Continuing the Conversation (Peter Block)

Peter Block – The Structure of Belonging: Continuing the Conversation.

When the room is set-up in theatre-style, it says that everyone else has turned their back on you. It says that the speaker is the only one worth eye contact. So, when you rearrange the room, you are helping people reclaim their humanity. However, some people will come in and say, “I hated those circles. I like the way the room is now – orderly.” I can find support for anything – for patriarchy, for community, for circles, and for theatre-styles. You can’t please everyone.

So, the question to ask is, “How would you redesign this room (this project, this assignment, etc.) to live out your intentions.”  That is the task of learning and development professionals. The task of management is to help people live out management’s intention.

Let me play this out a bit…This is a sequence. So, what I have are social architects. The number one design criterion is “what brings <aliveness> into the room?” Having people restructure anything produces energy. Having people get used to a structure designed by others consumes energy. So, you could say that the purpose of training & development is to produce institutions that are energy producing.  The reason I tired at the end of the day is that I have spend the time consuming energy. I don’t care about the room; I know that the “sardine” structure is not good; it will consume energy, and it reinforces that we need a cool patriarch to get something done. I don’t ant to live in a world that is waiting for that to happen.

Small group exercise

Take a couple of minutes and talk to someone who you don’t know, who is near you and who cares…Reflect on how you dealt with the assigned (to redesign this room that best fits with your intentions). How did you deal with the ambiguity of this exercise? And remember, why you pair people with someone they don’t know is to bring hospitality; the need for strangers is not simply an act of good will when I talk to a stranger. I need a stranger to be surprised.

Participant Question – You are talking about leadership, and I believe n much of what you said – not infantilizing people, etc. However, I am also aware that you gave us permission to change the room. It would not have happened without you telling us to do it.

Peter Block: Leaders have a role and I am not arguing against the existence of the power, and the use of it with grace. So, I like the notion “from hero to host.” So, I don’t mind training leaders…I just don’t want to treat leaders like they are too important. And, I have a deal…I signed up for something…to run a workshop and I have to honour what I signed-up to do; to stand up while you are sitting. Sometimes, people say, “How come you are standing?” I respond by stating, “This is not the absence of structure. It is a different kind of structure – a community-based structure; a community-building structure.”  So, I see my job… I know that if you don’t feel connected to each other; if you don’t as an individual have discovered one other person in the room, you’re coming to listen to what I have to say, “Stinks.”  And until there is some sense of connection, and we know this… that all learning is social. I cannot figure out the next computer innovation; I can’t learn the next program unless I am with someone with who I feel connected. So, that is the principle.  But, I don’t want to abuse the power; but I have some power. They paid my way, so I owe something back. But I want to use that power – a feminine form of power – if you want to label it and that has nothing to do with gender.  So, it is not arguing against leaders; I don’t want to see them as “cause.”

If you all knew each other, if you were connected, you would not put up with the room (in theatre style, with your backs to each other). Yesterday, we all got conditioned that the room was okay to be “sardine-like.” So, next year, an objective may be to make the conference an example of its conversation. It is amazing to me that people in our field are so unconscious about the space. You are social architects; you are designers. This was a design; rearrange the room and share with another person about an experience you just had, and you will get connected.

Even though we were all together half-an-hour ago in the other room, once you walk into a new room, you walk in alone. So, I have to get people connected soon. Why? Because, it changes the nature of the listening. I know that if you share with another person about the experience you just had, you will get connected. It creates a space for Marilyn to stand up and say, “I’ve been thinking about this, and would you mind if I stood up and say something?”  So, you are trying to change the social structure, which changes the nature of the listening and overcomes people’s sense of isolation. 

Five people can speak for the group

The other little methodological thing is that when 5 people speak for a group, they speak for the group – whether it is a group of fifty, two hundred or five thousand. They have covered about 80% of what the body has to say. So, you don’t have to slog through your life giving everyone a chance to stand-up and say something. So, 5 or 6 people speaking now will give us all a sense of what’s in the room. That lets me know what to pay attention to; because the biggest source of power is what to focus on. This is what I want from a leader. I want the boss to tell me what to pay attention to, because they see the whole thing.

You are trying to create citizenship in communities and ownership in systems, so you want people to stand for something, so when you bring people together like this, you want people to stand up. This is a space for people to stand for something, and to personalize it, so give us your name.

Participant: “I was hooked on this idea of giving permission and the reconstructing of this room and Marilyn’s question. This happens in our workplace every day. How can I be gracious and how do you frame the question.  So instead of saying “We have to do something about this room,” it is more about asking the questions?”

Peter Block: How you frame the question is everything; however, you have to be careful there. If you want the room to be changed, then you have to say, “I want this room rearranged, I can’t live with this,” rather than asking “Does anyone else possibly want this room rearranged?”  Because then you are denying your own power.  Now, you have to be open to another view of the world. People may say, “I like it this way.” So, be careful.  I know that if we are lined up like sardines, it will be hard to find connection. So, you have to control those things.

