Soft skills are not soft.

October 12, 2015

Photo by John Wenger

Photo by John Wenger

I once had someone suggest to me that I would not be capable of working amongst the “brutality” of business life.  I listened with great interest as there might have been some truth in what they were saying.  Upon extensive reflection, I considered what might be behind their comment, as it intrigued me enormously.  It intrigued me because in my past working life, I have worked with people who were involved in the criminal justice system, having committed some of the most abhorrent acts upon other humans, and never felt myself “soft” or incapable of being with their “brutality”.  In fact, quite the opposite, I considered myself to be pretty robust and effective in effecting change, and this was mirrored back to me by my peers at the time.  A supervisor of mine even shared his experience of the work, saying that if we could work effectively with these folks, we could probably work with most anyone on the planet.

Recently, it has dawned on what might be behind this impression.  I see people as capable of change and believe the best of people.  I see the world through “strengths-first” (rather than deficit-focussed) lenses.  I try to live in a convivial manner.  I try my best to be agreeable, even if I don’t agree with someone.  This may come across in my manner as being somewhat soft; and to earn a crust, I largely spend my efforts on assisting people to develop the so-called “soft skills”.  I’m not good at the “hard sell” and believe that you get more with honey than with vinegar.  Sounds pretty soft, huh?  I suppose this disqualifies me from working with those who are not.


Soft skills.



It doesn’t give good synonym, that word, if we try and place it in the context of business.  Fluffy.  Simple.  Silly.  Docile.  Gentle.  Yielding.  Mild-natured.  Feeble.  Easily overcome.  Delicate.

Soft things are not hard things. Neither are they as “good” or “robust” or, dare I say it, “manly” (and therefore about REAL business results) as their hard variants.  Hard is a word that means business.  Soft is caring and sharing.  Soft doesn’t get the “real job” done as well as hard, does it? Soft-hearted.  Soft rock.  Soft drink.  Softcore.

The only things that we really want to be soft are toilet paper, puppies and a mother’s touch, innit?

Photo of Veronica by John Wenger

Photo of Veronica by John Wenger

There has been the implication for many years, continuing in many quarters up to the current day, that soft skills are the “nice-to-haves”, the side salad to the meaty main course of hard, technical business skills.  For a long time, I’d been one of many folk who work in the area of people development who’d retort, when faced with this assessment, “They’re called the soft skills, but in fact they are the hardest,” accompanied by a hard stare which masked our soft and damaged hearts.

I make these connections with other associations with the word soft because these more gentle connotations also, I believe, influence how we perceive and (de-)value all the so-called soft skills.  Perhaps it’s time we find a new moniker, because they all sit right at the very sharp end of business and organisational life in the current era.  Sharp skills, maybe?

It is well past time that we re-think what these things are and where they fit in the 21st century world of business and organisational life.

When I think of the “soft skills”, I come up with role reversal and empathy, deep listening, handling conflict, lateral thinking, big picture thinking, group dynamics, delegating, negotiating and accepting difference, self-confidence….you get the picture.

So tell me how it’s soft to bump up against another complex human being and have your rough edges smoothed off as you try to find ways of working towards a common purpose.  Tell me how it’s soft to summon all your capabilities to be fully in the moment in the midst of a highly charged and emotional conversation, right on the edge of yourself, determined to be heard while equally determined to maintain and deepen your working relationship.  Tell me also how it’s soft to work alongside others with their annoying habits, odd pronouncements and bizarre ideas, and grow the ability to see their uniqueness as a key ingredient to a shared creative process that results in something that neither of you could have ever come up with on your own.

As far as I’m concerned, these are the sharp skills that are at the heart of a successful and effective modern-day enterprise of any kind.  I am in no way denigrating what we know as the “hard” technical skills of any enterprise; these are absolutely essential.  I am saying that a sound business needs to perceive and value the “soft” things just as much, and stop seeing them as a discretionary add-on.

When your business is all about being of service to others, whether that’s inside or outside the business, it’s the soft skills that sit right at the hard and pointy end of your business.  I’ve recently collaborated with a Project Manager friend to put together an offering which sets out to address some of the causes of failing projects.  In conversation with this friend, she identified some of the most common reasons that projects hit the rocks and the vast majority were not related to lack of “hard” technical expertise, but the “softer” elements such as poor communication between relevant people, taking an overly atomised or mechanistic view of the project, fear of speaking openly and honestly, unclear decision-making or fractious relationships between the people involved.  The “soft” things, which often get overlooked or under-valued, once again being a chief cause of, and potential solution to a business problem.

Hard may equate to difficult; soft does not equate to easy.

There really isn’t much that is easy about the “soft skills”.  They usually require more of our time, energy and attention to learn and develop than many of the so-called hard skills.  I might be able to learn the ten top tips of how to conduct a performance conversation in an afternoon seminar and be able to quote them back to you at the end of it.  Learning how to listen well, learning how to build a trusting rapport so that you can offer constructive feedback, learning how to have confidence to say something difficult….this requires much more of us and the “results” only show up gradually over time.

They are usually harder to measure.  I might be able to demonstrate that I’ve learnt how to use an Excel spreadsheet after the one-day training course, so you can tell instantly whether your investment in me has been worth it.  I can only demonstrate that I’ve developed greater empathy when, over time, you notice that my manner with angry customers leads to greater customer retention.  You can measure the knock-on effects of my new soft skills, but it can be much harder to measure the actual skill in the workplace.  If I’m undergoing a development or coaching process, I may not have the facts, notes and handouts that we sometimes use to prove I’ve been learning something.  Over time, however, I will become a bigger person for it and this will be apparent in how I conduct myself in a range of contexts at work.

They are usually harder to isolate.  It is far easier to isolate and atomise something like “needs to learn how to navigate the record-keeping system ” from other technical skills.  Try isolating “learning greater flexibility of response while a customer is making an angry complaint” from your other emotional regulation skills.  Most “soft skills” grow and develop in relation to other “soft skills” because we humans are highly complex creatures. “Everything-connected-to-everything-else” sort of complex.

It is often harder to know where to start.  With a “hard skill” such as learning how to replace a knackered central heating radiator, you start at the the beginning and follow the sequence of steps, building on each step as you go.  There is a start and and end, at which point, you can say that you have learnt how to do it because you can put it into practice.  With the “soft skills”, you pick up a thread somewhere, learn something, try it out, find yourself at the edge of your abilities and learn the next thing. but there is no step 1, step 2 system for learning something which is inherently complex.  The “starting point” is here and now; the end point is when you die.


…so to come back to that word, “brutality”. I don’t come from the corporate world and perhaps have not experienced what that person I mentioned was referring to.  I have, however, lived and worked on three continents in both so-called “developed” and “developing” countries.  In all of these, I have witnessed and experienced people being jerks.  I have witnessed and experienced disempowerment, unfairness, intolerance and cruelty.  As I wrote earlier, however, I believe that you get more with honey than with vinegar.  I suppose I could take a hard approach when I encounter hard people, but I’m not entirely convinced that meeting casual and thoughtless interpersonal violence with more interpersonal violence goes any way towards creating the world I wish to live in.  I’m also not entirely convinced that one needs to have been brutalised by corporate life in order to assist people to deal with its effects.  I’m not entirely convinced that one needs to have been brutal to others and made some sort of Damascene conversion in order to assist folks to be kinder, accepting or cooperative.  I believe, like many do, that being with others as they develop the human capabilities that we all could do with, happens one conversation at a time.  It happens when we take the time and energy to engage with others and approach them on a human to human level, without reducing them to a bunch of unsavoury behaviours that need changing.

