Building Bridges & Breaking Walls. One Story at a time.

August will be the curtain raiser month of sorts for me. I along with Stephen Berkeley will be working with interested and interesting participants at a one day Pre-Conference Workshop at the International Association of Facilitators‘ Asia Conference and exploring the power of stories in bridging the world.  The IAF Asia Conference 2017 is happening in Seoul in August 2017.   What better of a setting for a topic like  “Building Bridges and Breaking Walls. One Story at a time”! I think it fit to build context the IAF Asia Conference 2017 Seoul Pre Conference Workshop titled: “Building Bridges and Breaking Walls, One Story at a time” through a series of posts here.  This then becomes a space for conversation and dialogue on the power of stories.

IAF Asia Conference 2017 Seoul Pre Conference Workshop

IAF Asia Conference 2017 Seoul Pre Conference Workshop “Building Bridges and Breaking Walls, One Story at a time”

Stephen and I have been bouncing ideas off each other for a while now on a variety of topics. From Systems Thinking to organisational structures. The power of local communities.  Change processes in organisations. Process facilitation. And a variety of other topics. Even as the conversation evolved, we realised that we were very different individuals with a different take on most topics that we discussed. United only by a strong idea of staying engaged with pursuits that are meaningful.

Even as we discovered more of our worlds we saw how similar they were, despite having completely different contexts. Set in different times, time zones. As much as we had our differences, we were united in our openness to share and exchange stories from our respective worlds. Over time this became to be the fulcrum of our friendship. It was but obvious that the willingness to listen to and share each other’s stories bridged gaps.

One day as we sat on a rock after a small hike, a little idea came upon us.  We perhaps could work with larger groups to explore the power of telling and listening to each other’s stories too. Perhaps, we thought, that would bridge larger gaps in the world that surfaced in our conversations many times over. We ran a few experiments, ran the idea past friends and colleagues.  The idea seemed to have currency. It kept growing. We wondered why and came up with our own set of hypotheses.  The set is only growing.  Here are the five that I connect to the most.

a. There are too many wedges in the world we live in. Cultural. Political. Generational. Economic. The trouble is that those wedges are seeming to appear like irrevocable divides. Walls of steel, so to speak!

b. The world has newer tools and additional power to communicate in the modern times. Sadly these tools find increasing use in amplification of these divides.

c. Listening to each other’s stories helps understand points of views and helps explore our world views.  Examining these with an open mind brings greater awareness and possible shifts. Stories are integral to these shifts.

d. Shaping and shifting of the narratives and stories, both inside our minds and in the world around us will determine the shape of the world our kids will inherit

e. When whole systems engage in deep listening to each other new realities emerge for the whole system that can be infectious. Systemic change will bring about lasting impact for the system and its constituents.

For now :

Armed with the first-hand experience of leading change initiatives in large organisations and communities, we seek to further the conversation to see what more is possible. Would it be a new set of skills and abilities? Perhaps a deeper understanding of the process of change? Maybe a clearer way to harness what emerges from a story? We don’t know for sure what else the questions are. And thus begins this journey.

While it is a personal journey to take the ‘story of the story’ to newer areas, new bridges will perhaps get built. In the telling and retelling of the stories, new ways and connections have greater chances of emerging. All of us who jump into participate are going to be better off depending on how much we are willing to give and take.  Seoul in August ’17 will be the first pit stop. And we intend continuing the conversation, armed with whatever comes from the previous pit stops. This space will curate the journey and will continue to evolve.

This is work in progress. And this is far from complete. Wonder if we will all ever be. So, do jump into the conversation. Spread the word. Let’s see what stories emerge.

Connecting dots

There are several riches the internet has offered me. One such is the opportunity for coffee and conversations with a multi hued spectrum of people that makes the mind soak colour from a rich palette. The limitless pleasure of conversations with a ton of interesting people is quite something. A fascinating array of stories have been exchanged.  Stories that bring alive our coruscating lives of arresting colours, often glazed over by the sad tint of the daily humdrum of existence. Needless to say, much coffee has been drunk, with this as an excuse. But that’s a story for another time.

For now, here is a story about stories.

