I had the great honour and pleasure to be the process steward for a multi-stakeholder consultation recently around a complex new idea (which is exactly when you want and need a multi-stakeholder consultation) in the sustainable development field. The issue was one that had significant potential environmental, social, economic and political implications that people and their organizations felt very strongly about. In the room were representatives from a number of sectors – multi-national corporations, government officials, NGO and civil society actors, etc.-, and the potential for a good deal of power asymmetry to be expressed.

Pre-work for the consultation had shown a diversity of opinion on our topic. This 2-day face-to-face meeting needed to surface all the reactions, opposition, ideas, and suggestions from this diverse group of experts in order to make the idea more robust, more applicable and have more chance of success. Among our desired outcomes, we wanted to be able to anticipate and address the wants and needs of the sectors and organizations that could be implementing it in the future. We were clearly discussing a good idea with a lot of potential, thus the good turnout to the invitation to join, and the high level of attention and engagement of the people in the room.

The consultation process was designed to maximise the contribution that every individual participant could make, their opportunities to provide comments to each aspect of the idea, and the time they would have to explain the rationale behind their input. The focus for the committee presenting the idea was to listen deeply, be curious and ask good probing questions to further their understanding. At the foundation of this consultation was the firm belief that any question, input, challenge from the group could only make the idea better, more appropriate and more applicable in its second iteration. So we needed maximum authenticity and a safe space to share what might be opposing views.

This post isn’t actually about the process that we used to do this – that’s another article that I will write at some point. This post focuses on an observation that provided some powerful learning for me about the assumptions we all hold and bring into our processes and work with other people.

The first day of our consultation went very smoothly. The group was high-level, well prepared and worked together diligently to provide comments, document them – discussing, analysing and developing some very useful key messages from their small group analysis. There was laughter periodically in the room in spite of the seriousness of the topic, great questions were asked, the wall templates were filling up with colourful nuggets of incredibly useful and thoughtful contributions. Everything looked rosy.

I was getting very nice feedback from people at the end of the day and during our group dinner. And then the question came.  A member of the idea committee asked earnestly, are people being too nice?

Where’s the clash? Where’s the conflict? Are people giving their real opinions? This took me a little aback. I would say in a very useful way. It gave me the opportunity to think about assumptions (which I always enjoy) – all the different assumptions that people hold that are creating the reality we are sharing. Including me.

I could see that the assumption on the part of the person earnestly questioning if we were getting what we needed, was that difference in opinion in their experience was signaled by overt public disagreement, which can lead to passionate speeches, high emotion and possibly visible conflict in a face-to-face meeting of minds. This was clearly absent in our process so it caused a question mark to pop up for this person and then a desire to go around and check with people to see how they felt about the environment we had created to provide inputs. Hmmm, interesting.  I felt my face – was I wearing rose-coloured glasses?

For me, as the process steward and facilitator, my assumption was that people were happy because they were able to provide their viewpoints in a structured and constructive way. So the absence of open conflict was a sign that the process was providing them this opportunity, and so they were satisfied and comfortable, able to both provide their views and get to know each other and laugh from time to time. I actually very rarely have any kind of open conflict in my workshops and processes because I try to use different methodologies that aim to capture all inputs (rather than those of the loudest or most persistent), provide anonymity when needed, value inputs through multiple levels of discussion and analysis that allows people to work with ideas rather than refute them. I use Appreciative Inquiry to inform my question articulation and keep the pace moving and visually stimulating, and mostly out of long, open, unstructured plenary sessions where speechifying and checking your email is tempting, and the feeling that you are not making progress is tiring.

So the question made me usefully pause and notice again my assumptions and gave me an opportunity to check in with the group. This was a good idea for all – it would help me understand if the process was providing space to capture opposition to our central ideas (rather than being designed  for harmony at the cost of good input), it would help the person who feared that the lack of open and vociferous dissent meant that people were being too nice (and that nice meant no opposition); it would reinforce our principle for participants that all views were appreciated – the good, the bad and the ugly. We wanted them all!

