“Ubuntu can offer the ‘developed world’ a means to overcome the great challenges of the 21st century”. Says Leontine van Hooft, a Dutch corporate anthropologist and entrepreneur in Africa. She offers workshops to teach Western organizations how to use “Ubuntu circles” to connect, explore and co-create change. Are you ready to join me in this workshop? Let’s see how this African dialogue approach works.
Ubuntu or “umuntu ngumuntu ngabuntu” is of Zulu origin and means that a person is a person because of other people. It is also reflected in the African proverb: It takes a village to raise a child.
Though it might sound like common sense, this is not common practice everywhere. Europeans and North-Americans acquire their status by individual accomplishments and their material and financial wealth. The rights of the individual have become more important than our connection with each other. Or, as one ambassador of Rwanda once put it: “The so-called developed world has had a lopsided success story, where economic development has been achieved at the expense of values and an erosion of traditional family norms.”
“Africans have a thing called Ubuntu: it is about the essence of being human, it is part of the gift that Africa is going to give the world. It embraces hospitality, caring about others, being willing to go that extra mile for the sake of another. We believe that a person is a person through other persons; that my humanity is caught up and bound up in yours. When I dehumanize you, I inexorably dehumanize myself. The solitary human being is a contradiction in terms, and, therefore, you seek to work for the common good because your humanity comes into its own in community, in belonging.”
Desmond Tutu (The right to Hope: global problems, global vision, 1995).
It’s a Thursday night when we gather with eleven people in a room to learn how to practice Ubuntu. It is a tribal gathering meant to gain insights into an issue and eventually solve it. We’re all professionals: a few consultants, a manager, a police investigator preparing for his upcoming UN mission in Mali, an entrepreneur, an innovation professional, an internal advisor.
Leontine welcomes us into the circle and explains Ubuntu. As she says in her book The Power of African Thinking:
“Mutual solidarity and responsibility are central to tribal cultures. The LekGotLa is a decision circle that is called together by the chairperson. It is a democratic process in which everyone takes part. Respect and attentiveness are important during these consultations. The participants are consulted as people, not just because of their expertise, which means more insight around the table. Their broadly based dialogues mean that they can grow together toward widely supported decisions. After the chairperson has listened to various people, they enter into a period of reflection. Sometimes they take it back to their grass roots. Sometimes there are several gatherings before a conclusion is reached. The whole community supports the decision.”
Ubuntu acknowledges connection, the common good and collaboration Click To Tweet
What speaks louder than this explanation is the practice itself. It is a ritualized meeting for Westerners but with beneficial effects – as I will experience. You don’t have to lecture your participants extensively before they join: simply follow this procedure as Leontine shows us.
Are you present?
We close our eyes for a moment of stillness – sitting on our chairs, centering ourselves, arriving in the here and now after a busy day and some traffic jams. Leontine, our tribal leader, invites us to the circle and asks each and every one of us: “Are you present?”
It allows me to become mindfully aware of our meeting, publicly confirming that I am present and ready for the matter at hand.
Leontine explains the case that we will explore tonight: there are two people, seated left and right of her, who have an issue that affects our community. It is about the land that they are growing crops on – one man claims it’s his because his ancestors have been living there forever – one woman claims the use of the land as well. Leontine asks them to listen attentively to what the circle participants will contribute. They agree.
Then she welcomes each of us and assigns us our role. My role tonight is a random part of this simulation, but in reality, the chairperson or circle leader is very thoughtful about representing as many sides to the issue as possible. This will help gain insight into a multi-facetted issue.Ubuntu start: Are you present? Mindful question before business meetings! Click To Tweet
My role is the neighbor and friend of the woman who claims the land. Someone else is the best friend of her opponent, the man who claims the land.
The others are chosen for a reason as well: “I welcome you to this circle because you are the eldest man in our village, and you have gathered wisdom over the years and have seen so much. I welcome you because you are a mother and your children play on this land. I welcome you because you have freshly returned from your western education, and you may contribute new insights or questions. I welcome you because you have so much knowledge about crops. I welcome you because you have a critical mind, and you can help us improve ideas by asking critical questions. I welcome you because you are good at seeing what people have in common and helping them connect.”
People are acknowledged for one aspect of their being in relation to the issue. This could be a role, such as a parent, leader, professional, but also a character trait, a talent, or a relationship with someone who has a stake. The leader who gathers the circle knows their people and makes sure that everyone and everything is represented.
After this welcome round with specific instructions why we’re here and what to focus on, Leontine asks us to listen attentively and mindfully whenever someone speaks.
Going in circles with the talking piece
We start the meeting – the one who speaks takes the talking piece – and the others listen. We’re not allowed to comment without holding the talking stick. This feels awkward at first, and it slows you down. You have to wait until the stick is put back in the center of the circle, and then get up to retrieve it, say what you have to say while the others listen carefully, then put it back and sit down. Someone else gets up and takes the stick, sharing his considerations.
We go in all directions, with arguments, observations, feelings, randomly taking the stick. The “problem owners” listen quietly, as does Leontine, the group leader. I defend the woman’s claim on the land because she is my friend, I know her, and I live close by.