And there is



about that.




Thanks to Simon Heath for sharing this thing about “soft” skills.

Your Work is Your Work

July 30, 2015

Street art in Brussels, 2015. photo by John Wenger.

Street art in Brussels, 2015.
photo by John Wenger.

Charles Darwin is apocryphally quoted as saying, “It’s not the biggest, the brightest, or the best that will survive, but those who adapt the quickest.”  While he may not have actually said it, the sentiment stands.

It is therefore vital that we develop ways and practices that assist us to learn about ourselves.  Much has been written in the area of leader and manager development about the need for developing self-awareness.  Sometimes the challenge is to know which areas to become more aware of.  How, also, do we go about finding that out?

How can we know what our “work” is, that is the intra-personal work of getting to know ourselves better: our strengths, our weaknesses, our Achilles’ heels?

Your inner “work” facilitates your paid work to happen better

One mantra I go by is “your work is your work”.  What this means is that we often find ourselves in jobs or drawn to particular professions that somehow reflect that intra-personal need.  This is often unconscious.  Therein lies the holy grail, though.

To illustrate, I was once shown around a television studio and introduced to everyone as we went.  At one point, my host stopped and exclaimed, “Oh the schedulers are late! Why aren’t they in yet?”  I giggled and said, “Oh well, your work is your work.”  She looked quizzical and I explained that the job of schedulers is related to time and timeliness and it did not surprise me that those folks found themselves carrying out a professional function which, on a personal level, they struggled with.

In setting up a contract with a Comms team, it was noticeable that all the communications we had with them were tardy, incomplete or contradictory.  The overt, or agreed, contract with this team to was to assist them to grow a more conscious culture of leadership and greater collective responsibility and accountability for departmental processes.  The REAL work, however, was apparent to us in how they communicated with us: develop some basic awareness and capability around human-to-human communication.  Without this, they would not have been able to achieve the stated aims of the contract, after all.  It also did not surprise us that they struggled with culture and consistency in departmental process if, at the heart of it, they continued to confuse each other in their communications (or lack thereof).

I have come to realise over many years of working with this dynamic that the deeper, often unconscious development needs are, more often than not, related to the stated, or conscious developmental needs and to the “core business” of individuals and teams.

I’ve seen social workers who feel marginalised and undervalued, while working with the marginalised and undervalued in their communities.

I’ve seen branding and marketing executives both devalue and lose sight of their own brand essence and big picture in their efforts to stand out against their competitors.

This dynamic works on us on an individual level too.  There is the Manager who accessed coaching to learn how to manage conflict in a less confrontational manner.  Through the sessions, he discovered much to his surprise, that internally he was highly critical of himself and beat himself up for matters which, over time, he realised were not as grave as he had come to consider them.  While this coaching work began with his stated aims of managing conflict better, it quickly became more personal as he developed a gentler approach to himself.  The side-effects, if you like, were that he did indeed find himself dealing with conflictual situations with his staff much more satisfactorily because he did his “real work”.  His work was his work.

Leaders and managers who want to zoom into those areas of themselves to develop could do no worse that reflect on the jobs they do and the roles they hold.  It’s important for individuals and teams to become more reflective of who they are as people and to discover the deeper, parallel processes at work, in order to do their work more effectively.  These deeper processes and this deeper work is usually unconscious.

As is so often in life, we are, to paraphrase Homer Simpson, the cause of and solution to our problems.

So what can help us to become aware of these blindspots?  After all, the clue is in the name, we are blind to them.  When I hear someone say, “I’m aware of all my blind spots,” as I have on occasion, I wonder to myself if they are aware of their God-complex too.

As with so much else we learn, becoming self-aware is a discipline.  We can develop practices that enable us to uncover that which is hidden to us.  The source of information about ourselves can come from inside or outside.  Both are invaluable.

Inside information

We get inside information when we develop the discipline of reflection.  All of a leader’s actions and non-actions have effects.  If we consider the role of Leader to be an interconnected matrix of complementary sub-roles, a central sub-role would be Astute Reflector.  When enacting this role, we can use the experiences we have in our jobs to get to the nub of our “work”.  We have so many moments in our professional lives on which to reflect on the effects of our actions and non-actions.  From there, we get closer to learning the things which will help us to adapt, survive and thrive.

The Astute Reflector practices the disciplines of reflection-on-action, reflection-in-action and to reflection on self.

Reflection-on-action is when we train ourselves to look back at something we have done.  It means we have to set aside some quiet time for ourselves, without distraction, and to ask questions of ourselves such as:

  • What was my aim or my purpose?
  • If I reverse roles with someone else who was involved, what did they see me do?
  • What did I do well, that went some way towards achieving my purpose?
  • What did I do too much of or not enough of that meant I didn’t achieve my purpose as well as I would have liked?

Reflection-in-action perhaps requires more training, as we do this while we in the midst of our efforts.  It means we have develop an ability to notice ourselves in real time and if necessary, adjust our course.  While in the middle of an interaction or a task, we ask ourselves such things as:

  • If I reverse roles with another person who is with me right now, what do they see me doing?
  • How are people responding to me right now?  Do I find their responses challenging?
  • How am I feeling right now?
  • Am I getting what I set out to achieve?  If not, what might I do to adjust my actions?

Developing greater reflection on self is about asking those deeper questions about our beliefs, values and orientations.  For some, it is best done when in nature, in silence or in solitude.  These are questions that get to the heart of who we are.

  • What is it about the work I do that is related to the capabilities I need to grow in myself?
  • How do I delude myself?
  • How does my internal picture of “me” differ from how I actually am with people?
  • How do I use my power?
  • What kind of leader am I?
  • Am I living a wonder-full life?

Developing these practices gets us a significant way towards knowing ourselves and shining a light on our real “work”.

Outside information

We get more information from the outside, through the discipline of feedback.  While much feedback can be experienced just like the dissonant feedback you get from an electronic device placed close to a speaker, it is vital to be able to hear through the noise and to capture the invaluable information others offer us about ourselves.  Sometimes this feedback information is solicited, often not.  Within both are the kind of grit that an oyster uses to craft a pearl.

Another sub-role within the matrix of the Leader role is that of Open Receptive Learner.  This role lives out the belief that how others respond to us is valuable information about ourselves.  This role is able to shut off some of that internal chatter that we deploy when we hear something unpalatable about ourselves.  When developing a role such as this, it helps to warm ourselves up to it.  In other words, be conscious about keeping breathing even, remaining relaxed yet attentive, relating to others in a calm, friendly and curious manner.

