Peeking from behind the mask

March 24th, 2012

Two articles in today’s Melbourne Age newspaper stood out. This one and this one.

“Tell the story – the more times you tell it, the better off you’ll be.” This was the advice given to  Brant Webb and Todd Russell, survivors of the Beaconsfield goldmine disaster.  They were trapped underground in a small wire cage for 15 days after an explosion on 25 April 2006. Webb says that advice was absolutely true, and he only wishes more trauma survivors would take the same advice.

Steven Amsterdam, writer and palliative care nurse, writes about the pervasive use of a military metaphor to describe illness and death, (e.g., he lost the battle) and how this contributes an added burden to families and friends coping with grief.

“Fear must be made to look like fearlessness. This is not a cure. All of the masking hides feelings and leads to isolation. Instead of a close, supportive connection among family and friends, it steers everyone towards bravado and inauthentic cheer,” he writes.

There seems to me to be a common thread in these two stories – sharing our real emotions. So often I see people hiding behind the mask of how they think others want to see them. Oh yes, I’m guilty too. Leaders in particular in organisations seem to struggle to maintain the mask of invincibility, of knowing what is unknowable, and presenting a positive face to the world in the midst of uncertainty, confusion, even sadness.

How can we support each other to more often reveal the real person behind the mask, with all of our vulnerabilities and emotions? How can we be more compassionate listeners of other people’s stories and more willing to share our own?

Asking for help

January 25th, 2012

I quite enjoy helping others. I’m not so good at asking for help. From an improv perspective it’s like making offers – asking for help is making an offer to the world. And boy, does it pay back big time.

Those of you reading this blog recently will know I’m in foreign parts designing a biggish two-day event. Those of you who know me well will know that I’m never satisfied, always looking for new (and rediscovering forgotten) ideas. And those of you who know me even better will know I’d give my right arm to have a facilitation buddy or two to hang out with, toss about ideas, egg each other on. Sigh.

So I’ve turned to the next best thing, all you good folk in internet land. Some of you I know, some I’ve never met. I’ve no idea how many of you read my blog (I know, I know – there’s something I could do with google analytics to find out and, well, I really don’t care that much and I’ve never been that big into numbers. Are you out there Stephen?). If I’m only talking to myself, that’s quite okay – it gets my thoughts out of my head and on to the screen where at least I don’t forget them.

I try stuff. I like blogging. I like twitter. Facebook’s okay. Don’t mention google+ (makes me feel guilty), I’ve tried amplify, and instgram, I’ve lost count of my email addresses (they all go via gmail anyway), I quite like rapportive, I’ve just joined pin-somethingorother, I have a neglected flickr account, I think I have a YouTube channel, I subscribe to my favourite bloggers and thinkers, I just LOVE Skype – I could go on, obviously. What’s that? What about LinkedIn? Well, of course I’m on LinkedIn – I just don’t know how to use it that well. Then, in a little burst of activity towards the end of last year I created a LinkedIn Group. Wow! Just wow! I had no idea. It’s not a big group, less than 200 people – but what a generous and creative bunch.

And what I’ve learned from having a LinkedIn group is that it’s not about leading with answers – it’s about leading with questions. Real questions. Making big, bold offers by asking for help. Who knew?

The Casuarina Project: Community Leadership 10 years on

September 8th, 2011

It’s 10 years this month since the first group of local Surf Coast Shire residents finished the inaugural Casuarina Project. The final session was on September 15th, 2001 and I remember it vividly. We’d booked out a local restaurant for us to gather to reminisce on the journey we’d shared over the previous seven months. Our conversation, of course, was not as planned (whenever is it?): we sat together and shared our shock and bewilderment at the week’s events in the US and the implications for us here on the other side of the world. And we shared some laughs, and some tears, some food and some wine. And excitedly left to develop our community projects.

