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Cerebral, emotional, spiritual: reporting back from the Melbourne Facilitation One Day Wonder

On Wednesday I was fortunate enough to spend the day with one hundred (mostly community) facilitators of all ages and backgrounds, at the 2014 Facilitation One Day Wonder, or FODW (pronounced Fodwa), at Melbourne’s Abbotsford Convent. I expected to be challenged intellectually, I suspected things might get a little emotional, I wasn’t prepared to be challenged spiritually.

The Facilitation One Day Wonder is a one day not-for-profit learning event, run by a team of volunteers associated with the Victoria Facilitators Network. The purpose of the day is building community and sharing learning, through facilitation in practice. This is achieved through a variety of enriching workshops run by local facilitators and community engagement practitioners. Anyone is welcome to attend! It’s an opportunity to be inspired, build and strengthen relationships and be exposed to new and innovative techniques.

Before I get into the details of the day, it is important for this story that you understand the physical context of the gathering. Abbotsford Convent is no ordinary conference venue, which was apposite, because it was no ordinary conference. Wikipedia has this to say about the Convent:

[Abbotsford] Convent is in a bend of the Yarra River west of Yarra Bend Park, with the Collingwood Children’s Farm to its north and east, the river and parklands to its south and housing to its west. During the 19th and part of the 20th century, the 6.8 hectare site was occupied by one of the largest convents in Victoria. Today the site and its buildings are used as an arts, educational and cultural hub, the grounds, historic buildings and gardens are occupied by and host artisans; community and cultural events and cultural institutions, a community classical music radio station (3MBS), a Steiner School (Sophia Mundi), live music performances, a gallery, theater, markets, bakery, bar, cafe and an organic pay-as-you-feel restaurant…. The Abbotsford Precinct Heritage Farmlands, upon which the former convent is sited, are the oldest continually farmed lands in Victoria. The entire site is unique in that it is the only example of a working inner-city convent farm in a major city, anywhere in the world.

The Convent buildings have “some outstanding features [including] the medieval French ecclesiastic architectural character, the historical importance of the Industrial School and the Magdalen Asylum, the scale and grandeur of the main Convent Building and Heritage Gardens.”  It’s a remarkable place to spend some time. A compelling group of buildings in a quite a stunning natural setting – particularly given it is so very close to the centre of Melbourne – makes the Convent a very popular community gathering spot. The quality of the light and rambling verdant grounds also makes it a wonderful place for artisans, and a lovely spot for quiet meditation.

It hasn’t always been thus. The Wikipedia entry hints at a secret past:

From 1863 to 1975 the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, an order of the Roman Catholic church, occupied the site. For a century from the 1860s onwards, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd provided accommodation, schooling and work for female orphans, Wards of the State and girls considered by the State and/or the Church to be in moral danger….As with many such institutions of its era, conditions for the girls was often austere. The large buildings were largely unheated and girls were pressed into laundry and other activities that involved long hours and no pay. Children housed at the convent, as recently as the 1960s, have reported that the daily operation of the convent was draconian. Some orphans and wards were constrained for years in an enclosed section of the convent that included only a small exercise yard with no grass and the standard of food and other basics was generally poor.

When you read carefully chosen words like “austere”, “draconian” and “constrained” you know that there is more to the story. We’ve all seen the movies and read the books about what it was like to live through such conditions. Whether you have or you haven’t had an association with abuse of any sort, it is impossible not to feel sympathy for the girls who lived there. But until yesterday my sympathy was more intellectual than it was emotional. That would change by day’s end.

The conference

The day was divided into three main sessions, with a choice of five workshops in each session; fifteen workshops in all. So lots and lots of choice! Workshop topics ranged from the mysteriously new age sounding, “Unlocking the power of your authentic self“, through the rather highbrow intellectual “Revolution through evolution—a structural approach to changing mindsets“, to the deeply practical, “Facilitating with personality, posture and presence“.

Harnessing the full diversity of thinkers in your workshops

For the first session I chose to join Ed Bernacki‘s workshop on Harnessing the full diversity of thinkers in your workshops. I admit I chose Ed’s session largely on the back of his personal biography; he created the Idea Factory, has written lots of “how to” books and guides about innovation including I am an Idea Factory! The Leaders Guide, as well as lots of shorter articles on the subject of innovation.

The session description starts with a series of provocative, if rhetorical questions, Do people think alike?  [W]hy do our training programs assume people think alike? If you use a structured approach like S.M.A.R.T goal setting while working with a group, do you also offer a model for the non-structured half of the audience?

Ed argues that “we fail people when we design programs that fail to incorporate obvious cognitive differences in the way people think.” The session focused on lessons that might be applied to workshop processes from Adaption-Innovation Theory. The Adaption-Innovation theory is concerned with differences in the thinking style of individuals, that affects their creativity, problem solving and decision making.

Much current management thinking and also the creativity literature concentrate on defining and assessing level (capacity) of problem solving and creativity rather than style and do not make the distinction between them clear. Yet it is obvious that how well one can problem solve is not the same as in what way it is done.

Adaptors, it is argued, characteristically produce ideas that stretch existing agreed definitions of the problem and likely solutions. They look at these in detail and proceed within the established paradigm (theories policies, mores, practices). Much of their effort in effecting change is in improving and ‘doing better’.

Innovators, by contrast, are more likely to pursue change that reconstructs the problem, separating it from its enveloping accepted thought, paradigms and customary viewpoints, and emerge with much less expected, and probably less acceptable solutions. They are less concerned with ‘doing things better’ and more with ‘doing things differently’.

