The key to creating or transforming community, then, is to see the power in the small but important elements of being with others. The shift we seek needs to be embodied in each invitation we make, each relationship we encounter, and each meeting we attend. For at the most operational and practical level, after all the thinking about policy, strategy, mission, and milestones, it gets down to this: How are we going to be when we gather together?― Peter Block, Community: The Structure of Belonging
I recently gave myself the gift of taking Peter Block’s course titled, The Structure of Belonging. Many of you are familiar with Peter Block’s books and his unparalleled contributions to the field of leadership consulting. It seems that everything I have learned from his work over the years has aligned in a culminating way in his book The Structure of Belonging.
I can’t think of a more powerful time to lead from a place of connectedness and alignment versus mandate and management and yet when cultural and global fears are activated the hammer tends to come down. My hope is that sharing just a bit about The Structure of Belonging with you, will empower you to share it with another.
Sometimes grand sweeping change initiatives are not as powerful as genuine connections that spread because the interaction between individuals generates momentum that comes from a sense of belonging. We need to transform isolation within our communities today. Many of us are working remotely so connectedness and caring for the whole by strengthening the social fabric of our organizations is paramount. Every gathering, virtual or otherwise, is an opportunity to become the future we hope to create. Large scale transformation comes when enough small groups shift in harmony toward the larger change. Small groups and teams generate power when diversity of thought and dissenting ideas are given space to be expressed, commitments are made without barter, and the gifts of each member of the gathering are acknowledged and valued.
How do we gently shift our working relationships to feel and foster belonging? Asking the right questions is the key. The Block course was based on the premise that questions are more transforming than answers. Block emphasizes that we need to inoculate people against advice and help so advice can be replaced by curiosity. He clearly draws the correlation between engagement and accountability. Questions that are properly structured and intentional, demand engagement, generate unique and compelling dialogue, and help create a structure of belonging.
There are six conversations for structuring belonging, according to Peter Block’s work. They are invitation, possibility, ownership, dissent, commitment, and gifts. They do not necessarily need to be progressive in building a structure of belonging. Possibility, however, is an earlier conversation, and gifts tends to be more difficult one. It is important to know what you and your team are ready for in terms of the questions themselves. Below is a quick overview of each of the six conversations and a few questions to get you started, excerpted from my work in Peter Block’s course. This is a lifetime of work and executive coaching can help leaders explore its application in more depth.
The Invitation Conversation
Creating effective invitations is the first step towards meetings, gatherings, and interactions that spark change. 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 an ability to speak about the consequences because they will be directly impacted by the outcome. Participants are necessary if they have unique information, expertise, or perspective about the topics on the table and the power to make decisions about time, money, contacts, and other resources.
Block argues that a genuine invitation is voluntary: “In an authentic community, citizens decide anew every single time whether to show up.”
The Invitation Questions
- Who do we need to invite in order to best serve the purpose of the gathering?
- How can we shape the invitation so they feel most inspired to participate?
The Possibility Conversation
The distinction is between possibility and problem-solving. Possibility is a future beyond reach. The possibility conversation works on us and evolves from a discussion of personal crossroads. It takes the form of a declaration, best made publicly.
The Possibility Questions
- What is the crossroads you are faced with at this point in time?
- What declaration of possibility can you make that has the power to transform the community and inspire you?
The Ownership Conversation
It asks citizens to act as if they are creating what exists in the world. The distinction is between ownership and blame.
The Ownership Questions
For an event or project:
- 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?
The all-purpose ownership question:
- What have I done to contribute to the very thing I complain about or want to change?
The questions that can complete our story and remove its limiting quality:
- What is the story about this community or organization that you hear yourself most often telling
- What are the payoffs you receive from holding on to this story?
- What is your attachment to this story costing you?
The Dissent Conversation
The dissent conversation creates an opening for commitment. When dissent is expressed, just listen. Don’t solve it, defend against it, or explain anything. The primary distinction is between dissent and lip service. A second distinction is between dissent and denial, rebellion, or resignation.
The Dissent Questions
- 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 resentment do you hold that no one knows about?
- What forgiveness are you withholding?
The Commitment Conversation
The commitment conversation is a promise with no expectation of return. Commitment is distinguished from barter. The enemy of commitment is lip service, not dissent or opposition. The commitments that count the most are ones made to peers, other citizens. We have to explicitly provide support for citizens to declare that there is no promise they are willing to make at this time. Refusal to promise does not cost us our membership or seat at the table. We only lose our seat when we do not honor our word.
Commitment embraces two lands of promises: My behavior and actions with others and… Results and outcomes that will occur in the world.
The Commitment Questions
- What promises am I willing to make?
- What measures have meaning to me?
- What price am I willing to pay?
- What is the cost to others for me to keep my commitments, or to fail in my commitments?
- What is the promise I’m willing to make that constitutes a risk or major shift for me?
- What is the promise I am postponing?
- What is the promise or commitment I am unwilling to make?
The Gifts Conversation
The leadership and citizen task is to bring the gifts of those on the margin into the center. The distinction is between gifts and deficiencies or needs. We are not defined by deficiencies or what is missing. We are defined by our gifts and what is present. We choose our destiny when we have the courage to acknowledge our own gifts and choose to bring them into the world. A gift is not a gift until it is offered.
The Gifts Questions
- What is the gift you still hold in exile?
- What is something about you that no one knows?
- What gratitude do you hold that has been gone unexpressed?
- What have others in this room done, in this gathering that has mattered to you?
The Structure of Belonging takes shape when the question is asked not answered.
It is a shift for many leaders to move to a context that restores community and possibility through generosity and the giving of oneself through the questions one is capable of asking. As a leader, begin by asking this question of yourself, “What is the new conversation that I want to occur?”
Then you will have the answer about what conversation, from the six above, comes next. February is a month where love is celebrated in many cultural traditions. There is no greater expression of love and commitment than a leader committed to building a structure of belonging. I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes ever as a reminder that the courage and shift come in the forming and asking of powerful questions. Try it and see what happens. There is no greater way to overcome the obstacles we faced in the past year than feeling like we belong and extending that gift to others.
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.― Rainer Maria Rilke