Category Archives: Unhurried

Reflecting on four years of unhurried conversations

Since 2014 I have run over a hundred Unhurried Conversations. These use a simple talking-piece process to allow participants to take turns to speak without being interrupted. I run them most often in a cafe, where any member of the public can join in (organised on Viv and I also use the process in some of the organisations we work with.

I described the process in more detail in this post. There’s also a website about Unhurried as an approach.

What started as an experiment has become a practice – although the method is routine, each time it leads to subtly differing results. What I’ve experienced has had an impact on all the work I do. Here are some of the things the conversations have reinforced about working with people.

People are not blank slates

The conversations are a constant reminder of the richness and variety of human experience. I’ve heard an incredible range of people’s stories. The retired serviceman managing his relationships with multiple girlfriends, parents dealing with the crises facing their adolescent children, hilarious stories of dating triumphs and disasters, shared experiences of triumph and loss.

People don’t come to meetings as blank slates but with rich and complex life experiences. If we see them simply as people in need of training or direction, we may miss much of the experience they can contribute, and the place where they are starting from.

People connect from where they already are

Whether people share moments of joy from their lives, or talk about things that cause them despair, both create connection. Life’s struggles and adventures honestly shared allow us to build connection. Equally, we sometimes connect through the apparently mundane shared experiences as well as the more dramatic moments.

Organisations often act as if we connect through a vision of the future, which may be possible. But perhaps we can begin with the connections that are possible from where we are now?

Listening isn’t necessarily hard

Many participants are surprised at their capacity for listening, and some find they can connect without speaking.

As there are several listeners for each speaker, we can all relax as the work of listening is shared. Instead of having to hang on every word we’re allowed to let our minds wander if we want to. In other words we’re free to respond imaginatively as we wish, rather than as we should.

Some organisations teach active listening as if this is some special skill we have to learn. But what if the capacity is innate, and comes through easily if the context allows it? In some cases, “training people to listen” may distract us from a more interesting question about the circumstances in which they’re expected to do it?

Keeping it simple

Lots of people are puzzled, even slightly alarmed, when I say most of the cafe conversations are run without a theme. People are simply asked to share whatever is on their mind. And people are pretty satisfied by what happens.

We assume meetings will somehow end in disaster or despair if we don’t constrain the topic and “stick to the agenda”. But with patient listening, we may realise that contributions that may seem “off topic” are, in fact, at least tangentially connected.

When we try to constrain a meeting to a predetermined outcome, we believe we are promoting efficiency. And sometimes we are. But without noticing, our agenda blinds us to a lot of what is going on in the space, and this means we miss out on a lot of the experience and ideas there.

In opening, I keep things short and simple. I don’t usually mention some of the principles many people articulate for this kind of turn-taking process. I tend not to mention the idea of sharing from the heart, or talking to the whole group. These things usually seem to take care of themselves. I often don’t talk about confidentiality, it seems to me that people implicitly understand how to keep themselves safe in the space.

How often, when facilitating, do we overdo the instructions? When we use simple structures, we may be allowing people to do more complex things.

Deeper structures beneath the surface

There’s a lot more going on when we talk to each other than an exchange of information. There’s a dance of conversation, where we viscerally respond and reflect to each other. There’s more happening than any transcript could convey.

Many familiar facilitation processes focus on generating explicit results – we want answers on post it notes, ratings on evaluation forms, documented action plans. It’s possible that these keep us at that surface level, not recognising the subtler connections that are possible with a group.

Facilitators often focus on explicit structures – we love sharing new processes. And clients often panic if they don’t see detailed structures for meetings. But this can often mean we never slow down enough to experience the deeper, more organic, less linear structures that we start to sense when conversations are unhurried

Waiting with anticipation

Hosting so many of these meetings has built up my expectation that people have great capacity to share deeply without the need for clever probing questions from the facilitator. My willingness to wait, sitting with silence, is greater. I still have anxiety in these moments, and as a facilitator worry about people expecting me to do something to keep things moving. But I can suspend the urge to nudge people along. I can wait for them to generate ideas and insights themselves, often much more interesting and useful than might result from my clever interventions.

In briefings and projects, I say less and wait more. Silence and pauses often do the work for me, and bring richer results.


Although every conversation is different, one common theme is that people share many concerns about the fast pace of life and how much frustration and waste we experience and see in others. On the other hand, there’s a lot of satisfaction found in the simple experience of talking together. The process invites us to work with who we already are, and doesn’t involve a lot of consumption beyond a cup of coffee.

Perhaps an unhurried approach will help us to live together more sustainably?

(I’m offering a webinar about unhurried facilitation – details here.)

