Polishing stones

In his book “Power and Love”, Adam Kahane talks about the importance of creating a strong ‘container’ that will serve to draw out the collective intelligence of a group.  Kahane quotes Crane Stookey’s metaphor of a stone polisher:

“The image that best describes this principle is the stone polisher, the can that turns and tumbles the rocks we found at the beach until they turn into gems. The rocks don’t get out until they’re done, the friction between them, the chaos of their movement, is what polishes them, and in the end the process reveals their natural inherent brilliance. We don’t paint colours on them, we trust what’s there.” (p. 92)

For me, this quote highlights the facilitator’s role of focusing on the structure and process of a meeting and trusting that the participants have the knowledge and wisdom needed to move forward. It also emphasizes the value of ensuring a diversity of participants–with diverse and potentially conflicting views–as each is a beach rock that can add richness and colour to the final outcomes.

1 comment to Polishing stones

  • Just found this post, and thought you might like to read the whole of the original that Adam quoted. It was written for an adventure education audience, but I use the principles just as effectively in my business consulting work.

    To be programmatically effective, chaos needs to be properly contained. But within that container, chaos needs to be allowed to thrive.

    The container in this case is any closed, inescapable environment. It can be 12 people in a 28’ open boat for 3 weeks at the Sea School (http://www.seaschool.org), or it can be the river, the glacier, the ropes course, even a room somewhere. The image that best describes this principle is the stone polisher, the can that turns and tumbles the rocks we found at the beach until they turn into gems. The rocks don’t get out until they’re done, the friction between them, the chaos of their movement, is what polishes them, and in the end the process reveals their natural inherent brilliance. We don’t paint colours on them, we trust what’s there.

    In the same way, the container, from the program design point of view, is the “keep it simple” part: the boat, the river, the focus of the program. Within this container are offered whatever complexities the situation can produce, be they inter-personal, environmental, skills-based, schedule-based and so on. Learning new skills, facing new obstacles, living with new people, encountering new environments; such complexities provide the chaos and the friction that wear out preconceptions, challenge limits, invite inner strength, reveal natural brilliance. Properly contained, complexity reduces things to what matters most.

    Creating this sort of container requires great professional skill, but the instructor’s job in all this is to provide and manipulate the container, not to manipulate how the participants experience it. The approach is based on trusting the wisdom of everyone and encouraging everyone to come to their own conclusions about their experience. It is not helpful to lead discussions to a foregone conclusion, or insist on any particular emotional outcome, or imagine that the instructor is actually “teaching” people anything about themselves. We don’t try to paint the rocks. We allow the chaos to resolve itself. All the programmatic work goes into creating a situation with as much potential as possible for this to happen.

    So we as instructors pay very close attention to it all, to the qualities of the container and how they influence the potential of the chaos within it. How are the complexities working? Are there enough sharp edges for people to chafe against, or does it have too many? Is it like a mirror, reflecting back to people an accurate image of their attitudes and reactions, or is that mirror too blurry, too rosy, or too judgmental? Is there a sense of celebration? A sense of ritual? If any of these qualities are missing or out of balance, how can we adjust? But we work on the container, so that within it people have what they need to work on themselves.

    “Since the sage commander appreciates and accommodates chaos, he sees more clearly what is taking place within it. Thus he knows how (the potential of the situation) will develop and can catch the moment when one small gesture will be more decisive than a tremendous effort applied at the wrong time or place.”

    Some alternative educators find the idea of friction and chaos as basic ingredients a bit harsh, but part of this approach to working with others is the idea that compassion is not just about making nice. It’s about leaning into the sharp edges of things, with an open heart. Everyone has their own heart. Our job is to help them find some appropriate edges.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>