When we solicit feedback about what we’ve done or how we behave, it is usually easier to prepare our primitive brains and receive it with some equanimity.  Even difficult information can be processed because we are in the role of Open Receptive Learner.  We participate in the process by encouraging others to share information about our blindspots.  We may say things such as:

  • That’s really interesting to hear.
  • How did my doing that affect you?
  • What do you think I did well?
  • What do you think I did too much of / not enough of?

What about that unsolicited feedback or that chance comment that someone makes that seems to make us see red or throw us off balance?  Hard as it is in the moment, it is still useful to employ some of those reflective practices and consider that what they say may have just uncovered an inconvenient truth.  From there, we can make meaning of it, rather than simply dismiss it.

For a leader to develop the roles of Astute Reflector and Open Receptive Learner, they set themselves up for success.

When our daily work experiences are that grit to the oyster, rather than just “stuff to get through”, we afford ourselves so much learning.  We become better at learning from our mistakes, so that we can be fully present to what is happening in the moment.  We distill the ingredients of our successes.  We also see patterns that were previously hidden to us, which allows us to identify habits and beliefs which serve us well and those that don’t.

Being the person you want to be involves also knowing the person that you are.

collaborationI am occasionally left a little baffled by some of the stuff I read about digital social tools. In a lot of what I read and hear, there is no lack of intelligent analysis about social tools and their potential usefulness, however I do think that there is a huge dimension that is just absent.  That is the “social” bit.  I know, I know…. I only bring my understanding of what it means for human beings to be social from my own trajectory in life.  Sadly (or maybe not) in an increasingly technological world, that trajectory has not had a huge technological dimension to it.  I happily use digital social tools regularly and have learnt how they can assist me to connect and collaborate with others.  I also sometimes struggle with having to learn how to interface with the machine, often frustrated at why it doesn’t interface with me, but that’s another conversation.  When I ponder on the usefulness or otherwise of digital social tools, with relation to collaboration, my brain whirs and comes to the conclusion that it’s much less about the technical features or ubiquity or ease of use of digital social tools, and more about the users of the tools.

In other words, as far as I’m concerned, the “state of social” in 2015 is as follows.  We are still going about our lives, interacting with one another on a variety of levels, from the purely transactional to the deep and profound.  A lot of our social interaction is coloured by a materialistic worldview which allows us to reduce each other to a few behaviours when empathy feels too hard.  We form friendships and joyful working partnerships when we actually make the effort and invest ourselves in them.  We get stuff done, sometimes quicker because we have a digital something-or-other that saves time and labour, sometimes not quicker despite these labour-saving devices.  We are afforded the ability to collaborate and interact and co-create with each other across time zones (while at the same time, forces of destruction are also able to do likewise).  We are friendly and convivial and helpful with each other and we are also insulting, offensive and threatening to those we can’t understand or agree with.  We encounter each other with the same asymmetric insight that everyone else labours under.  I’m not saying that nothing has changed as a result of the internet and digital social tools, far from it.  The thing I keep coming back to though is that all the Slack, Yammer, Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp will not make us more collaborative if we are still being jerks to each other.  And arguing about which one is the best tool to increase collaboration is often a red herring, too.  Basically, I’m not entirely sure if digital social tools have augmented human collaboration, as my “state of social” is that we are no more and no less collaborative despite their existence.  I could be wrong, of course.

I’m reminded of an article about sustainable development I recently came across in which the author quotes biologist E.O. Wilson as saying “we have stumbled into the 21st century with stone-age emotions, medieval institutions, and near godlike technologies. In short, we are not yet ready for the world we have made.”   This is the main thrust of the article, as far as I’m concerned.  We have got these amazing technologies and digital tools and we haven’t developed ourselves enough to maximise their potential.  We are sometimes collaborative and we are sometimes still being jerks to each other.  In other words, we are still limited by our actual social capabilities.  There is plenty out there that says we need to develop our intra-personal and inter-personal capabilities, but we seem to be dragging our feet in actually doing this on any significant scale.  We keep investing our efforts in coming up with version 3.0 of all this wonderful tech, but we are largely missing out the “social” bit of social tools.  It’s the slow development in human social skills that inhibits collaboration.  It’s improved ability to empathise, care for each other, see ourselves as fundamentally connected to everyone else and give up our needs to compete with each other that, to my mind, increases collaboration.  This goes for the digital world as well as the online world.  I know it’s been said before but digital social tools are no panacea for human flaws, messiness and plain grumpiness.

Real, genuine collaboration comes, in my experience, when we are vulnerable with each other and prepared to work out loud together, when we find our common purpose and work towards that, when we are patient and open with each other in our differences and see these as intrinsic to creativity and innovation.  Most significant for me is that we approach each other knowing that what we do together far outstrips what either of us individually could create, and that we might, therefore, drop the competitiveness.

How do we get to the beginning of this?  It starts, I believe, with the will to develop our sociometry with each other….and continuing to develop our sociometry with each other. Just like you don’t get fitness credits, you don’t get sociometry credits. You have to maintain it.

I will illustrate with an example.  Collaboration, co-labouring, most often brings about something betters than an atomistic approach would bring.  When I first started out growing Quantum Shift with my co-founder, we worked almost exclusively together.  Every client met, every proposal written, every workshop session planned, every client conversation had, were done with the two of us present.  Literally, the two of us working on it together.  In writing a proposal, we would sit with a document open and have a conversation about the content.  One of us would suggest a line, which would often spark an interesting thought in the other and a brief conversation would ensue in which we refined and retuned our message, sometimes line by line, until we had something which neither of us individually could have formulated and which both of us thought far better than an individual effort.  Clunky though it may have felt at times in the beginning, we learnt and refined how to do it every time we did it.  Much like you have to learn how to ski by getting on a pair of skis or archery by picking up a bow, I believe the most effective way to learn collaboration is to practice collaboration.  We didn’t understand collaboration as “you do this section and I’ll do that section and then we’ll piece them together”.  That would have been an atomistic way of approaching it.  Even now, with each of us on opposite sides of the planet, we are using digital social tools to employ the same collaborative approach in the book we are co-writing.  Interestingly, having built up our collaborative muscles, we found that producing a piece of work together took much less time than it would have taken us working on it individually.  Two heads were and are, indeed, better than one, and on a number of levels.
What “social tools” did we need in order to do this?
They were the human ones I referred to earlier.  Empathy and listening, playing the “yes” game with each other and seeing what the other suggests as a diamond in the rough, being overt about our purpose and losing the need to be right or compete with each other.  None of this is rocket science.  However, humanity could not have developed a rocket science that took us to the moon and back without having learnt to collaborate.  There are, indeed, many other stories of successful human endeavour that came about as a result of collaborative effort.
So why so we balk at the idea that we might invest time and effort into delving into a sociometric look at how we organise our shared efforts?  Pioneered by J. L. Moreno in the early 20th century, sociometry is a way for groups to examine themselves and provides ways for groups to reflect on and refine their interpersonal relationships.  Noted Psychodramatist John Nolte has written that “the lack of attention to Moreno’s work lies in the fact that his methods and theories fall far outside the realm of orthodoxy, that his work is too far ahead of its time.”  I tend to go along with this statement.  It’s another example of our capabilities not keeping up with the world we have created.  In a world that is heavily influenced by what Moreno termed “the destructive effects of the three forms of materialism: technological, psychological, and sociological”, I can see how something which doesn’t provide quick answers to what we still prefer to see as simplistic problems would seem alien.
Humans generate collaboration and cooperation. The telephone did not make us more collaborative, neither will digital social media.  There is nothing “soft” about learning to be more caring and role reversing with others.  There is nothing “soft” about learning how to listen to people deeply.  There is nothing “soft” about learning how to be vulnerable with each other.  There is nothing “soft” about letting go of competitiveness.  These are the things that will perhaps help us to grow 21st century workplaces and help us to keep up with the world we have, for better or worse, created.

