Archive

Posts Tagged ‘quotes’

Scouting for strategy

September 30th, 2016 No comments

Scouting for strategy

“When faced with the choice to change his mind or find the proof not to do so, the conventional man always gets busy looking for proof.”
J K Galbraith

Developing an effective strategy for your organisation depends on your willingness to confront inconvenient truths, and your ability to see the world as it is, rather than how you wish it were.

The Dreyfus affair

In 1894, a member of the French army’s general staff discovered a torn-up note in a waste-paper bin. When they pieced the note back together, they found that an officer had been selling military secrets to Germany. The hunt began to find the traitor.

photo of Alfred Dreyfus

Alfred Dreyfus

Suspicion quickly fell on Alfred Dreyfus: it was no coincidence that Dreyfus was the only Jewish officer of his rank in the entire army. It was at this point that confirmation bias kicked in. Every piece of evidence the investigators gathered was interpreted in a way that confirmed the conclusion they had already reached: that Dreyfus was the traitor. The investigators:

  • compared Dreyfus’ handwriting to that on the memo, and concluded that they matched (even though professional handwriting experts were much less confident);
  • searched Dreyfus’ apartment and found nothing at all to incriminate him (which just went to show what a clever and well-trained spy he was);
  • talked to his school-teachers and learned he had been interested in learning foreign languages (useful for betraying secrets to foreign powers); and
  • learned from his teachers that Dreyfus had an excellent memory (very useful for a spy, who has to memorise a lot of information).

Dreyfus was found guilty, publicly humiliated and imprisoned for life on Devil’s Island, a barren land off the coast of South America.

Mad, bad or wrong?

So were the investigators mad, bad or wrong to conclude that Dreyfus was guilty on such flimsy evidence? Did they know he was innocent but just not care? Was he framed to protect someone else?

Researcher Julia Galef argues that we don’t have to assume any madness or badness on the part of the investigators. What they did was all too human and predictable: we are all guilty at times of the confirmation bias to which they fell prey.

The soldier and scout mindsets

In an illuminating TED talk, Galef contrasts two different mindsets, which she calls the ‘soldier’ and the ‘scout’.

Imagine a soldier in the heat of battle, with adrenalin pumping and heart pounding. The soldier’s actions all stem from deeply-ingrained reflexes: instincts aimed at protecting their own side and defeating the enemy. They are swept along by this over-riding purpose.

By contrast, a scout’s job is not to attack or defend: the scout’s job is to understand how things really are. They may hope to learn there is a safe place to make camp just over the next ridge, but if what they find is an exposed plain with no good shelter, that is just what they will report back to their commanding officer.

These roles are also metaphors for different mind-sets. When the French high command were investigating Dreyfus, they were almost certainly in a soldier mindset. Their country was under threat, military secrets were being sold to a foreign power. It was an ‘us’ and ‘them’ situation. And Dreyfus may well have stood out at first because he was Jewish – for the investigators he was not one of ‘us’, so he must have been ‘one of them’.

Enter the scout

A high-ranking French officer began to suspect that the case against Dreyfus was flawed. Colonel Picquart had reason to believe that the spying had continued after Dreyfus was in prison. But it took 10 years for him to finally have the case against Dreyfus over-turned.

Picquart demonstrated a ‘scout’ mindset. He was interested in confronting the truth, even when that was inconvenient for him personally (during his campaign to free Dreyfus, he himself spent time in prison for his disloyalty to the army). He was curious enough to investigate why Dreyfus might not be guilty, even when his organisation was convinced otherwise.

Scouting for strategy

In developing an effective organisational strategy, you need to follow a process that forces you to confront the world as it actually is, not how you would like it to be. The scout mindset – curiosity, a willingness to look for evidence that disproves what you believe, and an ability feel proud rather than ashamed when we discover our errors – is your friend when facing an uncertain future.

