“There was a school shooting in my community. How do I start the conversation?”

I was sitting in a workshop last week and a friend turned me after the Florida school shooting and told me this was her town and asked me this question. She was heartbroken, overwhelmed and at a loss about where to start doing something. When she shared her anguish, others in the group echoed her sentiments.

  • Where to start making change?
  • How to make a difference?
  • How to have the conversation?

Let me start here. Rule #1 about brave, honest conversations is that there are no magic wands, fairy dust or a special recipe that will allow you to have a conversation and know it will all work out just fine every time. You are dealing with people, emotion and complex situations and systems. Let’s assume there is no special recipe. Just people who care deeply and who want something different. Start there with that commitment and that passion and be with them.

These are my thoughts about the brave, honest conversation that needs to happen. I might rock a few boats with these thoughts. I’m OK with that because I’m committed to brave, honest conversations that solve the problems we face in our world. I’m not committed to brave, honest conversations that put bandaids on tough issues so we can feel better for a little while until the next challenge comes along.

This is not a conversation that should only be about gun control. It is so easy to go directly to simple solutions in these tragic, heart-rending situations.

The feeling that if laws are changed and access is limited to guns this will not happen again is urgent and compelling. Doing this will probably reduce the tragedies that happen, but it won’t solve all the challenges that led to the shootings. They will keep happening.

This is not a conversation about mental health or “deranged killers”. It is so easy to focus on blame and easy targets.

The people who have committed the 18 school shootings (and 34 mass shootings) in the US in the past 2 months are human beings with pain, suffering, despair and rage that drove them to these acts. When they were losing themselves to the abyss there was no support or safety net for them. Our energy is better spent on prevention, caring and collective supports than it is on enforcement or blame. Imagine if community was there for these people before they got too far lost. The results would be hugely different.

This is not a conversation about us versus them, or whether we are with you or against you. In deeply painful situations it feels right to draw lines in the sand and say you are here with me or over there on the side of evil, but in reality we are all here in our communities together, with diverse views and values and beliefs and we need to find ways to live together and not get further apart.

Start here:

  • Welcome the emotion. All of it, in whatever form it takes, however it comes. Don’t try to control it, manage it or tamp it down. Expect anger, fear, anxiety, depression, grief, confusion, disengagement, urgency. Support each other to let it all out, to be with it and not hold it in. Reach out and offer support, and receive it from others. Host and participate in conversations about healing — what does that look like? What do people need to begin to heal?
  • Take action to be part of change on the easily identifiable solutions AND be part of conversations that will result in long-term sustainable change in the system. The youth that recently descended on the Florida state capitol should be celebrated and commended for their commitment, passion and desire for change. The noise they are making in the system will no doubt result in changes to laws in many places. This is a great first step, but it won’t solve all the challenges that led to these tragedies. So shake your first, march, demonstrate, sign petitions, call your local lawmaker, get on the news. And then keep working for larger change.
  • We need an inclusive and brave, honest conversation where we all come together to find out what change looks like, together. Remember that long-term change means a conversation that includes all of us, including those who support the NRA, who believe in the right to bear arms, and who are not sure where they stand. If people keep demonizing the other side, and making them the enemy long-term change will never be possible. We need to sit in a room together where we look into each other’s eyes, seek to really understand someone else, learn together and find change together. What we’ve got isn’t working. So what are our options for change?
  • Look into yourself and consider your role and responsibility in building a different society and community. Social isolation, disconnection, lack of social and health supports in community, a culture of blame and shame that celebrates violence and agression — these things all contribute to building systems where violence erupts. What kindness can you show your neighbour today? What role can you play in reaching out to a stranger in pain or with challenges? What responsibility can you take for choosing acts that support the whole community to be well, access their potential and feel supported?

In the end it starts with you.

Let’s build a world where people have Brave, Honest Conversations in their lives, organizations and communities so we can solve the problems we face, together.

Answering YOUR Questions about brave, honest conversations: Edition #1


I get asked a lot of tough questions in my work. People weren’t born knowing how to have brave, honest conversations and it can be really scary, intimidating and anxiety producing to have a tough conversation with a partner, a colleague or a large group of people talking about an important issue.

In this new monthly series I’m going to tackle some of these tough questions. Every month I will address new questions that YOU send me. So if you’ve got a challenge, struggle or hope about brave, honest conversations send me your questions and I’ll put them in a future edition.

The questions this month focus on brave, honest conversations with large groups of people.



QUESTION #1: How do you strategically turn the conversation around in the middle of an outrage situation?

This question is really asking about the moment I call “the shift”, where everything changes and moves from high emotion and high arousal to a pause, a breath of opportunity for the interaction to be something different.

First tip: you need to start watching for that shift moment so you can see it. Start going to public meetings and observing interactions, act like an observer in your staff meetings, watch in workshops for the moments where things change. Build your muscles of observation and awareness so you can see this shift. It’s where the anger, frustration, fear, and anxiety slow down and pause for just a moment. It looks different in different situations, but I know what it feels like — I can feel it in my body like when you come up for air after you’ve been underwater. It only lasts for an instant but its powerful. That’s the moment you want to see so you can step right into it and intervene.

Second tip: know what you are trying to achieve. You are trying to work WITH the person who is outraged or highly emotional to be there with them so they can get to the heart of the issue, and hopefully find some resolution. Know what you are in service to — if you are in service to them in that moment then they will feel it. If you are trying to get them to calm down so you can move on to your agenda or you can have your turn to talk they will feel that too, and will likely feel manipulated and be more emotional. Practice being present and being there for someone else. Practice it with your family, friends, work colleagues. The more you practice, the more it becomes second nature.

Third tip: Use some of your facilitation skills when you see the shift so you can step in, in service to the person or group you are working with. Try asking powerful questions that start to elicit values and start to promote responsibility and ownership. Ask questions like:

  • What concerns you about that?
  • What is most important to you?
  • How have you been affected by this situation?
  • What do you hope will happen?
  • How would you solve this challenge?
  • What do you think others who are not here today would say about this issue?
  • How do we address X (your concern) and also Y (your neighbour’s different concern)?

Try using silence and staying with the conversation until it moves into a breath, creating a pause for the impact of what has been said and felt to be registered. For example, when I was facilitating a large public forum about impacts of school closures a man stood up from the crowd and in an emotional voice said, “I’m a stay-at-home Dad of four children, two of whom have special needs. If our local school closes I don’t know what I will do.” I stood in that moment after he said this, with 200 people listening into the space, and held the silence of that impact. I held it for 30 seconds or more. Then I said, “Thank you for sharing that. Thank you for bringing your concerns and needs to this room so we can talk about it.” I let the silence hold for another few seconds to see if he needed to say anything else, then I moved on so we could talk about his impacts, and other’s too.

Try using physical movement to generate a shift from high arousal to logic and reasoning and ask the person to move to a flip chart, sit at a table, go look at a board, take a walk with you to talk more. Design a conversation where people physically move and talk together. Physical movement helps set a pause button in the brain, and can create a small shift in the intensity of the interaction. For example, in a recent series of sessions I facilitated for a provincial organization on a high conflict issue, we held workshops where we knew the tension would rise to a boiling point mid-session, where people who were worried, concerned or angry would need to let their feelings out. In that moment we designed an exercise where people moved around the room in a series of short, intense conversations with different partners about the different perspectives held in the organization on that tough issue. The act of talking about exact quotes and perspectives they had been afraid to voice and physically moving around the room while they talked released enormous tension and created an environment of alignment where people saw each other as humans rather than adversaries.



QUESTION #2: How to come across empathetically without using cliches or sounding unauthentic?

