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?

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.


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.

What really happened

May 6th, 2011

Following up my last post, here’s what actually happened when I had an opportunity to do some connecting activities with the 80+ people I’m working with this week.

As is often the case, 60 minutes became around 40 minutes. Because I believe it’s important to honour the finishing time (in this case a morning tea break where people were itching to catch up with their mates) I adjusted my plans accordingly.

I started with a few words (phatic communication) and a two sentence description of my role as facilitator.

“Thank you for inviting me…You might be wondering why you need a facilitator for this meeting? Good question. Some might say to ‘make things easy’. We have C, T and M to do that. So let me describe my role in two sentences. No need to take notes! Ready?

One: My role could best be described as making the best use of the living, breathing bodies here (you) and disrupting set patterns of thinking and acting.

Two: Or…I could just do it!

And here’s the activities I did (once I had everyone on their feet and down the back of the room).

* Birthday Clumps

* World Map: where you currently work; where you were born: where you would like to go for a vacation (then pair up with someone nearby)

* Story of Your Name and Speed Dating (4 rounds)

* Back of your name tag (thanks Chris Corrigan for the reminder): I asked them to write on their name tag something they’d like to talk with others about. “Ask me about…”

And then we broke for morning tea.

Good strategy is not enough

November 30th, 2010

If you want to go fast,  go alone. If you want to go far, go together. – African Proverb

Tim Schottman used to work with Starbucks. When he retired he became interested in taking his corporate knowledge and applying that to other causes – such as providing corneal transplants. This talk describes how he learnt the hard way that the best path between point A and point B is not always a straight line.

The bottom line: it’s really about relationships. But don’t take my word for it. Listen to Tim Schottman tell his own story.

Oh, you’re still not convinced that you should invest the time to have conversations and build relationships? Good luck with that then.

Hat tip – Nancy White via Twitter

The gift of listening

November 8th, 2010

Beyond the Pale

Tips for better meetings

You know when you are out with friends and the conversation hits pause? How sometimes you can just enjoy the silence, and how other times it feels a bit uncomfortable, wondering who is going to say something next? Or when you are in a meeting at work, and there’s a silence – often someone jumps in quickly to fill the space?

This got me thinking about the quality and purpose of silence.

Mostly, I’m okay with silence. My own, and others’. I still struggle to silence the voice in my own head sometimes. And don’t get me wrong, I love a lively conversation, loud music, the roar of a crowd at the football. Just not all the time.

My sometimes partner-in-crime, Johnnie Moore, talks about the gift of listening without interrupting. He calls it a gift because it is surprisingly rare and requires generosity from the listener. I’ve noticed how I often jump in with an idea, an opinion, a comment before the person speaking has had time to finish. So I’ve been practicing being silent. And I’ve noticed how different I feel when the person I’m speaking to is silent while I talk.

Just because we all can talk and hear doesn’t mean we know how to converse well. I am increasingly intrigued by the nuances of conversation, especially in light of all the options available today. Is it any wonder that misunderstandings, misrepresentations, and obsfucation abound?

If your group or team struggles to listen when someone else is talking, here’s a simple process that might help. Use a talking stick. A modern-day talking stick is the microphone. Anything will do – as long as it is something that the speaker can easily hold while speaking. The rules are simple. Whoever has the talking stick can talk (for as long as they like) and everyone else listens. When the speaker puts the talking stick down, someone else can pick it up and start talking. That’s it. No interrupting. No asking questions. If you don’t have the talking stick, don’t talk. No need for turn taking, and no need for everyone to speak if they don’t want to. It’s okay for people to speak more than once – as long as they are holding the talking stick. Sit in a circle if you can. Try it for a short time – set an agreed time, maybe 30 or 40 minutes. Next time, try it for longer. See what happens. See if anything changes.

Hat tip to Johnnie Moore and mates for  We Can’t Go On Meeting Like This

Valuing friendships and connections

October 20th, 2010

Have you ever been to an event where you have come away excited, but unclear why? And have other people at the same event wondered what the point of it was? These are two extremes of experience with many shades inbetween and represent the great diversity of experiences we have at different events. What works for you may not work for me and vice versa. I think we get into trouble when we forget this and try to design events to please everyone. My suspicion is that such events don’t offend anyone, and probably don’t excite either, resulting in something akin to ho-hum.

While some people can be frustrated by the supposed lack of action, I think simply connecting with other people is somewhat undervalued, and misses the point of how action actually happens. There is a difference between activity and action. In a post that is not unrelated to these thoughts, titled Connecting Dots and Valuing Networks, Roland Harwood explains: “There is a sequence of activities that occur in networks that can seldom be bypassed. Namely you start with lots of conversations, some of which will lead to a smaller number of some kind of relationships. Eventually, and almost certainly long after the first time people met, some transactions may follow that create value, be it commercial or social.”

This was the basis of a talk I gave recently to a group of fourth year agronomy students at Uppsala University. My lecture was part of a series to help prepare them for working life.

I think we sometimes undervalue, or even completely ignore, the power of relationships and networks. I live in a society where great value is placed on being busy, doing something, producing. And I have certainly done my fair share of all three. The basis of this value is knowledge and information. The more you have, the more valuable you are. Yet the internet has changed the game while most of us weren’t looking. Information is virtually free. Knowledge is shared. My value is no longer in what I know but who I know and how I can connect those people and their ideas.