I decided not to just ask the BIG question to the group in plenary at the beginning of Day 1, as that would be a risky format to do it and in that situation people might not feel comfortable to single themselves out and speak up in the awkward silence after such a question so early in the morning. So instead for the next set of discussions around the inputs, which were a little higher level and bigger picture, we asked for the “elephant in the room” (things that have not been spoken but need to be spoken) as well as key messages from their analysis and small group discussion.

The addition of that little question worked very well. It was an unexpected visual, amusing and energising question at that moment in the consultation (we were talking about biodiversity and had already spoken about elephants once in a more realistic context). Groups could identify one big elephant or a herd of small elephants. It invited everyone to think about what might be some of the underlying and potentially unspoken or softly spoken issues, at any level, of our consultation.

It also gave another way to analyse the patterns of the contributions, and it allowed us to see if there was anything new that we had not heard rumbling up before, or if the elephants identified now were more thought-through conceptualisations of things that had been emerging but perhaps not yet fully formed in all the different discussion activities as we went along. We found more of the latter which was heartening and also found it to be a valuable way, towards the end of our consultation, to help summarise and crystalise collectively the most important action areas for the idea moving forward.

It’s not often that you get a stop-and-think-question like, “Is this going too well?” that helps you test your assumptions (and those of others) while you still have everyone in the room. In the end, the consultation went well, the energy in the room was high, and we got those comments, ideas, gaps and elephants, with and without my rose-coloured glasses.

How do you feel comfortable with a group you know (too) well; and create rapport with a group you don’t (or barely) know (without making it all about ‘you’)?

These strategies might be interesting to explore:

(1) Be really clear about your role as facilitator (see above points about building confidence and contracting).  If you are facilitating a group that you know well (potentially your colleagues, partners, peers, etc.) make sure they know what to expect and what not to expect from you as you put on your facilitator hat, as your contribution to the meeting will be quite different to how you would otherwise.  

(2) Bring your character and personality to the role, whilst being sensitive to neutrality – for example, avoiding anything that would ally you with some participants and potentially highlight or create a divide between you and others.

(3) Remember that you really don’t need to know all the individuals the group you are facilitating; you just need to know enough about them to make sure that you design an appropriate agenda!  Some facilitators like to study participant lists in advance; others prefer not to look at it at all (finding it less intimidating when you don’t know who’s who).  And you don’t always have the opportunity.  If you would like to get a sense of who is in the room without going person-by-person for introductions, prepare some questions for the intro session and do a mapping exercise giving you and all participants a better sense of who is in the room (e.g. stand if you come from the private sector / NGO / government / region x / have expertize in y / have more than z years experience in this area / have been involved in this process since the start / were on the drafting team / are new to this / etc.)

(4) Whether it’s a group you do or don’t know, explore whether or not the group has already collectively established ‘principles’ or ‘norms’ for working together.  If not, consider designing this norm-setting activity into your event, providing a sound basis for collaboration and opportunity for those with diverse learning styles and cultures to express their behavioural preferences.  Alternatively you can simply ask people how they like to learn and work.  Or in some situations you might consider introducing a diagnostic tool as a basis for launching such a conversation (such as MBTI, Strengths Finder or FIRO-B).

(5) Feature conversations around developing a common language (especially with a group of people you don’t know or that don’t know one another), to ensure that there is shared understanding.  This is not only from the perspective of linguistic difference, but also in terms of diverse use and understanding of words (as seemingly simple words such as ‘report’, ‘operations’, ‘project’ can have very different usage and implications depending on team culture, organizational culture, sector, etc.)  Producing a glossary of often-used terms may protect you from making any blunders, and save the group from much wasted time, energy and potentially even conflict.

(6) Whilst you ought to maintain neutrality on the content of the group work, you can show enthusiasm and emotion (if you judge appropriate) when it comes to the progress group is making on their objectives – both in terms of outputs and soft and hard outcomes.  After all, you want them to succeed with achieving their objectives and so celebrating their success (and yours!) is something most participants will be happy to do with you.  Show confidence in their ability from the outset; check-in with them as you progress.  Ask them how they feel.  Vocalize some of your own observations about their progress.  Make a comment to show you care, such as revealing the concern you had felt for a moment.  You don’t need to turn on the tears or the laughter to bring in emotion.

