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The Art of Convening: Authentic Engagement in Meetings, Gatherings, and Conversations

The Art of Convening: Authentic Engagement in Meetings, Gatherings, and Conversations

by Craig Neal, Patricia Neal

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“Meetings are a waste of time” is a sentiment many of us share, which is tragic because meetings bring us together as human beings. To achieve the kind of meaning or breakthrough results most of us really yearn for when we gather, the key quality needed is authentic engagement: a genuine expression of what is true for us, and an attentive listening


“Meetings are a waste of time” is a sentiment many of us share, which is tragic because meetings bring us together as human beings. To achieve the kind of meaning or breakthrough results most of us really yearn for when we gather, the key quality needed is authentic engagement: a genuine expression of what is true for us, and an attentive listening to what is true for others. Why it so often eludes us can be a matter of habit, distrust, lack of attention, or fear.

As cofounders of Heartland Inc., Craig and Patricia Neal have led over 170 of their acclaimed Thought Leader Gatherings with leaders from over 800 diverse organizations. Their new book shares for the first time the unique and powerful Art of Convening model—developed in these gatherings and refined over six years of intensive trainings—which brings authentic engagement and meaning to any group that comes together for any purpose.

Convening goes beyond facilitating. Convening creates an environment in which all voices are heard, profound exchanges take place, and transformative action results. The heart of this book is the Convening Wheel—a series of nine steps, or aspects, that bring the practices and principles needed for authentic engagement together as a whole. The book provides exercises, stories, and questions to help you master both the inner and outer dimensions of this work—because in convening, the state of the convener is equally as important as the physical preparations.

Convening works in any setting and can be adapted to virtually any group process. With this book you have all the tools you need to develop this essential life and leadership skill, one that will lead to improved outcomes in your organization, community, family, and relationships.

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Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
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New Edition
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5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

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Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2011 Craig and Patricia Neal
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60509-668-1

Chapter One


Who I am in relationship with others


The place to start when we convene meetings, gatherings, and conversations is with ourselves. If we are to lead into authentic engagement, it is important to be genuine. Knowing who we are as human beings helps us to bring this genuineness forward. Additionally, our ability to frame, embody, and model authentic engagement is improved when we explore how we will be in relationship with others.

We call this first, central Aspect of the Convening Wheel At the Heart of the Matter.

This is where we practice knowing ourselves as human beings and enter an awareness of how we will be in relationship with others. It is a big subject, and a lifelong quest and journey for many of us.

The idea of knowing oneself is the foundational premise of countless leadership books and trainings, as well as other self-improvement, motivational, and spiritual literature. There is a reason for that. It is important. Approaching the principles and practices of the Art of Convening without getting at this core Aspect, one way or another, would be like trying to make a wheel without a hub; it can be done, but, well, that's one wobbly wheel. This central Aspect serves as a stabilizer and calibrator for our convening practice; we return to it again and again.

Many of us are on a continuing journey of self-reflection. What we have learned, and will learn on that journey, will serve us well as Conveners. If we are just beginning a journey of knowing ourselves, a convening practice is one place to start. A difference between At the Heart of the Matter and many other journeys of self-reflection is that we also examine how we will be in relationship with others. When we think of these things, we get at the heart of our relationship with the participants of our gathering.

CHALLENGE Staying connected Do we choose to open ourselves to relationship, or do we choose to close?

In times of high stress, we can be distracted from our connection to who we are. Convening, for Heartland, is the art of gathering and "holding" people, in a safe and generative space, for the sake of an authentic engagement that works for all. We consider each gathering to be an entry into a relationship with others. Staying authentically connected to others is, ultimately, all about being connected to ourselves. If we are not in touch with ourselves and the core of our intent, how can we maintain a genuine connection to other people?

The purpose of At the Heart of the Matter is to increase our clarity, confidence, and sense of belonging so that, come what may, we are able to hold others in the safest, most generative container possible. Although personal and internal, this Aspect is a powerful touchstone, and precursor, for thoughtful intention and design of our meetings. Some of the exercises in this book will help us get started or continue to reveal to ourselves who we are, which will increase our ability to stay connected and open to our relationships with others.

PRINCIPLE Knowing who I am allows me to be in authentic engagement.

Our undertaking to connect with other human beings in a genuine, meaningful way is what authentic engagement is all about. But unless we are willing to reflect on who we are, we don't give others something real to connect to. Expecting to authentically engage with others when we don't know ourselves is like believing that we can physically grasp a hologram or lean on the mist; it seems as if there's something there, but when we try it out, we learn differently.

The journey of self-reflection that we begin or continue with this Aspect of the Convening Wheel provides something solid for us and others to connect to.


