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  • Matt

Looking for the Wisdom in the Room

Updated: Aug 22, 2019

I love facilitating groups. I love egalitarianism. I love watching conversational insights unfold that a single brain could not summon. I believe a good facilitator creates conditions for connection, not lecture like a school marm. I subscribe to the mantra that “the wisdom is in the room”!

Waiting for wisdom to show up.

But by golly, sometimes it isn’t.

Lately I’ve been exploring this uncomfortable reality: there is a great lack of wisdom in many rooms. Whether in wheel-spinning committee meetings or through inane presidential yammering, wisdom is the rare exception. What happened to the concept of elders? Who speaks for the whole? Why haven’t open-source, “everyone matters” ethics helped more adults grow beyond adolescent ways of being in relationship?

Despite this frustration, I still believe each individual has innate wisdom to share. I have a few hunches as to how that wisdom is kept out of rooms…I call them my Seven Wisdomless Room Hypotheses:

1. People in power confuse themselves with experts.

2. Experts confuse knowledge with what makes change happen.

3. Most of us are afraid to be honest to people with perceived power.

4. Fear and self-doubt lead to controlling and defensive maneuvering

5. Un-whole masculine leadership styles suffocate participation (see #4).

6. The facilitator’s need for affirmation and future work distorts dialogue.

7. Everyone senses that real problems aren’t being addressed in a safe, direct way, with adequate time, attention and maturity. Who wants to put energy into that?

The book The Rainforest makes a provocative suggestion: a group of people can have all the resources, talent and good ideas in the world and not be successful. UNLESS those “nutrients” are connected through relationships of trust. In this way, trusting relationships are like healthy arteries through which ideas, skills and resources flow to opportunities in a timely, ready-to-act fashion. When the arteries are clogged, opportunities are missed, and energy is depleted.

That’s the common denominator I see in the Wisdomless Room Hypotheses: each undermines trust and clogs the “arteries” of connection that are required for a group of people to operate as a healthy organism together. When we’re in a pointless and cynical meeting, it’s like experiencing the sluggish wheeziness of the group’s clogged arteries. It’s strenuous! Like an individual, life in an organization can coast along fine until stressful circumstances reveal the fragility of clogged arteries and threaten life.

When arteries are open, wisdom has space to be in the room. There’s enough collegiality for people to say what needs to be said, in a constructive way, no matter who hears it. Nutrients such as honest feedback, open information sharing and new ideas move among the group with more speed and precision, which accelerates organizational development.

I see two overarching conditions that keep arteries open in the workplace:

  1. Building a culture where trusting relationships are nurtured and leveraged. This requires time but actually accelerates work in the long run.

  2. Creating opportunities for personal growth, because underdeveloped internal capacities limit what we do together. Self-awareness, intrinsic motivation and compassionate communications skills are examples of beneficial workplace traits that “professional development” budgets rarely invest in.

If these conditions are missing in your workplace, they can be built, just as clogged arteries can be rehabilitated. A good place to start is to create a baseline understanding of health through an organizational “culture inventory.” Then use Living Systems design principles to think in new ways about how relationships influence the work that happens, not just what tasks need to be done. Then offer support to anyone interested to create and implement an individual development plans focused on personal growth. I have found that there are almost always ways to integrate these trust and capacity-building activities into existing work flows, rather than conjure up a set of distractions that keep things from getting done.

Finally, a hope for us all:

May we all be safe to share our innate wisdom and create phenomenal work through honest dialogue with the innate wisdom of other good souls. May we help manifest the wisdom in the room!


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