See if this sounds familiar:

You’re attending a professional meeting with a large group of colleagues. Shortly after it begins, you’re broken up into smaller groups and given a task that is in some way related to the larger goal of the meeting. Your instructions are to discuss the assigned issue with your smaller group and then report out what you learn. Once the conversation begins, a few voices tend to dominate. One dutiful person assumes the responsibility of taking notes.

After the allotted period of time, each group summarizes its conversation for the whole group, while the main facilitator takes notes on a flipchart. After each group has reported out, a master list is created. The facilitator takes this list and posts it somewhere on the wall.

Almost everyone has had the experience of participating in this sort of meeting — and reviewing a master list that has failed to capture the collective wisdom of the group.

Now, imagine the same sort of meeting being conducted in a different way.

You’ve been called together to discuss how to create a healthier, more inclusive climate at your school. This time the facilitator does not leave you to your own devices; she uses a dialogue protocol to guarantee equity of airtime and provoke more authentic responses.

The protocol begins with each person being asked to spend five minutes writing about the best learning community they have ever experienced. It may be a school, a church, or a summer camp. The location doesn’t matter, or the age at which the person experienced it — only that it was deeply meaningful and real learning occurred.

In smaller groups, each person shares his or her personal story, while the rest of the group listens actively for key attributes that emerge. The teams are reminded that the purpose is not to whittle away valuable staff time telling stories, but to use personal narratives as a powerful source of data that can shape both personal approaches to teaching and future decisions about school priorities.

Once everyone tells their story, the central facilitator asks each group to reflect on their list and come up with the 3–5 most important attributes. Each list is then shared with the whole group. As this is done, the facilitator creates a central list on a flipchart, which she posts on a wall and then asks the participants to reflect on its contents.

These two approaches are similar, yet they tend to produce vastly different results. In the first scenario, the effort to encourage broad participation falls flat, whereas the second process results in a list people are more likely to find meaningful.

The more you learn about cognitive science and organizational theory, the more you realize how much slight nuances in structure and strategy can make the difference between a productive meeting or lesson and a wasted afternoon. Simply put, we have no choice but to invite people to participate in the decisions that shape their lives. It’s not about “buy-in,” either — despite the huge popularity of the phrase. (If anything, the phrase itself is a reminder of why it’s so important we recognize how the words we choose shape our interpretations of what is and isn’t necessary.) People will insist on the freedom to participate, whether we ask them or not.

“For the past fifty years,” consultant Meg Wheatley explains, “a great bit of wisdom has circulated in the field of organizational behavior: People support what they create.” But Wheatley believes the maxim needs to be slightly restated: People only support what they create.

This insight has profound implications for how we structure group conversations, events and planning sessions. Instead of getting our colleagues or our students to “buy into” something, we should be creating opportunities for people to discover what matters to them,and then follow the meaning.Evoke contribution through freedom, not conformity. Or, as leadership consultant Myron Rogers puts it, “Start anywhere and follow it everywhere.”

To download a PDF of the Prologue (from the forthcoming book American Schools), click here.

5 Things You Can Do: Create