I once had client ask me when would we start using empathy as a strategy to defuse conflict. To be clear, empathy isn’t a strategy. It must be real, genuine and sincere for it to be felt and effective in an emotional situation. If you aren’t really being empathetic, it isn’t really going to be felt. That’s the first tipbe genuine, sincere and fully present with empathy for someone else who is in an emotional place. There are no tricks or gimmicks to empathy, but it is a practice that you can get better at the more you do it. It is both a mindset and a series of actions / behviours.

  • Listen Deeply
  • Suspend judgment
  • Practice curiosity
  • Try on the other view
  • Stay mindful, present and attentive

There is a great article here at the Greater Good Magazine about the habits of highly empathetic people with some more tips and a quiz to determine how empathetic you are. Empathy builds trust, promotes open communication and builds relationship. As a result, it defuses conflict and de-escalates a tense situation.

Second tip: Practice what you will say so it comes out in your own words and feels natural. I can give you what I would say so it sounds authentic to me, but you need to practice it in your own words. For example, I might say, “I’m going to ask you to speak for yourself, about how YOU have been impacted. Others can speak for themselves.” when people start saying “everyone thinks this” or “we all know.” Would you say it like that, in the same tone I would use? I might intervene when one person is loudly monoplizing the conversation and gently say, “You share some really passionate and important points. I want us to all learn together about this issue. Let’s hear from a couple other people too.”Would you say it like that? Maybe not. But you won’t know what you will really say until you practice and role play so you can get the words and tone into your bones. I know that no one likes role playing, but it really works.

Third tip: Allow yourself to be a little vulnerable. Being part of Brave, Honest Conversations is not easy or for the faint of heart. If things are not going well, or you are lost and don’t know what to do then own that situation and acknowledge it. For example, early in my career I was facilitating a workshop with a group of elected officials and things got heated between them. I didn’t see the warning signs, or know how to intervene and one of them got angry, stood up and shoved his chair back so it fell over and walked out, slamming the door behind him. I was shocked, and felt like a huge failure. Without thinking about it, I said “That’s not how I thought things would go.” It broke the tension, everyone chuckled nervously and it gave me a chance to collect myself and say, “How are you feeling? How do you want to regroup? What should we do next?” because I didn’t know what to do and I wasn’t going to pretend that I did. We created a plan for moving ahead, and I checked in with the departing participant a bit later. Be real and human if you want to have a real, human conversations. You don’t have to get it perfect, you just need to try, and try again.

Stay tuned for Answers to your Questions, Edition #2 in February.

In the meantime, if you have questions for me to answer about Brave, Honest Conversations post them on Linkedin or my Facebook page or add them to this blog as a comment.

Let’s build a world where people have Brave, Honest Conversations in their lives, organizations and communities so we can solve the problems we face, together.

Living brave: 50 things for my 50th year


I turn 50 in 2018. I don’t even know how that happened; how I’m suddenly that old. Which I realize is such an old person kind of thing to say.

I was talking to a dear friend a couple months ago and she said she was making a list of 60 things for her 60th year and I was so struck by the idea I decided to outright copy it. It’s a way of looking at the world that is expansive and full of growth and possibility, and it allows you to intentionally plan ways to expand your horizons and grow forward. I’m going to do it every year from now on — so that 51 will have 51 new things for that year, and so on. You get it. So here is my list — committing to it publicly makes it real.

6 things about my work in the world:

  1. Grow my business with passion, commitment and love, bringing Brave Honest Conversations to individuals, organizations and communities and inspire a world where people have these conversations together to solve the challenges they face. No small dreams here.
  2. Pick some places I want to travel to and find some work to do in those locations. Like maybe I should plan a 3 day event in Iceland? the South Pacific? I’d be happy to go back to New Zealand.
  3. Write a book about lessons learned and what I see coming in the future from my 25 years in the field of high stakes, high emotion dialogue and brave, honest conversations. (Writing that one makes me throw up a little bit).
  4. Carve out the time to write that book and put it on my schedule. And then actually do it.
  5. Join a mentoring / networking group for women only.
  6. Create new training courses, workshops and products that inspire a world where people have brave, honest conversations at their dinner tables, the boardroom table and in their communities.

6 things that require me to be brave and believe in myself.

(Not that the other things on this list don’t require that, but these ones specifically do.)

7. Participate in the Revelation Project. A workshop, a photo shoot, a reveal to the world. Check it out here. Being fully seen in all my vulnerability — this has my knees shaking. It’s happening April 6th, so now I’ve put that out into the world there is no turning back.

8. Embrace my greying hair and my wrinkles. Or at least make friends with them and appreciate the road I’ve been on that has brought them to me.

9. Do 1 thing every week that makes me a little uncomfortable or scares me. Putting this list of 50 things out there is that thing this week.

10. Play more and let my wild child out more often. Dance in the kitchen, be silly, play games. Lighten up. Go sledding. Ride roller coasters. Skinny dip. Life is short and should include more moments of sheer fun.

11. Stay whole and centered on this journey. I’ve got this long list, and a new business I’m growing, friendships, family and a partner to stay connected to, and lots of ways I want to explore the world in 2018. Being thoughtful about my choices and remembering the things I need in my life to stay whole and in balance will help.

12. Practice self love and acceptance. I’m turning 50 and I think 49 years is enough time wasted thinking negative thoughts about my body and image. I look back at pictures in my 20’s, 30’s and 40’s and think how beautiful and alive I looked and all the time I was busy telling myself how I wasn’t pretty or sexy enough, thin though, fit enough — just not enough. I’m tired of that all old story. 49 years is enough time wasted on that.

7 things where I explore this beautiful world.

13. Rent a place on Vancouver Island for a few weeks again this summer and check out communities and locations for a future house.

14. Snorkel with turtles, dolphins and manta rays in Hawaii.

15. Get close to the elemental forces of nature exploring lava flows, lava tubes and black sand beaches in Hawaii.

16. Hike the Juan de Fuca trail on Vancouver Island.

17. Bring some more live music into my life: going to see Santana, Ed Sheeran and a Hawaiin cowboy band this year.

18. Make an actual bucket list. I’ve travelled so many beautiful places, and said yes when the opportunity arose and my ideas of where I might go seem endless. I’m going to write them down and prioritize them.

19. Soak in some natural hot springs.

6 things where I let my creativity and artistic expression flow:

20. Take a pottery class (and make some new giant tea mugs).

21. Learn to make sushi.

22. Take more pictures and get more creative with photography.

23. Make jam, pickles, BBQ sauce and more with the bounty of the season.

24. Take an acting or improv class.

25. Write more, blog more, journal more.

6 things where I mark the transition in our lives with children leaving home and patterns in our world changing.

26. Create new family tradditions that reflect where our family is at now, so we keep the traditions that tie us together and build new ones that meet our changing family where it is at.

27. Sell our big house and downsize to a smaller, cosier, more simple space.

28. Do a 30-day challenge for a habit I want to develop or change. Which I will identify this summer. But I think this might really serve me when I carve out the time and practice the discipline to the write that book in #3 above.

29. Declutter the house so we can downsize, getting rid of all the things we’ve been filling this house with for 16 years that we don’t really need but someone else could use.

30. Get rid of cable tv. Or…because there is someone in the house who likes TSN and Sunday football maybe just stop watching the tv myself.

31. Celebrate the changes in our family — welcoming a new member through marriage, children carving out their own lives in communities they love. Mark those milestones with events and joy.

