When Turning to One Another was first published in 2002, I made a rash statement: “I believe we can change the world if we start listening to one another again.” I still believe this. I still believe that if we turn to one another, if we begin talking with each other – especially with those we call stranger or enemy – then this world can reverse its darkening direction and change for the good. And I know with all my heart that the only way the world will change is if many more of us step forward, let go of our judgments, become curious about each other, and take the risk to begin a conversation.
Our twenty-first-century world is descending into aggression, fear, and separation. War, genocide, violence, slavery, pandemics, poverty, natural disasters – all these are commonplace in this new century, despite most people’s deep longing to live together in peace.
What are we going to do about this? What role do we choose to play? Do we withdraw and hope at least to live a satisfying private life? Or do we turn to one another and do what we can to birth a healthy future? If you’ve read this far, I’m hoping you’ve already chosen to be engaged, that you’re someone who’s ready to work with others to restore hope to the future. There are millions of us out there in the world, and we truly welcome you joining us.
To support you who aspire to restore hope to the future, this book includes two new conversations. “What is my role in creating change?” describes how the world always only changes when a few individuals step forward. It doesn’t change from leaders or top-level programs or big ambitious plans. It changes when we, everyday people gathering in small groups, notice what we care about and take those first steps to change the situation.
The second new conversation is “Can I be fearless?” Fear is everywhere these days, and it’s only increasing. Fear destroys human capacity; therefore, we are called to be fearless. Fearless doesn’t mean that we are free of fear. It means we learn how to face our fear so that it stops controlling us. This conversation is the last in the book, but it might also be the first. If we don’t learn how to move past our fears, we will not be able to host conversations or become active on behalf of this troubled, still beautiful world.
Singer Harry Belafonte said, “The last source of truth and hope is the people themselves.” Do you know this to be true? If not, I encourage you to begin one of these conversations. In conversation, you’ll discover that other people are just as concerned, caring, and eager for change as are you. We can change the world if we just start listening to one another again.
Why I wrote this book
I write a great deal. But this book is very different from anything I’ve written in the past several years. I’d like to tell a few aspects of my own story to explain why I felt compelled to write this particular book at this time.
For many years, I’ve been privileged to meet and work with people in many different communities, organizations, and nations. Most of the people I meet are caring, intelligent, and well-intentioned. They hope that their work will be of benefit to others, that it makes a small difference. I have sat and thought about life-affirming leadership with eleven year old girl scouts, and with the head of the U.S. Army, with tribal peoples and with corporate peoples, with religious ministers and with government ministers.
Working in the world, I’ve grown increasingly distressed. Especially in the last few years, things clearly are not going right. Good people are finding it increasingly difficult to do what they know is best. Whether we’re in a small village or a major global corporation, in any country and in any type of work, we are being asked to work faster, more competitively, more selfishly, and to focus only on the short-term. These values cannot lead to anything healthy and sustainable, and they are alarmingly destructive. I believe we must learn quickly now how to work and live together in ways that bring us back to life.
I’ve explored this distress with tens of thousands of people, and have discovered something obvious and extremely hopeful. We are all human. The unique expressions of culture and tradition that give us such interestingly different appearances are based on the same human desires for learning, freedom, meaning, and love. You and I are yearning for the same things–wherever we are, using whatever means we have available.
In this dark time, it is more difficult to do good and lasting work, or to create healthy change. But people still are basically good and caring. We may feel distressed, overwhelmed, numbed or afraid. But beneath these feelings, we still desire learning, freedom, meaning, and love.
Because this is a time when we are bombarded with images of human badness, I have been intentionally exploring human goodness. Many people have taught me about human goodness–poets, spiritual teachers, everyday people living lives quite different from mine. From them I’ve learned that no matter how beaten down we are–by poverty, by oppressive leadership, by tragedy–the human spirit is nearly impossible to destroy. We humans keep wanting to learn, to improve things, and to care about each other.
What’s truly hopeful is that we already have the means to evoke more goodness from one another. I have witnessed the astonishing power of good listening and the healing available when someone gives voice to their experience. I saw this first in South Africa after apartheid ended. We may have forgotten how to listen, or how to tell our own story, but these are the skills that will help us now.
I also have learned that when we begin listening to each other, and when we talk about things that matter to us, the world begins to change. Juanita Brown, a close friend and colleague of many years, has shared her experiences in community organizing and corporate strategy, and her belief in everyone’s capacity to figure out how to make a difference. Juanita taught me that all change, even very large and powerful change, begins when a few people start talking with one another about something they care about. Simple conversations held at kitchen tables, or seated on the ground, or leaning against doorways, are powerful means to start influencing and changing our world. Another friend and colleague, Christina Baldwin, has taught me that human beings have always sat in circles and councils to do their best thinking, and to develop strong and trusting relationships. I have now experienced many circles, in many different settings. Whether I’m with a group of friends or strangers, seated in a windowless corporate room or on logs in the African bush, I have learned that the very simple process of council takes us to a place of deep connection with each other. And, as conversation slows us down to a pace that encourages thinking, we can become wise and courageous actors in our world.
Each of these learnings and observations has led to this book. My intent for this book is best described in Paulo Freire’s voice, in words he used in his first book:
“From these pages, I hope at least the following will endure:
my trust in the people, and my faith in men and women,
and in the creation of a world in which it will be easier to love.”
About Margaret Wheatley
Margaret Wheatley is a well-respected writer, speaker, and teacher for how we can accomplish our work, sustain our relationships, and willingly step forward to serve in this troubling time. She has written six books: Walk Out Walk On (with Deborah Frieze, 2011); Perseverance (2010); Leadership and the New Science; Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future; A Simpler Way (with Myron Rogers); and Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time. Each of her books has been translated into several languages; Leadership and the New Science appears in 18 languages. She is co-founder and President emerita of The Berkana Institute, which works in partnership with a rich diversity of people and communities around the world, especially in the Global South. These communities find their health and resilience by discovering the wisdom and wealth already present in their people, traditions and environment (www.berkana.org). Wheatley received her doctorate in Organizational Behavior and Change from Harvard University, and a Masters in Media Ecology from New York University. She’s been an organizational consultant since 1973, a global citizen since her youth, a professor in two graduate business programs, a prolific writer, and a happy mother and grandmother. She has received numerous awards and honorary doctorates. You may read her complete bio at margaretwheatley.com/bio, and may download any of her many articles (free) at margaretwheatley.com/articles.