“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.
Ubuntu or “umuntu ngumuntu ngabuntu” is of Zulu origin and means simply 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 to the Western ear, it is not common practice in Western lives and organizations. Westerners acquire their status by individual accomplishments and career, 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/cultural norms.”
Aren’t we too individualistic?
I recognize our individualist culture in the west and it has brought me personally freedom and self-actualization. But the other side of the coin is my constant busy-ness, working and achieving, and not always enough time for family and friends, because there are only 24 hours in a day….
I am glad that I don’t live in the 1950’s where the neighbors and family and your boss and coworkers judged and discussed everything you did – and I am individually free to act like I choose. But I also appreciate a more collectivist view where you take other’s feelings into account, where there is more respect, support, solidarity and sharing. Even though the flipside could be a little less individual freedom every now and then, when you hold back because it might hurt someone else, or you spend time helping another or you feel obligations to the larger group.
We all need to belong to a group, we want to be seen and acknowledged, feel respected – in spite of all our individual entitlements that we enjoy so much. I guess it’s all about balance. I personally feel that we have taken individual expression and freedom a bit too far in Western societies and organizations (“every man for himself”) – and I think we would all be better off if we connected again to the whole. It is an illusion to think you can be self-supporting.
Long story short – that’s what drew me to the Ubuntu Workshop by Leontine van Hooft, a Dutch corporate anthropologist and entrepreneur in Africa. Leontine states that Ubuntu can offer the “developed world” a means to overcome the great challenges of the 21st century. Ubuntu sounds like dialogue, appreciative inquiry and world café to me – and it resembles my approach in Change Circles of 10 people when I guide organizational change. So: let’s see what Africa can teach our workplaces.
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 raise awareness and 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. Like 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 chairman. 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 chairman 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.”
What speaks louder than words is the practice itself. It is a ritualized meeting for Westerners, but with beneficial effects – as I will explain later on. You don’t have to lecture your participants extensively before they join in: 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 mindfully become aware of our meeting, publicly confirming that I am present and ready for the matter at hand. I don’t know about what issue we have gathered. But Leontine explains the casus that we will explore tonight: there are two people, seated left and right of her, who have an issue that somehow 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 for ever – 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 chairman 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.
I am 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 to join the circle 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 you 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 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, then get up and get 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 his current and it becomes harder to grow crops, the assigned “critic” asks us why and why-not 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? Because we have a common concern: good land is scarce due to our changing river current 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.
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 you allow your feelings to 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 more quiet 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 every now and then…
Then there is the great side effect of having two friends plea for the problem-owners. It makes the arguing a bit 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 and broadcasting their views.
Bringing all those participants in also ensures a high-context definition of the issue. It really 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…
Last but not least, is the assignment to share insights – and not aiming at the target of a solution. This really takes the pressure off. There is no time and no target in the circle. We simple 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. But you need a free flow of information and energy to arrive at that point. 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. So, instructing your participants to be together to increase insights and explore a topic – may facilitate finding solutions all the same.
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 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”. Leontine van Hooft is teaching organizations how to do this – like when she guided 80 legal professionals in a gathering. “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 mean a breakthrough for many organizations.”