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:
- 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?
- 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.