Difficult conversations

January 16th, 2014

Summer, and holiday time, is a great time to people watch. Families and friends find time to get together. This past twelve months I’ve had two summers – one in the UK and now here in Australia. I’m interested in how people interact. I love listening to people talking in a language I don’t know and trying to imagine what they’re talking about; or someone having an argument on a mobile phone (often very loudly, so hard to ignore – don’t judge me) and imagining the other half of the conversation.

And I have some friends who say everything they are thinking out loud. I’ve tried doing this and just can’t. I simply can’t talk that much. But, oh, the conversations I have in my head – they’re a different matter. Do you have those? The ones where you imagine the conversation you’ll have with another person, especially if it’s about something a bit tricky or difficult? Often, these conversations never get a life – they remain in my head, albeit they’re very active and animated. When it comes to actually having a difficult conversation, it stays in my head where it’s much safer than taking the risk of saying what I wish I had the courage to say.

My friend Johnnie Moore is really good at helping people with difficult conversations. He likes to get people out of their heads and into their bodies – what this means is getting away from theorising what a difficult conversation might be like, and actually practice experiencing it – doing lots of short iterations to see what feels okay and what doesn’t. Then, when it comes to having the difficult conversation for real, you’re already prepared and ready for whatever might happen. After all, we are only ever responsible for one half of the interaction (in my head, I always know what the other person will say – shock horror, they don’t act that way in real life!)

We all have difficult conversations from time to time. Some we know are coming (and if you’re like me, avoid), others creep up on us, and yet others pounce when we least expect it. It pays to be ready, no matter what. Johnnie has started a video series about difficult conversations. Well worth a look.

Action storming for tackling difficult people

November 9th, 2012

The question comes up sooner or later: “How do you deal with difficult people?” Leaving aside the question of what makes people ‘difficult’, or that one person’s ‘difficult’ might be another person’s ‘creative’, this is the second most common question we’re asked about facilitating groups.

We’ve developed a rather nifty process that we’ve named Action Storming. We originally called it, jokingly,¬†The Helsinki Method (that’s right, because we developed it in Helsinki. We being moi, Johnnie Moore and Simo Routarinne). The heart of it is to isolate the exact moment of difficulty – maybe down to one or two lines of dialogue and the precise situation. This can be tricky because we all like to elaborate and provide a back story and other sometimes illuminating details. What we’ve found though, is if we can isolate the exact moment of difficulty and recreate the scenario, we’re then ready to do some rapid action storming. This involves trying different approaches in quick succession, and as soon as someone in the group makes a suggestions along the lines of, “Why don’t you try…?” we invite them to tags the protagonist out and do what they have suggested – try something. We’ve found it creates a completely different way of tackling those difficult moments. Instead of theorising about what might work, analysing different responses and becoming increasingly abstract, Action Storming is far more concrete. You can see a physical shift in people when they get it – when something they try just works. Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes it’s a surprise. No matter, when next faced with the same or a similar situation they are ready to try something different. The whole idea of Action Storming is to find ways to keep momentum, to enable connection, and to avoid getting stuck. It’s not about avoiding confrontation, or avoiding difficulty, or avoiding something unpleasant – it’s about giving people the skills, knowledge and awareness that they have it in themselves to respond in an appropriate way.

You could say we’re pretty excited about the potential for Action Storming.

So much so we made this little slideshow about it.

Break down to break through

December 26th, 2011

This song, Minnie the Moocher, by The Blues Brothers, came up on shuffle while I was at the gym. I was focusing on the song as I tried to take my mind off running and how heavy my legs felt. The song uses call and response, one of my favourite musical devices. At about 2 mins 24 the audience breaks down into laughter when the scat lyrics (or the vocal improvisations) become so long and non-sensical as to be nearly impossible to repeat.

I’ve seen the same sort of breakdown in improv games. The group will be playing a game when someone figuratively ‘drops the ball’. They make a mistake and everyone laughs. This is intriguing. This ‘breakdown’ seems to be a type of release. Afterwards, everyone seems more relaxed and the game or activity continues at a different level, with more commitment and vigour. It’s as if the breakdown, and the release in the form of laughter is a metaphorical doorway to another way of being, or a different relationship with the activity – and with each other.

