A couple of years ago when I was a volunteer coordinator, I attended a training through the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits called “Leading in Uncertainty” which was a 6-part workshop co-facilitated by Lisa Negstad and Glenda Eoyang. The concepts and tools I took away from that experience were so empowering that they weaseled their way into my psyche, and I always want to understand them better.
One of the first ideas we explored was that the world used to be more simple. In the past, people had simpler problems with simpler solutions. But with increasing connectedness and globalization, today’s problems are huge — chaotic.
And truly, chaos is not made up of problems. It’s made up of patterns we can shift, and systems we can influence. How do we do that? We practice curiosity and we ask powerful questions.
I’ve been learning more about Human Systems Dynamics (HSD), which was founded by Glenda Eoyang to build people’s capacity to deal with complexity. One of HSD’s simple rules is “stand in inquiry” which means: Open yourself to what is happening right now and realize that there is something to learn here. Standing in Inquiry looks like these four practices:
- Turn judgment into curiosity
- Turn disagreement into shared exploration
- Turn defensiveness into self-reflection
- Turn assumptions into questions
When I hear the words judgment, disagreement, defensiveness, and assumptions, I think of burnout. I think of times in my life when I was neglecting my mental health. I think of the frustration and despair that a lot of people in our field are experiencing when they struggle to provide services and programs due to a lack of volunteers.
It makes me want to ask, what do these look like for you, in the volunteer engagement world?
Do you ever find yourself making judgments about why people aren’t coming to volunteer like they did in the past?
Society has changed dramatically, along with people’s priorities. Have your volunteer recruitment strategies changed as well?
Can you get curious about your recruitment messaging and whether it attracts people or alienates them? Can you learn about emerging trends in our field that say people want flexibility and options? Can you do one small experiment to expand the flexibility of a volunteer role?
What disagreements are you having internally about your volunteer program? Disagreements about bringing volunteers back? Disagreements over who has capacity to train a volunteer?
How can you reframe the disagreement as shared exploration and start by seeking common ground with the person or group. What are the things we agree on? What’s the real tension here? Try taking turns describing the disagreement while the others listen. Is this a disagreement or a miscommunication?
We don’t need to fear open conflict. What if we can harness the energy of a disagreement, and turn it into shared-exploration?
Are you feeling defensive at work? Do you feel defensive when attempting to communicate the value of your program? Do you feel like your co-workers don’t see how hard you’re working?
What if defensiveness is an invitation to reflect: Why did that conversation or interaction make me feel uncomfortable? Is that a pattern for me? What is the physical sensation I’m feeling in my body? What is the emotion underneath the defensiveness?
I shared this example in an article I wrote for Engage, which published earlier this month:
Someone asked me recently: “Are you volunteering, Holly?”
I’m not doing any formal volunteering right now which made me feel a bit defensive at first. I mean, my work revolves around volunteering — certainly I’m doing something to advance our field, right? But when I tried to turn my defensiveness into self-reflection, I asked myself why I wasn’t volunteering right now. And I remembered that I used to lead a Bible study for teenagers, but I stopped because I got my new job at MAVA last fall and was adjusting to working from home for the first time. The volunteer role required about six hours of my time every week — it was too much.
I wonder how many people stopped volunteering because the expectations of their volunteer roles became too much amid their changing life circumstances? When I let go of my defensiveness, and picked up on self-reflection, I also found a new empathy for myself and others.
What are you assuming? And are you absolutely sure? Can you check your assumptions by asking questions by having one-on-one conversations, sending a survey, or scheduling a group discussion?
For example, are you making assumptions about why your volunteer pool is missing certain demographics from your community, like youth or people of color? Can you build relationships with organizations that are led by youth or led by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, or People of Color) to ask questions about their work and what they think the barriers are to formal volunteerism (volunteering through organizations). Can you offer to hold a listening session to learn more, meanwhile compensating people for their time and insights, and also sharing with them what the outcomes and action steps are, afterward?
The four practices of inquiry start with noticing when you’re judging, disagreeing, assuming, or getting defensive. These don’t always have to refer to dynamics with other people — what about noticing when you’re judging yourself? I learned in the “Leading in Uncertainty” workshop that good leadership starts with ourselves.
How are you leading yourself? Caring for yourself? Can you take a one-minute break to get curious and ask yourself: How am I feeling? Why am I reacting so strongly to that? What is really going on? What do I need?
There are many helpful ways to show ourselves care. Let’s add to the list noticing what’s going on inside, and inviting ourselves to patience, tenderness, and curiosity.