Related blog posts:
How (Not) to Have a Terrible Meeting (Norms / Principles / Freedoms)
Cross-Cultural Collision Caused by One Word: 

A while ago I wrote a blog post about how I reframed the learning from a game called Thumbwrestling using an Appreciative Inquiry approach. The blog post was called “Activity Makeover using Appreciative Inquiry: From STUPID to SMART.”

This game gives insights about collaboration versus competition and bases the debriefing on what makes people naturally take a more competitive approach to such a game (and lose). In the meantime I have had numerous people write to me and ask me for the rules of the Thumbwrestling game itself, so I promised to write it up in the way that I play it.

I have been playing this particular game in teambuilding workshops for many years and if you want a very thorough description, you can go to the Systems Thinking Playbook by Linda Booth Sweeney and Dennis Meadows, which features this game. It doesn’t have the debriefing that I describe in my blog post, although it has evolved out of the same game mechanic and lessons.  I am sure that the first time I played it was with Dennis.

Here are the basic instructions:

  1. Ask everyone to pick a partner with whom they will thumbwrestle (people play in pairs);
  2. Tell them to lock hands with their partner by clasping the fingers of their right hands (with thumbs pointing up) – they can do this standing or sitting – standing is more fun! (Note: If you have never Thumbwrestled as a kid, then there are plenty of amusing how-to videos on YouTube! This is the same basic game with some new parameters.)
  3. Demonstrate with another person a very physical and aggressive way to play and tell people not to pinch hard and cause any pain or injury;
  4. Explain that they get a point by pinching the thumb of their opponent;
  5. Tell them they have 1 minute to get as many points as they can; 
  6. Shout “go!” 
  7. Time them and then shout “Stop!”
  8. Ask who got 1 or more point (raise their hand), 2 or more, and go up until you have the winner(s) (most people will only have won 1 or 2 points);
  9. At least one or two pairs generally have gotten 30 or 40 points by collaborating rather than taking a competitive approach – have them demonstrate their technique.

Now you go into the blog post to debrief  (Activity Makeover Using Appreciative Inquiry: From STUPID to SMART) and discuss what motivates people to take on a more competitive approach when collaboration clearly gets them many more points. Ask them where they see this in their workplaces and in real life. The activity makeover and the game helps them think about how to notice a system that makes people behave in a STUPID way to thinking about one that is much SMARTer…

Sometimes as a learning practitioner you are working with a third party process holder, and not (at least not in the most initial stages) with the learners themselves.

For example, you might be designing a lessons learned workshop to collect experience that informs planning for a large conference, you might be designing a capacity development programme for farmers around rainwater harvesting, you might be helping high-level decision-makers develop better policy frameworks for climate change adaptation, you might be helping a whole staff strengthen their facilitation skills, etc.

How do you structure a discussion that gets you the design of a learning programme, process or event? Where do you start?

Of course, there are plenty of ways to go about this. Here are a set of questions that I often use to inform an initial design that I might offer, providing the basis on which the design conversation continues:

Question: What change do you want to see after your programme/process/event?

This is a great question as it gets to the purpose of the event, it helps the process holder be clear about the outcome they want, and lets you, the designer, gently probe some of their assumptions about what and how things change in their context. It also signals that learning, in this case, is not an end in itself. A next question might be:

Question: Who needs to make these changes so that the practice or context changes in the desired direction?

This question explores the learner group – to see if it includes all the people that are needed to make the change.  It might also open up some discussion of segmentation, perhaps the programme needs to have different components for different groups – for practice, policy, support etc. If you want to probe the audience question a little further in terms of readiness, and to get some good material for the rationale for the learning initiative, you could ask:

Question: If I would ask some members of this group if they needed or wanted to make this change, what would they say? (and why?)

Further questioning might give you some information on what this group needs to learn, according to the process holder (this can be tested through some useful demand articulation with the learner group later – but not too late!) The following question also expands the notion that learning is just about information (knowledge acquisition), towards the behaviour change aspect (e.g. practicing using knowledge and know-how):

Question: What kind of information, tools, practice does this group need in order to make this change?

