How to dine with your enemy

“How do we create a dialogue that invites the other to join – anyone we dislike…?
What a challenge in co-creating a future with those we disagree with on such a fundamental level.”

Sarah in the SeaSalt Learning WhatsApp “Pub” 23rd March 2016

images-3

Wowsers, this is a big question… asked in the wake of another Terrorist attack, this time in Belgium.. and I don’t have the answer, but somehow I want to answer. And I’m going to work a little in the abstract here, because tipping over into the current situation is likely to polarise or inflame… and I’m trying to work quietly and carefully to offer thoughts –possible ways to “invite the other”, without being “smart-arse-I-know”, without being sentimental, without knowing, really, if it is doable, but with a deep-held belief that it is.

There is no quick fix. Dialogue that invites us to dine with our enemy does not just happen. It’s hard work, it takes relentless patience and practice, it requires surrender of self, of position, of certainty. It’s not particularly joyeous – though it can be. It can be thankless – you can feel misunderstood, insulted, frustrated, angry, exhausted…. but I’m jumping ahead of myself.

The first step isn’t creating the dialogue. The first step is creating the conditions for the dialogue – any dialogue – to happen. And by dialogue I mean simply a place where we talk WITH each other, not AT each other. Conditions are things like time – these conversations, the ones where we are actively inviting a counter-narrative into our lives in order to change outcomes, take an inordinate amount of time, if they are to be done well.
Not an hour, but hours. Not a day, but days. You inch your way toward each other, repelled and rejecting, but also if you are lucky, determined, to get a result.

And space – If I’m going to sit in conversation with someone whose views are fundamentally abhorrent to me, I don’t want to do that in a confined room, where they can fill it with their toxicity or I could fill it with mine – I want big airy places and time to walk it off/ wash it off afterward. The physical space required to do repugnant work is often overlooked.

Bill Isaacs uses a metaphor of a Container for Conversation in his work Dialogue: The Art of Thinking together. Part of his study took place in a steel mill. Above the workers on a day-to-day basis was a vast cauldron of molten steel – thousands of tons of liquid metal held right above the heads of the workers – and they carried on operating underneath it because they trusted that it held. Some of Isaacs’ work is about understanding what creates containers for conversation – how can we construct vast cauldrons where hot-headedness or steel-hard opinions can be melted, contained, held until they can be cooled and forged into something else?

So the conditions for the dialogue mean we have to forge a container – this is the bit that takes time – we’re not properly IN the conversation yet

The container created requires a suspension of judgement – give it up. Who are you to say you would or would not do a thing? or think a thing? In certain circumstance, in context…. What if you are wrong? if you are not prepared to ask yourself that question, if no-one is ever prepared to ask themselves that question, then there is no dialogue -it’s entrenched & we are talking AT. It requires a dropping of your view, however deeply held, however fond you are of it…and writing it in neat sentences in a blog cannot BEGIN to cover how challenging that can be.

It requires that everyone listens to each other – and listens well – shuts up and pays attention, not just to what is being said, but to how…and to what is not being said… and to what is being inferred or assumed. Listening like this gets underneath the surface anger/ hatred/ apathy/ smugness/power-statement/whatever defence you choose for yourself to keep others’ opinions safely away – it leaves the other properly heard. It means they have some responsibility for the bile or the bilge or the constructive stuff that comes out of their mouth, because it isn’t falling on deaf ears – they are not shouting into the void, they are being heard and their words cause responses and reactions.