Filter Coffee

Last week, work took me to Bangalore. Meeting Jaya (@nohrgyan on twitter) was forever on the cards and circumstances lent themselves rather well. Soon a filter kaapi flowed down the alimentary canal as the stories that we told each other filled the air and hogged her tastefully done up home. In the flicker of a few lamps with many wicks, characters, instances, incidents all seemed to flutter to come alive with a spontaneous flutter.

Her story. Her mom’s story. My story. Our dilemmas. Our hopes for the future. Our origins. Speaking of origins, I spoke, like I usually do, of Madurai. ‘Madurai’ adorned prima donna status, in the conversation for  a bit. In some time, a gentleman that Jaya and her mother knew, drifted into the chat. The man they knew was from Madurai.

This gentleman, called Krishnan, had beaten the odds before the odds got even with him. Many accounts of the awesome man he was, flowed, while I listed in awe. Like his dogged determination to learn. Of how he would assemble kids to spread the word about the environment. His doing his PhD and his quest to learn in rather trying circumstances, to put it mildly. His cycling to work and his innate grasp of what it was to learn and to be of value to any and everyone around.

One particular story of how he guided Jaya’s mom to watch birds fly in formation at 5.45 AM from a particular angle at the terrace was narrated with such energy, that what was left was hearing birds flap their wings, in the warmth of the home. He seemed to have created so much difference not only to his body of work, but to an entire community.

“And then, one fine day, he went home to Madurai, had food, watched a movie and went to bed”. In a matter of fact undertone she said, “He didnt get up the next day morning”. A gasp broke free. He was all of 35. The memorial service had people from around the world pour in their messages. Jaya said she too went to the memorial and spoke about his helping her mom to spot birds fly in a formation. As I got more and more curious about the man, she fiddled with her phone and pulled out this page. A tribute of sorts.

My heart beat faster and beads of sweat congregated from nowhere. I went still, when I read on. For the Kannan she was talking about, I knew as Ramesh. I knew him pretty well. He was in the class I used to teach more than a decade ago. Memories of him came flooding back. A tall handsome bloke, with sincerity as a middle name and a bright outlook to life and living. Twelve years ago, I taught a class of awesome students pursuing a Master of Science in NGO Management, from Madurai Kamaraj University. I went blank for a bit.

He and the conversation stayed with me long after we said our goodbyes and moved on. Many cobwebs in the mind got cleared as I had a dull dinner at the airport.  As the plane took off that night, the pilot announced a thunderstorm had hit Bangalore. He could have well spoken of what was happening within me.

The next day, Jaya called me. She said she had bumped into Ramesh’s wife and told her about me and my visit. ( She was a student in the same class as well). Apparently Ramesh’s wife had some very kind words for me and my work and went on to say Ramesh had great regard for me, citing incidents. And as Jaya narrated the incidents she had heard over the phone, I noticed them emerge from piles of other memories that were stacked on top.

As we were hanging up, Jaya said, “I wanted to tell you this, for otherwise there is no way you would have known”. I couldn’t agree more. Since that rainy evening of Bangalore, my mind constantly darts to wonder how small yet how large, how simple yet how complex, how similar yet diverse, how cruel yet joyous, our world is!

The thrill of the success that Ramesh, a small town young man, had achieved, hasn’t died down. Not in a merely materialistic way, but in a much larger wholesome way, making a difference to an entire community of people around the world. Even as it stands tall, the fragility of life makes its silent presence felt.

I will never ever forget Ramesh now. Or how we met and later took different paths, only to emerge at an intersection caused by an interaction! The tapestry of our lives is often a fast moving assortment of people and moments. Every interface is a dot that we leave somewhere. Sometimes, the dots come back to connect and spark a fire of wonder. That fire is often lit by two flint stones called ‘Stories’ and ‘Conversations’. The insanity that surrounds our routines, can nibble our souls. The wounds that are laid bare by the nibbling, are often soothed by gestures like Jaya’s and in the power of sharing and listening to each others stories.

So people, heres something you could consider doing. Sit down and talk to people. After they have shared their story, go ahead and share yours. Talk to someone. You never know which dot will connect or what it will lead you to.

PS : You may want to give this a read sometime. I wrote it in a seamless flow a while back and realised that it tethered emotions together, more than thoughts.