Friday 26 October 2018

Sticking to the Process

I am reflecting this week on a very difficult project that is just coming towards a successful conclusion: helping a team address a long-running and toxic conflict.  For a brief description of how we used an implicit ManyStory approach, see my post on the Shifting Stories blog.

In this post I want to reflect on something else: how having good frameworks or maps of the process, and then sticking to them, has been instrumental in addressing this complex issue.  

The first problem was that the client (the senior manager who called us in) seemed to want a magic solution. ‘Just get them together and sort it out.’ That rang alarm bells, because this conflict had been running for over a year, and if it had been that simple, I am sure that the client could have done this for himself.

So I picked up my copy of Flawless Consulting, and reminded myself of some of Peter Block’s wise advice.  And having the confidence that engenders (and not just because it makes sense, but because whenever I’ve used his approach in the past, it has always delivered) and also the confidence of being at a stage in my business life when I am quite happy to say no to a client who refuses to allow me work in a way that will get the best result, I was fairly robust. That is, I insisted on proper diagnostic work before proceeding. 

The client was not happy: his (understandable) concern was that by asking people about the issue, we would be bringing it to their attention, when they might not have been aware of it. However, my instinct was that if it had been running for as long as he told us, and with the toxicity he’d also mentioned, then there was nobody in contact with the team who would be unaware of it.  And so it proved.
Then we had the report-writing to do. Again, I was very mindful of Peter Block, and we wrote a report designed to tell the truth (as we had understood it from the diagnostic interviews and meetings) and present a clear and simple picture of what was happening.

Again, the client was surprised, and was concerned that our truth-telling would serve only to exacerbate the problem, by inflaming the passions of some of those involved. To some extent he was right: some of the protagonists were upset and angered by what we reported. But we spoke with them – and equally importantly listened to them. And what we gained through this was that all involved recognised that we were being honest: right or wrong, we were telling it how we saw it, and were neither blaming nor excusing; and above all not concealing or denying anything.  I believe that was critical in winning their trust, which was essential for the next stage.

Me with Nancy
on the occasion of my qualifying as a
Time to Think Coach
For the meetings, I had two frameworks in mind. One was Nancy Kline's Thinking Environment, and in particular her ten components: 
  • Attention
  • Equality
  • Ease
  • Appreciation
  • Encouragement
  • Feelings
  • Information
  • Diversity
  • Incisive Questions
  • Place

--> (See here for a fuller explanation of these). We used these as the ground rules for our meetings/workshops with the protagonists in the conflict. Our clear presentation of these, and the reason we thought that they were important, and then our consistency in running the workshops in accordance with them, using structures (rounds, paired thinking etc) that supported them, and holding all participants to them, helped create the safety needed for some honest conversations and reflections. And of course, it was the honesty of the conversations, and the fact that all were committed to listening with full attention to everybody else's contributions, that really started to shift things.

The other framework I had in mind was the ManyStory approach, as described in my book Shifting Stories. I have written how that implicitly shaped the whole process on the Shifting Stories blog. Here I will simply note that having the framework in mind provided me with an overall route map to follow, whilst still allowing the conversations during the workshops to flow where they needed to.

So the conclusion I am drawing (and as so often with blogging, it is really about writing a memo to myself) is the value and importance of (well-chosen, appropriate) frameworks to help us to navigate complexity, deal with challenges, and deliver results, whilst maintaining a high level of openness and responsiveness, which is a sine qua non of this type of work.

Monday 15 October 2018

On Retreat

If I believed in coincidence, I would think it a particularly rich one that the weekend after we were considering the promise not to interrupt, I should have been booked into a retreat at Pluscarden Benedictine Abbey, in the north of Scotland.

The link may not be immediately apparent; but this was a silent retreat. I went to spend a long weekend free of all the demands of daily life, in order to have time to think (ah, there’s a link) and to immerse myself in the ancient Benedictine rhythm of time, marked by the Offices sung throughout the day in Gregorian Chant (those who know me well will understand the appeal already).

Between the Offices, time is free. And I had decided not to engage with the outside world, beyond one brief phone call home each day. I wanted to use the time to stop: to reduce the demands on my mind, and free myself to meditate on what is truly important.

And if you have been paying attention, the relevance will have leapt out at you. With no external distractions and ample time, what do you imagine happened when I tried to think about something – anything – that I decided to turn my attention to?  Yes,  you’re right: I interrupted myself.

And interestingly, the longest periods of non-interruption were those when I was following the Office (chanted in Latin, of course, so requiring quite active attention) or praying that ancient and repetitive prayer, the Rosary (again, I found praying it in Latin helped – a little less easy to drift onto auto-pilot).  It is almost as though the ancients had discovered some wisdom we would do well to re-discover.

