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Job/career/purpose

May 9th, 2010 2 comments

I got a couple of really good points from the TED video that I have embedded below. The video is a recording of Stefan Sagmeister, who runs a New York design agency. Every 7 years he takes a sabbatical year off, to recharge his batteries and to generate some new ideas.

At 1:30 Stefan describes how he sees his sabbaticals as effectively ‘bringing forward’ some of the retirement he hopes to enjoy at the en of his working life (he has a really nice animated graphic that makes his point very clearly). This is how I have been thinking of my own part-time working over the past five years. Except that I am bringing forward some of my retirement into every week – I am able to do now some of the things that earlier in my life I had been putting off until retirement. But the idea of a year-long sabbatical is even more attractive…

At 2:25 Stefan develops an idea from an earlier TED talk by Jonathan Haidt. He distinguishes between a job, a career and a calling:

  • Jobs: we do them for money, 9-5
  • Careers: we do them for promotion
  • Calling: we would do this even if we weren’t paid to do it

Apart from preferring the word ‘purpose’ where Stefan uses the word ‘calling’, this is also how I think of my own work. I am overjoyed each time I find myself doing work that I would happily do unpaid: playing games with groups of adults; sharing skills and knowledge that I find useful and interesting with new people; coaching people to achieve their goals; mediating between people in conflict. This is great work, and I want to spend more of my time doing it.

Hat tip to Alexander Kjerulf for linking to the TED video.

“Yes, and” not “Yes, but”

January 21st, 2010 No comments

Drilling a well

Drilling a well

This post concludes my summary of chapter 1 of Susan Scott’s book Fierce Conversations, and covers two new techniques.

“Yes, and” not “Yes, but”

Scott describes a very simple technique which makes a noticeable difference to the quality of conversation. She recommends whenever we find ourselves about to say “yes, but”, replacing those words with “yes, and”.

“I need your help with this project.”

“Yes, but I’m very busy right now.”

The ‘yes’ here does acknowledge the need, the ‘but’ says ‘but I’m not going to meet that need’.

“I need your help with this project.”

“Yes, and I’m very busy right now.”

There’s a bit more wriggle room here – the second response doesn’t quite have the air of finality. There’s some room for discussion.

How does this work? Because saying “yes, but” acknowledges that there are competing needs, and asks us to choose between them – we can only have one or the other. Saying “yes, and” acknowledges that both realities or sets of needs can be valid, and allows us to look for ways in which everyone’s needs can be met. There’s more potential in the second response.

Mineral rights conversations

A ‘mineral rights conversation’ is one that has a clear focus, and drills down deep. The name comes from the idea that if you are drilling for water, it’s better to drill a single hundred-foot well, than one hundred one-foot wells.

A mineral rights conversation has seven steps:

  1. Identify your most pressing issue.
  2. Clarify the issue.
  3. Determine the current impact.
  4. Determine the future implications.
  5. Examine your personal contribution to this issue.
  6. Describe the ideal outcome.
  7. Commit to action.

This is a structure that could be used effectively in a coaching conversation. Scott gives a long example of a mineral rights conversation in the form of a transcript of a conversation she had with John Tompkins, the owner of a fishing company that was in trouble.  In the conversation Scott uses powerful, focused questions that lead the company owner through these steps. The conversation ends with a clear commitment on John’s part to take specific actions. And at no point does Scott offer advice or tell John what to do – he generates his own solutions. Her main strategy is just to ask good questions.

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

Seeing the world in a more useful way

December 20th, 2009 No comments

In my last post I wrote about how we don’t see the world they way it is, we see the world the way we are (since writing that, I’ve learned that this is a saying that comes from the Judaic Talmud). In the entertaining and thought-provoking video below, Beau Lotto demonstrates this same point using some eye-popping optical illusions.

Seeing the world in a more useul way

Lotto shows that what we see has no inherent meaning of its own – the same visual stimulus on our retina could come from an infinite number of real-world situations. What our brains do is create meaning and significance by making some assumptions about what it is we are seeing – assumptions based on what has been useful to us to assume in the past.

So evolution explains how we see the world now – those of our ancestors that survived to pass on their genes probably made assumptions about the world that were more useful than the assumptions made by their brothers and sisters who didn’t survive. They spotted predators hiding in the bushes, for example, and reacted more quickly.

The conclusion that Lotto draws in the video clip is that our brains didn’t evolve to see the world the way it is – we can’t do that. Our brains evolved to see the world in the way it was useful to see the world in the past.

Ted Talk: Beau Lotto: optical illusions show how we see

But Lotto also makes a wider point. He argues that what is true of visual information is true of all information in general. There is no inherent meaing in information, it’s what we do with that information that matters – we make sense of it.

