The symbolism of the campfire is ancient and universal. Hosting conversations for people “around the campfire" is a frame that can help everyone find a different way of interacting with one another that helps bring forth new perspectives and shared understandings.

Here are some of the qualities of a campfire to emulate, and lessons learned in-person and online about how to do that.

The goal of gathering “around the campfire” is for everyone to feel that:

  • I am able to contribute (the conversation isn't "owned" by one or a few)
  • I am heard (everyone is actively listening)
  • I am supported (I can be myself)

A campfire has a few distinctive qualities. It helps to make these explicit for the people you convene.

Drop your titles.

"So, what do you do?" is how we often begin a conversation "out there," but it's a disappointing way to start a conversation around the campfire.

Titles tend to reduce the possibilities for fresh conversation and trap us into established ways of seeing. We tend to use information about people's titles to form quick judgments of them. So a good way to stay open and stay curious about each other is to not know too much about what the others do. By the time it comes out (and it will), it should add to the conversation, not reduce it.

Explore, don't conquer.

In a campfire conversation, you stay out of "problem-solving mode." The campfire is a time and space to explore - to learn more about the situation and our different relationships with it. Problem-solving comes later, after we've improved our understanding of what the real problem is.

Around the campfire is also a time for revealing honestly how you see things. (That's why the others are there, to hear your perspective). But don't try to persuade people that your view is the right view or that your issues are the most important issues. It's not a conversation for winning converts, it's a conversation for gathering gems.

The person who defends their own truth will leave empty-handed.

Reveal your feelings with your data.

Around a campfire is a time for talking about feelings, not data. Data often informs people's feelings, but when you shift your focus to the feeling, you will find more conversations worth having.

Instead of arguing the point, you can disclose why it matters to you. For example: "The data shows a rise in home break-ins." Annnnd...What does that mean for you? Does it mean...

  • "More and more people in the community are losing their moral compass"?
  • "People who are vulnerable are being targeted"?
  • "A segment of the population is being neglected"?
  • "Home security is an issue"?

The world's data is already in everyone's pockets. But I can only access your feelings if you reveal them.

Be brave.

A campfire is a supportive space, but it's not entirely safe. We are out on the frontier, right now. To explore our differences we may need to venture into unfamiliar territory we don't know how to navigate. You're going to have to be brave.

We are different in a lot of ways. To have any conversation, we need to cross a minefield of potential misunderstandings. We can either label every mine, so that we all tip-toe around all of them, or we can learn not to fear the mines. Uh-oh, I just stepped onto a landmine. Now what? Are you going to laugh at me? Are you going to judge me from your mountain? Or can we talk about it?

The campfire can be a chance to try. And it's okay to do it badly. Don't expect your words to mean the same thing to different individuals, unless you've first had a brave conversation with those same individuals to create shared meaning.

Be free.

Every person is sovereign over their own time and attention. They should follow their energy. If you don't feel energy towards the topic and feel like this isn't where you need to be, get up and walk away.

Revere silence.

We are finding that there is a very strong relationship between the amount of silent time injected into a conversation and how impactful people say the conversation was for them.

That makes sense: you can only listen when you're silent.

Tend the fire.

There is no one right way to talk with one another.

Sometimes it works (but not always) when people decide to talk in a strict circle. Each person has a turn to speak; everyone has their turn to be heard without having to struggle to get a word in edgewise.

Sometimes it works (but not always) when groups make a conscious habit of sitting in silence for a few breaths after each person finishes speaking.

Rather than impose a rigid set of behaviours upon your conversations, set aside time to talk explicitly about form, instead of content. Make time to talk together about what could make this conversation different from other conversations for you. Choose qualities of a good campfire that you want to focus on. Decide together how you are going to express them with your behaviour.

More effective than struggling to keep in your head the best tactics and techniques is simply to notice that your conversation has those two dimensions: form and content.

A campfire isn't something you can "fire and forget"; it needs to be tended. We all bring our own habits with us to the meeting, and we won't flip into a new mode just because we talked about it once. We will forget where we are. We will slip into more familiar modes of interaction. It's like learning to meditate. When you notice your mind is wandering, that's okay. Recognize it, re-ground yourselves around the campfire, and continue.

As a group, take the time to tend your fire.