Category Archives: Facilitation

A short film about Unhurried Conversations

I’ve written before about the Unhurried Conversations I host here in Cambridge. They have a simple format that prevents people interrupting each other. This seems to create a different and rich experience. We made this little film about how people find them.

As I explain in these past posts, the approach is simple. We use a sugar bowl as a talking piece: if you’re holding it, you get to talk uninterrupted; if you’re not holding it, you get to listen. Although this may seem strange at first, it seems to create a very different atmosphere.

Newcomers think it will be very hard not to interrupt (“what if someone talks for too long? what if someone says things I disagree with?) but then find the actual experience of listening is surprisingly satisfying. We may not need to speak as much as we think in order to feel involved. And then we we do get to speak, that too has a different quality – more reflective and thoughtful.

The idea may be spreading: there’s an active group doing this in Santa Cruz. One of our Cambridge participants is starting a group in Mallorca. I’ve run a few in London and hope to resume these soon.

(Viv McWaters and I will be exploring more uses of more reflective approaches like this on our residential workshop in Cambridge from August 31st to September 2nd. Registration is £875 plus VAT.)

Keeping it simple

I think one of the great arts of facilitation is to keep things simple. The pitfall for many facilitators is that they try to embed in their work all the lessons they learn as they go, so that they create more elaborate processes. In theory, these build in useful lessons from the past, but in practice it often results in ways of working that take a long time to explain.  The facilitator thus has a big role to play in explaining things, something they may secretly rather like.

I increasingly want to do the opposite. Default to using the simplest methods, involving the least explanation from me, and giving more time and power to the participants.  Among the simple things are:

Simple rules to make sure everyone gets a reasonably equal turn

Breaking conversations into smaller groups so everyone gets more air time

Taking longer breaks and using reflective processes so people don’t get tired out

Have people write their thoughts to shared flip charts to help keep a level playing field

I think if you pay attention, participants will then produce provocative, meaningful work, far more easily than if you try too hard to steer them through an elaborate process or with some fancy technology.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in Good Business: Leadership, Flow and the Making of Meaning says this:

One of the key tasks of management is to create an organization that stimulates the complexity of those who belong to it.

I believe it’s often very simple interventions that let the group work at its complex best. Over-clever processes often take that creative freedom away.

Creative Leadership, sweet spots and discovery

Legendary baseball player, Yogi Berra, said, “you can’t think and hit at the same time”.

It’s an idea explored in this 2 minute video that looks at the science of hitting a major league baseball pitch. If the hitter waits until the ball leaves the pitcher’s hands, it’s already too late to initiate the batting action. So the only way to succeed is to rely on the faster instincts outside  conscious awareness. It is simply an intuitive act.

Think too much, and you can’t do your best. Developing the instinct requires lots of practice.

I remember reading about a scientist who had spent months studying David Beckham’s free kicks. He could explain in intricate detail the physics behind Beckham’s success. It involved things like “computational fluid dynamics”. But that understanding would not do much for your free kick abilities. And Beckham had developed his talent not by studying physics, but with the relentless practice of someone with obsessive compulsive disorder.

Musicians, athletes and craftspeople will work many hours refining their skills. Sometimes without improvement, testing their patience and fortitude. Then for no obvious reason a breakthrough happens – the notes flow, the record is broken, the object becomes form, joy begins to flow.

There is a role for the conscious mind in this, but it’s a subtle one. Parts of the process have to happen outside its control. We need to watch out for a tendency to invent rational explanations for what we’ve learnt. It’s as if our conscious mind desperately needs to take credit for what’s happened. This can lead to all sort of “lessons” that we’re then tempted to teach others. Without noticing, we’ve traded discovery and creativity for the safety of the “known”.

This applies any time we want to improve performance or create something new. It’s not just for sportspeople and artists. For teams and organisations, persistence through failure, playfulness and discovery are vital. They require a paradoxical mixture of repetition and experimentation.

The challenge is magnified in groups, where people will have different responses, and where the sense of exposure is greater. It’s one thing to sit through you own boredom, it’s another to sit with the thought that your colleagues may think you are boring. Likewise, we may be able to manage our anxiety about trying something new, but what about how our colleagues might respond to our failure?

Are we able to spot opportunities not just in brainstorming awaydays, but in the mundane and routine of everyday life?  Can we still be vigilant enough to keep noticing the small signs that change is happening? Do we know when we need to break routine and risk something different and new?

Are we willing to be vulnerable, not merely egging on our colleagues from a place of safety? If we try to avoid vulnerability ourselves, we may have little chance of encouraging it in others.

And like Berra’s hits and Beckham’s kicks, you can’t learn this art from a book. You need lots of practice, in an environment where you get useful feedback. The feedback is tricky; Beckham knows pretty soon where his kicks go; feeling the impact of your behaviour in a group is more complex, since people’s responses can be varied and confusing.

So to develop this kind of capacity, it might be better to see it as a practice. Something that requires attention and repetition. Something you can’t do entirely on your own, that may be best developed in the company of others interested in the practice. Move away from lessons, move towards experiences.

Viv McWaters and I will be exploring this form of creative leadership at our Residential Workshop in Cambridge. August 31 to September 2. It’s going to be based on hands-on experiences, using activities to help you practice. We’ll be focussing on how we perform the role of leader in groups, noticing more and making fewer, subtler interventions, and avoiding the many trances into which people can fall when collaborating. We’ve developed this work over many years in helping organisations facilitate collaboration for innovation and discovery. We’ll use practice activities drawn from the worlds of improvised theatre, psychotherapy as well as business. We’re not aiming to tell you how to do the work, but rather to help you make discoveries of your own about how to be the kind of leader you’d like to follow.

Registration is £875 (plus VAT) until June 16th. You can also download our free book, Nothing is Written for more on our thinking.

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.

UPDATE: Viv and I will be exploring the use of Unhurried Conversations in organisations on our residential workshop. 31 August to 2 September 2016 in Cambridge.

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.