Language is powerful

Language is powerful, but there are certain speech acts that are powerful:

A request is powerful  – an opinion isn’t.

A confession is powerful   blaming isn’t.

Forgiveness is powerful   lying isn’t.

So, I try to keep in mind those speech acts, those requests, and declarations. “I now pronounce you man and wife;” that’s got some real powerful. “You are under arrest,” that’s powerful.  Those are called declarations.

So, that I show I would think about the language. Also, where you are at the moment is what you were speaking about. If I am mad about something, I usually go to the bathroom, because I am usually not useful when I am irritable and cranky. So, I know that if something is getting to me and I am getting mad at someone, I say “Excuse me, I’ll be back in a minute” and leave the room. The moment I leave the room, I reclaim myself. I really don’t go to the bathroom, I just use that as an excuse. When I come back, I am back with you. There is nothing you can do to make me angry – but I am not talking about home life. At home, everything they do makes me angry! (Laughter)  I wake up every morning at 2:30 and 4:15 am every morning and do performance reviews on all family members. It works. After 6 am in the morning, there is absolutely no reason to take personal anything that is going on in the room. And if I do, I have to deal with that.

Participant:  When I came into the room I found my comfortable spot in the corner with my back up against the wall and Lynn Johnson (the Association President) came over and said, “We’ve got to change the room,” and I said, “Don’t worry, Peter will change the room.” But Peter didn’t change the room, we did. And this was the nice thing – you threw it out, “Is this comfortable for you? Does this work for you? And the group decided what would work for them.”  It is a metaphor for the old thing that “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Peter Block: Well, I did ask the question. Just to be accurate. I knew the room was not going to work and so said “Please redesign the room for the best fit.” Now sometimes when I do that, people just stay where they are – usually white middle-aged males. And so, if I have an intention, I don’t want to play around and pose it as a question. Because if they say “We are fine,” then I am doomed and I have to then manipulate them and say “Well, we are going to rearranged it anyway.”  So, I am not customer-focused. I care deeply about the nature of your experience and the nature of what is going on in the room, but I don’t ask you, “What do you think we ought to do?” Because your expectations are too low…

People come to a conference and say that they will leave with one good idea. Come on, give me a break. Two three days out of your life and you got one good idea? I am not saying this about you specifically, I am talking about participants. So, I don’t ask people what they want or what their expectations are because they are too small. You can deal with the fact that you came into the room and sat in the corner with your back to the wall, and that is interesting. We could explore that further, but we won’t. (Laughter.) Everything you are doing is to support the idea of engagement. This is transforming the work to engagement versus enrolment. You don’t roll out the future. You don’t figure out the future looks like through enrolment. It leads to the thought that change management doesn’t work; it was just a great idea. It is a great idea but it doesn’t work; engagement is the means by which the future gets created. You say there are structures for occasion.

There is a distinction between telling people what to do and naming what is happening. So, I can say, Well, you are all sitting in the back of the room is different than me saying

Participant: I have been practising lately to go around the room and ask people to express their expectations before you leave the room. Sometimes they are so tiny and small that it is difficiult to pull anything out of them. So, do you think I should eliminate the process? And if so, how do I ensure that people leave the room feeling complete?

Peter Block: Yes, I would leave it out. And, it’s not your job to make sure that everyone leaving the room feels complete. It is their job. So, I would ask the question, “How valuable do you plan for this experience to be? How much risk do you plan to take in the next hour, day, or week? How participative do you plan to be? I want to work with you as if you are producing your future, your experience and help you go public with that. Because, it is not your job to make me complete; you are not my mother. God Bless you for that loving instinct. You might say what do you have to do to make sure that you leave with what you came for? What do YOU have to do? Otherwise, you are making yourself too central. You are treating them as if they are “my people.”

And you have to answer the same question – what do you have to do so you can leave complete? So, you can say, “I am going to cover the material I said that I was going to cover and to do that as fast as I can.” All right? The second thing I need to do to feel complete is that I have to make contact with someone. I can’t stay isolated as a trainer and feel good about this experience. SO, I have to think about what I have to do about that. I want to be in a room where there is something “alive” going on. I just don’t want to get the job done or simply finish the curriculum. So, I am just giving you those as examples. So, I am asking you. “What would it take for you to feel connected and alive?”

Participant: Well, that would be a good question to ask rather than, “What are your expectations?”

Peter Block: Yes, because expectations are wishful thinking. And thank you for saying something.  What do you think about what I just said?

Participant: I think this is very true. It gives me the information to feel good about my work when people walk out the room and say, “This was great.” Or “I got what I needed.” That makes me feel great.  I want them to have that feeling. That is my expectation and it makes me feel connected.

