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A cafe conversation

October 31st, 2009 No comments

CoffeeJohn Inman has run strategic planning processes for 15 years. This week he tried a new way of doing it, adding a World Cafe session early in the process.

World Cafe is a way of hosting small group discussions around cafe-style tables; the participants move from table to table, with hosts staying where they are, so that ideas spread around the room and grow and develop. The person running the World Cafe may try to recreate the look, feel (and smell!) of a real cafe, with tablecloths and flowers on the tables, freshly brewed coffee, and background music.

The end result? The strategic planning session achieved more, and in less time, than the process John has been using for fifteen years.

It was the most productive planning session I have ever had and I believe that is in no small part due to driving them into conversation early and the power of conversation transformed the session.

Hat tip to Chris Corrigan for spotting John’s post. Chris writes about his own similar experience with Open Space

These participatory processes are far more than โ€œjust talkโ€ and with wise planning and focused harvests, they are a very fast way to make headway on what can otherwise be tedious planning processes.

* The photograph at the top is from Flickr.com, reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.

The ripple effect

October 30th, 2009 No comments

Poncho wearer jumping for joy

The joy of ponchos...

As facilitators, trainers or coaches, we sometimes know that we have made a positive difference to the people we have worked with. But we can also have positive effects which we have no idea about – what we do can have a ripple effect that can continue long after we have packed up and gone home.

At September’s European conference of the International Association of Facilitators I attended a session run by a lively fellow facilitator from Spain, Sonsoles Morales in the main lecture theatre. During her session, she shared a very effective ice-breaker that had a much bigger effect on me than I had expected.

I’m putting on my poncho…

Sonsoles invited the 25 or so people in her workshop to take a piece of flipchart paper each, and a marker pen. She then asked us to fold the flipchart paper in half, and position the paper so that the fold was at the top. Using the marker pen, we each then wrote something on the front of the flipchart that we felt best described ourselves. Some people chose to write keywords, some wrote sentences. I chose to draw some pictures that showed different parts of my life.

We then tore a half-moon-shaped hole in the top folded edge of the flipchart, creating our very own personalised ponchos.

My poncho from the front

My poncho from the front

Sonsoles led us outside into a garden area in bright autumn sunshine. I put on my poncho for the first time, wearing what I had written at the front, and wondered a little nervously what would come next.

What do you see?

Unexpectedly, Sonsoles asked us not to focus on what other people had written on the front of their ponchos, but instead to walk around the group, find people we did not know, and just look at them as people. We were then to walk behind them, and write briefly on the back of the poncho something that had struck us about the person we had just looked at – their physical appearance, or how they seemed to us as people. Sonsoles encouraged us to seek out people who did not have much written on their backs, and write a few words.

As the exercise went on, I became very curious about what other people had written on my back. I was also aware that I didn’t really know who in the group had written on my poncho – most of my attention was on the people I was looking at, rather than the people who were looking at me.

Once everyone had some comments on their ponchos, Sonsoles led us back inside. Only then were we allowed to remove the ponchos and turn them over to reveal what the strangers we had met thought about us.

Our survey said…

My poncho from the back

My poncho from the back

The words written on my back were very simple and straightforward, including:

  • Fun
  • Nice Beard
  • Funny
  • Library & books
  • Beautiful eyes
  • Love your drawing

I was surprised to find tears coming to my eyes as I read the words on the back of my poncho. A group of complete strangers had chosen to say nice things to me – someone they barely knew. I realised how rare it is for us to give or receive heartfelt, simple compliments to people we do not already know well.

For myself, I know it is much easier and safer for me to keep barriers up in a social situation where I am among people I don’t know, to manage my own anxiety. Opening up and being direct makes me feel uncomfortable and vulnerable – it raises the risk of being ignored, misunderstood or rejected. I can avoid that risk by playing safe, and not giving away what I am thinking or feeling. But having experienced how it feels to receive a heartfelt compliment has made me more willing to take the first step of paying those compliments to others.

The ripple effect

So what effect has this had on me?

One immediate effect was that I decided to give some positive feedback to a fellow facilitator at the conference who had deeply impressed me the previous day. And I have blogged about the conversation this led to, which has stayed with me since.

A second effect was a more general one – to make more of an effort to tell people what I like about them – strangers I talk to, friends and family, shop assistants, anyone I come into contact with. This effect has faded a bit since the conference – I’ve slipped back to my self-protecting old ways – but writing about it today has brought it back to the front of my mind.

Using this activity as an icebreaker

The effect the activity had on me was not one that Sonsoles could have predicted, and it will not have this effect on everyone. Nevertheless, one reason the activity works is because it does encourage people to be direct with each other in a way that builds trust. It would work particularly well for a group that does not know each other very well to start with, and could accelerate the process of getting to know each other.