Where is the love?

April 21, 2015

marlon brando & eva marie saint - on the waterfront 1954

In “On the Waterfront”, Eve Marie Saint’s character, Edie, is on a date with Marlon Brandon’s character Terry, and as they sit and talk and get to know a little about each other, she enquires about his situation in life.  He’s a tough, street-hardened fighter, raised in a boys’ home after his father got bumped off.  It’s clear he’s not had much in the way of caring in his life.  She shows a lot of interest in him and his situation.  At one point in their conversation, he asks, “What do you really, care, am I right?”, the “am I right?” seemingly indicating that his entire worldview is constructed around “every man for himself”, characterised by isolation and fear.  Indeed, later in their conversation he says that his philosophy of life is to “do it to him before he does it to you” and suggests that to have any “spark of sentiment, romance or human kindness” is something that would get a person in trouble.  In other words, he can’t comprehend that Edie’s caring might be genuine.  He goes about life as if nobody could really gives a toss about anyone.  It just doesn’t compute that someone would really care about him, or anyone else for that matter.  Not only does he struggle to comprehend her caring, he dismisses it.  A self-perpetuating cycle, it seems to me.  Not a chink of light in there.

She doesn’t give up, though.  She replies,  “Shouldn’t everybody care about everybody else?” to which he responds, “Boy, what a fruitcake you are.”  She continues, “I mean, isn’t everybody a part of everybody else?”

Therein seems to lie the complete antithesis of Terry’s worldview.  The Eisenstein quote I used in my previous post seems apt.  “We are all fundamentally unseparated from each other, from all beings and from the universe.”  One corollary of this for me is that we owe it to each other AND ourselves to bring some more caring into the world.  If we start with our own individual worlds, it seems to me that this is a pretty good start.

Some further thoughts around sociometry have been going through me since writing that last post.  They were amplified during a chat on Twitter between Luis Suarez, Rotana Ty, Paul Simbeck-Hampson and myself.  Much of it revolved around humility, vulnerability, humane-ness and authenticity.

“And you really believe that drool?”

I’m with Edie when she says, “Yes, I do.”

When she goes on to accuse him of having not a “spark of sentiment or romance or human kindness in (his) whole body,” he says, “What good does it do you but get you in trouble?”

Call me a fruitcake, but I’d rather have a go at encountering people in all their weirdness and make an attempt to offer some kindness or meet someone’s heart-needs, than for all of us to remain bricked up behind a self-made wall.  I’m not a hardened street fighter like Terry, and I can understand why he would see the world the way he does, but I still find it hard to see how a bit of appreciation or kindness or caring would be a bad thing.  It takes me aback slightly when, for example, I’m blithely dismissed for thanking someone for sharing one of my blog posts on social media.  My internal response to a comment like, “It was merely something I thought worthy of passing on,” was “We are not Borg or Vulcans.”  Perhaps it WAS worth sharing, that’s another matter.  That notwithstanding, I felt a little stung when my appreciation for what I experienced as kind support was dismissed so instantly.  How much do we really enact caring about others in Socialmedia-land?  If I say, “Thanks, very kind”, I mean it.  It is not all about “efficiency”, “logic” or “relevance”.  Surely it’s also about humans connecting with humans in a human way.  A little human kindness, in a world where loneliness and separation is becoming the “new normal”, goes a very very long way.  I know many would agree but some of these same folks would also rebuff my expression of gratitude.

What actually is wrong with a little more human kindness?  I tire of that casual interpersonal violence that goes on all around us: in our communities, in our workplaces and in the online world.  It’s why I focus my efforts on assisting people to improve their sociometry with each other.

“You wanna hear my philosophy of life? Do it to him before he does it to you.”

I suppose Terry’s philosophy of life works for some, and I suppose in a world that I’ve heard someone describe as brutal, it makes sense.  Best defence being a good offence, sort of thing.  Robert Reich, in his article “In Our Horrifying Future Very Few People will Have Work or Make Money”, suggests that as the world becomes more “elecronified” and “algorithm-ed”, a lot of what humans do will be replaced with something done by some sort of machine, with fewer and fewer people doing paid-for work or capitalising on investments, and that “the rest of us will be left providing the only things technology can’t provide – person-to-person attention, human touch, and care.”  Sometimes it seems that in our rush to avoid being one of the “left behind”, we immerse ourselves in social media and the internet but we leave behind something intrinsic to who we are.  We can move into the future and we can also be the most human of ourselves online.  If nothing else, it might just be that little something that identifies us as more than an intelligent and efficient social media bot.  Why don’t we enact more of that person-to-person attention and caring online?  Let’s not play the “you go first” game, waiting for someone else to show us kindness before we act.  When we know that communicating through online social networks can often be misconstrued because of the lack of face-to-face nuance that we get in real life, let’s go that extra mile to eliminate brusque-ness.  When someone puts their work out there, let’s be more considered than an “I don’t agree” or “Your argument is flawed”.  We can disagree and challenge while still being mindful that someone has invested themselves (yes, and their SELF) in their work.

As Susan Pinker observes, “Our survival hinges on social interaction……and our electronic devices can give us the illusion of intimacy without the hormonal rush of the real deal.”  My view is that social interaction, whether face-to-face or virtually, is not purely a transactional exchange of pleasantries or functional statements.  It carries the expression of our humanity.  It touches the core of us and lets us know that we hear and we are heard, we see and we are seen, we value and we are valued.  It is the kind of interaction that can only be approximated virtually.  I’m not one to say we need to turn the clock back and leave our iLives, for they can augment our real lives, but since we are, indeed, living our social networks more online, let’s do our best to build each other up and be as convivial as we can.  Just because we only have 140 characters, let’s not leave out the love.

What is sociometry?

January 30, 2015


Carl Sagan has said, “There is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”  He goes on to say that we have “a responsibility to deal more kindly with each other.”  Where can we possibly start on this mission of greater kindness and conviviality, when there are overwhelming mentifacts that keep us in opposition to each other.  Silos at work, them and us, the 99% vs the 1%, left vs right, corporate ownership of mass media, “I’m right, you’re wrong”, extremists (of all hues) in our communities.  All over the place, far from dealing more kindly with each other, it can feel like we are heading in the opposite direction and becoming more fragmented as a species. We can’t agree on how to stop the degradation of the one and only pale blue dot we have to live on, or even whether it’s being degraded at all.

