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Posts Tagged ‘emotion’

Up on the ridge

January 23rd, 2011 No comments

valleys and ridges

valleys and ridges

Up on the ridge

I came across a great article by Daniel Yankelovich the other day on ‘The magic of dialogue’ (hat tip to Lynn Murphy for the original link).

In the article Daniel refers to Martin Buber’s idea that life is a form of meeting, and that dialogue is the ‘ridge’ on which we meet. I like that image, because a ridge is narrow, and we need to take care not to fall off. It takes some effort to stay up there – it is easier to slip back down into our own territory, than it is to stay at the point where we are in a real connection with someone else.

Dialogue, debate and conversation

Daniel explains why he prefers to refer to ‘dialogue’ rather than debate; he feels that dialogue is about seeking mutual understanding, whereas debate is about winning an argument, or vanquishing an opponent. I share his interest in mutual understanding rather than winning, but I prefer to refer to ‘conversation’ rather than dialogue: conversation for me is a less formal, more everyday term than dialogue.

Tips for improving conversations

Daniel gives some great advice in his article for improving the quality of the conversations or dialogue that he is promoting. His tips include:

  • bringing assumptions out into the open (and sharing your own assumptions before pointing out the assumptions of other people);
  • offering a gesture of empathy (what Daniel calls an ‘open sesame’ for dialogue). Empathy usually involved “acknowledging the validity of the other person’s point of view”); and
  • “expressing the emotions that accompany strongly held values”. Conversation about any topic that really matters to people is bound to touch on deeply held beliefs and very personal convictions. “If the status quo is to be subject to question, strong feelings are bound to surface.”

The whole article is well worth a read, and I’m inspired to take a look at his book of the same name (Amazon affiliate link).

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

Security is a harmful illusion

November 22nd, 2009 No comments

Security is not just an illusion, but it’s a harmful one, according to Eve Ensler in the video below. This way of seeing the world has links to the way in which good improvisers make themselves vulnerable on stage.

Security is a harmful illusion

Eve Ensler makes her argument at the very beginning and very end of the video, and in the middle tells some stories to illustrate what she is saying. At one point she says:

we all die, we all get old, we all get sick, people leave us…and that’s actually the good news! Unless your whole life is about being secure

If what you want is to be absolutely secure, anything that might affect you or change you becomes a threat. So your time becomes focused on protecting yourself. You insulate yourself and isolate yourself – the only way I can absolutely prevent my relationship with you going bad is not to have a relationship with you in the first place.

And Eve Ensler points out that this just makes us less secure, as we are less connected to people and the world around us. So she argues that we should actually make ourselves less secure – we should “hunger for connection not power.”

Be changed

One of the basic guidelines that improvisers follow is to allow themselves to be changed – they allow themselves to respond to what is happening around them on the stage. This is not as easy or as obvious as it sounds.

Keith Johnstone is one of the founding fathers of improvisation. He recently returned to the UK to run an improvisation workshop, which I was lucky enough to attend. Keith explained in the workshop how as a theatre director in the 1950s he was puzzled by the way in which some plays had a lot of ‘stuff’ happening – war, death, torture – but he was left feeling unmoved. And in other plays not much ‘happened’, but he found himself emotionally affected by what he saw on stage.

Keith realised that the key difference between these types of plays was whether one character was changed by another. This is what ‘action’ is and it is what drives a story. So improvisers need to actually care about what is happening on stage, engage with it and be changed. It is easier to try to drive a scene in the direction you want it to go – towards the funny conclusion you can see in your mind’s eye for example – than to surrender to someone else’s idea and go with that. That involves being vulnerable and giving up some control. But scenes where two improvisers are fighting for control, with neither being changed by the other, are dead scenes for an audience – there is no development and no action. What audiences love to see is the improvisers taking risks, going with an idea and exploring it, committing to it.

So if our lives are going to have a story, to have some action, to go somewhere, then we need to allow ourselves to be changed by others. That is how we can make a real connection with someone else. And if Eve Ensler is right, this is more likely to give us what we need and want than pursuing the illusion of security.

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.

About

October 9th, 2009 Comments off

Stuart Reid

Hello. I’m glad you found me.

My name is Stuart Reid. I help leaders achieve positive lasting change in behaviour: for themselves, their teams and their organisations.  I believe that change happens one conversation at a time.

The focus of all my work is the people side of change: I work with human beings when they are being human at work. I spend a lot of my time helping managers and leaders have the key conversations they really need to have – with themselves, with their colleagues and with the people who work for them.

I help people to notice and pay attention to what is really going on in the here and now, because that is when change happens.

I am based in the Midlands in England, and work throughout the UK, continental Europe and beyond (I have run workshops in Sweden, Denmark, Finland and South Korea).

In practice my work involves:

  • developing leadership teams;
  • supporting change and transformation initiatives;
  • facilitating large group events; and
  • coaching individual leaders and managers

Developing leadership teams

I work with leadership teams at board level and elsewhere in organisations. I help those teams to clarify their purpose, reflect on how effectively they work and communicate together and make decisions, and review the impact they have on the wider organisation.

Supporting change and transformation initiatives

I help leaders and managers to try out light-touch ways of building greater capacity for change in their organisations. This includes disturbing established habits and patterns of behaviour, introducing novelty, granting permission to experiment and innovate and creating new connections inside and outside an organisation. For me, change is a natural, creative and on-going process in organisations: it happens all the time. It can’t be stopped and can’t really be ‘managed’ or controlled.  I help leaders to keep their nerve when they’re not in control.

Facilitating large group events

I have a particular skill in designing and facilitating large group events. These events can include strategy development awaydays, team-building, post-project reviews and project launch events. I use a range of methods, including Open Space, Appreciative Inquiry, knowledge cafes and more.

Coaching individual leaders and their teams

I provide coaching support to individual leaders one-to-one and their teams as a group, sometimes in combination with developing leadership teams and supporting strategic change. I help leaders to face head-on the issues they find themselves avoiding, and help them to slow down, notice more, and support them in making adjustments to the way they work with other people. People I coach feel well listened to, find me very curious about their perspective and their situation, and get a lot of support from me in trying out new ways of working and behaving.

Recent work

  • Facilitating awaydays for the Permanent Secretary and top team of a central Government department to build the team and help them to develop new ways of working.
  • Designing and facilitating an awayday for a senior leadership team to launch a review of their three-year strategy.
  • Running workshops with staff at all levels – managers, consultants, nurses and porters –  in three London hospitals to embed new values and new ways of working.
  • Working with the management board of a local charity to create a new three-year strategy.

A bit more about me

I have an MSc in Organisational Change at Ashridge Business School. This brought new ideas and approaches into my work, including Gestalt psychology, complexity theory and relational working.

Before running my own consultancy, I worked for twelve years at the Audit Commission, initially in policy and research roles before moving into senior management. In my time there I was personally involved in the merger and de-merger of departments, the launch of new products and services, and coping both with fast growth and with rapid budget cuts. I worked closely with the Chief Executive and Managing Directors on change projects and strategy development. My final three years at the Commission were spent as an internal consultant.

Before working at the Audit Commission I worked in a range of policy and research roles, mainly in the public sector. Prior to that I did some post-graduate study in political philosophy at the University of Arizona, and spent some time as a trainee auditor. My first degree was in Philosophy, Politics & Economics at Oxford University (2:1).

I play bridge, read voraciously, and go geocaching with my children aged 14 and 11. I am learning how to perform magic with playing cards. I avoid gardening.