It requires speaking authentically – airing outrage, naming fear, saying the unsaid, remembering joy and beauty exist, speaking with love and hope, even when that feels kind of weird and risky – it speaks to trust. And authenticity requires working with the full gamut of emotion – nothing can be off limits. If it is there, it is there

It requires respect. Respect for self, for what you bring and who you are and your own importance, along with that same respect, or more perhaps, for your opponent. The best dialogues contain respectful opposition – where differing views can be held, looked at, discussed and acted upon without treating someone as a pariah.

and then there is trust… I have to trust you will stay with me in this conversation. I have to trust that, even though we have such deeply counter-views, you have something to add, that you are worth my time, that I can learn something or act someway different as a result of sitting with you this way. At the start I might well see you as inhumane, as thick, as evil, as other. I might want vengeance, or to shake you hard so you understand what you have done. I might not be able to look you in the eye. And to show trust, I have to get over myself. I may have to sit in your disapproval or rejection. You might see me as any number of worthless things. If we are to build trust, I have to work with that, tolerate it a little.. and I might fire back at you when your view of me becomes intolerable – I’m showing you who I am and I’m no push-over. We have to give a little of ourselves up, reveal ourselves a little – good and bad – I have to trust you won’t throw that back at me and if you do, I have to try again, with a reset until something shifts.

Time. Space. Suspend Judgement. Listen. Respect. Trust. Speak your Truth – simple, yet not easy.

images-3

I’m always aware when I write or think about this stuff that it can be read as “woolly” “fluffy” I hear “bleeding heart liberal” in my head – I label myself as a dreamer, as an altruist. Do you know what? It’s not fluffy at all. It’s bloody bloody hard work. It’s far easier to not do this delicate stuff and just crash forth, mono-opinioned, braying and squash everyone else in your sightline. (good morning, Mr Trump). Well…easier for you, maybe…

I don’t work at the upper echelons of mediation or delicate negotiation (I tried negotiating with the Unions a few times – I have a terrible track record). But this stuff is not about negotiation. It’s about long-term, deep understanding of how you conquer your own fear and prejudice – and it can be taught and practiced. You can develop tolerance. There is hope.

Where my heart quails is that this really is what it takes to work with The Other – dedication, time, slow understanding – and we are so busy, so information/ counter information filled, that can feel impossible. But it happens – there are thousands of ways these conversations are happening – not big fat showy conversations, but on the-ground groups, communities, places dialogue can and will happen.

The above isn’t perfect – I’m hoping others will comment below and add stuff to help it get better/ different – but this is the How , as I see it Sarah…(couldn’t have typed all of that on WhatsApp) x

——————————————————————————————–
Julie Drybrough is a Organisational Consultant, Coach, Facilitator, Speaker, Blogger & Dialogue Guide. Working with people & organisations to improve conversations, relationships & learning – Doing stuff with love.

Find me on Twitter @fuchsia_blue

Business Translation & Keeping it Real

deep-listening

This is inspired by a recent conversation with Carol Read, who is doing some extraordinary, breakthough transformation and innovation stuff in the Horizons Team, within NHS England’s Sustainable Improvement Team. I met her through connections with SeaSalt Learning & I think we have started a conversation that could last for many years…. And as we talked, I was reminiscing….

Back in the day when I was an in-house Change Consultant, working with the slightly alchemical purpose of “changing the culture” at the Postal Authority in Jersey, I had an “ah-ha!” moment.

I’d been invited to present to the Board – what has happened, what we are planning to do next, budget stuff (something along the lines of: can you find us some money to do up the staff canteen to show we mean we are going to change and improve the whole business, inside and out? I’m recommending we don’t go down “fur coat no knickers” change route…etc)

I had the standard 10–15 minutes slot, which inevitably rolled over as questions needed to be asked and answered. Part of the Board’s interest was the future, unsurprisingly. In our world, at the time, one of the best ways we could stay competitive was to innovate. We were a small Postal Service, which meant we were, potentially, more agile and able to trial stuff across the operation than larger set-ups in, say, the UK or Germany.

One way we could innovate was to be a test-bed for new delivery methods or tracking tech; we could look at new ways to produce “direct mail” (you may call it Junk mail. 10 years on and I still feel I have committed a sin calling it Junk Mail); we could look at pick-and-pack fulfilment as an income stream (Amazon was in its infancy – we were looking to learn from their model). All these future possibilities…

And I remember going back to my desk, slightly fuzzy-headed with the whirl of future-promises & tech and experiments…. And looking at the list of stuff I knew we needed to get done now. The canteen upgrade suddenly seemed very….unsexy…. but still deeply necessary… and I found it hard to reconcile.