And by the end of a long weekend, I was getting better at it: longer periods of sustained attention with less effort required.

Perhaps the most valuable learning was what I choose to interrupt myself with... but that, as they say would be Too Much Information in the public sphere.

And it was little things: like turning my phone off… I was slightly shocked to find how often I got it out, walking from the abbey to my room for example, without consciously deciding to do so, just to check…. To check what, precisely? Why, whether there were any interruptions I could indulge in, to excuse me from the harder work of focusing on one thing at a time.  Of course, having the phone switched off reminded me that I didn’t want to do that – and indeed that was something of a relief; but I hadn’t realised how strong the habit (I had almost written ‘addiction’) was.

So a rich weekend (and in many other ways, which I will not share publicly); but the challenge, as ever, is how to return to the world and keep the learning and practices alive.  And if you ring me but get straight through to my answerphone… well, I’m sorry, but it’s a necessary price to pay from time to time.

Friday 12 October 2018

Promising Conversations

At a meeting of coaches and facilitators interested in Nancy Kline’s Time to Think approach, we discussed the difference it makes when people promise not to interrupt each other (or, in coaching, when the coach promises not to interrupt the person being coached). I normally talk about the fact that I won’t interrupt, when we discuss the coaching process at an initial meeting with each coaching client; but I haven’t previously expressed it as a promise; and following yesterday’s conversations, I will now do so.  I suspect it will make a difference…

We then thought in pairs about ‘our interruptive lives’ and then discussed the Risk Analysis of interruptions.

Any excuse for a picture of Magdalen...

In a very rich day (which also involved meeting an old friend whom I hadn’t seen since leaving Magdalen in 1982…) this was one of the waves of thinking that has particularly resonated with me.

What is it about interruptions that is so destructive? And what can we do about that?

The essence, of course, is that when we interrupt somebody, what we are saying is that our thinking is more important than theirs.

The risk analysis sheds further light on that.  The positive reasons to interrupt, stated at their strongest, might be these:

  • I have a great idea on this topic, and if I don’t say it now, it may be lost forever.
  • Further, if I do say it now, it may save a great deal of time, as you clearly don’t have such good ideas.
  • Also, my good idea may stimulate further good ideas in you; there is a buzz in sparking ideas off each other at speed that generates more good ideas.

But the risks should not be overlooked. The biggest risk is that you may have been on the verge of having a great idea, and that may now be lost for ever… and we will never know. Further, if we are in a position of any kind of authority, every interruption is an assertion of power, an example of how authority may be wielded to dominate the conversation, and risks infantilising those subject to it and reducing their willingness (or even capacity) to express great ideas in the future.  If we are not in a position of authority, interruptions are potentially read as power plays or insubordination: all of which reduce the likelihood of good idea generation in the future.

But the talks about our interruptive lives revealed a lot more; how our lives can be structured around interruptions; how we can teach ourselves (and others) that interruptions are the normal modus operandi, or even modus vivendi. It goes without saying (but I will say it anyway, for the record) that electronic communications play a significant role in that.

But going deeper still, it is salutary to think about the ways in which we interrupt ourselves: how we can interrupt our attending to someone else by paying attention to our reaction to what he or she is saying; how we interrupt our own thinking by… well in my case, by almost anything…
So what can we do?  I think that starting with oneself is often the most productive strategy. And the evidence seems clear, from personal experience, from the wisdom of ancient traditions, and now from a growing body of research: the regular practice of meditation helps us to attend; to keep our attention on the chosen focus of attention.
Further,  if we promise not to interrupt, that changes everything.  Indeed, in the spirit of the day, I took no notes while anyone was talking, so as to be able fully to attend. But at the end of this session, before going for a much-needed coffee, I wrote these two words on a piece of paper: Promising Conversations. I think there is more to explore here, in theory and practice…

And one of the most interesting aspects of this, which we aim to explore at future meetings, is how the promise not to interrupt might affect conversations between people who have polarised opinions. Polarisation seems a particular problem at present (think Brexit, GOP/Democrats, abortion…). It is often characterised by interruption, a refusal to listen, still less to understand the other’s beliefs or opinions, and the misrepresentation of those beliefs and opinions in subsequent discourse.  We want to experiment with that, and see to what extent the promise not to interrupt changes that.  We are not expecting convergence or agreement; but at least the reduction of the de-humanising of the ‘other’ and better mutual understanding. And those seem to me like worthy goals. 

I will report back in due course.