Unhurried Facilitation – Episode 18

In this episode, Beth Cougler Blom talks with Johnnie Moore about his book, Unhurried at Work, and how we as facilitators can embrace unhurried conversations and practices. While working this way isn’t always easy, it may just be what we need in the world right now.

Beth and Johnnie also discuss:

  • learning from improv
  • the tightness or looseness of agendas
  • being clear with clients about our facilitation style
  • knowing when to risk or try something and when to hold back
  • getting out of the group’s way

Engage with Johnnie Moore

Other Links from the Episode

Connect with the Facilitating on Purpose Podcast

Connect with Beth Cougler Blom

Podcast cover art by Emily Johnston of Artio Design Co.
Podcast production services by Mary Chan of Organized Sound Productions

Show Transcript

[Upbeat music playing]

[Show intro]
Beth
Welcome, to Facilitating on Purpose, where we explore ideas together about designing and facilitating learning. Join me to get inspired on your journey to becoming and being a great facilitator wherever you work. I’m your host, Beth Cougler Blom.

[Episode intro]
Beth
Hello, thank you so much for joining me for an episode today. Welcome back if you have listened to previous episodes before and welcome if you’re coming and listening for the first time to Facilitating on Purpose. This is Episode 18. I am interviewing Johnnie Moore in this episode.  Johnnie switched careers to facilitation about 20 years ago. And he has worked for a wide variety of organizations around the world as a facilitator. He’s particularly interested in helping teams work with greater empathy and creativity. And I found out about Johnnie when I read a book that he wrote called Creative Facilitation, with his colleague Viv McWaters. I really enjoyed both the format of that book – it’s written in these little sort of blog post vignettes – and also the content. I mean, of course the content is more important than the format but there were so many times when I read that book that I paused and kind of looked off into space and thought, oh yeah, that’s so interesting that thing that he’s talking about. I just really saw that he and Viv, in the writing of that and then the sharing of their experience, were so creative in what they were doing as facilitators. Of course the book was called Creative Facilitation!

When I realized that Johnnie had also written a book called Unhurried at Work I immediately looked to see what that was all about. I guess the short story is that for the last eight years he’s been working on this project he calls Unhurried. It started with him hosting a series of unhurried conversations using a simple talking object format. He has since developed Unhurried as a way of working more creatively and sustainably. Johnnie is actually working on an updated edition of the book right now. So, depending on when you listen to this episode, it may be available or it may just be about to come out. So check for the updated version when you’re looking for it. I really valued my conversation with Johnnie, and a funny thing is that he actually said that something that I’m about to do when you listen to this episode, where I was kind of faltering and trying to find my words, he praised me for being unhurried! So we left that part into the episode. And so I hope you enjoy our whole conversation. Here is myself and Johnnie Moore talking about Unhurried Facilitation. Enjoy the show.

Beth Cougler Blom
Johnnie, thank you so much for joining me for this podcast. It’s so great to see you again.

Johnnie Moore
Lovely to be here. Good to see you too, Beth.

Beth
I must admit that I’ve been remarking on my self and my own thinking as I prepared for this topic that we’re going to be talking about today, unhurried conversations or being unhurried at work. I’ve noticed in myself the almost stress of oh, there’s so many things I want to talk about with you and how can I get it all in? And then I go, Well, wait a minute, that doesn’t sound unhurried. [laughs] So my own preparation in my mind, I’ve had to check myself as I started to think about, no how can we be in this together as an unhurried conversation for ourselves? Do you have any guidance around that as we get started?

Johnnie
The first thing I think is I don’t know if it’s guidance, it’s just reassurance that I have to remind people that just because I’ve written a book about unhurried doesn’t mean I’m the most relaxed, laid back, cool cat on the planet. I’m rather fond of that phrase that we all teach what we most need to learn. So I think it’s useful to think of unhurried as a direction of travel, as an aspiration, something to move towards, but not to beat ourselves up too much for the many, many times when we’re likely to fail. [chuckles]

Beth
Exactly. Oh, that makes me feel better. And it makes me think, too, I think you said in your book, Unhurried at Work, there was something about unhurried doesn’t necessarily mean slow. Can you say more about that? Like I get excited and then I get fast. But that’s not really what you mean when you mean unhurried. Can you talk about being slow or fast related to unhurried?

Johnnie
Yeah, I mean, look often it does mean to slow down because we do tend to go too fast. So at one level, slowing down isn’t a bad start. But I observed that there are things that can be done quickly if they’re done in a well synchronized way. And I think I give the example of a pit team in Formula One, which will change the tires and refill and fix a car in a matter of seconds. And there’s a pit crew of I don’t know, 10 people brutally coordinated. And only very rarely do they make a mistake and set fire to the car. And I’d say that, because of a lot of practice, they are in a sense, going very fast, but they are unhurried because what they do is very elegantly timed. Because I’ve been rethinking and rewriting that book, I also think that unhurried isn’t just about time. It’s also about, if you like, psychological space. So it’s partly about seeing more possibilities in the present moment. And sometimes I use processes that encourage us to quite rapidly generate multiple alternatives. And that’s, you know, poetically, I would argue that’s still unhurried in that it is seeing greater possibilities in the moment, but it isn’t necessarily going very slowly.