Let’s face it, we are pretty messy, us humans.  When it comes to groups (that includes families, teams, clubs, organisations, nation-states), we are pretty hit-and-miss about it.  After many years of working in and with groups, I think I hold the view that humans in groups are inherently dysfunctional.  This is not a cynical viewpoint; I don’t mean “broken”.  I merely think it’s a reflection of the inherently flawed and imperfect nature of human beings, and then when you put one messy and complex human in a room with other messy and complex humans, there are bound to be things which just look and feel less than perfect.  We aren’t machines, after all, and humans (and the groups to which they belong) are, in my view, by their nature unpredictable.  If we want to get better at being kindly with each other, if we want to “do groups” better, then I think that we need to deploy some techniques that allow us to a)become aware of the messy dysfunction and then b)to work out a better way together.

Where do we start?  everywhere.

When do we start?  now.

How can we start?  sociometrically.

I’m a fan of things not being done to me.  I’m a fan of things not being done to people either.  I’m a fan of consent, wilful action and empowerment as a thing I do for myself.  I’m a believer in the potency of human connectedness.  Through 2014, I realised why I’m so attracted to sociometry as a way of working.   It is a human technology that is of, by and for the people.  It is the study of human relationships, but done by the people, not to the people.  If knowledge is power, then when the knowledge about a social network is available to those in the network, the power becomes invested much more in the people.  In the workplace, it is the study of a team, by the team, for the team.  It is a way for a team, a group, a community, an organisation to redefine and redesign itself.  Dangerous stuff huh?  Why give the people that power?  Surely, it is best held by someone more qualified, like a manager or a professional politician or a civil servant or a religious leader, right?


Well, in my eyes it’s wrong.  Maybe it’s my strong Scottish egalitarian streak, but I think we are in an age when the responsibility for us humans to get on with each other sits with each of us and that we stop abdicating this responsibility to others.  We stop waiting in frustration for those “in power” to befriend others on our behalf.  We also stop being bystanders in our own lives.  All over the place, in our workplaces, in our communities, in our neighbourhoods, we can uncover the things that we have in common and from there, work towards common goals.  After all, there is more that we have in common than what separates us; we just don’t know it yet.  This is the power of sociometry.

“We are fundamentally unseparated from each other, from all beings and from the universe.”

– Charles Eisenstein

What is sociometry?

Pioneer of sociometry, Dr. Jakob Moreno, defined it as “the inquiry into the evolution and organisation of groups and the position of individuals within them.” He went on to describe it as the …science of group organization – it attacks the problem not from the outer structure of the group, the group surface, but from the inner structure. Sociometric explorations reveal the hidden structures that give a group its form: the alliances, the subgroups, the hidden beliefs, the forbidden agendas, the ideological agreements, the ‘stars’ of the show.”

Sociometry aims to bring about greater spontaneity (willingness to act) and creativity within groups of people.  Greater spontaneity and creativity brings about greater group task effectiveness and satisfaction amongst its members.  Sociometry teaches us that the quality of an outcome is directly related to the quality of relationship between the people trying to generate that outcome.  Research sociometry is an exploration of the social networks within which we exist.  This type of enquiry provides us with social maps and shows us how strongly people are connected to each other.  The full power of sociometry is realised when people have access to the information on such maps and are then able to make meaning of it themselves and to engage with each other about what lies behind their social choices.  Sociometry emphasises encounter.  Applied, or action, sociometry uses a range of methods to assist groups to uncover, develop and deepen their social connections.  So, in a workplace for example, using a question such as “Who would you go to if you needed advice on a work problem,” applied sociometry invites people to make those choices overt and then to discuss what lies behind those choices:  Why did you choose this person?  Why did you choose me?  What does that information mean and what can we do with it so that we can get better at achieving our shared purpose?

What does that look like?  It is highly interactive.  People move about and talk with each other, and this is done in a way which is congruent with the purpose of the group.  Sometimes, it is an activity or set of activities, the overarching principle being that they assist people to see how they are connected (or not), so as to facilitate a deepening of purposeful connection.  Some of these activities may already be familiar to many people.  They can be an opportunity for a group to know and re-create itself.  One very simple example that springs to mind is a continuum.  A facilitator asks a simple question such as, “How long have you worked here?” and everyone stands on an imaginary line on the ground in order of length of service.  This has the potential to be more than just an “ice breaker” or “warm up exercise”.  With a recent client, the purpose of the work was to assist a group of geographically dispersed managers develop their community of practice.  This exercise allowed everyone in the room to see who had served longest and, as such, who they might call on for specific knowledge and information.  The question came out of a desire within the group and as such, was more than just an “ice breaker” (which on many occasions comes out of the facilitator’s needs); it was directly relevant to their (previously stated) purpose of discovering each other’s strengths.

“If an egg is broken by outside force, life ends. If broken by inside force, life begins. Great things always begin from inside.”

– Jim Kwik

Sociometric exploration comes from the group; it’s an inside job.  It’s not the result of the CEO or the facilitator wanting to know some stuff about them; it’s the result of the group wanting to know some stuff about itself.  The questions used to enquire about the group’s structure are directly relevant and of interest to the group being studied.  The group then has immediate access to the information about “who is connected to whom and on what criteria” and “how strong (or weak) are the bonds within this group and its sub-groups” so that it may make decisions about whether and how to strengthen those bonds and deepen those connections.  Does it really matter that the social mapping comes out of the group’s needs?  It does to me.  It also matters to lots of people who want to have greater agency in their lives and who want to be able to have more input into decisions which affect them.  As I see it, “being done to” is not part of the future of work nor the healthy future of the planet.  Perhaps sociometry is a glimpse into a future of work which is for the people and by the people.  Authentic engagement will come about not because people have been “gamed” into it, but because of an act of will.  Moreno felt that an exploration of a group’s structure and dynamics was sociometric if each person felt that the exercise was for his or her own benefit, that “it is an opportunity for him (or her) to become an active agent in matters concerning his (or her) life situation.”

As I said earlier, the key emphasis in sociometry is encounter.  The data is important, of course, but sociometry is not a research project.  Sociometry is about people interacting and engaging with each other about the data, so that their relationships deepen and become more authentic.  Among other things, this can facilitate

  • resolution of conflict
  • more effective problem solving
  • greater collaboration and cooperation
  • increased novelty and creativity within teams and groups
  • greater kindness and conviviality between and amongst people

Zerka Moreno, his widow, who carried on his work after his death, wrote “When the group members realise that the investigation is meant to improve their relationships and interaction with others and find their choices respected and acted upon, the level of the group’s morale is greatly enhanced, co-operation insured and cohesion improved.”

“Blues is what happens between the notes.”