7 things where I move my body, get stronger, celebrate being alive physically:

32. Run 2 Spartan races in 2018, 1 of them with a dear friend, and 1 with my brother. These are such good markers of the state of my fitness that they are on my list most years.

33. Get a personal trainer so I am focused in building strength and endurance at the same time.

34. Participate in a paddle board regatta.

35. Just get out on my paddle board more often. Play hooky from work and life and go paddling for the sheer joy of it.

36. Run another City Chase race with family and friends for the fun of it. Its as close to Amazing Race as you can get without being on the show.

37. Take a cross country ski clinic so I can enjoy the never ending winter.

38. Snow shoe more often.

9 things where I learn, grow and think deep thoughts. This turns out to be mostly a list of books I want to read this year.

39. Read a book from a writer on every continent. Or maybe about every continent because I’m not sure there are writers from Antarctica?

40. Download interesting podcasts about food, climate change, travel, business, social justice and listen to them while I cook. Since I cook a lot, it’s like multi-tasking filling my mind and our bellies.

41. Read a fiction and a non-fiction book from each of the countries on my bucket list. Since I have to make a bucket list first (see #18) I don’t know which countries these are yet but I do know that when I travel I love to read about the places I go and read authors from those worlds.

42. Read Recovery by Russell Brand. Since Russell Brand is the Philosopher King of this era this exploration into the depths of his humanity should be insightful.

43. Read Behave by Robert Sapolsky.

44. Read The Nature Fix by Florence Williams.

45. Read Tribe of Mentors by Tim Ferris.

46. Renew my library card. And actually go to the library because its part of the community and I love books. And also not paying for them to be downloaded to my ipad might be nice too.

47. Read more poetry.

3 things about being grateful for this beautiful life.

48. Practice gratitude on a daily basis for all the good things in my life.

49. Continue to set intentions for each day about how I want to show up, and how I can be of service to others.

50. Celebrate turning 50. Because this is a beautiful life in a beautiful world and I’m so grateful.

What happens when a little vulnerability changes everything

It can be surprising when you need to have a brave, honest conversation. Sometimes, when you least expect it.

It can be surprising when you need to have a brave, honest conversation. Sometimes, when you least expect it.

Recently, I took my mother-in-law to the Doctor. The trip left me with some heartache, grief, and a need for a brave, honest conversations with myself.

First, let me say this has been a hard post to write. I’ve had to wrestle with some demons — why am I writing about this? Is this my story to share? Am I hurting anyone in the sharing of the story? How would my mother-in-law feel if she read this? In the end I decided to share it because I have tried to do it with integrity and respect, and because it may serve others to think of the situations where you need to show up with courage and compassion, to have brave, honest conversations with loved ones, and with yourself. It may help others who believe that vulnerability is the path to connection, but who get caught when it catches them surprise.

Back to the story.

My mother-in-law is 89. She has two Doctorate degrees, from a time when most women didn’t get a university education. She goes by her married name and her professional name, when most women were defined by their father or husband’s name. She was a pioneer and a first feminist. She would have strongly supported every woman’s right to march in yesterday’s Women’s marches, but would have never done so herself because the situation might have been a little unpredictable, uncontrolled, where things could perhaps get out of hand. She is opinionated, strongly independent, and confident. She can be judgmental, demanding and harsh in the expression of her views. She has no time for sentimentality or vulnerability in anyone else and believes strongly in always having things handled, even when you don’t. She is an adventurer, having travelled to most of the countries in the world over her life, including wildly brave trips like taking the train by herself through Kazakhstan in the 1960’s. She is all those fierce, independent things. However, she is never nurturing, gentle or vulnerable — those things aren’t in her. She doesn’t believe in what she views as weakness, and she can harshly condemn weakness in others. That is just who she is.

I’ve struggled over the years being comfortable with how she shows up in the world. I applaud her bold courage, her independence and how she lives her life on her own terms. I’m in awe of her trail blazing spirit. I also struggle with her “say it like it is” approach, and honestly, sometimes I’m offended by the things she says. I’ve got a secret yearning for a close relationship with my mother-in-law, my husband’s only family. I wish we had shared interests or deep conversations about the things that matter, but I’ve told myself a story for 17 years that this will never come to pass. Those are my feelings and reactions, not a problem with her. Over the years we’ve mostly found a balance in our relationship and roles.

The challenges started with the assumptions I made.

I thought I was taking this strong, proud, independent woman to her appointment. She asked me to come because sometimes she forgets things and I would remember the details the Dr. had to share. After all, she is 89.

It was a long Dr. appt. with multiple exams. That’s the context of the event. The feeling of the event was a gradual disintegration. In this context, this fiercely independent woman became confused, disoriented, vulnerable, lost, uncertain, wanting to provide the “right” answers. I wasn’t expecting that. I’d never seen her not know the way. Never seen her be vulnerable or confused. Even when her husband of almost 50 years died two years ago she was stern, practical and moving on.

It threw me off balance to see her lost and uncertain, and I didn’t know what to do. She leads, we follow. She is in charge, and we go where she wants us to. But in this moment, she was lost.

I had to ask myself “How do you want to be in this moment? How do you want to show up? What is called for in this moment?” I could have done nothing. That was an option. Instead I chose the roles of advocate, translator, supporter. I chose to act on her behalf, asking questions I thought she would want answers to, channelling her curiosity and directness. I translated the overwhelming amount of information the Dr. shared into bite size chunks, slowed down the conversation, checked for understanding and decision-making after each piece of information. I chose to be supportive, thinking of how she would want to be supported, not how I would want to receive support or how I would want to offer it. I thought she would want things normalized, to receive affirmation that things had gone fine, to not make too big of a fuss over things. I offered that in a no nonsense manner. I’m not telling you what I did so you can tell me I did OK. I have no idea if I chose correctly. What I chose is what I chose in that moment when I was taken off guard and surprised by something I never expected to happen.

The appointment ended, and I returned my mother-in-law to her retirement residence for a much needed rest.

I’ve been left with this unsettled feeling ever since. I’ve been trying to process it and what I’ve been left with is this:

  • People are all vulnerable when their masks come off — and everyone has a mask.Remember that. Don’t think because someone shows up in the world one way over and over again that the vulnerability isn’t there under the surface. It’s just that some masks are harder to take off and deeply ingrained.
  • Vulnerability gives you windows into someone’s soul. What you see there might surprise, unsettle you or make you uncomfortable. When someone is vulnerable, be careful not to judge. I got this beautiful window into my mother-in-law’s soul, and some of the things I learned I wished weren’t true. That means I judged them.
  • Vulnerability in others can make us question what we stand for. How do I stand in a value of “we can talk about anything” if what I learn makes me uncomfortable? I think (and I hope) the moment of learning is in seeing the tension and trying to stay with it. It would be great if I got it “right” but its really more about honouring the other person more than your own discomfort.
  • Vulnerability in others can make you vulnerable too. It can make you question your choices, your values, yourself. After some time to process it, I think thats good and right and beautiful. It makes you stretch and grow, see your own mess more fully, and choose to live brave anyway.
  • Vulnerability creates connection, every time. I have this deeper, more empathetic appreciation of who my mother-in-law really is, in ways I thought would never happen. I’m touched and humbled by the opportunity to have seen beneath the mask, to have had a glimpse into her soul. Those moments will stay with me.
  • Vulnerability in others softens your own heart. I realize that for years I have responded to my mother-in-law based on how has she presented to me. Tough, strong, confident, harsh….I chose to accept that mask she presented and to never look beneath it. I chose to respond in kind, with less generosity, compassion or empathy than I would show most others, because she didn’t want that from me. I closed my heart to her, because of the assumptions I made about what she wanted from me. That’s a story I’ve told myself for 17 years, but its a story I can write a new ending to.