Beth
I’d like to take us back to when you started thinking about this concept. I know it was a number of years ago. How did this start for you, this thinking about unhurried?

Johnnie
Two things happened at around the same time and it was shortly after I moved to where I live now, in Cambridge. Having arrived in the city, not knowing anyone, I thought I’d better do some of this painful networking. Well, I didn’t plan it to be painful, it just turned out to be. And I would go to networking events and often find them quite uncomfortable, where it would feel like everybody was selling, nobody was really listening, and there wasn’t much real human connection happening. And they were often quite, I would say, a bit alpha male, a bit rushed, quite a lot of interrupting. You know, there were events where you were invited to take a couple of minutes to describe the thing that you were working on, and get advice and help and suggestions. And often people would be about 15 minutes into their two minute time and they’d just get interrupted with, well, have you tried this? Did you do that? And you know, viscerally I just found that very painful. I think I’m quite sensitive to it. So I was feeling dissatisfied with that.

Around the same time, I was talking with a friend of mine. And I remember the place and the time. We were in a coffee shop in a theatre in Cambridge, and we were talking about improv theatre, which we were both fans of. But we said actually the truth is that some improv shows are absolutely marvelous, and others are quite painful. Especially the ones that we’d been performing in. And my friend Anthony said that he thought that the difference between really satisfying improv theatre and quite unsatisfying, was that the good stuff was unhurried. And I think as soon as he used that word, I thought, ooh, that’s a good word. And I thought, well, I could use that for quite a few things. There’s quite a lot of things in my life that would probably be better if they weren’t hurried. And so, going back to networking, I decided to create an alternative networking event using a talking stick method, which guarantees that people don’t get interrupted. It was the antidote to interrupting meetings. And so when I thought of what to call it that I thought, oh, this word unhurried is hanging around. I’m going to use that and I’m going to call it an unhurried conversation. And that’s how unhurried conversations got started. And that’s the origin story, basically.

Beth
I like that and I think we can all learn so much from improv comedy or improv facilitation. There’s a conference coming up in Vancouver actually, in a number of months that I want to go to around improv facilitation. Just there’s so much, I’m just scratching the surface myself. And, you know, that was the this part of the spark for you, it sounds like, from improv.

Johnnie
Improv has had a big, big influence on the way I work. I guess most of us have come across forms of improv, like comedy improv, but I started to pay attention to it 20 something years ago, and it just suddenly struck me that when you look at how improvisers train, the operating principles they use, you go, ooh, that’s a really powerful way to think about how to relate to other human beings. And I, you know, went to, I went to the very first event of the organization that has turned into the one that’s hosting that thing in Vancouver, the AIN. And I was there at the event before it was even called the AIN, it was just operated as a sidetrack of somebody else’s conference. But I went because I was curious. And I can actually remember the exact moment during a presentation by a wonderful improviser called Izzy Gesell where I just went, ah [makes a sharp intake of breath sound] myself, and I thought this stuff that you get to with some of this improv work that you sometimes get to in therapy but seems to take a lot longer. And this seems to get there, at times anyway, seems to get there much faster. There’s something quite primal about good improv that feels like it works at a very deeply human level.

What I’ve realized more and more, and I think I feel it quite, you know, more strongly now than ever, is that I think in some ways, it’s a little bit unfortunate that improv is so strongly associated with improv comedy. Because I think the pressure to be funny can sometimes stop us from seeing what’s really valuable about it. Because I think the real value of really good improv, where you see a really good show, is not that it’s terribly witty, but that you are seeing performers who have become very skilled at tuning into each other, and being kind of on a beach with each other. So what you’re really satisfied by, it’s not so much that the script – or it’s not a script is it – that the words used are funny, they might be, it’s that you’re seeing something deeply satisfying, which is to human beings in sync and in relationship with each other.

Beth
Yes, it seems like there’s so many parallels now that I’m seeing even after I’ve read your book, and you’re just bringing them out of me in this conversation that, you know, how do I say this? I have a fear in some ways around improv facilitation. Or, I mean, I guess improv comedy/improv facilitation, drawing from that, because of the unknown pieces within. You know? And maybe…no, I think I gotta start this over. What am I trying to say? For me, there’s so many parallels between the concepts in improv and the things we might have to do as facilitators. The vignettes that you have in your book, I kind of pulled out interesting things that I was looking at, and a lot of them are related to each other. And some of it is like how we have to move through things and just be okay with difficulty and chaos and reluctance. Like you talk a lot about kind of sitting with stuff, [chuckles] for lack of a better word, and just kind of almost waiting it out and seeing what’s going to happen. And maybe, is improv kind of like that, where we can’t plan and shouldn’t plan what’s going to happen in improv. Because that’s not really improv is it? So is unhurried facilitation similar to that, in that we have to get more comfortable with not knowing? Do you know, I’m all over the place! [Smiling.] Do you know what I’m trying to say?

Johnnie
Oh no, I was gonna say, I think what you’ve just done is really rather brilliant. [Beth laughs.] I think you’ve actually demonstrated the difference between hurried and unhurried improv, and I’m paraphrasing a bit. You expressed it one way, you weren’t satisfied, you felt slightly anxious, but you didn’t say stop the recording. I’m going to do that all over again. You slowed down, the way I experienced it, and then you articulated it really rather beautifully.

