Happiness At Work #122 ~ People: our greatest resource, now as it has always been

We are more and more recognising that the ‘soft people skills’ are neither unimportant nor inevitable, and we fail to give them our best attention and expertise at our peril.

“…given the chance, brilliant people want to do brilliant things for and with their own community, because our greatest resource is now, and always has been, people.”  Stella Duffy

Our headline post for this new Happiness At Work collection takes its words from Stella Duffy, writing about the real power of brilliant everyday people to make brilliant things happen – and yes, that would be all of us.

What last year’s very first Fun Palaces experiment discovered, heightened and celebrated was the huge talent, enthusiasm, energy and abilities of people to make something together when there is the right mix of invitation, belief, openness, trust, and recognition.

A Fun Palace is a 2hour or 2day (or somewhere in between) event that is Free, Local, Innovative, Transformative and Engaging.

80% of the 3,000+ people who made them and 80% of the 40,000+ people who took part in last year’s Fun Palaces across the UK and in other countries were experiencing arts activity for the first time.  And 90% of makers believed their Fun Palace made people very happy or happy.

And there is much we might learn from this to take into our organisations, teams and work relationships, as the article about relationships at work collected here all suggest.

Fun Palaces 2015: realising the excellence of local people

Try reading this imagining that Stella Duffy is talking about your organisation, even if you are not a professional working in the arts, science or community engagement…

The 3,183 people across the UK who signed up to make local Fun Palaces last year did so for many reasons…

For most, whatever their initial reason for getting involved, it was the local aspect that proved crucial: working with neighbours (many of them not already friends), local councillors and public buildings, often for the first time, to make great, inclusive work – and making it locally.

One of the things we’re proudest of with Fun Palaces is that it’s not about outside experts. Contrary to many subsidised engagement programmes, this project doesn’t fly in experts to make a difference. It does not look for experts to tell a group how best to function, nor does it believe that experts are best-placed to inspire communities to create their own arts and sciences events. We do not bring in world-class orchestras or top-ranking scientists to work with Fun Palaces; we couldn’t afford to, even if we wanted to – and we don’t want to.

The local person – perhaps not well-known or known at all, but expertly and compellingly enthusiastic – is a role-model who says: “I am from here, I am like you and that means you can do this too.” The local enthusiast, rather than the flown-in expert, underlines the possibility that we can all be creative.

Joan Littlewood said she believed in the “genius in every person” – and we do too. We believe that everyone can make great work, in every field, and that what is lacking is not willing, hard work – nor the brilliance necessary for ordinary people to become expert – but opportunity and encouragement…

What we learned from our Fun Palaces pilot in 2014 was that the experts are already in communities, that excellence of engagement is far more valuable than a subjective excellence of artistic quality.

We also learned that, given the chance, brilliant people want to do brilliant things for and with their own community, because our greatest resource is now, and always has been, people.

Real people, ordinary people, the people: the ones who know their own community’s needs and wants, because they live in it, offering engagement and participation far from Westminster, from the grassroots up.

Maybe you can make something brilliant during this year’s Fun Palaces where you are?  Fun Palaces, 3–4 October 2015, is now open for registration.

Read the full article here

7 workplace myths disproven by research [infographic]

Admittedly this is a real potpourri of seemingly random bits and pieces of research, but it has been made up into an intriguing provocation to some of the assumptions and beliefs that w might need to let go of in the new world of work we are making for ourselves.

Read the full article here

Where To Start On Empathy? 5 Essential Reads

Nathan Wiltshire writes

During the course of my work and life, many people ask me for advice on where to begin their own explorations into empathy. Having personally consumed hundreds of articles, books, blogs, and video content, I thought I would help de-clutter and put on a platter some of the best sources to not only get started, but to challenge your thinking. Happy reading!

1. Empathy: A handbook for revolution by Roman Krznaric

Out of all high-level discussions on empathy, this is by far the most ideal introduction to the topic. As an inspirational yet very accessible read, I suggest this as the ideal stepping-stone into empathy. By approaching the exploration from a philosophical lens, the author provides a high level overview of empathy, interwoven with many excellent historical illustrations and practical real-world examples. Also, there is a great TED talk previewing the book.

2. Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell

I like this book as the strongest practical demonstration empathy, in which Orwell immerses himself in a homeless life. For me its impact comes as much from the descriptions of lived experience on the street, as it is for knowing that this was a transformational period for the writer. The reader really gets a strong sense for how this experience provided Orwell with the deepest of insights into humanity, which he would use as the basis for later seminal works that remain relevant today – 1984 and Animal Farm. This might even inspire you to seek immersion in your own life, to intensify your own empathic exploration beyond your usual comfort zone. It is suggested second on this list deliberately as you will find it easier to make the connection between the author’s empathic journey if you start the book with an understanding of empathy basics provided by Roman Krznaric.

3. Zero Degrees of Empathy by Simon Baron-Cohen

This was the first book I ever read by a neuroscientist. I chose this because it seemed logical that in order to really understand empathy, it is necessary to get to the very source – the human brain. Zero Degrees turned out to be an easy to read and fascinating account of the conditions that leave some people without the neurological capacity for empathy. For anyone interested in empathy, this is a key insight as it demonstrates that the vast majority of us can be empathic.

4. Empathy: A motivated account by Jamil Zaki

After reading the first three, this will be a slightly more testing read as the author provides a more technical account of empathy. This has been added to the list mainly because it will make you consider what brings people to empathy (or not). It discusses the selectiveness of empathy, that it is dependent on several personal and situational factors, and that we even avoid empathy under certain conditions. Why do we act when a family member is in need of help, or even a fellow countryman, but not the millions living in poverty in far away places? These are fundamental questions we all need to ask ourselves. It may seem overly technical for some – however, those who can stick with it will gain new levels of insight.

5. Well Designed: How to use empathy to create products people love by Jon Kolko

Having read the first four on this list, you’re probably thinking, ‘Great, I now have some understanding of empathy… but what the heck am I supposed to do with it?’ One of the great challenges I see at the moment is the rapidly developing thought leadership in the clinic sphere, coupled with a relative dearth of advice on applied empathy. Well Designed takes steps towards a practical framework for applying aspects of empathy in product design. The author combines his background in design thinking and develops it to address the need for robust empathic insights. To do this he leverages ethnographic techniques and an immersive account of empathy, which indicates that observation is an essential starting point. The steps contained with this book are simple enough for anyone to try – not only in product development, but also in service or process design.

