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Inventing a Process

It was towards the end of the ’90s and I working as a grant writer for Princeton University. As I was one of the few middle managers who were people of color, I would frequently be invited to committee meetings about diversity. At first, it was ego gratifying, but it soon became exasperating. Typical of Princeton, there were a lot of smart people at these meetings. And they were competitive in the realm of ideas. Meeting would go around in circles, with people making interesting points, but very seldom agreeing on anything.

I became very frustrated with this state of affairs, and told my friends that I was going to do something about this. I didn’t know what exactly, but I was determined somehow to break the status quo. As it happened, I went to a conference sponsored by an education group covertly associated with the Emissaries of the Divine Light. There, I met a physicist who taught at Stanford and who started something called The Integrity Circle, a peer-t0-peer gathering that anyone could attend that he kept going for seven years at Stanford.

He inspired me.

When I got back to Princeton, inspired but still not knowing how I’d honor my pledge to “do something,” I called a meeting of friends across campus. We were a diverse crew. There was the white woman who worked in Human Resources who came to the meeting because she wanted to relate better to the diverse workforce at the school. There was an Indian women who had battled against patriarchal norms both in her home country and in establishing herself in the USA. There was this bearded son-of-the-60s whose daughter went to private school and told him she couldn’t relate to the black students at her school.

After starting the meeting by asking everyone to share why they came to this meeting, I had an epiphany. What we were creating together was a new form of dialogue  — although I was unfamiliar with the term at the time. The hallmark of our method was that we’d have a meeting around a diversity-related theme and then conduct a discussion with one ground rule, which we later shortened to “speak from experience.”

We conducted these “diversity circles” for the rest of my four years at Princeton, and I went on to teach others. As part of my preparation for conducting a practicum on the method at the ODNetwork Annual Conference, I learned that there were a lot of folks doing variants of dialogue around the world. Many were inspired by David Bohm, who influenced William Isaacs, whose book I linked to above. I added from these other practitioners and eventually decoupled my dialogue practice from diversity, realizing that it had universal applications.

What distinguished my method from others was the emphasis on personal storytelling.

Since I’ve taught it to many people, I’m pleasantly surprised to find others using it, from South Carolina to South Africa. Through it I’ve come to appreciate the power of story for connecting people. Exchanging stories helps people find common ground.

Dialogue Circles Site

Remembering My Friend, Brian Zahn


I’ll never forget my dear friend, Brian Zahn.    He was a great guy, who I’ll never forget. Maybe you can sense his spirit by looking at his picture. Or maybe not, as a photo is but a window. And Brian was to me a guy who was always a little mysterious, with a wondrous and somewhat dazzling surface. What I saw in him was perhaps what he wanted me to see. Despite that, he was someone who supported me all my life.

Here’s a newspaper article that tells you something about Brian’s life:

I hope you’ll take a moment to read it, and then come back to read more.

I’ll always remember how Brian and I first met.

It was during the late ’60s or early ’70s and I was newly back from Europe and living off South Street in Philadelphia. In those days, I was a practicing macrobiotic, eating a lot of brown rice and miso soup and studying, as my friend Nolu Crockett-Ntonga called it, “the yin and the yang and the bim and the bam.”

I had this idea to start of a magazine devoted to all things macrobiotic and decided to call it Yarrowstalks. I put out the first issue and a couple of weeks later, I got a call. It was Brian, who wanted to know about this magazine I had published. He was curious because he’d been publishing a magazine of the same name for a number of years.

Brian did the opposite of threatening to sue. Instead, he suggested we get together. This led to us jointly publishing two issues of Yarrowstalks and Brian giving me the title of Executive Editor. Although, truth be told, Brian did most of the work. I contributed a poem, a song I’d written and, in the second issue, an interview with William Burroughs.

Back in those days, I was also a music man, fronting a band called the Life Band with Angelo Lewis. Brian loved my music and promoted me, even arranged for me to peform in a concert in which I shared the bill with Philadelphia jazz legends Hank Mobley and Philly Joe Jones. Brian kept tapes of my music all these years. He saw me as an artist, a status I never fully claimed.

A couple of month ago, after not hearing from Brian for several years, I got a message from Brian on Facebook. “I’m in U of Penn hospital,” he wrote, “dying of cancer.” I called him up immediately and arranged to visit him in the hospital.

What struck me on seeing him then was how upbeat he was. He wasn’t really interested in talking about his illness but instead talked about a couple of his projects: a screenplay he’d published about Auguste Rodin and his documentary on Violet Oakley. He gave me a copy of both of those books and signed the Oakley one. “Read it,” he commanded. It said something like: “To the artist who lives in Angelo, the one he doesn’t see.”

