A Gentle Harness

A Gentle Harness

“In this context, mindfulness is an ideal tool to induce compliance, with its focus on the individual management of our responses to forces we’re being told are well beyond our control.”

So says Zoe Krupka in her beautifully written and thought provoking article ‘How Corporates Co-Opted the Art of Mindfulness to Make Us Bear the Unbearable’.

Krupka is a teacher of meditation and a PhD candidate with the Faculty of Health Science at LaTrobe University. In this article on The Conversation website she takes aim at the dark side of the current fad for mindfulness in corporate settings. She rails against the use of mindfulness techniques as a way of stifling manifestations of stress rather than addressing them.

“While there can be little doubt that the practice of mindfulness can lead to significant health benefits, its current prominence in corporate culture is nested within a social, cultural and political context where stress is now seen as a failure of the individual to adapt to the productivity demands of the corporation. In other words, if you’re stressed out, you’re not working hard enough on your personal focus strategy. You’re letting the team down.”

And it’s worse for women, apparently:

“The current translations of ancient mindful practices are also highly gendered. In a culture where women are much more likely to be encouraged to apply acceptance, silence, stillness and the relinquishing of resistance to their problems, the trap of mindfulness can be set to stun for those who may be much more in need of speaking up, resisting and taking space in the workplace.”

Les Muselieres pour femmes et autres supplices book by Jean Finot
Image from ‘Les Muselieres Pour Femmes et Autre Supplices’ by Jean Finot

In a time and place where plenty of us are coming to understand the need for diversity of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation etc. in our workplace communities anything that leads to people being held back from “taking space in the workplace” can’t be good.

I’m particularly interested in what makes workplace cultures more humane; not only is this obviously a kinder way of living but it also leads to better staff retention, more productivity and more creativity. Part of the creative process often involves what some call creative fiction; discussion of divergent opinions within a team can lead to breakthroughs. But this can be a little stressful – not necessarily bad but still adrenaline inducing. In my own head I call this kind of stress ‘positive stress’ – not comfortable and not sustainable over long periods but certainly productive in the right time and place and, among the right people, exciting and even fun.

Negative stress is the kind of thing that can be caused and / or exacerbated by bad work conditions and / or poor culture. It is important that the causes of such stress be highlighted and dealt with. Prolonged exposure to this kind of stress can be damaging, physically and emotionally.

Krupka’s concern with the way mindfulness techniques are being embedded in corporate culture is that they are being used to stifle expressions of stress:

“It’ll fix not so much what ails you, but what is ailing those who depend on you… mindfulness has been rebranded as a kind of gentle harness to help us heel to the corporate leg.”

Managers who tidy away any manifestations of stress that threaten to subvert the status quo – either the discontent of those feeling negative stress or the outpourings from those in the grip of positive stress – are selling their organisation short by squelching personality, cauterising tolerance for difference, allowing problems to fester and bad conditions to become entrenched.

As Krupka states in her closing paragraph “Mindfulness is a way of living, not a substitute for taking action.”

Managers need to take action that results in psycho-social space being opened up for honest conversation, rather than imposing a regime that demands silent compliance.

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To listen, to hearken

To listen, to hearken

Listening is a passive word. It is a verb that describes what good school children do in class; what people did in Victorian drawing rooms. It is nice, dutiful, tame.

 

Hearken is a more dramatic word, it hints at more a more urgent form of listening or hearing.

 

Hearken travelled to us via old and middle English. It is related to hark, which has a similar provenance and was, among other things, an early noun for “a hunter’s shout to hounds, as to encourage them in following the scent.”

dog

Hearken also means to listen, but with urgency and focus. It was a word that called to people to draw around a fire that kept them warm from snow and safe from wolves and called them to listen to sagas about bloodcurdling monsters and epic tales. People hearkened to life saving advice, shouted warnings and imperative commands. This word was born of circumstances, I like to think, that demanded that you damn well listen with every fibre of your being. If you didn’t you could miss out on something vital, something that helped you sustain body or heart or soul.

