Tag Archives: communication

The power of language

Photo: JoBrad

Many of us live in multilingual communities. This is wonderful in that it provides richness to our neighbourhoods and schools. It can also pose a challenge, as language can act as a barrier to sharing ideas, skills and thoughts with those around us.

In October, I posted about reaching across national borders to build community. I now turn to ways that we can reach across language borders to build community in our neighbourhoods, schools and workplaces. Learning another language is not only a powerful way to help build community, but it also contributes to our personal health. For adults, brain researchers have noted that multilingualism can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s. For children, studies have shown that learning a second (or third) language provides them with more flexibility in thinking and problem solving, a greater sensitivity to language, and a better ear for listening in general. For all ages, learning another language can be a powerful way to gain insight into another way of life, culture or perspective.

Here are six different approaches to building community through multilingualism:

1. Take a language course, download a language app or check out a language program from your local library. Many cities host language lessons in cultural centres, community centres, libraries, colleges or schools. A few communities have reached out to provide free lessons to their neighbours. In my home city, the Victoria Native Friendship Centre is always open to those who wish to find out more about Aboriginal language and heritage;  the Turkish-Canadian friendship society offers free language lessons to beginners; VIRCS (Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society) and ICA (InterCultural Association) both offer free English lessons to newcomers. The Canadian government also offers free 5-week French immersion programs to tertiary students and teachers. Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa is an adult Mohawk immersion program that takes place on the Six Nations Grand River Territory in Ontario, Canada. They have published some great ‘before’ and ‘after’ student videos here.

2. The Noun Project is attempting to create a visual dictionary that allows us to share basic information regardless of languages. Anyone can submit an image and the images can be used freely. You can see a written ‘translation’ in one of 25 languages by scrolling over it. Feedback is accepted by those leading the project and images are tweaked or removed if they do not symbolically make sense to users. The images are useful not just for reaching across language ‘borders’ but also by providing information to those who are illiterate.

3. How about starting with a ‘hello’? For a less intensive experience than committing to a course of study, try logging onto a website that teaches you how to greet someone in a language other than your own. You can hear how to say ‘welcome’ in many languages here and how to say ‘hello’ here. Jennifer Runner hosts a page that features greetings in over 2200 languages. Sue Unstead’s Say Hello was one of the best books I purchased for my own kids. There are buttons they can push to hear the word ‘hello’ in ten different languages.

3. Support immersion programs. I am lucky to live in a place where French immersion is an option within almost any school district in the country. In larger cities, programs such as Mandarin immersion also exist. Educational and language researchers have often noted that children benefit not only linguistically, but also in terms of developing their ability to solve problems, see multiple perspectives on an issue and demonstrate flexibility in their thinking. All of this is great training for becoming active community builders!

5. Teach and learn language through  Frontier College. It runs English-language and French-language literacy programs in ‘unconventional classrooms’: places like community centers, shelters, farms and prisons. Volunteers are needed across Canada, and Frontier College provides training and support to enable you to work with children, youth and adults. The labourer-teacher program allows you to work alongside labourers on farms, while teaching English in the evenings – a way to exchange experiences and skills. You can learn more about them here.

6. Ask. Simply ask your neighbour. While it may seem awkward to initially try and communicate with someone who does not speak the same language as you – just go for it! With a little creativity, you will likely be exchanging ideas and information – or at least morning greetings – before you know it.

Anyone out there have a language story or resource to share?

Change the room, change the culture

“Physical space is more decisive in creating community than we realize…Community is built when we sit in circles…Every room we occupy serves as a metaphor for the larger community that we want to create…If the future we desire does not exist in this room, today, then it will never occur tomorrow…’change the room, change the culture’” (Block, P. Community: The Structure of Belonging, 151-152).

The Circle: Why Use It?
I am a big fan of the circle as a layout for meetings. This is mainly because I see this structure as a way of not necessarily meeting, but instead promoting conversation, collaboration and engagement. The circle provides a sense of belonging and community in the setting in which it is used.

The Circle: When to use it?
To be honest, I have rarely encountered a meeting situation where the circle has not been justifiable. However, circles work best when the group is small or has already had an opportunity to get to know one another. This is particularly true if some people in the room are familiar with each other, while others are meeting for the first time. Robert Chambers argues that this situation may lead some people to feel intimidated, although this can often be resolved by ensuring that some time is allowed for smaller circles and groups to mix before and after the larger meeting. An approach such as the “world café” can be very useful in this context.

Also, circles are not the only key to a healthy community. While the circle contributes to an engaged, participatory and inclusive culture, don’t forget that other factors such as facilitation and meeting organization, communication practice, organizational structure and attitudes towards change, competition and goals are also part of the picture. See my earlier posts, “Sustainable communities are dynamic communities” for more about this.

