Bringing a bit of magic to learning

When you’ve got to introduce challenging content to audiences, it’s good to get inspiration in unexpected places. We loved this interview with superstar magician Teller: Teaching: Just like performing magic.

Before finding fame as the silent half of Penn & Teller, he taught Latin for six years. That might have been a challenging gig in modern times, but he clearly brought showmanship to it. Following the educational philosophy of “romance, specialisation, generalisation” he focussed on bring his love of the subject to life for his students:

“The first job of a teacher is to make the student fall in love with the subject. That doesn’t have to be done by waving your arms and prancing around the classroom; there’s all sorts of ways to go at it, but no matter what, you are a symbol of the subject in the students’ minds.”

He ditched the established curriculum and created his own, including hand-crafting his own beautiful textbooks.

Once you’ve got your students excited, then you can get them interested in the details. 

He also has some brilliant things to say about the important of discomfort in magic and in education:

“When I go outside at night and look up at the stars, the feeling that I get is not comfort. The feeling that I get is a kind of delicious discomfort at knowing that there is so much out there that I do not understand and the joy in recognizing that there is enormous mystery, which is not a comfortable thing. This, I think, is the principal gift of education.”

It’s a fairly short article and well worth your time.

(Also posted at

The Practice – November 21/22 – bookings open

Nikki and I have had some very positive responses to the workshop we’re planning for November – The Practice. We’ve given some further thought to the design and we’re now in a position to open bookings.

This is the idea (as posted a few weeks ago):

It’s for anyone whose work depends on working with people – managers, leaders, coaches, facilitators. It will be an opportunity to go a bit deeper into your own professional practice. We’re going to focus on leaning into difficulty, in whatever form that comes for you – maybe difficult people, organisational stress, questions about career direction…

We’re not coming to this with fixed techniques and activities in mind. We’ll start by finding out what’s at issue for everyone coming, and we’ll then create a programme live, in response to what’s in the room. We’re not expecting to be teaching, but we are going to use activities and conversations to help everyone explore their own edges.

We want this to be a real community when it meets, in which we learn together rather than claiming expertise or magic answers.

Based on conversations with people hoping to come, we’ve decided to run it over two days, November 21 and 22 in Cambridge. We’re using my favourite venue here, King’s College.

We’re limiting it to 8 participants, plus Nikki and me hosting. This means everyone gets plenty of airtime.

As my friend Rob Poynton said in another context, the participants themselves are the content. We’re asking everyone attending to identify a personal challenge, theme or issue they want to work on. We also know from people who’ve already committed that they are also looking to be surprised by what they learn as part of a collaborative community.

In preparation, we plan to offer an (optional) online meeting for participants a couple of weeks ahead of the workshop, and a follow up meeting early in the new year.

We’ll run from 9.30am to 4.30pm each day. We are making it non-residential but there are a number of overnight options in the city, ranging from hotels to AirBnBs.

The cost will be £850  for bookings before October 15th and £950 thereafter. You can also secure a place with a non-refundable deposit of £150 with the balance due by November 5th. Costs are subject to VAT at 20%. Lunch and refreshments on each day are included. As above, we invite you to arrange your own overnight accommodation if needed. Please email me if you’d like to know more or would like to book.

The Practice – November 20th to 22nd

I’m developing a new workshop/retreat with my good friend Nikki Hinksman. (Viv is also helping with the design, as we’re planning to offer an Aussie version in a few months)

We’re designing it out loud rather than presenting the final design with a big fanfare, as we’d like participants to be involved in the design itself.

We’re calling it The Practice.

It’s for anyone whose work depends on working with people – managers, leaders, coaches, facilitators. It will be an opportunity to go a bit deeper into your own professional practice. We’re going to focus on leaning into difficulty, in whatever form that comes for you – maybe difficult people, organisational stress, questions about career direction…

We’re not coming to this with fixed techniques and activities in mind. We’ll start by finding out what’s at issue for everyone coming, and we’ll then create a programme live, in response to what’s in the room. We’re not expecting to be teaching, but we are going to use activities and conversations to help everyone explore their own edges.

We want this to be a real community when it meets, in which we learn together rather than claiming expertise or magic answers.

If you’ve done your share of conventional training and want something more interesting, challenging and experiential, this could be for you.

It’s going to be from the evening of November 20th to  the afternoon of the 22nd with accommodation for two nights included. We’re still determining the venue but it will be comfortable, inspiring and not too far from London.

If you’re interested, we’d love to hear from you. We’re going to develop the plan in conversation with anyone who’s intrigued or excited about coming. We can talk about costs, too.

Let me know if you’re interested in hearing more.

(Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash)

Practicing unhurried in a hurried place

I hosted an unhurried conversation in London this week. We meet at the Royal Festival Hall, where we can usually find a reasonably quiet space. Only this time, most of the building had been closed for a private booking – a university graduation ceremony. The coffee area that was still open to the public was already pretty crowded by the time we were due to start, and we we expecting a reasonably large group.

I could feel myself starting to panic, feeling angry that this closure hadn’t been announced in advance. We ended up moving outside by the river in the hope of a quieter setting. But with comic timing, a series of noisy distractions began around us – a helicopter passing overhead, beer barrels being wheeled right past where we sat. Inside I was starting to rail at the injustice of it, how dare other people try to get on with their plans for the day around our own?

As I started, I found myself saying that part of the practice of unhurried is finding ways to relax and slow down, even when the environment feels distracting. We could acknowledge the noise and disruption, but still choose to stay cool and be present to the process. I was really talking to myself as much as the group, reminding myself of other times we’d had troublesome background noise.

I was still feeling anxious, but started to feel better as we did a quick go-round as different people checked in how they were feeling. Some were pretty content, others too acknowledged the challenge of getting over the distractions. I usually find that whatever people are feeling, it’s better said out loud so I know, rather than having to guess.

We soon settled into a good conversation, despite a continuing series of bangs, crashes and interruptions. I started to welcome each new distraction as somehow part of the fun. Maybe, I said at one point, we could see this as a piece of performance art. About a dozen of us sustained an unhurried, slow conversation, even as the space around us filled more and more with gowned graduates, their families, their cameras, and as the beer stall nearby opened up. The distractions become part of the fun of our meeting.

Much of our very enjoyable conversation was inspired by this shared experience of being disrupted and lots of ideas and insights were generated. And there was a little bit of bonding that comes from persevering with the performance.

It reminded me of a recent experience where I joined a new fitness class, expecting something low key and focussed. Only it turned out be the kind of boisterous, aerobic session I absolutely hate. I always maintain I could never understand the appeal of paying someone to shout at you as you become increasingly breathless.

I wanted to walk out, but somehow decide to stay for another minute, until minute by minute I was toughing it out. And then there was a switch; I started to laugh inside at my predicament as I realised I was doing something I claimed to hate and was starting to enjoy it despite myself.

It’s easy to get attached to firm notions of “who we are” and “what we like”. But it’s often really good to be disrupted and find that we can, if we persevere, just get over ourselves.

For me, this is why I like the practice of unhurried: there will always new opportunities to panic in response to outside stresses… and then make a choice to carry on, despite the anxiety, and find a funny and/or peaceful way through. And learn something in the process.

Lessons from “The Logic of Failure”

Viv and I have been talking a lot about this book: Dietrich Dorner’s, The Logic of Failure. It’s a fascinating exploration of how easily we humans mismanage complex systems.

Dorner bases his work on a series of computer simulations of real world challenges (such as managing a drought-prone region of Africa).

The advantage of simulations is that they can be run multiple times to compare many different people’s approaches to managing the same system. Dorner uses this to identify the patterns of the majority of players who end up causing catastrophic droughts and crop failures,. He compares these with the minority who learn to manage successfully.

We can only summarise here, but we see useful ideas for facilitators – we also have to engage with complex systems (people!) and try to avoid catastrophes.

One of the key reasons people fail is they make assumptions about what will work. They get attached to rigid goals, and focus on implementing their idea rather than testing it. As a result, they tend to ignore the feedback they get from the system.

In Dorner’s simulations, for example, some participants focussed on reducing tsetse flies. The idea was to allow stronger cattle populations to feed the people. This led to unsustainable cattle growth which eventually caused a collapse of the ecosystem. Others focussed on solving water shortages by drilling more wells – but these eventually caused the exhaustion of the water table leading to a drought.

By fixating on simple outcomes, unsuccessful players missed the subtle signals of the complexity of the system.

The more successful players understood that they were generating hypothesesabout the system and then testing them – rather than formulating “truths” and executing them. They were more attentive to feedback, and thus tended to make more decisions, adapting as they learnt.

In our facilitation practice, we often talk about the power of tweaks. We’re interested in how small changes can lead to interesting consequences. We are not operating groups like a machine, instead we are working with living systems.

We’re often asked if a process is “working” as if there is some simple pass/fail test. We’d argue that it’s more important to notice how things are working, and not to get wedded to a simple outcome. It’s easy to get attached to a list of deliverables and miss the richer learning that can happen when a group of people interact.

One example: many clients get attached to events ending on a high. This can create a lot of pressure to generate a list of actions or end with a boisterous game. We often prefer a more open feedback process that encourages people to share the full range of their experience, including what they are struggling with. This may not create a high, but it usually provides a much greater sense of the aliveness and diversity that happens among groups that work together.