Unhurried news

In the last three years I’ve run over a hundred Unhurried Conversations. Most of these have been open to the public, while others have been inside organisations as part of the work I’ve been doing with them. I ran them in Sydney and Auckland on a recent trip down under. Others are running here in Cambridge, plus London, Olympia, Santa Cruz and Mallorca.

The format remains essentially the same: we use a simple object as a talking piece, so that one person speaks at a time, without risk of interruption. It’s remarkable how many satisfying conversations arise in the space this creates. One of the most interesting things is that we keep the rules of engagement very simple indeed, as groups seem to self-regulate. For instance, I don’t ask people to “speak from the heart”: it seems they feel able to do this without being told. And I like how this allows groups to range from more emotional topics to lighter ones in a way that seems natural and unforced.

Quite a lot of people have talked about the shadow side of social media, which can sometimes feel frenetic and competitive and like how in unhurried they get a greater sense of connection and fellowship – even with people they’ve not met before.


Fast, slow or unhurried?

Neil Perkin describes two contrasting talks about Fast and Slow in Marketing. Adam Morgan shares some interesting examples of businesses that thrive on speed:

a 2014 Harris Poll.. found that 90% of respondents… expected real-time customer service from brands and as many as 48% expect that services will be delivered before they order them. ‘Uber’s children’, said Adam, have different expectations, wanting everything at the speed of Prime. Speed is, increasingly, money. A tenth of a second delay in page load time on Amazon is equivalent to a 1% sales decline. Organisations are focused on doing more with less.

Fast can be great, but an awful lot of organisations seem in a permanent state of “doing more with less” and I feel a lot of concern about that. Morgan goes on to explore the ups and downs of creating speed and, as he puts it, reducing drag.

The second talk was from Martin Weigel, expanding on his post about kicking the marketing crack habit with some great examples of the toxic effects of rush and short-termism in planning.

He began by talking about how we live in impatient times, and how we’re naturally biased to favour short-term gain over long-term (what psychologists call ‘temporal discounting’). This happens not only at an individual level, but an organisational one. Whilst management is pre-occupied with what is happening over the next three months, McKinsey has shown that between 70 and 90 percent of a company’s value is related to cash flow which expected three or more years out. The tenure of CEOs is becoming ever-shorter (in 1995 it was just under ten years amongst the world’s largest corporations, in 2009 it was just six). 95% of S & P company profits are spent on share buy-backs and dividends according to Forbes. The average agency-client tenure has reduced to around 3 years. The average tenure of a football manager in the premier league is heading towards a single season. Half of video viewers stop waiting for a video to load after 10 seconds.

Weigel goes on to look at some longer term, more sustainable principles for business, worth checking out.

I think a side-effect of living with the internet, building on an existing culture of high stimulation, is that we are in danger of becoming so anxious that our actions are driven increasingly by panic and short-termism. We end up operating at the pace of computers rather than the very different capacities for changing speed in our biological heritage.

Part of what gets lost is the value of changes of pace, and fluency in acceleration and deceleration. I keep coming back to unhurried as my personal mantra, to capture the flow state we can reach when our pacing and synchrony with others is most satisfying. It’s not always slow; a well tuned Formula team servicing a car in a few seconds is going fast but is also, in its way, unhurried, everything is timed to co-ordinate.

Unhurried is not about being laid back and ignoring the deep fears and problems our world presents. It is about finding a way to meet them that is serious but not rooted in panic.

Hat tip to Lee Ryan for steering me to this.

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.

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.

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.

Unhurried conversations

Over the last few months my friend Antony Quinn and I have been thinking about the quality of being unhurried. It seems to us that there’s a lot of pressure to get a move on in life, but that the best craftsmanship and the wiser life choices tend to me made not under great pressure, but when we’re able to pause and reflect. It’s so easy to get into a vicious circle where a difficult issue arises, creates stress and we then get into a panic… narrowing our perspective and making us frantic.

37HIn relationships and groups, a lot of distress is often caused not by the apparent matter at hand, but by conflicts of pace. For example, when people are interrupting each other because of anxiety about time, it’s hard to generate much wisdom.

Unhurried doesn’t necessarily mean slow. Antony observes that a tennis player at the top of his game will be very fast – but they will also be in flow, able to make judgements over fine details.

Anyway, we’re developing this idea of unhurried as a way of working. And we’re offering a small scale, free, exploration on Thursday 6th March in Cambridge. It’s partially inspired by previous workshops on difficult conversations, but we’re calling this one (unsurprisingly) Unhurried Conversations. More details here.

Come along for an unhurried conversation about… well any topic you choose to bring. We’d love to see you there.