You could explore learning preferences and good practice further by asking for some stories of successful past behaviour change and learning:

Question: When this group has changed its behaviour in the past and learned something new, how did that work? What conditions were present?  How long did it take? What helped make it stick?

You could find out what kind of methodologies for learning are preferred- no doubt they will be mixed and individualised – but there might be some interesting patterns in the answer to this question:

Question: How do group members like to learn, and in what format do they like to engage in learning?

Through the above question you can explore how the group might react to innovation or new methodologies and techniques. This might also give you some idea about how “safe” the environment is for learning.

These are just a few starters of the many questions that can help guide an initial learning design discussion – what other questions might you add? Where would you start?

As learning practitioners, we are always interested in reflecting and learning for improved performance. Here’s a little summary of some recent research in performance development trends.

Approaches to performance development in organizations are shifting significantly. A clear trend is emerging, moving from ‘evaluation’ or ‘assessment’ – which has historically focused greatly on the achievement (or not) of quantifiable goals and contribution to the organizations strategic objectives – towards performance ‘conversations’ – which explore also the behaviours that account for specific business outcomes: the ‘how’ in achieving and contributing. Exploring this ‘how’ requires paying greater attention to professional ethics and inter-professional relationships. Hand-in-hand with this behavioural element of performance conversations is the trend towards a more ‘positive psychology’ – and a more ‘appreciative inquiry’ – cognizant that performance conversations have great potential to incentivize and result in improved performance when designed and managed with a future-orientation, implying future success when positive traits are cultivated, key strengths encouraged and individuals’ motivational needs addressed.

Well aligned with these trends is the emerging and growing use of 360 degree performance conversations which are proving a powerful performance development approach. As conversations related to behaviours are subjective and difficult to quantify, these benefit from a 360 degree approach allowing much greater differentiation than any ‘assessment’ by one person alone. The 360 degree approach allows each member of the team to understand how his/her effectiveness is viewed by a wider variety of others (colleagues and potentially also customers) based on the behaviours they may variously see, generating a more accurate, balanced conversation. In the process, team members become more accountable to each other – an accountability intrinsic to the success of teams with interconnected, interdependent members – as they share the knowledge that they provide input and have the opportunity for positive influence on each member’s performance. Another great advantage to the 360 degree approach is encouraged communication, exchange of information and learning.

If you’d like to read more, try the following:

1. “360 Degree Feedback: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” by Susan M.
Heathfield, 2010.

2. “Positive Words for Key Strength Performance Reviews” by Erick
Kristian, 25 July 2010.

3. “Can a positive approach to performance evaluation help accomplish
your goals?” by Karen S. Cravens, Elizabeth Goad Oliver, Jeanine S.
Stewart, in Harvard Business Review, 15 May 2010.

4. “Embedding sustainability/ethics into performance reviews” by
Miriam and Marc, Harvard Business Review blog, May 24, 2010

5. “360 Degree Feedback” by Alan Chapman, http://www.businessballs.com/ , 2009.

6. “Performance Conversation Tips: Effective Performance Coaching” by
Joni Rose, 30 April 2006.

7. “Motivating Positive Performance; Understanding Motivational Needs
by Joni Rose, 15 April 2006.

8. “Appreciate Performance Communication Process – a Manual” by Unity,
2006, in the Appreciative Inquiry Commons.

Learning can be a useful accelerator for the work you do. It can help keep you motivated, let you experience your progress in a different way, keep you engaged with wider processes. So how can you build more learning into your work life? As a learning practitioner, I asked myself this question, and here is what I came up with:

1. Ask great questions
It is surprising how many people don’t ask any questions, or only ask rhetorical, obvious or yes/no questions. Try to ask engagement questions that people want to answer, questions that ask people to think and share. Ask questions of yourself (like I just did). For all of your questions, consider how you ask them – an approach like Appreciative Inquiry can help you refine your questioning practice (it even works on yourself).