Read the original article here

10 Ways to Make Employees Happier in 2015

Derek Irvine, employee recognition expert and co-author of The Power of Thanks, suggest his top ten tips to reinvigorate employees, and build and foster a more dynamic company culture…

One simple way to breathe new life into your workforce and culture is by focusing on “thanks” and social recognition.

According to Globoforce’s Spring 2014 Workforce Mood Tracker survey, 73% of employees who are recognised at work feel happier in their jobs. Thanking your employees daily and, in turn, encouraging them to consistently thank each other, will go a long way; as will implementing a recognition program that can help streamline and track moments of “thanks” in your company.

By saying “thank you,” you will not only have happier employees, but employees who are more engaged, motivated and loyal to you as their employer.

Here are 10 ways to create a culture of recognition, and make your employees happier in 2015:

1. Thank your employees every day

While “thank you” is instinctual, it’s most powerful when it occurs repeatedly, and in a timely manner. Focus on recognizing employees on a consistent basis throughout the year.

2. Foster friendships at work

According to Globoforce’s Fall 2014 Workforce Mood Tracker survey, 89% of employees say work relationships matter to their quality of life.

Work friendships inspire and motivate employees, make employees feel more loyal and connected to their company, and provide the foundations for building trust among colleagues.  By encouraging friendships at work, you create a happier employee and also an employee who’s more productive and committed in the workplace.

3. Pay attention to employees’ needs

Some managers are more task-focused than people-focused. Instead of looking at their employees and their needs, they’re looking at their to-do lists.

By keeping your head up, you’re not only in a better position to see and acknowledge your employees’ needs, but also their contributions, which puts you in a much better position to reward their work.

4. Nurture your company’s culture

Choose the values that define your company, and then encourage your employees to express those values in their everyday behaviour.

Instituting a recognition program can help breathe life into these values and make them actionable for employees every day.

5. Encourage employees to celebrate each other

Every company is a collection of communities and of human beings, bonded by their connection to each other through their work.

By giving employees the opportunity to congratulate and thank each other for their work, a culture of recognition naturally emerges through associative behavior.

6. Create better leaders

There’s an old adage that people don’t leave companies, they leave their bosses.

By encouraging people to thank their teams often and, in turn, encourage the same behaviour among employees, a palpable rise in employee happiness will occur.

7. Show employees empathy

The importance of humanity in the workplace cannot be overstated. It’s one of the critical components of developing and retaining employees because, as humans, we have an incredible need for acknowledgement and compassion.

Listen, support and protect your employees, and encourage the same behavior among all teams by celebrating instances where great connections occur.

8. Prolong the honeymoon

New hires love their jobs, are more engaged and feel appreciated and acknowledged at work. However, after passing the one-year mark, these feelings tend to wane.

In order to keep employees happy, make every year feel like the first year. Recognise and appreciate your employees as often as possible so their enjoyment and engagement in the job starts high and stays high.

9. Unite your team

Today’s multigenerational workforce calls for an adaptable culture that is functional for a variety of different styles and approaches.

Understanding people’s motivations and work styles, and being sure to make room for all of them in a united workplace, will help you make great strides in energizing your team.

10. Give “thank-you” gifts

Everyone loves receiving gifts. So why wouldn’t the same apply in the workplace?

Consider giving employees a gift with tangible value, such as a choice of merchandise or gift card, which will in turn improve their engagement, motivation and happiness.

Read the full article here

What Does Your Communication Say About Your Culture?

Are you aware of how your communication style impacts your culture?

Is it the impact you want?

What one change in communication style would make if it returned a better outcome?

Leadership expert 

There are several ways we, as a society, currently communicate:

  • Verbal: Face-to-face, words, tone;
  • Written: Email, text, tweet;
  • Non-Verbal: Body language;
  • Interpretation of environment: Atmosphere, cultural styles.

Your current and future leaders need to be able to communicate in all these ways because today is different from yesterday and it will be different tomorrow. It is a continual change.

However, no matter what method you communicate through, there are some things that will not change.

Perception is reality

How others hear you and how they see you is reality to them, not your interpretation of the situation.

Perception is reality, and whether or not you are listening intently while staring off into the distance during a conversation, the individual you are engaged with will interpret you as disinterested, rude, and disengage quickly.

Organisations must invest in their people to improve self-awareness, understand that perception is reality, and proactively deal with impact of communication on their overall culture.

Don’t kill the messenger

First impressions represent 80% of what people think of you – period. This occurs within the first 90 seconds or less.

To change an impression requires a lot of work over many hours, sometimes even days. You have heard that one “Oh, S***” will replace 50 “Atta boys!” in five seconds! This is the same with first impressions.

In today’s world of speed, your words or letters and their delivery will either capture their attention or eliminate it.

Body language tells its own story. Awareness of your facial expressions, your stance, and your eye contact (to name a few) can create a perception that is very negative or very positive and inviting.

In addition, behaviours are interpreted as actions, whether they are verbal or not. What is your organisational culture telling you if during a manager’s meeting everyone is sitting around the table with their arms folded and checking their phones?

Learning more about non-verbal communication may actually help you reach your return on investment (ROI)!

Big Bang explosions create lasting scars

We mentioned earlier that change is constant. If an organisation wants to meet their revenue targets, they must be able to live through constant change and reduce any type of chaos associated with how work gets done differently.

Some company cultures that experience continual change have often felt that the Big Bang style is the best; as everyone is an adult, they need to get over the past, live with the modification, and get on with it. They proceed to toss all modifications on the table at once and basically tell their people accept it or move on.

But experts say this causes people to wish for the past and how things use to be, blocking them from moving forward and slowing down your team and productivity. Leaders of tomorrow must learn the techniques to eliminate the scaring effects of a Big Bang explosion.

These are just a few examples of how communication can impact your organisational culture.  For companies that are truly serious about their future, it becomes part of their leadership development as they grow leaders for the changing needs of their company’s future.