Yet many of our conventional group activities, especially in meetings, are designed to avoid breakdown, presumably as this is seen as some sort of failure of the process or of the facilitator/leader. Certainly laughter is rarely present in these situations. In his book, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, Bill Isaacs, talks about the importance of instability or breakdown in group discussions as a condition for moving from polite discussion to dialogue where new thinking might emerge. Too often, when the breakdown happens – an argument, discomfort – the tendency is to return to the comfort and security of politeness. This might maintain something akin to civility yet rarely leads to a breakthrough in thinking or ideas. Our challenge as facilitators and leaders of these group discussions is to hold the group in their discomfort and move towards dialogue. Easy to write or talk about – much harder to do.

I’m wondering if it’s possible to turn such conversations into a game, where breakdown can be laughed at, shaken off and the conversation resumed at a different level?

One of the other barriers to this sort of generative thinking in groups is the expectation that an expert will provide the answers or tell people what to do. Relying on experts enables us to absolve ourselves of the responsibility for decision making.¬†Experts have their place. Yet experts tend to spread existing knowledge – that’s what enables them to be called an expert. And if it’s existing knowledge you’re after, an expert is the best and quickest way to get it. If it’s new knowledge you’re after, this must be done by everybody as a community/group activity. And it takes time, energy, commitment, and good will.


You say tomato, I say…

August 3rd, 2009

A friend, who shall remain nameless for the time being, wrote an update on Facebook the other day saying she had just bought a new bathing suit. Now apart from the fact that I am insanely jealous of seemingly EVERYONE ELSE in the world who is taking holidays right now, and I’m not, this little update got me thinking about language.

Bathing suit. In Australia that translates as bathers.

Swimming costume. Well, that’s obviously a cossie.

Then there’s swimmers, togs, Speedos, boardies and for men only, budgie smugglers.

I can’t stress how important it is to clarify the meaning of words. As I work more and more internationally, I find myself asking time and again: ‘what do you mean when you say [insert word]’?

The more abstract the word, the more likely there is to be misunderstanding. I was once travelling through corn country in the US, from Indianapolis to Chicago. I was on an agricultural journalists’ tour. It was a lot of fun, there we were, a bunch of agricultural journos from around the world doing a road trip through wide open spaces, stopping to visit farmers. And the most amazing corn factory. They made everything out of corn. There were corn pens, and paper, and oil, and food. As far as I know the whole building was made of corn. But I digress. Apart from my accent meaning I was virtually unintelligible, obviously my questions made little sense too. We were visiting a farmer who had reclaimed a lot of marshy country. The water was collected into drains and flowed away. I asked where? He looked at me as if I was from another planet and answered, away. Obvious really. Then I asked about biodiversity. And his reply was that he grew corn and beans. Well, that’s OK then!

Over dinner one night I found myself having a heated discussion with a local journalist about organic agriculture. I don’t remember much, except the moment when I asked ‘what do you actually mean by organic?’ That’s when we discovered we were talking about two completely different things. There was some confusion regarding organic and biodynamic. Anyway, the lesson stuck. I’m reminded of this any time I ask someone what they mean by consensus, or outcome, or sustainable or even workshop! Or heaven forbid, facilitation.

It pays to clarify meaning, and simply illuminates how our different experiences manifest in the language we use.

Will I? Won’t I?

July 13th, 2009

There’s a really cool performance piece that is a part of Playback Theatre. Two players physically enact an internal dilemma, or conflict. Naturally, it’s called Conflicts. Melbourne Playback Theatre Company

It’s great fun to watch because most of us can relate to an internal dilemma: small or big. Will I eat this piece of cake or not? Should I stay in bed a little longer or get up and go to the gym? Will I buy this house, marry this person?

It’s great fun to play as well – finding arguments to support the position you’re playing.

So here’s (just) one of my current internal conflicts. I’m self-employed. I usually get enough work. At the moment I don’t have a lot of work coming up. Should I get out there and chase work? Or should be grateful for the space to write that book?

What internal conflicts are you struggling with?