Listening to difference, made practical

Using a “collective story harvest” to help a group practice listening to people unlike themselves

In April of 2018, the City of Pittsburgh held its annual Inclusive Innovation Week for Pittsburgh non-profit leaders, government staff, artists, activists, community leaders and anyone else who wants to better include everyone who is affected by their work, their decisions, their way of life. Over 60 workshops and events dealt with questions of how the city’s spaces, services, and activities can welcome and include all people, and how that inclusiveness can become a core tenet of the way we all work toward our future.

Fit Associates offered a workshop called “Listening to Difference, Made Practical,” which promised an experience of a method that helps a whole room full of people listen together in a new and powerful way. This is our report on that workshop.

Download the slides from this workshop and find supplemental readings about story harvest, convening, and the power of dialogue here:

1. Why inclusive innovation matters: asking difficult questions

When so-called innovation excludes and displaces…

Miss B opens the door. Her warm smile welcomes me into her apartment. Her face is moist with perspiration on this cool spring morning. She apologizes. “This is so difficult for me,” she says. “I need to be out in two days and I have not secured a new place yet. I’ve lived here for 25 years.” I grab an empty box and start to empty her bathroom cabinet. My insides feel hollow. This is the doing of my industry and my people. Miss B and her friends must leave the homes and places they’ve built their lives around and find shelter on the edges of the city, because of the rapid gentrification of the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

We must learn to include the people our work will affect

As designers, planners, policy writers and “innovation” workers, we are creating reality. It is crucial that we ask questions beyond the narrow scope of our craft. What are the unintended consequences of our designs? Who is affected by our choices? How?

These questions are hard to answer when our organizations and project teams are echo chambers of sameness, where the people who surround, fund, critique and praise us all look and think alike. Ideally our projects would reflect the true diversity of the world — not only in who works on them, but also in the way we go about our work. Short of that ideal, how can we improve the way our work embraces community realities beyond our own narrow agendas?

For people in creative professions, this not only requires skills and approaches unlike those we were taught in school, but also a personal openness to working across difference that may take time to develop: a willingness to move outside our comfortable process, familiar team, and well understood notions of “quality.”

How do we become people who can hold honest conversation with people unlike ourselves? Can we become able to acknowledge systemic inequalities and oppressions rather than flinch from their uncomfortable realities?

2. Becoming inclusive: progress in stages, practicing the fundamentals

What is it like to change?

As we know from many who have traveled this road before, we progress in stages and steps from our current practices to ways of working that share the power of decision-making and co-creation.

This is a qualitative change for organizations, asking people to open to new worldviews, gain new knowledge, practice new skills, and forge new relationships. It’s developmental — a kind of maturity process — and it takes time.

Caption and source needed

Practicing the fundamentals

If we want to do something well, we practice the fundamentals. Musicians play scales. Ball players do passing drills. Art students sketch and sketch and sketch. What is the equivalent for inclusive innovation? What are the fundamentals of including those who will be affected by our work, and how do we practice them?

One aspect of our work at Fit Associates is to help organizations develop the capacity for inclusive, collaborative co-creation. We have been asking, “How might we help people in organizations open to experiences and possibilities that they can’t currently see?”

In doing that work, one key skill keeps popping up as fundamental. It’s something we can practice, it’s something for which there is a surprising range of methods. It’s something most people think they’re already good at, until they’re put to the test. This fundamental — an essential starting point for any organizational move toward inclusion — is…


Hence our workshop for Inclusive Innovation Week: Listening to Difference, Made Practical.

Collective Story Harvest: a container for practice and a powerful tool

As a way to help people practice listening with openness and as a practical introduction to a method they could apply in their own work, we offered a group listening approach called “Collective Story Harvest.”

Collective Story Harvest is one answer to two important questions:

  • How can we help a room full of people suspend their judgments and really listen?
  • How can a group of people learn deeply from people whose experience is not like their own, and whose stories are key to understanding the world they’re a part of?

Like others in the family that some call “dialogue methods,” collective story harvest emphasizes openness of conversation and depth of reflection as key outcomes. A story harvest is judged successful not because it produces decisions or a list of action items, but because it sparks a fresh conversation that matters, an experience of learning and realization that shifts the ground for the conversations that follow.

The key ingredients of listening openly across difference (and how collective story harvest can provide them)

Key ingredient 1: A reason to listen

Stories have the most impact when people are gathered around a question that really matters to them — a question of consequence for who they are and what they’re trying to do. In an organization or community, we take care in crafting that invitational question based on pre-gathering interviews or other ways to “listen to the system.”

For this workshop we drew our questions from the theme of Inclusive Innovation Week.

What are the things that help people feel they truly belong in the city? What things are in the way? What can move us toward the feeling of true belonging?