Read the full article here

Life as a Gymnasium, Trading and Investment as Workouts

When Positive Psychology starts being applied to finance you know it’s being taken seriously!

Although written specifically for finance professionals, especially traders, Brett N. Steenbarger’s ideas here lift easily across and into many of our professional lives, and offer some strengths-based ways to treat ourselves with greater humanity, recognition and appreciation…

My initial post introduced positive psychology as a bridge between the real and the ideal–between who we are and who we aspire to be. The radical paradigm shift of positive psychology is that we don’t cross that bridge simply by solving problems and resolving conflicts. We evolve by building upon our strengths: by becoming more of who we are when we are at our best.

Imagine that life is a gymnasium filled with exercise machines and equipment. One station provides us with a workout for joy and happiness. Another station exercises our capacity for life satisfaction, fulfilment, and gratitude. Still another station pushes us to higher levels of energy and vitality. Creativity, mental toughness, love and friendship,mindfulness – all have their workout spaces in life’s gym.

The notion of life as a gymnasium suggests that how–and whether–we develop hinges on the quality of our workouts. In life, as in the weight room, it’s use it or lose it. We either exercise and develop our strengths or we allow them to fall into disuse. That perspective yields a very different way of looking at our daily calendars and weekly planners: What have I exercised this day, this week? What strengths have I strengthened and which have I neglected? Am I working out, exercising the best within me? Or am I merely coping, keeping head above water in status quo mode?

Development requires expansion, not shrinking. In any gym it is only when we push our boundaries that we expand, becoming stronger, faster–more fit.

Work As Gymnasiums

Because of the need for continuous adaptation, [21st century work] requires ongoing workouts of our psychological capacities. Successful [professionals] must maintain a steady discipline of risk control, a self-confident capacity for decisive action, and also an unusual open-mindedness and flexibility when change occurs. Opportunities are ever-changing, which means that successful [professionals] must be analytical and creative, optimistic and cautious. On top of it all, skilled [professionals] must manage themselves as well as they manage risk and reward. If we fail to maintain focus/concentration, emotional balance, and self-control, our decision making suffers and we can fail to profit from even the best ideas.

Making Your Workouts Work For You

Positive psychology suggests one powerful strategy: dissect, analyse, and study your most successful decisions and actions. Reverse engineer your successes and you will discover your principles for peak performance.

This is what is known in psychology as a solution-focus. To bridge real and ideal, immerse yourself in what you do when you most closely approximate your ideals. If you unearth a great idea and manage it well, break down how you generated the idea, how you turned the idea into an successful strategy, how you managed the risk and reward, and how you managed yourself to sustain good decision making.  If you study your own work over time, patterns emerge. You’ll see errors you need to correct, but you’ll also observe strengths you can build upon. In studying your successes, you will realise that, at times, you already are well along that bridge toward your ideals.

You can’t sustain great workouts if you don’t know your best practices. Exercising your strengths requires that you know what your strengths are. If you begin to catalogue your best work, you will observe your patterns of success: the ways in which you leverage your strengths.

Read the original article here

Also on this theme…

Science Proves That Hugs Can Boost Your Immune System

We know that hugs make us feel warm and fuzzy inside. And this feeling, it turns out, could actually ward off stress and protect the immune system, according to new research from Carnegie Mellon University

Why Managers Need To Focus On Employee Happiness

If managers were smart, they would focus on employee happiness, and allow employees to naturally come up with great ideas and provide great service.

Happy employees are more productive. If an employee is happy, they’ll be more likely to be engaged, and go above and beyond to perform well.

And this has now been proven by research…

Happiness At Work edition #122

You can find all of these articles, and more, collected together in edition #122 of Happiness At Work here

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Action Learning – a better way to collaborate and communicate together…

Serpentine Summer Space 2013 IMG_3194 photo: Mark Trezona

Serpentine Summer Space 2013 IMG_3194
photo: Mark Trezona

Here are my newest thoughts about the discipline and magic that make Action Learning so potently transformational…

I had lunch last week with Alison Johns, a wonderful friend and colleague who I first met nearly twenty years ago when we were completing our MAs in Management Learning & Leadership. This was when I first discovered Action Learning, the framework that has changed my practice forever, as much, I confidently dare to believe, as it has transformed the lives and accomplishments of many of the people who have participated in its process.

In the Shaky Isles Theatre Company we have used Action Learning as the main framework for coming together to grow and sustain the company for a year now.  And more and more we are also using Action Learning inside our performance making process, as well, to sustain and nourish our creative learning alongside our show creation.

I am also currently facilitating Action Learning with a group of Rajni Shah Project artists to support their co-creation activities, and here, too, the discipline and framework of Action Learning is weaving across and into Board meetings, producing some really exciting new conversations and ways of working together.

In another application, Nicki Maher is starting to use Action Learning as a way to develop and grow Opaz, the Turkish music ensemble she leads.

And I am about to work with Tesse Akpeki to deliver training in using Action Learning for people who support or lead Trustee Boards.

These newer applications of Action Learning are continuing to amplify the belief, trust and joy that I have always found facilitating this process with very many very different groups of professionals and leaders, teachers and artists, teams and freelancers – not to mention my own invaluable membership of an Action Learning group that have been meeting regularly together since 1998.

With this in mind I wanted to try to uncover some of my newest thinking and insights about the disciplined magic that is Action Learning, and, alongside this, to provide a jumping off point for you to try it for yourself with the people you either work with or feel drawn to spend some time with uncovering fresh ideas and new ways to progress the things that most matter to you.

Sky Through Soundpod (Chelsea College of Art & Design, 2013)  photo: Mark Trezona

Sky Through Soundpod (Chelsea College of Art & Design, 2013)
photo: Mark Trezona

A Practitioner’s Guide to Action Learning

Reg Revans invented Action Learning to provide a ‘clean space’ in an overly noisy and overly directed world, to give people enough freedom and enough solid framework to be able to uncover and discover our own best thoughts and insights to become freshly inspired to act, fuelled by our own creative expectations and sustained by our continually expanding capabilities.

Revans was convinced that for an organisation to survive its rate of learning must be at least equal to – and ideally greater than – the rate of change in its external environment – this became known as Revans’ Law: Learning must be > or = Change.

