our work well, the group will almost take care of itself. The convener needs to hold the container, honoring the individuals in relationship with one another, so the new that emerges is consistent with the group’s purpose and intent.
- Commitment to Action. Without commitment, the creation that has emerged may be lost. We have spent our time together for a purpose, so desire for action is a natural driving force now. Purposeful action is embedded in the group and in seeing a shared future that all can agree upon. More than an item on a to do list, the action can be a decision or a determined stake in the ground. If true commitment is to come forth, the participants will hold themselves accountable. This kind of commitment cannot be achieved by coercion or manipulation.
Learning the art of convening is like learning how to drive—practice strengthen habit. This book is a great guide. There are in depth discussions exploring challenges and situations the authors have come across over the years. If you are serious about making a difference in the lives of those you gather, then I would definitely recommend this book.
This book is also a great companion to The Circle Way.