Listening to Random People #21daysof writing – Day 3

This is day 3 of the #21daysofwriting Challenge

Thanks to Sarah Sniderman for the topic.. I don’t think this was entirely what you had in mind… but I thought I’d try a little fiction.

“Liam? Do you have something to say?”

Oh shit… his face has done something. An hour of sitting here, carefully keeping it all blank, purposefully not paying attention, yet looking like he was. Quietly laughing at this bunch of saddos. Thinking about his PlayStation game and the YouTube video he’d watched last night. About football. About what to wear to that club he and his mates were aiming for at the weekend. He’d nearly made it.. another 45 minutes or so and he would have been free for another week.

And now Evan, that weirdo hipster twat who carries a stupid man-bag and puts his coffee in a stupid recycle cup, has noticed him. 

“Me? Nah.” 

“It’s just…when Aisha spoke then…. You looked like there was something going on for you.”

He tries not to shoot daggers at Evan. Tries to smooth his face flat. Keeps looking at the centre of the circle.

“Nah.” He says, defiantly.

But everything’s spilling outward.

She spoke of her big brother. Aisha. Was that her name? There’s something about the way she told the story – something about her voice, about her. The rest of them are angry or stuffed grief-full, or they have given up and are just shells -empty, blank. Some come every week because they can’t believe what’s happened and are trying to..what? Fix it? Feel? Whatever.

Story after story. Stab after stab. Death after Death. Wringing hands over a thing that is done. Over. Walk Away. Wailing, sobbing, stuttering, fury… Like an endless f-ing repeat every week. Pointless.

It does his head in. He knows all this shit. They have nothing new to say.

But she…. She has ……Dignity. The word surprises him as he thinks it.

It’s a word he thinks of when he thinks of his Granma – his Granma with ferocious eyes and a wicked deep laugh. He can hear her saying: “Always conduct yourself with dignity, boy – for yourself and others. Straight back. Firm feet. Heart in the middle. Head without heat”

She would say it when he was little, sometimes sitting at the kitchen table, smoking a B&H, looking across at him like she could see through him. Sometimes, holding his face in her hands, her eyes sparking, her voice kind.

She would say it when he was in trouble or nearly in trouble.

She said it a lot.

He’d never really got what she meant.

Until Aisha.

“I don’t want my brother to be dead. But he is.”

She’s been coming for 3 weeks. This is the first time she has spoken.

Liam’s barely noticed her before – a Teenage Grief-Bag in the midst of a bunch of Adult Grief-Bags. He’d clocked that she wasn’t Fit and moved on.

She sits straight in the orange plastic chair, somehow taking up way more space than her skinny frame should. She is still as she speaks. Head up. Defiant. Not bent by this. 

Her voice is calm, clear. She leaves a silence.

Liam tries to drag his thoughts out of the room back to the weekend ahead…..but she is undeniable.

She brims with tears as she recounts her story. Brother stabbed. Wrong boy in the wrong place. The impact. The ripples. The tears magnify her eyes –pools of liquid colour that catch the crappy fluorescent lights and turn them into something alive and magnificent.

She brims, but she doesn’t tip over. No sobbing. No weeping. Steady. Containing a galaxy of emotion perfectly. He’s in awe of the power within this skinny thing. He can barely look at her. He can’t drag his eyes away.

She has moved so her hands are on her knees, she is still upright, but leaning slightly forward. Liam realises he too is leaning in. He adjusts himself back slowly, tries again to disengage.

She takes one hand off her knee, wipes the snot from her nose with the back of her hand and keeps going, without apology. Those liquid, lit eyes focussed on the middle-distance. The air around her seems to crackle.

She seeks no vengeance. No retribution. She seeks understanding. Compassion. Strength.

“What can we do to help the boys who stabbed my brother?”

Liam feels his throat constrict – it’s like she’s asking him directly – his belly knots, acidic and thick. She speaks with clarity – Her story, voice strong, even when it waivers – even when, at the end, she whispers “I miss him. Every hour.”

Then she just sit there. In silence.

And the rest of them – the ones who normally offer a hug or a tissue – sit in silence too.

Evan says something and Liam wants to slap him. Just shut UP, man. You can’t follow that.

“Liam? Do you have something to say?”

“Me? Nah.”

What the hell can he say? He reaches to find words, but none are there other than: Fuck.

He is physically molten – feet shifting, belly knotted, mouth dry, throat tightening, pulse racing. What just happened?

“It’s just…when Aisha spoke then…. You looked like there was something going on for you.”

“Nah”.  

He can’t look at her. He can’t look anywhere, but at the floor. 

Evan says it might be time for a break. the Grief-Bags begin to stand and move around. Liam can’t move for a second, pinned by the weight of something. 

He glances over and she has four or five people around her, making her tea, patting her shoulders. She is tiny.

Straight back. Firm feet. Heart in the middle. Head without heat…. Dignity

Alright Granma, he thinks, annoyed. I hear you.

He stands and moves toward the tiny girl. All lanky 6 foot plus of him.

He’s uncertain, hesitant.

She turns as if she were expecting him. The Grief-Bags also turn

All eyes on him.

He says  “It was me.”

