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Is active listening the bedrock of social change?

It’s one thing to agree on the kind of world we want to live in; it’s another to agree the means of getting there. But the ways we work with one another in the process can make or break the most beautiful visions and most effective organising methods. It’s time we take our relationships seriously. Active listening is a good place to start…

We could all learn to listen better

I have limited patience these days for discussing big picture politics; the ‘general aims for the world’ kinda stuff. I don’t find conversations at this level offer a great deal of insight into the people you’re talking to, their motivations, and how they might go about creating the world they believe in. They are so abstract as to be practically meaningless, beyond establishing a broad set of shared values.

Another level down, is the ‘how we organise ourselves’ question, which I’ve put a lot of space on this blog into over the years. Beyond our general political and social aims, are we able to talk about the structures that will get us there and how to avoid thinking we can replicate the organising structures of the present, without also replicating their disastrous consequences?

These are clearly important conversations to be having, as far less creativity seems to go into re-imagining our organising structures, than goes into re-imagining the ‘end results’ of social change (as though there is some ‘final stage’ of human evolution!). But these conversations, too, don’t tell us enough… And they don’t push us enough. At least not on their own.

I’ve had too many experiences of organising with people with whom I had a shared vision of the future and a broadly-agreed approach for getting there, and yet, antagonism came to characterise our working relationships, or those of others we felt we’d seen eye-to-eye with. (I’ve experienced this in movements and organisations, both, so it transcends the dysfunctions of most hierarchical bureaucracies.)

Introducing: Active Listening!

This is what led me to the radically-simple concept of ‘active listening,’ and applying to a 5-week evening course with Jonathan Kahn on the subject.

Active listening and peer coaching feel like the most intimate iterations of the politics and values I try to spend much of my life pursuing. If we’ve agreed – vaguely, at least – on ‘the big picture’ and have agreed on systems of non-hierarchy and decentralisation of power to help get us there, I feel that these are the personal and interpersonal tools that we need to grow such systems and keep them working through the rocky waters that inevitably lay ahead.

Active listening is not complicated, at least as far as the practicalities of it go. It’s about changing the ways we engage in conversation, to help the other person realise themselves more fully and most of it is about pausing, asking questions and clarifying intent and feeling. But doing it is tricky. Simple techniques likes ‘leaving someone five seconds of silence before you reply to them,’ can challenge deeply held cultural assumptions, as well as some of our own insecurities. These things can feel trivial when we are thinking of the bigger problems in the world, but are too-often – left unaddressed – the stumbling blocks that keep us from realising any smaller-or-larger scale change efforts that we take part in. If we aren’t able to be aware of the countless pieces of personal hurt and negative social conditioning that we bring into all of our organising relationships, odds are considerably worse that those organising relationships will bear fruit.

Jonathan is serious about changing the ways we interact with one another. He gives what can feel like immense amounts of time to exploring how body language, tone, silence and well-placed questions, can change the ways we engage with one another for the better. In theory, it can be hard to see the practical value of examining such details, but in practice, the results can be remarkable. The looks on the faces of at least two of the people with whom I was able to practice these techniques, told me that in my conscious silence, paired with a few well-placed questions, I had offered them something they weren’t getting, but clearly appreciated. It’s truly difficult to explain, but one person said to me, following a coaching conversation: ‘It’s great to feel like you’re not boring someone to death!’ As I was reminded by in Occupy London general assemblies in 2011, we are so used to feeling unseen and unheard – when we have a chance to feel truly listened to, it can be a deeply liberating experience. And this kind of experience, when realised, can open our abilities to organise together.

In just a few evenings, I felt forced to re-evaluate countless aspects of my ways of engaging with others. I learned and practiced several simple techniques to undermine the role of my ego in any interaction, help others express themselves more fully and explore the deeper motivations and insecurities (in myself and others) that might be impeding progress on a particular project or activity.

The Bedrock of Social Change

To me, these tools are nothing-less-than the foundations of a better future. They enable us to hear each other and to be heard, which are the aims at the core of most systems of direct and participatory democracy. And without processes that offer us the voice and involvement in our own lives (that most current systems of governance and organisation deny us), we are doomed to recreate what we’ve already got.

So this stuff is critical. And it’s hard. But it is not ‘self-indulgent,’ ‘trivial,’ ‘a distraction’ or any of the other pejoratives I’ve heard used to describe this kind of work.

