Evolution and overload in an age of connectedness

In 2013 I stepped out of full time, permanent work to begin a “Portfolio Career”.  While there were many motivations for this, one was that I was yearning for the variety and opportunity to follow my own interests that this seemed to offer.

While the interests themselves have taken new directions over the years, the desire for breadth has continued and one way that this is evident is that I attend what on the surface seem like a disparate range of events with the sole common thread being that I think they sound stimulating.  However, I believe differently and am constantly fascinated by the connections between apparently different subjects and the way that once a certain concept has come on to my radar, I will see related items everywhere.

One example was on Tuesday afternoon and evening, starting with a primary school visit in connection with a charity trustee role I hold, followed by an event “In Conversation with Julia Hobsbawm”.  I wrapped up the evening watching BBC Horizon “Rory Bremner: ADHD and me”.

The connection between the first and last of these as fairly clear as the visit related to a new tool being tested that develops children’s ability to focus, although the fact that these were on the same day was a coincidence.

However, the links between the talk and the programme was rather more unexpected.  Hobsbawm’s presentation was based on the concept that living in a networked age where we are surrounded by information and connections, is beginning to cause significant anxiety and a “timesuck” which is bad for social health.

Consequently, when the Horizon focus shifted to Salif Mahamane from Utah State University and his studies into how modern environments are particularly challenging to people with ADHD, I was expecting him to refer to the constant stimulation and distractions that we are exposed to.  It was a surprise that the case he presented was around the mundanity and repetitive nature of many of our everyday lives and the fact that so much time is spent indoors.

While to a degree I believe the latter to be the case, I still feel that the levels of distraction that we are exposed to, even for those without diagnosed concentration difficulty are more damaging to focus than the need to complete repetitive tasks (and aren’t they going to be taken over by robots soon anyway)?

More fascinating was Consultant Psychiatrist Dr Jonathan Williams’ argument around the evolutionary case for ADHD.  He believes that “ We need to have people like this around” as they “[do] dangerous things and then all of society learns from the cost of these errors”.  On the other hand, in a homogenous community, there are no examples to take heed from and all may then fall into the same traps to the detriment of the whole group.

While the context was different, this argument bore a striking resemblance to Julia Hobsbawm’s argument for the dangers of “group think” and the idea that if we are too networked we don’t come up with new ideas.

I had attended her talk as I have a strong interest in creating connections, learning together and building networks as this blog hopes to portray.   However, much of what she said about the discomfiting effects of information overload certainly hit home and caused me to question and begin to clarify my thinking on the matter.

As demonstrated by the unexpected connections I discovered last Tuesday, my interest is far from reinforcing existing connections for the sake of consistency but rather in bringing together a diverse range of views and creating new and productive connections. So while I recognise the need to rationalise the information I access, I will still continue to look for opportunities to expand my range of connections and seek to help others do the same.

Image from Pixabay https://pixabay.com/p-291098/?no_redirect


What kind of Together Tool is that?

“It’s not clean and it’s not a language”, so said “Clean Language” expert Judy Rees at the fourth meeting of Together Tools.  Judy should know, she has written a bestselling book on the subject and works regularly to introduce the concept in a variety of circumstances.  This was just one of the revelations during the session which also featured (among other things), a Zen Jedi, a unicycle-riding octopus, a dolphin and a magician.

Luckily, this does not indicate any role play taking place, but rather an exploration of metaphor and the range of situations where is can be used or probed to reveal hidden messages, create connections and enhance understanding between people.

In contrast to the History Pin and Unusual Suspects events covered in my last blog, the exercises Judy introduced demonstrated how diverse individuals’ thinking is, even when given the same basic “brief”.

I’d previously been introduced to Clean Language in an Action Learning for Facilitators session where I’d found it quite a challenge to seamlessly blend the two methods.  I can, however, see the irony in this given the shared aims to pose open questions that feature as little of the questioner’s content as possible.

I found Judy’s focus on just two “lazy Jedi” (another Jedi) questions helpful (1) What kind of “x” is that? 2) Is there anything else about “x”?), as this really demonstrated the contrast between the sparseness of the questions and the detail of the answers as mental images were explored.  It was also fascinating to observe how each member of the group responded, with some fully running with their metaphors while others were more reserved or sceptical.

Following some simple activities using Clean Language both 1-1 and in a group, Judy shared a little more on the theory and practical application before closing with some reflections on how we each might use what we’d learned in the future.

My immediate reaction was that with the simplified version of just 2 basic questions in mind I might look for more opportunities to try them in future.  However, reflecting afterwards revealed a number of further takeaways:

  1. I was amazed by the variety of situations where Judy has used or seen Clean Language applied successfully, from medicine to coaching, to working with disengaged young people. My query has always been how far one could keep delving into a metaphor before the person questioned became frustrated or tied in knots.  The examples suggested that my fears lack foundation and also demonstrated what a powerful tool this could be in breaking down barriers and working across cultures.
  2. Which leads to a second point around the questioner becoming comfortable in the technique. As most of us were new to it, using what seemed an unnatural syntax and interaction felt a bit laboured but Judy’s observation was that the questioner being at ease makes a big difference.  Considering this in the light of other techniques such as Action Learning facilitation, I could envisage this being the case.
  3. The group work also revealed that as a technique to hone listening skills, a Clean Language exercise where participants needed to hear, hold and repeat what others have said several minutes after they’ve heard it, could be as effective, or more so, than any that we tried in the previous session on listening skills and could serve as a great opener to a session where the quality of attention is paramount.
  4. In the later discussion, Judy talked about how the questions could be used beyond metaphor to explore gestures. This potential was particularly interesting to me and something I’d definitely like to explore further.
  5. For all that Clean Language aims to remove the questioner’s content and focus on exploring the responses, it was abundantly clear that the person shaping the session and asking the initial question has a significant advantage in setting the context to work with. Repeating 1-1 interactions using the same initial metaphor also demonstrated how each of the questioners homed in on a different aspect leading the responses in different directions.

As usual the opportunity to experience a new technique and reflect on it with others was useful and left me with many further thoughts.  I’ve yet to channel my “lazy Jedi” and try it out again, but it’s definitely something I’d like to try in future and I’m keen to learn more about situations where Clean Language has been used successfully and also where it hasn’t worked.

Our next Together Tools meetup is on a subject that’s very new to me.  Another expert led session on “Constellations” led by Heather Day on 4th May.  There are more details on the website so join us if you can!

For more information about Clean Language and Judy’s work and writing on the subject, I’d encourage you to visit her website .

Images via Pixabay 1) Magic Hat 2) Octopus

Stories Together

On 16th March I was pleased to be able to add a special extra session to the Together Tools Calendar.  16 of us gathered for a session delivered by Michael Ambjorn of History Pin.

“History Pin” is currently prototyping a facilitation tool for people to connect by sharing stories and insights from their lives.  The attendees had come together from a variety of sources with numbers boosted via a couple of other projects that I’m involved with – Networked City and OpenIDEO London .  As such there were few pre-existing relationships and this led to some fascinating story swaps.

It was also a great opportunity for us all to share thoughts on how the kit could be developed, with a view to other facilitators taking it on and using it in their own choice of setting.

I’ll admit that while I’m relatively used to participating in group reflective and shared learning practices, I had some trepidation about sharing my “life story” with complete strangers.  When it came to it, the light-touch, rapid framework gave a good structure to choose what to share and there was an open and supportive atmosphere that made the conversations feel enjoyable rather than intrusive.  A number of people fed back that they would have liked longer in each segment to enable deeper conversation.

From my own perspective, I felt the pace of the design was a strength as it allowed just enough to be revealed to spark interest, or highlight things in common, whilst removing potential discomfort.  It might also open the door for further conversations outside the session to be arranged.

Given that my understanding of the facilitation kit’s aims is that it would develop better understanding between people who might otherwise not meet, this follow-on activity would seem to fit closely.  However, the extent to which this could and should be facilitated is a lingering question for me.  As a facilitator of Action Learning, one of the tenets I try to stick to is that what is said within the session is not revisited outside unless the “sharer” instigates it.  I feel this contributes to a feeling of safety and allows participants to be more open.

This leads me to another, perhaps more central challenge with History Pin.  It worked really well for Together Tools but this was a self-selected gathering, which was open minded to what was in store and generally interested in connections, collaboration and new ideas.  To prove its true worth, using the tool with individuals whose paths may ordinarily never cross and importantly, may be uncomfortable  talking about personal matters with strangers is where it could create real impact.  I’ve mentioned in a previous blog my desire to find initiatives that could aid my understanding of people whose lives are very different to my own and the premise of History Pin is a key example.

Engaging these groups and encouraging participation seems to me to be the single biggest challenge in helping the initiative to achieve its full potential.  A similar dilemma was evident in the session pitches at an event focused on designing the “Unusual Suspects” festival I attended last week.  There too the aim is to hold a series of gatherings that bring together a broad cross section of representatives.   Both the History Pin and Unusual Suspects events drew on the fact that we generally have more in common than points of difference but recognising and addressing difference sensitively is for me, what would allow the most interesting insights.

Finding ways to create events that are equally valuable, attractive and empowering to individuals with their own perspectives isn’t easy and I’ll be really keen to see how different groups address this, and the degree of success with different models.  I’ll also continue to be on the lookout for other working examples and would encourage any readers to share techniques they’ve tried.

I know that the History Pin team is already doing some work to develop this side of things and it’s something I’m keen to know more about as well as contribute to where possible.  In the meantime, the testing continues so if, on reading this you’re curious to find out more, would like to try your own session or have an idea of how this could be relayed to a cross section of attendees, now’s the time to get involved- send me a message or add comments below if you’d like to know more.

Together Tools continues to run sessions at least once a month where participants can experience and test new techniques for working with and groups so if this strikes a chord, please join us, share ideas of sessions you’d like to see or offer your own!

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 https://www.flickr.com/photos/adam_jones/26206956954

“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: http://www.trainingzone.co.uk/develop/cpd/trainers-tips-active-listening-exercises

 and http://blog.trainerswarehouse.com/COMMUNICATION-AND-LISTENING-EXERCISES/

 You can find out more about Together Tools and join the group at: https://www.meetup.com/Together-Tools/ – 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

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/carihewer/


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.