Language matters

September 24th, 2014

It matters more than you think. The language we use reveals a lot. The language I use as a facilitator reveals a lot about me (so much so that Sascha Rixon did a whole PhD on facilitation language) and the language you use can be like an open door, welcoming me into your world, or like a barrier, holding me at a distance so as I don’t get too close. Many of us use language without giving it a second thought.

This article by Hannah Jane Parkinson in the Guardian about what not to say to someone with bipolar disorder, has one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever read. Yes, it’s about language. It’s the difference between ‘is’ and ‘has’ – such small words, such a world of difference.

Hannah writes: I think it is more polite to say someone “has bipolar” than “is bipolar”. You wouldn’t say that somebody “was cancer”. You wouldn’t say: “This is Maya. She is diabetes.” But people will talk of someone “being bipolar”.

This, I think, is true of anyone suffering any mental illness: they are not depressed, they have depression; they are not anxious, they suffer anxiety; they are not bipolar, they have bipolar.  This helps me situate mental illness where it belongs, as a recoverable illness, not as a defining characteristic of a person.

I’m also supporting the ABC’s Mental As initiative for Mental Health Week 5 – 12 October. It’s worth checking out the huge variety of stories people tell about mental illness. It’s all part of breaking down the stigma.

But what would you do instead?

February 19th, 2014

That hoary (yes, I like to use archaic words sometimes, it sets the scene for the post I’m writing) old saying (and yes, I know hoary and old mean the same thing and so this is a tautology – it’s about emphasis) , “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is often used as an excuse to not change something. When it comes to meetings, workshops, conferences the saying might as well be “If it is broke, don’t fix it.”

I guess whether something is broken or not is a matter of opinion.  I’ve noticed that many people want to do something different but don’t know what or how. These are some approaches that I think are definitely past their use-by date, and some suggestions on alternatives.

Breaking into small groups, doing some task, then coming back to a plenary session and reporting back. Argghhhh…(and yes, there have been times when, against my best judgment, I’ve agreed to this. It’s usually when I’ve been worn down and lost the will to live. And if that wasn’t quite true before reporting back, it certainly is afterwards!)

This comes from school. The teacher has a responsibility to check the work done by her students, and it’s a good thing to learn to be able to stand up in front of a group and speak. Workshops are not school. What’s that? The reporting back allows everyone in the group to hear what the other groups have done. There might be something really important. What do you notice about your own reactions when in this type of session? Depending on the circumstances there may be no value to any reporting back at all. Ask yourself why is there a need for reporting back? How will it benefit the group? How will it benefit the reason the group is meeting? Johnnie has written about the perils of the plenary here.

Instead – send someone from each group to ‘spy’ on the other groups and bring back their ideas; pass one group’s work onto another group to ‘peer review’; post on the wall and do a ‘gallery walk’; ask each group to provide a headline only on the most important thing that emerged; do nothing, and follow up with a break; ask each person to write down on a card one thing that emerged from the small group work that’s relevant to <insert topic> then do another process like 35 or Cardstorming or Survival of the Fittest.

If it’s a big event, consider using Playback Theatre as a plenary session – improvised retelling of moments and insights from the event. I’ll guarantee this will be more memorable than anything else you come up with.

Guest speaker followed by Q and A. What could possibly be wrong with this? Anyone who has sat in an audience will know what’s wrong with this. Let’s assume the guest speaker is great. Let’s assume there’s enough time for Q and A (I know, BIG assumptions). You know what happens next – statements posed as questions, the speaker get’s into a one-on-one argument about some detail, you never get to ask your question, you’d love to ask a question but what if it’s stupid and you end up just looking foolish? I could go on. I’m more interested in the alternatives.

Instead – use Poll Everywhere or something similar. Geoff Brown wrote about it here. While the speaker is speaking you can text your questions as they occur to you. They all come into a single web page where someone familiar with the topic can quickly scan them, see what themes are emerging and identify a few questions to ask the presenter, AND the presenter is emailed all the questions and asked to respond. This can then be sent to everyone present. A great way to get a range of questions, and answers, or new areas to be investigated if there’s no answers – and it’s all recorded for secondary analysis if that’s your thing. Make those highly-paid presenters work for their fee!

