Dancing Without Leading: Making Space for New Steps

As practitioners in community building efforts we are constantly looking for ways to better connect to and engage residents. As part of our Network-centric approach – we focus on the practice of “weaving” as a way of building out our network of interconnected people.

Weaving, the principal leadership practice in Network Organizing, is an intentional practice of helping people connect to information, opportunity, each other and, most importantly, their own personal power. Weavers do this by opening new moments and new spaces for co-learning and co-investment to flourish.

Weaving is a way of Being and a process of Doing that seeks to bring the best kinds of genuine human caring and curiosity into a given moment when people meet new people;  in a meeting, at the doorstep, when people walk into the organization for the first time. It is  the process of creating open and fertile space for relationships to develop and for co-creation and co-investment to take place  – in places and at times when it normally can’t or won’t happen – that is…most of the time and in most places!

What is meant by “space?”  Why is “space so important? What does a weaver do to create this space and make it fertile for relationship building and co-creation?


First, everything happens in space – especially  creation and choice.  Second, space can be created. It is not static, neutral or or finite. It is created by the presence of energy and the absence of form. It is produced by movement, construction and deconstruction.  Space happens when the presence of dominant forms is diminished or eliminated. In architecture this looks like the absence of walls or floors or ceilings or furniture. In our world of community building it feels like the absence of protocols, positional power roles, traditions, habits as well as certain attributes of physical space all those things that tend to proscribe the boundaries of behavior in the moment. These forms live large in the moments when we meet or are greeting new people. Most of the time we are not even aware of these dominant forms.  The presence and power of these forms act to close space – to eliminate or narrow the opportunity for co-creation and relationship building.

So the first task in creating space is to notice, and then work to deconstruct – or lessen the power of these dominant forms.

These forms – and the powers that come with them – come from many places: tradition, habits, honest efforts to create clarity, and yes, from darker places like prejudice, intolerance and fear. Many though, spring from genuine efforts from people to help other people. These are the hardest to see but they are also some of the most powerful and the actionable. Here are some examples of the kinds of forms, and the powers that they bring to close space and limit creativity and relationship building:

The Power to Detach and Dehumanize through ‘Professionalism’.” The last 40 years or so have seen the proliferation of  “caring professions” in everything from community organizing to social work to health care to juvenile justice etc etc.  The ‘caring professionals’ try to compensate for the lack of caring and support that people have relied on family and friends for in the past BUT they also serve as the delivery system for official caring – the services and support that the public sector and philanthropy have deemed important to people in need.  This role – and the legal and political liability that comes with it – has driven a process of professionalization and standardization among caring professionals that is chock full of the kind of dominant forms mentioned above.  Most of these forms are predicated on the need and desire of the caring professional to bring consistency and excellence in services to clients. Often times however, establishing the ‘standard’ has resulted in processes predicated on detachment between the care giver and those he or she is caring for.  Often this detachment is seen as a necessary and/or desirable.

There are aspects of this ‘professionalism’ that one cant argue with. Standards for serving those in acute distress are good. But often these boundries causes the suspension of our human intuition. In other words, professionalism offers us the  permission to set aside alot of what we know about humans and replace it with a different framework.  it is as if things like human compassion and empathy gets freeze-dried in professional training and then is re-thawed as clinical insight. Professional, effective caring is a critical part of quality of life for many of us. The problem is that the technical, fear-based, liability-based clinical ‘habits of detachment’ that are helpful in acute care have swamped all manner of institution-based and place based human to human engagement.  I often say that there will be time to help, time to bring in the big guns, time for the the big intervention, time to develop the case plan. But what people need and want when they first meet you – is the time to say hello and be noticed.

The Power to Diminish through the use of Institutional Space: Physical spaces speak to us. For instance, on almost every small town commercial mainstreet in America – no matter how small the town – there is one building which stands distinctive among the storefronts and corner drug stores. The bank. You know its the bank because of its marble or concrete columns extending up two full floors, the latin words etched in its facade and the huge windows. It sits on mainstreet as if it had always been there and as if  the mainstreet grew up around it. It claims a status as an anchor of the community.  Now, today many of these building are no longer banks. But years ago when, on payday you were to bring your check for deposit, stepping inside that space you would immediately be made aware of your smallness and its bigness.  By the vast vaulted ceiling which towers over gleaming counter tops. By the echo of your footsteps as you cross the marble floor.  By the well dressed tellers with their straight backs and attentive looks. By the impossibly thick heavy vault door made intentionally visible to customers from the lobby. You, carrying your little deposit into this vaulted fortress.   This is “confidence building” architecture;  columns hinting at the ancient – always here – enduring. It’s quiet heaviness – immovable. Its formality – efficient, competent.

So What do you feel when you walk in here? Small yes, but also safe perhaps – in good hands?  A good feeling to have when you have to leave your life’s savings somewhere!!