What you can say about this

  • Are we being soldiers or scouts here?
  • What evidence could we find to show this isn’t true?
  • Who am I not listening to right now, because they see things differently to me?

Want to know how to see the world as it actually is when developing your organisation’s strategy? Drop me a line at stuart@stuartreid.org.uk.

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.

How amazing is your workplace?

November 5th, 2010 7 comments

Fun at work?

Fun at work?

I work for myself. And I have a great boss – most requests for training get approved, I work flexible hours, and if I really don’t want to take on a particular job, I don’t have to. I get pretty much anything I ask for from my boss.

However generous my boss is, I realised the other day that he may not be doing everything he can to help me do my Great Work. Because I am not asking for everything I need. In particular, I don’t (yet) have a workplace that really supports me in doing the best work I can. (I was inspired to think about this by hearing a reference to “the most fun workplace in human history”.*)

My best ever chance to have the most fun workplace in human history is right now – when I am my own boss, and I work mainly from home. Who else in my life is going to be so motivated to give me everything I need and want to get my work done?

So what would I ask for if I could have anything I want to support me in doing my Great Work? Here are some things I thought of:

  • an uncluttered, calm and tasteful work environment – nice pictures on the walls;
  • great coffee, available on demand;
  • someone to do all the Good Work for me that has to be done, but which is not my Great Work (including sales and marketing, bookkeeping and financial planning);
  • membership of a gym to help me keep in shape; and
  • an in-house café serving healthy, tasty food.

And then I asked myself how much of this can I have right away. So in the past few weeks I have:

  • de-cluttered my house and my home office, selling/donating/recycling/binning things I no longer need or want;
  • hung up the on my walls the pictures that were in my storage cupboard for so long that I had forgotten they were there;
  • bought, installed and filled the furniture and storage I need so that I now have a place for everything and everything in its place;
  • got back to inbox zero on a daily basis, and am working now on emptying my physical in-tray;
  • got back into exercising twice a day (at home rather than in a gym);
  • taken the time to cook a proper lunch a couple of times a week;
  • invested in a coffee maker that makes a thermos jug of coffee in one go – so I can take it up to my study when I start work in the morning, and avoid having to pop down to make a fresh cup every half-hour or so;
  • researched local book-keeping services;
  • started using an ironing service on an occasional basis to free up time for me when I am busy.

All of these are things I could have done at any time in the past 6 months, but because I stopped noticing the environment I was working in, they either never occurred to me, or didn’t seem to be priorities.

So I’ve also made a note in my ‘to do’ list to review my work environment again at the start of next year. I wonder what small things I’ll notice then that will improve my working environment straight away?

Whether you work for yourself or for someone else, what one thing could you do this week that would help you have the most amazing workplace possible? Leave me a comment below to let me know; I’d love to hear your thoughts.

* The phrase comes from Joy at Work: A Revolutionary Approach to Fun on the Job [Amazon associate link] by Dennis W Bakke. I heard the book’s publisher Mark Pearson use the phrase in a podcast interview with Michael Bungay Stanier.

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

Categories: Change Tags: , , ,

Sharing lessons learned between projects

May 24th, 2010 No comments

Agenda for post-project reviewI frequently run ‘post-project reviews’ or ‘after-action reviews’. These events bring together teams who have recently completed a project, so that they can learn lessons for the future. The lessons could be ones that the participants will personally take forward with them into their future work, and can also be lessons that colleagues elsewhere in their organisation or partnership need to learn.

I have developed my own approach to running these events, drawing a lot on the ideas of Chris Collison and Geoff Parcell in their excellent book Learning to Fly, and also influenced by Nick Milton. I am quite pleased with the process I have developed, and at the same time I am dissatisfied with how effective it is overall – I think it is effective in helping individuals to learn their own lessons, but not very effective in sharing lessons across projects.

Reading a recent blog post by Nancy Dixon helped me to see where and why my current approach is falling short.

