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Stories: Dialogue and Workshops
Leadership Dialogues and Collective Resonance

The Trinity-Wall Street Dialogues
‘Conversations of Not Knowing’

Submitted by Beth Robinson, Ph.D.

Describe Your Experience of Collective Resonance (include all the details you remember): Trinity Church-Wall Street hosted monthly dialogues for an invited group of Wall Street CEOs and emerging leaders, from 1997-2003. It was originally intended to be a one-year exercise in celebration of Trinity’s 300th anniversary, but the original group of CEOs suggested Trinity continue. I was asked to design and facilitate an ongoing program. I’d like to describe how we struggled for a year before the sense of resonance emerged for the first time.

The group met in the office building belonging to the Church, in a room called the Library. The walls were lined with bookshelves of dark wood, overflowing with old volumes. The windows were stained glass. But the most distinctive feature of the room was an enormous custom-built round table in the center. It easily sat twenty people.

The topics were chosen by the Wall Street participants, but the context we set for their conversations was unique. We explained “dialogue” as a form of conversation congruent with the new ways of knowing emerging from the new sciences, meaning that scientists today take for granted that rather than there being a single correct answer to be discovered, there can often be multiple, even paradoxical, but equally valid answers to a question. In business, on the other hand, these executives were trained and expected to use analysis and forecasting techniques to generate answers, to make quick decisions, and to engage in negotiation and debate to convince others to accept their positions as the right ones.

The issues they chose for discussion were complex and ambiguous ones, like the future of global capitalism, how to bring diversity to senior levels, and the impact of technology on a relationship business. They were often uncomfortable issues precisely because they did not lend themselves to easy solutions. On top of that, the group struggled at first with the epistemological framework, and although they felt they were dropping their old habits of analysis and debate, the wondered whether they were really “doing dialogue”.

After the first round, with the introduction of an annual off-site and Appreciative Inquiry, relationships deepened. It seemed that once we had a critical mass of these relationships and a shared feeling of being connected and empathetic towards the others in the group, it became easy for us to simply include new people when they come in, even if before we knew them. They could feel the deep connection and felt safe to join in a similar spirit. In Renee’s terms, I would say we established a collective resonance that newcomers experienced immediately.

How did this experience feel? Where in your body did you feel it? How did you know it was happening?

When people arrived for the meeting they would greet each other in a friendly way, but the conversation was the superficial kind of stuff you’d hear before any meeting: “How are you? Been traveling a lot? Did you finish that project?” Some people would be in corners on their cell phones, finishing up their last conversation.

When we finally all sat down around the table, you could instantly see people begin to breathe more deeply, see how their faces changed. They somehow became more present. I’d call for a minute of silence, and in that minute I could feel a gathering.

When we came out of silence, I would be conscious in my own body of being very centered and going into a mode I seek when I facilitate, when I am not so much in my head but nevertheless very aware of the collective flow. When it’s really there, I am not only aware of what’s being said and focused on the speaker, it is as though I have an awareness of each and every person and how they are feeling. It’s not to say the conversation is always flowing and “on track”, but it is as though I have the ability to hold the group as it works its way through fits and starts, allowing the conversation to get stuck in rocky places or take detours and become uncomfortable for a while. I feel the wholeness of the group despite whatever may be the apparent quality of the conversation or its direction.

Over time, they all got more and more comfortable with silence, personal revelations, strongly differing opinions, and not coming to conclusions—because being in the group was reward enough.

Were there any precipitating events, actions, or happenings in the group that you associate with major shifts the group made into resonance? What was the shift and how did you know it had taken place?

At the end of the first round I facilitated, the group asked whether we could begin after our summer break with an off-site retreat. They wanted both the opportunity to deepen their relationships, and a chance to explore the conceptual framework in more depth and practice dialogue. Luckily, Trinity owns a conference center in rural Connecticut, so this was easily arranged. The difficulty for me as a facilitator was how to do everything they’d asked in only 42 hours.

I’d decided to use Appreciative Inquiry interviews for the group to develop topics for the year. At the same time, the interviews would introduce people to each other at a more human level we’d never had much time for, give participants practice in deep listening, and generate positive affect. To save precious time, I came up with the idea of interviewing each participant on videotape, with the questions being asked by a documentary filmmaker who I admire for his ability to bring out the genuine person on film. We then edited each interview of 30-40 minutes down to five minutes which we hoped captured the essence of the person: their reasons for choosing their career, their values, the story of an experience that was a highlight of their work when everything just flowed and felt right, their hopes for the future.

On the first night of the retreat, the participants arrived in time for dinner, then we gathered in a comfortable room with the screen set up in front of the fireplace. I told everyone we’d watch the video, they could take notes if they wished, then in the morning we’d begin working with what we’d seen. As the film started rolling, you could feel the intense concentration in the room. In editing the interviews, we’d chosen moments when people revealed their sense of humor, when they seemed to come alive, when they spoke passionately. Only a few of those on the screen were not in the room, so there was an awareness of the live person there, but peripherally. You know how when you go see a movie, and you are almost surprised to find yourself in a theater when it ends? People were completely drawn in. When the screen went black at the end, the room was silent. I simply reminded everyone of the time breakfast would be served, and with only a few quiet words, everyone left for their rooms, as if lost in thought.

The next morning there was this amazing feeling as people came to breakfast. A warmth filled the room, almost as if people were holding each other in consciousness with a kind of tenderness. We walked across a lawn and bridge to another building for the day’s activities, and everyone commented on the beauty of the place, as if our senses were heightened. When we sat down in groups to work on themes from the interviews, the work just flowed.

At one point, a member of the group who’d been unable to join us the night before showed up. He was new to the Dialogues, and was amazed when everyone greeted him by name with an excited smile like he was a long-lost friend. From that point on, no matter how difficult the dialogue, how personal the conversation, I never lost that sense of ease with the group. The feeling of connection not only persisted through the rest of the retreat, it reconstituted itself every time we sat down around the table back in the City through the months and years to come.

What value has your experience of collective resonance had for your life or work?

The group and its ability to create collective resonance took on even more significance for its members following 9/11. Imagine—when we met for our annual retreat, it was only a few weeks after some of us had run through the streets of lower Manhattan with a tower collapsing behind us. Some people had lost dozens of friends and colleagues. But, wherever they were, people had experienced a kind of collective resonance on that day that suddenly validated what we were doing in the Wall Street Dialogues. Over the next year or two, WSD meetings were the main place where it was safe for participants to share anger, fears, and concerns, to make meaning and sustain hope, even when others had stopped talking about it and “gotten back to business.” Both dialogue and the physical experience of collective resonance are really happening in what Martin Buber called “the space between” people; when I talk about my current commitment to helping people and groups develop their wisdom, that’s my language for saying I’m committed to helping them know and use the powerfully positive possibilities in relationship.

What are you feeling right now after having told the story?

Is there such a thing as a universal state of collective resonance? Telling this story again, reading the other stories on the Resonance Project website, and reflecting on other groups in which I’ve experienced this, I find myself walking around for hours at a time as if I’m in a resonant group.

(Link to Profile for Beth Robinson)

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