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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.


I’ve been paying more attention to contempt recently. Noticing others expressing it, often in small ways, and catching it in myself.

So this article about the work of John Gottman caught my eye. It gives chapter and verse on his work showing how contempt is strongly correlated with the failure of relationships.

On one level, this isn’t so surprising – as many people exclaim in the comments to that article, often contemptuously.

Contempt often gives the person expressing it short-term satisfaction, but at considerable cost to relationship and long-term satisfaction. Contempt can be addictive.

I’m especially interested in “micro-contempt”: the small signs of contempt that we exhibit, either without realising, or thinking we’ve got away with it. Often though, we don’t get away with it: the other person picks up the contempt and responds in kind.

And this tit-for-tat will tend to escalate: we tend to underestimate the impact of the insults we deliver… but we feel the impact of those we receive more strongly. This can lead to vicious circle of escalation (See this post on how this happens in physical fights)

It’s quite the challenge, I reckon, to create ways to respond to contempt that aren’t themselves contemptuous. We can probably articulate theories about how to do it, but I suspect what’s really needed is practice. In my case, lifelong practice!


I don’t think I’ve ever linked to the Weekly Standard before but this debunking of the overplaying of neuroscience is a good read. (I’m overlooking the anti-liberal dig at the end).

I tend to agree with the takedown of “learning styles” which don’t seem that well-rooted in science and tend to encourage wooden leg thinking. I also quite enjoyed the snark against the word “workshop” even though I’m as guilty as most in using it.

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen


WebPerhaps connecting through ideas is over-rated.

This may sound almost sacrilegious or insane. Surely the whole of civilisation rests on ideas? Ideas having sex etc etc.

And don’t get me wrong, I get as excited by new ideas as the next man, so I’m not pointing the finger at anyone in particular here.

But we often don’t notice what happens when we advocate ideas strongly. Or when we evaluate our conversations and meetings solely on the basis of whether some new idea occurred to us. People advocating ideas easily and unwittingly generate resistance. People hungry for ideas often come across as impatient and intolerant.

The insistence on new ideas in meetings can lead to a lot of ritualised writing of post-it notes that the next day, everyone has forgotten.

I have always loved the idea*, espoused by Robin Dunbar, that language emerged as an extension of grooming. You know, the stuff apes do, stroking each other.  I often wonder, when people are passionately espousing ideas, how this feels as a bit of grooming. My thought: Often, more like a poke with a stick than having your long, blond tresses lovingly brushed.

We’re so caught up in our ideas that we forget our, and others’ humanity and vulnerability. I know I do.

And there’s often a vicious circle in which ideas beget ideas, which seems on one level to be highly sparky and creative. But on another, becomes more and more insensitive and disconnected. Quite a lot of people with severe mental distress are those with a huge flow of ideas, so many ideas that they’ve lost touch with the world completely.

It’s why I like, when I can, to try to slow things down, and use a more reflective process. Which often feels very scary, rather like the stress we feel in rapid deceleration. I have found some of the most satisfying moments in conversations happen in the space that opens when we interrupt the rapid exchanges of ideas and sit with the discomfort that may follow.

And, paradoxically, some of the better ideas happen when we have stopped looking for them or insisting on them.

* Yes, I get the irony

(More stuff on this theme)

London facilitation workshops

WebI’m going to run a couple of open workshops in November. They’re in London on November 6th and 7th.

They’re for anyone who wants to get more out of meetings. I’ve developed this approach with Viv based on working in all sorts of places from Scotland to the Solomon Islands and with all kinds of organisations from corporates to charities.  The approach is informal, fun and way more engaging than your standard “turn to page 94 of the manual” training.

The first is on The Basics! It’s a day of the core ideas we use to help get more out of meetings, protect against death-by-powerpoint and get people more involved and interested.

The second is about Facilitation as Performance. Beyond tips and techniques, effective facilitation is a demanding performance. Viv and I have developed a few interesting ways to help you get more out of yourself when your on-the-spot and dealing with the unexpected.

There’s an early bird rate of £195 plus VAT until October 10th.

Details of both days are here.

