Bolder Conversations

July 19th, 2016

BolderConversationsI’m riffing some ideas here based on the four themes we’ve been exploring for Creative Leadership:

Having bolder conversations
Connecting more deeply
Engaging the resistance
Staying alive


None of us like to feel uncomfortable when talking with others. Sometimes it’s easiest to stay silent. Yet staying silent, especially on important topics, can have ramifications worse than speaking out. Silence can be seen as a default for agreement. With so much unrest, shifting political landscapes, and the access to so much information about just about anything, having conversations about the things that matter is important, I think.

I personally struggle with this a lot. I have strong views on lots of things, and find it difficult when confronted with mis-information, myths, and the latest form of -ism going around (racism, sexism, etc). I try to be curious, to find out where other people get their information, how they formed their views, but it can be hard, especially if it’s something I am particularly passionate about. Becoming more comfortable on unknown ground – having bolder conversations – is about practice. Even the skill of having a conversation can be easily lost.

I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts lately by Richard Fidler. He asks great questions, he knows how to have a great conversation. One day, when I have nothing better to do, I’m going to go through a whole stack of his interviews and try and figure out how he does it, analyse his questions. In the meantime, I’m trying to learn by listening, and by osmosis – maybe I’ll soak up some of his approaches!

I also went to an improv class with Gary Schwartz. Apart from all of his other brilliance, he’s a great improv coach. My key message from his workshop was about slowing down. I think this works with having bolder conversations too. If we rush, we miss too much. Slowing down enables us to connect more deeply.

One of the joys of travel and reconnecting with friends is that I can indulge in lots of conversations. Johnnie and I will also be sharing some of our techniques for having bolder conversations at our leadership workshop in Cambridge, August 31 – Sept 2.

Taming self talk

May 21st, 2016

Sometimes, when talking with someone, it’s obvious that they are elsewhere. They have gone into their head. While we can’t know what the other person is thinking, it’s usually pretty obvious that they are not listening to us, maybe even no longer aware that we are there.

It can range from slightly annoying to downright rude. And we know what it feels like from both sides – sometimes we’re on the receiving end of inattention, sometimes we’re guilty of drifting away.

It’s not something to fix. It is something to notice. When we notice when we do this we can then choose to follow our thoughts, wherever they are taking us, or bring our attention back to the person or task at hand.

Taming this form of self talk can help us be better listeners, better companions, and better work colleagues.

There’s another form of self talk that I’ve been experiencing a lot lately. It’s the voice that hovers like a huge question mark, it’s the voice of indecision. “Do this! No, don’t do that, do this instead! Are you crazy, do this!” Now there’s an insight into my head that you probably never needed to know.

I am learning to tame this voice. It’s another voice that says: “Just do what you know. And if you don’t know what to do, just do something.”

It’s good advice, that voice. One worth listening to.

A morning with David Whyte

May 1st, 2016

Rock balancing MongoliaFirst, two confessions. I’d never read, or listened to any of David Whyte’s work. And I didn’t know what genius loci meant. Nor did I know to what extent both might influence me.

After yesterday morning, neither is no longer true.

I was impressed with the rhythm of David’s performance, the strength, and loudness, of the silences, and the way he would regale his audience with story, to slip seamlessly into poetry, and whammo – reveal a line that connects the story and asks a question that “is an invitation to the imagination that the strategic mind doesn’t know what to do with.”

Repetition. Repetition, I now know, is not a part of his written work, but is certainly a huge part of his performance. And it’s very effective.

Gesture. David Whyte gestures a lot. He points and waves and pokes and prods and underlines his words with gestures.

Silence. The silences would begin as short, two-beat silences, and gradually increase to ten times as long. Powerful. And loud!

And then there’s his use of language. Not surprisingly, I’ve been a fan, a student, a user, and sometimes, an abuser, of language. Not surprisingly, a poet uses language well. The work that Johnnie and I are immersed in right now is also imbued with language – trying to find just the right word, getting rid of jargon and meaningless adjectives – trying to use language to explain the unexplainable.

Here’s some of the memorable lines from my morning with David Whyte:

“The ground makes no sense without an horizon. An horizon may also be internal.”

“Poetry is language against which you have no defences.”

