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Engineering safe platforms for story

Engineers build a huge platform in Sochi, Russia.

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, 
And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

(William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V scene 5)

How can we create safe places for working with story?

BUSINESS IS NOT LOOKING GOOD for Shakespeare’s hero, Macbeth, as the bard’s audiences reach the end of Act V. Just as armies are marching against the murderous protagonist, his generals quit the enterprise and his wife commits suicide.  Consumed by the stress of guilt and fear, and crumbling from the pressure, life feels without purpose; his work, illusory. Soon, as the forest appears to advance towards his castle, it will seem that the very force of nature is against him.

Even 500 years ago, there was no protecting work from the impact of one’s personal life.  Today, our worlds are just as interconnected.

This week, the Contented learning group has been exploring how we can create safe spaces for working with stories, their narratives, and for we humans who strut and fret our hour upon life’s stage. We’ve recognised the challenge of weaving and unravelling the narrative threads that make up our personal and business stories. We’ve reminded ourselves that work is part of life, not merely in balance with it. The personal and professional are integral: to unpack them, find a safe place and handle with care!

But what is a safe space?  One where people feel free to express thoughts, opinions and feelings?  In doing so, participants need to respect everyone else in the room.  Recording stories brings a particular challenge, with filming, drawing, typing or writing triggering multiple responses.  Do people simply need to know that nothing they say will be repeated outside the forum?  What does each of us understand by words such as Chatham House, Deep Background, Anonymisation?   Why was it that a group of graduates felt unsafe in the mountains not because of the impending storm but because they had no phone signal?

Good workshop leaders and facilitators put careful thought into how to prepare a room or other learning environment.  Aside from the actual programme, such as activities and timings, this typically includes considering the layout of seating and other workspace, and use of screens.  Sound, lighting and heating create mood while posters and other prompts may promote a particular set of values.  How then might this manifest in an online session?  We exchanged experiences both as participants and as facilitators, including with technology and privacy, and explored a responsibility to the group of managing each one’s own environment and quality of connection.  Strategies adopted for our own comfort can affect other participants negatively.  For example, switching off my own camera can make other participants feel nervous about speaking honestly and openly because they can’t see my facial expressions.  So how might a facilitator deal with all these circumstances?

The six participants on our conference call shared stories of working with a wide variety of learners from children to adults, including engineers, creatives, and those on the autistic spectrum.  They reported surprising differences in delegates’ awareness of, and abilities to reflect, understand and share, their own cognitive processes, motivations and intentions.  Universities appeared to have offered little or no opportunity for this kind of participatory learning — personal tutors and other support functions were seen as destinations for problems with academic exercises or in times of sickness.  In some workshops, facilitators reported, the pattern of the carpet or wallpaper had triggered panic attacks in participants.  We shared strategies for managing this.   We spoke of power and ego and the particular opportunities and challenges they bring when working with different age groups.  Could you send your client to detention?

It was acknowledged that, while story is a powerful tool for both personal and organisational change, development, innovation and indeed healing, it’s of critical importance to ensure that a group feels ‘held’ safely, including by setting boundaries carefully.  Facilitators who are not qualified therapists, or are working with enterprises, felt it important to steer a clear line between story and therapy. But will it be enough to simply hold our intention to keep them separate?

Several techniques and processes were mentioned, including action research and learning, appreciative enquiry and Bohm Dialogue. We spoke about the characters of facilitator, co-facilitator and participant and the risks when we blur those roles.  An important test was to enquire around the level of engagement — listening to our internal voice constantly asking: “How is the dialogue working”? That might require us to listen to more than just the words.

Take a look at this video to explore more about our approach using action-learning.

Would you like to develop a Contented Mindset?
Are you working as a creative facilitator?  Would you like to visit our learning group and share your story?
Mindset is a confidential peer-coaching service helping our clients address complex problems and challenges at work. We run open two-hour sessions for creative facilitators and for executives developing their practice with story for change, innovation and a better world.

Visit our Doodle account to book a place on our open Mindset programme — or email us to arrange a conversation.

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