The Board that day were all future and commerce and budgets and business opportunities (as it should be) and I knew this stuff wouldn’t mean a hill of beans to the day-to-day experience of a Postie or a member of the Counter staff until it arrived (typically in bubble-wrap, with a training course & a lot of head scratching) in front of them.

Not because they were daft, or didn’t have ambition or vision. Not because they were lazy or backward or didn’t care about the job – far from it. They were so focussed on doing the job – getting the mail out getting customers served – that what was important was there here-and-now. That was what was real.The lived experience of the place being too hot or cold. The inconvenience of parking. The canteen ruled with an iron fist by the cook who was resolute about the food offerings available.. with chips….

And so my epiphany was this: the need to Translate.

I had (I believed for a while) invented a notion: Business Translation. I saw the language of the Board – all broad brush & future tech & strategy & hypothetical circumstance vs the language of the Operation – specific & tactical, and day-to-day tangible. Separate languages – or perhaps it was just different patois – but the Change work seemed to be about bringing those two closer together. Working closely to articulate and decode “that future stuff” so we could make the here & now actions more purposeful and (dare I say it) aligned.

It all seemed so simple. Just translate stuff.
Mostly, this thought took the team to good places. At the core of our Change methods was: how do we explain this is in different languages? The way it showed up varied. We paid more attention to our internal comms, we cut back on some actions that seemed overly grounded in future flim-flam or in the compromises that come with “this is how we do it round here”. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it burned.

Looking back, much of what we did was “push” and direct and broadcast. If I were to have my time again there, I’d have done a lot more of the pull/listen/adapt the big ideas stuff. I’d still have the fights with marketing about too-tight constraints on internal branding, but I’d probably be a little less strident in my confrontation… I’d listen more.

At the core of the change work, I still believe it’s about translation. Creating better conversations, spaces to think together, action that is communicable… that stuff. Too high falutin’ and it’s ethereal & wispy. Too grounded and it is ludding and static.

I’m grateful to Carol for the conversation – about the dreamy innovative cool stuff & the need to work closely with the here and now to deliver it.

The Importance of Thinking Beyond Your Bubble

 

tumblr_static_1

A few days after Paris Terrorist attacks, I’m in the pub with some friends and colleagues and I’m in conversation with someone about the attacks. Her response was very much aligned to mine, a sense of: more love/ less aggression = good response to the situation. Control, vengeance, fear = long-term scary response to the situation. We were blown away by the bravery the courage and the solidarity we saw.

But it’s where the conversation went next that stuck with me and I’m still mulling on. It was when she said everyone on Facebook agreed. Her timeline on Facebook, her Twitter feed, her news alerts all pointed to the incredible, liberal, make-love-not-war sense that she already had. And I realised, mostly mine did too.

But of course that’s bollocks. Not everyone agreed. Not everyone responded as we would like. Other Facebook feeds were doubtless awash with a counter-narrative that would have made me terrified/ want to weep.

Continue reading

It Should Be Different….

3a9931107f50a851fb38429f917de1f3
Oh Should.

How you haunt my change practice & my coaching conversations.

You hold a tempting promise of possibilities, marred by a vague whiff of judgement:

I should

We should

It should be…

 

Yup. Quite possibly. But it isn’t. Not right now.

So can we work with that? With what is real and present?

Can we look at the world as you currently experience it?

Can we look at this mythical “culture” that “should” change and spend time here, now, picking through what is, before lurching off to what should be?

Continue reading

Think For A Minute – Reflections on Learning & Leadership


Stop for a moment, good leaders of organisations and people.
Pause, Practitioners of Learning and Development.

Cease acting for a moment, or two, or longer and just….. Hold. Breathe. Be.
Relentless activity.

Constant striving.

Be Better.

