Still versus social – can a single space successfully offer both?

The theme of “spaces” is a recurrent one through many of the projects and initiatives I’m involved with (plenty more to write about later on this).  Attending the recent RSA Lecture “Architecture, Faith and Community” fitted neatly with this broad topic.

Taking the lectern were a panel of experts that covered the full spectrum highlighted in the event title.   What united them was a common interest in exploring how religious buildings can be both a connector and a barrier to building communities, both religious and secular.

Through the various speeches we were given a taste of the variety of interpretations of “faith buildings”, from the spectacular to the simple, single faith to interfaith and from bustling community hub to space for silent contemplation.

While I do not practice a specific faith, I have often experienced an overwhelming sense of stillness and calm on entering sacred spaces. I find they have a special and unfathomable power to create this sensation even in a frenetic city on a hectic day.

On the other hand, as our communities become increasingly diverse, formal religious practice decreases and space is at a premium I am also inspired by the evolving role of new and former religious buildings to create spaces for building connections that span faith and cultural boundaries and support communities in an inclusive way.

I’d attended the RSA session with a good friend and our ensuing discussion explored whether it is possible for a building to maintain its sense of stillness whilst also acting as a community hub.  Our shared conclusion on this was that we both think this would be difficult to achieve without at least a small area that is reserved as a space for contemplation.  We also discussed whether a place with a history of spiritual practice had more potency than one that was newly built or had been substantially modernised.  While my initial reaction is that in my experience this does seem to be the case, it’s one I’d be less convinced about without visiting a great deal more.

To be clear, this is not to take away from the numerous examples of community/ faith spaces that are thriving and providing a huge variety of support and opportunity to those who use them, but a consideration of the challenge of blending this activity with reserving space for silence and reflection.

What do you think?  If you have felt a similar sense of calm in some buildings and if so, what contributed to this?  Have you found examples that manage to strike the balance perfectly between contemplative and communal or seen innovative ways to combine the two uses in one space?

A recording of the lecture can be found on the RSA website.

Image “Multifaith Yogic Temple – Neddi – Himachal Pradesh – on Flickr

“I hear you”- does this mean “I’m listening”?

A couple of weeks ago, 7 of us “opened our ears” for the second gathering of “Together Tools” meetup.  I’m really pleased that Cari, who I met when she attended the first meetup, offered to write a blog piece reflecting on the session:

“What makes you smile?”

An experienced facilitator knows that nothing affects the mood of a room like the first joint emotion, and Nikki (creator and host of Together Tools) clearly knows how to make it a positive one, welcoming us all to the meetup on 21 February with this great icebreaker question.

At this session, we got into one of the meeting styles that Nikki set up Together Tools to offer –  a safe space and willing ‘guinea pigs’ to share and test facilitation approaches and tools for peer review and discussion.  We looked at four short exercises on the topic of ‘listening’.

Here’s a quick recap of the exercises and some thoughts

  • The first exercise, a seemingly familiar format, involved listening to a story about a bus driver and a bus journey, with follow-up questions on what we’d heard about people getting on and off, traffic along the way, etc. If you’re a quiz nut like me you enjoy this kind of memory test (others in the group weren’t so sure) but all agreed it’s easy to miss key information when we heard the ‘punchline’…

I won’t share the twist here but the sources of the exercises are below for you to look it up if you wish.

The group shared a range of perspectives to consider when running this type of activity, from length/complexity of the task, ensuring the learning matches the goal, and approaches to tailoring the ‘story’ to make it relevant for the participants.

  • The second exercise (this time involving remembering some slightly peculiar sandwich filling combinations – bacon and tuna, anyone?) again raised debate around learning preferences, memory techniques, and relevance to participants.
  • For the third exercise, we sat back-to-back in pairs, with one person describing an image and the other attempting to draw it. Again, going through this exercise in the group brought out discussion around the importance of listening as well as speaking, and the value for participants in understanding the importance of seeing from the other’s perspective to guide choice of words and descriptions.

The results were, if not entirely accurate, pretty impressive! See for yourself below!

  • The final exercise used an approach I know well from past communications roles, where (again in pairs) we were asked to follow unshared rules governing the interaction between speaker and listener.This exercise gave us all an understanding of the discomfort we can feel when communicating with someone who doesn’t share our (social/cultural) norms – I hope my partner can forgive me for ignoring her raised hand! – and we all took lessons for our personal and professional listening techniques.

In the 90-minute session we covered four great tools for starting the conversation about listening, discussing what might be useful where and how the exercises could be tailored for an even greater impact as part of a facilitation activity. I came away with a load more tools in the box for future facilitation needs, and even more things to look up – and I’m already planning some exercises I’d like to try with the group!

As always, a meetup is what you make it, and (more important than the individual exercises perhaps) what made this one for me was the open discussion and debate, shared with respect for – and keenness to learn from – one another. I can’t wait to see how the group continues to grow.

So, what are your favourite tools for getting people to understand the importance of listening? What have you always wanted to try but been too afraid to use? And when are you going to join us to talk about it?

 If you’re interested in the exercises they can be found at:


 You can find out more about Together Tools and join the group at: – the next meetups are on 16 March, testing a storytelling tool prototype, and 30 March ‘Bringing “Unknown Knowns” to the surface with Clean Language’ – or keep up to date on Twitter @NiksClicks #TogetherTools.]

 Cari Hewer is an experienced communications and engagement specialist, with roles managing complex challenges in large projects. Cari offers experience in the design, delivery and facilitation of activities to deliver business objectives and build engagement with internal and external stakeholders at all levels.

Twitter: @carichi



Social investment – do potential recipients really need a precise definition?

I recently wrote a guest blog for Eastside Primetimers where I am an associate consultant.  Within the post I explored my thoughts on whether the question of defining “social investment” is partly to blame for charities and social enterprises continuing to report that they don’t know what social investment is.