The How of the Circle: Addressing Common Pitfalls
I have been to many meetings that have attempted a circular formation, but unfortunately end up looking more like the outline of an octopus. While the imperfection of a squiggly, squished, uneven circle may seem trivial, it is in fact crucial to the success of a community. How we behave in formal or semi-formal settings often reflects, and inversely sets to the tone for, how we interact on a broader basis. Circles promote meetings and community cultures that are inclusive, engaged and productive.

With this in mind, I’ve created a list of six things to watch out for when meeting in a circle.

1. Evenness
This is where perfectionist design-freaks really help us out. A circle should be just that – circular, with no lumps, no bumps, or protrusions. An oval is not a circle. A rectangular board room table is not a circle. A circle has smooth, even sides. This means that everyone is brought into the group in the same way.

2. Height
Similarly, the height of the furniture (and if you are getting really picky, the type of furniture) should be the same.  I have been in many meetings where the narrow, ‘taller’ chairs are occupied by people who sit upright and seem more engaged in the meeting process. On the other hand, those sitting on a low couch are able to spread out their belongings (iPod, lunch, laptop, notes), slouch down and settle in. The ‘camp-like’ feeling of the couch seems to give these people license to tune out of the meeting. Alternatively, they may get so comfortable that they are unaware of how much or little they are participating.

3. Sight lines
Circles are particularly wonderful in that they provide us with an opportunity to look every one of our fellow community members in the eye, to speak directly to one another, and to feel like we are part of a group. However, there are times when a visual aid is needed. The flip chart or screen is brought out. Inevitably, the people sitting beside the screen are either cranking their necks around to see what is going on or are quietly hiding behind the screen, catching up on their email. If this is the case, try what Chambers calls a ‘clam shell’ formation (p. 92). This provides sight lines for everyone to see each other and the flip chart or screen. It also has the advantage of providing freedom of movement – people can come and go from the circle more easily than if it were completely closed. When people feel free, they are often  more ready to participate because the terms of engagement are in their control. On a related note, be mindful of how long people’s attention is being focused on the visual aid – is the purpose of the meeting to build collaboration and human contact or to have everyone focus on the screen?

4. Lack of space
This is a common issue when attempting to create a circular meeting environment. In attempting to fit lots of people into a limited space, one ends up with an oval or a squiggle, with some people sitting outside of the circle, some cross legged on the floor, and some people leaving the meeting altogether because there is clearly no room for them to be included. There are a few approaches to dealing with this. One is to try what Chambers calls a ‘double circle’ (p. 93). If a double circle won’t work, try for a triple circle. You might want to couple the double or triple circle with break-out sessions that allow for smaller groups of circles to meet. Another solution is to find another room – or if circumstances permit, go outside.

5. Hidden corners
Sometimes, there are people in meetings who hope to go unnoticed. Either they feel self-conscious, intimidated, worried about arriving late for the meeting, or are trying to multitask on an electronic device while everyone else is engaged in conversation. Often these people can be found in ‘hidden corners’. Of course, circles by definition have no corners. So what is a hidden corner? Here are some to watch out for: a circle that is a squiggle and hence, includes parts that look like ‘corners’; visual aids that are blocking the view of some participants; not making the circle big enough and late comers end up standing or sitting on the side lines; tasks that seemingly need to be constantly attended to and allow someone to slip away from the circle (fetching sticky notes, making coffee, etc.); and, finally, uneven seats that allow people to literally slouch into their own worlds. Of course, beyond the physical space, it is the role of the facilitator(s) to ensure that there is space for everyone, both physically and in terms of participation. It is the responsibility of everyone to create an environment where no one feels like they want to be in a hidden corner.

So, what are your thoughts on circles? Anyone have a photo or drawing of their meeting room that they are willing to share? Thoughts on the physical structure of meetings? Perhaps your image would inspire us to reorganize our spaces, or perhaps we could offer some feedback on how you might go about re-arranging your physical space so that it is more in line with the social space that you hope to create.


Communication is vitally important to building community. Despite this, we are often dreadfully uncreative when it comes to communicating with one another. In institutions and workplaces, meetings often prevail as the dominant form of communication. Our obsession with meetings has extended from the workplace into neighbourhoods as residents meet to create green maps, healthy community initiatives, or plan their next event.

Meetings have their place. In fact, I openly admit that I love meetings. Perhaps it is the face-to-face contact, in a world increasingly reliant on online communication. Perhaps it is because I have spent a good part of my life in communities that emphasize participatory democracy – which more often than not seems to mean meeting to create a lot of committees…that hold more meetings.

Nevertheless, meetings are limited in their usefulness. They often encourage participants to be relatively passive, often reinforce existing power structures, and are rarely physically structured in an inviting manner. In addition, meetings promote a particular way of thinking and acting. I wonder if we should try a completely different approach to conveying our thoughts, feelings and proposals. Instead of meetings filled with rules of order, noisy discussions, or ill-prepared statements, what if we took an approach that encouraged more reflection? For example, could poetry serve as a way to communicate with one-another in a more thoughtful manner? Would it force us to be more selective about what we say and therefore perhaps allow for deeper communication? Would it mean that we need to create more time for silent reflection and preparation?