The Action Learning process has developed over the last sixty years as a method for individual and organisational development. As a process Action Learning can be challenging and informative. Within organisations Reg Revans described it as “the outward communication of doubt” – an opportunity for people to engage with and work through what is unfamiliar, uncertain and not known and identify action which could make a positive difference to their own and the organisation’s effectiveness. For example, he was one of the first to introduce to the National Health Service the idea that nurses, doctors and administrators needed to listen to and understand each other – and action learning groups offer the opportunity.

In any attempt to describe Action Learning, it is essential to say that Revans rightly advises us that the only way to really know what it is, is to do it. With that in mind, here are the instructions we follow in our practice, which we hope will give you enough to be able to try it for yourself.

In the form of Action Learning we use, the available time is divided first into two parts: a first part for Action Learning itself, and the second part to work the ideas and progress the material that has emerged out from the individual contributions.

The Action Learning time itself is divided equally among the individuals present. Each person then has that amount of Clean Space time to bring to the table whatever is most live and prescient for each of them.  And during this time the rest of the group cannot interrupt or comment in any way. Once each person has said as much as they want to, the rest of us offer them open creative thinking questions for whatever Clean Space time remains.

The Clean Space Process

Space:

1. A continuous area or expanse which is free, available, or unoccupied

2. A stretch of time

3. The amount of material used or needed to write fully about a subject

4. The freedom to live, think, and develop in a way that suits you best

Before you start agree how much Clean Space time each person will have and who will keep time.

In your Clean Space time…

1 ~ Say whatever you want to say. Be as selfish as you can be about what you want to bring to the table.  Talk from your own head and heart and don’t worry or care about what anyone else needs to hear. 

No interruptions, comments or questions from anyone else during this phase.

2 ~ Once you have said all you want to say, you respond to open creative thinking Questions given to you by the rest of your group.

Again, be completely selfish about how you want to respond to any question you get: you decide what it means and how you want to answer it, if at all.

The rest of the group seek to bring you moments of spontaneity – questions that open you up to fresh new thinking and insights.

Resist saying anything except Open Questions during this phase. The best questions will be a gift for the person who receives it, and they will feel and often say “That’s a great question…”

Use “Why…?” questions sparingly.

3 ~  (optional and only if time –at least 2minutes of each person’s Clean Space time) 

You ask whatever you want to from others in the group.

If there are no questions you want to ask people, use this time to draw together the thinking and ideas you are going away with.

Allow about 10% of Clean Space time for this, but shift into it sooner if the person who has the Clean Space is repeatedly saying “I don’t know…” to your questions.

Helpful Capabilities for Action Learning

o   Being fully present

o   Alert, neutral, open, heightened listening

o   The Fine & Difficult Art of Asking Really Great Open Questions

o   Being utterly selfless and tuned in to what the Clean Space holder is trying to get when it is not your Clean Space time

o   Being supremely selfish about what you want to bring and get from your own Clean Space time

o   Wondering your not-knowing out loud: bringing what you don’t know to the table

o   Being open to surprise

Serpentine Summer Space 2013 IMG_3191 photo: Mark Trezona

Serpentine Summer Space 2013 IMG_3191
photo: Mark Trezona

This set of simple rules sets up the conditions for a very different way of thinking and communicating that lead almost inevitably to new insights and fresh possibilities for action.  When repeated over a series of meetings it replaces our usual default ways of listening and thinking with better ways that are far more open, expansive, diverse, inclusive, and actively engaged.  And over time, the disciplines and capabilities it demands from us start to become easier, more natural, and much more our new ‘normal’.

We shift our perspective; we shift our balance…

…from only paying attention to the information that immediately interests us to listening out and trying to pick up much more of what is being said and its many nuances;

…from narrowing the conversation down and heading off too quickly on a particular tangent, to exploring the situation in greater depth and from a wider range of perspectives;

…from talking more about things and re-presenting conclusions and ideas that we have already decided upon, to uncovering what we think and feel during the act of talking about it;

…from bringing our certainties and defending our established points of view, to bringing more of our uncertainties and opening out what we don’t know or yet have answers or solutions for: dialogue means discovering the meaning through communication;

…from only having the ‘need-to-have’ conversations, to unearthing extraordinary and surprising insights and solutions from conversations that arise out of what matters most to each of us;

…from tending to get most of the input from the more talkative amongst us, to getting and thus profiting from, an equal contribution from all of us, realising and optimising the inherent diversity that otherwise lies hidden and buried underneath our different communication styles and preferences;

…from prescribing the desired goal or outcome and restricting our thinking to what seems to be most relevant and strategic to its achievement, to keeping more open to discovering higher value aspirations that emerge and progress organically from the material of what people bring to the table;

…and from excited intentions that are too soon forgotten or lost to louder demands, to achieving ever widening results that spiral up from our collective learning ~ out to action ~ back into heightened learning ~ and out to new action ~ and so on in an increasingly reliable and self-powered momentum.

Perhaps the most surprising discovery to be made in Action Learning is that, very often, our greatest joy and discovery comes less from what we bring during our own Clean Space and much, much more from what we get from the ‘enforced’ listening we give during other people’s.

It is also helpful to know that Action Learning is not only for a team of people who want to use it to make work together, but equally powerful and potentially transformative for a group of individuals who choose to come together to hear and widen each other’s thinking entirely in terms of each person’s own personal agendas.

Action Learning and Collaboration

I have been thinking a lot recently about just what it is that makes Action Learning so enjoyed and successful and surprising and special, especially when it can be experienced by a group over a repeated series of get-togethers. These reflections have drawn out these five attributes:

  1. In-Betweenness 
  2. Listening In-ness
  3. Slowness
  4. Togetherness
  5. Connectedness

1 ~ In-Betweenness

This quality is not so much walking blindly through fog, as the more delightful experience of flying through clouds, up in the air and above it all, happy and trusting that we will get to where we want to get to without having to see ahead to our destination.

This is the ability to inhabit the grey areas between boundaries, to hold ambiguity and complexity with far less need to define it, fix it, bolt it down, categorise and name it.  It involves being simultaneously inside and outside the flow of thinking, both alert to what others are saying and what matters to them while at the same time aware of the live fresh dancing of our own thoughts colliding with what we are hearing.