 

Because it is a silent activity we are in the habit, nowadays, of thinking of listening as a meek and subservient thing to do. It is the speaker who is seen as being dynamic and ‘holding the floor’ – that a speaker holds a floor and speaks words that claim our attention speaks of a form of possession, even if momentary. When we talk about this we are describing someone who is momentarily holding a place of psychological ascendancy within our conversation. Is this why so many people are such poor listeners – are they desperate to claim ascendancy, impatient to be gabby, to fill the silence with something, anything?

 

Listening is not passive. I learnt this during a former professional incarnation when I was a dancer and actor. There is nothing passive at all about really watching or listening – really tuning in – to someone else’s flow of ideas. I understood this when I was a performer, physically active in front of crowds of people who were verbally silent but, as a result of their intense attention to me, oh so present and influential participants in the performance.

 

Good listeners confer power on the speaker or performer; this is not something to be claimed by the speaker but rather elicited, bargained for with quality content and respect for the listener.

 

Listening – momentarily suspending your disbelief and really tuning in – is an adventure. Good listening involves risk because you open yourself up to challenging ideas, surprising news, and maybe dark stories.

 

As a performer in the past, and as a trainer and conversation facilitator now, I am interested in those moments when people stop listening and start to hearken – to take in knowledge or ideas with a sort of hunger, or to comfort another with their human focus when that other shares their story.

 

When we come together – professionally or socially – and as we trade, minute by minute, our roles of speaker and listener we need to handle our communication with care; we need to allow each other the chance to hearken – to listen as an act of drawing close and warming our hands by the fire.

cowboys-campfire

Deep Diving into the Creative – Part 2

Deep Diving into the Creative – Part 2

Last week I responded to an article in The Conversation by Laura D’Olimpio entitled Philosophy for the People: Commencing a Dialogue. In part D’Olimpio wrote about how works of art like literature and films can be used to deepen empathy. I wrote:

“I am also deeply interested in how creative works such as films, works of literature, plays can be used to encourage critical, empathetic and creative responses from those who experience them and, further, how discussion of and reflection on these responses can be used as learning experiences.”

For the rest of Part 1 of this blog please click here.

“Human curiosity is an incredible driving force and we connect with others by telling stories.” (Laura D’Olimpio)

I am right now working on putting together the frameworks for a series of facilitated conversations I hope to offer sometime in the future. These conversations revolve around using extracts from literature as a filter and a prompt to examine aspects of organisational culture and function.

Talking about these things can make many people feel defensive and even judged; this is certainly not my intention but it is something that can readily happen. On the same day that I read D’Olimpio’s piece I also read an opinion piece in The Guardian by George Monbiot called How a corporate cult captures and destroys our best graduates. The title is self-explanatory and I do get where Monbiot is coming from but the many comments seem to reflect that the people who read the piece took it quite personally (many of them appear to work in the corporate culture that Monbiot is describing in damning terms). Some of the commenters are receptive to Monbiot’s angle, but there are plenty who sound defeated and resigned and even more who sound defensive and angry. Monbiot is trying to talk about something systemic, but many of these commenters are hearing a personal judgement levelled at them. I really don’t think this was Monbiot’s intention but I can understand this response; most of us, if we’re honest, would react the same way.

Kittens. That's the ticket. Look at kittens if you feel defensive or upset.
Kittens. That’s the ticket. Look at kittens if you feel defensive or upset.

So here’s the thing: how do you get people to reflect on, analyse critically, address creatively, and engineer change to the systems, cultures and paradigms in which they are embedded day by day. How do you get them to do this without feeling that they need to defend their personal decisions to be working within these parameters? Once people start to feel defensive then the shutters get intellectually and emotionally flung up and reflection and learning (and perhaps shifts in perspective) become impossible to achieve.