When our visit ended, I wanted to hug him goodbye. But this was something he said his weak immune system might not tolerate. So we just said our verbal goodbye.

Just a couple of weeks ago, Brian invited me to a cocktail party. I had planned to attend, but at the last minute was unexpectedly called away to North Carolina for a memorial service for uncle who had just died. I called Brian last minute and relayed my regrets. “Let’s get together when you get back,” he said. True to form, he didn’t dwell on his prognosis.

That was the last time I talked to Brian.

Aside from missing him, I owe him a kind of spiritual debt. It’s not the kind of debt you repay to the lender, but one you pay back to others or to the world. It’s like that quote I must have shared with Brian back in our Yarrowstalks days: “One grain, ten thousand grains.

What the quote describes is a phenomenon of nature. When a grain is put into the ground, it gives birth eventually to ten thousand grains.

What it means to me is that whenever anyone gives you something of value, you must give it forward ten thousand times.

So I owe Brian and the world a lot.

I’d best get busy.

Adieu, old friend.

For me, you are immortal. And your spirit lives forever in me.

Custom Intervention #1

A newlywed friend posted her dilemma on a private social networking site. She loved her new husband, but wished he would eat kosher with her. This was something important to her, and she didn’t know how to influence him to take that step.

After thinking about her post, I invited her to lunch to share my point of view. “You should end it now,” I told her. “This will never work.” My reasoning was that she was on a path to putting him in a box he didn’t want to be in. Even if he went along with her, he wouldn’t be doing this for himself and in time would probably resent her for restricting in him.

She told me she loved him, and didn’t want to leave him.

Then, we settled on a way for her to introduce the conversation.

“There is something very important I want to share with you, but it’s a bit delicate. I hope you’ll be patient and allow me to begin with a metaphor…

“I don’t usually care for sports, but one I do love to watch is basketball. It isn’t just all those tall athletic guys running up and down the court, but the fact that their roles are all so specialized. One guy, the point guard, orchestrates the flow of the team. Another guy is what they call a banger: his thing is to work inside and get rebounds. Yet another guy’s role is to stay on the perimeter and be ready to shoot three-pointers. What works on a good team is that everyone knows and embraces his role…

“Now I love this in the sport of basketball, but in real life I’ve never really been good at teamwork. Maybe it’s because I’m an only child, and maybe that’s why I’ve been single for so long…

“But I fell deeply in love with you last month, and maybe a bit impulsively we got married: the ultimate team arrangement. And I’ve realized there’s this one thing I never fully shared with you, at least not seriously. You know that I’m Jewish and that’s really important to me. You’ve realized by now that I eat kosher, and do so religiously…

“What I’ve realized this week is that I’d love it if you ate kosher with me. I don’t expect you to covert, or anything like that. It just would mean a lot to me if we could share this together…

“I love you deeply, and have been looking to find a way to to talk this over. I’m not asking you to make any decisions about this now, but I just wanted to talk with you about this. Can you let me know what you think?”

Reading is Overrated

Reading is overrated as a means of getting information. In addition, the overreliance on reading can be an obstacle to the ability to access information by looking within.

First, a disclaimer: I am a very bookish individual. Like I imagine is the case with you, I have hundreds and hundreds of books. I delight in purchasing new and used books, particularly if they are reference books or if I can buy them cheaply.

Yet, I still think that reading is overrated. Here’s why:

1 – Reading is usually NOT the most efficient means of accessing information. The best way is to talk to someone who HAS the information and in so doing, INTERACTING with the data. Do you REALLY need to read that 500-word tome to find out what you need to know about, say, herbal medicine? Wouldn’t it be more efficient to ask someone who is an authority on the subject? That way you might find precisely what you need to know and even question the source for clarity.

Of course, it might be useful to read a textbook if you want to master a subject. But even in this case, it is arguably more efficient to interact with subject matter experts.

2 – We overrely on reading to access “truth” or other forms of information. I believe it is literally true that all the answers we need can be found by going within. But we tend in this information age to neither trust nor nurture our inner senses. In addition, our modern tendency is to buttress what we think we know by attributing it to some other so-called expert, e.g. “well, so and so said…” My belief is that recognizing the validity of reading-accessed information is in actual fact a form of recognizing what we know to be true already.

If this is true for more abstract forms of information (e.g. “truth”) it is likely also true for technical forms of information. I am not a Da Vinci scholar, but perhaps he utilized his intuition — his inner sensing — to discover his many technical contributions, many of which he did not find time to execute.

I don’t mean to suggest here the philistinish view that reading is an inherently useless activity. Reading helps orient us, helps us discover — in a sense — what we know is true already. It is also, at least for me, an enjoyable activity.

A final note here, gentle reader:

I’ve hope you’ve enjoyed reading this!

I’d appreciate your comments.