Now, things are back to “normal” with weekly dinners, and phone calls, and her mask firmly in place. But I’m different because of that moment — I’ve been given the gift of seeing her a little more fully, and my heart is softer and my life is fuller because of it. I’m grateful for my own stumble and uncertainty. Even if our dinner conversation goes back to talking about the news, or what is happening in the retirement residence, I’m holding a small window into a bigger picture of her soul. And I’m writing a new ending for the story of our relationship.

Successful resolutions require a look at your whole life

Most common resolutions. Picture source: Huffington Post

Most common resolutions. Picture source: Huffington Post

It’s that time of year. My gym is full of people I’ve never seen before, the produce section of the grocery store is full of people buying vegetables. My feeds are full of posts and blogs about new year resolutions (like this one!).

New year resolutions a cultural artifact for so many of us, for making choices about changing our lives. I was surprised to learn that people who make life changes at new year are likely to be more successful than people who make change at other times of the year — check out this TED Ed video for some quick insights.

While I’ve been reflecting on the journey of 2017 taking stock of where I’ve been and planning where I’m going next it has occurred to me that identifying actions to take in isolation to the whole of my life doesn’t work. It makes those goals transactional, rather than connecting them to the larger framework of what makes me whole, authentic and fulfilled. Shouldn’t choices about change connect to what matters most to you?

I like to think about goal setting and making resolutions as a Brave, Honest Conversation with YOURSELF.

I came up with this easy exercise that allowed me to connect my new year goals to the whole of my life.

  1. Picture a tic tac toe board. Imagine that your life is the game board — you won’t play all squares every turn, and different squares will be winners during different games, but you need a complete game board in order to play. If you’ve got a board with 3 or 5 squares instead of 9 you can’t play the whole game.


2. Now, name the squares on the board. The squares on the board are the things you need in your life to keep you whole, centered and fulfilled. Each square will represent something different; for example, exercise or time with family or creativity. Ask yourself what do I need in my life for me to be whole so I can do the things that are calling me? When you have 9 different things identified, they become the board game for your life.

3. You may see themes emerge when you write the squares up. It is likely there are connections between some of the squares and the impact they have when they are present in your life. You won’t need to play every square every day, but over time you will see patterns. You will also find that when you don’t have all the squares in rotation over time you are out of balance, and you can easily see where you need to adjust course.

I’ve posted a picture of my board. You can see I’ve named the 9 squares;

  • creativity,
  • body time / physicality / exercise,
  • nature / outdoors,
  • growth & change,
  • return on investment and adding value in return for $,
  • positive impact on world + those around me,
  • adventure,
  • deep thoughts / time to think, and
  • time and connection with family.

Once I identified those 9 squares I realized I don’t need them all in my life every day, but to make my life whole I need all of them. I began to see there were connections or themes between the columns and the rows. The left column is about living wild and free, steering my own course, exploring life in an autonomous way that honours my deep values of choice and freedom. The middle column is all about growing — growing my business, strtetching my body and growing stronger, learning new things and developing new content. The right column is about the connections that are core to making my life sing; time outside and in nature, positive impact in the world and on those around me, and connected time with those dearest to me.



There are also themes in the squares for each row. The top row feeds my soul, and the source of my authenticity with creativity, movement and time outside. The middle row is about my work in the world, always growing and changing, never static, growing my business and having a positive impact. The bottom row are those things that keep me whole and grounded; adventure, deep thoughts and family. Review your squares and see what connections emerge. Move the squares around so you can link those themes together.

4. Now you can set new year resolutions or goals and tie them to the squares on your board so they become specific and actionable, and connect to the things you need in your life to be whole, centered and possible. For example, I’ve got a goal of increasing my fitness in 2018 so I can hike the Juan de Fuca trail and run a couple Spartan races with ease. So I’ve got a goal of the gym 3 to 4 times per week (depending on my travel schedule) and increasing my running and stair climbing each week. This goal connects to something I already have in my life that I need to be whole and it just requires a shift in time allocation. I’ve also got a bunch of goals around growing my business that connect to the creativity square, the growth and change square and the value added finance square.

Now when I set new goals on an ongoing basis I go back to my board — am I setting a goal that builds on and expands things I already need in my life? My likelihood of success is higher because that choice reflects something that makes me a better person. If the idea doesn’t connect to the board I need to check in and reflect on whether its just a good idea, but not for me, or if I’m wanting to reinvent some part of my life. Which is fine too, I just need to ask the question and do some reflection.

I hope this helps you create new year resolutions that connect to the fabric of your life. Let me know how it goes!

An opportunity for brave leadership: The Peel Watershed.

The Peel Watershed. Photo credit: cbc.ca

The Peel Watershed. Photo credit: cbc.ca

Friday December 1, 2017 marked the end of a long battle in the courts…and the start of a new journey, one just as potentially fraught with conflict, misunderstandings and mis-steps as the journey to this point.

If you don’t know about the Peel Watershed, you can read may of the details on CBC or at Protect the Peel. To summarize:

  • A multi-year collaborative consultation process led by an independent commission between First Nations, government and key stakeholders resulted in a recommended land use plan for 68,000 square km of pristine wilderness.
  • That recommended plan protected about 80% of the land use area.
  • The Yukon government at the time didn’t like that plan and came up with its own plan, which would have protected about 30% of the land use area.
  • Protect the Peel was born out of that decision, and Yukon First Nations and environmental groups took the government to court arguing that they had breached treaty rights.
  • After 5 years in the courts, the Supreme Court ruled that the Yukon government didn’t have the right to ignore the commission’s plan in favour of its own plan. A partial re-set button was set that re-starts consultation from the point of the commission’s recommended plan. That means that the Government can approve, reject or modify the plan — after consultation.

Those are the facts. But they only tell half the story. This is an issue that has galvanized Yukoners, Canadians and stakeholders with interests from much further afield. It is a rallying cry for environmental protection and indigenous rights. On a larger scale this case presents an example of how governments respect and value the citizens they serve — or not. A documentary, travelling art exhibit and international campaign were born from the struggle. When you visit Yukon you see bumper stickers, billboards and flyers posted everywhere.

These calls to action create a sense that everyone feels the same about the issue. But that’s a false sense of unanymity. There are other voices that aren’t reflected — natural resource extraction companies, economic development stakeholders, regular Yukoners. Around some board room and kitchen tables in the Yukon, the Peel Watershed is a tough topic to discuss — there are views and perspectives that are afraid to be voiced for fear of intimidation or exclusion. This was a key election issue, and the Yukon Party that made the decision that threw everything sideways lost power in that election.


Protect the Peel protest in Inuvik. Photo credit: cbc.ca

Protect the Peel protest in Inuvik. Photo credit: cbc.ca

This decision presses a partial re-set button that will be a real test of the new Yukon government’s leadership. If I were them, I’d start carefully, slowly and thoughtfully before implementing the consultation process on the commission’s recommended plan.

Here are a couple approaches that might serve to bring people together and create long-term sustainable solutions for ALL of those who care about this place and its people.

  1. Consider what will make the consultation process meaningful. And go beyond just considering and telling people about how you plan to run the process but get them all together in a room, in a rich deliberative multi-way conversation that addresses:
  • where have we been
  • where are we starting from
  • what will make this process meaningful and how can we measure that process. Create some specific indicators of success for that process so everyone agrees.
  • what roles will people play
  • who needs to be part of the conversation to ensure it is sustainable for all Yukoners in the long run

2. THEN plan the engagement process based on that input. Go slow to go fast — make sure you take adequate time to plan out a process that can demonstrate it is meaningful. Don’t rush into this. If you get it wrong this time there are no more chances to build trust and make decisions for long-term good. Make sure your process is fair, inclusive, and meaningful and your decision will be too.