This quality is especially enhanced when we can keep our not-knowingness wide open and transmitting, sensing out rather than seeing straight ahead, wondering out loud, teasing out our unformed ideas, uncertainties and barely yet understood intuitions.

2 ~ Listening In-ness

This quality is about hearing in real time (rather than anticipating ahead of what is being said and so hearing only what we expect).  It demands that we stay with the material as it unfolds in the here-and-now instead of projecting our own versions of reality on to things. This is the capability of tuning in with the deliberate intention to notice more and receive more fully.  It is HD hearing that picks up the finer inflexion, nuance, repetition and other poetic aspects of our thinking.

It requires us to lean in, bringing a particular kind of presence and concentration to stay with what is being said as it is being said, resisting our usual inclination to decide quickly on what is meant from the smallest fragment of information.

This needs our fullest energy, commitment, presence and attention. But, when the conditions of Clean Space are activated, it seems to happen with remarkable ease and reliability.

3 ~ Slowness

The listening we do in Action Learning recognises that…

…you can’t flick through sound;

…you can’t take a meaningful still of sound;

…you can’t glance at sound;

…you can’t sensibly hear sound backwards, or broken up, un-sequenced;

…you just have to start at its beginning and stay with it through to its end.

Mindfulness, a deliberate, disciplined, meditative practice of slowing down and tuning in, is becoming a mass practice across the globe, perhaps filling in and replacing our older religious rituals with something more secular and better suited to our times.  But, perhaps too, its popularity is building from a growing awareness that we need times of slowness, stillness and quietness that reconnects us into the rhythm of our breathing selves as a counterbalance to the incessantly turned on, turned up, turned out lives we are now living.

Stopping, and making a quieter stillness to listen and notice better are premium qualities in Action Learning. And much is yielded from the heightened waiting and trusting this gives us.

4 ~ Togetherness

Action Learning gives us a new way of co-creating – making something from the collective material that emerges from us all – and a better way of collaborating – making joint decisions and sharing out the work.

The material we uncover to work with is always richer and more multidimensional than any ordinary discussion could give us. This happens without force in a process akin to the sculptor’s art – drawing out and revealing and shaping and clarifying and heightening and unifying what is most fine and delightful and compelling from inside what we already have amongst us, waiting to be discovered.

5 ~ Connectedness

In Action Learning meanings, ideas and solutions emerge from making patterns. As humans we make sense of things by forging connections: that thing to the thing we already know (or think we know); this thing with that thing with the other thing to make the new thing.  Then the more we repeat, reinforce and practice anything the more strongly it becomes ingrained into our integral circuitry.  The repetition and cyclic iterations of uncovering and revealing and testing and rethinking we get in Action Learning deepens and strengthens our commitment to the ideas we most connect with.

Action Learning demands a kind of patient urgency – a different kind of dynamic that still has to move us forward with a sense of necessity and compulsion, but alongside a more careful, intimate and delicate holding on and out for what is still unfolding

Action Learning creates and sustains our propulsion from…

…the avoidance of rush and fixing too fast and hard alongside the necessity to make progress;

…the avoidance of jumping too quickly into action alongside the necessity for application and getting things done;

…the avoidance of the usual imperative to define desired outcomes and set the focus on the Vision alongside the necessity of getting somewhere worth arriving at.

Action Learning and Making Great Audience Experience

All of this I have come to know and trust from my many years sitting inside and outside dozens of different Action Learning groups since I first found it.

What is new for me is to start to wonder what might come from the explicit aspiration, or even the gentlest intention, to try to make the qualities we experience in Action Learning with our audience – whether they be our beneficiaries or our customers or our partners or our stakeholders or our public…

Audience: the people who come to give us their hearing.

What if… we could come together as a community of listeners?

And return to listen together again and again, each time able to listen better?

What might our better listening lead us on to do better?

What if…?

What next…?

What now…?

Serpentine Summer Space 2013 IMG_3193 photo: Mark Trezona

Serpentine Summer Space 2013 IMG_3193
photo: Mark Trezona

Do please feel welcome to contact us if you would like to know more about how to make Action Learning part of your work or learning.

This post was developed from the one I originally wrote for Shaking Out, the Shaky Isles Theatre Company blog

Happiness At Work edition #90

If you enjoyed this, you may also find more stories and techniques for becoming more productive, happy and creative in this week’s new Happiness At Work collection, our weekly collection of the best stories about leadership and learning, mindfulness and happiness at work, resilience and self-mastery.

Enjoy…

 

Beyond Glorious – what made this symposium so very special and extraordinary

Sheila Ghelani's conversation starters: http://sheilaghelani.co.uk

Sheila Ghelani’s conversation starters: http://sheilaghelani.co.uk

Beyond Glorious: the radical in engaged artistic practices

Thursday 30 May to Sunday 2 June 2013, Birkbeck College and Artsadmin, London

What is the place of art in acts of social re-imagination and repair?
What languages can be found to articulate such practices?
Is it possible to break new ground within the realm of engaged artistic practices?

This symposium marked the end of Rajni Shah Projects’ Glorious.  It brought together people from different spheres of life to discuss and experience the meanings, methods and effects of art in relation to engaged and radical practices.  Using Glorious as a starting point, events explored the potential of engaged artistic practices, not in terms of a reductive understanding of the ‘efficacy’ of art in the world, but as a complicating, delicate, nuanced, uneasy journey towards new ways of thinking.

What to say to capture and keep for memory about an event that lived and breathed through its quiet gentle generous friendliness?

Not just this.  This makes it sound too much like a tea party.  Which it was.  Its tea-and-cakeness was a vital part of its spirit and its lightness.  But it was so very very much more as well.

One of the symposium’s central questions explicitly tried to open out this difficulty of expressing the intangible, articulated in the question What remains?

Elizabeth Lynch (independent producer and external evaluator for Glorious), Mary Paterson (writer, producer, creative documentation for Glorious), Sarah Spanton (Waymarking), and

Chloé Déchery (theatre-maker, writer, co- artistic director of ÉCLATS Festival) opened a series of conversations around questions about what and who matters, needs to be held up and out in testament to show the worth and value out of work that makes and finds its intrinsic liveness in quiet nearly invisible and usually disregarded moments of connection, relationship, insight, inhalation.