Beth
There you go. Maybe I won’t cut that part out, we’ll see! [laughs]

Johnnie
No, don’t! I hope you don’t, because I think that’s a very important kind of insight and demonstration of what I think is most valuable about improv. Improv is not about being quick witted and brilliant all the time. For me that the real power of improv, especially applied to facilitation, is the ability to be present to whatever is going on. And I think you were present to the fact that you weren’t doing it right and you waited and you gave yourself a bit of space and time – even though there’s a kind of performance pressure in a podcast – and then you were able to express yourself really well. And I think it’s beautiful in improv because it’s not always about bouncing off another person, it’s also about our relationship with ourselves and our capacity to…I mean, this is a slightly not quite the right way to put it, but it’s a so in a way it’s about our relationship to ourselves as well, our capacity to be present to our own experience and be patient with it.

Beth
Sure, yeah. And kind of let our brain catch up to…or our mouth catch up to our brain, I guess sometimes, too. We have to be patient with that. I’m thinking of a facilitator I’ve worked with, Doug Kerr here in British Columbia, and Doug, I consider a master facilitator. He started the Instructional Skills Workshop sort of phenomenon that’s here and elsewhere in the world now. But Doug, as a master facilitator who’s now, you know, in his late 70s, I’ve seen him just kind of flub up, right, in a facilitation setting and go, let me back up and try that again. You know? And so he makes those mistakes still in front of the group and goes, I think I should just ask one question and not three. [laughs] Let me try that again. And so we do that kind of stuff in front of the group all the time, don’t we, even as people who’ve been facilitating for a long time.

Johnnie
It’s funny, I can’t resist telling you that I think that it’s so true. And I you know, I remember doing a training where the best thing I did, the thing that seemed to most excite people was something pretty much like that. I started giving quite complicated instructions and they asked for something simple, and I pressed on and I said, hang on a minute, no, stop, forget, forget it. I am making it too complicated. I’m gonna go with your idea, that seems…let’s do that. That’s a lot easier. And they kind of went, ooh, what did you do? How did you do that? I kind of laughed. I didn’t consciously do anything. I just did what you described Doug doing.

Beth
Yeah!

Johnnie
And it brought back a memory from childhood. I got taken to the Blackpool Tower Circus, which is an indoor circus inside the Blackpool Tower. And guess where, Blackpool, this seaside resort in England. And there were various acts. And I remember sitting in the audience watching acrobats doing a thing where they had to do a handstand climbing steps. And, you know, I imagine he was balancing plates or something on his feet, to make it difficult. And he went up and he fell off. And the audience said, ooh, and then he very theatrically got up, went over to the mid step of the staircase, placed his fingers down on it and pulled up as if to pull up from it a little piece of fluff. As if to go, oh, there was a bit of fluff! And we went, oh, there was a bit of fluff, that’s why he couldn’t do it. He removed the fluff and they went up the stairs did it perfectly. We’re super excited by that. And then about a month later, I watched the TV edition of the same thing from another night. And he did the same exact same thing each time. So he was kind of being contrived about it. But he’s as a…he totally understood the power of showing the or at least in that case, it was a bit of a con but like demonstrating the audience your imperfection so they come to the very edge with you.

Beth
I love that.

Johnnie
So that’s a manipulation of the same idea. And I’ll never forget it. You know, I was so disappointed, aged eight, to be realized I’ve been had that way. [Beth laughs]. But it really it really showed what works about failure.

Beth
It’s true. But maybe he did that for real as an accident in the first place, you know, a year before, or two months before, or two weeks before and then he realized, hey, that actually worked. I’m gonna put it in the act.

Johnnie
You never know. Who knows what the history is.

Beth
Yeah, you will never know. The concept of unhurried, you apply it to both facilitating learning and facilitating group process, I assume. You do work in both areas, right? You’re a group process facilitator, I assume you also teach workshops and courses and so on. Does it apply? Do you think of the unhurried realm of concepts kind of within for both of those types of facilitation?

Johnnie
Yeah. I was actually wondering, as you asked that, I don’t think those two can be completely separated. Because what makes a group cohere is the excitement of discovering things together, that there is a distinction between my role. Because sometimes I’m doing…what I don’t think this is quite the right term, but I’m going to use it anyway, kind of pure facilitation, where I’m helping the group process stuff where they know what they’re talking about and I don’t know, and I don’t really need to know, because it stops me from focusing on the process. And in other instances, like when I’m training facilitators, well, then I am bringing content. So that is more of a, you know, deliberate learning experience. But the two, whichever I’m doing, I think it’s still very much led by seeing where people are and working with what’s there. You know, for me, not being very attached to getting through a stated list of content in the one case or outcomes in the other.

Beth
You know, there are downsides to having an agenda, basically, is what I took from it. That it can constrain us, it can kind of help us feel like we’re winning, rather than learning – I think is how you put it – when we are too tightly holding the agenda. Do you want to say more about that? Like, when do we know, when does a person know when to hold tight to an agenda and when to let go?

