The Art of Listening: Learning to Harvest a Collective Story

DwD 05.14.14

How does deep listening create a context for the emergence of meaning? How might our ways of listening inspire a deeper experience and reality of community? 

May’s DwD explored collective and intentional listening as a way to explore how we make sense of the stories we tell about our communities, and where possibilities for new narratives might emerge.

Hosts Kaitlin Almack and Chris Lee were inspired by their recent involvement in the Art of Social Innovation training to share a process called the Collective Story Harvest.

We began by exploring our personal listening styles and looked at Otto Scharmer’s four different ways of talking and listening:

  • Downloading – Speaking and listening to confirm what we already know.
  • Debating – Listening for novel information.
  • Reflective – Listening with empathy. Subjectively and from the heart.
  • Generative – Listening to the whole field and with the possibility that you might be changed by what you hear.

Participants were then invited to pair up engage in a listening exercise centred on the following question: What is an experience that has deepened your understanding and relationship to community?

DwDMay2014 Question

Withindwd may group pairs, each partner took 5 minutes to respond to the question, while their counterpart listened without interrupting.  After each person had her 5 minutes of being in a story-telling role, the pairs were given another 5 minutes to engage in regular dialogue about their experiences. Some questions we explored in the group debrief included,  What did you notice about your own listening? What was it like to be listened to? 


We then learned and practiced the Collective Story Harvest process. This storytelling process builds on our capacity for targeting listening and group learning while offering a gift to the story holding as well as the group as a whole. We broke into four small groups, where intrepid story-tellers shared stories of their experiences in community.  Peter Jones shared about founding of Design with Dialogue; Kelly Nakamura told of her finding inspiration to change the mission of her business; Stephen Sillett told a story about working with immigrant communities in the Niagara-Welland district; and Emma Sobel told of her experiences as a student working in First Nations communities.

dwd may 2014

Within each group there were listeners who were tasked with following specific narrative themes and arcs.  We listened for themes such as the narrative structure, leadership, magic and synchronicity, and the role of listening.  There was also a witness role – someone who held the entire group and the story-teller and listened without any predetermined lens.  After each story, the listeners reflected back to the storyteller the themes they were listening for.  We then broke into a cafe-style conversations, grouped by the themes and roles we had been in, and re-grouped for a final harvest and dialogue about where we might use this process in our own lives.  One of the suggestions was to use this as an-end-of-project review.  Other participants remarked about the rarity it is we have in our lives to simply listen, whether with a specific lens or not, and how bringing that intention can help us to collectively make meaning without immediately jumping into debate about what we are hearing.

dwd may harvest

For more information on the Collective Storytelling Harvest process, here is a video from the Art of Hosting Community.


Kaitlin Almack focuses on multi-stakeholder collaboration and social learning for sustainable development with experience brokering partnerships in Cambodia, Germany and Canada.  She has a M.Sc in Environmental Studies and Sustainability from Lund University.   Kaitlin is a consultant with ICA Associates where she specializes in facilitating and designing change labs, sustainability strategy, community based adaptation and multi-stakeholder engagement.

Chris Lee is a Toronto based facilitator and process designer. He runs Potluck Projects, actively using concepts and participatory methodologies from the Art of Hosting, Asset Based Community Development, and Person-Centred Planning to support groups in achieving collective outcomes that are greater than the sum of its parts.  He also works with the YSI Collaborative, a network and community of practice that accelerates and amplifies the conditions for youth-led organizing and engagement in Ontario.