Physical spaces are environments that we are hard wired to absorb and react to. As sentinent, aware beings we lead with our amazing set of senses to almost instantaneously “feel” the spaces we enter. And we enter every space with one central question. “Is this a good place for me?”  Is it safe, healthy, aware of my presence? Does the place embrace me, reject me, care less about me?  Does it increase my fear – close me up –  or does it increase my trust and open me up?  We feel our way to answers to this question long before we can think our way to answers.  We react to light, colors, smells, materials, presence or absence of other people, the size and volume of open space etc etc. In a recent excercize with a large group in Cleveland Ohio, when asked to relfect on ‘spaces’ where they had felt comfortable in their lives, the range of elements was astounding: from things like bright colors to the presence of animals. But interestingly, the most dominant feature was smell – comforting smells from childhood. This tells us that long before we are delineating the design elements of a space to understand its impact on us, we are sniffing places out like every other mammal on the planet.

Institutional “helping” spaces are not so much intentional in their efforts to diminish people – they are just focused on other things: efficiency, safety, confidentiality, uniformity, consistency. As a list of attributes there is nothing wrong with these elements. But lets look at what a space – crowded with these “forms” – both feeds and starves. It can feed anonymity, compliance, routines, acquiescence. It can starve individuality, spontaneity, co-investment, flexibility. A professional social worker recently told me that thier agency’s “safety protocol” required that there be a desk between a worker and a client at all time.  That the safety imperitive alone drove a key element of the design of the space for having conversation is telling. Giving “safety” so much dominance as a form  foreclosed so many other options, for instance a side by side seating arrangement which alone can shift the nature of the invitation to that moment. In essence it placed all the trappings of the “institution” between people involved and reinforced the positional power that exists between the worker and client, with even more situational power.

Awareness of the physical environment and of the ‘dominant forms’ at work in that place is a critical aspect of weaving.

The Power to Foreclose  “Invitation” Through “Expertise” Recently at LCW, as part of an evaluation of our “Network Guides” program (a cohort of stipended member volunteers who train and practice as “weavers”) we uncovered an interesting phenomenon. That weavers trained in the nuances of creating welcoming space and building relationships will, over time, drift toward taking on the positional power role of being “experts.’  In our situation there was  a conspiracy of factors involved.  First, we realized the embedded in our training were subtle but powerful messages about the ‘special status’ of the weaver, not the least of which was that the weaver had to be more informed than the average member about what was going on in the Network.  In addition the weavers had their own place in the Lobby of the Our House center which was meant to be a home-base but evolved into a traditional looking reception area! Weavers also have special white polo shirts with maroon embroidery which they love and which tag them as “network weavers.”

We realized that we had – unwittingly – filled the space that we had created for weaving with dominant forms that reinforced the idea that the weavers were experts – they had positional power. This led to a different kind of dominant form that tends to fill up space. Language. The language of the helper. The language of the expert. The assumption of the dance in this moment is that person A comes in to the space with a question and a need and connects with person B who – presumably – has the ability to answer or deliver help. This gets quickly reinforced with language in very subtle ways. For instance – “can I help you” is generally seen as the language of good customer service. But that phrase reinforces the presumed dance. Replace “can I help you” with “its so nice to see you” and see what happens. Person A asks there questions and person B feels like they have to try to answer – often without all of the information that is needed.  What if the response of person B is …”hmmmmm…I’m not sure, but lets try to find out together.”  Well, in our early experience, guided by a mantra “Your Question is My Question”, this response has the dual advantage of both ‘opening space’ for other things to happen and diminishing the presumed positional and situational power in the moment. My Colleague Audrey Jordan often quotes a friend, Ms. Annie Giles, talking about how she connects with people who show up to help her. She says “I need to know how much you care before I care how much you know.”

So, weaving is actually mostly a process of understanding and recognizi ng the presence of dominant forms such as these and then the work of deconstruction and subtraction –  eliminating or nuetralizing these forms so they have less power at the moment of connection. We do this to create a different kind of Invitation. But this requires intentionality. We  practice  intentionality through the use of small contrivances which are designed to make that now-open space suitable for relationships to take shape.

“Contrivance’  – “an artificial rather than natural selection or arrangement of details, parts, etc.”

If enough of these spaces could form on their own – they would. They dont and so we have to prod them with devices or contrivances. A door knock is a contrivance. An ice breaker is a contrivance. A meeting is a contrivance. A mantra is a contrivance. A welcoming greeting is a contrivance. All these things — and all the others that we dream up — are only contrivances. They are not genuine moments. They can lead to genuine moments and knowing when the contrivance ends and the genuine organic moment begins, its the deep art of the weaver. Next installment – The Art of the Contrivance.



One thought on “Dancing Without Leading: Making Space for New Steps

  1. No Name Please says:

    Beautifully said!

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