Johnnie
Oh, two good questions. I mean, I think the trouble with sticking to an agenda is I think it often feels like we’re clinging to something to give us the illusion of being in control when we’re not. So where is it written that in the morning is when we should be having convergent [sic; he meant divergent] thinking and that it three o’clock or 2:15, now we’ve stopped doing that and we become convergent in our thinking. That’s not how my brain works most of the time. It comes and it goes and you know, that’s complicated with one person, even more so with a group. So I generally try to keep agendas pretty loose. I think it’s good for people to know when the breaks are and stuff like that. My colleague in Australia, Viv, talks about a non-agenda agenda, which is an agenda that looks just formal enough to satisfy the customer that we’ve got a structure, but actually gives us maximum wiggle room to do what we feel is right.

I think for me the answer to that sort of second question is – which was about when do you change direction and when do you try and push things forward? – is, I think I only ever really feel my way on it. It’s something I literally think I feel my way as the meeting goes along, and I just try to use my best judgment for when to let a discussion kind of roll, you know, and just having…it’s partly an intuition about how that sounds to you. And sometimes you check with the audience, how’s this going? Do we want to take more time over this? And I think it’s more important to risk being sensitive to the moment and not rely too much on, you know, the artificial timing set by a watch or a piece of paper, which is, you know, a piece of paper written two weeks ago, somewhere else in another time. I often think about, I’m probably getting my history wrong here, but you know, the Declaration of Independence, or the Federalist Papers, or whatever came out of these long, arduous political meetings. I don’t think anybody at the start knew when they would finish. They just stayed in the meeting until they did. And then there was no…it was never organized in sort of bite sized chunks.

Beth
So here in Canada, Indigenous ways of knowing and being in the world would help us with that, I think. Like my Western educated, sort of adherence to time is very…it means that I love a lesson plan, you know, with timings in it, and that kind of thing. But if, you know, as I try to, I don’t know, get older and grow in my career and grow my knowledge and I think about things like timing, and know I have to do something else around it to be, well to be more inclusive, but to learn from other people who aren’t so fixed with the timing and what beautiful things can happen when we just let it happen, I suppose.

Johnnie
I share your sort of curiosity and enthusiasm for that. I am not remotely an expert in those cultures,  but from what I do know of them they have very different conception of time. And if I was to sort of try to sort of paraphrase it, I think they see time as nonlinear whereas we in the West tend to see it as linear. And when I pause and think about the possibility that what if time isn’t this fixed thing that goes at set things like a clock, but is nonlinear, if the past and future unfold in the present? What I often notice is, if that’s the case, then many of the things that I seem to be worried about vanish. They stop being worries, because they’re no longer in this sort of timeline where I feel that the past is already fixed and can’t be changed. And the future is, you know, rushing towards us outside our control. If and again, I’m paraphrasing, but if your culture sees past and the future as unfolded in the present, to me, it just creates a different sense of what’s possible. And even talking about it, I notice I feel like my shoulders relax a bit and I go, oh, well, it’s all here now. So there is everything to play for. And going back to what I said at the start of this, about unhurried not just being slow. Unhurried for me is also about expanding possibility and opening sort of psychological space. And I think that goes with that, you know, having a different sense of time.

Beth
So how do we work with client, you know, leaders or whoever’s hiring us as facilitators around that? Because you and I, Johnnie might feel very comfortable with going well, I’m not actually sure how long this is going to take. It takes what it takes [laughs] or that kind of approach. But when we’re faced with the reality of people are taking time off work for a day or two days, or whatever it is. Like somebody’s asking for something to be done by the end of a certain time period, aren’t we? We’re always going to kind of push up against that. How do we reconcile those two things when we might come out of that one day or two day facilitation not having done what was expected of, of the group, of us and the group?

Johnnie
I guess the answer is, well, I’m still I think I have to figure out every single time. It’s always a bit of a balance. I think it’s partly about, you know, what you might call the contracting. And, you know, being clear with clients about what my style is. Because I probably don’t want to work with ones that are going to get very fixated on sort of such and such an outcome by 12 o’clock. If they want the agenda broke into 20 minute chunks with an outcome for each chunk, I’m going to say I’m not the right person for them. So you try to…you know, you want to work with clients that are you know, sympatique at least to that approach. And then I think you show the group that you’re paying attention. And I think – not all – but a lot of the anxiety that appears to be about sticking to the agenda and being on time is I think a lot of it – not all of it – but a lot of it is actually a desire to feel connected with others. So that if the work allows people to feel like they are, that they are in tune with the other people in the room in some way or other, I think it alleviates the anxiety that is sometimes just displaced on to it’s three o’clock and we should have finished. If the contact is satisfying, we’re not quite so fixated on whether we’re being that productive.

Beth
Yes, you’ve definitely in your book emphasized the piece about relationships. And there’s a caution you’re giving us…I wrote down, you said something about how speed and panic can become viral and affect others. So there’s relationship building that can be unproductive and kind of scary, I suppose. Like we’re sort of panicking each other because we’re just trying to get all this stuff done in a short period of time, but then recognizing that when we’re in relationship with each other, we as facilitators can change that dynamic, I guess, can’t we? That’s part of our role to help people come together in the unhurried ways you’re suggesting? To fly in the face of that?

