Unhurried Update

I’ve been hosting Unhurried Conversations here in Cambridge for more than two years now. Here’s a post from a few months back describing the approach.

It continues to be a fascinating process. The format has remained more or less the same, and many of those attending are regulars. Yet each time the experience is surprising and satisfying.

In fact, I now host them fortnightly and in the weeks off I rather miss them. We’ve increased the maximum attending to 20, which means when everyone shows up, we have to split into parallel conversations. This way we’re able to meet what feels like growing demand.

The repeated experience feels like a great way of deepening my practice. It’s easy to get excited about new facilitation techniques, but for me the real excitement is in taking a simple technique and noticing more and more of the subtle ways in which people work with it. So for me, these conversations have contributed a lot to my professional work.

I find when I take on work now I am more willing to work organically, developing processes live in response to what I see happening in the room. I’m increasingly confident that people really want to connect, want to make things happen, and generally need less pushing, steering and guidance and fewer flip charts, post it notes, bells and whistles to get there. What the facilitator needs to bring, more than anything, is presence. Because much of the art is in self-restraint, leaving the most possible space for participants to operate in ways the work naturally for them – but still letting them realise that you are really engaged with them, even though you are not rushing about a lot.

Iin many organisations there is so much pressure to achieve and meet targets (so many meetings seem to be about “doing more with less”) that people are starved of reflective space. But it’s in that kind of space that I think there is most scope for discovery and creativity. It’s perhaps no coincidence that I am blogging less frequently than in the past. There’s really only so much one say about the value of showing up and being open to surprise; it looks simple enough, but I think it’s something that grows with commitment and practice.

Safety and effectiveness in groups

One of the things Viv and I will be exploring in our residential is the idea of psychological safety. Put simply, this is the quality of groups where people feel able to share views, including challenging ones, without fear of being (or feeling) attacked.

It’s much easier said than done. Nancy Dixon wrote a good post a few years ago pulling together much of the research on the subject.

Two things in particular stand out for me from this article. First, we often talk about organisation culture as if it’s a monolithic thing. Thus we are tempted to make sweeping statements about what is and isn’t possible in such an organisation. Nancy argues that “culture is localised” which means that whatever the whole organisation is up to, individual teams within it can set their own terms of engagement. It’s encouraging, because we can hope for change where we work now without having to pull big levers to change the whole business. Equally, your organisation’s stated values might be brilliant but this offers no easy guarantee of what can happen among the folks you work with. It’s more up to you.

Second, one of the biggest ways to increase psychological safety is to mitigate the power differences in the group. To put it crudely, the more bossy the boss, the less safety you create, and the stupider your group becomes. The challenge here for anyone aspiring to leadership is to risk some vulnerability.

The trouble with any remotely academic writing about this stuff is it tempts us to set up ideal situations. Thus we’re tempted to ask groups to agree “ground rules”, which I’ve sometimes found ineffective in supporting the actual practices that create lively engagement in groups.

In practice, the kind of safety and creativity we want to see in groups may need people to take risks. To feel unsafe in order to open the space for others to take risks. This is why Viv and I talk about a performance mindset for facilitation, borrowing ideas from improv theatre to build a kind of resilience for risk-taking.

We’re going to have plenty of opportunities to play with these ideas and practices in the workshop. It runs from 31 August to 2 September. Can’t wait. Booking details here.

Becoming the sort of leader you’d feel like following

When I wrote the page for our upcoming residential workshop, I included the idea of “becoming the sort of leader you’d feel like following”.  It could be a glib throwaway line, but I think it gets to something about what actually works with people. It’s about creating relationship and empathy, rather than getting stuck in the rut of being bossy or passively aggressive.

When I work with people on difficult conversations, many of the breakthroughs come when people stop trying to win, and somehow find ways to connect with the person they are thinking of as an adversary.

It’s an idea Izzy Gesell talks about in this post. I like his three part mantra of vulnerability, presence and spontaneity.

Izzy had a big impact on me when I met him years ago. As I reflect on my own practice as a facilitator since then, I think all three of those factors have been much more important than knowledge of any technique.

And I’m really looking forward to exploring this territory in more depth at the end of summer. (Full details of the workshop here.)

Pick up your ordinary

I listened again this morning to Viv’s and my podcast with David Robinson on the tyranny of excellence.