Peter Block: I know. We all do it. It is pathetic, but we all do it. “How was your day?”  “I don’t know, ask them!” (Laughter.) The other thing is that you get some people for whom this [experience] is not right for them, and no matter what you do, they are going to have a bad experience. In the early days, I spent a lot of time on them and use them as a test for my value. And I came to ask myself why I was focusing on people who don’t fit, who don’t belong here or who are obnoxious? And so I just started to say, “I know; this course stinks. I know it odes. Thank you. Are there any other thoughts that you might want to share?” I became unseducable. However, I can be seduced, but I know that is my part. And so, you might say the whole purpose is to create a sense of ownership and accountability in the people who walk into your classroom. And if that didn’t happen, then they could have read it.

Any other thoughts? Question you may have?

Participant: I had an “ahaw” moment when you were talking. My style is to stand back and watch what is happening; sort of unobtrusive. And it is not working in my job. So, this moment of truth revolves around does that mean it is the wrong job? Or am I the wrong person for the job? Or…because all the things you are talking about – community and passion, are so powerful and that is what I want to bring to my work and it doesn’t feel like I am.

Peter Block: No, you’re not! (Laughter.) Beautiful statement. You are standing up now and declaring that means that you have decided to do something about it. “I didn’t enter this world to fit in. I didn’t show-up at this stage of my life to see what was happening, to see how I could unobtrusively find a seat without upsetting anyone.”  So, that is a great act of courage what you just did. And the way you speak to yourself and the more naked you say it the more useful it is. So, you don’t have to change jobs. You do fit there. Now, what you do may not be work, but at least you have been a player. So, if anybody says, “If you were more active, it will work out.” I can’t; no one can promise you a positive tomorrow, Anyway that was a beautiful statement. And you knew what you were doing. You knew it was important for you to stand up and make that declaration. So, it’s wonderful that you did that for yourself and you did it for all of us.

Anything anyone else wants to say?

(A participant thanks the last speaker for her courage and honesty.)

Peter Block: Thank you. That was a nice statement. She needs to know that she was received by us. That is what I keep talking about that. If people get upset, you go deeper. You don’t say “Sorry, I don’t mean to upset you.” You did mean to upset them. You see at that moment, you have decided to be accountable for your life. It may not be visible to anyone else in the world, but when you go back on Friday or Monday, you may look the same way but something will have shifted inside of you.

Participant: The question is how do I bring this message of yours back, to the people I speak to all the time who have not been fortunate enough to be here today. And also, how do I bring that message back as someone who has difficulty being outside the construct we are currently in. How do we find the strength to bring it back?

Peter Block: So, yours is not a methodology question or even a message question.  To bring the message back makes you a messenger, a prophet, a poet. So, you say, “How do I have the courage to reconstruct elements of the world that you have? That’s all. It is in the design, not in the speaking. I have learned that over time and not trying very hard at it. It’s not the point; otherwise, it is just good theatre. They’ll say I am a good presenter. “I like, Peter. He is funny, cool.” But, nothing of value happened, other than you had a charming hour. So, you try to go from good theatre, “I love that movie,” to the reconstruction of people’s experiences with each other and trying to give them a little context so they don’t think you are just playing with them. And, I just use the context of accountability, commitment, possibilities, language; I have found that people won’t fight me on that. But I know it is in the design of the room that the world changes.

If we do THIS for too long, you will start getting disconnected from each other again. So, in some ways, you are managing this rhythm back and forth between intimate two or three persons and the community hearing each other. Now there is great power in both. When she stands up and makes her declaration, she gave us all a gift we would have missed if she had only said it to two other people. So, you create space for the whole to find its voice and also, if you stay to long we are waiting for the next other person to do something. So, that is a thought.

Participant: The corporate world doesn’t really accept intimacy. They are afraid of the word intimacy. How do we bring intimacy into the workplace?

Peter Block: They don’t? So, why don’t you just produce it? I don’t walk in and say, “Hi, my name is Peter and I am going to help you be intimate with each other. I want you to discover the grace and divine nature that resides inside your soul. I want you to share your gifts and I want love to be acceptable in this culture. And, I want to be a force to bring the feminine in from exile. All right…It’s weird. It’s true…(Laughter).

It’s true. But, instead I say, “Break into groups of three and find someone who you don’t know…” You produce the conditions under which intimacy occurs. I’m not selling it. Now, after the fact, when people are connected, I can say anything I want. But I can’t say it in the context of a solution, because it will be heard as weird. But you have to decide if intimacy is possible in the corporate world in which you function. You have to decide. You may have decided that it is not. I know that the world is ready for anything I am up for. So, I used to think that you can’t talk about spirituality, you can’t talk about sacred space, you can’t talk about intimacy, you can’t talk about connectedness, and business relationship.