More for Less.

Faster.

Now.
Alright. Fine. There is that.

And there is more.

Continue reading

Long-Haul Leadership and Testing Theories

5-islamic-motives-corporate-art-task-force

I’m going to Qatar.
A place that I couldn’t spell up until a week ago. ( Q followed by U, surely?)

I’m going to work with Maersk Oil over the next 9 months, on a very part-time basis, designing and delivering work that will strengthen a concept of “Visible Leadership”.
The intention is to undertake deeper leadership work – work on connection, on dialogue, on openness and creativity… work I have been hungry to do for so long and have been doing in patchy little pieces. This is, to some extent, what I have been seeking…. my theory is that this deeper work is good, necessary, that it leads to “Proper Change” – I wonder if I’m right?
This is the test. The part where I practice what I’ve been preaching. The part where reality bites and I discover the edges of my thinking again…..
What happens if and when lots of people open up and start connecting… in a structured, purposeful way?
What happens indeed?

Today I leave for 5 days. In May I go for 4 weeks, then nothing in the hot summer months. Then back again in September, October, November….

And with all of this comes a range of mixed emotions and reactions.

I’m scared. I’ve never been to the Middle East. No amount of research will help my lived experience.. I’m afraid I will offend, be offended, be ignorant. I’m a card-carrying amazonian feminist going to a place where women are not equal. I’m a alcohol afficienado going to a place where such things are forbidden. Where the law allows lashing and stoning people. Where the people are deemed to be polite and warm….It’s confusing.

Thus far, the experience has been incredible – A man called Barrie has been in charge of sorting my flights, accommodation, visas, pick-ups…. I have been in the most excellent hands & I’m comforted by the process: this is how it can be when you want to bring someone in to your organisation.

I feel awkward – a wee Lassie fae Fife, lacking sophistication or the experience to do this well, initially – but who has the life-skills to navigate whatever is to come.
My response has been pedestrian – read up lots, chat to folk lots, buy trousers & decide that I’m going to try to Rock some 1930’s/ 40’s tailoring to start with…. My first pair of girl-brogues have been brought into the fold.
Beyond that I have a sense of deep joy – of stretching myself and of being pushed out of what is comfortable.
I’m looking forward to Souks, to the museums and art – to learning more about another country & culture. I’ve decided to take those photography lessons, at last…

I spoke with FB’s very own Office Goddess, Katie on Thursday and she said: It’s OK to be excited, you know….
and I sort of am, but also not really…excited doesn’t really cover it.

I have a sense that I’m going somewhere fascinating, to do work I want to do. I have a sense of folk cheering me on where I feel my limits and nervousness.

And within all of this I have a sense of a new chapter beginning…and probably a bunch of new blogs.

Time to get testing….

Vapour, Iron & Barriers to Change – a Story

Smoke abstract

This is not what he’s going to want to hear.

Under pressure.
Scrutinised.
A big structural change to deliver.
Budget cuts to the quick of the organisation.
He wants a neat process.
A plan… with outcomes and goals.
Delivery of that plan. Stat.
Seemingly this is where I come in….

Only…
It strikes me, as we talk that he already has this – he and his team have long since mapped the process. They understand the outcomes they are seeking.
Hell – they even took the plan to the Board and it’s all approved.
For months now, it’s been All Systems Go.
They are more than capable of delivering a plan. Stat.

So I’m wondering – why am I here?
(That question seems to annoy him. He is, after all, a very busy man…)

I’m here because I am a Consultant – He needs someone to come in and make the change happen. Run workshops. Facilitate conversations. That stuff.
(I bite down my question… Why can’t you already do that without me?)

The plan isn’t working. The outcomes and goals are not being “owned” outwith the team. The need for cuts and restructures is not widely accepted.
There seem to be barriers and blocks… hard to say what they are…
The Board collectively said yes.
This means The Board are onside.

Really?
Let’s break that down..

