Unhurried Swimming

I’ve been working on the idea of Unhurried things with Antony Quinn. I posted the other day about Unhurried Conversations. (There are now MeetUps for Cambridge, Walthamstow, the rest of London and Torquay, Australia.)

And we’ve been working on quite a few other Unhurried ideas…at our own pace. And chatting last night, I realised my current swimming training is a great example of unhurried.

I’ve started lessons in total immersion swimming. It’s an approach which rethinks much of the standard thinking on how to propel a human being through water. Instead of focussing on strength and power, it aims to shape the body to be as aquadynamic as possible.

In my first lesson, the trainer filmed my default freestyle. Watching back was funny. In my brain, my legs were working hard to drive me up and down the pool. But in the playback, I could see that my imagined propulsion was more like flailing, and most of the time my legs were dangling down, more like an anchor than any kind of propellor. So there was a lot of effort for not much result.

The drills in training aim to gradually rewire muscle memory so that I can glide much more effectively. Shape and balance come to the fore. Like yoga in the water. Developing the new approach takes time and attention and reflects much of the value of an unhurried approach – more satisfaction and much less turbulence.

Unhurried Conversation

Over the past year, I’ve been hosting a series of Unhurried Conversations. Here are a few reflections on what I’ve learned.

I came up with the idea with my friend Antony Quinn. We both really like the idea of practicing an unhurried approach to things. Originally, we applied it to improv theatre, which we both dabble in from time to time.  When improv becomes manic, it seems to lead to absurd scenes of marshmallow motorbikes. When the pace is right, things connect and wonderful things emerge spontaneously.

When things are unhurried, we don’t necessarily go slow, but we create enough space for connection to happen. So our aim with our series of unhurried conversations has been to do that. We’ve hosted a dozen or so in Cambridge, and a couple in London.

We invite up to 12 people via MeetUp. We don’t specify a topic, rather letting people talk about whatever they want. Apart from briefly describing our idea, we use one very simple device to support the conversation.

It’s a talking piece. We pick an object and whoever holds it gets to talk. And everyone else listens. Which means the speaker won’t get interrupted. (And I add that you can hold the object and not speak… you can hold silence until you’re ready to speak.)

Some people using talking pieces like to use some deeply significant object with a history of use. We deliberately go for something mundane, like a sugar bowl. We don’t want to create too much reverence, especially for an object. It can become a bit portentous and create a pressure on people to be “deep”.

In fact, the longer we’ve run the process, the less I worry about whether the experience is deep or not. The conversations often move between light topics and more personal and profound ones. And in the end, I often find that all these are connected.

For instance, in one conversation, someone started by saying he liked the design of the teapot. On the face of it, small talk and trivial. But it led to a series of thoughts about design, and in the end to a whole series of observations about how our humanity is or isn’t supported by our work and organisations. In the end, we find depth without trying.

And trying to be deep can lead to all sorts of dead ends and frustrations.

There are sometimes concerns expressed at the start of the process. “What if someone grabs the bowl and talks for an hour about politics I don’t agree with?” Well, I have to say that has never actually happened. But I’d be relaxed even if it did. When people talk for a long time we have lots of choices about how to respond. We could, if we liked, see it as a kind of Alan Bennett monologue.

(One of our regular participants described our conversations as Pinteresque. He meant it as a compliment.)

In fact, what we find is that by suppressing interruptions we actually support greater succinctness of expression. When people know they aren’t going to be interrupted, they worry less and think, and express themselves, more clearly. Also, when people really feel listened to, it seems to increase their focus and the sense that their speech has meaning. They can slow down, and they tend not to repeat themselves.

Sometimes there are long silences, sometimes not. The silences are always fascinating. People worry about not being able to get a word in edgewise, and then we find no one speaks for quite long chunks of time.

I think in those silences we become aware of more connections that exist between us than appear in everyday conversations. That awareness can be a bit uncomfortable at first, but then it can be truly companionable.

After lots of these conversations, I am appreciating more and more how surprising people can be, given a bit of space to think and express themselves. Conversations are rich and complex, with much less of the battling for attention we often experience.

I love processes that are simple, but which stimulate human complexity. I think we need more of that. And less of the overelaborate and complicated ways we sometimes try to make things efficient. Simple devices promote complexity; complicated ones often squash it.

On not knowing and not blogging

2015-02-22 09.48.57I’m enjoying Not Knowing, an interesting book by Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner. It’s got some great quotes and sound bites – I really like the one pictured, about the shadow created by knowledge. They do a good job of naming all the difficult emotions that come with not knowing, and especially with feeling that we ought to know, or need to fake knowledge to maintain our status.

Yet some of the most interesting things happen at the boundaries of our knowledge.. the region they call Finisterre, where the land gives way to the ocean.

I made a promise to myself not to do much “blogging about blogging” but I’ll make an exception today. I notice I’ve fallen almost completely silent on this blog for the last few weeks. It wasn’t a policy decision, but I think I’ve been through a period of not feeling I want to put too much in words. The internet is awash with words and information, I get a bit weary of it and I’m not sure I want to keep adding to the excess.

There’s more aliveness in the space at the edge of the known. When I slip into a “teacher trance” this easily diminishes the energy of groups. Now there’s money to be made in the repacking and retailing of the known, in playing the expert. Divesting yourself of that mantle is to risk being naked. With all the associated risks and excitements, I guess.