Nancy identifies three stages in the process of learning lessons across projects:

1. Sensemaking: The members of the project team jointly make sense of what they have learned.
2. Formatting: Designers assemble, translate, aggregate, and mine projects lessons in such a way that they are useful to different groups in the organization
3. Moving: KM professionals create both pull and push mechanism so that lessons are accessible to those who need them.

My post-project reviews focus on the first stage, and I feel that they have become effective in helping team members to identify the real issues, discuss openly what went well and not so well and why. But they could be more effective in stages 2 and 3.

The typical output from a post-project review that I run is a set of PowerPoint slides, which include photos I have taken of all the outputs from the review – these are usually a picture of the project timeline, with comments hand-written by the team; boards with hand-written cards showing what the team thought went well and not so well; and more detailed boards probing the key things that went well/not so well, identifying why and pulling out lessons learned. By including photos of the materials produced by the participants, rather than typing up their outputs, I reduce the amount of interpreting or processing of their thoughts – the idea is that the participants will recognise the outputs as their own.

What happens to these sets of PowerPoint slides? They may be read by the participants after the review (or just filed). They may also be discussed by the management team of the organisation that commissioned me to carry out the review (or more likely, the team may look at a formal paper based on the slides I produced). But there may be no other ‘formatting’ (stage 2 in Nancy’s process), and possibly no ‘moving’ at all (stage 3). The likelihood is that most of the learning will stay in the heads of the people who took part in the review.

While it is true that

If knowledge transfer went no farther than sensemaking, a considerable amount of transfer across the organization would have been achieved.

I still have a sense of missed opportunities – that more could be achieved.

What are the implications for me as a facilitator?

I do not think that I want to take on responsibility for stages 2 and 3. My skills as a facilitator are in helping the project team have the conversation during which they identify the learning. I have produced learning materials in the past, but instructional design is not my main area of expertise (nor is it where I want to spend my time). And I do not work within organisations as a KM professional to create systems to push and pull knowledge around.

I do think I have a responsibility when contracting with a client to raise these issues and ask how they think the lessons can and should be taken forward and shared – how do they see it happening? And I could share what I have learned from Nancy’s blog post.

There may also be some learning for me about the lessons learned process. When the team has identified a lesson, I could ask them to identify specifically who that lesson may be useful for – it could be a named individual or individuals, it could be people in a particular role (eg project managers). This would at least help to target the lesson more effectively.

And I could also ask the team to review all the lessons they have identified in a particular post-project review, and identify the top 2 or 3 they think have most value for other people.

What else could I do while still remaining in what Nancy refers to as the ‘sensemaking’ stage of transferring lessons learned?

* The image at the top of the post is from a post-project review that I ran in 2009

Interrogating reality

January 3rd, 2010 No comments

Lion and cub

Lion and cub

This post continues my summary of Susan Scott’s Fierce Conversations (I got as far as the introduction last time!)

Chapter 1 (‘Master the courge to interrogate reality’) is the longest single chapter in the book, and will take me more than one post to summarise.

Interrogating reality

Reality changes

‘Interrogating reality’ is one of the four key purposes of a fierce conversation (the others being provoking learning, tackling tough challenges and enriching relationships). This is a never-ending activity, because reality changes. Scott uses a great quote from Lillian Hellman to illustrate this:

People change and forget to tell one another

Worse than this, we ourselves change and we mask it from ourselves quite well too.

Scott introduces the analogy of a beach ball to develop this idea further. Imagine that your organisation is a beach ball – with a blue stripe, a red stripe, a green stripe and a yellow stripe. You are the president of the organisation, and you spend all your time on the blue stripe. To you, your organisation is blue.

But your finance director may spend all her time on the red stripe – her reality is very different. So when you lay out your vision for the future in a board meeting, you talk about blue; and your ideas are brilliant, because they take full account of the blueness of the organisation. But your finance director wonders if she is working in the same organisation as you – she raises her concerns based on her red view of the organisation. Meanwhile the VP of engineering, who lives on the yellow stripe, is so uncomfortable in the face of conflict that he sits so still in the meeting that everyone forgets he’s there – he disappears, and no one can remember later whether he was there or not.

