The room was always dim when we arrived. Evening, but still it was the kind of room that was dim in the daytime and grew darker from there. The whole place wore shades of dark brown. I moved through the stew of heat and damp igniting the few cast-off lamps, lanky and crooked in the corners; cranked windows open inviting the slightly cooler air outside to squeeze through the old screens, clotted with decades of dust and a fine patina of rust, to join us. Please. The whine and rush of traffic rattled the frames; part of the bargain I cut with the air. Other than this buzzing intrusion we enjoyed the illusion of being at camp. Once a month. The last Tuesday, easy to remember and manage, though it excluded some who would be here. Other commitments. It was free to come. Optional. Volunteer.
The six or eight or nine others who made this conversation the one very most important thing they could choose on this last Tuesday of this month step over the threshold, push against the achy sprung doorframe with one hand, cradle a dish to pass with the other and let the space we have created start to strip off the sodden scratchy layers of worry and stress, task lists and rancorous bosses and sons, hanging them on the hooks on the walls. They watch us from their posts through the night, pissed-off to wait at the door. After some light chatting and eating from dishes to pass, we each choose a chair or part of a couch and locate our selves in this circle. One of us lights a candle or two on the low table in the middle, scattering the wet drops of darkness held at bay just behind us, instincts drawing us to the flames. With the last scraps of mundane day-to-day of our lives lying amongst the half-eaten dishes, we fall into silence and breathe. Deep. Some of us for the first time all week, all month, since we sat here last. We have been holding our breath and waiting for this night to come and invite us to be just ourselves, heard, respected, and un-judged, sitting with other humans in a conversation that matters. A happening so rare for each of us here, so rare and so nourishing, profound and renewing that we choose it over everything, everything, everything else on this Tuesday.
We begin. The question we pass from hand to hand, turning it over, feeling its weight and shape in this moment: What does it mean, what does it take to be a life-affirming leader, now, today? Everyday? There are so many ways to ask this question, so many ways we do and don’t live into the potential we each have for this role it takes two years of last Tuesdays for our conversation to wind down. With a ritual bonfire and more dishes to pass we celebrate the experience and thank one another. Saying goodbye for now. Some people couldn’t be here. Over the years many have come and gone. A week or so after the bonfire, I got an e-mail from one. She had moved across the country not so long ago, alerting one of us to her absence from then on. I don’t remember, maybe it was me that she told. I wouldn’t miss her, most of us wouldn’t if we were truth-telling, but we held ourselves from this kind of talk. Practiced non-judgment as best we could in the space we had created together. She irritated me. Challenged me mightily to listen and take her in. I was relieved on the nights she didn’t come with her too-sharp comments, questions that left me accused of something I couldn’t name and potluck dishes laced with pessimism that sat in my stomach and roiled. I told myself she was in my life, this circle for a reason, but I couldn’t see it and didn’t try very hard.
Reading her e-mail I remembered how she sometimes complained while we ate that the group didn’t get together other than the Tuesday nights. Didn’t call one another, or come to be friends. She was clearly perturbed and I kept to myself what must not have been obvious to her. Most of us were friends outside. Called and cared about the day-to-day, the rancorous bosses and sons. Shame tasted like bile as I read. She thanked me. Thanked the group for her life. During our period together, she wrote, she had been deeply depressed. Suicidal. Only the Tuesday night group, the looking forward to it, the space, the conversation kept her alive. She thanked me. She thanked us and I cried.
Being with her, holding the rim and holding my tongue had been the hardest work as a leader I had ever done. But I did it. We all did. And it mattered. In the end, she saved her own life. Made the choices she needed to make, walked toward the life she could have. In the end, a group I led in a retreat - the staff of a small family owned business in transition - said what needed to be said to face down meanness among them and grief for a past that they loved. In the end, a gang of hot-headed young engineers way into blaming their behemoth-procedure-skinned-employer for all of their troubles, declared themselves the problem, not the procedures, and made a list of things they could do. In the end, visions of the future have arisen like castles out of the mist, radical innovations dropped from the sky like a gift, confessions of offenses long held secret inspired long afternoons of reciprocation and repair. All of it in circles of conversation.
Our hypothesis to test, the heart of this experiment in virtual conversation between Rox and me, is “Conversation Doesn’t Sell.” You can’t build a business with conversation at its core, you have to hide it behind doors with clever names, trademarked models and phrases, and results guarantees. Why? Because clients don’t care about the method we use to get them what they need in the end, I profess. They don’t want TALK. They just want the new product, the better team, the strategy that wins every game. But you see, the method is everything. Conversation IS the thing which, in the end, coaxes us, oysters, to run our wet tongues over one grain of sand, building layers of rough and sheen in the passing to produce the pearl we offer on the last Tuesday of the month. And together, we string the pearls in a circle we wear out in the world to help us be responsible, creative, courageous and kind. Helps us save our own lives. Conversations that matter, in the end, aren’t easy. They are rare because we as a people are way out of practice, perhaps never learned to make pearls out of sand.
Conversation doesn’t sell. I stand firm in my oath, spat in frustration at a world that needs conversations that matter more than lean manufacturing or value-stream management or ICD-10 coding training for which they paid billions last year. I stand here and ask you to prove me wrong. Accept this invitation to stop traffic, walk up the grassy rise and break through the rust-clotted screen to the circle of conversations just waiting for the chitchat and potluck to be done.