“…artworks provide us with a great stimulus for such discussions…” (Laura D’Olimpio)

My theory is that if I take a literary extract into a discussion and ask people to talk to it, and not necessarily about themselves, it will allow people to engage with ideas on an intellectual, imaginative and emotional level while also allowing people to sidestep the need to defend themselves; the artwork is under scrutiny, not them.

It’s hard to get perspective, to surface for air, from the day to day lives we find ourselves immersed in. We all need a framework or some kind of sheltering structure or protective entity to work through. Fortunately these things exist. They’re called artworks.

The Globe Kittens (1902)  by Ernest J. Rowley
The Globe Kittens (1902) by Ernest J. Rowley
‘You know the place went bad’: my presentation at Parallel Fascinations

‘You know the place went bad’: my presentation at Parallel Fascinations

On Friday 6 February 2015 I gave a presentation at Parallel Fascinations on how I have been using a classic spy novel as a filter or tool to examine issues to do with workplace culture and organisational dysfunction.

Parallel Fascinations… … is a new event series that I am co-organising and co-hosting with digital sociologist Alexia Maddox and artist and event curator Romaine Logere. To quote from our promotional text: “Parallel Fascinations draws upon ideas of private obsessions and the space where seemingly disparate ideas collide.  Reminiscent of the Salon, we are seeding an interdisciplinary group that crosses academic and industry sectors to engage with topics raised through this theme.”

Parallel Fascinations event
Parallel Fascinations event

“You know the place went bad.” My presentation was about the classic spy novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carre, a beautifully written and engrossing page turner, peopled by fascinating characters. Set against a background of an organization beset with problems of scandal, poor governance and toxic culture, its plot revolves around the hunt for a double agent who is wreaking havoc within this same organization.

Can a literary work be a filter through which we contemplate the health and functionality of organisational culture? The way Le Carre has designed his narrative makes these issues intrinsic in the telling of his story and the deep engagement of his readers. A skim reading of any newspaper will provide instances of real life organisations, across all sectors, dealing with these same aforementioned issues. Many of us have war stories to tell of our own experiences with bullying bosses, ineffective managers, stifled innovation, poor communication and perhaps even sub-legal or illegal behaviour. A discussion of a literary work such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and its narrative techniques can give us the space and perspective from which to examine our own experiences of poor workplace culture, while the primal mythological pull of responding to storytelling allows us to connect with this discussion on an emotional, instinctual and imaginative level.

image sourced from en.wikipedia.org
image sourced from en.wikipedia.org

“… question reality… destabilize uncertainty…”

As author Matt Haig says in his tweet quoted above, fiction can allow us to delve into the uncertainties in life. A great novel will engage the intellect, the emotions and the imagination. Using a novel as a tool or filter the reader can consider themes or issues in a way that bypasses black and white thinking, allowing us to consider alternative viewpoints or different realities. The group who attended Parallel Fascinations last Friday shared very thoughtful and rich perspectives in response to the themes upon which I was focusing and the conversation veered in some surprising directions. As a presenter I am enormously grateful for their input, and very pleased that my presentation was able to tap into themes that were of interest to them.

What next? Inspired by the response to my presentation I will keep on working with this novel and the themes I have identified.

A friend I was speaking to this morning, who attended last Friday, said she thought the format was unique; it offered participants an experience that allowed for and elicited reflection, speculation, and intellectual curiosity. Our event had apparently avoided the formal qualities of a lecture, the (sometimes) combative tone of an academic panel review, and the wishy-washiness of an unstructured informal conversation. She felt that participants felt equally relaxed about either joining in the discussion or just nursing a glass of wine and listening.

I am wondering if I can adapt my presentation into some kind of workshop – some sort of facilitated discussion – that I can take into organisations to help them reflect on their own workplace culture and identify areas they wish to work on. The final format of this has still not ‘found’ me, but I am drooling in anticipation of the actions I can take to go and find it.