How often in organisations do people hide what they really think? When the boss outlines his or her latest idea, how often do people just smile and nod, while inside they are thinking “This is crazy!”, “It will never work”, “We tried that before and it failed last time!”. These are likely to be the very people who will have to implement the idea, in which they have no faith. How often do you find yourself saying things you don’t mean, just to be polite? What conversations have you not been able to have with colleagues, with your life partner or with your children?

Who has the turth?

Scott believes that most people would rather hear the truth, even if it is uncomfortable for us:

[R]ecognize that there is something within us that responds deeply to people who level with us, who do not pamper us or offer compromises, but, instead, describe reality so simply and compellingly that the truth seems inevitable, and we cannot help but recognize it.

In an organisation, as in a relationship, everyone has a piece of the truth.We only know what we know (the blue stripe, for example). So getting at the truth for an organisation requires everyone to put their piece of truth on the table. Does this take time? Probably. But not doing it might take longer. Failing to take into account the views of others will lead them to quietly sabotage your plans – why should they care about your views, when you show little interest in theirs?

A three-step model for interrogating reality

Scott offers a very simple, three step model which helps to get everyone’s reality in the discussion (this summary uses my words rather than hers):

  1. State your view (including your recommendation if you have one)
  2. Check for understanding
  3. Check for agreement

How does this work?

You should clearly state how you see things, including what you think ought to be done (if you have an opinion on that). Some people choose not to express their view, in the belief that it will influence others and stop them saying what they really think. Scott’s view, which I agree with, is that people will assume you have a view anyway, and will try to guess what it is. Better to just tell them. It also gives people a firm starting point to respond to.

You then check to see whether people have understood what you think – let people ask questions to clarify (and if anyone is looking puzzled or thoughtful, invite them by name to ask questions if anything isn’t clear). And then you ask a genuine question inviting people who see it differently to say how they see it – acknowledge that it may be hard for people to speak up, but show that you are genuinely curious about their point of view. So you can acknowledge that you only know what you know, and others in the room will know things you don’t know, and will see it differently.

It is your behaviour now that will make the difference between this being a genuine discussion, and the discussion becoming a ritual. If someone expresses a view that differs from yours, do not become defensive and explain how you were right all along. Be genuinely interested in the alternative view – could they be right? You need to be tentative about your own viewpoint – could your proposal be improved or a different idea be better? Scott also recommends calling on each person individually to express their view. And ask people to comment on each others’ views too, as well as your starting point.

Well, that’s it for now. There is more to come in this chapter, including a way of holding a conversation that stays focused on the most important topic, and drills down to what really matters. I’ll cover that in the next post.

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

Why are ‘fierce conversations’ good for you?

December 28th, 2009 No comments

a fierce bald eagle in defensive mode

a fierce bald eagle in defensive mode

My stand-out book of the year for 2009 is Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott. This book was recommended to me this autumn by five different people who heard about my interest in conversation for change, so it arrived at just the right time for me.

The book is about how to have ‘real’ conversations about the things that really matter, with the people that really matter. While the book contains a lot of practical techniques and exercises to try, it is more than a set of top tips – the core of the book is about helping you decide the kind of person you want to be when in conversation. Do you want to be someone who plays safe and keeps every conversation light, or do you want to take the risk of being seen for who you are, and perhaps being changed?

The book is also packed with nice one-liners and quotes that help to keep the main messages memorable.

I’ll be writing a series of posts summarising some of the key ideas in the book, mainly to help me make sense of them for myself, by putting them into my own words. But I’ve also been trying to act on what I have read, so I may well reflect on that too.

So, what is a ‘fierce conversation’, and why would you want to have one? The best place to start is with the book’s Introduction: the idea of fierce.