The first container that required attention was the one shaped in my own interior. I needed, for my own sake and for the sake of the whole, to make sure there was a connection between my stated desire for real community and authenticity and my own life. In order for me to lead with integrity, I needed to close the gap between my exterior persona and my interior reality.

In preparation for an important meeting I was to convene, I spent many hours attending to my own fears, assumptions, hopes, freedoms, and limitations. I took long, meditative walks; I journaled; I consulted with colleagues (including my AoC partners). When it came time for the meeting, I was able to hold the group with a sense of nonanxious presence. I cannot overstate how important that was for me and for the gathered whole. I have learned that what happens in the days and hours before the meeting is at least as important as what takes place in the meeting.

Because I attended to my interior container, I was more prepared to help shape an outer container—in the context of the meeting—large enough to hold the charged emotional engagements of the group.

By Terry Chapman


Who am I as a human being?

How will I be in relationship with others?

When we have thoroughly explored these questions, the connection of ourselves in relationship to others makes more sense and tends to flow more naturally. When we practice mindful reminders through reflective practices, we bring ourselves back to our basic humanity.

These are internal reflections. Whether we share our discovery with others is not as important as truthfully addressing these questions for ourselves. Our discovery will be At the Heart of the Matter. The journaling questions and exercises at the end of the chapter will help focus our internal vision in order to explore these questions.

Through this internal inquiry, we have the opportunity to experience the core of who we are and how we will be in relationship with others. When we understand the nature of why we desire to be in relationship with others, our gatherings tend to have an integrity that goes beyond the sole reliance on form and technique. This quality allows for the possibility of authentic connection.

As Terry pointed out in "Forging the Inner Heart," spending hours attending to his own internal condition was essential. This enabled him, when the time came, to be centered, grounded, and able to "hold the group with a sense of nonanxious presence."


There is a lot of pressure in our lives to go, go, go all the time— to drive results and spring into action, often before the action's optimal time has come. It's counterintuitive to take the time to reflect on how we will be in relationship with others. In a way, we have to slow down and do the internal due diligence to know what results we really want to drive and when it is time to take an action.

This Aspect of the Convening Wheel is all about remembering who we are—perhaps recalling the person we forgot we were, in all the hubbub of life and work.

Some of us may already have a practice that sufficiently serves the purpose of spurring self-examination and self-knowledge. If we don't have a practice or want to add to what we already do, there are practices, both ancient and modern, that can help us remember. An ongoing practice of self-reflection, of any kind, is a potent tool for getting At the Heart of the Matter, and can enable us to be better prepared in whatever conditions we convene.

Practices of remembering, such as meditation, prayer, reflection, journal keeping, walks in nature, and contemplation, are very helpful. When we begin to lose our self-awareness, find ourselves in a state of stress and confusion, or want to reinforce what we already know, we can strengthen At the Heart of the Matter using them. These practices help to focus our thoughts and strengthen our sense of presence in the moment, allowing us to enter into authentic engagements with confidence.

Mindfulness: Mindfulness and meditative practices are designed to bring the mind, body, and emotions to relaxation, thus allowing us to approach whatever is next refreshed, present, and fully awake. A mindfulness exercise is included at the end of this chapter. Prayer: Prayer is expressing our relationship with a higher power, and there are as many ways to pray as there are religions and belief systems. The contemplative nature of prayer has an effect of bringing one closer to one's true self. Conscious reflection: Creating time, no matter how busy or distracted we may be, to focus our attention on the positive aspects of our lives is conscious reflection. Taking time to consider, with gratitude and appreciation, is a competency that can bring us to a more generative mindset. Journal keeping: The act of journaling often reveals our own wisdom. It can be helpful to journal (or write by hand, computer, or other device) our thoughts at particular times when we are moved or when we want to discover something inside ourselves. Contemplation: To contemplate something is to focus our thoughts exclusively on that thing. We use this practice to turn down the noise and see the main subject of our thoughts clearly. Spending time in nature: In this context, the purpose of being in nature is to immerse ourselves in the biological world, where we all come from and to which we all belong. Often the beauty and presence of nature enables us to become more fully aware of our connections to life.

We take a "time in" when we use the practices above to make room in our minds and hearts for an awareness of what is At the Heart of the Matter to emerge. We may draw on any number of practices at various times until we are satisfied with the outcome.

When we enter into relationships with those we gather, from the firm ground that comes from self-reflection, we have confidence, courage, and a sense of what is possible. Our capacity for authentic engagement is increased as we frame, embody, and model this kind of connection, and give others something real to connect to.

This is the beginning of our journey around the Convening Wheel. We complete this Aspect by exploring who we are and how we will be in relationship with others. Each interaction with another human being is an opportunity for relationship; awareness of that fact creates a shift in our interactions. The journey that begins here is a powerful way to bring authentic engagement to meetings, gatherings, and conversations because knowing who we are in relationship with others is a sustaining force that keeps the Convening Wheel together.