David’s motto, “put down your clever, pick up your ordinary” is often on my mind working with groups. The need to be expert, to look good often prevents people from relating to us and becomes a major roadblock to groups working well.

I’m really looking forward to exploring this in more depth at our residential workshop at the end of August. We’re going to have more time and space to get beyond simple facilitation techniques and look at what really goes on in groups.

Just talking…

There is a lot going on when people talk, and much of it goes unnoticed. This post – Telling is Listening – by Maria Popova highlights some of the richness that lies in any conversation, however trivial or exasperating it may appear to be on the surface.

It’s based on the writing of Ursula Guin, and it explores how in conversation we are not merely exchanging information.

Here’s one passage that resonates strongly, but the whole thing is worth your time.

Speech connects us so immediately and vitally because it is a physical, bodily process, to begin with. Not a mental or spiritual one, wherever it may end.

If you mount two clock pendulums side by side on the wall, they will gradually begin to swing together. They synchronise each other by picking up tiny vibrations they each transmit through the wall.

Any two things that oscillate at about the same interval, if they’re physically near each other, will gradually tend to lock in and pulse at exactly the same interval. Things are lazy. It takes less energy to pulse cooperatively than to pulse in opposition. Physicists call this beautiful, economical laziness mutual phase locking, or entrainment.

All living beings are oscillators. We vibrate. Amoeba or human, we pulse, move rhythmically, change rhythmically; we keep time. You can see it in the amoeba under the microscope, vibrating in frequencies on the atomic, the molecular, the subcellular, and the cellular levels. That constant, delicate, complex throbbing is the process of life itself made visible.

We huge many-celled creatures have to coordinate millions of different oscillation frequencies, and interactions among frequencies, in our bodies and our environment. Most of the coordination is effected by synchronising the pulses, by getting the beats into a master rhythm, by entrainment.


Like the two pendulums, though through more complex processes, two people together can mutually phase-lock. Successful human relationship involves entrainment — getting in sync. If it doesn’t, the relationship is either uncomfortable or disastrous.


In a network, in a mess, or in a mesh?

I’ve been rereading my posts about David Berreby’s book, Us and Them. This one explores how easily we fall into simple ways to separate people into categories, not noticing the myriad ways in which we are actually connected. A man who is a wartime enemy turns out to share his captor’s love of Horace. Here’s Berreby:

A conscious mind makes decisions and swears oaths to treat an enemy as an enemy, always. But consciousness is a tight, bright spotlight running over a restless ocean of mind. Elsewhere in that ever-changing sea of perception and feeling, things change without conscious intent. All that’s required is a message, set in human-kind code, touching the human-kind decoder. You – the you who thinks you know yourself – need not be involved. And so one dawn sixty years ago a soldier found that the code dividing the world into Horations and non-Horations mattered more, for that moment, than the one dividing armies.

We easily drift into essentialism, thinking the world really is made up of distinct groups, not realising that this is really the work of our own mental filters.

A lot of the time, when people are distressed, they see their lives as a mess. I think there’s a truth in that idea. But perhaps it would be better to see ourselves as entangled, inevitably part of a massive network of connections. If we see it as a mess and struggle to free ourselves, we create more stress. We become the animal caught in barbed wire, increasing its pain by trying to escape.

Or we might fall into another trap, seeing the world as networked, but in that clean, technological sense that makes us think if we think hard enough, we can regain control. This often leads to a lot of intense thought that goes nowhere.

If we slow down, we might realise that this mess is a sign that we are not alone… and from a sense of connectedness perhaps we can lose some of our panic and operate more comfortably.  We don’t come to a halt, and we don’t thrash about. We get a sense of being part of a system that acts on us just as we act on it.

We’re not in a mess, we’re in a mesh*.

*Thanks to Anne McCrossan for inspiring that thought, with her ideas about a healing mesh.

What sort of theatre?

Put-Down-Your-CleverI’ve sometimes talked about Bruce Schneier’s idea of “security theatre”. He uses this to describe security processes at airports that (in his view) create an illusion of security to reassure the public, but are actually pretty ineffective. I’ve extended that to talk about “action theatre”, by which I mean stuff we do in meetings like action planning that may appear to be to do with action but is sometimes really a way of avoiding difficult stuff and doesn’t actually lead to change. More here ( and see also commitment ceremonies).

So that’s theatre as in: not real just simulated.