Johnnie
I think that we definitely have a part to play in that. And I mean, I think what I’m aware of is, I think, especially after the last three years is that I feel like I’m in a culture which defaults to panic and anxiety. And many of the organizations I encounter. either professionally in my job or just going shopping, are under great strain. And just below the surface normality, things are, you know, bordering on chaos and a lot of people are close to burnout. It’s been a really tough two or three years. I think that this philosophy of unhurried, which has been kind of I wouldn’t say I’ve grown it, it’s more like it has grown on me over the last eight years just feels super important right now. And not necessarily easy, because there’s a lot in the culture that will encourage us, all of us, to become overstimulated. You know, at the level of, you know, open Instagram or any of the social media on your phone, it’s designed to get you swiping. And to spend a long time looking at things before you realize, actually, this isn’t very satisfying and I don’t feel great now, having spent 20 minutes getting dopamine hits by swiping. So we’re, you know, I think we’re in a culture that pushes us to go too fast, and to be overstimulated. And so, you know, I talk about unhurried because I need to remind myself, really, that that becomes a kind of a vicious circle, and it leads to break down.

Beth
Absolutely. And when we first met, you know, when we met a few weeks ago, I said to you, I needed it too. I mean, I get to choose podcast episodes that I really need to learn the lesson of as well. So you know, I’ve been feeling that and craving that need too, to always give myself that lesson of okay, what does it look like to be unhurried? What does it look like to to slow down and to wait? You talk about…I don’t know if you called it really waiting, you talk about certain things that I kind of grouped under the category of waiting. Like, how do we restrain ourselves as facilitators from sort of jumping in, resisting the urge to fill, you know, say something clever, [Johnnie laughs] or fill the space? Or no, I’m kind of taking this away from sort of the burnout piece, but like going into that concept of how can we slow things down, and then support our groups by slowing down and almost kind of getting out of their way, as well?

Johnnie
I think a lot of the work of facilitation is having all sorts of ideas and not acting on a lot of them. You know, I have got a very active mind. I’m quite hyper. So I will sit in a thing I’m working on and I’ll have a lot of things to think of ideas of things I could do. This game, that activity, I could say this, I could notice that. And mostly not acting on them, because I would just be too busy and too interfering, you know. So it’s always you know, the the art of it is knowing when to to risk something and try something. And sometimes what we try doesn’t work or at least doesn’t work in the way that we expect. And be willing to try stuff and then retract if it doesn’t work. And I think, so the answer to that question is I just think there is no answer, there is only practice, there is just the practice. And the acceptance that this is the job to sit here and not be sure, if you like, and to hold….So, you know, we talk very grand as facilitators about holding the group and I get it, but let’s not get too full of ourselves. But you know, we’ve got to hold ourselves first.

Beth
Yeah, cause you talked about basically having a whole swirling, you know, cacophony of thoughts probably going through your mind. You’re noticing this happening in yourself and you are choosing to act on some of them with the group. You know, it’s probably very quick, isn’t it? You’re making intentional choices about what you do and do not have to say, when, I suppose, with the group.

Johnnie
Yeah, and I don’t get to sit and watch myself, so I’m only guessing, but I think groups can sense the difference between someone who isn’t making a lot of noise but who is thinking and he’s paying attention, and someone who is doing a lot of stuff but he’s actually driving and not really listening and paying attention. And I’ve got a little more confident about it because if you are going to do minimalist facilitation, you do have to deal with the anxiety that people are gonna go, well, he didn’t do much. [Beth laughs: Yeah.] You have to live with that constant risk, because actually, sometimes that’s the mark of a lazy facilitator, but it’s also the mark of a really good facilitation, if the group thinks they did it for themselves, which is sort of the point.

Beth
That’s sort of the point. That’s the entire point, isn’t it, or most of the points. Actually, you called it the teaching trance. You know, that piece around, let’s make it less about us and more about our participants, what’s going on with them and their learning and the responsibility that if we back off a bit, they’ll jump in and take responsibility and probably do a better job doing the thing than we would have, or asking each other the great questions or whatever. I’m kind of putting all sorts of extra stuff in there. But knowing, you know, what our role is, and what our role is not, is part and parcel of that? Yeah, when to get out of people’s way, and let them just do what they have to do?

Johnnie
Yeah, I make these little videos about the work and I made one a few months ago called ‘step away from the flip chart’, which is one of my favorite maxims. If I’m facilitating I often go don’t go near a flip chart, or you know, if I do I go, this is very special, enjoy where you can, because I’m not going to spend a lot of time here. I’d rather participants were at the flip chart, because they often they know the subject. If things are going to be written on a flip chart it probably should be done by the participants rather than by me. As soon as I go up there, I’m saying, ooh, look at me, make me the centre of attention. And then I find myself stumbling and getting in their way because of course I can’t write down what they’re talking about, because I don’t understand all the acronyms. And so suddenly, I’ve put myself in the way and rather than, you know, being if you like at the service of a group. I think it’s so easy. I think it’s so easy to slip into a teaching trance. I was outside the coffee shop with my friend Alan the other day and a car pulled up and they were lost. And they were asking for directions to the nearest car park and Alan was explaining well you go down the street, turn left, right, left and then right and then left. And I thought, and I smiled because by about the third turning, I thought they can’t possibly keep up with you, Alan. You know where it is. So you’re describing it, it makes sense to you. But they’ll just be thinking, oh, let’s just go and go some of the way and then we’ll have to ask again. The curse of knowledge, you just immediately go into a trance where you think that you’re telling them something useful, but you’ve already lost them. Because you’re three steps ahead of them. Because you know it, but they’re learning it. And that’s different.

