Everyday absurdity

In this engaging How to Fail podcast with Alain de Botton, he talks about his approach to confidence. He looked at most confidence training and saw a lot of mantras about believing in yourself and reinforcing your sense of being special.

He talked about an alternative approach which is to see past other people’s apparent perfection. Instead, you could see the weaknesses and follies beneath, and embrace your own absurdities. This might allow you to go out in the world with an easier sort of confidence that might be a bit more relaxed and joyful. De Botton also talks about the need to appreciate ordinary life, resisting the pressure to be a success in a society that seems to favour competition.

I also listened to another show in the same series, with the actor Andrew Scott. He observes that one of the things that distinguishes humans from other mammals is our sense of the absurd. He talks about how humans are able to find humour, even in the darkest places.

Sometimes working with people, I find it quite energising to invite absurd ideas and suggestions as it can be quite energising, and helps get us out of trances.

Eating bitterness

I’m reading David Robson’s The Intelligence Trap, a long reflection on how apparently very smart people are prone to making really poor decisions. It catalogues the many cognitive biases and social pressures that allow us to convince ourselves we’re right, when we’re wrong.

The chapter I’m on today shares the Mandarin concept of chiku, or eating bitterness. It’s the practice of being willing to struggle when learning. We often learn more effectively when we are failing and struggling, even though we think we learn more when we’re succeeding. I wrote about this recently over at the Creative Facilitation website reviewing the book Range. Robson frames this practice as a way of avoiding the glib errors of the intelligence trap.

I was doing a training workshop yesterday and several of the exercises were about embracing this kind of struggle – doing difficult things and being willing to fail interestingly lots of times. I encouraged people to be unattached to success and see what they could learn. It was less comfortable (including for me) but much more engaging. Next time I’ll frame that kind of work as eating bitterness.

Robson also warns us to “beware of fluent material” when learning. This immediately calls to mind so many books which break challenging issues down to three or seven core ideas. This immediately sounds appealing but I think cheats us of the useful struggle to really understand complex issues. The books sell well, but I suspect they don’t really help that much.

Almost nothing

Rob Poynton is fond of quoting Zinadine Zidane:

“Magic is sometimes very close to nothing at all.”

In recent years, I’ve realised that a lot of the work of facilitation is to sit with all sorts of ideas for interventions I could make in a meeting. And then not act of most of them.

This is not quite doing nothing, because there’s a lot of impulse control going on.

Facilitators often worry that when you are doing it really well, a lot of the time it looks like you’re not doing much. I think anyone in a position of authority will understand this pressure to look like they’re leading, even when it’s not helpful.

I think this kind of impulse control is important, resisting the urge to “act like a leader”. Some of the best work I’ve done is when I’ve chosen to fade into the background.

There’s a kind of tyranny of the explicit, as if leadership is only stuff that people can clearly see, activity rather than receptivity. But in our often madly busy world, it could be that we don’t need to add to the frenzy of action, but instead be more attentive to what is already happening.

And choose more carefully if and when to “do” something.

What if we’re not on a path?

I found this concise and eloquent post on Rob Poynton’s blog: Walk the line.

He challenges the way we often see our lives as following a path, in which one step leads to another. Most organisations and education systems take this view as a given. Rob argues that it’s not reality, but simply a metaphor – and one that brings many stresses:

It can be a corset, one that stops you thinking in the round about the wealth of different possibilities that lie before you. It pays more attention to where a step leads, than exploring that experience for its own sake. A linear interpretation encourages you to think in narrow terms of qualifications and stepping stones towards a pre-determined goal – it quite literally ‘channels’ your thought. It also creates the pressure to take the ‘right’ step. In defining a path it simultaneously cuts off (or casts doubt on) possibilities that lie off the path, implying that if you take them, you will become ‘side-tracked’ or lost. The emphasis is more on progress than discovery or enjoyment. Overall it implies that you ought to know where you want to go, and that the task is working out how to get there, rather than encouraging you to explore.

What if we see life not as a path, but as a field?

The idea of a field adds dimension. It can also add depth and texture. There are many ways to explore a space or a territory. There is no one path – no forward, no back. One might explore a section, then return to a central point, then head off in another direction. Or, go all around the perimeter. Or hop about. Or go back, repeatedly, to the same place, approaching from different directions at different seasons, or in different moods.

Rob and I have had a lot of conversations about shifting away from a linear view of time. I know that when I makes this switch, it immediately relieves a lot of the stress I can feel around challenges I am facing. Often when we’re stuck it’s because we have become attached to escaping a “problem” towards an imagined solution – yet somehow the solution seems to involve a lot of difficulty and stress. It can make a big difference to linger where we are and see what else is there.

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 creativefacilitation.com)

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

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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 meetup.com). 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.)