So my challenge to the agronomy students was to value their learning, their knowledge, their expertise AND to value the relationships, networks and connections they have equally so. To nurture existing ones, and look for new ones. This is where support will come for new projects, for funding, for research, for jobs.

This is the new face of leadership – where things get done through sometimes messy networks and relationships, with timeframes that are unclear, rather than through elaborate plans, gannt charts and milestones.

What does ‘doing something’ really mean?

September 21st, 2010

Last night I saw Stephen Fry at Royal Albert Hall in London. To the nearly capacity crowd of 7000 people, he talked for two hours about, well, nothing in particular, but nonetheless entertainingly about his early school days, addictions, collaborations, accidental fame, sexuality and creating humour.

He didn’t do anything except talk. He held the stage and built rapport with the vast audience. He had few props, walked and gesticulated, but mostly it was all talk. Very entertaining talk. There was no tangible product, no ‘output’, yet thousands of people paid good money to listen to one man talk. Is there something for the rest of us to learn from this?

Earlier in the same day I was at an open space meeting for an organisation coming to grips with a recent merger. It was the first time they had come together in their new form and so had much to talk about. Which they did. They had rich and varied conversations, if albeit somewhat predictable (which is often the case in a one-day open space event).

Still, some people complained at the end that nothing happened except talk. “Without tangible actions the day would be a waste.” Since when did engaging in conversations about what’s important to a business classify as nothing? Since when did building relationships with new colleagues and strengthening existing ones be seen as a waste of time?

By this measure, Stephen Fry did nothing. Was a waste of time.

That’s not how I see it. I see people so busy proving how busy they are that they forget the substance of human connection – conversations and relationships. Organisations and businesses often talk about being resilient and responsive. If that’s what they really want, they should take better care to value the time and energy it actually takes to build and nurture relationships, both within and outside of the business, that will weather the good and bad times.

Having a conversation is doing something – something important, necessary and nourishing.

Being provocative

July 19th, 2010

When Andrew Rixon and I were working together recently we were talking about clients who say they want something different in facilitation, but all of their subsequent behaviour (and anxieties) point to something else altogether.

Andrew shared with me this tool he uses to engage clients in a more meaningful conversation about what they are really willing to commit to. When I first saw it, it didn’t look this pretty and was missing a third question. Together we nutted out the final question about failure. Andrew calls this provocative facilitation, and I call it disruptive facilitation. Whatever you call it, it’s about shaking things up rather than making things easy.

I think this is a great way to open up the conversation. I also think the three questions are nested, with the easiest one first. By the time you get to talking about trying something quite different where outcomes may be nothing like those expected and that failure is a real possibility, you have reached quite a different client/facilitator relationship than one where you suggest you can predict and control the outcomes – which IMHO is nonsense.

Is D & M making a comeback over DM?

July 18th, 2010

Is all this micro-blogging, direct messaging, status updating and skimming the web making us crave something else? Do we want to have deeper, longer and more meaningful conversations? Sarah Wilson writes about this in her latest column/blog. Here’s a few snippets:

Everyone I know is glued to…And when they’re not they’re going to “in conversation evenings”  on a Tuesday at their local pub. Indeed, thinkers have become sexy.

You can’t go deep on the fly or with 2010-style distractions. And deep needn’t be dark and morose. The point is to penetrate, to peel off layers. To keep asking why, and then why again. And to develop your own opinions. Talking deeply extends you. It sees you reaching other people in ways you might not with a casual chat. [And] you’re careful and mindful of what you say and give, which creates intimacy.

A deep and meaningful conversation provides something else as well. It’s satisfying. Many of my friends who still work in organisations and go to an office at least a few days a week, seem to spend a lot of time in meetings. I don’t think a meeting is a place for a deep and meaningful conversation. And often one meeting runs into another, lunch is eaten on the fly. So when are there times for any sort of conversation, let alone deep and meaningful?

Sometimes when facilitating a workshop I deliberately slow down the pace. Some people might ask how long they have to discuss such-and-such a topic. The answer is irrelevant. We don’t have conversations by the clock. There is, rather, some internal and natural cadence to conversations, an ebb and flow, a slowing down, stopping, reflecting and restarting that is difficult to notice in a 10-minute conversation. Or in one that is continually interrupted.

Some people hate this. They check the time. Glance up to see if I’m about to move on. Get fidgetty and disgruntled. I think this happens because sometimes we forget how to pay attention to others. I can draw on my own experiences here. When I’m anxious to get out of a conversation, it’s because I’m not sure where it’s heading and I’m not prepered to invest in either the time or myself or the others to make the most of it. And, hey, it may go no-where. There are no guarantees. Yet often it is surprising where focus, attention, generosity and perseverence will lead. I think that’s true of conversations. I think it’s true of workshops.

And let’s be clear, not every conversation needs to be deep and meaningful. There are good reasons and lots of instances where a quick, superficial or transactional conversation is all that’s needed. Just look at how annoying it is when one of those pesky telemarketers tries to engage in ‘normal’ conversation by inquiring after your day. Yuk! And it’s pretty hard to have deep and interesting conversations if you’ve got nothing to talk about – so you have to live your life too.

Maybe we’re all searching for ways to live our life, get on with things and have time and space to talk about what’s important with who’s important to us. I know I am.