Making more useful assumptions

We can see this process at work in the way that we make judgements about other people, including complete strangers. We size people up by the way that they dress, the colour of their skin, how they walk and talk, and so on. We do this in ways that we are not even aware of. So within 20 seconds of meeting someone for the first time, we have decided whether we like them or not.

When we do this we are making assumptions about people based on limited information – assumptions which may have been helpful in the past. But this kind of assumption is also often wrong.

Rather than try to fight our natural tendency to make assumptions – which is nearly impossible to do – what we can do is be aware of the assumptions we are making. Notice how we are responding to other people, and ask ourselves on what information our assumptions are based. That then gives us an opportunity to seek out new information that might change our point of view – we can be more open-minded, and more generous towards the other person than we might otherwise have been.

This is very relevant when we are working with people in conflict. They will be telling themselves stories that make sense of their situations, based on assumptions that may well have helped them in the past. But there may be a more useful set of assumptions they could make instead – more useful in terms of meeting their needs. And we can help them to test out and choose to alter their assumptions.

This applies to mediators too. We need to be aware of the judgements we are making about the parties in the conflict, catch ourselves making those assumptions, and give ourselves the opportunity to change our minds as we find out more, and be open to that possibility.

What can you learn from a glass of water?

December 6th, 2009 No comments

Glass of water

I attended a corporate awayday on Thursday, as a participant rather than a facilitator (for a change). It was a pretty good day, made better by the fact that the agenda was not too packed (only 4 main sessions), and time was allowed for networking and chatting. Not enough time for my taste, but then my preference now is for the Open Space model, which essentially turns an awayday into one long coffee break.

Guy Browning of Smokehouse led an entertaining session on creativity. He told some good stories, and encouraged us to try out some good techniques, one of which struck a particular chord with me.

What can you learn from a glass of water?

Standing at the front of the room in front of the 60 or so participants, Guy held up a clear glass of water. He asked us each to take the viewpoint of the glass of water, and write down what the glass of water was seeing, feeling and experiencing at that moment.

My thoughts were:

  • seeing: a room of people, a hand very close, windows and greyness outside
  • feeling: anticipation, fear, curiosity
  • experiencing: feeling new-born, just been taken to a new vantage point

Guy made the point that the exercise allowed us to project ourselves onto something as plain and unfeeling as a glass of water. And what we had each come up with told us something about ourselves – what we thought the glass of water was seeing, feeling and experiencing was connected with how we ourselves were at that moment. “You don’t see the world as it is, you see it as you are”. And I can see some links between my thoughts about the glass of water, and how I was feeling at that time.

This is interesting to me for two reasons. The first is because these kinds of projective techniques can be useful to facilitators, coaches or mediators. Rather than asking people directly to describe how they are feeling or what they are experiencing (when they may censor themselves, or say what they think you want to hear), you can use a technique like this to help people find other ways to reveal how they are – drawing, choosing a postcard from set of 50 postcards, taking an imaginary walk and describing what they can see, and so on.

The other reason this is of interest to me is that it is connected with bringing about change. We may be acutely aware of what we are unhappy with in the external world – what we would like to change. But we are often unaware of how our own actions are bringing about the outcomes we so dislike. For example, I blogged recently about how our desire for security and control may actually make us less secure.

If you’re not part of the problem…

Adam Kahane touches on this in his book on mediation Solving Tough Problems. He takes issue with the slogan “If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem”. Kahane says that this slogan

actually misses the most important point about effecting change. The slogan should be…”If you’re not part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution”. If we cannot see how what we are doing or not doing is contributing to things being the way that they are, then logically we have no basis at all, zero leverage, for changing the way things are – except from the oustside, by persuasion or force.

This is a really important point for anyone who wants to bring about change. It would be easy to see ‘being part of the problem’ as itself a problem for a change-maker, but Kahane encourages us to see it as an opportunity. Being inside a problem makes it easier, not harder, for us to have empathy with the other ‘problem people’ – they are more similar to us than we may care to admit. And it gives us an insight into how they (we) are creating the problem, how difficult it is to make personal change, and what we can do to make it easier for others to change – often by taking the first steps ourselves.

Caring

November 13th, 2009 2 comments

Listening

Listening

I wrote a while ago about the differences between exercising my professional skills as a listener, and choosing instead to actually engage in a conversation and give something of myself. One of the differences is needing to care, in order to actively take part in a conversation.

For example, mediation works well when there is a level of empathy between the mediator and the parties in the conflict. As a mediator, I can only properly empathise with the parties when I let myself care about them – when I have genuine concerns for the pain or difficulty they are both experiencing. I can’t be cool and detached when I am caring, I have to be on their side in some way – on the side of both of the parties, that is (what some mediators refer to as multi partiality).

In their book Appreciative Inquiry for Change Management, the authors link this idea of caring to the idea of being authentic.