Well they are onside – but This Director will struggle to implement the structural cuts in Q2 & 3 because the looming deal means all hands to the pump and the disruption to resourcing is too high a risk. As a key income stream to the business, this area needs protecting.

This Director is going forward – LEAN methodologies in place now – so everything is being looked at carefully and, y’know, that all takes a while to show results. But they are absolutely committed to losing 25% of their staff and budget. It means their reach will be smaller in the Organisation, but they are fine with that.

This Director is close to the CEO and is pushing hard for things to change in their area – already the four Regional Heads are three and the resourcing has slimmed down massively. Staff are warning that it is too much too fast – there is currently a risk to retained knowledge –but that is just resistance to change, of course –that’s what you expect to hear at this stage of the game. This area is really role modelling what needs to be happening.

This Director has taken the Heads Of out for a couple of days. They have come up with a plan for how they can keep everyone and raise productivity. It’s not The Plan. It’s better. They have always prized themselves on their innovation and ability to overcome the odds. This Director is much-loved by the Team. They are the priority.

So here’s the news: The Board are not onside.

Collectively perhaps. Individually…. not so much.
I see fear. I see procrastination. I see care. I see carelessness. Protectionism. Jostling. Attachment.
Individually they have a lot to lose, staff, status, outcomes.

If you want the whole to change… you kind of need to put a lot of attention on the parts.
You want to get things moving differently? Help your Leaders deal with their emotional, relational and attachment stuff.
(Perhaps that’s why I’m here after all?)

He’s looking at me in a way that makes my tummy knot with anxiety.
On the one hand, my dialogue training tells me to inquire into both my own feelings and into the look he appears to be giving me (don’t assume, Jools. Don’t project your own nonsense onto someone else. Notice the phenomena. Work with the data. Ask what you don’t know.. he might really like what you’ve just said)
On the other hand, even my paltry knowledge of reading body language and facial expressions tells me pretty clearly:
I’m on the end of contempt.

He wants answers. I am here to give him answers.
To get the plan going.
To enable the outcomes.
To fix the barriers. Stat.
I’m meant to provide a process. Something clean and clear…. not start on about bloody-messy-fluffy-woolly emotional guff…..

I’m letting him down.

I feel squeezed.
I’d really really like the business… I sense it slipping away as I speak the truth as I see it.
Yet I can only speak the truth as I see it.

So I try to unknot my tummy and breathe into what I know to be true:

Far from being woolly and fluffy, the emotion and attachment stuff your leaders are experiencing is made of iron wills. Your barriers are metallic in their essence – not vapour-fluffy, but hard core emotion.
You want them to own damage to their organisation?
You want them to be onside with cutting jobs, budgets & risking their reputations?
You want the organisation not to be heartlessly, ruthlessly ravaged?
You need to start softening iron wills.
You need an Emotional strategy to back up your Business one.
A place for your leaders to express fear, understand where & why they procrastinate, work with care that doesn’t compromise the whole plan by overly protecting, be considerate not ruthless….
Right now all of that is being left to chance.
How about you have a cohesive plan that takes into account impact of your leaders’ emotions?

And you’re not onside with what I’m saying, I can see that – because you have your own pressure and attachments to this working. I get that, right now, this is not the answer you want….But this is the answer I’m offering you.

And breathe……

Silence ensues and I wait.
The sense of lost work and crumbling credibility drifts over me. This emotional nonsense doesn’t hold up in this world of data and process. It’s too out there….

I sit, checking in with myself – am I still breathing? How hard are my hands shaking? How much adrenaline is currently in my system? I’m working out if my knees will give as I stand. Ah well… if I fall over it’s not like I’m going to see him again.

I finally put my attention back on him.
His expression has changed. There is less contempt now – something is shifting….

He sighs.
Fatigued and irritated he asks:
So what, specifically, would your Emotional strategy to back up this Business strategy be, then?

and it’s here the work really begins….

* this is a composite tale. I never blog directly about clients. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons or organisational situations, living or dead, is purely coincidental… though quite possibly likely