Beth
It is. There’s ego involved, isn’t there in so many ways in facilitation. And how do we just recognize that and I have to keep combating, I think against that and just recognizing it’s there and going okay, yep, there’s ego here. And how do I turn it back to the group and see what they think and what do they need? And…do you think a lot about ego? I think you did mention it at one point in that section.

Johnnie
I think it helps to be a bit thin skinned and nervous, actually. It stops you from being too cocky in front of the group. You know, I mean, the other thing I would do go, you know, in the middle of a session, I did go to the flip chart and to say, Well, look, I’m just to explain this little five part thing that might be helpful. But I didn’t stay there for very long, because I could all…I could sort of sense their eyes glazing over even with that. And you know, and then I backed off. Well, to think about what we mean by confidence. I think in the revised version of the book, I talk about Alain de Botton, the philosopher, who studied all these courses in how to be assertive and confident. And he found them a bit unsatisfying. He said most of them were about trying to reassure yourself that you were brilliant and to come across as very confident. And he said he prefers a different model, which is to is to be aware of your own failings and absurdities, to be aware of those of other people, and to realize that nobody’s really that big an expert or that sure of themselves. And that allows you to be confident in a different way, in a much less hyper, much more relaxed, easygoing way. And I think that’s probably a better, more creative way to operate.

Beth
I think so too. It allows you to draw the group in more, too. Like, if we’re able to say, Listen, I think you know more about this than I do. Why don’t you take the marker here and step up to the flip chart, and I’ll just stand over to the side, right? You go, you know, you three people that seem to know what you’re doing or whatever. Yeah. And to have the confidence to step aside, that we just we can’t be everything to everybody and we shouldn’t be.

Johnnie
Yeah, I mean, I was doing a thing this week, where, a very small group working on something quite in part, the content very technical, and there was no way I was going to pretend that I could follow the structure of their conversation. You know, towards the end, one of the participants said, Well, I think I’ve got a one pager that summarizes what we’ve done here, so I’ll circulate that. And I said, that sounds good. There was no way I could have done that. If I tried to do it I would have just got in their way.

Beth
It’s another way to bring the group together, isn’t it? I mean, you had a few things that sort of touched on the group pulling together when we’re more unhurried. And again, I’m sort of using my words but not yours. You actually had a piece that was interesting to me. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard this before. And these are the things that I’m always looking for when I read someone else’s book too, right? What is the surprising idea for me? And here’s one of them. You talked about listening as a team sport.

Johnnie
Oh, yeah.

Beth
You know, do you remember that? I don’t know if that’s a part that, you know, you’re revising the book right now. But listening as a team sport. You said it’s okay to allow, or to assume or to recognize that some people in that group will be daydreaming.

Johnnie
Yeah. Including me!

Beth
[Laughs] As the group is working together. Including the facilitator! And that listening is a team sport. So between all of us, you know, we engage in listening as a collective group activity. Can you say more about that just to help me understand?

Johnnie
Yeah, it’s something I began to notice after doing these unhurried conversations. And it took a long time before I spotted it. And I learned it during unhurried conversations where in the way the pressure isn’t on, because it’s…mostly, I do it as a voluntary process so I’m not under pressure to tick a box for anyone. And what I realized is, you know, you might have 10 people around the table, if one person is talking and nine are listening, then most of them are, you know, paying attention. And it means that if one or two wants to daydream in response, that’s fine. They can. There’s other people giving listening. The person talking will know that they’re still being listened to, because they will be being listened to by several of the people. And I’ll often be…I often am the one that is off. And I think we seem to think that this thing is all about shutting off our mind and giving our sole focus to the other. I think that’s insane. I don’t think that’s actually what listening really is. Because, you know, I think and as a result of this insight, you know, I will quite often in a conversation, say to someone after they’ve spoken, oh, it was interesting, when you were talking about so and so I noticed that I started to remember such and such. In fact, I did it in our conversation earlier. I said, oh, that’s funny, that reminds me of that Blackpool Tower Circus. Now, I don’t think that – I don’t know – but I don’t think you thought oh, he wasn’t listening to me. You think oh, that’s an interesting reverberation of. So listening, yes, it can be, you know, obviously, in a group, there’s other people doing the listening one to one, not quite the same, but even one to one, I think a certain amount of mind wandering is okay, if you do it with awareness, and you respectfully bring it back into the conversation.

Beth
Yeah. And it’s related to what you’re talking about. Basically, it’s what you’re saying. You’re right, I think people are saying that, when we’re listening, we should be actually not thinking about anything else. But our brains don’t work that way. We’re always making connections.