If the group is smaller, ask people to write comments and questions on cards or stickies, collect these, do a quick affinity grouping and then get the speaker to respond.

Capturing everything. The whole event is recorded. Does anyone ever do anything with those recordings? Someone is responsible for taking notes aka minutes. Who said what, and when. Every bit of paper that’s written on is collected and written into a report. “We’d better keep this, just in case.” Just in case of what? Rarely is it necessary to capture everything. Just because it’s possible to capture everything doesn’t mean we need to.

Instead – plan in advance how you want to share what happened with those who were not present, and allocate some time in the process to synthesising. For example, engage an illustrator or cartoonist to capture key moments – someone like Simon Kneebone can really capture the essence of an event. Some people specialise in graphic facilitation. One of the best around is Lynne Cazaly. Capture pictures, video, sound bites, do a Storify with tweets, encourage blog posts.

Sitting people at round cabaret tables. Arrrgggggghhhhh….I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again (because people keep doing it – the most recent reason was because it ‘looks more professional’), get rid of the tables! Those big round cabaret tables are good for, oh, maybe cabarets. They’re not conducive to conversation.

Instead – have chairs that people can easily move into a conversational setting, or stack at the side of the room for activities, or arrange for a World Cafe conversation, or an un-conference process like Open Space or Trampoline.

We’ve always done it this way. Yep. That’s probably the biggest barrier to any change. Someone has to make a decision to do something differently. Yes, that involves some risk. Yes, that means you’ll be vulnerable.

Instead – don’t go it alone. Find others in your organisation willing to share the risk with you. Find collaborators from outside who can bring in new ideas. You can start with anyone I’ve mentioned in this post. Good luck.


What is the ONE huge mistake that organisers of community meetings make?

November 14th, 2013

Last night I attended a community meeting. It was great. Lots of really useful information and a great simulation activity to enable all of us to relate to our own situation. Sure the powerpoint had bullets and the handout was a copy of the slides (why that matters is the whole point of Insanely Great Slideshow Presentations). I’ve seen a lot worse though, so a small quibble. The facilitators were engaging and the presenters were knowledgable. I did smile to myself when the facilitator gave us some instructions for a discussion, and we did exactly as we pleased – it was still ‘on topic’ – just not what she had suggested we do. How often that happens! Did it matter? Not a bit.

There really is a lot to notice when seeing another facilitator in action. Towards the end, our facilitator asked if we had any insights to share. The gap between asking the question and then making another statement was 2 seconds! (Yep, I timed it!) This is barely time for people to process the question let alone answer it. I’m sure it felt a lot longer up the front – I’ve been there, I know how time morphs into something else when standing in front of a group. What we experienced as 2 seconds, our facilitator probably thought was a different amount of time altogether.

Johnnie refers to this here and it’s why we often practice being in front of a group and doing nothing.

And nor did they make any of the other common mistakes of community meetings.

We had something to do on arrival (rather than all sit/stand around staring at each other). We had name tags (helpful for those faces I recognised that I couldn’t put a name to). It wasn’t all talking heads. There was a relevant activity. There was the slow reveal (which kept us interested and engaged). There were refreshments. There was a friendly vibe. They finished on time.

But they made one huge mistake.

Can you guess what it was?

If you’re a regular reader of this blog it should be obvious.

It was the room set-up.

They set the room up with large oblong tables in a classroom style for 18 people.


That pretty much filled up the available space.

When more than double that many people turned up (not an uncommon thing to happen at a community meeting) they had to scramble for more chairs and there was hardly any space to put them. People seated at tables had no chance of moving. The tables had foldable legs (yes, I checked – I’m like that!) and could have easily been stacked away. You could only talk to the person next to you, probably the person you came with, or one or two others. No chance for sociometry. No chance for mingling – because there was no space to do so. Pity. It detracted from an otherwise fabulous meeting.

Facilitating is not just what you do in front of the group, it’s the whole experience you provide. And that includes the space and how it is used.

I’ll say it again – no, I’ll shout it out loud – GET RID OF THE TABLES!

If you organise meetings of any sort, you might be interested in this.