2. Listen for learning
Listening is a companion to number 1: How often do you ask yourself as you go into a listening or a conversation opportunity, “What do I want to learn?” Answering this question can help you listen very differently and more deliberately. You can also ask yourself, “How am I listening to this?” This can help you explore your openness to learning at that moment, and to notice when you are most receptive to new ideas and messages (and when you are not).

3. Be a better storyteller
Storytelling has so many contributions to make to learning, as we have written about so many times. It helps take you through the process of packaging your learning for better recall and resuse, makes it easier to repeat/retell (thus further embedding it), and makes your learning more useful not only to you, but also to others, as you do the work for them to distill the most meaningful parts of some experience or learning.

4. Start a blog/vlog
For so many reasons, blogs help you be a part of the conversation (even if you are only talking to yourself). They provide an opportunity to notice your experience and a provide a virtual place to record it. Because it’s public, it asks for some quality control (through, say, number 3 above.) Its chronological organization and tagging helps structure your experience, so it can be used as a knowledge management tool. And I personally use it to strengthen my reflective practice, more on this below.

5. Join a community of practice
These can be physical, virtual or both. They can help you share and be shared with, providing rich opportunities for peer learning. They can be even more useful if you use them to practice some of these other learning tools, like asking great questions, and listening for learning. If you don’t find a community of practice that fits, can you start one? (Ning makes this easy for virtual CoPs.)

6. Practice it
Find opportunities to try something again. Maybe you went to a great visual facilitation workshop – how can you continue to practice that even if you are a beginner? As you sit in on a conference call, or in a meeting, can you doodle icons of the conversation process ?

7. Move your learning into a different side of your brain
Can you add an image to the theory, or link your learning to a physical experience that makes the point visceral? Can you draw a diagram that explains your thinking in addition to writing a paragraph about it? Can you move your learning from knowledge to behaviour change, from left brain to right?

8. Notice/Map your personal knowledge management system
If knowledge is a flow, how are you tracking the flows? What kinds of tools are you using to manage this flow – google is good of course, and what other kind of nets are you throwing out in the ocean of information to help you get the quality of inputs you need when you need them? In effect, what are you using as your personal knowledge management system? For example, do you have a list of the gurus in your field whose blogs or tweets you follow? Do you tag useful incoming content in your gmail or in a delicious account? Can you improve your email management system (e.g. through something like Inbox Zero?) Plenty of opportunities exist in the Web2.0 world of today.

9. Be deliberate about reflection
People use different means for this, and generally agree that they are more fully present for learning when they are actively reflecting on their experience. Capture, whatever your tool – journaling, blogging, songwriting, slam poetry – is helpful for many reasons that can be found in the points above. The choices you make about what to record helps to prioritise information, makes it more reusable and, depending on your tool, makes it available on demand for both yourself and others.

10. Help other people learn
In addition to the obvious social value of this, learning through teaching (with a small “t”, thus not necessaily in a formal learning setting) is a well known way to embed learning. How can you volunteer your learning to others and in doing so practice and progress your own? Every conversation is an opportunity to exchange, so you don’t need to have a classroom environment to help other people learn.

11. Know your own learning preferences
There are of course diagnostics around this, and I think one of the simplest ways to identify your learning preferences is to ask yourself some questions (and voila we’re back to point 1): “When was the last time I learned something new? What were the conditions that helped me learn? What was I doing? What were the people around me doing to help me learn? In what situations do I learn the best?”

Learning happens continually, and still there are always opportunities to integrate it more powerfully into personal practice and team practice, even without a training budget. For example, just writing this blog post gave me an opportunity for learning, which combined many of the above. Once you get out of the formal learning environment it’s free for the most part, it’s relatively easy, and still, it takes a little thought, and perhaps a change in daily practice. The rewards, however, can be great – a boost in productivity, satisfaction, direct engagement with your topic, as well as an opportunity to strengthen yourself as a practitioner and further increase the value of your contribution to your community(ies) of choice.

Vision fatigue? Many groups involved in change processes over time claim they just can’t do another visioning process. They have done it so many times. What is a creative way to engage this kind of group?

Instead of trying to design their process, why not design an inquiry process where they do the fundamentals of design?

