Yesterday I had the honor of offering a workshop to student leaders on Engaging the Social Dimensions of Change: Catalyzing Sustainability Through Dialogue and Action at the National Conference on Student Leadership. For the past 37 years, the conference has drawn emergent student leaders from around the country to spend several days diving into fostering values-based leadership skills. The NW Earth Institute was asked to present on the power of small group dialogue as a way to spur and support change-making initiatives. Here are some key takeaways:
1. Collaborative learning and shared discovery are essential. Think: peer to peer learning. Think small groups. Think connection. In working to effect change, we need to engage people in a way that draws forth diverse perspectives. We also need to create space for people to share about what matters most to them. If we can remember to speak from our experiences, and not from a place of being “right” or and “expert,” we can encourage full participation and engagement from everyone involved.
2. Remember to foster opportunities for reflection. When we create a supportive environment where reflection can occur, this is where shifts in perspective are possible. As one student remarked today, “When we slow down in small groups and really listen to one another, this is how we can really tell what is going on with any issue. We can really hear one another and take all experiences into consideration when working to effect a change.”
3. Work ‘deeply’ on problems, which entails new ways of thinking. As Ronald Heifetz reminds us, some problems are adaptive in nature, which means they are highly complex and evolving, often with no immediate solution available. In order to respond, we often need to dig deeper to consider how our values, attitudes, beliefs and habits are playing a role in the ‘problem’ at hand. (Adaptive challenges include climate change and fossil fuel dependence.) When our perspective shifts and broadens, we become more able to explore new possibilities and solutions and to tackle otherwise seemingly unsolvable problems with greater skillfulness.
4. See and act with systems in mind. As I said in my workshop today, “Hold a systems perspective when working to find a solution to any issue you are wanting to tackle.” One fantastic tool that we draw from in several of the NW Earth Institute course books is the Iceberg: A Systems Thinking Model. When holding a systems thinking perspective, we look for patterns and relationships – and we work to make visible the invisible (for example, our assumptions.) We’re seeking out root causes. We’re asking ourselves, and the groups we work with, “What assumptions, beliefs or values do people hold about the system in question?” And, “What beliefs keep the system in place?”
5. Weave in tangible opportunities for action. Finally, make sure to offer tangible ways for people to get involved and work towards effecting change. There is nothing more difficult than a feeling of powerlessness or uncertainty about where to start – especially when tackling big issues and complex systems. Discern a starting point and consider ways that each individual can insert themselves into the systems at work in order to have an impact. There is always a place to begin.