Why are ‘fierce conversations’ good for you?

What is a fierce conversation?

‘Fierce’ can sound threatening, cruel or scary. But Scott intends it in a different way – for her ‘fierce’ means passionate, intense, robust, strong, unbridled and untamed.

In its simplest form, a fierce conversation is one in which we come out from behind ourselves into the conversation and make it real.

‘Fierce’ doesn’t quite do it for me – I can’t shake the feeling of aggression or threat that goes with that word. So I tend to talk instead about ‘powerful conversations’ or ‘effective conversations’, or just ‘conversations for change’. Not quite as passionate as Scott’s phrase, but then that may say something about me 😉

What are conversations like when they are not ‘fierce’?

Scott adapts a quotation from Ernest Hemingway to argue that “our lives succeed or fail gradually, then suddenly, one conversation at a time.” She paints a picture of avoided or unsuccessful conversations, where nothing real is said, relationships fail, tough challenges are avoided and no one learns anything.

If the conversation stops, all of the possibilities for the relationship become smaller and all of the possibilities for the individuals in the relationship become smaller, until one day we overhear ourselves in midsentence, making ourselves smaller in every encounter, behaving as if we are just the space around our shoes, engaged in yet another three-minute conversation so empty of meaning it crackles…

Many work teams as well as couples have a list of undiscussables, issues they avoid broaching at all costs in order to preserve a modicum of peace, to preserve the relationship. In reality, the relationship steadily deteriorates for lack of the very conversations they so carefully avoid. It’s difficult to raise the level if the slide has lasted over a period of years, and that’s what keeps many of us stuck.

Ouch. Not easy to read, particularly if it reminds you – as it does me – of conversations you are having or failing to have. In Scott’s view, each conversation has the potential to enhance our relationships, provoke learning, tackle touch challenges and interrogate reality. No single conversation can be guaranteed to do these things, but every conversation can.

Scott observes at various points in the book that “when the conversation is real, the change occurs before the conversation has even ended.” That was certainly true of the powerful conversation I had earlier this year.

At home and at work

Scott considered writing separate books about fierce conversations in our personal lives and in our work lives, but decided that would have been a mistake. In her view (and in mine too) “who we are is who we are, all over the place”. We can’t separate ourselves off successfully and have different conversations at home to the ones we have at work, not in the long run.

Scott’s observation has been that people who have problems at work have similar problems at home. For me, this is also a matter of choice and authenticity (about which Scott has more to say in a later chapter). Personally I want to be the same person at home as I am at work – to talk and behave in recognisably the same way, as much as I can (recognising I am only human and won’t always achieve what I set out to achieve). If I want to tell the truth, tackle a persistent problem or have a better relationship with my partner or my children, then I can approach it in the same way as I would at work. The techniques are the same, and so are the objectives:

  • interrogating reality
  • provoking learning
  • tackling touch challenges
  • enriching relationships

And she quotes the poet David Whyte:

The conversation is the relationship.

Every conversation we have has the potential to either enhance our relationship with the people we are speaking to, or fail to do so. We have a choice about how we want to use our conversations, and how much attention we want to pay to them.

Getting started

Scott is very pragmatic in her advice to the reader; most chapters have one or more assignments to try out. She advises us to be patient with ourselves, as change takes time. We can start one conversation with a time, beginning with the next person who stands in front of us. Her advice at the end of the introduction is to:

Begin to overhear yourself avoiding the topic, changing the subject, telling little lies (and big ones), being imprecise in your language, being uninteresting even to yourself. And at least once today, when something inside you says, “This is an opportunity to be fierce,” stop for a moment, take a deep breath, then come out from behind yourself into the conversation and make it real…

When you come out from behind yourself into the conversation and make it real, whatever happens from there will happen. It could go well or it could be a little bumpy, but at least you will have taken the plunge. You will have said at least one real thing today, one thing that was real for you.

So, are you interested in giving it a try?

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

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.

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.

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.