The International Transformative Learning Conference 2018 (ITLC2018) was a rare renewal and transforming conference experience. As someone said at the end of the conference, it felt like a retreat. I shared this sentiment, even though I was part of the planning committee, on the opening panel and delivered 2 workshops. Furthermore, there was so much abundance of scholar-practitioner content, that selecting sessions became a forced choice around questions like: which one would I most benefit from learning about right now? What is an immediate learning need that I have to fill? The agenda was full…and it was all good.

At the end, I am overflowing with learnings. I learnt much about the neuroscience of transformative learning and applications to coaching. I was reminded that we must attend to climate before content because humans think with our bodies as well as our minds – we are embodied. I was invited to think about how to create spaces that are not only psychologically ‘safe’ and ‘inclusive’ but where people can be brave and open to the inner conflicts and discomforts that WILL come by learning from one’s own screw-ups as well as a natural result of the experience of ‘not knowing’ that precedes learning. I experienced powerfully how a small group can quickly generate their collective narratives of what it means to build bridges to others in today’s times through a method called narrative metissage. And I was exposed for the first time to the ideas of sociocracy and what we might learn about collaboration from the nine brains and behaviours of an octopus.

Beyond the content of what I learned, I am left with several levels of reflection. I am working through my own critical reflection of what I have learned, on what has really shifted for me and my ongoing intellectual and felt-dilemmas around questions of who I am and who I want to continue to be/come in the world. I am also reflecting on what made this experience so rich for me. I have attended many a conference and this one was far from vanilla. What were the differences that made the difference? Three are top of mind for me that I might carry forward:

  1. A Transformative Learning Journey: The pre-conference was an amazing day-long experience across 3 venues. The day was initiated with a standard keynote and opportunity for 2 breakout sessions, each with a panel and opportunity for further dialogue on the selected breakout topic. From there, the preconference became an experience, with delegates moved to the City Seminary of New York’s Walls-Ortiz Gallery and Centre for an amazing lunch, the opportunity to peruse the exhibits in the space, followed by 3 different experiences that I call learning journeys. The learning journeys were opportunities to experience deeper something connected to the work of the Centre. I choose ‘a conversation with Harriet Tubman.’ The walk over to her memorial site and sculpture and the activity of writing a postcard to Harriet could not have been a more reflective way for me to step into the Transformative Learning conference. The final presentations at the City Seminary Hope campus was icing on the rich cake that this day was.
  2. Transformative Listening: A subcommittee for the conference had been tasked with creating a project for the community that will transcend the conference.

    #ITLC2018 Proceedings

    The group created a Transformative Learning Project, a series of guidelines and protocols for improving appreciative listening. The guidelines for transformative learning were then shared with the whole conference community as part of the opening. We were encouraged to engage in transformative listening throughout because: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak – Epictetus.” There was also dedicated space and time for all to share and listen to each others’ stories. I have received many a ground rule in group contexts, however, in this conference, I experienced a deeper quality of listening right from the storytelling in the opening panel.

    Photo credit: #ITLC2018

    I believe the interactions that ensued and work done to prepare and reinforce listening in the community made this possible. This project is being extended through a collection of stories on the ITLC youtube channel.

  3. The Arts – Music and Theatre: By far the best part of the conference experience for me was the integration of the Arts. There was a ‘room without words’ with open opportunities to join a pianist in music-making with several other instruments, or just sit in silence to enjoy music and reflect.

    Photo credit: #ITLC2018

    Photo credit: #ITLC2018

    There was also a communal sand painting representing areas of disharmony and possibilities for resolution. The crescendo experience however, was the one-woman show theatre performance by Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni – one drop of love. This hard-hitting show used the performer’s own family history to explore issues of race, identity and social justice. The show and the talkback afterwards provoked deep dialogue about the disorienting dilemmas of our times in a way that cognitive engagement alone could not.

These elements among the usual well-designed conference themes and tracks deepened the community as authentic dialogue ensued and people connected over meaningful shared experiences. What else might have made the conference even better? I couldn’t think of anything until a participant made a plea for even more space for dialogue across differences that emerged throughout the paper presentations, workshops, symposiums and roundtables. The addition then, might have been open intellectual spaces for sharing and debriefing learnings – perhaps this might have been the focus of daily transformative listening spaces. This idea reminded me of the roots of our Organization Development field and a core tenet that Kurt Lewin discovered about how group’s learn/work. That is, the best learning and transformation happens in reflection after the main groupwork. Think of it as a formalizing of the coffee talk that happens after meetings. This debrief and reflection, is therefore not in the sense of evaluation and talking about what worked/what didn’t, but in terms of sharing experience, reflections and meaning-making around shared and divergent understandings and what people really think about what has transpired to-date. The best learning, illuminations and transformative insights happen here. Ironically, while this was one of the first comments in the open mic opportunity at the end of the conference, it turned out that that final open space – which was allowed quite a bit of time – became this form of reflective space. It was a luxurious icing on the cake for me because at this point in the conference I thought my cup was full and my learning couldn’t reach any further depth. The meaningful takeaways and perspectives shared in the open mic definitely expanded my insights and worldviews and I am so grateful to all who shared this gift of learning with me.