The brief for the Casuarina Project was to design and facilitate a community leadership program to bring together people from across the Surf Coast Shire – those in the coastal towns, where surfing and tourism reigns, with those from the hinterland where agriculture is king. It was targeted at people already active in community groups, but not yet in leadership roles. We decided not to call it a leadership program to avoid the inevitable problem of only attracting those who already saw themselves as community leaders. It was a bold and exciting approach. We wanted it to focus on developing people, their understanding of themselves and each other, and their potential in the community. We didn’t want it to be a simple skills training, duplicating what was already available.

Year one was devoted to the face-to-face sessions. We moved around to various community halls and venues – a great way for me (as a newcomer to the area) to get to know my new home. We explored such topics as the dynamics of change, understanding group roles, designing and staging events, conflict, controversy and negotiation, and planning for a community project to be implemented in the second year. In the third year, participants would be invited to mentor and support new participants just starting out.

My intention from the very beginning was to reduce dependence on me and my involvement. On reflection, maybe I did that too well! (just kidding) When Geoff Brown (a participant from that very first intake) took over the facilitating of the program after a few years, I felt quite chuffed that I’d hand-balled it on to someone so capable and enthusiastic, not to mention local as well.

There’s so much more I could write about the Casuarina Project. How I delivered it for a few years in Gippsland as well, the celebrations – especially when we invited Melbourne Playback Theatre Company to help us reflect on the experience (with hilarious results) – the friends made, the projects started, the excellent support from the CEO and the Councillors, the freezing cold halls (with dubious heating) in winter, the dreaded smoke in summer when we all raced home to make sure our houses were safe from bush fires, the laughs, the frustrations, the tears and most importantly, everyone’s generosity. And don’t even start me on the time I returned from Vietnam with bronchitis and was quarantined because it might have been SARS, hence unable to facilitate the important opening weekend.

The Casuarina Project is alive and well, with the first ever Youth Casuarina Program scheduled for October. What a great way to celebrate 10 years!

It’s evolved, as it should.

Haven’t we all?

Happy Anniversary Casuarina Project.

Good advice

August 31st, 2011

Two things caught me eye in the newspaper this week.

Sarah Wilson was writing about trusting the process. She was referring to the creative process – the sometimes messy, unconnected, seemingly random process that we go through when being creative.

The secret?

Just start.

Good advice.

And the other was an interview with Eva Cox, author, feminist and activist. (Feminist alert) Here’s the bit that stuck with me (the emphasis is mine):

“The revolution we wanted in the 1970s is not happening: we have not undermined the powerful masculine cultures of workplaces, politics and business, despite having more women in top positions. The feminist label is fine by me, and I work with both men and women. I am now part of the Centre for Policy Development, a Sydney-based think tank, and am exploring using the dinner party (instead of a meeting) as a new way of tapping into good ideas for a more civil future. This domestic food-sharing approach may open up discussions of a society valuing social connections, care and feelings rather than the powerful male mantra of essentially macho economies and firms.”


The power of connections

June 17th, 2011

I spent the weekend at Gathering11, with 100+ other people. I found myself at Gathering11 because of connections, generosity and curiosity. I’ve come away with yet more connections, ideas, inspiration and dare I say, a good old dose of enthusiasm.

It’s not often I have an opportunity to be a participant, to feel what it’s like to be on the other side of facilitation. And while that was interesting in itself, even illuminating at times, it was the conversations and the people I met that made the weekend memorable. Conversations with people under 30 who are not relatives; conversations with people working in medicine and science and social movements – not joining social movements, creating them; conversations with artists – stand up comedians, performers, musicians; conversations with geeky types. And then there’s all the conversations yet to be had.


December 7th, 2010

It is in discovering community that I feel most fortunate, most blessed, most thankful. In general, my community has flourished on-line, and in particular there has been a small, close-knit community that I really cherish.

We call ourselves The Slips – a nod to cricket, the only thing we could discover, apart from all coming from Commonwealth countries, that we share. In fact, that’s not true at all – we share a lot. We are Johnnie Moore in the UK, Chris Corrigan in Canada, Anne Pattillo in New Zealand, Geoff Brown in Australia and me, also in Australia.