Johnnie
It’s unnatural.

Beth
Yeah!

Johnnie
And what I see, what I see people do is, if they’ve been on one of these active listening courses, a person is talking and there’ll be going [makes agreement sounds] and nodding. And all that means is hurry up, I want my turn. It’s not really and you know, I think that if you really want to get in the philosophy of it, I think we need to listen to ourselves. To have responses to the other person, we need to pay attention to what our responses are. Otherwise, what’s the point of all this if we aren’t going to bring ourselves to it?

Beth
Sure, because that’s how we learn too, isn’t it? Because we noticed something coming up in ourselves going, oh, I think differently, you know, should I learn something here?

Johnnie
Yeah. Yeah, this is what we do. We resonate. I think, what I also started to think is well, I think it also starts to make me question whether there’s this really rigid distinction between self and other anyway, because I think often in a really good conversation, I feel like I’m part of a field rather than an individual bouncing off other individuals. I feel like we’re connected. You know, we are subatomic level, there is no absolute boundary, where I end and the other begins. And I think we started to get into that territory of being in this together.

Beth
I like that. I have no real comment on that because I feel like I don’t understand it very well. Ha ha! [Laughs] But I love that. That feels like something that feels right, it feels like it would be working. That’s an experience that I want. And, you know, hopefully I have had too, but that’s the kind of coming together we want, isn’t it?

Johnnie
And I think that in the older cultures that we were talking about earlier, I think that that sense is much more prevalent, and it’s not so strong in a more sort of Western, individualistic culture.

Beth
It makes you think that there’s a lot of people coming away from group experiences not necessarily having felt like they were part of the group or that they connected, which is kind of a sad thing. How do we bring some hopefulness to this, Johnnie? [laughs] You know, all these things that you’re doing and writing about and working with groups around these concepts within unhurried will help us get that connection we’re looking for, won’t they?

Johnnie
I think I’m back to saying practice, practice. And to say, this is the work. And although you know, I’m an optimist about it, and you know, I’m an enthusiast about it, it’s not easy. In some ways, it would be easier to be more cynical and kind of go along, you know, with fixed agendas and old fashioned ways of doing things. I can’t quite bring myself to do it. But I think it’s important to recognize it’s not necessarily easy. So of course, you know, people listening to this, I want to reassure them [chuckles] that this isn’t easy for me. It’s something I have to work at every day.

Beth
That’s good to hear. I mean, that’s what we need to say to each other, isn’t it? When we’re all in the same field. And just be real about it. That you’re a human, you have all the things. You have all the feels, you know, that everyone else does still, and you’re very skilled and you’ve written books in this field, and you still feel that it’s very difficult, but it’s worth it right?

Johnnie
I find I can’t stop myself from doing more of it. You know, I wish I could. In some ways life might be easier. I can’t remember, what is that phrase, satiable curiosity, it comes from Roald Dahl or somewhere, you know. And, you know, I think it’s an innately human thing to want to learn and grow. It stops us from getting, you know, settling into ruts too easily.

Beth
Yeah. There’s this whole kind of collection of things that you wrote about that I called it ‘moving through’. I don’t know what you would call it if you were, you know, like, some of the things were, that nothing is really stuck, you said…

Johnnie
Oh yes.

Beth
You know, that you we can embrace difficulty, we can be creative when chaos is happening.

Johnnie
Yes.

Beth
We can embrance reluctance, like, there’s so many things that are just, we have to recognize that this is all part of the work. And we figure out a way to move through it. So I kind of collected all those interesting things that you know, frustration and anger can be energizing. There’s so many things in that kind of realm that I think you’ve helped expand my thinking around. That this is part of the work, this is okay, and actually people can be probably more creative when some of this stuff is happening in the room.

Johnnie
Yeah, I think we can be present to. I think the story I tell in the book is I do yoga pretty much every day because it really helps me to stay sane. It’s my evening routine. And some days I just don’t feel like it. But I remember a few years ago thinking, oh I don’t feel like it, I don’t feel like it. And I’ll just do it really despondently. Actually, after a few minutes of doing it despondently it was just yoga. And the problem…there was no problem. So it was a good a good case of just not fighting despondency, but going okay, well then I’ll do it with despondency. And that’s okay.

Beth
I think that’s a great thing to keep in mind, because you know, that was yoga but when we have a facilitation in front of us, and we have any of those feelings that oh my gosh, this might be difficult. [Johnnie chuckles: Yeah.] I’m kind of scared of this. I’m worried. I don’t know if I’ve picked the right processes, or my agenda is too tight. [Johnnie: Yeah.] Or you can just go, I can do this. And it is what it is.

Johnnie
They’re probably thinking I’m an idiot. [Beth laughs.] Oh, they’re thinking, when will he leave? They’ll probably never have me back. All of those things. And you know, those don’t, in my experience those don’t ever go away. I just get slightly better going, oh yeah, I’m doing that thing.

Beth
Yeah, you’re recognizing I see you thoughts, you’re happening.

Johnnie
Yeah.

