We were at a workshop in country Victoria with about 20 of us learning the skills of facilitation. I was practicing a particular process back in the days when that’s how we learnt to facilitate – it was a bit like learning to drive a car, step-by-step, with the assumption that as long as we followed all the steps, we’d be able to facilitate. It took me a long time to unlearn that particular myth. Then, though, I knew not much about facilitating, and had little experience, so I clung to processes like a crutch, pretty much ignoring anything that was going on around me – a bit like the newbie driver, so focused on braking and accelerating and trying not to stall or miss a gear change that they don’t even notice the other vehicles…
We’d do our process practice in small groups and then receive feedback, I remember one colleague who said, “Viv, that was great, but you were so serious. You need to lighten up a bit.”
I guess I was concentrating so hard on getting all the steps of the process *right* that I forgot about any connection with the group. Fast forward 15 years or so – and let’s not be too precise about the numbers please, it makes me flinch – and I find myself playing a few games with a group in a workshop as a lead-in to making some clear offers around needs. The people in this group, all passionate and hard working, would dance around actually saying in clear and precise words, what they wanted. They’d hint. They’d talk in abstractions. They’d use organisational jargon. They’d do just about anything than say outright what they needed.
In improv we call this ‘making a clear offer’. When you’re on stage without a script and no-one knows what’s coming next, a strong, clear and bold offer let’s everyone else know what you’re thinking and enables them to move the scene forward by accepting and building on the offer. A timid, half-hearted or ambiguous offer leaves everyone else trying to guess what you meant.
Back to our group. We were playing some games to explore the whole concept of making and accepting bold offers. We could have discussed it, a more traditional approach that might have been safer and kept the issue abstract. These days, I prefer some visceral exploration of concepts that can be easily abstracted. It adds an element of groundedness and reality that’s hard to get to in an intellectual discussion.
One of the leaders from the organisation said this to me: “We have serious issues to discuss. When are we going to get serious?”
What a difference 15 years makes, eh?
He wasn’t happy. The outcome of that particular situation will be a story for another day.
I believe that the most serious issues can be explored playfully. This doesn’t mean trivialising. It doesn’t mean avoiding difficult decisions. Or conflict. It means using a light touch, being playful and avoiding creating a fearful and stressful approach that shuts down the integrated functioning of the brain. Playful may mean playing games, and it also means looking at issues and problems from different perspectives, being human-centred and taking inspiration from many sources – galleries, kitchens, puzzles, nature, each other, kids, movies, sports…
I’m reminded of Andrew Denton, an Australian producer, comedian and presenter. He takes risks and makes edgy, innovative programs. One of his earlier programs was about young people dying of cancer, called The Topic of Cancer. The publicity for this program says: “Daring to find humour where others see death, Andrew Denton and ‘The Money or the Gun’ team pitch their tent in the middle of a workshop weekend for Canteen, a national support group for teenagers with cancer.” He explored this serious issue with great humanity, depth and playfulness.
It makes me wonder why our community groups, organisations, public authorities, business and corporations can’t bring playfulness into the way they do their work.
Exploring the most serious issues playfully: my experience, my intuition, and my energy is focused on finding ways of doing this more. And I’m also searching for evidence. Yes, confirming evidence. And yes, disconfirming evidence. And the unexpected. It’s a fascinating and exciting exploration. If you have any thoughts, ideas, links or suggestions. I’d love to hear from you: in the comments below or email me viv at mcwaters dot com dot au.