“Be impatient with easy explanations.”

“When you show up you can be seen, you can be found, you can be touched. And when you can be seen, you can be hurt. So we create abstractions to avoid being seen.”

“I don’t have to have all the conversation at once. Just begin.”

“The person you are just about to become is a stranger to you.” I’ve just finished reading Cathy Salit’s book Performance Breakthrough. She writes about her experiences of using performance and skills from theatre directing to help people discover parts of themselves they never knew could, or would, ever exist. “The person you are about to become is a stranger to you.”

“Stay in this place until the current of the story is strong enough to float you out.” Johnnie hosts Unhurried Conversations, an approach that explores a different way of being in conversation with others. “Stay in this place until the current of the story is strong enough to float you out.” 

“What would it be like to be the ancestor of our own future happiness?” Indeed.

And genius loci? Genius loci is the spirit of a place – the type of conversation held there is shaped by place. I’ve always known this. Even before I knew it.

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.


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.

Courageous conversations

February 18th, 2013

Sometimes I’m asked how I know about various facilitation approaches, how I know what to do, and what not to do, that sort of thing. One of the ways is to put myself in the shoes of a participant and notice my own reactions, and also learn from the others I’m with.

I’ve signed up for a week of doing this. I’m part of a group of 25 people (all strangers to me) who have come together to grapple with their own small and large questions, to reflect on what we do and why, how and with whom – that sort of stuff. It’s quite a shift of focus to be a participant. Here’s some of my Day One reflections.

I understand the principle of organic connecting, allowing people to meet each other as the day unfolds, and as the day unfolded I warmed to it a bit. Yet I was still left wondering who these people are, and who they are connected with. In fact, I think it’s the connections between people that interest me the most. It soon becomes obvious that some people know each other, or the facilitator knows some of the participants, so I think there’s some value in making that explicit. I’m not quite sure why yet. I just noticed that I missed not knowing that.

We did a cool activity that really resonated for me. We were asked to imagine ourselves as lead actors in our own movie and to think about the journey, or story arc, of our week on this course. We were asked to come up with a title for our movie, a genre, and a strap line. It was a brilliant way to get all of us thinking differently about our expectations of the week.

I also really liked the idea that sharing something of yourself with a complete stranger can throw a different light on that idea or thinking. This feeds another (as yet unpublished) blog post I’ve been writing about the advantages and disadvantages of showing up with others (where there’s an element of safety, sharing and connection) and showing up on your own (where there’s a greater element of risk, and vulnerability, and the potential for surprise).

“We need to have a courageous conversation with ourself and others about our needs, desires and promptings.” – David Whyte, poet

This is what today was about – beginning to have those courageous conversations. It was a good start.


Perspective and the echo chamber

September 28th, 2012

There was a moment last week at the Applied Improvisation Network Conference where I felt particularly despondent.

We’d been listening to people talk about what they are doing in taking improvisation skills and practices out of the theatre and into the world. We’d heard of using improv to treat post-traumatic stress in war veterans, in training firefighters, for teaching language skills in Thailand. And more. Amazing work by amazing people.

I felt I had nothing to offer. It’s all being done, and done much better than I could ever hope to do it. Instead of being inspired, I found myself feeling dejected.

Later in the day I was sitting in the sun talking to my friend Eric Nepom, an amazingly talented scientist, educator and improviser, and passionate about finding ways to bring improv and science together. This is a passion we share so we were doing some evil planning on how we might make that happen.

It was then that perspective kicked in. I’d been sitting with about 200 people passionate about the value of improv in all walks of life. There’s a lot more people out there in the world who know nothing (yet) about the potential of improv. And there’s so much that needs to be done in the world, that there’s space enough for all of us. The shift in my perspective came from a shift in my circumstances, going from being part of a roomful of people receiving information, to a picnic table outdoors and a rich one-on-one conversation.

I realised I’d fallen into the old trap of being in an echo chamber – hearing only the voices saying the same thing – and taking a scarcity view of the world. The scarcity view is fed by competitiveness and a belief that there’s only so much to go round, so you’d better get in quick or be the best at something to get some of the action. The abundance view – that there’s more need than is being met and space for everyone to bring their unique talents, skills and perspectives to change the world – is far more hopeful and nourishing.