Her face crumples for a second, questions and shock run rapidly.

He realises what he’s said, horrified and stammers “I mean… not your brother.. I didn’t stab your brother or nothing.. but I did that. Stab. I killed someone…”

She looks confused.

Evan steps in:

“Alright Liam, that’s good. This is a good step.”

Evan hands him a mug of pale tea. Liam takes it, automatically

“Shall we sit back down, everyone?”

Back to Basics

back_to_school_2010

The ebb and flow of work in this consulting life is always fascinating. I have, for quite a while now, neither actively sought nor said yes to doing face-to-face classroom-based skills training for managers. If I’m brutally honest, this is partly due to some sort of sniffiness on my part (I’m not proud of this by the way) It’s the work I cut my teeth on and I suppose I feel I’ve sort of graduated, it’s not big meaty change stuff, it’s not gnarly coaching stuff… it’s starting back with basics. My story: I’ve kind of done that. Others are better at it than me. Not my bag.

And so it is, as it always is, that the universe conspires to remind me to get over myself. I’m in the midst of two pieces of work, in very different circumstances, both of which have the requirement to go right back to basics and pass on some skills mainly around coaching & feedback.

It’s been an interesting journey. One thing I realised is I know a lot now. Still got a lot to learn, but no point in pretending otherwise anymore. I’ve been round the block a few times, sat in a lot of situations… if you work in this field, you get to dip in or deep-dive into many cultures, circumstances, scenarios… it is astonishing what you pick up.

The other is the importance of knowing the basics and how much you actually rely on them. Coaching, for all the stuff written about it, for all the skill and practice required, seems to come down to three things: Listening, Questioning, Self-management. (I’ll come back to this)

This particular realisation came when I was asked if I could “do” coaching skills in 4 hours. Me? “do” coaching skills? In 4 hours? Are you serious?
It’s a deep and in-depth, terribly important thing…..
And when I lost my pomposity and started to listen to what the client was needing, the answer to that was: you can and you can’t.
You can stand for 4 hours and bestow your wisdom and a few old chestnuts to a group of new/semi-new managers. Run some exercises. Give out some handouts. You could rock up and slightly dial–in your efforts, find old notes, reconfigure that which has been done before, blah blah blah…. And they would leave with some 2D stuff – on paper or in their heads, which may or may not be relevant or used… and I can make a fairly strong case for why this is rubbish work, scattergun and a likely waste of budget.

Or.. you can use the 4 hour frame to get to the heart of what might be required. Cut it down. Get specific. Get efficient. You can talk to the client about the time before and after the 4 hour frame – what “pre-work” works for this group? What might they like, appreciate or actually pay attention to?
If you make it look good & it is short and relevant – if it is welcoming and makes a compelling case for turning up to find out about how coaching & feedback can be useful management tools…might that be better work?

Then seek to make the 4 hours matter….take seriously the notion that folk can learn stuff in 4 hours – people can have lightbulb moments and discussions that can open them up to try – to feel encouraged. If the design revolves around LESS content and more sensemaking of that content, surely that’s a thing?… how about we do 4 things well? Would that be good?

How about we look at it like this:
Listening – the active stuff where you pay attention to what is being said and HOW. Also Listen to yourself actively.. what are you experiencing? Practically? How do you to this?

Questioning – the art of curiosity – good questions, asked from a place of cheering someone on to do more/ different/ better. What does that look like? What questions do that stuff? What demeanour helps the other person believe they can do a thing?

Self management – holding silence, acknowledging your own limitations, being willing to talk to others to get a perspective on how you handled something, seeking to find a co-created, shared solution WITH the other person. Including them. Not dancing by yourself.

The importance of practice and reflection – try. Try listening so you can summarise someone else’s words – Try listening to yourself and the guff you muddle your head with. Try asking questions kindly. Try staying curious when you thing you know. Practice these – 3 times a day. Then talk to other folk about what’s working and not working for you – get their perspective – this is skills development – this is HOW you learn and shift behaviour.

OK – It’s not Masters Level – but the importance of this stuff – and how well it can serve you in YOUR WHOLE LIFE and the joy of where it can take you… you can get that across. Can you make it compelling enough that they want to know more, seek more, try more for themselves? Those ripples go beyond 4 hours. That sounds good….

And then in the aftermath – what? The client has no budget for follow-up? OK – so what will they do to support the 4 hours? For me, this was a deal breaker. If I was to agree to squish my beloved stuff into a short space of time, I needed guarantees that it would have places to grow and expand beyond the classroom.

So I made the argument for the follow up – coming up with ideas, cheap solutions, means to continue the learning – buddying up, coming back together at a later date – I’d prefer to do this with them, but in this instance it was never on offer – and now at least there is someplace for the 4 hours to go… and I’ll check in to see how that is happening & keep nudging a little.

Don’t get me wrong, my preference is to work with depth and discernment… but it has done me no harm to distil what I know, to draw it right back to the heart of the art and work with that. And I haven’t run the sessions yet – it’s coming up soon – so it could be a disaster, with terrible timings and folk leaving without proper handouts with neat models… or it could be the start (or continuation) or a journey for loads of folk and ripple out to the folk they manage. OK. That’s pretty cool….