Using games from improvised theatre to build mental agility and responsiveness amongst humanitarian workers responding to disasters

November 1st, 2013

During the 2013 Melbourne Knowledge Week, I was part of a group of people exploring the role of (mostly video) games for social good, organised by Games for Change.  Here’s my contribution.*

I was in Perth in the 1980s at a conference about soil science. It was a very grown-up and serious conference. In 1983 in Melbourne, the whole city had been enveloped in a dust storm. Years of drought and land degradation caused soil from the Mallee in north-west Victoria to blow across the State. Some of that Mallee soil was eventually found on the ski slopes on New Zealand. So soil science was a big deal.

We had partnered with a local songwriter, Fay White, to write some songs about land degradation – erosion, salinity, soil health. Back at the conference in Perth, imagine 800 or so soil scientists sitting in a plenary session (and yes, your assumptions about soil scientists are probably correct: male, middle-aged, conservative, bearded) and me (female, younger, a bit weird and definitely not bearded) inviting them to sing along with Soils Ain’t Dirt, complete with hand movements? There was a mixed response, though we did get a picture on the front page of the WA newspaper.

It was (on reflection now) the beginning of my journey to explore ways to bring playfulness to serious issues.

I play lots of games from improvised theatre. Improvised theatre is where the players get up on stage without a script, take a suggestion from the audience and spontaneously, improvise a performance. They draw on their existing skills and knowledge, and whatever else is available, and each other. It is the best expression of collaboration and team-work I have ever seen. They can do this because they play games together. Not because the games are fun – they are; not because the games keep them fit – they do. They play games because it helps them hone a set of practices that they need to draw on when on the stage. The games help build their spontaneity muscles. The games themselves teach what it feels like to let go, to look out for each other, to notice more, and to be open to whatever happens.

Humanitarian workers are called on to respond to disasters in difficult conditions. They are often the first people on site after an earthquake, a cyclone, a tsunami. While there are plenty of protocols to support their work, the first 24 hours might be just chaos – and they need to call on their own resources, and that of their colleagues, to asses what the situation is, do something and save lives. It might well be the start of many months, or even years, of involvement with the affected communities. Many humanitarian workers helping out in an emergency are not specifically trained – they might be finance people, development workers, in marketing and communications. All of a sudden, their whole world has been turned upside down – they, their friends and families, may even be directly affected. It is in these situations that the training in improv practices comes into its own: the ability to let go of expectations and the way things were; the ability to notice more; to be open to possibilities and opportunities; to act when you don’t know what will happen or the consequences; to try something and if it fails, try something else.

In a situations like this, there’s no time for the ‘tyrannies’ that can envelop us and render us useless. There are three ‘tyrannies’ that we work with to try and overcome through playing and practicing improv games:

1. The Tyranny of the Explicit – the fear of not knowing enough

2. The Tyranny of Excellence – the fear of not being good enough

3. The Tyranny of Effort – fear of not trying hard enough

Improv games reveal these tyrannies in a playful way. They also teach us to do something even if we don’t have all the information, feel inadequate and could do better if we just tried harder. Improv games break these chains and enable us to contribute as compassionate human beings, comfortable that our contribution is enough.

And who wouldn’t want that?

* Of course, it’s not exactly what I said – I improvised a bit, threw in a couple of games, and had the audience select three of 50 slides I had ready for Popcorn PPT.



Poynton, Robert (2008) Everything’s An Offer “Notice More – Let Go – Use Everything”

Sawyer, Keith (2007) Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration “When people improvise together, they develop innovative responses to unexpected events…”

Block, Peter (2002) The Answer to How is Yes “We need to be willing to address questions that we know have no answer.”

Koppett, Kat (2001) Training to Imagine: Practical Improvisational Theatre Techniques to Enhance Creativity, Teamwork, Leadership and Learning “The power of improv…is its ability to connect people to their intuition, their bodies, their intellect, and each other.”

Johnstone, Keith (1987) Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre “There are people who prefer to say ‘Yes’, and there are people who prefer to say ‘No’. Those who say ‘Yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have, those who say ‘No’ are rewarded by the safety they attain.”