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.

Promotion is not a conversation

September 7th, 2012

This post falls in to the old and grumpy category, so you are warned!

I’m fed up with lists, discussion groups and everything else that purports to be a vehicle for conversation (albeit, on-line conversations) being hijacked by advertisements for this course or that workshop. Oh yes, I’m guilty too. Couldn’t we just have more conversations, about the topics that matter to us, without having to be interrupted by the on-line version of the intrusive advertisement?

Mini rant over. As you were.

3 tips for science communications

August 16th, 2012

It’s National Science Week here in Australia. I’m quite fond of science and scientists: I’m married to a scientist; I even studied science once; I dabbled in science communications; I failed to get a Churchill Fellowship to explore science communications; and I love just about anything to do with space exploration. I’m a big fan of science fiction and I’ve been known to read New Scientist at the hairdressers (I bring my own). (Credentials. Tick.)

It dismays me how scientists – so full of passion and creativity – sometimes make the wondrous mundane, and the story of their work stripped of emotion. It’s no surprise to me that many scientists I know have a hobby in the creative arts – music, painting, photography, art. Most scientists I know are also human, with all the emotions that humans possess. They want, just like the rest of us, to love and be loved, for compassion, for connection and for their stories to be heard.

The structures and protocols of science communications provides both a shield and a barrier – a shield from criticism by outsiders, and a barrier to sharing knowledge and meaning. It’s left to the media stars of science communications – like Prof Brian Cox – to do the heavy lifting.

So what about the everyday scientist? The ones spending hours at the bench; the ones analysing mountains of data, how can they share their story, their piece of the puzzle, their contribution (maybe not even with the big wide world, just with friends and family)?

Improvised theatre appears to be the antithesis of science. Science is all controlled and documented, improvised theatre is spontaneous and ephemeral. Yet science is full of spontaneity, surprises, and serendipity. Ask any scientist. And improvised theatre is full of structure. Ask any improviser.

So I’d like to offer these communication tips from improvised theatre to any scientists out there wanting to share their story. And we want to hear your story, your struggle and your delight.

Be average
I know, I know. Science is all about excellence. And yes, it is. But not to the rest of us. We mere mortals have no idea what you’re doing. We don’t know the importance, we don’t know where it will lead. You don’t have to impress us like you might think you have to impress your peers. To us what you are doing is already extraordinary.

Story is not a dirty word
Ever had the advice to just stick to the facts? Don’t embellish, strip out the emotion blah blah blah. It’s all rubbish. Stories, and storytelling, is part of our human DNA. Then I hear things like, “I don’t know where to start, or what to say.” (See be average above). Here’s an approach that’s pretty universal for structuring stories.

1. Establish where and when your story takes place.

2. Describe the normal state of affairs.

3. Tell us what the catalyst for change was – the need, the want, the search for understanding…

4. What happened, and what were the consequences.

5. What happened after that, and what were the consequences.

6. Depending on your story you might repeat this step a number of times.

7. The resolution – what happened in the end (or what do you hope will happen).

8. And finally, how are things different (or will they be different).

In other words, this is known as a Story Spine. In more general terms it looks like this…

1. Once upon a time…

2. Every day…

3. But one day…

4. 5. 6. Because of that…

7. Until finally…

8. And ever since then…

Improvisers use this framework all the time to ‘make up’ stories on the spot. It makes improvisers look much cleverer than they really are! It’s the structure of The Story Spine that is the brilliance.

Colour – Advance
There’s a thing called The Curse of Knowledge. It reminds us, whenever we become an expert at something, that it’s just about impossible to remember what it’s like to be a novice. And when scientists devote their lives to something, like scientific research, they gather LOTS of information. What, then to share, and what to leave out, when communicating? After all, communication is not a solitary activity – it involves someone receiving your message, no matter what medium you use to send it.

Colour – Advance is a really useful way of testing your message. It works really well with someone who is not familiar with your work. You invite them to listen to, or read, something you want to communicate. They can give two instructions only:

1. Colour. This means provide more detail, go to greater depth.

2. Advance. Move the story forward. I want to know what happens next.

Notice what they want more of, and where they want the story to move forward. Adjust accordingly.

Happy Science Week everyone.