We’ll be exploring these ideas more at our forthcoming workshops in Melbourne and Cambridge

(We’ve shared this article as part of our twice monthly newsletter – you can subscribe here.)

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.)

Being Wrong

I watched this TED Talk by Kathryn Schulz yesterday: On Being Wrong.

One thing stuck in my mind. Schulz asks a few people what it’s like to be wrong, and they reply – “dreadful, thumbs down, embarrassing”. Which makes sense until she points out that this is only what we feel when we discover that we are wrong. Being wrong, otherwise, feels just fine.

She likens this to Wile E Coyote running off a cliff, and acting normal until he looks down and realises he is in mid-air, at which point he drops.

I looked at Schulz’s material on a prompt from Tim Harford’s book Adapt. Harford talks a lot about the value of making sure we get really effective, robust criticism of our plans. To avoid being wrong but not reacting because we don’t feel it. The Wile E Coyote syndrome.

None of this is startling stuff really. And organisations understand the need to counter it, hence the use of processes like devil’s advocate or Dave Snowden’s rather more rigorous ritual dissent. The trouble here is that when people are only playing a role, at some level we’re going to question their sincerity and motives. We can easily get distracted by wondering if they are genuinely concerned about something or just either (a) doing their best to be someone they are not or (b) using this process as cover to be exactly who they are. (Richard Stallman reflects on this stuff at greater length here.)

I think some of the best critical thinking is found not in fierce deconstruction, but in noticing the slight raised eyebrow or being curious about the slightest wry smile or frown. Being attentive to the tiny signs that something isn’t quite right, and then being really interested in them. I’ve got a lot better at this over the years, noticing tiny unexpected reacti

ons and responding with good natured curiosity to see what else is there. On the flip side, I also continue to learn the often high price of rushing things and not being sensitive to the small clues.

It’s a slower paced way of operating and it requires a kind of vulnerability to work. And I would say it’s a practice rather than a technique. A technique is something we expect to work, so it’s a way of feeling safe. Whereas a practice is a commitment to doing something that’s always a bit uncomfortable in the hope of learning something unexpected.

(I’m exploring this kind of practice in my online coaching webinars.)

Emotional debt

(Cross posted on Medium)

Technical debt is a term used by programmers. Referring to the ever rising cost to projects when short term fixes get applied over time to writing code. Over time, these quick fixes make the overall design inefficient.

We can all see how this applies to many projects outside programming. It’s like building a haphazard building that grows and grows but becomes increasingly unstable.

I’d like to introduce a similar term for what happens with quick fixes in our working relationships. Teams tend to gloss over difficulties in how they relate — often because of pressure of work, and because we all tend to avoid having awkward conversations.

Thus teams tend to build up what I call emotional debt: the weight of unresolved questions, frustrations and past conflicts that reduce a team’s ability to respond to challenges.

Emotional debt is often harder to pin down than technical debt: after a while, the limitations of sloppy code become fairly clear, and at least this stuff is written down someplace we can all see.

The law of ruts

Often we don’t know how much emotional debt we’re carrying until some of it is resolved. The CFO finally asks the CEO about something that has niggled him for two years, but was wary of asking. He gets a clear answer and suddenly realises what a relief that is.

I sometimes call this the Law of Ruts: You only realise how deep they are when you finally step out of them.

Clearing emotional debt is risky work

In my experience, emotional debt is rarely cleared by reaching agreements on general principles. Appealing to a list of values won’t stop people from the moment-by-moment quick fixes that lead them to avoid conflict.

Emotional debt is cleared by people taking risks. Making themselves vulnerable. Risking upsetting others by offering a challenging view. I reckon this takes constant practice: being willing to pay attention to discomfort and giving it a name, rather than just hoping for the best.

It’s hard work and it generally can’t be done in a hurry. This is the point in articles where you might generally look for top tips, but I am reluctant to give any. Asking genuinely challenging questions, owning up to more of our hunches and feelings, is never going to be easy.

When we find ways to take those risks, the results are not entirely predictable, but are often much more satisfying than we expect.


I’m running a free webinar called Unhurried at Work on July 13th. Unhurried is an approach to work that I think helps make people feel safer to take the risks I’m talking about 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.


Forthcoming Unhurried Events

We’ve got a few Unhurried events coming up…

Our new group in Olympia, Washington, is having its first Conversation on Friday April 17th

The next Unhurried Santa Cruz is on Sunday April 23rd (waitlisting)

I’m hosting Unhurried Conversations in Sydney on Friday April 28th and Saturday April 29th

Unhurried Cambridge meets again on Thursday May 11th

I’m also hosting a webinar about Unhurried on Monday April 10th at 11am GMT and again on Thursday May 11th at 20.00 GMT

And coming soon, we’re hoping to offer unhurried conversations in Auckland and Melbourne.