Facilitating for engagement in isolated communities

April 24th, 2013

There are ways to facilitate meetings and events of all sorts that encourage participation and engagement. This week, while working in Papua New Guinea and helping community leaders learn how to facilitate in isolated communities, I’ve come to understand the following.

Facilitation can help the redistribution of power dynamics in a community

Many standard meeting processes, especially those used in communities, are based on the one-to-many model: speaker to talk to the masses and then take questions; discussions in large plenary groups where women, youth and children’s voices are drowned out by male community leaders; well-intentioned NGOs bringing in pre-determined agendas of what they think is important. Using processes that reduce the opportunity for the ‘usual suspects’ to grandstand can contribute to the redistribution of power and provide a voice to those previously silenced. These processes include World Cafe, Open Space and sociometry.

Poor literacy amongst participants is no reason to abandon participation and engagement

It’s often used as an excuse – community members are generally illiterate, therefore facilitation won’t work. It’s true, many facilitation process are not appropriate if there’s poor literacy. But that’s no excuse – it’s up to us to redesign those processes so as they are friendlier for illiterate people. Examples include using smiley faces for prioritising, sociometry again, small group discussions, graphic facilitation, music and found objects. It’s just not good enough to default to one-to-many processes simply because it’s easier.

Use everything

With a big nod to  Rob Poynton, this has never been truer than when working in isolated rural communities. Don’t assume anything. Meetings might take place under a mango tree. It requires a big dose of letting go and noticing what is actually available to support participation and engagement.

Today I was demonstrating Open Space in a building with no walls. That led to a dilemma as to where or how to organise the agenda ‘wall’. Right in front of me was a chain link fence. I just wasn’t seeing it. When my brain finally decided to see what was actually there, instead of focusing on the walls that weren’t there, I saw the fence as the ideal agenda ‘wall’. Duh!

Storytelling can reveal the unspeakable

When people have little or no power, and are suffering terrible deprivations – physical and sexual abuse, discrimination and gender-based violence – storytelling can be a window to safely explore and share their experiences – as long as those listening are open to hearing. This listening activity encourages deep listening and is drawn from Playback Theatre. In groups of five, one person tells a short personal, true story. The others in the group are given one of the following to listen for: the story in three sentences; the essence of the story; a metaphor or image ; and what’s not said. Good listeners can listen for all of these at the same time. This activity trains us to listen with intention.

And I was reminded how a troupe of travelling Playback Theatre performers could do wonders by visiting isolated communities; hearing their stories and playing back those stories thus building connections across the community. I’ve written about that before. If I ever had access to vast amounts of philanthropic funds, this is what I’d do.

We don’t have to ‘dumb down’ facilitation 

Just because people live in isolated communities, may be illiterate, and have little or no access to modern resources, are not reasons to drop our standards of facilitation. People are people, with all the same feelings, emotions, needs and wants as someone living in the most modern of cities.

Listen up. R U OK?

September 10th, 2012

Some of us are better at noticing than others. Facilitators get a lot of practice at noticing. Noticing is not the same as knowing. I might notice someone frowning, but that doesn’t mean I know the reason why. I need to ask, and there needs to be enough trust for the person to answer honestly.

Unsurprisingly, this is true in life as well. We can therefore all be facilitators of each other’s well-being.

This Thursday, September 13, is National R U OK? Day in Australia.

In case you’re wondering why there needs to be an emphasis on asking each other if we’re okay, here’s two blog posts you should read: Mark Pacitti has documented his journey with depression over the last 12 months. It’s an insightful, sometimes harrowing, and illuminating read. And MadameInsideOut has written A Letter to the Black Dog. Another amazing story of fear, and struggle, and hope.

So if you notice someone close to you acting in a way that might suggest they are NOT OK, please ask. You won’t make it worse, especially if you just listen. Listening to someone who needs to be heard is a gift we all have the capacity to easily give, even if it causes us some discomfort or unease. And yes, it can be hard to stop talking and just listen. And it could make a difference in someone’s life.

What change looks like

August 21st, 2012

This TEDxHarlem talk by Jake Barton describes how we can move beyond the traditional (and mostly dysfunctional) public meeting and mobilise the community to be involved in creating a better future.