But what about the kind of theatre that is real, in the sense that it goes beyond mere words and show to resonate with us emotionally, to register as true beyond mere logic or analysis?

In this sense, then everything that happens in organisations is theatre, though of varying dramatic impact.

When I’m working with people on difficult conversations, this seems important. Typically, when someone in a group shares a difficult conversation, the tendency is go for analysis. There are learned discussions about learning styles, or references to anyone of a number of pigeonholing systems like Meyers Briggs. Or to a variety of therapeutic models.

All of which is quite seductive but actually becomes quite time consuming. And while all this theory is being explained, I’m not sure that much changes. Perhaps the client gains some new insight, but I suspect that it remains theoretical.

And that’s because difficult conversations are a performance. There are things at stake. Feelings run high. And all the clever analysis can easily become a way of avoiding those feelings. As if we believe: if we strategise this enough, we can avoid all those awkward feelings. If I just work out what’s happening, I can control this situation.

I’m more inclined to think that instead of avoiding the drama inherent in difficult conversations, we might we want to accept it. And bring more of an actor’s mindset to them. Now actors like to think about motivation but they also do a lot of rehearsal. And that’s what I encourage people to do with difficult conversations. Play out a few lines of the scene and see how if feels to change what you say or do in any one of a number of ways.

Sometimes your understanding of the situation gains more from trying stuff out and doing things with your body, than engaging in analysis. Generally, it helps to try out some goofy things you wouldn’t normally do, to open up more possibility.

A lot of the time, people are surprised that very simple shifts can change how the conversation feels. Shorter sentences. Little changes of posture or pace. And doing less work and leaving more space to the other person. But you don’t get learning from a theory, you get it by trying, flailing around a little, and then making discoveries.

We put down our clever for a while, and use a bit more of the intelligence and creativity that comes out when we try stuff out, not just talk about it.


According to legend, famed cellist Pablo Casals was asked, at the age of 93, why he continued to practice. He replied, “because I think I’m noticing an improvement.”

Practice is a way of thinking about my work that I find really useful, and there are several layers to it.

In part, it’s about resisting the lure of labelling what I do as either success or failure. That seems to be set me up for anxiety. And if you are paying attention to the the intricacies of how human beings operate, it’s very hard to be sure if today’s success might turn out to be part of tomorrow’s failure, and vice versa. Beyond the labels of good and bad, we get more freedom to think about what’s actually happening.

This is not, however, an invitation to say, “oh well, anything goes”. As Dan Milman repeats in The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, there is never nothing happening. A spirit of practice encourages me to reflect more on how I work, not less.

It also constantly runs through my mind when I notice myself others doing what I call “teaching”. Teaching is ok in its place, but it’s a trance that quickly becomes self-defeating. When someone describes a challenge or problem, people often respond with advice and solutions. I often sense that isn’t really what’s needed.

I often ask myself, instead of explaining things to people can I either embody it more myself, or create an activity from which they might discover their own interpretation of it, or just let them continue to reflect for themselves instead of interrupting their journey with helpful suggestions.

My friend John Wenger makes great related point. Many of life’s skills are processed in parts of our brain that aren’t about information and analysis:

Research indicates that skills based in this part of the brain are best learned through motivation, practice and feedback, rather than simple transfer of information. In other words things that involve the “F” word (feelings) require a transformational learning process. As Emotional Intelligence guru Daniel Goleman, states, “A brief seminar wont’ help, and it can’t be learned through a how-to manual.

In other words, we learn this stuff through seeing others practicing, and by practicing ourselves. Not from a how-to book or seminar.

The spirit of practice also crosses the questionable boundary between work and life. I increasingly realise that what I am doing working with groups, I need to get better at doing with myself, on my own. I’m quite adept at noticing when groups get stuck and need changes of pace, process or environment. I now get to practice doing this for myself… paying more attention to when I’ve been staring at screens for too long and need to get out on the bike or in the pool… or just do the washing up.

I am rather thinking that all of life is practice, is we choose to think of it that way.

Viv podcasts

Viv has recorded a podcast with Jessica Tangelder talking about creative facilitation, including a lot about how she I work together.

Of course, I agree with just about all of it; Viv and I have practiced together a lot over the past few years (despite being on opposite sides of the planet). It’s still useful to me to hear Viv articulate it and remind me that there is a reasonably coherent explanation of how I work!