3. Implement the process with neutral facilitators. This is a hot topic and views on it are widely known. If you were a participant who held a different view from a leader in a meeting on this issue would you say what you thought or contribute to the conversation? No, you wouldn’t. Make sure the process is seen clearly to be as unbiased and ethical as possible. Have the data analyzed by someone other than a key stakeholder or the government. Have everyone agree to those terms in the workshops noted under #2 above.

4. Take this opportunity to bravely lead. How do you want to show up? How do you want to be when you engage on this controversial, emotional issue? This is going to be messy, and there will lobbying and positions on all sides. Recognize that the loudest voices aren’t the only voices you should hear — you should hear ALL the voices. It will take courage to stay the course, to trust in a meaningful process, to have faith in the possibility of what really deliberative conversations can create when people from all sorts of life experiences come together. Leaders will need to know where they stand, what they stand for and how they want to show up. And they will need to hold themselves courageous to holding that space for others so they can participate at their best too.

5. When its over, lean into the principles of what makes engagement meaningful. Explain the decision and what you did, and what you didn’t do and why. Demonstrate that the process was fair, inclusive and meaningful — even if the final decision wasn’t exactly what everyone might have wanted. Continue to invest in relationships, build trust and bravely lead as you move into implementation.

It isn’t often you get a “do over” on a major public issue where there is this much passion and interest.

The world is watching.

Take a deep breath, and step forward with courage and compassion and bravely lead a meaningful conversation. And it will all work out.

5 reasons why your organization will fail to create positive change. And what you can do about it.

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I’ve been thinking about what it really takes to build leadership capacity inside organizations, and what is really required to have brave, honest conversations about the things that matter most.

Everyone wants to be a leader. Everyone wants to live their values. Everyone wants their organization to be successful, and to feel part of something bigger, doing good work in the world. We all want that, but few of us challenge the status quo, call out the gap between what we say we value and what we really do, and almost no one wants to rock the boat.

It’s like those signs in the London tube system: “Mind The Gap.” The gap comes in many forms:

  • The gap between what we say we believe and value and what we really do.
  • The gap between who we want to be and how we act every day.
  • The gap between the vision we hold and the reality we work in.
  • The gap between how we spend our time and how we say we want to spend our time.
  • The gap between solving the problem and being owners of our lives and work, and waiting for someone else to fix things and lead us.

Here are some examples of what I’ve come across lately in my work.

“Leaders don’t do arts and crafts.” This was said by a woman in a workshop I facilitated to help her organization become more collaborative and innovative in the face of conflict, tension and diverging perspectives on tough issues. She was more worried about being uncomfortable trying something new and different in the session than she was about making progress on the bigger goals of innovation, collaboration and positive change.

“Our values include building trust and practicing empathy, but our organization is in survival mode. The tension and conflict on our leadership team gets worse every day. But we don’t have time to do any team building or leadership development because we have a fiscal deficit and some big new revenue targets to achieve.” The team is in conflict, leadership is lacking and performance is suffering. What might it be like if the team took time out to be better leaders and stronger together so that they could reach their performance goals instead of doing the same thing harder and longer thinking they will get a better result?

“One of our values is ‘Get shit done.’ This translates into the expectation that staff put everything in their lives on hold in order to put the company first.” Getting things done matters when you run a business. Productivity, efficiency and performance are core to growth. However, in the long-term its people who get things done, and people need to be whole, rejuvenated, and valued to perform over the long haul. And leadership is about far more than just doing things.

“All I do is work. I’m so stressed out all the time I just want to escape.” This was said by a woman who also regularly says she loves her job. Or maybe she just loves the idea of her job? Life is short and feeling that way every day means her contribution to the organizaiton, and to the people in her life is limited and less than vibrant.

“We need leadership support for this culture change to be real. They need to understand what they are asking us to do, and have our backs before we can get started.” Sometimes the change starts with you. Sometimes leadership asks you to do things because they do support the change and have your backs. Sometimes you need to look deeper into what is causing the resistance to change. Sometimes you need to lead before you know things are certain and safe.

“Relationships are what I value most.” Except when you don’t. Except when your actions speak louder than your words and what you really practice is lack of communication, respect, response or care. What you do speaks louder than what you say, and if what you are doing is operating from a place of your needs before others every time, it will be evident that is what you value over other people.

Sound familiar? Sound like a day in your organization? I could go on and on. The things people say in sessions roll around in my head day after day, and they’ve come together to create 5 reasons why organizations won’t create positive change — and what you can do about it.

1. Your leadership team wasn’t born knowing how to be leaders.

For the most part, leaders aren't born, they are made through their experiences, choices and commitment to showing up. Technical expertise doesn’t mean leaders have the skills and knowledge in core leadership attributes like empathy, humility, courage, respect, listening, compassion and commitment. If you start to put more emphasis on supporting leaders to lead by developing competencies that inspire and empwer others you will enable them to solve tough problems and achieve meaningful change. Until then, leaders will go towards what they know when things get tough — and technical skills won’t be what helps the team or the organization move forward. Take the time and effort to build capacity for brave, compassionate leadership and your organization will be stronger in the long run. Ideally, don’t wait until you are in crisis mode to do this, but instead make it part of how you operate every day.

2. Others don’t feel empowered to be part of the solution.

My life’s work is in engagement. Public, community, and organizational engagement — the space where people come together to solve problems. Collaboration, innovation, empowering — these are more than words. When you create the spaces for inclusive, honest, transparent dialogue on real issues you build a culture where people feel responsible, powerful and possible. They are inspired to actually ‘get shit done’ because they are trusted to bring their best, every day, every situation. That means loosening up hierarchies, layers of approval and working from the belief that your staff will make choices based on what is best for everyone, and then creating space for them to do just that. It’s tough to change these norms, and sometimes it takes baby steps to test it out but the results speak for themselves.

3. Your staff don’t know how to have brave, honest conversations about the issues that matter most.


The path to solving the problems we face in our worlds are through brave, honest conversations. That means talking about uncomfortable topics, embracing emotion, seeking to understand even when we disagree, speaking truth to power and authentically leading in the most challenging of situations.

These are skills that must be learned, practiced and be part of daily culture to be made real. Learning to give feedback from a place of unconditional positive regard so people are built up rather than torn down, developing norms where people can be vulnerable and therefore build a trusting, supportive culture and affirming courage and compassion as cultural values — these are daily practices. People need skill building and practice to make this real — saying that vulnerability or empathy are your corporate values doesn’t make them so. Living them every day in your interactions with each other makes them real.

4. Your culture emphasizes the importance of doing, being busy and reacting to the next crisis more than they honour the values written on your mission statement.

More than ever, busyness shows up as a cultural value. It’s become part of organizational and individual identity, as if somehow the busier we are the more valuable and worthy we are. When we fill every moment with ‘doing’ we lose sight of WHY we are doing things, and we sacrifice relationships, leadership and community at the altar of busyness. I know people are busy — and I also know that you can be busy and bring your best self, be your most courageous, compassionate self and lead from an authentic place where you are present, listening and respectful. Ego calls out for us to put our own needs first and focus on ‘doing’ at the expense of relationships. Leadership calls for us to put the needs of others are the forefront and create the space to inspire, support and empower. When we are busy reacting, we lose sight of the bigger picture. Do you want to spend your energy on the immediate things or on the really important things? Start by asking questions like “Why are we doing this work? What are we trying to achieve here?” and hold that at the forefront of choice-making. Ask yourself what you can say “no” to so you can say “yes” to the things that really matter. Hold team meetings where you start with prioritizing tasks that connect to values, strategic plans and mission rather than allocating and distributing to do lists and action plans. Choose differently, and your culture will shift to one of values instead of one of busyness.