From this session I remember the word ‘traces’ being important – as something slight and nearly gone that remains after the rest of its bulk has disintegrated, and also as something that we might use as a guide to trace out a new form from what has been left for us to follow.  We talk about when something is ‘gone without a trace’ but in doing so somehow keep still a trace of what it was that has gone.  But these subtle nuances are badly unequal to these shout-y times of unquestioning demands and unambiguous agendas.

I remember, too, the question: who gets to decide the value and worth of what was done? and I remember thinking, and am thinking still, this must be the people we hoped to bring some value and worth to, to make something that they find valuable and worthwhile.  And worrying that too seldom we go to these people to ask and listen to to decide the worth of what we have done.

But these are big questions that took the concentration of this whole symposium, as well as the work of Glorious itself, as well – as I discovered through this event – as well as a great deal more work that is being made quietly and unchampioned out there in the world amongst its peoples.  These are questions too big for this piece to try and sensibly answer.

Start again.

What I am remembering still about this experience are moments of easy unexpected encounter that tumbled joyfully out from alert interest and invitation and into depths and diversity of conversation.

I remember the warm friendliness and easy friendly warmth that was begun and renewed each day by Rajni waiting at the gate, or the outside door, to greet and welcome people as they arrived.  When I joined her in this quiet ritual for the last brunch event I discovered for myself how personal, charged and engaged this made me feel.  A small act done with great love that I am convinced sent out a ripple of similar welcomings and greetings across the whole event.

I remember the repeated joy of surprise encounters.  Sometimes these came from extended conversations with the people I was working alongside to make the backroom support.  Sometimes this was a stranger asking me to join them for lunch and drawing me lightly into their conversation.  Sometimes it was the joyful ‘aha’ of hearing the wisdom of another’s experience or the sharp brightness of their questioning inside the sessions.  What made these encounters so exceptional was their unusualness – I seldom have this same experience at other events – and their frequency.  I don’t believe it was my Glorious team member’s badge that made the difference, but rather that a mood and expectation and curiosity and readiness for surprising encounters that was woven through the DNA of this whole event: in its themes and its processes and its design and in the behaviours and values if its makers.  You get what you go looking for and something was in the water we were all drinking at this symposium that made us all more heads up, eyes open, ears widened…

I remember too the luxury of space…

…the space of time from 2hour sessions and 2hour lunch breaks with local restauranteurs who greeted us like they knew us and made us feel this meal would be special.  This elongated time that allowed for an unfolding discovery of dialogue rather than the more usual forced smash of ideas through too little time, too tight an agenda, too squeezed a set of objectives and expectations;

…the space and spaces made by questions that created openings and extensions rather than the more usual objectives that push for reductive thinking and positioning, driving and herding us into conclusions and certainties (as if there could be any, but how often are we asked, anyway, to just let go of our intelligent beliefs that our situations and ambitions are way too complex to carry the heavyweight load of certainty?);

…the physical space of being able to inhabit different spaces, to choose a session that involved walking after lunch each day, to, at any time, come into the coffee-always-ready-and-several-varieties-of-tea-room to sit, take time out, chill, or make your own conversations.

I remember, too, and maybe this above all else, how all the espoused values we, as the company, and we, as this makeshift community, were championing, advocating, advancing were every bit in evidence in the practice and experience of this event:  qualities of generosity and friendliness and inclusion and welcome and giving and gifts and relationship and exceptional experience at every moment and being fully present in every moment…  all these qualities were alive and active.  This is rare, and, sadly, it is a kind of truism that whatever is held to be most important for the people we work to benefit, we are least likely to be doing well for ourselves.

Blossoms on Branch

There is something more to say about this symposium, and this about the depth and range and interrogation of the inquiries that were the thread and weave of this symposium.  I have so far, perhaps, made it seem like a collusive gathering of the smug and complacent.  But its questions and the responses people bought were challenging and original.  And the provocations that started each day were provoking, not in a way that antagonised or tore at us, but rather they invited a kind of positive disruption, nudging us to think bigger, better, wider, more keenly.

One of the symposium’s most difficult acts to pull off – and that it did is further testament to its great success – was that many of its participants came without any prior knowledge or experience of  Glorious, the project on which it was built, and yet in conversation after conversation there seemed to me an equal sense of ownership and involvement and engagement and trust and uncertainty in the material, irrespective of how much immersion in Glorious you came with.

So my learning to take away in a memo to ourselves:

…continue, when preparing events, to devote time and creativity and care and minute attention to what will help to make a great experience for the people who will come.  Because, just as we have always believed, this matters immensely, and, because we might just dip into believing that we are already doing this enough.  And this experience has shown me that there is much more that is simple and wonderful that we could be doing.

A note: lest I seem to be bragging intolerably about this event I should say that I take no credit for its many successes.  I was there and helped to make it work, yes, but the things that it made it so very special and exceptional belong to a whole team who made it and especially the people who imagined and led it.  And, yes, to Rajni herself for the light gifted way she held it and us so potently open.

 

A beautiful bespoke publication that contains Mary Patterson’s  exquisite reveries about Glorious, and Elizabeth Lynch’s storytelling consideration of what Glorious achieved for the people who inhabited it, as well as two films made in response to Glorious – Becky Edmunds‘ collaged palimpsest made from different shows, and Lucy Cash’s Six Actions:

rajni glorious - Dear Stranger, I Love You

Dear Stranger, I love you

the ethics of community in Rajni Shah Projects’ Glorious

Dear Stranger, I love you offers an in-depth exploration of artist Rajni Shah’s Glorious, an experimental performance project that began with a series of conversations between strangers and ended in a large-scale theatre production involving local residents and musicians in each location where it was presented…

The publication brings together four ways of looking at Glorious: a short film made in response to six performances of Glorious by filmmaker Becky Edmunds; a music video shot in and around Lancaster and Morecambe by Lucy Cash; a critical overview of the process behind two iterations of the project by Elizabeth Lynch; and The Glorious Storybook, a collection of memories from throughout the process, edited and contextualised by writer Mary Paterson…

Goya: I Am Still Learning ~ Images of Resilient Optimism

I have just watched and been thrilled by the late Robert Hughes affectionate and compelling programme on Goya: Crazy Like A Genius.