You might start with attention grabbing questions (group or individual):

  • If I were going to send you an email inviting you to a visioning process, what would it have to include for you to enthusiastically say “Yes!”
  • If you were going to participate in a vision process that really energised you, what would be some of the features of this process?
  • If you were going to participate in a visioning process that created a profound vision, who would be doing something differently at the end? What would these people be doing differently at the end? What would you be doing differently at the end?
  • If you were going to say that the visioning process created lasting change, what would be some of the necessary conditions to make this vision stick?
  • If we were going to give this process an innovative name, what might we call it?
This inquiry process doesn’t focus people in on their past, potentially less-than-satisfactory visioning exercises. It focuses them on the positive future and involves them in creating it and answering questions about what it will take to make it work (differently) this time. The energy that these kinds of questions creates is very different than that from a problem-focused approach, and just may get people to the table with a different attitude and intent, and that might make all the difference.

In the last few years I have become a devotee of Appreciative Inquiry, I think it is a useful, energizing frame for learning. However, in some cases, you need to redesign activities, their briefing and debriefing so it is consistent with this approach. It feels a bit like taking a very fattening recipe and making it into a Weight Watchers one – trying to change some of the ingredients so that you still get your delicious chocolate cake, but it is much better for you.

In our workshop this week we played a game called “Thumbwrestling”, which is an excellent game that demonstrates collaboration versus competition. In the end, most people fail, and the debriefing talks about how people aren’t stupid, but the system in which they are operating actually promotes stupid behaviour. In the game, people are given a very short amount of time to get as many points as they can from their “opponent”. They are instructed not to hurt anyone, and given a demonstration that looks like hand-to-hand conflict. The result is that they do the same and they get about 2 points, rather than the 30-40 points they can get when they collaborate. The debriefing question is:

What went wrong?

The answer you get from participants is a useful collection of things to watch out for in the system around you when you are trying to improve your interaction with colleagues. The answers that the participants give as they observe their behaviour in the activity can cleverly be written like this:

Small Goals
Time pressure
Untrusting Partners
Poor Example
Insufficient Vocabulary
Dysfunctional Norms

Now, if you wanted to convert this activity, make your low calorie cake, with an appreciative frame here is a potentially better question, and a way to organize participants’ answers that might give the same insight but not make them feel as foolish:

What would give us a better behaviour?

Sufficient Vocabulary
Major Goals
Appropriate Timeframe
Right Examples
Trusting Partners

You can makeover any recipe and have your delicious learning cake and eat it too. (bit corny sorry!)

Setting group norms for a meeting that everyone can help to uphold can be challenging. We have all done those exercises at the onset to establish the rules that we want people to follow in order to have a productive meeting. Here are two alternatives to this straight-forward activity that might give the conversation more life. The second one comes directly from our “Beyond Facilitation” workshop last week.

First, using the Appreciative Inquiry (AI) approach, you can ask people what kind of “Freedoms” they would like to have, rather than rules or things that people should not do (rules are made to be broken, after all). For example, “Don’t be late” turns into the freedom to be on time, etc.

Second, you could set up an activity to identify “How to have a terrible meeting” (AI practitioners close your eyes…) You can ask the participants at the onset to think of all the things that they see at meetings that lead to poor or weak outcomes. List those on a flipchart, have a laugh, and then number them and post them in a obvious place in the room. During the workshop, whenever someone or the group does one of those things, notice it by number, “I think we might be doing number 5 here: not listening, what can we do about that?” That might help the participants take the responsibility to ensure that you actually don’t have a terrible meeting.

We have been on the giving and receiving end of feedback recently and that has inspired us to think a bit more about this artful communication process. How can we give feedback that people can actually hear, and even potentially use as a part of their learning process?

A couple of questions come to mind when thinking about this often delicate transaction: First of all, why am I giving this feedback? What are my motivations? Is it to help the person do something differently, to improve a process, to establish myself as an expert in the area, to register my reaction to some behaviour? Or a combination of these things? How close can you come to the core reason for giving the feedback in the first place, and can that help you package your feedback in a way that helps the person understand your motivations, and therefore make your feedback welcome?