5. People are probably afraid to try and fail, test new things, be open and act human.


One of the biggest long term tests of whether an organization will succeed or fail is how innovative it is. Innovation comes from a combination of creativity, empowerment and freedom. It needs to be fostered through word and action, in an environemnt of supportive learning free of blame, shame and judgment. That requires a practice of ‘just say yes’ and ‘try, test and learn’ as an operating culture. It means leaders who value performance by measuring how many new ideas were tested out and learned from, and how much creativity was generated by a team. It requires a shift in mindset from measuring action and tasks to measuring positive change, ideas and possibility focused on bigger long-term goals.

Positive change is possible.

It starts with you.

It starts with your leadership, and your words and actions aligned to build a culture that inspires, empowers and enables brave, honest conversations.

How to be messy AND bravely lead

Wallowing in the depths of self-doubt is common. It’s what you do when you realize you are there that makes the difference.

Here are some recent insights on how to be messy AND brave in your life.

I’ve been rolling around in the muck of self-doubt lately, trying to get balance and clarity on the positive change and impact I really want to have in the world, but mostly worrying whether the change I want to create is possible. Then the universe gave me a couple of gifts that helped me shift from messy to messy AND brave.

First, was a conversation with the talented and insightful Rick Tamlyn (if you need a coach to help you grow your impact in the world, check him out), who helped me embrace the mess that comes from taking a stand, showing up in the world and being courageous. It takes effort, energy and heart to do this day after day and sometimes you will get a little tired. Being a courageous leader and having brave, honest conversations isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s OK to need to step a way for a bit. Go with that feeling of wanting to retreat, sink into it for a bit, nurture your soul.

Then get back out there and go again, because how you show up, the impact you can have on and with others, the brave, honest conversations that need to be had — they are waiting for you.

That’s tip 1: When you are a mess, step into it. Be messy. Being brave isn’t possible without the days when you are messy. It’s like how joy isn’t joyful without the days when you are sad. They go together. No one is brave all the time.

I’ve been really reflecting on how I want to show up — what are the ways of being that serve me in bringing brave, honest conversations to the world? How do I help others have those tough conversations? How do we build change experiences where people yearn for more conversations where they emerge believing in possibility rather than weighed down by challenge? What happens when I am human and don’t show up as a brave leader in a tough moment? These are big questions that have been circling in my brain based on recent experiences. I’ve been in conversation with a colleague about creating an agreement for how we work together in the future. Some days I was open hearted and brave, leaning into possibility and co-creating new solutions. I was always responsive, committed and attentive. I had hopes and expectations of quick resolution and forward momentum. However, the longer the conversation went on, the more it dragged me under, and I frequently became frustrated, feeling trapped and held hostage. It’s not a good place to be. It’s like being a cage tiger. It’s tough to lead from that place, locked in a cage. I can’t say I led from my best self every day, but it was a beautiful and important lesson in recovery, over and over again.

Tip #2: Know where you stand. And know how to help yourself recover. How do you want to be? How do you want to show up? Take that stand, and if you falter, get up and recover and try again. You won’t get it right every time. In fact, you might mess it up frequently. When you do falter, acknowledge where you are in that moment, do the things that help you re-center, press re-set, and commit again.

This morning I was sitting down to write a blog and decided to check my email first. (FYI just an off topic tip — that is not a brilliant idea when you are sitting down to get creative, and can be full of distractions and generally allow you to procrastinate about writing for a bit longer. So don’t do what I do. Do what I say).In my email box was a delightful email from the inspiring and entertaining Marie Forleo (if you don’t follow her, you should). Her latest video is about self doubt, impact on others, and kindness. It brought me back to the WHY — WHY I do this work — because if I support 1 person to go home or to their office or community and have a brave, honest conversation that changes their world for the better, I’ve done what I set out to do. Just 1 person who lives brave, honest conversations, whose life is more possible because they can have tough conversations and solve problems….then its all worth it. That’s impact.

I’ve recently spent 3 weeks in New Brunswick, facilitating brave honest conversations with more than 500 internal staff inside an organization. I had a woman leave a session I facilitated and come back 10 minutes later to tell me that when she got the invitation to attend the conversation she was was frustrated, angry and defensive. She was sure it was going to be a negative experience full of conflict. She had to come back to tell me that even though that was where she started out, where she ended up was hopeful, optimistic and positive; that is was a powerful and affirming conversation to have been part of and her views are changed from where she started. That’s why I do this work. The shift.

That’s tip #3: When you are lost or struggling go back to your WHY. What is the impact you want to have? What change are you trying to create? What do you believe so passionately in it calls to you? That commitment to what matters most to you, it makes the doubt less important. Be committed to something more than your doubts or fears. It doesn’t make them go away, but it makes them less consuming.

And tip #4: To echo Marie…reach out with kindness. Practice gratitude. Tell people who have had an impact on your life that they have done that. We need a lot more kindness in the world, and you never know what your kindness or our courage will inspire in someone else.

Then take a deep breath and take a stand and show up again. Bravely lead, practice brave, honest conversations in your life, organization and community. Be the world you want to live in. Create positive change. And rest and recover once in a while too.

Why COMMUNITY matters most in COMMUNITY RECOVERY to disaster

Picture credit: The Daily Mail

Picture credit: The Daily Mail

I’ve been riveted by coverage of the total devastation wrought by Hurricane Irma. I’m speechless, my throat tight with tears for the heartache and suffering being experienced by those who are impacted. I’m motivated to action and to be of service and struggling with doing more than giving money.

This is a call to action I can’t ignore. My life’s work is in brave, honest conversations. I have extensive experience in working with communities post disaster to figure out what to rebuild, where to rebuild, how to support each other and get support for the cycles of challenge, emotion and trauma that comes post disaster. This is what I know, what I do best, how I make a difference in the world.

I’ve worked on community recovery from wild fires in northern Alberta. I’ve worked on community recovery to Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey. I’ve worked extensively across Australia over many years to build capacity, skill and knowledge for community led recovery to natural disaster with the Australian Emergency Management Institute. And I know help is needed now, before recovery starts to happen form Hurricane Irma.

Right now, communities are in a phase of RESPONSE. Making sure people have temporary shelter, have food and water, taking care of those needing medical and emergency assistance. It’s a time of taking stock of the damage to infrastructure and assessing risks. This is what the military, Red Cross and other agencies do best — come in fast and assess the situation, deal with emergencies and deliver immediate aid.


National Disaster Recovery Framework

National Disaster Recovery Framework

In many situations in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, like in the case of the British and US Virgin Islands, this is what survivors themselves are pulling together to do. But it isn’t sustainable for the long run for survivors to do this. Community recovery is a long, slow, painful crawl. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. And people will tire, burnout, and start to experience psycho-social impacts of the disaster themselves, leaving them less able to help others as time goes on.

RECOVERY starts very soon after the dust starts to settle and recovery takes months and years. In the case of Hurricane Irma, definitely years. After the dust settles and the debris gets cleared, everyone has temporary shelter and food and water comes the hardest part. The really hard work of building lives, connections and community with people who are disconnected, scattered and traumatized.