Key ingredient 2: People who are willing to speak openly about their experiences

When we listen to people’s stories, we open the doors and windows of our conversation, letting in different ways of seeing and experiencing the world. We create the possibility for the kind of surprise that challenges our presuppositions, questions our old and oft-repeated stories about “the way things are.” And that is a key to learning and creating together.

Knowing that the people who lead, fund, create, set policy for and benefit from “innovation” in the region are mostly pierogi-colored, we invited as diverse a group of storytellers as we could find. Between our four storytellers we had a rich mix of experiences to learn from: Christian, Muslim, non-religious; different gender identities and sexual preferences; an educator, a non-profit executive, a musician, a PhD student; people who get around by car, bicycle, and public transportation; sighted and blind; youngish and less youngish.

This is what we asked of our storytellers: “tell us a story about a time when a service, a system or design in the city of Pittsburgh failed to meet your needs. It might have worked for some, but not for you.”

Key ingredient 3: Suspended judgment, open listening

If we simply say, “It’s time to listen to a story,” most of us will listen in our usual way. Our learning is put at risk by the way our minds are so easily distracted by questions and cross-references, the sound of the air conditioner, or the sudden thought that we may have forgotten to water the plants. And by our tendency to quickly filter and judge what we hear. Quality listening is rare.

We can all learn better listening skills, but Collective Story Harvest addresses this challenge with a simple tool called a “listening lens.” We gave each listener an aspect of the story to focus on, and made them responsible for capturing notes about that one theme. It’s amazing how this helps people hear. “I have a job to do, air conditioner, plants, snap-judgment; don’t bother me or I’ll get behind in my note-taking.”

For this workshop we assigned four listening lenses:

  • Key moments: the decisions, conflicts, moments of learning, resisting, letting go, resolving, persisting, giving up,….
  • Relationships: other people in the story, and their perceptions, actions, and words
  • Inner experience: emotions, beliefs, mood — the inner ups and downs of the story
  • Environment: places, objects, systems, interfaces, policies, infrastructure, etc.

Key ingredient 4: A “container” for openness, non-judgment, and vulnerability — that is, for LEARNING

“Container” is facilitator’s jargon for the way we make use of the room and its furniture, the way we divide and make use of time, and what we do to help people shift from their normal workshop arrival state (where’s the coffee, I hope this doesn’t suck, do I know anyone here, etc.) to being fully present with their interested and open attention all aimed in the same direction. For a topic like diversity and inclusion, for stories that may challenge assumptions about our community, ourselves, and our work, we need to put in place the basic conditions for openness. And we need to take care of the conditions for a bit of vulnerability.

We discussed the importance of the question. We discussed together what we need to maintain our attention for our few hours together, to practice “coming back” when something distracts us. We agreed to invite the quiet voices, and watch that our eager or loud voices don’t overwhelm the conversation. And we agree to keep the storyteller’s confidence — not to retell their experience, but to report what we’ve learned.

We offered a rhythm of large and small group conversations, with a little time for individual reflection. Stories were told in small groups. People gathered in different small groups to look for patterns in the four stories. Then we reconvened the whole group for a conversation about what we’ve heard, what we’ve learned, and why it matters.

The craft of a story harvest is to provide just enough structure for learning to develop within each person and within the whole group, prioritizing listening, reflection, conversation and learning.

Harvesting themes from four people’s experience of being “other”

The word “harvest” in “collective story harvest” refers to the structure it provides for the group to glean patterns from multiple stories. After each of the four small groups had listened to their storyteller, everyone had a few minutes to themselves to reflect: “In what ways has the story I just heard changed or challenged my assumptions, my old stories about what’s true?”

Then people regrouped themselves by listening lens. “Relationships” listeners from all four stories gathered together, “Environment” listeners got together, and so on. They compared their notes from the four stories, picked out key similarities and differences, and prepared to report their learnings.

This set the stage for a whole-room discussion that returned to our original questions: What are the things that help people feel they truly belong in the city? What things are in the way? What can move us toward the feeling of true belonging?

Every time we have facilitated a collective story harvest, the room’s conversation has been completely opened and deepened by the experience. And that was no different for this workshop.

What people had to say


“I think of myself as a good listener. But the truth is I so rarely take the time to really focus on what someone is saying, without also thinking about what I’m going to say in response. It was eye-opening to experience this chance to practice.”

“It was striking to notice similarities in the storytellers’ experiences, even though they come from such different backgrounds.”


“It was refreshing and unusual to be seen not just as a “black person,” but to be seen for all the things I am — a teacher, an activist, a woman, a person of color, a human with my own set of interests and abilities.”

“I’ve been in a lot of gatherings and talked to a lot of people. I think this is the very first time I’ve told my whole story to a group of white people and felt like they were really listening to me, actually curious and interested in what I was saying, and not judging me or my words while I was talking.”

. . .


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Marc Rettig

Marc Rettig


Fit Associates, SVA Design for Social Innovation, Carnegie Mellon School of Design