As well as the messages about “re-imagining public participation” this talk highlights a few other things as well. Jake Barton uses story-telling to good effect, and he demonstrates the spark-line approach suggested by Nancy Duarte in her book Resonate. He describes what is, what could be, what’s at stake, how, and a call to action. All in less than 8 minutes.

I also love the way this project combines individual needs, community, government and technology. It’s what change looks like. It’s also what the future looks like.

Community and connection

August 20th, 2012

Is it over sharing or reaching out? This is one of the new skills we have to navigate in this connected world. I think we all crave connection and understanding, empathy and love. Is it possible to get this on-line?

I’ve seen friends reach out on-line and receive an outpouring of support, ideas, encouragement and love.

It doesn’t replace our local human friends and family – it enlarges it to embrace a wider field of humans who can travel with us as we navigate this uncertain world.

Postcards provide a window to the world

June 13th, 2012

Probably not the sort of postcards you’re thinking of.

These postcards are made of people, creating a scene from nothing but a suggestion. We started with Southern Cross Station (Melbourne’s main train station) – people posed themselves as commuters, trains, signs, rubbish, ticket machines, aimless people, newspapers. Ian David, from Melbourne Playback Theatre Company, was leading the activity. He kept asking for something that was missing. He didn’t rush.

We were then invited to do another postcard, this time someone suggested the Serengeti. There were lions, and tourists, and pop-up vans, and acacia trees, and giraffes…you get the picture. And this is where Ian added another element. He asked people in the scene to finish this sentence, from the perspective of their role: “The world works best when…”

So the lion said (for example): “The world works best when there’s lots of prey to eat.”

We were at The Hub, Melbourne at a regular Meetup of The Collaboratory Melbourne, hosted by David Hood of DoingSomethingGood. The Collaboratory is a group of people from diverse fields exploring socially innovative and collaborative solutions to our most pressing social and environmental issues.

Ian and I had been invited to explore creating a culture and practice of collaboration through applied improvisation, and we’d opted for a hands-on experience for the 40 or so people who turned up.

Back to the Postcards. Someone suggested a scene in Damascus. There was a dictator, an arms dealer, a dead body, a photographer, a journalist, a crying child, a communications satellite. Again, Ian invited us to add whatever was missing. And then for the players to complete the statement: “the world works best when…” And then he added yet another element. Those not in the scene could go and take the same pose as one of the characters and also complete the sentence “The world works best when…”

It was extraordinary.

Talk about building connections, creating empathy, providing a visceral experience of what it might be like to be one of the elements in the Postcard. Brilliant.

This is an example of what applied improv can do. We can write about what’s happening in the world, we can talk about it, watch movies, read books – yet without actually putting ourselves into a real scene (which in a lot of cases is completely impractical) this seemingly simple exercise provides an opportunity to step into the shoes of others, to explore their motivations, their emotions, and experience multiple perspectives.

It was emotional, moving and eye-opening.

What else can provide such an experience to a group of people who barely know each other, and in a short amount of time?

This is the power of applied improv.

Meetings or Meetups?

April 8th, 2012

After September 11 in 2001 in New York strangers started saying hello to each other. There was a yearning for community, says Matt Meeker, co-founder of Meetup. Today facilitates off-line group meetings on any imaginable topic, now in 101 countries.

I’m new to Meetups. I participate in two Meetup Groups in Melbourne: The Creative Performance Exchange and The Collaboratory Melbourne. I have met the most amazing, talented and inspirational people, and learnt so much from them. It’s fair to say I’m a huge fan of Meetups.

Generally, I’m not a joiner of groups, especially if there’s even a sniff of agendas, minutes, and traditional meeting procedure. Nor am I a fan of meetings per se. They tend to be a way for people in organisations to legitimately gather together, and looking in from the outside, seem to be out of control. I know people whose days are just full of meetings, and their email full of meeting notifications. They complain about these meetings. A lot.

Compare that with a Meetup. There’s an invitation, a host, and one or more featured presenters of a particular topic that is described in quite a bit of detail. The ones I attend start and finish on time. I can see how many other people are attending and who they are. There’s often a follow-up post with pictures and further information. There might also be an accompanying Yammer discussion leading up to and after the Meetup.

Imagine if organisations created internal Meetups instead of meetings.