I know from experience that successful recovery comes from the vision, dreams, hopes and challenges of community themselves. It is about so much more than the buildings, roads and infrastructure. It is about community choosing what their future looks like, and then acting on it with the support of agencies and groups. Not the other way around, which happens so often where agencies act, and community follows. It is about community recovery and it is more than that — it is COMMUNITY LED RECOVERY where lives, connection, social capital and vibrancy of place are built again.

You can build back buildings but can you build back connection, social capital and community values? That is what matters most, and in our rush to take stock and take action we sometimes forget that disaster is about people. And how we care for them and support them, and hear what they want and need. And how we engage them in re-designing their lives.

It is about the WHOLE community creating that vision and developing a long-term plan for recovery that is inclusive and grounded in community values. That is hard when people are scattered and moved from their original connections and place. It’s hard too when just a few survivors are there to take action, supporting the rest.

Picture source: CNBC. Richard Branson on Necker Island, post Hurricane Irma. Media coverage reports that Branson and his team have been personally providing enormous aid and relief services throughout the Virgin Islands, post disaster.

Picture source: CNBC. Richard Branson on Necker Island, post Hurricane Irma. Media coverage reports that Branson and his team have been personally providing enormous aid and relief services throughout the Virgin Islands, post disaster.

In the beginning communities pull together and are often overwhelmed by the heartfelt outpouring and intense bonding that comes from the gratitude for being alive, and the adrenaline of the experience. The short term aftermath of a disaster celebrates heroic efforts and contributions, and a community pulls together.

Eventually, cleavages start to show. People get tired. Not everyone is strong all the time, every day. People are grieving, hurt, fearful and scared, and they may start to feel the stress, overwhelmed and need support.


Fort McMurray billboard, months after the wildfires, as evacuated people start to return to the community

Fort McMurray billboard, months after the wildfires, as evacuated people start to return to the community

Those who have been evacuated or left the community feel further disconnected and disenfranchised, and are often isolated from social connections and support.

You’ve got to have a place and a space for everyone, wherever they are emotionally in order to start planning for recovery.

The goal is not to re-build or build back better (as so often is said) but instead to BUILD COMMUNITY, in all the senses of that word. Not just the physical structures, spaces and infrastructure but also the social connections, the vibrancy of place, to create a physical essence of the hopes, dreams and values of a people in a location.

And this takes the community to lead. It takes a plan and a process. It takes an assessment of community resiliency at the outset, to identify vulnerabilities and risks.

National Principles for Disaster Recovery, Australia. I was lucky enough to be part of facilitating workshops and sharing best practices that led to the Australian framework for these principles, grounded in approaches led by community.

National Principles for Disaster Recovery, Australia. I was lucky enough to be part of facilitating workshops and sharing best practices that led to the Australian framework for these principles, grounded in approaches led by community.

Long-term recovery takes a community led process that is grounded in:

  • Approaches led by community. Where community comes together to talk together about what comes next, what worked before, and what they want to recreate, and what didn’t work and what they want instead. It takes someone to hold space for those brave, honest conversations and to support people to really dig into their needs and where to from here.
  • It takes a connection between community conversations and the actions that are taken by agencies so that what happens reflect the community’s wishes.
  • It takes open and transparent flow of information and free flowing, responsive communication.
  • It takes a recognition of complexity. There are power dynamics, conflicts and diverging views in communities everywhere, all the time. Post disaster these can be heightened and then layered with the trauma, disorientation, loss, anxiety and anger that can be generated by the event.
  • Recovery planning and conversations need be timely, fair, equitable and inclusive. It takes everyone’s views and perspectives on the table, hashing out what happens long-term, who benefits and when and what is needed in a place of diverse needs and perspectives.
  • Recovery means building community with an eye to long-term resilience. Resilience needs to be seen as geographic, structural and also emotional, psychological and social.
  • Recovery takes compassion, courage and consistently held space for tough conversations, all the time so people feel held, supported and accepted right where they are. It also means supporting those who are vulnerable or marginalized and ensuring their voice is heard is crucial.
  • Recovery takes flexibility as needs change over time, and adjusting the plan through conversation, dialogue and community input.

The best community led recovery starts with people at the centre. It starts with a recovery process that focuses first and throughout the long marathon of building community based on community voice, view and needs.

Community led recovery takes a process laid out that says “we are in this together, and together we will choose what comes next.”

And so I’m called to action. To offer my services to support this work. To help build a process for long-term recovery that holds space for brave, honest conversations at its centre, and that allows the long journey of community led recovery and community building to begin.

Talking together: a Manifesto for Brave, Honest Conversations - How public engagement needs to change for the times

Picture source: Americabythenumbers.org

Picture source: Americabythenumbers.org

Protests, marches, petitions. Riots, police barricades, people injured and killed. Anger, righteous indignation, tragedy and discrimination. Natural disasters, food insecurity, terrorism, poverty. We have some real challenges on this small planet. Some real struggles we aren’t dealing with very well.

What we are doing a lot is talking at each other, over each other and about each other.

We need a new way.

I’ve worked in the arena of public engagement for 25+ years, planning and hosting conversations about high stakes, high emotion issues. And in that time I’ve learned a few lessons, mostly the hard way. This is a call to action, for more, for better, for a different way of solving our problems.

Picture source: IAP2 Canada

Picture source: IAP2 Canada

For 25 years the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) has used the Core Values as the standard for meaningful engagement — for the process of bringing people together to talk about issues, and to make decisions as a result. The Core Values have served us well during that time — helping set a benchmark for meaningful public engagement and a standard for practitioners, organizations and communities to uphold. IAP2 presents awards regionally and internationally for projects and organizations that demonstrate this depth of commitment to the Core Values in public engagement.

In 2009, after much deliberation, the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD) created a different set of standards, called the Core Principles for Public Engagement. I was part of the team that helped refine these standards, which were presented to the Obama White House Office of Public Engagement. They are similar, and different than the IAP2 Core Values, and are more comprehensive in detail (the long version is here).

Picture source: NCDD

Picture source: NCDD

But the world has changed. And it continues to change. What worked 20 years ago, or 8 years ago doesn’t work today. Our societies and cultures are in a massive state of transition and flux. Technological advances; changes in how people connect, gather and exchange information and views; the impacts of globalization and climate change; rising public opposition, outrage and resistance to the status quo; polarization, demonizing and fear of those who are not the same as our group; staggering levels of distrust in public organizations and institutions….we are operating in a new unknown context and reality.

The good news is that I’m optimistic. I believe that chaos, messiness and challenges are enormous opportunities. They give us something to work with, they spark the desire for change to burn brightly, and they open us up to the complexity of what it means to be human on this small planet.

I think its time we went beyond “public engagement” and start to think in new ways. It’s time we embraced the reality of the world we are in today, and the world that is emerging. With all its challenges and turmoil, we hold the keys to making positive change real.

So here goes; a Manifesto for Brave Honest Conversations.

1. Practise Courageous Leadership:

It takes more than thoughtful decision-makers or a good process to make engagement meaningful. It takes courage to bravely have a stake, to commit to a tough conversation about issues that have no easy solutions, and to invite everyone in to talk together in ways that build something new. It requires clarity of purpose and integrity, to consciously choose solving the problem over winning or seeing your view as the right one. It takes leaders to host conversations that they don’t have the answers to rather than talking with stakeholders about easy issues, or waiting to come forward until they’ve crafted possible solutions to tough problems. It takes not knowing the outcome and going ahead anyway.