I convened a gathering of 150 executives at a state social services agency. The initial request was to facilitate a daylong offsite retreat, to engage in a five-year visioning process, that would create a high level of participant input, feedback, and agreement on a way forward, in difficult times, for the agency. The desired outcome would be a five-year vision statement to be distributed throughout the organization.

A week before the event, a series of dramatic budget cuts, personnel changes, and presenter shifts were made. It was decided that we would go ahead with the retreat in the midst of these changes. However, our initial design of this event had been figuratively ripped away.

How would I proceed now that this additional emotional stress and uncertainty factor had been added to the equation?

I began to look to others for guidance—to tell me who I needed to be for this gathering and how I could be in relationship with the people there when emotions might be running exceptionally high. I found that the more I looked to others for the answer, the more confused I became.

Several days before the retreat, I consciously engaged in a series of reflective practices that helped focus my energies and get At the Heart of the Matter. Setting aside some time alone to meditate, I visualized the gathering and imagined the best possible outcome. This practice of envisioning myself and others authentically engaged allowed me to see my way forward step by step. I wrote in my journal to put substance to my thoughts, intents, and outcomes, which made my vision more real to me—and enabled me to share some of my discoveries with others. These practices allowed me to articulate who I am as a human being and how I would be in relationship with others, grounding my emotions and enabling me to imagine the most powerful and beneficial outcome possible with the other designers for the retreat.

By grounding myself through a self-reflective process, I returned to the core of why I had entered the agreement to convene this session. Once I embodied the truth of what was At the Heart of the Matter, a sense of confidence, purpose, and courage to step into the unknown guided me forward.

I came to a place of nonjudgment where trusting myself was the important touchstone that would carry my relationship with the others at this gathering and would bring much-needed authenticity to this retreat.

What had come to me out of this process was that before we could envision the way forward, we needed to speak honestly and clearly about the present condition, which had yet to be done.

As I entered the room that morning, my intuition told me that the day would flow seamlessly. The design and production teams and those that came early seemed to sense this positive energy right away. I gathered the design team about an hour before the start of the retreat to say that we had a very powerful design and that all we needed to do now was to welcome people and tell the truth as we knew it.

There were several elephants in the room, known as budget cuts, layoffs, and wholesale destruction of the department. At my request, we began by having the two core presenters agree to speak openly and honestly about three questions: what did they know that they could say, what would be the impact on the department, and, more important, how did they feel at this moment—how did this affect them?

We had chosen to remain open to relationship with the people in that room. The presenters were willing to authentically engage. We were all willing to say what was true for us. You could feel the cloud lifting, the stress leaving the room, the space opening to authentic possibility, and a visceral leaning forward of each person to take part in an active way because they felt an invitation to be real.

By Craig Neal

Where We Are on the Convening Wheel

1. At the Heart of the Matter—We have explored who we are and how we will be in relationship with others.

We have started the journey. Now we are ready to proceed to an exciting and crucial Aspect for the gathering at hand, Clarifying Intent.

Things to Remember

Challenge: Staying connected—Do we choose to open ourselves to relationship or do we choose to close?

Principle: Knowing who I am allows me to be in authentic engagement.

Essential Questions:

• Who am I as a human being?

• How will I be in relationship with others?

Aspect-Strengthening Exercises

Checklist for the Gathering at Hand

• Who am I in relationship to this gathering? • What is my relationship to the people of this gathering? • What is the purpose of our gathering? • What does success look like? • Have I centered myself (noticed my preferences, judgments, and certainties)? • Am I ready to move on? (If not, why not?)


Excerpted from THE ART OF CONVENING by CRAIG NEAL PATRICIA NEAL CYNTHIA WOLD Copyright © 2011 by Craig and Patricia Neal. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Craig Neal is a passionate change leader, publishing executive, organizational executive, and guide. From the 70s to the 90s Craig held executive positions with Garden Way, Inc, Rodale Publishing, and as Associate Publisher, launched Harrowsmith and Eating Well magazines. He’s the founder and former publisher of the Utne Reader.

Patricia Neal is co-founder and President of Heartland Inc. Patricia’s focus is inspiring Heartland’s growth through program development and execution. Under her guidance, Heartland’s signature programs have grown to include: Thought Leader Gatherings, The Art of Convening Trainings, VisionHolder Interview Series, When Women Lead: The Inner Voice of Women’s Leadership Retreat, Men’s Wilderness Journey Retreat, and consulting and coaching programs. All Heartland programs are dedicated to community leaders committed to taking their visions into action.

Cynthia Wold is a writer, artist, and internet marketer and designer. Cynthia started her own website design and consulting business in 2000 assisting high value organizations and non-profits better communicate their value propositions. She joined Heartland Inc. in 2007 as its Web Chief.

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