David Whyte: Following the Signs
One of the best parts of my job at Sounds True is hosting a free weekly podcast series called Insights at the Edge. During each conversation, I attempt to listen with my whole being, not with my mind alone and not with a list of prepared questions ready to be served up in a particular order. Instead, I actually “take my skin off” (so to speak) so that I am in a receptive state and can hear what is being said through all of the pores in my body. I love the experience of listening that deeply and hearing what Sounds True authors are saying, both in their words, and in the spaces in between their words. I am also listening and attending to what could be called “a greater field of inquiry”—to the questions that other listeners might have. I love this part of my job because it is a time when I get to be in a state of full sensitivity and receptivity, which for me is highly enjoyable.
One of my favorite recent podcasts was with the poet David Whyte. David and I talked about something he calls “the conversational nature of reality.” You might want to take a listen or read the transcript so that you can hear and see for yourself how he presents this idea. What was intensely meaningful for me was how he described an approach to living that mirrors how I approach an interview. What if we lived our lives as if we were deeply engaged in an open-ended conversation? What if we asked our heart’s most central questions and then followed the thread of responses delivered by the world, even if it leads us into unknown places?
In the interview, David makes the point that there is always a feedback loop, a conversation if you will, going on between our innermost thoughts and desires, and the world. We have all kinds of ideas about how we want things to go, and then the world speaks to us. Some doors fly open and other doors slam shut. It is as though reality is a field of intelligence delivering all of the feedback we need in a variety of forms, including seemingly random comments from strangers, illnesses and broken bones, changes in the weather, and synchronicities of all kinds.
After recording this interview with David, I started reflecting on what it might mean to lead an organization by attuning to “the conversational nature of reality.” I am certainly asking questions all the time about Sounds True’s future and how best to “steer the ship.” What if I were to steer by faithfully and intensely listening and then following the signs as they appear? I love this idea because it feels so respectful of others and the wakefulness of the world itself. It also puts me in touch with what might be called an indigenous sense of being, a sense of being in touch with how reality is presenting itself in the physical world, rather than being overly identified with my own pre-conceived notions and plans.
The challenge for me as a leader is that I often feel I am supposed to have answers (not just good questions) and I feel a kind of inner pressure to lead according to some kind of formalized blueprint, rather than according to the signs that reality is presenting. One of the business writers who has influenced me the most is Sounds True author and organizational consultant Peter Block (author of the audio program The Right Use of Power). According to Peter Block, the role of the boss is to “convene.” What does the boss convene? Conversations. I love this notion. Convene conversations? That is certainly something I can do! When it comes to organizational life, we often discover what is needed next through dialogue, through conversations we have with everyone who touches the business and whom the business touches—which is why I so value all of the comments I receive from people who read this blog and comment on the podcast series. These conversations reveal our next step, maybe not the step after the next step, but certainly the next step we need to take (which may sometimes be to wait, or gather more information).
Sometimes during a podcast, I will refer to the title of the series and ask authors, “what is your current edge?” In that question, I am attempting to probe a bit and find out where people feel a sense of excitement and uncertainty in their lives. Where does their knowing turn into unknowing? People often talk about the many things they have discovered in the past, but what is most interesting to me is the inner conversation we are each having with ourselves. The cool thing about a “conversation” is that we might have an idea of what we want to say, but we never know what the other party is going to say. So when we open up to what David Whyte calls “the conversational nature of reality”, we open to surprise, to the open-endedness of our situation, to reality delivering us something we can’t manufacture but is instead gifted to us. How do we navigate such a conversation that is out of our control? I like the idea of enjoying the pauses, and following the signs.