Each of us had met at least one other in person, but it wasn’t until May of this year that we all met face-to-face in the same place. Rewind two years, and we’d ‘meet’ on skype, occasionally finding, amongst all those time-zones, maybe one hour in 24 when none of us had to be up at midnight or at dawn. We’d talk. We had no agenda, no purpose, other than to enjoy each other’s company. Our conversations would range far and wide. There’s no leader. There’s no timeframes. We laugh. We connect when one of us makes an offer or when we are needed to support each other.

We have made one commitment though – to all work together in each other’s countries. One down, three to go. Mostly, though, I’ve worked with Johnnie this year, something I’ve enjoyed immensely. He writes about one such experience here.

In a way, this small community has grown out of other communities: open space technology, applied improv and facilitation. In recent years, the applied improv community has given me the most to be thankful for – people, like Johnnie, who I probably would not have met otherwise; friendship, play, laughter, ideas, spontaneity and new ways to facilitate groups. When I think of community, I usually think of these larger groups. I think of local communities and of specialist communities that may be geographically dispersed and are held together by a common interest. What is it that holds The Slips together? Shared interests, friendship, a genuine liking of, and preparedness to challenge, each other. We’re not afraid to explore edgy, sometimes difficult, topics. We are concerned for each other’s well-being. Love.

We will no doubt continue to work with each other, and, I hope, collectively, as well as support our individual endeavours. And for now, for me, for 2011 – that’s enough.

I’m taking part, with 2000+ others, in a 31-day blogging challenge called #reverb10 to reflect on the past year and explore hopes for the coming year. You can read more about it here. Day 7 prompt: Community. Where have you discovered community, online or otherwise, in 2010? What community would you like to join, create or more deeply connect with in 2011?

A lost opportunity

July 1st, 2010

Apologies, this is a bit ranty…

An information sheet for a local community group arrived in my letterbox today. Here’s a few exerpts:

The [group] requires your input and support in order to maintain its vigour and effectiveness and to ensure that it is accurately representing your views.


Please provide us with an up-to-date email address as this facilitates communication and assists us in keeping costs to a minimum. If you do not wish to provide an email address, we ask that you regularly check our website to keep yourself informed of our activities.

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m unlikely to become involved with this group. The tone of their information sheet is demanding. I’d prefer an invitation. The group came together to tackle a particular issue and has extrapolated that they need to continue to tackle further community issues as they arise. So now they have a President and a committee and regular meetings and membership fees and voting rights. Yawn.

Oh, but look, there’s a website and a blog. Maybe all’s not lost. I can contribute on-line. Sadly no. I can send an email and the blog page comes up as not found. Oh well.

Just after receiving this I watched Clay Shirky’s video on TED about the generosity economy and the uses of the vast amounts of cognitive surplus made accessible because of technology. I wrote down a few key points: we like to create and we want share; design for generosity; social constraints make us more generous than contractual constraints; add community value and civic value. You can watch it here.

Back to my local community group. I’d follow them on Twitter. I might even join a Facebook Group or maybe a private group site. I’d contribute to blog discussions. In fact there are many ways in which I’d like to be involved. And I could do so from wherever in the world I happen to be. I’d happily sit around and talk about issues over a coffee or a glass of wine – real or virtual (skype is such a boon). Attending a monthly meeting and sitting through an agenda with items submitted to the Secretary seven days in advance? I don’t think so.

What a lost opportunity for engagement and participation – and to tap in to the cognitive surplus that no doubt exists around here.

Hastily formed networks

April 17th, 2010

In times of crisis, disaster or uncertainty we often find ‘hastily formed networks’ (HFNs). In researching HFNs, I was surprised to find web sites devoted to ‘how to’. This seems a bit odd to me, and here’s why.