Romaine, Alexia and I are, thus far, very happy with the way Parallel Fascinations is shaping up. It is a young thing still, mine was just the second presentation (Alexia gave the first presentation on the theme of Serendipity – it was fascinating). We have been incredibly fortunate to be supported by the Digital Learning Hub in their new venue – The Channel at Hamer Hall at the Arts Centre – and Parallel Fascinations will have a home in the future. We look forward to offering more presentations during the coming year. For more information please check out our blog at parallelfascinations.wordpress.com

Communication in the workplace: knowing, seeing and being heard

Communication in the workplace: knowing, seeing and being heard

“It’s great that people who know the site really well and look at it every day were able to spot these parch marks and recognise them for what they were.”

I read a lovely article online in The Guardian this morning about Stonehenge. Apparently a question that has bothered archaeologists for years is whether or not Stonehenge was built as a complete circle of stones by its original builders, or whether they left it as an incomplete circle as it is today. The article told how this question has now been answered as some new evidence has come to light and academics are now pretty sure that it was built as a circle.

The evidence was uncovered accidentally, and its discoverer was not an archaeologist but a Custodian who was working to maintain the grounds:

“When a hosepipe used to keep the grass green in hot spells failed to reach a broken part of the circle, unsightly brown patches began to appear. Custodian Tim Daw was fretting over the blemishes when he realised they matched the spots where stones would probably have stood if the monument had been a complete circle. Daw said it was a “lightbulb moment”… The professionals duly took charge. Aerial photographs were hurriedly commissioned… and the scorch marks on the western side of the Wiltshire site were mapped, and some of the brown patches indeed tallied with where stones would have stood if the circle were complete.”

I was thrilled to read this and I asked myself why. I find ancient history pretty interesting so there was always going to be that. But I think I also enjoyed asking myself which was nicer: that someone who was not an archaeologist was nevertheless perceptive enough, and knowledgeable and in tune enough with the site he worked on*, to pick up on such an important observation; or that his observations were passed so readily onto colleagues and then archaeologists who took his word that he had seen something that needed further investigation. The sharing of knowledge and perceptions lead to some very useful archaeological activity that yielded important new conclusions about this precious historic site.

stonehenge_stukley

Many people probably know of the (I think apocryphal) story of John F Kennedy visiting NASA for a guided tour. The president bailed up an employee who turned out to be a cleaner and asked him what he did there. Instead of saying “I clean”, he said something along the lines of “I’m helping to put a man on the moon”.

The cynic in me wonders if this wasn’t concocted as a cosy bit of business folk mythology to impress upon companies the necessity of having a good Vision and Mission statement that can be disseminated amongst the rank and file. But true or not, I do actually like the story. And I thought of it when I read the article about the Custodian at Stonehenge. That man’s actual duties might lie in the fields of gardening or maintenance, but he knew and cared enough about the place where he worked to be aware that the question of Stonehenge being a complete circle or not was a red hot one. He wasn’t just trudging about the joint like a mindless drone, oblivious to and uninspired by his surrounds. Furthermore, when he made his discovery there was someone else he could tell who “saw them and realised their possible significance as well” and ensured the message was passed along the line until it came to people who had the purview to actually investigate. So not only did these men know, observe and see, they were then heard.

I know diddlysquat about the workplace culture or structure of whatever organisation it is that maintains Stonehenge. For all I truly know it might be a vile place to work either as an employee or volunteer. But, having read this article, I like to think not. I like to imagine a work culture that allows everyone to buy into a pool of knowledge so that lateral thoughts and observations arising from ‘happy accidents’ can happen. I like to imagine a workplace culture where observations can be shared, heard and acted upon if need be. A workplace where a direct line of intelligent observation and focused action can be drawn between someone laying a hosepipe to someone taking aerial photographs for archaeological study suggests, at least, some good knowledge management and communication principles at play. This augurs well for future happy accidents to be capitalised upon, and for other “secrets” and ideas to emerge.

*I am not clear as to whether or not the role of Custodian is a volunteer one or a paid position.