A friend of mine introduced me to The Art of Hosting some years back. She went through many of the concepts but one thing that stayed with me was when she said “some of the best insights come from the conversations at the coffee station when people are taking some time out during a session”. I always thought this was funny. Here we are gathered in a place to discuss some important issues. We are in a structured setting, we are being facilitated, we are being given allotted time to talk, we are listening etc. But the biggest forward leaps happen when I am taking a break and having a chat!
There are a few issues at play here. The first is around creating a space where conversations can happen. We bring people together who have various interests and their experience from their respective fields can help hone and develop another’s. So simply putting people in the same room and giving them a chance to get to know each other can aid the path towards insights and future actions and collaborations.
The second issue I see is focus. I’ve done a few creative writing workshops and one of the best ways of aiding creativity is to take away choices. “Write a poem” is one of the most daunting exercises anyone could hear. However brainstorm 20 words plus around an event that happened in your childhood, now use six of those in a six line poem. Bang – a few minutes later you have poem! Why does that work? “Write a poem” is panoramic – there are endless possibilities. Too many choices and we get overwhelmed. Narrow those down and, paradoxically, there is more freedom for expression. The same is true for creating a space for powerful conversations to happen. Another word for this might be focus. So if we have a clear question, we can have a clear focus. Too wide a parameter and it is daunting.
So to create a space for powerful conversations we need people and a focus. On a practical level it is good to adopt a user-led contract for working practises. And really that is it.
I think for many of us who navigate, and still navigate, traditional education we can get lost in what we think should happen. There should be someone at the top of the room leading. We should all face that way and appear to be listening. Day-dreaming and doodling are bad, that’s what we were told in school anyway. Permission must be sought before we leave the room. Breaks are decided by the teacher.
In a room full of people who are attracted to something like The Art of Change-making there is no need for control. These are all people working at the forefront of their field, trying their hardest to improve the lives of others, the environment, to bring awareness issues important to them, to fight to have quieter voices heard. They don’t need to be controlled and told how to comport themselves. They just need a space and a focus.
And if we create a space where people must behave like children in a school then those wonderful conversations at the coffee station wont happen. Why do we think we need to control outcomes? We are conditioned that way by most institutions we come into contact with. Control and Fear are two sides of the same coin. We control because we are afraid.
I see this in my dealings with educational institutions and their lecturers/teachers. During my time in UCC we used a system called “Blackboard”. It was away for lecturers to communicate with their classes about lectures and assignments. One suggestions was that the lecture notes should go up before a lecture. That way we could read the lecture notes before, do any pre-reading that might help, and then spend the lecture time in conversation around the topics. Most lecturers refused to do this. Their argument “If you had the lecture notes why would you come to class?” Intrinsic in this is the fear that they would be come redundant, that no one would turn up. What we wanted was to have a richer educational life, not furiously taking notes about a brand new subject we had never met before. We wanted to have conversations, to be able to ask informed questions based on our research and fill the gaps in our knowledge. We wanted and education and the lecturers, for the most part, were afraid they would make themselves redundant by informing us about what would be coming up.
My experience over the last few years
I have had a tendency to do everything to be polite, to not hurt others. I think about their needs, how will this effect them? And then because I am so worried about how what I feel might effect someone else I take NO action. I am virtually paralysed by my worries for others. Now this is very noble – that I care so much. But it is leaving a big and important part out of the equation. – My voice and my action.
An Indian friend of mine listened to my travails over the last few years. He put it simply to me in terms he understood and explained it to me.
Orla you are too obsessed with Karma – with the consequences of your actions. The other side of the coin to Karma is Dharma. One interpretation of Dharma is “Right Action” If you act from right intention, good Karma will follow.
And that is why it is so important for people like me to speak and to take action. I believe that every community has the answer to its own challenges within it. We don’t need NGOs, banks or politicians to come in and tell us how to fix things. We have the knowledge in our community. And that is why I think we need dissent as much as agreement. This is why I think we need to hear objections first and not a round of bobbing heads agreeing. It can be so easy to get carried away by an interesting proposal, yet the dissenter can have an insight or re-shape the proposal that will help us all to make better decisions.
My experience in Amsterdam
One thing that happened for me in Amsterdam was finding the courage in me to speak up. That was a sweaty palmed, beating heart, trembling voiced, teary-eyed affair! I had clarity, I did not want any more of what had gone before.
I went to talk to Floris. I asked him how I can be a better leader? He said, “You take the first steps towards leadership when you say how you feel, like you did the other day”. Leadership isn’t about dictatorship, we just think it is because its how we see it in the world most commonly. It’s about saying how you feel. It’s about saying “I am not comfortable with X.”
When you say how you feel, its leadership. When I don’t say how I feel, we miss out on valid voices. The very voices that might hold the key to a challenge we face. We don’t need to apologise for feeling, we don’t need to premised everything with “Now this is only my opinion, but…”. Everything that anyone says is a feeling or an opinion. It’s not sacrosanct.
The second thing Floris said to me about leadership was “Propose an alternative”. In that moment I realised I had totally understood the concept of walk out but had totally missed the walking on bit. I find it hard enough to speak my truth (what ever I see that to be in any given moment) never mind to offer an alternative!
So what am I saying here? When I speak from the heart and from the position of Dharma, (right action)I am showing leadership. I can let Karma take care of itself. If your opinion and someone else’s are in conflict, that doesn’t mean that you are in conflict personally, you just have a difference of opinion. And we need that. Or else we end up in big stadiums cheering on dictators! (Okay maybe not straight away, but fascism can creep in if we don’t hear other voices)
Leading through vulnerability
I hide. I am sick a lot so not only do I hide but my body makes it hard for me to be visible. But I also hide away for fear of what people will think of me if they see me when I am not well. I met up with a friend when I was sick two weeks ago. This quite an achievement for me as normally I just stay away from others. A week later we met again. The conversation went something like this;
I wasn’t feeling so good last week.
Yeah, you didn’t seem yourself
No that was me – just a version of myself I don’t let people see very much
I know exactly what you mean
So this is me. I am in pain a lot. When I am in a lot of pain I don’t want to go on living. I comfort myself by repeating the mantra “It will get better” I have to go through horrible procedures. I have difficulty getting out of bed some days due to physical and mental health reasons. I usually get out of bed. Some days I can’t dress myself or do any of the basic tasks that most people take for granted. Some days I do a dance class. Yes, you might find that weird but you know what? That is your shit, not mine. This is my reality, some days are bad, some days are great. I cry a lot. People want to comfort me. Again that is their shit. They don’t ask why, they assume it is because I am sad. It is often because I am really fucking grateful just to be in the room. I am happy – I am so happy I cry.
My challenges for the future
- To work from the heart and listen for when it whispers “Something isn’t cool, Orla”
- Lead through vulnerability. Show up and let people see other versions of myself
- Believe in my voice and its validity
- To propose alternatives
- To help others to express their voice
- To challenge ideas and stigma around disability
- To remember what is my shit – and what is someone else’s “Not my monkey, Not my circus”
- Question everything
- Be irreverent