The truth is, it can be scary. It can expose us to parts of ourselves we don’t like admit exist. But it can also help us heal the wounds that keep us from supporting one another in the ways we all need when we’re experiencing the struggles associated with trying to build a new world in the shell of the old one.

I can’t stress enough how much I think Jonathan’s work is needed. His conferences are often more expensive than many of us in the social movement/NGO space can afford, but he runs his evening classes on a ‘gift economy’ basis, meaning he will accept whatever forms of monetary or non-monetary gratitude you choose to offer, based on the value you have received, when the course is finished.

The greatest visions, strongest strategies and most robust organising structures can be brought to their knees by misunderstandings, hurt feelings and generally crap listening. Let’s give ourselves half-a-chance to make these ideas and systems work, by giving ourselves the tools to communicate better!

Here’s where you can find out more about Jonathan’s work: https://2016.dareconf.com/evening-courses

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Navigating meetings with Grumpy Cat

We’ve all experienced Grumpy Cat; that person who comes into a meeting or a workshop, seemingly set on bringing everyone else down, blasting any suggestion that might offer the potential for positive change. They often cloak their intentions in notions of ‘being realistic,’ or by regular references to health and safety legislation, or funding requirements. But whatever they call it, the effects are often the same: they suck the life out of the room. What’s the best response in these situations?

meetings with Grumpy CatI’ve done work with a few different organisations lately, in which Grumpy Cat has made an appearance in meetings or workshops. Grumpy Cat takes different forms in different offices, but his or her (usually his) demeanour sets him or her (usually him) apart from colleagues; Grumpy Cat doesn’t smile, Grumpy Cat doesn’t get excited, Grumpy Cat always has a problem with something.

Now I’m reluctant to label someone as ‘negative’ – I think it is an incredibly loaded term which is regularly used within organisations to silence internal critics and avoid dealing with a critical issue (much like calling someone ‘unprofessional’). I’ve been the ‘negative’ one before, because I was the only person in a group who was regularly willing to highlight subtle forms of discrimination, or point out that something the organisation had long done just wasn’t working.

So I have a lot of empathy for a certain kind of person who tends to receive the ‘negative’ label. But I try to distinguish between ‘negativity’ that is critical of the way things are being done in the present (where they may be doing active harm), and negativity to any ideas of change which at least offer the potential to make an existing problem better.

Even beyond that, I am split in terms of how to best respond when there seems to be the latter kind of negativity in the room. Grumpy Cat may be grumpy for a whole range of reasons, and each probably call for a different kind of intervention. For example:

1) If Grumpy Cat is unhappy or even depressed in life, generally, and their way of engaging is one facet of that unhappiness, how can a facilitator or colleague support Grumpy Cat?
2) If Grumpy Cat is angry at their organisation, but hasn’t found a constructive way of handling it, how can their specific frustrations be raised or addressed?
3) If Grumpy Cat is used to being the person who looks for anything that could go wrong – a common trait in management due to hierarchical accountability structures – how can we help them come into group settings with a different attitude?

However, if the result of any of the above is that Grumpy Cat is actively, if subconsciously, blocking positive changes (thus propping-up the status quo), is it fair to not call that out and hold Grumpy Cat accountable for preventing much-needed progress? A certain form of politeness can allow Grumpy Cat to keep something destructive going, simply by constantly reiterating the impossibility of the change that is needed, through comments about ‘being realistic’ and the like.

Ultimately, I find the balancing act lies in finding empathy with Grumpy Cat, without letting Grumpy Cat ruin the work others are trying to do to bring about change. This could mean having a one-to-one chat with them during a break, to either see if you can get a sense of where they’re coming from, or to highlight the impacts of their attitudes on others. More generally, I often introduce the (cheesy but effective) ‘Yes-And’ over ‘No-But’ approach when starting a session. This forces people to avoid responding to any new idea with dismissal (highlighting ‘why it wouldn’t work’), instead encouraging them to improve on the new idea (‘what could make it work?’).

I’m keen to hear your own thoughts on this, as I’m sure we’ve all sat in a workshop, training course, or meeting with Grumpy Cat before, whether we’ve done so as a facilitator or a fellow participant… Any tips or thoughts are greatly appreciated!