Picture source: Brene Brown, Daring Greatly

Picture source: Brene Brown, Daring Greatly

It takes practitioners taking a stand and advocating for civil discourse and meaningful process, and being held to account for the design and facilitation of brave, honest conversations that are really brave and honest. It takes practitioners saying “no, that isn’t meaningful or ethical or fair”about processes that are compromised and contribute to damaged public trust, because that doesn’t serve anyone.

It takes participants willing to commit to engaging with those who they may view as the “enemy” on tough conversations. It takes the ability to withhold assumptions, judgments, and the desire to try to see the other human being under the mask.

It takes the willingness to try and fail and not get it right. To acknowledge and accept and lean into our mistakes and mis-steps for the greater good and because we are committed to solving the real challenges that face us, rather than because we want to be right, look good or are afraid of what could happen. It takes being afraid and doing the right thing anyway, because it matters that we change the way we talk together about things that really matter or our own futures will be negatively impacted.

2. Work with the whole system:

We don’t sustainably solve the challenges that face us by focusing on one project at a time. When you pull back to 30,000 feet you see it isn’t about building a bridge or a pipeline, rezoning urban land, cleaning up a contaminated site or changing a health care policy. It’s really about balancing energy and the environment, dealing with racial discrimation and economic inequities or the impacts of colonialism. It’s about changing communities or creating safe living environments for all children, or access to health and wellness for everyone.

We need to stop having conversations about issues one project at a time, and start framing our dialogues around the bigger picture. Stop narrowing down who has a stake or a position or the ability to influence a specific project, and start thinking about who cares about the issue, and the longer-term impacts over time on human systems and environments.

We need to step back from the conflict of X or Y decision and instead find new ways of finding solutions to the larger issues that confront us. For example, once we’ve figured out ways of moving forward on energy and the environment, it will be easy to see whether the solution includes pipeline X.

Stepping out of the specifics and into the larger picture means we also expand our lens of who has power, influence and opportunity to participate in the conversation — and by doing so we expand the possible seats at the table. That enhances the views we hear and creates more possible solutions, more diversity of ideas, the potential of finding better ways forward that consider all consequences and outcomes.

3. Embrace the whole person:

It’s time we just agreed that feelings matter. They aren’t the only thing that matters, but they are important. And they aren’t just important until we can get people to focus on facts — they are part of being fully human, required for fulsome and sustainable decision-making, and a reality of having brave, honest conversations about things that matter. The sooner we release the myth that we are a rational, fact based society governed by science and data, the sooner we can move on to solving real problems. What we are is a rational, fact based society full of emotional, flawed, messy, beautiful human beings, and we will be far more successful at solving tough problems when we embrace the whole of our humanness.

It matters that we put the heart into our engagement processes and our tough conversations. Because caring is the key to building trust, and strengthening relationships. And its no coincidence that trust in public institutions has declined as we have increased our reliance on facts over feelings. Let me be clear — I’m not saying get rid of facts. Facts matter. And so do feelings.

When we have a conflict or public opposition on an issue, we can’t separate the issue from the people. People come with their whole life experience and values — how they’ve been treated by your organization; how the issue makes them feel; their fears, hopes and desires for the future; how other related issues connect to the topic under discussion in their lives. How many times have you heard “that’s not in the scope of this project”? People are more than the topic of your conversation or project, so engage with the whole person, in a conversation about the larger system, in order to build relationships, trust and find a solution to the real challenges.

4. Recognize right and responsibility:

IAP2 Core Value #1 says “Public participation is based on the belief that those who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process.” It’s a powerful statement that speaks to the underlying value of democratic society. It creates a deep sense of right and infers power on those with a voice to speak it out loud and claim their rights. That value is not to be taken lightly, and must be exercised fully for democratic societies to thrive. However, it is not enough to have a right. A right lacks integrity without responsibility.

We live in societies where right is paramount — the right to protest, march, petition, disengage, blame, shame and ridicule, the right to attack, discriminate and slander. The right to my opinion, to free speech, to proclaim my views on twitter, facebook or in this blog. We’ve created an illusion that when we sign a petition, post on facebook or march in protest we’ve changed the world. We haven’t changed anything — we’ve contributed to the collective exhale of opinions, opposition or resistance without creating the future we are calling for. We haven’t build anything new, we haven’t said what we want instead of what we don’t want, we haven’t taken action that makes anything change. Often we’ve stayed in the comfort of our homes behind our screens, and voiced a righteous view. And we haven’t engaged with or seen into the hearts of those who see the world differently than we do, or who hold different opinions. Usually we’ve talked to people who believe like we do, and demonized and separated further from those who see the world differently, often justifying that they are wrong, and we are right.

Where does my responsibility lie? Responsibility for impact? Responsibility for outcome? Responsibility for others or the collective?

When we value right over responsibility, we are all for one, and no one for all. We value our own right to an opinion over the needs of our neighbours, those who are marginalized, or the collective good. We need to bring back responsibility — for the quality of our democracy, for the practice of talking with each other, for the ability to truly solve tough challenges in our lives, organizations and communities. We are responsible for the future we create.

5. Practice meaningful inclusion:

The dictionary defines inclusion as “The act of including, or the state of being included.”

I’ve long said that meaningful engagement includes representation AND inclusion. By that I mean that when we involve people in brave, honest conversations we need people at the table who represent different interests, groups, experiences or backgrounds. Many conversations start there. The challenge with a brave, honest conversation that includes only representatives is that they grapple with the key issues, work through perceptions, perspectives and possibilities to come up with solutions, learn together and build trust and relationships — and only they are changed by the conversation. The broader organization, community or public are not changed. Others not at the table are still in the place of right over responsibility, and frequently respond to the involvement of representatives as a reinforcing of the status quo and an imbalance of power. And they are often right.

If we expand a conversation to include representation and inclusion, we are identifying who we know needs to be at the table for the creation of sustainable solutions AND we are openly saying that we welcome anyone who cares, who wants to choose to participate, who wants to be part of creating a solution to come talk together with us. We reduce the risk of talking to the same people over and over again (or talking only to those who already hold power and influence), we remove the bias of talking only to like minded people who think like we do, and we expand the pool of values, needs and ideas we have to work with creating possibility for greater success.

It’s the only way forward. Together. A space for all of us at the table.

6. Come from a place of compassion and integrity:

No matter your role in a brave, honest conversations two key things are required.

It matters that you believe in the possibility of the conversation, and have faith in what can happen when people come together to talk with each other about tough issues. When you come from a place of unconditional, positive regard you manifest that in others and in the conversation. When you commit to working through the conflict and to finding solutions, that commitment echoes when things get heated. When you are open to possibility, to new ideas, to deeply understanding other ways of thinking and seeing the world you hold space for brave, honest conversations to emerge. When you practice empathy and commit to building trust and relationships, others follow suit.

When you know what you stand for, why you are showing up as a leader, participant or practitioner, when you consciously choose “yes” to finding new solutions and deeply commit to inclusion, trust, responsibility and the important conversations we need to have, you can change the world. It is about more than what you do or what you know, it is about how you want to be. First you need to choose where you stand, and what you stand for.

7. Do it again, and again:

Engagement isn’t about projects or one-time activities or events. It isn’t simple or easy. Brave, honest conversations require time, effort, trust and relationships. They require ongoing investment by organizations, communities and practitioners. They require us to recognize that engagement is an ongoing process, over time, and is about all of our interactions, connections and the inter-relationship between people in organizations and communities over the long-haul. When we do that we contribute to vibrant communities, thriving organizations and quality democracy. And that’s worth a brave, honest conversation any day.


Join me in this Call to Action. It’s time we all showed up courageously and called for brave, honest conversations for the issues of our time. It’s time we all stood up and said we are leaders committed to conversations that create a new and different world.