Sonsoles also added a further step to the exercise, which I left out of the description above. After writing on each other’s backs, we walked around as a group again, but this time looking at the front of our colleagues’ ponchos for connections and similarities. Some of the other comments on the back of my poncho – about having two sons, and having a link to Scotland – were the result of similarities I found to other members of the group. This makes use of what is on the front of the poncho, and helps build connections between individuals in the group.

Conversations for change

October 22nd, 2009 2 comments

Conversation

Talking with passion, listening attentively

I recently had an unexpected, powerful conversation which has had a lasting impact on me. It has also helped me to see more clearly what I am doing when a coaching session or facilitated meeting goes really well.

It happened like this…

I attended the European Conference of the International Association of Facilitators in Oxford in mid September. It was a good conference, well organised with some interesting sessions, and in the beautiful setting of Keble College. But like many events I go to these days, some of the best discussions I had were in the breaks between sessions, or over dinner or a drink with other participants.

One of those conversations took place on the Friday night, when I spent a good part of the evening talking to a facilitator from Finland. She told me a lot about what mattered to her in her life, about big changes she had made and challenges she had overcome. I learned a lot about her in a very short time.

When I reflected on our conversation the next day, I realised that I had done what I normally do. I pride myself on being a good listener, reflecting back and asking questions that help others to open up, and being comfortable when people are showing strong emotions. These are some of the core skills I use in my work, and I had used them in our conversation.

But what I hadn’t done is give anything of myself; I hadn’t told her what I really thought, and hadn’t really revealed much about me.

Opening up

So at the close of the conference, with my bags packed, I made a point of seeking her out, and sharing with her how she had struck me – as a beautiful, strong, confident person, and as someone I admired for the difficult changes she had made in her life. We agreed to walk together into Oxford on my way to the station, and we continued our earlier conversation. As we talked half an hour became an hour, we took a detour to visit my old college and sat on a bench to talk, we went for a coffee and continued the conversation. In the end we spoke for 4 or 5 hours.

As we talked our conversation deepened and became more two-way, as I opened up and talked a bit more about my own life and my experiences. I learned things about myself and my own hopes and fears that I hadn’t been aware of before. And what had started as a farewell became a conversation that has stayed with me and continues to affect me now.

A powerful conversation

So what made this conversation different?

  • There was some emotional content to it. Most conversations, certainly all important ones, have an emotional element. But in this conversation we named the emotions and talked about them directly.
  • Connected to this was an honesty and openness – rather than hiding behind my professional skills as a listener, I chose to also talk and voice my own experiences, and be changed. It felt like I was taking a risk, but a risk I was willing to take because there was already an openness from the person I was talking to.
  • Deep listening – both of us sat and listened to the other talking, and gave each other the space to speak. There were occasional silences where nothing needed to be said.
  • Being in the moment – we both chose to be present in the conversation and make that the main thing we were doing; the time flew past quickly.

Soon afterwards I came across this quotation from Conversation by Theodore Zeldin:

…talking does not necessarily change one’s own or other people’s feelings or ideas…Real conversation catches fire. It involves more than sending and receiving information…

..conversation is a meeting of minds with different memories and habits. When minds meet they don’t just exchange facts: they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, engage in new trains of thought. Conversation doesn’t just reshuffle the cards: it creates new cards.

And I realised that this is what happens when I am doing my best work – when I am mediating well, or when we make real progress in a coaching session, or when I am really ‘in the moment’ as a facilitator and aware of what is happening in the room. What connects all of my work at its best is this type of conversation – where emotions are engaged, there is an honesty and directness, where people truly listen and allow themselves to be changed by what they hear. Experiencing this personally has helped me to realise that this is what the people I work with sometimes experience as a result of the conversations I take part in.

So what next?

So what has happened since? Now that I am thinking this way, I’m seeing references to conversation everywhere (in the language of improvisation, I’m accepting an offer):

  • By chance, I recently met a former colleague I haven’t seen for three years, Cliodhna Mulhearn. Cliodhna is doing very powerful work using conversation to bring about change, focusing on Appreciative Inquiry.
  • Cliodhna recommended Appreciative Inquiry for Change Management to me; chapter 6 of this book is about the power of conversation, and describes exactly the kind of powerful conversation I had.
  • I talked about these ideas with my own coach, who directed me to a group of academics and practitioners who are using and writing about this approach to change, not just on a personal level, but at a team and organisational level as well.

This has also given me the incentive I needed to start this blog. I know that I usually find out what I think by opening my mouth and starting to speak ๐Ÿ˜‰ So the blog is partly a conversation with myself, and writing these posts may well change what I think, as well as record my existing thoughts. But of course a blog is an open space, so maybe there will be others out there who will join in this conversation, and I’ll learn from them too? If you’re there, it would be nice to hear from you.