Beth
And you go into the experience. And you’re, you know, you probably had this wonderful, you know, collaborative experience with the group. And those were all unfounded, those earlier thoughts. So it’s kind of sitting with something that we have to just move through and get over and just recognize we’re better than we think sometimes. [Laughs] Or, with the group’s help we’re better than we think.

Johnnie
Yeah, and actually not trouble group with any of it or look for reassurance, because I think that’s also not a good thing to be doing.

Beth
Oh, that’s a good point. That’s where the ego gets involved, I suppose too. It’s like, we shouldn’t need anything from the group to reassure us in that way. Like, we just have to sit with it.

Johnnie
Yeah. And it’s a judgment, isn’t it? Because I think it’s really good to check things with the group, because it’s very easy to mind read unsuccessfully, you know, to find out what’s going on. But I think I also know when I’m not feeling very sure I’ve done the right thing, it’s not to go anxiously looking for reassurance, because that’s like, that is putting myself in the way again.

Beth
I would turn to my colleagues maybe. You know, if you were in the middle of a multi-day thing you would call a friend that does the same work and go, What are you…am I crazy? Like, do you think? You know, is this the right way?

Johnnie
Oh yeah.

Beth
…reach out to support.

Johnnie
Debriefing with colleagues, hugely important thing to do.

Beth
Yeah. Johnnie, as we kind of come to the close of this, you know, I know it’s a big ask, but what would you like to say to just kind of encapsulate the work that you have done and are doing with unhurried conversations? Is there anything you’d like to leave us with?

Johnnie
Oddly enough, the phrase that comes to mind is start before you’re ready. Which seems like an odd thing to talk about as a closing thought, but I think it’s something that I’ve got more and more attentive to is…and that is to illustrate unhurried is not sitting around doing nothing. Often, I think the best thing to do is to write a bad draft, have a go at something, make a prototype, start a process, do a free version of a workshop you’re designing. Start somewhere and put it out into the world and be in action with the world and learn, learn by doing. You know, and I’ve tried to keep even the revised version of the book short, because I don’t really want to people to spend more than an hour reading about unhurried, I assume that they get out there and try it. Try this stuff.

Beth
I think you’re inspiring me to schedule an unhurried conversation with my facilitators group.

Johnnie
Do it!

Beth
You know, just I’m gonna go try and just see what happens and just talk about it with colleagues. Yeah.

Johnnie
Just do it. Yeah. I mean, you won’t learn…you’ll learn far more by doing it than by asking for people’s opinion about it.

Beth
It’s true. Yeah. And by the way, I do appreciate how you’ve written the book. You know, it’s a small, short book and the you know, different vignettes that somehow weave themselves together. Your other book, I think, did you write that one with Viv? Creative facilitation? Yeah, because I read that first a year or two or more ago, who knows when, but I also appreciated that book because it has a similar style. And there again, there were so many times I kind of looked up and thought, yeah, oh, I got to think more about those. And, and this book Unhurried at Work is the same. So thank you for all your writing that you’re doing and the work that you’ve drawn from.

Johnnie
Oh, thank you.

Beth
It’s been lovely to chat with you. Thanks for being here.

Johnnie
Lovely to see you, Beth. Thanks very much.

[Episode outro]
Beth
I really appreciated my conversation with Johnnie and the time he took to expand upon the ideas that he’s written about in his book. Particularly one thing that stands out for me is that piece when we got talking about active listening and how we’re always all taught that when someone else is talking we should not be thinking about what we’re thinking about, because we really have to be focusing on the other individual and what they’re saying and try to block out the stuff that’s going on in our brains. But actually he said, “If you really want to get in the philosophy of it, I think we need to listen to ourselves. To have responses to the other person we need to pay attention to what our responses are, otherwise what’s the point of all this if we aren’t going to bring ourselves into it? That is such an interesting concept. I think I had an aha moment during the conversation with him and I just wanted to reiterate that with you because we are in community with other people, we are connected with other people. And Johnnie went on and talked about how we’re all connected at a subatomic level and there’s no boundary where I end and you begin and that kind of thing. And I don’t think about things that way and you heard me kind of pause and almost have to mull that over in my own brain. So I will definitely be thinking of these things for some time to come.

On the next episode of the podcast I am going to be doing a solo episode. It will be all about designing activities. So if you are someone who is new to designing learning and you haven’t really got your feet underneath you yet about how you would even choose activities, where do you start, what are the options, are there considerations within? The short answer is yes and I will share with you a lot of the things that I think about when I go to design activities, for in person or virtual. But you know what? You don’t have to be new to designing learning to be able to listen to this episode and get something from it I think. Because just as you saw with me speaking with Johnnie, when experienced people get together and talk about stuff there’s invariably something that maybe I’m doing that you’re not doing and there might be a nugget for you to take away as well. In fact, I’m going to promise you that. [Smiles] There will probably be something in the episode that you have not heard before. And I invite you to join me to listen in. See you then.

[Show outro]
Beth
Thank you for listening to Facilitating on Purpose. If you were inspired by something in this episode, please share it with a friend or a colleague to help them expand their facilitation practice too. To find the show notes, give me feedback, or submit ideas for future episodes visit facilitatingonpurpose.com. Special thanks to Mary Chan at Organized Sound Productions for producing this episode. Happy facilitating!

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