It is possible to read plenty of books about listening ‘techniques’ and still miss the point. One of the challenges for us is to develop our authenticity as a listener. This means we listen, not because we have to but because we are genuinely curious and care about the speaker and what they are seeking to communicate. (p. 89)

This is harder to do than it is to say. While I am listening to you, your words are prompting thoughts and responses in my mind. More often than not I am waiting for you to finish only so that I can tell a funny story of my own that you have reminded me of. Or I have such a strong reaction to the first thing you said that I don’t listen to your careful exceptions and explanations – I just want to tell you why you’re wrong.

When I’m doing this I’m not really in a conversation with you – I’m just waiting for you to get off-stage so that I can have the star turn. The hard work is in really listening to what you are saying – all of it – and actually responding to what you said.

This perfection is difficult to achieve – sometimes my internal voice is just too insistent, and I need to speak. And it’s not much of a conversation if I never give my own opinion or viewpoint. But to listen to somebody – to really listen to them – is to treat them as a person who is worth listening to.

If you have experienced another person paying you full attention because they care for you, then it’s a memorable moment. (p. 89)

(Hat tip to Steve Hindmarsh for first introducing me to Ivan Böszörményi-Nagy’s idea of multi partiality or multi-directed partiality.)

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

Your body is always in the present

November 8th, 2009 No comments

Noticing

Noticing

Steve Davis has some good advice for speakers who want to really engage their audiences. Rather than treat people as passive listeners, Steve identifies ways to involve them instead.

One phrase in Steve’s post particularly caught my eye:

Your body is always in the present moment. It can’t be elsewhere.

This is not just true for presenters and trainers, but is also helpful advice for mediators.

As a mediator I will sometimes be aware of a tension in my body, or a sudden coldness, or a feeling of fatigue. When I notice this, for a short while I will take my main focus away from the parties in the mediation and be curious and interested in what I have noticed.

Is something happening in the mediation that is reminding me of a past experience of mine (something from childhood, or as recent as the row I had with my partner this morning?) Am I feeling tired and bored right now because that is how the parties are also feeling? How is this feeling affecting my ability to mediate right now and to serve the interests of the parties? Do I need to do anything about it, or just notice that it’s there and let it go?

If I decide I need to do something about it, I may just centre myself, breathe in and out and let the feeling wash away as I return my attention to the parties. Or I may choose to mention out loud how I’m feeling and ask whether the parties are feeling something similar.

This checking in and responding to a feeling usually takes just a few seconds, and is also something I do as a facilitator. If I’m feeling puzzled, tired, confused, excited or angry while I’m facilitating, it might just be me, or that feeling might be telling me something that’s going on in the room. I can choose to check out these clues, but I have to notice them first and pay attention to them before they can help me.

Holding ideas lightly

November 1st, 2009 No comments

Bird on a wire

Bird on a wire

Johnnie Moore offered a good post today about the dangers of being too certain in the context of making decisions. He quotes Jonah Lehrer as saying

Being certain means you’re not worried about being wrong.

Certainty is also one of the things that drives conflicts – certainty that I am right and you are wrong, certainty that I am seeing things clearly and you are confused, or certainty that I am acting rationally and you are acting emotionally (heaven forbid).

When I am training mediators, one of the skills I help them to develop is the ability to give reflective summaries – to summarise back to the parties in a conflict what they have said, in a way that helps everyone to hear. Mediators try to make these summaries in a tentative way – open to correction if they miss something out or misinterpret what was said. They can not be certain that they have got the summary right, and need the speaker to help them to make a good summary.

One year after the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, but while the apartheid regime was still in place, Adam Kahane helped facilitate discussions between the main groups in South Africa. These included groups opposed to the regime (including the ANC, the National Union of Mineworkers, and the South African Communist Party). But the discussions also included representatives of the white business community and academia.

In his book Solving Tough Problems, Adam describes how, over a series of meetings, the individuals were able to better understand each others’ points of view. The group was able to agree on four different possible futures for South Africa. These scenarios influenced the views of the then government, and the government-to-be in the form of the ANC, and made a direct contribution to the way in which power was transferred from the white minority to a democratically-elected government.

Adam attributes much of the success of this process to the tentative way in which the participants held their ideas:

They held their ideas lightly; they noticed and questioned their own thinking; they separated themselves from their ideas (“I am not my ideas, and so you and I can reject them without rejecting me”). They “suspended” their ideas, as if on strings from the ceiling, and walked around and looked at these ideas from different perspectives.

I love the idea of holding ideas lightly, and distancing ourselves from our own ideas by ‘walking around them’ to inspect them. This idea has applications not just in mediation or conflict resolution, but in facilitation and coaching too. For example, in an effective post-project review, the participants will hold their ideas lightly, open to the idea that there are things they do not know, and open to the possibility that their own views will change as a result of what they hear.

* 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 😉 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.