In Yemen, the value of poetic communication has been recognized for centuries. Balahs, Zamils and Qasidahs are key forms of poetic political expression that have traditionally served to bring about change and influence decision-making. This is an excerpt from a Qasidah composed in 1998 asking the president of Yemen to address the inadequacy of widow’s pensions:

Where is the care for the shattered patient?
     Where is the medicine or an examination for the diseases of the body?
My children number from one to ten
     Behind the feral wolf, each one’s lot is drawn
[Her] daughters, family, and husband
     All of them have sought a sprig of moist basil from me…yet there’s naught
My [only] aim is for a morsel of food, a satisfying life
     That has honour, for the lack thereof is the stopping of breath
(Flagg Miller 2002, p. 114)

Organizations such as the World Bank and UNESCO have recognized the importance of this form of communication by funding Literacy through Poetry. This is a Yemen-based project aimed at using poetry and oral tradition to improve literacy and the ability to communicate among women.

The importance of poetry is catching on fast in the corporate world.  David Whyte, a poet and Associate Fellow at Templeton College and Said Business School, focuses on how poetry and ‘thoughtful commentary’ can “foster courage and engagement” in corporate workplaces. In What Poetry Brings to Business, Clare Morgan “demonstrates that the skills necessary to talk and think about poetry can be of significant benefit to leaders and strategists, to executives who are facing infinite complexity and who are armed with finite resources in a changing world.”

In neighbourhoods, perhaps a less verbal, more open-air form of poetry is called for. Broadsided focuses on printing and posting one-page publications in coffee shops, telephone poles – even inside airplanes. Check out these simple instructions on spreading your ideas through poetry.

Whether it is in your office, neighbourhood, school, home or local constituency office, perhaps you could shake up your regular meetings with a little poetic communication. I would love to hear about anyone’s adventures in poetic communication, or other ideas about how to convey our thoughts in ways other than traditional meetings.

Sustainable communities are dynamic communities II

By embracing change and focusing on keeping our communities dynamic, sustainability often falls into place. I have developed 15 keys to creating dynamic, healthy, learning communities. My last post focused on broad keys. Here are keys 6-10, which focus on communication:


6. Know thy neighbour and respect that s/he knows a lot
Everyone in a community has something to contribute. To learn from and value one another, we need to know one another. How can we make this happen? Go for a coffee, go for a walk, or invite a neighbour or colleague into your home. Let others into your private world, and get to know theirs. Socialize with people you wouldn’t otherwise. It doesn’t matter where you are – institution, office, suburb, or city – getting to know one another is always possible if we let down our guard. This allows us to appreciate each other in our humanity, but also as skilled people with whom we can connect and share. If you are really ambitious about this aspect of community, start a Human Library.

7. Ongoing communication & good communication practice
Once you have begun letting people into your world, and start to know theirs, keep it up. For those in neighbourhood settings, take it a step further and tackle a task together – help each other out with maintenance tasks, collectively take care of shared green space, or hold a neighbourhood dinner. Invite everyone, don’t be selective.

In an institutional setting, the same principles apply. However, given the prevalence of meetings in such settings, also ensure that you are employing techniques that are inclusive. Follow good meeting hygiene practices.  Behaviours that lead to the hoarding of information and poor meeting management can limit the number of people in the lead. The lack of good communication practice can leave some feeling disempowered and bitter, and ultimately the organization or project falling flat when leaders burn out or leave. There are lots of resources available that focus on the idea of conversations and open spaces. Four resources that provide practical suggestions in terms of facilitating communication are: Born’s Community Conversations; Wheatley’s The World Café; Kaner’s Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making; and Chamber’s Participatory Workshops: a sourcebook of 21 sets of ideas and activities.

8. Recognize that everyone has limitations
Everyone has limits on how much they can contribute to their community or workplace. Everyone has a unique skill set and knowledge base from which to contribute and upon which to build. Other life commitments may also demand that an individual focus her or his attention elsewhere (eg. elder-care, childcare, an ill spouse, a personal commitment to another community.) Recognizing that everyone has limitations helps us to respect the life balance of others, while also ensuring that we create space for many people in our communities to contribute and lead.

9. Be willing to step up and take responsibility / contribute
Take the time to think about what you are good at, what you enjoy, and in what ways you would like to build upon your skills. Consider how you can best contribute to your communities. Then do it. When you make a mistake (and we all do) take responsibility for it and use it as a learning experience.

10. Be open to feedback / ask for help
Ask for help. Ask colleagues, friends and neighbours for their recognition of your strengths, feedback on your ambitions, and what they think is difficult for you. For those in school or workshop environments, invite a colleague to sit in on a session and provide feedback. Give and receive feedback with open minds and honest intentions. Always assume the best in everyone.

A common way to pursue personal and professional development at a more intense level is to get involved in a coaching relationship. One of the most interesting coaching arrangements I have come across is the Gemini Project that teams up senior executives with youth from “tough realities.”