A couple of weeks ago the husband of a friend of mine was killed in an accident. This has left her to raise their four children on her own. Except she’s not completely on her own, of course. She lives and works in a small rural community and within days of the news spreading amongst the locals a roster for the next six months had been set up to provide meals, house cleaning and transport for the kids to sports and other activities.

This ‘hastily formed network’ and its very practical activities was achieved without plans, workshops, proposals, or performance indicators. Some people saw a need, came together, worked out how to proceed, and got to work. How hard is that?

Maybe we should take that sort of concern, initiative and responsibility to work too.

The heart of connection

February 14th, 2010

When we find, and stay in touch with, people whose ideas and conversations align and challenge, who are generous and willing to share not only their insights, but also their fears and anxieties, questions and musings, whether we’ve met or not, this is the heart of connection. And it’s worth nurturing.

Post Script: Checking out a few of my favourite blogs this windy and rainy Sunday evening, I stumbled onto Hugh MacLeod’s latest post where he says:

The work people do is all driven by different things- money, ambition, intellect, sex, whatever. The work I do, and the work for a lot of people who read my blog and buy my cartoons, seems to be largely driven by the need to “connect”.

We like doing stuff that connects with people. We’re “Connectors”.

Spooky. I don’t think I read Hugh’s post before I wrote my own. Not today anyway. Maybe I read it yesterday, and just like Keith Sawyer writes in his book Group Genius, most ideas build upon others, are generated incrementally rather than as a blast of creative insight. Maybe this is an example. Or maybe it’s just a coincidence!

Living an improvised life

February 1st, 2010

The third and final day of our Playback Theatre Summer Intensive Workshop presented by Melbourne Playback Theatre Company brought together a number of disparate threads – and brought to mind some of the key lessons I’ve learnt over the years from improv theatre in its various forms. Lessons learnt and still being practiced in that unending journey towards mastery. Here’s what I was reminded of this weekend.

Your body knows before your brain
I catch myself over thinking. I can see others thinking too, coming up with an idea or a plan before doing anything. Hesitating. Rejecting the first idea because it’s not ‘good’ enough. Trust. It comes back to trusting that the movement in your body will spark something in your mind. I can’t tell you how often I have proven this to be true. Not knowing what I’ll say or do, just moving into the performance space, whether that be on the stage or in a workshop, and trusting that whatever I need will surface when I need it. Would I do this all the time, or in every situation? No. But I can train myself to do it on those occasions when that’s what’s needed. When more thinking, or more planning, will not add an iota of value.

Start anywhere, and just start!
When faced with not knowing, complexity and no right answer, where is the best place to start? That question has no answer. It’s nonsensical. Start anywhere and see where it leads. If it leads to a dead-end, try something else. The trick is to just start, and to start anywhere.

Strong offers are worth their weight
A strong offer is clear, it’s robust, it’s obvious, it’s easy to respond to. A weak offer, like a hint, doesn’t support your partner or others, and it’s ambiguous. Support each other by making and responding to strong offers.

We learn, and connect,  from doing and watching
We learn different things from doing – being in the work – and from watching others do the work. This is true of Playback. The perspective of a player (the actor) is quite different from the perspective of the teller (of a moment or story), and is even different to each and every audience member. Yet we remain connected – the players, the teller, and the audience – through our common experiences, our empathy and our differences.

It’s okay to do nothing
Sometimes, our presence is enough. We don’t need to be doing something, when others know we are there supporting them. Our presence is enough. That’s all.

Our stories reveal a lot more about us than anything else
I might tell you about what I do, where I live, my family, my work – and you will know me through that lens. Yet if I tell you my stories, if I reveal my vulnerabilities, and you can share my laughs and my tears, will you not know me a lot better? Playback Theatre embodies that sharing.

Thanks to Mike McEvoy, Ian David, Glynis Angell, Andrew Gray and Ernie Gruner – all from Melbourne Playback Theatre Company – who  conducted the workshop and contributed to my learning. And thanks too to my fellow participants, who so willingly and generously shared their stories, and themselves.