An intense and dynamic presence comes out from all of Goya’s paintings and etchings – in every face there is such a sense of the moment before and the imminent moment about to come next.

Two works in particular caught my breath: Aun Aprendo / I Am Still Learning (above) – which he made during his last years in exile in France when he was in his 80’s; and The Dog, (below) one of the Black Paintings he made in the farmhouse he bought to live in, also towards the end of his life. Both of these transmit a fierce determination to stay alive, moving forward, staying hopeful, looking forward, that rather belies this artist’s more usual reputation for nightmare images of death, evil and horror.

Both images say much about the steely quiet insistence and realisation of resilience…

Gardenia ~ les ballets C de la B (Alain Platel / Frank Van Laecke)

http://www.sadlerswells.com/show/les-ballets-C-de-la-B-Gardenia

Following a successful European tour, the critically acclaimed Gardenia by leading contemporary dance collective, les ballets C de la B comes to Sadler’s Wells for a limited run.

Inspired by the penetrating film Yo soy así, in which the closing of a transvestite cabaret in Barcelona reveals the private lives of an extraordinary group of aging artists,Gardenia is a collaboration between transvestite actressVanessa Van Durme, directors Alain Platel and Frank Van Laecke, and composer Steven Prengels.

“One of the most influential dance theatre companies in the world”
THE GUARDIAN 
“An endlessly extravagant work that inspires, shocks and delights”
THE STAGE

In the most intimate of tales, this unique show goes deep into the turbulent lives of nine people; seven older individuals navigating the zone between masculine and feminine, and a younger man and ‘real’ woman. Each carries their own intriguing story, sometimes poignant, sometimes hilarious. Based on the real experiences of the cast, Gardenia indulges the human instinct for voyeurism in a visual show that harmonises dance, song and the arresting contemporary music of Steven Prengels.

Directors  Alain Platel & Frank Van Laecke

Based on a concept by Vanessa Van Durme  Griet Debacker  Hendrik Lebon  Andrea De Laet  Richard “Tootsie” Dierick  Danilo Povolo  Gerrit Becker  Dirk Van Vaerenbergh  Rudy Suwyns
Music  Steven Prengels
Sound Design  Sam Serruys
this was a show about presence.

at the start, a sloped stage, chairs framing its sides and back, microphones hunched down to two of these, a third microphone tall and straight and ready in the diva’s position downstage centre.  the nine performers are before us already, standing suited, still and straight before us, and from the first moments they are compelling and electric and alive and completely present.  just as is Steven Prengels’ corporeal sound  – absolutely being ‘the tenth character … a composition with sounds … that lifts it to a higher plane’.

Vanessa Van Durne quoted in the programme notes:

‘The cast of Gardenia does not have to play [roles]; they just have to be one the stage.  Their presence is overwhelming … They do nothing; they just have to be there.  They do things in the show, of course, but not in role.’

in fact the only sense of obvious play acting is when they deliberately overact their aged frailties in a heightened polarity to the gorgeous vibrant nightclub performers they will transform into before us.

there is so much space for us to experience this show.  not only is nothing rushed, the many repetitions used choreographically and musically add a meditative depth that works as a mesmeric cross-current with the magnetic quality brought by the performers pulling us in to find them rather than either trying to dazzle us with their spectacularity or to reaching out across to us any cliche’d need for our affirmation.  they are there.  they are complete and alive and entirely in their own skins.  rather than any sniff of pathos or tragedy, they seem to bring us a charged poise, each performer with their own rhythms and different lifeforce: they inhabit and own this space just as they inhabit and own the bodies they variously pose and strut and drape with tailored suits, floral summer frocks and riotously overdrawn costumes.  they place themselves.  and they are completely contained.  and this effect is compounded by the sound which keeps bringing us the voices of ghost ‘stars’ famous for their need for audience adoration: we hear both Judy and Liza, and Norma Desmond too, looped over the incessancy of Bolero and cut through with a slow lethargic dutch drone of “Ja. Ja. Ja. Nein. Nein. Nein,” a potently ineluctable form of ‘whatever’ repeated until it has imprinted so well into our hearing that we are so much more aware of and interested in the people in front of us than we are in any evocation of these supposedly brighter shinier starrier alter egos, whether in their ghost or their parody forms.  standing, sitting or walking the performers are compelling: existing in a form of both heightened realisation and absolute ease.  even when i lose interest in the histrionics of the beautiful boy i am pulled to watch and try to really see Vanessa Van Durne’s Madam character, stiff-backed and glacial in her Gloria Swanson turban and sunglasses and wrung out of her attempts to give comfort to the inconsolable boy – “Life is a journey. There are some unforgettable moments. And a lot more forgettable ones” – into a silent stillness that vibrates with hidden unknowable private memories.

another wonderful interplay between the sound and the performances is the display of collage: the multifarious and diverse fragments of sound/movement/embodiment masterly stitched together to create a new something that seems to simultaneously
expose and hide another different substance at its heart.  this is perhaps one of things transvestite cabaret is famous for: hiding the pain through the gaudiest glorification of it.  but whereas i would expect a transvestite show to deliver me with an easily digestible form of heartache, the exhibition of their pain always trumping easily my sufferings, this show gave me instead a most convincing and enthralling sense of real strength.

a great audience experience because it pulled me through into a widened world and shot me with a jolt of renewed possibility.  it showed me an array of ways of being comfortable in your own skin that were nevertheless completely absent of any arrogance or complacency or caustic.  some words i’ve been recently reading by Steven Feld about ‘the primacy of sound as a modality of knowing and being in the world’ could be extended to describe this show:

‘…these distinct and shared ways of being human, … [the] possibilities for and realisations of authority, understanding, reflexivity, compassion and identity.’