———

I wrote a book called Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people. You can order it here.

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The Story of ‘More Like People Action Week’

Question: How long do you think it took Paul and Liam to plan the first ever ‘More Like People Action Week’? Answer: A few hours on the Sunday evening before it started.

Lorna Prescott's (@dosticen's) pic fr/ a living room work meeting she had during #MoreLikePeopleWeek

Lorna Prescott’s (@dosticen’s) pic fr/ a living room work meeting she had during #MoreLikePeopleWeek

So the first everMore Like People Action Week has come to an end!

What began as a random Tweet from @PaulBarasi last Sunday afternoon, managed to become something significantly more in the course of just a few days.

There were blogs about the week in the Guardian Social Enterprise Network and CivilSociety.org.uk.

There were over 300 hundred Tweets from over 70 people, expressing their support and sharing their ideas and actions for making their organisations ‘more like people.’ (See some of the Storify highlights further down).

There were several blog comments sharing success stories more widely, as well as links to resource and ideas that people felt were relevant to the ‘more like people’ themes…

Now I won’t pretend that this week has changed the world in any major ways, but it’s definitely done something to demonstrate the potential of some of the principles it is about.

Paul and I, with an ocean and a six-hour time zone spread between us, working entirely via Twitter, a few emails and 2 Skype calls, with nothing to back us but our own enthusiasm and that of the people who got involved, helped the ‘more like people’ ideas find their ways onto the UK national media radar, and into the consciousness of far more people than had previously known about it.

Beyond a few targeted Tweets to people we felt would be specifically interested, there was no top-down communication, not even an email list, to get things rolling. We just put it out there, approached some editors, and shared our own experiences and ideas around.

Sidestep the steps that aren’t working for you!

Has your organisation ever planned an awareness-raising or action-focused day or week around the theme of your work? Did it take more than a few hours to plan it? I’m guessing the answer is ‘yes.’ I’m also guessing that you’re not alone.

One of the big frustrations Paul and I have often had with so many organisations, is their inability to get things done, particularly within a reasonable length of time. The endless processes that inevitably need so many levels of approval make it very hard to organise anything in a timeframe that allows individual passion and energy to still play a part.

And though we might often feel we need to follow these processes, the truth is, there is always unmediated space to make things happen. Just because you could write a proposal, ask for approval, redraft the proposal, secure some budget, and allocate roles, doesn’t mean you always have to!

If this last week was about anything, I hope it was about showing that you don’t need HR or Senior Management (not that either can’t play positive roles!) to make our workplaces better than they are. There are always things we can start to improve, and you never know what kind of ripple effect they might have if we give them the chance. Individual change can encourage other individual changes. Gradually, more people acting differently can shift cultures, systems, organisations… But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – the point is we have more power than we often realise, so why not try exercising it more?

What next?

Obviously we’ve played our hand for a ‘More Like People Action Week’ for the foreseeable future, but these ideas can travel much further than they have since last Monday. So don’t let this random allocation of time stop you from helping your own organisation to be more like people, whenever you feel so inclined!

Maybe you could start your own ‘More Like People Action Week’ at your office? It wouldn’t have to take more than an email on Monday morning with some encouragement for people to share their contributions more widely, on Twitter, or a blog.

Strategy? Let it happen. Budget? No need. Approval? What for? ‘More like people’ should feel infinitely easier than the processes we’ve become so used to in so many of our organisations. I can’t think of a good reason why an employer would be against it, but if they somehow were, I can see even less reason why you’d feel the need to ask for their permission to do it. Think of it as an opportunity to demonstrate some initiative for improving the organisation, at no additional cost to those higher up!

But maybe you just want to practice it yourself, thinking of something you can do a bit differently to make your office a more human place to be? If so, feel free to comment about it on this blog, or Tweet about it using the #MoreLikePeople hashtag on Twitter, so others can be inspired or can try your action out themselves…

The next steps are up to you!

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Organisational culture: It doesn’t shape itself

Leadership and the new scienceMargaret Wheatley, in ‘Leadership and the new science’, writes about ‘fields’, as they apply to organisational culture.

In science, fields are the in-between forces that are only visible through their impact. Gravity, for example, cannot be seen or measured, yet we experience its manifestations throughout our lives.