The second question is how can I give my feedback? We asked this question to our group of trainee facilitators two weeks ago during our course. Many responses came up, and fundamental to the means they picked (writing, orally, face-to-face, etc.) was the question of trusting the giver to provide the feedback in a way that was appreciative and balanced (so what worked and what could be different).

Ultimately, the best result of giving feedback is that the relationship between you and the recipient is ever better than it was before. After all, you care enough about her/him (the process, the work, your relationship) to think carefully and share your reflections, and genuinely work together towards constant improvement. Think about the last time you gave someone feedback, would you say that your relationship is even better now? If not, then you could have had a communication misfire. Thankfully, feedback is not necessarily a one-off event, if you really want to help, think about it and try again.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend a management workshop that had been organized after our full week of meetings and I found it incredibly valuable in terms of new insights and learning. For one, it allowed me to meet my colleagues out of a workplace context (even though it was held at our workplace.) Being in jeans and more relaxed gave me a sense of being able to talk to people outside our usual frame. The day also gave us lots of opportunities to work on short exercises and talk to each other in different ways about ourselves and our work. We learned new things about each other, and we shared some of our concerns about our work as managers at a big institution.

The other thing that I found incredibly valuable was the opportunity to see for myself how language affects people (at least me). This is one management insight that I am sure will help me in the future. This is something that I learned through AI, Appreciative Inquiry, and today was an excellent example of this particular principle.

When I left the workshop, I felt tired. I was a bit down, and a little overwhelmed at how challenging being a manager was, and felt some doubt about my ability to give people good feedback and actively listen. Why was this? Normally I am a very positive person, I take management and leadership as one of my personal improvement goals, and do my best to be a good team member. When I thought through the day, I realised that many of the activities were framed in a way that emphasized the hard parts of being a manager. We first identified our challenges in the workplace, we did an activity that demonstrated how hard it is to give good feedback (no one could do it on the first or even second go). Words like ‘battered’ and ‘trapped’ were used to describe our feelings for our jobs; we talked about what we hated about our jobs and what aspects of job satisfaction that we did not have.

We also talked about lots of good things here and there, and at the same time, the deficit discussions seemed to affect me more at the end of the day. Lizzie told me that she heard a podcast from MindTools recently in which, during an interview with an author of ‘The Power of Nice’, Robin Koval spoke of how it takes seven good actions to undo one negative one. You have to do so much more on the positive side of things to bring people around from a negative frame. Somehow those aspects were what I took away with me that day. I asked myself as I was leaving, do I feel energised, do I have ideas I am eager to implement, am I excited about my work and my role? How do I feel?

I got some good ideas during this workshop and I also learned something very valuable for myself. For some people, like me, we go in the direction that we are questioned, and language can become our reality. These discussions focus a spotlight on a part of reality for us. What part of reality do we want to choose (or do others choose for us?) I don’t deny that there are challenges in the workplace; I guess I would like to address these in a more appreciative way, so that at the end of my query process I understand more about my situation, have some clues as to what I can do about it, and I have the enthusiasm to make those changes.

If I use an appreciative approach here I would ask myself, “So how could this workshop have been different?” How would I feel about my job as a manager after a day where we practiced how to give great feedback and help our team members identify what they do well, and how to apply those qualities and skills to the things that they (and we, as managers) would like to be different?

I am currently reading “The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry”, by Sue Annis Hammond which is one of the first books written on AI in 1996.

One of the 8 Assumptions of Appreciative Inquiry focuses on the questioner herself and the impact of questions:

The act of asking questions of an organization or group influences the group in some way.

What a responsibility our questions are! When we ask them in a meeting, when we ask them of our colleagues, when we ask them of ourselves. With our questions we get people to focus on something – what is that thing? Is it a problem? Is it how bad the situation is? Is it how little people know about a topic?

Or is it how much wisdom the group already holds to tackle a new challenge? How much experience it has in guiding a situation towards a successful outcome?

What is our purpose of the question we are asking and what impact will it have on the way that person and the room think and feel? If people go in the direction you question them, where do you want them to go?