– BB King

As a corollary, I’d suggest that meetings are what happens between people.  I know that sounds kind of obvious, but what I intend by that is that good, satisfying, productive meetings at work are what happens when people encounter each other; when a meeting is more than people just taking turns to talk at each other.  JL Moreno described “meeting” as more than a vague interpersonal relation.  He wrote that “it means that two or or more actors meet, but not only to face one another, but to live and experience each other, as actors each in their own right, not like a ‘professional’ contrived meeting,….but a meeting of two people.”  He goes on to say that “only people who meet one another can form a natural group and start an actual society of human beings.”  What if our workplaces were more than just places we did some stuff and then picked up a paycheque, but they were societies of humans coming together to really achieve something together?  What if our teams were more than just a bunch of people with some job descriptions doing stuff?  What if meetings were, as Frederic Laloux described, “something productive and uplifting, where we spoke from our hearts and not from our egos”?  What if (and here’s where my wild imagination really kicks in) meetings were things that we looked forward to, because not only did we come away from them with a sense of achievement and good work done, but we also enjoyed the purposeful encounters with each other, knowing that we had progressed the life of the group?

How can sociometry translate into the workplace?  

When I see work practices come in line with the sociometric principle of “not being done to”, I see greater engagement.  I recall a beautiful story about the design of an office that I feel is deeply sociometric.  The design process incorporated principles of autonomy and participation, inviting those who were to use the office to be its designers. The people who worked there made the decisions about meeting spaces, storage spaces, social spaces, privacy spaces, colours, lighting, furniture.  Teams of salespeople, support people and supervisors worked closely with the interior designers to craft a space that suited their needs.  The space proved to work well and cost 20% less than usual for that number of people in that location.  The interesting thing about the story is what happened next.  Head office believed that this was the “office of the future” and tried to copy to same design across its many locations.  The result was patchy: some compliance, some resistance.  What head office had missed was that the innovation was not the actual design of the office, but the way it came about.  There, I believe, is the opportunity for sociometry at work:  to allow people the opportunity to form into a society and from there, to make more decisions about what affects them.

Does sociometry matter?  

To my mind, absolutely.  Much is written about self-awareness and relationship capabilities and these are often called “soft skills”.  I think they are the hard skills of the 21st century.  In our workplaces, our communities and between nations and peoples, I believe that greater knowing of each other will be a key to unlocking that kindness of which Carl Sagan spoke.  When we put our efforts into ironing out some of our “dysfunctions” and really commit ourselves to being alongside each other, despite what we feel separates us, we might view the project of sharing the planet together as one which belongs to all of us.

It’s about power

September 17, 2014


This article is about something very close to my heart: Scotland.

September 18 is momentous for me in two ways: it will be 50 years to the day that I arrived in this world, in the beautiful city of Edinburgh, and it is also the day when Scotland decides whether to become independent or remain a part of the United Kingdom.  The two are linked for me, as I find it incredibly exciting that I am in the prime of my abilities and could have the opportunity to actively participate in the historical re-birth of my country as an independent entity.  Scotland already has a long history with a rich heritage, but in the many years I lived in various countries on this beautiful planet (Scots transplant well to other parts of the world, as is well-known), I noticed on my visits to Scotland, that it seems to have become infused with a increased sense of self-belief and energy.  Now currently resident in London, I am not eligible to vote in the referendum, though I will certainly be free to take up Scottish citizenship should the result be “YES” and I will certainly be giving serious consideration to relocating up north and being an active participant in the crafting of new institutions, new processes and new structures.

The referendum, to my mind, is about one thing.  This referendum, I believe, is not, as many would have us believe, about “not being British”; though “identity” and how one feels is certainly important. This is absolutely not, as some insist, about “anti-Englishness” though I don’t doubt that for a very small minority, that is part of it.  It is not about shortbread, tartan, bagpipes or whisky.  It is certainly not about money, well not solely, as many would have us think.  You certainly cannot run a country, or a business, or a charity….or most things…without money being a factor.  But this referendum is far more complex.  Through the complexity, however, I keep coming back to the one thing this referendum is about: power.

Where does power sit?  

The decision to unite England and Scotland was made in the early 1700s.  In Scotland, the decision was made by the 100 members of the Scottish Parliament that voted for union.  This time round, the decision rests in the hands of the 4,285,523 people registered to vote.  Yes or no, this gives me hope.  I feel this national conversation, which has been going on for some two years, has invigorated Scotland and made everyone give consideration to that really important question: where does power sit in our national affairs?  People want to be involved in their societies.

Who has the power to make decisions about the things that affect Scotland?  For those 15 precious hours that the polling stations are open, the decision about where power sits for Scotland resides in the hands of those 4,285,323 people.  Marvellous.  The locus of control over Scotland’s affairs can rest in Scotland’s people.

This is about the Scottish nation making a conscious decision about where decision-making power for Scottish affairs to be held.  I have written before about people having power over decisions that affect them.  I firmly believe that nobody can empower anyone.  We can enable others but we cannot empower them.  The only person who can empower me is me.  The only people who can empower Scotland are those who live in Scotland.  Power granted by someone who retains the authority to withdraw it is not power.  Just as the Scotland Act 1998 which set in train the establishment of a Scottish Parliament was passed in Westminster, so the power to abolish it remains in Westminster.  I’m no fool and hold no illusions that the parliament of an independent Scotland will suddenly make the roads paved with gold and the taps run with champagne.  Having power and agency in one’s own affairs is no pleasure cruise.  It is, however, preferable to having decisions made about me by someone who is “not me”.

“Hang on a second”, I hear.  What about this clamour to join the EU, NATO, etc etc etc?  This highlights an interesting paradox of our time.  We are becoming ever more connected and interdependent, yet we wish to have more agency in our lives.  On a global scale, we are subject to globalisation and increasing interconnectedness, yet we want to retain national parliaments.  I am an advocate of thinking and acting systemically: being cognisant of how connected we are.  We are none of us islands.  What on Earth, then, is the point of saying “Let’s strike out on our own!”?  If there is no such thing as truly “on my own” how can we say that we are independent?  The paradox is that there is something to be said for people having more autonomy and freedom in their lives, even while in relationship with others.  While we cannot eliminate the  systemic effects of being more connected and influential over each other, we should also not surrender our aspirations and our freedoms to people who do not take us into account.  Notice, for example, how the UK has steadfastly remained outside of the eurozone despite being an active member of the EU: that decision is about sovereignty and power, at least partly.

In this interconnected world, what would possess the Scots (or the Catalans or Basques or Kurds or…) to think that “going it alone” was the way to go, or indeed, that anyone could go it alone.  To hear some of the rhetoric from the pro-UK argument, one would imagine that in the event of a “YES” vote, Scotland would be severed completely from the rest of the world in a way that no other country, save North Korea, seems to have achieved.  Nonsense.  We are moving to a world, I believe, of a network of tribes.  Not empires, but alliances.  If that’s the case, I hear some pro-unionists, why bother?  We are so interconnected that there is no point in going through the whole independence mess; it’ll just cost money and create a whole lot of work we can do without.  The point is that there are a number of decisions about Scotland that are better taken by those whom it affects: the Scots.  There will be treaties and alliances and unions that Scotland will be a part of.  This argument seems odd though. Many pro-union voices are the same who decry membership of the European Union because it curtails UK sovereignty.  You can’t have it both ways: you can’t argue that the EU is bad because it curtails sovereignty and then argue that the UK union is good, even though it curtails sovereignty.

