Getting Serious about Community Development (Part 10)

Come to think of it, when we put all the lofty models and plans about community development aside, there is only one thing that remains: people. In its most vulnerable and naked version, community development is about how people, and groups of people, connect on a human level. Presence and permission. That’s all you need to remember.

Recently my wife and I came up with a good metaphor for this kind of connection. We discovered it when we observed our children while we were traveling last summer. Our three-week trip through Norway involved 8 different places to sleep. One of our children is extremely sensible to changes of the surroundings (as was I when I was young). Sometimes she was obnoxious and unable to get connected to the new context. Other times she seemed to connect immediately: feeling at ease, starting to draw and play and spontaneously sing and hum.

We still don’t know what makes our daughter connect or disconnect with a new environment, but the comfort or discomfort it brings her is the same as people being able to connect to the Wifi of a certain place. That’s why my wife and I refer to these situations in terms of “are our kids connected to the Wifi?” As a parent you can spot that in less than a second.

Then, I started looking at human connection in the same way as our kids connect to ‘the Wifi’ of a new environment. It doesn’t take too long to find out that this connection involves two parts:

  • Presence
    • This is the visible part; the part of the iceberg that is above the water surface.
    • Am I present with my full attention, contribution and listening?
    • Am I physically present – also when there are no meetings planned?
    • Am I approachable, even when I did not make a request or ask a question?
  • Permission
    • This is the invisible part we often take for granted. The only time we notice that permission is important is when it is lacking. In those cases we refer to a situation as tense or depressing and our lizard brain has a tendency to shut our normal thinking down. We end up in a dynamic of silence, secrecy and justification.
    • Do I have the permission to use my expertise?
    • Do I have the permission to relate to people and to earn their trust?
    • Do I have the permission to organize and co-create a community layer on top of the existing formal structures (aka social architecture)
    • The three levels of permission are achieved in that exact order.

In the below sketch I have tried to depict what this comes down to in my world of management consulting:

That’s me taking a chance at making sense of the change project that I am representing in front of people who are – or will be – directly impacted by the decisions we make. If you were to make a bet on my chances to succeed in this endeavor, what would they be? To what extent would my probability of success increase if I would pay attention to:

  • Being there when I am there, i.e.: not only physically but also with all of my mind (and none of my smartphone)?
  • Ask for permission to share my point of view, based on my  role of expertise – as opposed to speaking my mind based on the authority that comes with my position?
  • Then – and only then – earn the trust of the people involved based on the bonding we do on a human level, outside of our planned meetings and formal moments? Also: act with integrity: doing what I say and saying what I do?
  • Then – and only then – involve them into the structuring of roles that insure the sustainability of the change effort and the balancing act of the project with the formal organization?

I think it makes a hell of a difference.

Do you?