Fundamentally, I believe that deciding whether external finance is right for the financing needs of an organisation is the first consideration.  Finding a suitable investor whose motivations and return requirements are relevant is the second stage where social return criteria may become more important.

To assist with the first question, I covered some of the things that (social) investment is not, with a view to dispelling some of the misunderstanding that I feel are sometimes perpetuated.

If you’d like to read and respond to the full blog, please follow the link.

Capturing, accommodating and appreciating diversity – the impact of visual imagery and sharing ideas on some further challenges

Last week I visited the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.  It’s one I try to visit each year and enjoy equally each time.  What’s most beautiful is the way that a relatively small collection can so deftly capture a microcosm of the amazing diversity of people.  The images are perceptively simple but I can’t help but marvel at the immense skill of the photographers who create this thought provoking collection with the combination of expression, stance and setting at a single moment in time.

Visiting the exhibition linked neatly with a conversation I’d had the day before about some great projects I knew previously and others I’d been introduced to at RSA Engage earlier in the week.  All use visual images to capture human stories as a way of giving the subjects a voice, influence attitudes and policy and educate the wider public about issues the Project Founders are underrepresented.

As a quick intro to the projects in question, they are:

Café Art which takes artworks produced by people affected by homelessness and showcases them in a network of cafes across London.  I consider their “flagship” project the annual “MyLondon” calendar featuring photographs taken with disposable cameras representing the users’ representations of London.

Lensational which empowers women across the World through photography, teaching them the skills to create “herstories” with visual images.

The Face of Defiance a project devised by Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) Campaigner Leyla Hussein who enlisted the services of a professional photographer to portray women who have undergone FGM in all their strength and beauty.

The work of Hannah Rose Thomas who visits Refugee Camps and uses her incredible portraiture talents to paint the people residing there.

Finally, slightly different, MTArt which advocates investment in artists as key commentators on contemporary life and concerns..

These are just a few examples I’ve seen recently of how visual imagery can be harnessed to stimulate change – if you know of others, please share them.

The projects and their diverse subjects also tapped into a couple of other things that I’ve been thinking about recently and for some time – I wonder what projects might be out there working on:

  • Working with diverse groups. As I mentioned in my previous post, I have recently started a meetup group.  Something I’ve wanted to achieve from the outset is to make this group as inclusive as possible but within this I recognise I’m very much governed by my own experience.  Whilst trying to remove barriers to participation I’m already aware that I’ve created some by my session design.  I would really like to explore further both how a facilitator can recognise and adapt to the variety of people who may come together in a group and also the ways in which networks, collaborative projects and informal meetups can be as inclusive as possible.
  • How we can all “get to know each other better”. As only the second post since I revived my blog I haven’t managed to get far before mentioning “the B word” but, like many others the result of the referendum shocked and upset me in equal measure.  The implications of the vote itself are one thing but it was also a huge wake up call to me.   I generally consider myself to be interested in people from a range of backgrounds and try as far as possible to learn about others’ experiences through attending groups and talks, reading widely and volunteering but there was never a clearer illustration of the fact that I mix mainly with people similar to me than the fact that I was so surprised by the result.    With this realisation in mind I began to consider how I might ensure that I am exposed to a greater range of viewpoints but I’ve yet to come up with an answer.  How can we truly make strides in understanding each other better?  In this time of information overload the answers must be out there and I wonder if some of the techniques used in the projects I outlined at the start of this piece might be employed to achieve some of this impact.

In the spirit of shared learning and collaboration which I hope will be a strong thread running through this blog, it would be great to hear of the examples you know making strides in tackling these challenges and perhaps we can boost their profile together.

Sharing techniques for connecting and collaborating – “Together Tools” takes shape

The power of the crowd – was it ever more celebrated than today?  There’s no doubt it’s a welcome demonstration of what can be achieved when people unite around common goals, even if they’re otherwise complete strangers.  From crowdfunding to crowdsourcing, more often than not these connections draw on the evolution in digital communications.

While the virtual world offers fabulous reach and an effective method to make previously unlikely connections, there are many of us who still believe nothing beats a face to face connection.  But, for every stimulating training course and inspiring meeting there’s another that is no more than extended talking shop.

I love to bring people together and work interactively with others and am always looking for ways to gather new ideas on how to improve my practice.  Dropping in to a variety of meetup groups has given me some great opportunities to gain an insight into new techniques, but it’s been pretty hard work finding them and takes a certain boldness to drop into an established group, although I’ve always been made welcome.

I haven’t managed to find a group that brings this range of opportunities together, which is why I decided to start my own and “Together Tools” was born!  We had our first meeting on 17th January 2017, entitled “Breaking the Ice”.  A group of 7 of us congregated at the Royal Festival Hall, and as an icebreaker had been promised, we initially got to know each other discussing favourite places in London, times of day and …fruit and veg.  More specifically the question “If you could be any fruit or vegetable what would you be and why?” – the hands down winner was beetroot!

While we came from a range of backgrounds including start-up support, digital and tech, community development and change management, what then followed was an energetic discussion about reasons for joining the group and ideas and hopes for how it might develop.  These indicated some great possibilities for future avenues and, thinking big, a multi layered group with several strands of activity.  The potential of this group as a safe space to try out new “together tools” and seek input and feedback also featured strongly which chimes fully with one of my own hopes.

Fundamentally, however, I was pleased to find a group with a shared interest in bringing people together and developing our own “toolboxes” for supporting them to interact effectively.  Looking to the future, it’s now a chance to test out various sessions and formats and seek feedback and input on what those who attend find most useful, interesting and engaging.   If this sounds intriguing, please join the meetup and come along to a future session – it would be great to see you!