For me, this referendum is not about nationalism.  I am definitely no nationalist; I have spent most of my life living, working and travelling all over this planet.  For me, this referendum is not about giving the 1% a good kicking, though I find growing inequality in our societies obscene.  It is not about David Cameron and the Conservatives and it’s not about Alex Salmond and the Scottish National Party; they could all be replaced when there are elections.

It’s. About. Power.

It is about power and being able to have agency in one’s own destiny.  It is about being grown up and responsible for all the choices that we make, good and bad, and as a corollary, being grown up enough to deal with the consequences of the choices we make, good and bad.  Some of those opposed to independence say that the road to Independence Day and beyond will be messy.  There aren’t many realms in human affairs that are, quite frankly, not messy.  Scotland, should it vote for independence, will make mistakes, but they will be our mistakes.  Having greater agency in one’s fortunes also increases one’s self-confidence and therefore, I believe, the ability and determination to navigate the complexities of life.  If we have greater confidence in ourselves, we are better placed to unleash our creativity and untapped resources…..and by resources I don’t mean oil.  I mean within ourselves.

Yes there are risks.  I could quote any number of aphorisms that encourage us to take risks in life: a ship is safe in harbour but that is not what it is built for…etc etc….   I don’t think there is anyone who wishes for independence who doesn’t acknowledge risks.  Equally, there are risks if we continue to abdicate power to someone else in our lives.  There may be safety in letting someone else make decisions for you, but where is the sense of a life well-lived?  Where is the sense of achievement?

I’m clear that I would prefer a move towards Scottish independence and greater decision-making power for Scotland’s affairs resting in Scotland.  However, even if the vote is “No” and Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom, the beast has (re-)awoken.  The beast to which I refer is democracy.  In recent years there has been a trend towards smaller and smaller turnouts in democratic elections, but this debate has brought politics back to the people.  Politics is not about what professional politicians do, it is about decisions that get made that affect our lives.  It is about being involved in conversations around public health services, it is about being involved in decisions about social justice, it is about how we want to structure our societies.  A full 97% of eligible voters in Scotland have registered to vote in this referendum, a record.   Predictions are that turnout could be around the 80% mark.  Time and time again, I read of conversations in people’s homes, in cafes, in pubs, all over the place, being about the referendum.  People ARE interested in politics, just not professional politicians.  People DO care about how they are governed, only when they have some hope that they have a say in it.  To quote George Monbiot, “A yes vote in Scotland would unleash the most dangerous thing of all – hope.”  I also believe that something has awoken that means that even in the event of a “NO”, hope will not dim.  Hope and enough self-belief that the idea of an independent Scotland is not just some kind of Jacobite romantic notion.  Hope also for the entire UK; people all over these islands are fed up of the status quo.  Scotland’s referendum is also about power for those who do not reside in Scotland.

Sometimes, the pro-independence movement is accused of overly romanticising Scotland, of being muddle-headed, of not being sensible about things.  Scotland, to me, however, is not Brigadoon.  It is a real place with real energy, real ideas and real potential.  Oil aside, an independent Scotland has a future.  Yes, the early years would be challenging, but I don’t think anyone who is seeking anything really worth having is looking for the easy road.  Yes, an independent Scotland would be quite a different place to the one it is now, but isn’t that the point?  Yes, an independent Scotland would require hard work and would have to stand by its own efforts, but again, isn’t that the point?

There are no guarantees that things will be “better together”, as the pro-union campaign phrases it.  Similarly, there are no guarantees that things will be better as an independent nation.  Questions remain about currency, for example.  In this life, however, there are essentially no guarantees of anything.  Ever.  One thing that I keep coming back to, though, is that the more power I have in my own hands, the more agency I have in my own life.  The more I decisions I am able to make about my life and my future, the more likely that my life will unfold as I wish.  Likewise, the more responsibility I will be able to hold for the consequences of my decisions and frankly, I’d much rather take responsibility for my own decisions, good and bad, and to be able to do something about them.

If it’s a “YES”, this may be sad for those who wish to retain a union of the two countries.  Scotland, I believe, is not interested in severing the friendship it has with the rest of the UK.  After all, they say that a good fence makes good neighbours.  A YES is a signal that the Scottish people are ready to be in greater control of its own affairs.  What this referendum is about is “the will of the people”.

It’s about power.


photo by John Wenger

photo by John Wenger

I love the “working out loud” approach.  It’s highly social, which now, after years of personal work, runs through me like a stick of rock.  In that (ongoing) personal journey, I have learnt not only the benefits and indescribable joys (and sometimes, the excruciating pain) of joining the rest of the human race, but also how to do it.  WOL also gives us the opportunity to exercise our opposable minds with each other. This is our ability to hold seemingly contradictory or conflicting ideas in a creative tension so that we come up with novel solutions or insights.  The idea that we can co-create something that neither of us could have worked out individually is highly appealing to me.  The challenges before us, many of which seem intractable, are products of old ways of thinking and being.  One of my things is that the new solutions will come out of collaboration, learning together and co-creation.  That, for me, is one of the strongest “selling points” in WOL: I can’t solve it myself, neither can you, but together we might synthesise a wondrous future.

So how’s this for working out loud….

I hate feedback.

Feedback, as I learnt from one of my greatest teachers, is that dissonant screech you get coming through a speaker system.  In my time, I have trained in a myriad of personal and professional development settings, via a variety of modalities, methods and processes.  I always looked forward to (and still do) the “feedback-y” bits of those.  Actually, that’s not entirely true.  I hate feedback.  I love supervision.  Super.  Vision.

The thing I enjoy is the learning; the “supervisory” conversations with others who hold my learning and development in mind and who have super vision, i.e. see things I don’t see.  In these conversations, I would receive information about myself and how I function in the world, have the opportunity to integrate it into my self-concept and update my knowledge and capabilities.  This would uncover blindspots, help me to see things about myself I couldn’t possibly see on my own and expand my self-awareness.  Purpose: self development.

There is, I believe, a cultural conserve around “feedback”.  In a lot of situations, feedback comes across exactly like a dissonant racket and is welcomed with just as much openness and delight as you would expect such a screech to invite.  I believe this is related to our cultural conserve of “feedback” and how it’s done.  It tends to be (mostly) one-way: one person giving feedback to another.  Rather than a mutual and engaging conversation, it gets structured into a “three positive things, three negative things, and one more positive thing to finish on so that we can end on a positive note” type of ritual.  It also tends not to be strengths-based.  Hang on a sec, didn’t I just say it starts with “three positive things”?  Yes, but that is not strengths-based.  Telling someone something “negative”, no matter how it’s dressed up, is not strengths-based.

Taking a strengths-based approach

I believe there is an entirely different way of looking at this, which is to view humans as inherently good and their behaviours as inherently meaningful and sensible.  We may not see the good, nor understand the meaning and sense of why people do what they do, but let’s just imagine it is so.  If we start with this assumption, then instead of giving “feedback”, let’s look at what people have done and build on it.  If we see learning as a process rather than an event… a constant becoming….then everything we do is the starting point for the next thing to learn.  Beings in beta, always refining and retuning and building on.

“What a bunch of new age, PC nonsense!  It’s this sort of thinking that is driving this business to the wall!”