Leadership, narcissism and what we really want

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic suggests why we end up with incompetent leaders making a point about a bias towards men in the process:

In my view, the main reason for the uneven management sex ratio is our inability to discern between confidence and competence. That is because we (people in general) commonly misinterpret displays of confidence as a sign of competence, we are fooled into believing that men are better leaders than women. In other words, when it comes to leadership, the only advantage that men have over women (e.g., from Argentina to Norway and the USA to Japan) is the fact that manifestations of hubris — often masked as charisma or charm — are commonly mistaken for leadership potential, and that these occur much more frequently in men than in women.

In the comments, the men vs women aspect generates a lot of heat, including some fairly unabashed sexism. I’m more interested in the points he makes about our desire for “leadership” generally.  For instance, this:

Unsurprisingly, the mythical image of a “leader” embodies many of the characteristics commonly found in personality disorders, such as narcissism (Steve Jobs or Vladimir Putin), psychopathy (fill in the name of your favorite despot here), histrionic (Richard Branson or Steve Ballmer) or Machiavellian (nearly any federal-level politician) personalities. The sad thing is not that these mythical figures are unrepresentative of the average manager, but that the average manager will fail precisely for having these characteristics.

In fact, most leaders — whether in politics or business — fail. That has always been the case: the majority of nations, companies, societies and organizations are poorly managed, as indicated by their longevity, revenues, and approval ratings, or by the effects they have on their citizens, employees, subordinates or members. Good leadership has always been the exception, not the norm.

I think our culture over-values and idealises leadership. It becomes a way of avoiding dealing with mess and vulnerability by hoping for magic. When people start talking about the need for leadership in a conversation, I want to know what specifically it is they want. Asking for “leadership” as an abstraction easily comes over as passive-aggressive.

I think this comes back to the human challenge to 1) know what we want and 2) be willing to make that desire clear to others without too much obfuscation and manipulation. When people vehemently demand leadership I suspect they either 1) don’t know what they want (and basically need someone else to tell them) or 2) do know what they want, but can’t bear the possibility they will be denied. In the worst cases, the call for leadership is really a demand for obedience, dressed up in fancy clothes.

Much the same applies to other abstractions like “innovation” or “action”.

Not villainous, not heroic but epic?

Tony Goodson found this article and Facebooked it: Terrorism Trauma and the Search for Redemption.  It’s the remarkable story of Silke Maier-Witt, her traumatic upbringing how she ended up in the Baader-Meinhof gang – and how she now devotes her life to working with victims of trauma in Serbia.

Trying to regain some kind of control over life in these circumstances is tough. I think it stands in stark contrast to so many of the formulae we see put forward for changing whole organisations, as if somehow that is easier than just person changing.

This idea particularly caught my eye.

Maier-Witt explains that according to trauma psychology, people tell three stories to explain their lives and make sense of their experience. There’s the victim story, which is the favorite. People love to see themselves as victims. There is the hero story. But trauma sufferers seldom cast themselves in the role of someone who has triumphed over adversity. And there is the epic, which is the healthiest story.

In an epic tale, life unfolds as an adventure. Every day you make the choice to accept your fate without trying to change everything about it. Your role is not to fight or to fix; it is to see and to experience. The goal is to become more aware and more sensitive. You change things by the example of how you live each day.

This makes enormous sense to me. We tend to use the word “epic” as if it’s a synonym for marvellous. Clearly that’s not what Maier-Witt has in mind here. It’s really about dealing with reality, day-by-day, without overdramatising, however tempting.

Group size

I’ve been doing some coaching work with facilitators lately and I found myself talking about group size. The short version is that I often find groups of over five people tend to have relatively stilted conversations, which at their worst become what I call a plenary vortex: the fight for attention starts to diminish the quality of conversation.

David Gurteen dug out a piece of research related to this contrasting the conversations in five-person groups with the serial monologues in ten-person groups. It doesn’t prove that five is a threshold, but it helps make the general point about larger groups.

It’s also worth six minutes to hear Chris Corrigan on this topic, as captured by Nancy Dixon. He points to the value of groups of one as well as pairs and threes. Not sure about his ideas about odds and even sizes but worth thinking about. He also makes some points at the end about how smaller group conversations create a more active kind of engagement than just shoving ideas up on post its.

This shades into a wider point about the value of allowing lots of social interaction between people and not over-controlling or rushing it. For more on that, check out Keith de la Rue‘s article on the art of conversation.

Finally, I think that some really amazing things can happen in larger group conversations… but this usually requires breaking out of some fairly well-ingrained habits, and that’s a post for another day…