Another man defends the man’s claim. The newly returned woman asks us clever questions. The old man asks us to connect with the old ways, and what our ancestors would have done. The crops expert suggest a different use of the land. The mother shares her concern about a safe playground and enough food for the village kids now that the river has changed its current and it is harder to grow crops. The assigned “critic” asks us “why” to make us think even more.
After some time, Leontine invites the woman and the man who both claim the same land, to share their thoughts. The woman expresses her appreciation for our thoughtful comments and hints at a solution.
Emerging multi-facetted consensus
Slowly, we have come out of this mild chaos of viewpoints and sentiments and stakes, and a common feeling has emerged that is voiced by the woman. It is as if a “group will” becomes present. Why not share the fruits of this land? Regardless of who “officially” owns it? We have a common concern: good land is scarce due to our changing river, and we need to be fed.
Even though we have gone in all directions, everyone is aware of the fact that the man who claims the land has not said a word just yet. There is silence and then, seemingly reluctant, he approaches the talking stick and says that the solution seems fine, it makes sense, even though he claims one more time that the land is officially his. But he is willing to share the harvest – if we all work together.Ubuntu dialogue serves to co-create change and explore issues Click To Tweet
That said, Leontine ends the session by thanking us for our attentiveness and contributions. Though traditionally, people could end the ritual with song and dance to celebrate their connection, or with silence to contemplate the outcome, we end our gathering with a commentary to share our lessons learned.
Mindful, listen-only mode
What have we experienced? Most of us have felt the initial discomfort of slowing down. You have to take turns speaking and though annoying at first – it has a beneficial effect when you settle down and accept the ritual.
You cannot respond primitively – fueled by emotion – but you listen, you pay attention, and your feelings subside – because it’s not your turn yet. You become observant of your feelings, the inner critic, the judgmental voice in your head while waiting and listening to other perspectives.
You activate your listen-only mode that makes it easier to give your full attention to the speaker with the talking stick – and not enter a fierce debate where you don’t listen because you are preparing your own arguments while the other is still talking. We even enjoyed small silences, when everyone was simply present together, waiting for someone with the urge to get up and contribute another angle or question.
The introverts get as much airtime as the extroverts. I am a swift talker myself, and I was better listening and quieter than normally. I started to feel more than think-think-think. It was almost like a mindfulness exercise. But when I spoke, in my role as the woman’s friend and advocate, everyone listened carefully.
When someone is silent and does not take the talking stick, it stands out. People become aware, and they glance at the silent person, even unaware until he or she feels the pressure to get the stick and say something. Even when you’re not counting, and you’re going crisscross through the circle, you know who is silent, and you glance in their direction now and then…
Then there is the great side effect of having two friends plea for the problem-owners. It makes the arguments more indirect because you are not advocating your own cause, but a friend does. The friend knows you well and has your best interest at heart, but has a little more distance and is maybe more open to the interests of the whole community as well. It allows the problem-owners to listen attentively to all the facets of the issue that are presented by diverse participants. Instead of sitting on the edge of their chair, ready to jump up and broadcast their views.
Bringing all those participants in also ensures a high-context exploration of the issue. It helps raise awareness for all those aspects that come into play. It is not an individualistic approach to two arguing individuals – where the most extroverted or the one with the most expensive lawyer will win the dispute – but it affects the community and yields a weighed outcome that balances all interests without watering down in a bad compromise where everyone loses.
And there’s the subtle emergence of Group Will though in a real case this could take several sessions. The man who had the role of the man-who-claimed-the-land said that he felt he had no other choice than to agree with the group. Though the group said nothing, he felt that they were strong, and they favored the use of his land even if he officially owned it…. It was not violence, he said, just the strong sensation that it seemed the right thing to do, even though he still felt some reluctance… It somehow was okay…
What also works well is the assignment to share insights – and not aim at a solution. This takes the pressure off. There is no time and no target in the circle. We simply sit and share. I compare this to co-creating a flow of energy and information in a dialogue circle. Everyone contributes and together, we co-create something that none of us could have achieved individually.
You need a free flow of information and energy to arrive at an actual solution. You cannot do this with an agenda and a pre-conceived idea of what the outcome should look like. You have to be open, in the moment, and detached. Simply instructing your participants to be together to increase insights and explore a topic – may actually facilitate finding a solution.
Can we apply this in our Western organizations?
My answer is yes because some of us are already doing this, using Change circles, World Café, Appreciative Inquiry, and other approaches. Africans have been using these Ubuntu gatherings successfully for ages, and it may help us to re-connect at work and enhance true dialogue and “thinking-together”.Ubuntu dialogue is a great #change tool for collective solutions Click To Tweet
Leontine van Hooft teaches organizations how to do this. She just guided 80 legal professionals in a gathering – they sat in two encompassing circles for logistic reasons and moved to the inner circle when they wanted to speak. Leontine concludes: “This is really what Africa can teach the world. It may take time to do this, but the outcome is truly supported by the organization if you have given all aspects a voice… That might be a breakthrough for many organizations.”
Read the interview with Leontine van Hooft about what Western leaders can learn from Africa, too!
The book The Power of African Thinking is available on Amazon.
Copyright © Marcella Bremer 2015. All rights reserved.
Marcella Bremer is an author and culture & change consultant. She co-founded this Leadership & Change Blog and OCAI-online.com.