When I close peer conferences with a Group Spective, there’s always a moment that is hard for me. It occurs during the Plus/Delta, when people are sharing what they’d like to change in the event they’ve just experienced. Participants offer many suggestions, perspectives, and ideas that make the organization’s future activities and events better, and their sharing frequently helps me improve my own work.
And then someone, let’s call them John, comes up to the microphone and says something like this:
While stuck in cramped seats during a six-hour Boston to San Francisco flight recently, my wife gently pointed out that I had become quite grumpy. She helped me notice that my lack of body comfort was affecting my mood. Luckily for me, Celia remained solicitous and supportive, reducing my grouchiness. Once we were off the plane my spirits lightened further.
Unfortunately, I tend to be oblivious for a while of the effects of physical discomfort on my feelings. Until I notice what’s really upsetting me, I typically and unfairly blame my irritability on innocent culprits, for example:
The tediousness of gardening because insects are swarming around my head.
The delay in waiting for my food to arrive in a noisy restaurant.
A presenter’s inability to capture my full attention while I’m sitting with my neck twisted permanently towards them in an auditorium.
I suspect I’m not alone in these errors of judgment. Pivoting to the world of events, this means if we want to give attendees the best possible experience, we need to minimize the quantity and severity of physical comfort issues that are under our control.
Here are six common mistakes you’ve probably experienced, together with suggestions for mitigating their impact. (Feel free to add more in the comments below!)
How do you facilitate change? In this occasional series, we explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.
Knowing where you are: The Story Spine Last month, during my immersion into the world of improv at a fabulous BATS Intensive in San Francisco, I learned about The Story Spine, a core ingredient of the improv form. The Story Spine, charted above by my teacher Lisa Rowland, is a blueprint for the dramatic structure of basic stories, whether those told in improv or elsewhere. (Incidentally, it includes all the different pieces of my favorite change model, that of Virginia Satir, which one of these days I’ll find time to write about).
Lisa told us that the first two parts of the Story Spine—Once upon a time… and Every day…— are called the platform. Many improv beginners feel compelled to start with something dramatic or unexpected. Lisa explained that this doesn’t work because you can only generate drama when the audience has a baseline from which drama can spring. You need to establish a platform before something new—what in improv is called the tilt—happens. Beginning a scene being pelted with oranges is confusing. Waking up tired on a lumpy mattress with your longtime girlfriend Suzy, entering IKEA to shop for a new bed, and then being pelted with oranges has potential.
Which reminds me (the platform, not the orange pelting) of the second question I use in a Personal Introspective…
What is the current situation? The second question on the card I use for running a closing conference personal introspective asks: What is the current situation? I used to think this question was the easiest of the five questions to answer, but now I’m not so sure.
Just like in improv, it’s tempting to decide that dramatic change is needed and then rush into listing ideas for reshaping your life. The unfortunate reality is that you can’t really figure out where you want to go until you know where you currently are.
Knowing where you are doesn’t just mean the facts of your situation:
I’m stuck in a job with no prospects of career advancement.
Our customers are complaining about the amount of time they have to wait on hold.
Being responsible for all the logistics of our events exhausts me.
though these are important. It also involves noticing how you feel about these facts, because our biggest blind spots are usually those that are just too painful or embarrassing to notice.
I feel angry doing the same dead-end job day after day.
I feel inadequate if I can’t help every customer so they’re completely satisfied.
I feel selfish if I delegate and take some downtime for myself.
Working on teasing out the feelings behind the facts usually pays rich dividends.
Don’t rush So don’t be in too much of a hurry to sink your teeth into the juicy possibilities of change in your life. Be sure to spend enough time figuring out the current situation, especially the feelings that are driving your desire for change. That will make the tilt, when it comes, all the sweeter.
A play, like a straight line, is the shortest path from emotion to emotion —George Pierce Baker
Of course it’s O.K. to express your feelings at weddings and funerals. But when was the last time you heard someone talk about his or her feelings at a conference? When was the last time you did?
Last weekend I went to “Raising Our Voices”, a local theater gala by children, youth, and adults with disabilities. I got goose bumps and a little teary. And I finally figured out why this invariably happens when I watch kids theater.
You see, when I was growing up my education emphasized thinking. Learning important facts and concepts and being able to apply them to solve problems led to high marks on tests. Getting the right answers, preferably quicker than anyone else, got me listed at the top of the graded class roster, displayed publicly on the school notice board twice a semester.
By contrast, time for understanding or expressing my feelings simply wasn’t allocated on the educational agenda. The only kinds of grading that occurred as a consequence of my emotions were the dramatic reprisals taken when I infrequently misbehaved. All of us in school had feelings, of course, and they greatly affected how and what we did. But we were never encouraged to talk about or explore them. It was repeatedly implied that being near the bottom of the class list would be shameful, without ever giving us any insight as to what shame was!
Over the years I’ve learned to be more in touch with my emotions. And so, when I see kids in a play, encouraged to display joy, anger, fear, guilt, shame, grief and all the subtle variants of these basic human emotions, I’m taken back to my youth, and the little child in me both rejoices and aches for what I missed out on: the childhood opportunity to express and share integral aspects of who we are that were part of the human psyche long before the development of analytical thought.
A wise therapist friend of mine once told me that he believes when you feel that ache of simultaneous joy and pain, healing is going on.
I think it’s important for conferences to offer a safe environment for attendees to share feelings that may come up during the event. Conferences That Work are designed to do this. The safety comes from agreed ground rules that explicitly give participants the right to speak their truth while promising privacy for anything that’s said.
I don’t want to give the impression that Conferences That Work are full of emoting attendees who rush to share their deepest feelings with anyone they can buttonhole. Far from it. I think I’ve seen more joy and passion at our sessions than at most other events I’ve attended, but, by and large, sharing about emotional issues doesn’t happen often.
But when feelings do surface, for example when people talk about difficulties they’re having in their workplace or their uncertainties surrounding a potential career or job change, I feel happy that our event supports and encourages them to do so. And from the feedback I’ve received, I know it’s important and empowering for the attendees who have the courage to express how they feel.
Have you felt safe to express your feelings at a conference? Do you think it’s appropriate and/or important to be able to do so? Under what circumstances? And what factors make it safer or harder for such sharing to occur?