Well, perhaps……However, to fail to recognise strengths is akin to throwing the baby out with the bath water.  It is demoralising and demotivating.  Even in our worst ever moments, there is the seed of something useful, life-giving and good.  As Dr. Max Clayton states, “…there tends to be an over-emphasis on the inadequacies of people….When people become aware of what is (good) in their functioning,…problematic areas of their life become easier to manage.”  If we want people to really learn and to really change, this is what we want: that they are able to self-manage and that they find it easy to do.

What does this have to do with working out loud?

Working out loud is part of the “new way of doing things” (#nwodt, just to give myself a bit of hashtag license).  When I do my work on Twitter, blogs or Google+, then what I’m working on there is open.  When I’m working in a room with people, I employ a human technology that works with what is emergent, so I’m also working out in the open; to a very great extent, what happens next is dependent on what has just happened.  I’m working out loud.  If I’m working out in the open, I’m exposing myself and am vulnerable.  What might stop people from doing this?  When I put something in the public domain, I am taking a risk.  As Eric Ziegler writes, “people are scared of putting themselves out there and working out loud. They are fearful that there will be negative repercussions when they make a mistake out in the open. They are fearful that people will think less of them. They are not willing to risk sharing because there is no benefit or that other people will not find what they are sharing as interesting or informative.”  All very human.

Seems to me that our limbic systems come into play here just a little bit.  These alarm systems that sit right within our brains don’t like danger.  They also don’t like perceived danger.  The thing about our limbic system is that it doesn’t know the difference between real danger and perceived danger; it’s all just danger.  Like a gazelle in the open savannah, when we are exposed and there is a potential for attack, we are in a heightened state of vigilance, which could explain the reluctance of many to work out loud.  Yes, there are clearly benefits to working out loud, however the cultural conserve of “feedback” leads many not to.

I understand these reservations.  I have felt the things that Eric describes as fear-inducing  and I know how it feels.  Not good.  That is kind of irrelevant.  I’ve had some amazing supervision sessions with some great teachers in my time and I haven’t felt ‘great’, but those conversations have certainly taught me invaluable stuff.  I will add: after all the many years of aforementioned ‘personal work’, I have a pretty solid sense of self-worth and I certainly welcome conversation, questions, something that would expand my (and your) knowledge.   I also bounce back quickly.  This is not to say, however, that to have my thoughts and perspectives dismissed in three or four sentences of “feedback” by people with substantial prestige, status and influence doesn’t sting.  And as I say, I don’t mind not feeling great; I do mind not having the engagement that leads to all involved becoming greater.  Where is the interaction?  Where is the engagement with me?  Where is the responsiveness to me and the perspectives I hold?  A terse, un-engaged dismissal, phrased using language of the “old way of doing things” has wrapped within it an assumption, conscious or unconscious, that my experiences hold little value, my synthesis and meaning made of said experiences erroneous and the thought processes used faulty.  If we work out loud, allowing our works-in-progress to be spotlit, and they are treated like a critic treats a theatre performance, scrutinised from another subjective perspective using language of definitiveness, we will understandably think twice about making a new habit.  If we work out loud and someone comes along and infers (using the most educated and authoritative language) “Idiot”, and does it in a way which shows no curiosity or interest in where we are coming from, we all lose out.  We have the technology, we are all right here.

For me, part of the “old way of doing things” means that we take up an either/or stance.  This is part of the whole “feedback” cultural conserve.  I see what you have written and if I like it or agree with it, I might share it.  And if I don’t like it or don’t agree with it, rather than simply saying nothing, I feel somehow moved to explain why I don’t agree and why you are wrong.  Limiting.  When I’ve had a simple “I don’t agree and this why you are wrong….” as a response, I am left thinking, “So where is the learning?  For me and for you?”  Missed opportunity.  If you have some super vision that I am blind to, the absence of engagement leaves us both poorer for it.  If there is some engagement, we might both come out better for it, our world views expanded.

Part of the #nwodt was described over 20 years ago by the venerable Mr. Edward de Bono in his book “I Am Right, You Are Wrong” when he set out some differences between the “rock logic” of traditional thinking (absolutes, adversarial point scoring, rigid categories, either/or) and the “water logic” of perception (both/and, constructive and creative thinking).

So, I accept the challenge, I will continue to work out loud, I will allow myself to be vulnerable.  In response, I request curiosity, responsiveness and a spirit of “building on”.  Please engage with me.  As a person.  A human person.  And if you find yourself moved to say something which is more about being right or showing how much smarter you are or how much dumber I am, please refrain.  (…and I realise that I am coaching myself here, as much as anyone else.)

My WOL credo

My understanding of working out loud is that I show my work and invite engagement so that we all might learn from it.  Working out loud is more than ‘stuff I do in public’, though.  Like many #nwodt, it’s got a bunch of assumptions that go with it.  Here are some of mine.

  • I believe that it is social.  With my background, that means that it is mutual and two-way.  Central to this, I try to become aware of any power differential: “power” being my status, my network connections, the ‘clubs’ I belong to or don’t, the influence I am able to exert……. So I commit to being more mindful of how I engage.
  • I believe that effective working out loud starts with the belief: “I don’t have all the answers.”  I believe that WOL requires a modicum of giving people some credit for having had some experience in life and having made some meaning of it.  So I commit to being more mindful of what I don’t know about others.
  • I believe it requires enough self-awareness to know that we all have blind spots.  This simply means we understand that we have them, not that we know what they are….they are called BLIND for a reason.  So I commit to being more mindful of the unknown unknowns: mind AND yours.
  • I believe that there is something in people who work well and comfortably out loud that acknowledges self-deception.  As David McRaney writes in his post about the illusion of asymmetric insight, the misconception we hold about ourselves is that we celebrate diversity and respect others’ points of view.  The reality that our behaviour belies is that we are driven to believe others are wrong simply because they are “others” and they couldn’t possibly be as self-aware/clever/educated/experienced/skilful as us.  So I commit to being more mindful of the lies I tell myself.
  • I believe that to in order for me to work out loud, I will value community and learning over the need to be right.  When I’m in a learning mood, I find myself asking genuinely naive and curious questions, being aware of stuff I don’t actually know and that someone else does know stuff that I don’t.  So I commit to being more mindful of my internal voices.
  • I believe it’s useful to notice what state I am in and to consciously warm up to being in the role of Open Receptive Learner.  It’s not necessarily our default, considering the kind of schooling institutions and workplaces most of us have been predominantly exposed to.  So I commit to being more mindful of the Role I’m enacting.

Some of the most inspiring and lucid out-loud-thinkers that I’ve come across include Dan Oestreich, Louise Altman and Bob Marshall.  Read Dan’s work to see how beautifully and humanly he describes the challenges he faces in his work as a coach to others.  Read Louise’s work to see how deeply she cares about humanity and the lengths she goes to learn and learn and learn about herself in relation to others.  Read Bob’s work to see how he bares open his thought processes as he extends his revolutionary method of working to make work work better.

This bit of working out loud about working out loud has clarified some things for me….but at this stage, it’s still just me on my own.  Responses?

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