30th June 2011

‘Perpetual Light’ by Jessica Curry at Old Vic Tunnels

Perpetual Light: Requiem for an Unscorched Earth. By Jessica Curry. A new choral work about the triumph of humanity over destruction

http://www.perpetual-light.com/

Perpetual Light: Requiem for an Unscorched Earth is a new choral work by Jessica Curry that fuses music, film and installation to create an emotionally charged, unique experience. It is a profoundly moving piece that remembers those who lost their lives in nuclear conflicts. Once again, we live in the shadow of the bomb. Fear of rogue states and terrorism have replaced the Cold War stand-off and a new apocalyptic atomic vision is now upon us. Despite this, we have not destroyed ourselves: we are still here. Perpetual Light celebrates our extraordinary will to survive, delivering a powerful message of hope.

Composer and Artistic Director: Jessica Curry
Performed by Londinium
Film and installation by Jo Fairfax
Produced by Sarah Ellis
In association with The Albany

Saturday 4 June 2011   3.30pm and 7.30pm

The Old Vic Tunnels
Leake Street
SE1 7NN


we queue to get, in deciphering the graffiti and reading the programme notes while trying to keep our noses tight against the insistent stink of pigeon poo.

when let in, we come into a an underground hollow space of sound – an atomic kind of of difficult buzz – more than a drone sound and suggestive of an audio equivalent of glowing radioactivity perhaps. and definitely and surely composed – its cadences moving us toward fiercer intensity and insistence.

it is unclear where we are supposed to be in the space and with everyone there is a feeling of needing to rush to be in the right place after the queuing. there is a largeish area with candles burning and white glowing rings set into the new cement that becomes a second holding area. beside this is a cavern hung with white-lighted model planes suspended in a grid of rows above us and above a shrine-ish area with a funereal-looking box and two more glassed-in burning candles.

we queue again and wait to get through to the live performance area.

we are let through to a third area of rowed seats facing the two rows of the twenty singers that are Londinium, an a cappella choir.  behind them a large screen is showing faint shadowing waves which remind me of the ghostly echo of static waves out of an old fashioned tv screen.

the music has grown and expanded in complexity and heat – some of the sounds are barely endurable. we are pleased to be seated waiting and, watching a looped video of two woman’s eyes above and apparently watching a landscape from which two bright missiles are fired across a trajectory that neatly traces this witness’s eyes before flying inexorably away to explode somewhere, someone, out of sight, only to rise again, and again. in front of this image is a spiral design that reminds of the calibration of target finder or the unfurling of a fern or the carved eyes of a less modern totem to territory and domination.  watching, we are able to meditate on the ugly potency of our warfare and weaponry.

the music the choir make is exquisite. complex and interwoven and still sounding simple and urgent and sad.  it is a sublime experience to sit in this dark tunnel with the constant sonic rumbling of the trains over our heads like some omnipresent thundering of storms gathering, and fall inside this music. sometimes i found myself admiring. sometimes i felt a complicated array of thoughts and feelings and sensations. mostly i was just able to be in it.

(which means that the traces i might have to make this memory with are too ghostly and ephemeral to pin down here in a more specifically recounted record.)

after the concert we wandered back into the candle-lit adjoining tunnels and i was overcome with a surge of deep sadness.  standing in this newly activated shrine i felt physically and emotionally charged.

an exceptional experience for sure. *****

show seen: 4th June 2011

 

‘I Am the Wind’ at Young Vic

A Young Vic/ Théâtre de la Ville-Paris co-production co-commissioned by Wiener Festwochen (Vienna), les Nuits de Fourvière/ Département du Rhône, Festival Grec 2011 – Barcelona and Festival d’Avignon

I Am the Wind

by Jon Fosse
English language version by Simon Stephens

Until 21 May 2011

http://www.youngvic.org/whats-on/i-am-the-wind

I Am the Wind

Creative team

Direction Patrice Chéreau
Artistic collaboration Thierry Thieû Niang
Design Richard Peduzzi
Costumes Caroline de Vivaise
Light 
Dominique Bruguière

Music Éric Neveux
Casting Sam Jones
Assistant lighting designFrançois Thouret
Assistant Director Peter Cant
Literal translation Øystein Ulsberg Brager

Cast

Tom Brooke
Jack Laskey

The wind gathers, rising up suddenly.

Two men on a fragile boat, a trip to sea – a few drinks, a bite to eat – when one of them decides to push on to the open ocean.

Suddenly there they are: among the distant islands, the threatening fog and gathering swell of the sea, bound together on an odyssey into the unknown.

France’s leading film, opera and theatre director
Patrice Chéreau (La Reine Margot) directs
Simon Stephens (Punk Rock, Lyric Hammersmith) version of Jon Fosse’s (Ibsen Award 2010) contemporary fable.

This was a wonderful experience – a meditation on suicide perhaps, or perhaps an intimate portrayal of someone wilfully casting off his childish self to become the more responsible and more fearful adult he is inevitably growing into. The experience watching it was so close and personal it felt luxuriously a lot like falling inside the pages of a book – the experience yours alone to drift and yearn and ache and lament through.  This is what i recognise as exceptional audience experience – rich and imaginative and evocative and spiritual and human and potent in its capture of life as we can recognise it and yet life as it could and we still want it to be.

Much of this was achieved by the staging – simply stated and roughly dramatic and complex and thrilling in its occasional abrupt surprises (the boat appearing and disappearing) and sharply poetic in its images (the first moments of The Other holding the half naked child-thin body of The One at the edge of the brown water) and intimate (the caressed holding of the two men together on the boat). The appearance and performance of the two actors made it easy for us to fall inside this world – not pretty film star types but ambiguous characterful boy-men who seemed to mostly inhabit the skin of the (same?) man they portrayed for us.

And it made me remember the regret of the fear of riding a horse now that i am grown, remembering how easy and exhilarating it had been to ride as a child.  And to think again of the heady intoxication of an imagined life lived right out on the edge, experiencing at extreme levels of reception, irresponsible and never attainable of course but once upon a time wished for and grasped at despite its impossibility.

Watching the actors secure and vulnerable on their roiling decking, facing out to the limitless horizon, bound to either unglamorous disaster and inglorious turning back and accepting the world that is known and unleaveaable. And all of this thoroughly theatrical and live and immediate.

Exceptional experience that is still full and alive with me days later.