Wheatley applies the same thinking to organisational culture; it affects us, it shapes our experiences and our behaviours, but we can’t easily put a finger on what it is, beyond being confident that it definitely exists.

Reading Wheatley’s framing of culture left me thinking; while we might not be able to see or touch gravity, we have found ways to shift it through technology, and we know it is different in different settings. By extending the metaphor, what does this mean for the ‘field’ of workplace culture?

Here is a starting point; what do you think?

You are sitting at your desk. Your colleague two desks away is being served an uncalled-for quantity of verbal abuse by their manager.

It’s uncomfortable. This discomfort is creating, undermining, or reinforcing your understanding of your workplace culture, depending on your experiences there before the incident.

The  next day the same thing happens again. Your perceptions this time are either reinforced, or further undermined.

The kicker? Your behaviour is now most likely being shaped by what you have experienced. You might be a little less open, a little more defensive, slightly less comfortable with the time you spend at the office…

And today you are also sitting beside a new colleague. This is the first time they have played witness to the bullying dynamic, but not only do they see the bully-bullied pair, but also anyone else in the office not standing up for the one being treated unfairly.

This shapes their perception of the situation, as it did yours, which in turn shapes how they engage with their new workplace.

Their perception may well be that much worse than yours, because they have not only witnessed the toxic act of workplace bullying, but also the failure of their new colleagues to say anything against what had happened.

Through each of these experiences, a field is emerging; it is a field of mistrust, guardedness, pragmatic calculation, formed on the basis of both the acts of the manager and corresponding thoughts and reactions of others, which have a strong tendency to reinforce one another, if not consciously challenged.

Protecting ourselves… at the organisation’s expense

While your (or my) response to the initial bullying makes perfect sense at the level of protecting oneself, it also plays to reinforce the field that is taking shape around us. When we ignore or avoid, we are in fact complimenting and reinforcing the negative dynamic through our complicity. In failing to constructively support our colleague, we complicity contribute to the further deterioration of the field that is our organisation’s culture.

But enough of the bad stuff!

So what would the alternative look like? What can we do to shift the field of ‘organisational culture’, to create a workplace where people are happy, enjoy their time together and create good things in the process?

In my experience, it starts with being conscious of ourselves. If we agree that both our perceptions and our actions play a role in shaping the culture around us, what could we do to move it in a positive direction?

The challenge, of course, at the individual level then, is how we can become more aware of our own influences on the field of organisational culture, to help shift it in a way that improves everyone’s (including our own) experience.

Projections and Perceptions

projection perception loopIn the example above, I described how the bullying manager was projecting certain behaviours into the organisational culture field, and how we, as onlookers in the office were both perceiving them, and then acting differently as a result of them. We’ll call this the ‘Projection-Perception Loop’; the system through which behaviour is enacted by one person, interpreted by the second person, and then (often) re-enacted by the second person, creating a cycle that can be either good or bad.

So what happens if we shift our input?

What if we were more aware of the ways we responded when people treated us or others like crap at the office? What if, instead of retreating, or attacking back, we simply started to engage differently?

In destructive situations, we often revert to the old ‘fight or flight’, ‘silence or violence’ dichotomy, but can we be conscious in those moments and find a less destructive ‘third way’? Can we focus on the positive relationships that are there at the office, the elements we enjoy more, rather than giving more attention to the parts of the organisational culture field that we don’t like? Can we improve trust amongst our colleagues by sharing more openly with them, making ourselves a bit vulnerable?

Accepting some responsibility… and thus some credit?

There’s nothing easy about this level of change; it usually involves re-evaluating some very deep gut responses to situations we don’t feel any responsibility for creating.

But if we acknowledge that we have played some small role in making the environment as toxic as we have experienced it can be, can we also take credit for acting differently and thus not perpetuating the cycle again?

Like the old parenting mantra reiterated through generations to the fighting young boys who both claim that the other ‘started it!’, ‘it’s not about who started it, but who finishes it.’

  • What steps can we take or have you taken to break a bad cycle that has helped grow a destructive organisational culture?
  • Have you experienced destructive cycles in any other relationships in your life that you’ve been able to shift the patterns around?
  • What are some of the defining traits when you have experienced a positive ‘field’ of organisational culture?

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More Like People is an association of freelance consultants, facilitators and trainers, working primarily in the voluntary, community and campaigning sectors in the the UK and elsewhere.

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