I wrote a book on Empowerment in 1987 and that was a new conversation. People didn’t talk about empowerment. And so I thought, “Oh hell, I am just not up for it.” But you have to talk after the experience; use more powerful, emotional language after people are connected with each other. If you are with a team that trusts each other, they will start talking about love; I don’t have to bring it up. So, I am more interested in the experience of intimacy, rather than the discussion because it makes me less nervous too.

So, let me give you some questions, as the questions become the tools and you get good. So, I gave Maureen some other questions. How valuable do you plan for this to be? This came to me when working for Ford Motor Company. They took the top two thousand and force fed them into a training program – forty groups of fifty who didn’t want to be there. And I was Wednesday and was the centrefold. I was empowerment. And I died every time I showed up, even though I was benefitting financially. I finally I get so frustrated and it was okay…I said, How valuable do you plan for this day to be? How much risk do you plan to take today? I was a little cranky. How participative do you plan to be? If you plan for this to be shit, give it a zero on a scale on one to seven. If you don’t want to participate, give it a one. If you don’t want to take any risk, give it a two. To what extent do you care about the wellbeing of the whole room? Give it a low number, I am just interested. Well, they talked for 40 minutes on those four questions and it was like a gold mine. Something shifted in the room. What I realized later was what had shifted was that I had treated them like the producer of their own experience and I got off the notion of “Why can’t I get through to these guys?” We had even tried an evening session. After dinner, the host said, “All right, we are going downstairs to start Peter’s session,” and nobody moved. Five minutes later…“We need to get downstairs, guys,” and still nobody moved. Finally the guy close to me said to the group, “The sooner we get down there, the sooner we can get this over with.” And, I thought, hmmm. Got it?

Great Questions

So the questions matter but the question has to be one that invites accountability from my own experience. Let me give you some questions…

One great question is, “What is your contribution to the problem you are complaining about?” That is probably the most powerful question in the world.

Another great question is, “What is the ‘Yes’ you no longer mean? What have you said “yes” to that you no longer mean? This one cranks it up a notch. This is a dissent one.

Another great question, even though no one really speaks this way (but let me give it to you anyway) is…What is the forgiveness you are unwilling to offer? So, that is level three.

Another great question: What is the resentment you hold that nobody knows about?

These are the highest risk questions in the world. Nice to have them, because once in a while, you are in a group who can handle it and care enough about each other they can have it.

So, the question I want to give you now is “What’s your question? What is the question that is animating your life or your work at point or this stage of the game?”


I like threes better than twos…Here is doesn’t matter, but sometimes with pairs, you have some people in the room that don’t want to be there. And I hate for anyone to be stuck with someone who doesn’t want to be there, because they don’t have a very good conversation. Threes cut the chances in half; so, a very practical level. I don’t want people to be screwed by the accident of partnership. The other thing is that threes are very unstable. It is two and one and it produces energy. I want you to be with two people you dolt know and to sit as close as you can, I know the room is a little difficult and take about ten minutes to discuss, what is the question that has the most urgency for you at this stage of the game?

And listen…”This stage of the game,” leaves it open for you to focus on. You can focus on your life, your family, your work, and I can focus on my old age. It is something I like to focus on and is something I can’t do much about. Someone said that old age is better than the alternative and I’ve been thinking, “Who says?” So, share with each other. Now the response, you have to remind people every single time – Don’t be helpful to each other. Just get interested and the most beautiful interested question is, “Why does that matter to you?” And when they answer, you ask them again, “Why does that matter.”

Which means, I came to talk to you about the meaning of things, not the doing of things, or the explanation of things.

So, your task as leaders is to gather people together to talk about things that matter to them; to talk about meaning. The old narratives only talk about what we are going to do or how we got here. “Let’s talk about how we got here.” Who cares? It’s fiction. History is all fiction. It is “his- story.” History. Got it? So, you are trying to be an antidote to conversations that don’t take us any place.

So, do this now. Act as if you understand this assignment. What’s working on you now? What’s working on you now? (Groups complete the assignment.)

Reconstructing the Whole

Asking people a more personal first question can be very powerful. They will say, “That is not what I came for. I didn’t come here to tell you about my life, I came here for some tools. You say now, “I know that is not what you came for and break into groups of three and…” In our DNA the longing for connection is there. I c=don’t care how alienated the person is. I have worked in Cincinnati with street and drug kids and all that, and after all the posturing and all the

(to be continued)  

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These are my notes from the second seminar conducted by Peter Block at the 2010 Canadian Society for Training and Development National Conference entitled “The Structure of Belonging: Continuing the Conversation. Peter Block is an author, consultant and citizen of Cincinnati, Ohio. His work is about chosen accountability and the reconciliation of community. Peter is the author of several bestselling books, the most widely known being Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used (1st edition 1980, revised 1999).