Good conversation is at the very heart of all learning and growth in wisdom. I do not question the value of books and lectures and podcasts. And yet, I do wonder if a book is of most benefit to us when we are part of a book club or reading group that can discuss the book and what we are seeing and learning . . . and that similarly with a lecture, that there is something profoundly generative in being part of a group of three who along the way, between lectures, perhaps, discuss and debate and consider and challenge one another in light of what we have heard in the lecture.
But more specifically, when we speak of a vital organization as one that has a culture of continuous learning it will without doubt be one where conversation is at the heart of what it means to work here. That is, there is time and space to think and to think together, to talk about what we do and what matters to us and how we are doing to do this and what difference it makes if we do it one way or another way. Yes, I know there are those out there that think we talk about things too much and we just need to get on with it – that, it is said, we need people of action, “not just those who talk but those make things happen.” Or, as they say in Latin America – in English translation: the paralysis of analysis. It just sounds better in Spanish: la paralisis del analisis.
Sure, I know that sometimes within our organizations there is a lot of talk and sometimes perhaps we need to press for closure and call for a decision and agree who it will be that does what needs to be done and then makes sure it happens. Yes, it is possible to overthink something. Agreed. But surely we know that good decisions flow from clarity of understanding and good understanding emerges from not one single mind or perspective, but the give and take of questions, and good listening and the back and forth that brings clarity and courage and, ultimately, the capacity to act with all the wisdom we have in hand.
Consider two ways to foster this kind of continuous learning. First, a book that as a group you choose to read and discuss; I have found this to be one of the most fruitful ways to encourage both conversation and learning. We read the book; and we assign different members of our group to lead is in a conversation – an exchange of perspectives, responses and reactions to what we have read. It can be a book or an article or essay – something that in effect jump starts the conversation but also a piece – whether a book or article – that challenges us regarding some aspect of our shared life and mission. So it is not just any book: an elders board might agree to read and discuss a book on the church and mission or something on the character of worship or hospitality. That is, it is a reading and thus a conversation about what it means for us to be us.
Second, consider also the possibility of a guided conversation around a particular question: What are our core values? What is our take on the change in our circumstances? What does it mean that . . . ? In this case, we do not have a formal motion or decision on the table, but rather take the time to step back from the immediate issue before us to see the larger picture – a conversation that will, of course, in due time inform the kinds of decisions we will be making. For example, we can have a focused conversation around: what does it mean for us to be a hospitable community? What does hospitality look like given our mission and our core values? In due time translate into actual policy and practice. But first, we come to our decisions by fostering this kind of shared learning along the wa.
One more point. Continuous learning comes not merely from conversations with our immediate circle of friends and colleagues. It also comes from attending to voices that bring a different vision or perspective or angle on the question. Thus, in my situation as a university president, I need to find ways to hear from pastors, students, faculty who are actually doing the work of teaching, the front line staff who are tending to the functioning of our community . . . and not merely to those who sit around the table with me as a senior leadership team.