In the Harry Potter series, Voldemort attempts to attain immortality by creating horcruxes. He splits off a fragment of his soul and stores it in an object or person. The idea is that he can be reconstituted from a horcrux in the event of his death.

In the real world, I think we’re often tempted to create horcruxes of our own. We take our ideas, desires and qualities, and invest them in things. Houses, cars, relationships, ideas.  We don’t notice that by investing in them, we sort of split off a part of ourselves and give it to an object.

I think one of the biggest horcruxes I ever made was a Mercedes Roadster. This was at a time when I was earning big bucks in advertising and I was especially prone to believing in marketing mythology. I imagined if I bought this hot car, I’d be driving to the French riviera every weekend. When I bought the car, what actually happened was I slept very badly for three months, worrying if someone was going to jealousy-scratch it outside my flat.

We can make horcruxes out of anything. Facilitators easily make them out of their favoured processes. We need to watch out for what we lose when we do this.

Idea Zoos vs Idea Habitats

Thinking some more about my previous post, and this common metaphor of “capturing” ideas and knowledge.

It makes me think of how wild animals are captured and put in zoos. The desire to provide the public with an amusing spectacle sits uneasily with claims about protection and preservation. Same with capturing ideas in brainstorms… are we really trying to protect and support these ideas, or are we really trying to keep other people reassured and entertained?

Maintaining the natural habitat for species is more challenging and doesn’t provide as much short term gratification. Similarly, supporting the kind of working relationships in which ideas naturally flourish is much more challenging to hierarchical organisations than creating brainstorms and innovation incubators and hubs. The urge to have something organised, and centralised may distract us from what really allows ideas to flourish.


What if we focus on the ideas that are so sticky, they don’t need a post-it note?

How often do we leave meetings where the walls are festooned with post-its? But do we really believe they are the sign of real productivity?

If we let go of this urgent need to “capture” knowledge, would we perhaps notice some more interesting things that are going on?

Messiness or order?

I found this after seeing a similar clip on Facebook. I find it mesmerising.

There are times when I see only a mess, and then you see order. The transitions can be breathtaking. When I watch it again, I seem to see more patterns and less mess. Feels like a metaphor for a lot of the best kinds of meetings. At the time they are often frustrating just before they become interesting. And with hindsight bias, we see less mess any more order.

Maybe it’s all order, all the way down?

Thanks to Anne McCrossan for helping me find a clip outside Facebook.


Shawn Callahan sometimes shares this little video clip with people, without much preamble, and then asks them what they see happening:

OK, most people ascribe human emotions and actions to the shapes. They say things like, “the big triangle was bullying the little triangle and the circle but the little triangle saved the circle.” Or they will ascribe roles to the shapes saying things like “the father didn’t like the boyfriend but despite being pushed away the boyfriend still went out with the girl and the father was angry.”

We like to tell ourselves a story to explain what’s happening rather than merely say they are geometric shapes moving on a two-dimensional plane. And because we tell ourselves a story we feel emotions as the story unfolds. And depending on our surroundings, we will verbalise these emotions.

I love this. It falls into my celery stick collection: At school, I wasn’t much good at biology (the room smelt funny, for one thing). But I remember the experiment where we put a stick of celery into a dish of blue dye. And watched the dye get sucked up by the celery, thereby revealing the mysteries of capillary action. Shawn’s experiment really shows at a fundamental level how emotion and storytelling influence how we understand the world. Reason and emotion are bound together.

Shawn also goes onto to suggest that a byproduct of his experiment is that it gives him a clue about the level of fear among the group he is working with.

Hat tip: Nancy White pointed me to this post. I should have been reading Shawn’s blog anyway!

Playing with reluctance

Many of friends will admit they used to think of me as a brain-on-a-stick. And I certainly used to be one of those folks who acted as if my body was mostly just a device to carrying my brain around, allowing it to get on with the serious business of thinking.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been making concerted efforts to pay more attention to the stick, treat it better, use it more actively and increase its flexibility. Yoga, swimming, cycling, strength training… that kind of thing.

Among the benefits is that the quality of my thinking has improved quite a bit as I start to get more of idea of what embodied intelligence is.

And it’s also been really useful to me as someone who sometimes gets to lead groups and train people. Because I am in a regular practice of learning to do things in other people’s classes – often doing stuff I spent a large part of my life avoiding and generally feeling very unconfident about.

Although I’m pretty motivated and clear about the benefits, I still often find myself in things like yoga feeling reluctant. When I’m trying find that extra bit of stretch in the hams, part of me wants to give up. And then I might find myself thinking: “This is too hard. This is fine for people who are flexible but what’s the point for someone like me? Maybe I’ll just go through the motions. Maybe I should stop doing this class.” I can really feel the inner resistance, the vestiges of fear and shame inculcated by years of the ludicrously mistitled “physical education” i.e. ritual humiliation inflicted on me in school.

Mostly I catch this happening and move my focus. Basically that involves letting go of comparisons and aiming to operate just at the edge of, and not outside, my comfort zone. Finding the position that is actually a stretch, not based on some mental model of how I am or how the world is, but what I’m actually feeling in my body.

So for me, among the many benefits of yoga is the countless opportunities it gives me to encounter my own reluctance. I hope this gives me more perspective when training/facilitating others and sensing their reluctance is kicking in.

And it gives me this idea of being willing to play with reluctance. That’s partly about accepting that doing challenging things is going to trigger reluctance and being somewhat compassionate about it. And then finding a way to keep trying, even when it’s feeling hard.