It’s important to note that the Adapter-Innovator framework is a continuum, with all of us distributed in bell-curve fashion from one end to the other. Which means that most of us fall somewhere in the middle. It is a rare person who is a “high” adapter or “high” innovator.  The table below from an article by Kirton sets out some of the preference differences between the two extremes. [Side note, Kirton has written extensively on this subject if you’re interested, including this excellent book, Adaption-Innovation: In the Context of Diversity and Change.]

Adapters versus Innovators

Behaviour descriptions of adapt0rs and innovators from Adapt0rs & Innovators – Why New Initiatives Get Blocked by Dr M J Kirton

Unfortunately in a workshop of only 75 minutes we didn’t have a lot of time to get into the nitty-gritty of something this complex.

A couple of lessons immediately sprang to mind for me – other than that I recognised how applicable this knowledge would be to my own business and how useful it would have been over the past couple of years particularly as we moved from start-up mode to consolidation mode. The first lesson is that because we are all on a continuum, someone who appears to be very innovative to an “adaptor” will appear resistant to change to a “high innovator”. There is therefore a tension right away. If the person in the middle is trying to manage a team of high adapter and high innovators, things could get complicated, and potentially stressful, very quickly. The second lesson for me is that when you are putting together a team it is critical to understand and define the objective of that team in terms of stability and innovation so that you can find and “fit” the right people into the various roles. The wrong people in the wrong roles and the project can either stultify or spin out of control.

Sensory Memory

David's Basil by Bryan Ochalla

For my second session of the day I went with Anne Thoday‘s workshop on Sensory Memory.  Anne’s blurb notes that she has twenty years experience in Community Cultural Development as a facilitator, manager, educator and arts practitioner. She is currently director of the community based arts project Preserving Memories. (The Preserving Memories project is just lovely, BTW.)  It focused on the nostalgia that some food evokes and culminated in a multi-sensory exhibition as part of the Darebin Home Made Food and Wine Festival 2014.

Anne’s session is described in the conference blurb as introducing participants to the powerful connection between smell and memory. We were put in groups of three, blindfolded and given half a dozen bunches of fresh herbs to smell. The first task was to guess the identity of the particular herb. Some were easy – Mint – some were impossible for me – Marjoram. Something I noticed right off the bat was that when we found the scent challenging, we all started using our tactile sense as well; feeling the leaves, stems, flowers (where there were any) for clues – roughness, size, shape etc. More than one of us felt guilty doing this, as though we were cheating. Once we had identified the herb, we then shared what it meant for us personally. The most common answer for me was various forms of roast dinner. Rosemary for lamb. Lemon Thyme for chicken. Mint for beef. But others had memories of working in the garden as children, or preparing food for family feasts. We talked about all of this with our blindfolds on. Which, while challenging initially for a few participants, was, in the end, freeing. We couldn’t see each, so we listened harder.

When we finally took off the blindfolds it was time to break up into new small groups and write now what the herbs meant for us. I wrote about mint, and it’s role in family dinners in the 1970s. Of the comfort the scent gave me. Of how it reminded me of family and tradition and safety. The words flowed easily. The memory was very strong and very visual. Others wrote poetry, and others still a collection of words they associated with a particular scent. The conversation that followed was so very easy. Trust was developed very quickly and it’s difficult to imagine that the stories that were shared would have been under any other circumstances.

We then pegged our stories to Anne’s wonderful wicker sculpture. So much nicer than post-it notes on a wall!

While I loved the session, I was struggling with a practical application. Afterwards, outside in the sunshine of the courtyard, I was chatting with a woman who is working with problem gamblers. She talked about using the technique to build trust between her stakeholders as a lovely way to lead into hard conversations about gambling behaviour and shame.

Perpetual mojo: Embody your awesome 24/7

For a complete change of pace, and perhaps to challenge my natural conservatism, for the final session of the day I joined Jules Sutherland’s workshop “Perpetual mojo: Embody your awesome 24/7“. Jules is the Passion Propagator and founder of Perpetual Mojo.. she is a facilitator, performing artist, writer, Tantra practitioner, embodiment and relationship coach. Her mission in life is to serve the ‘human awesome movement’ through passion, purpose and play.

This is not territory that I am usually comfortable with.

I really had no idea what to expect, so there were no strong preconceived notions of what we might be doing, except that I did have my notepad and pen in hand when we started. I quickly discovered that this was going to experiential, not intellectual.

Jules started by asking us to complete the statement “I feel really alive when….” Everything we did thereafter followed from that one simple question. Each exercise taking us deeper and deeper into ourselves about what it was specifically about the moment we first identified that made it so special to us. There were all manner of responses – “when I’m gardening”, “when I’m facilitating”, “when I’m traveling and taking photo’s”, “when I’m immersed in a conversation”. Mine was “when I’m running through the bush.” Running is a new thing for me, so it was the first thing that came to mind.

When we were asked to explore the reasons behind our choice, an image of a flying fox colony on the banks of the Yarra River (here in Melbourne) came to mind. The bird song, sun glittering on the water, the smell of eucalyptus. The rare site of hundreds and hundreds of flying foxes hanging from three enormous (dead) trees.

Jules then asked as to stand up, spread out around the room and close our eyes. I was enjoying the moment, so was happy to comply. Gentle dance music started to fill the room! And then we were off on a guided meditation. First I found myself swaying to the music. Literally, dancing like no one was watching! (Which is NOT a great thing for a pasty nearly 45 year old white guy.) And then I found myself smiling, no grinning, like a fool. Standing up straighter, opening up more. I’ve had cause to take a few yoga classes and had a short interlude with meditation back in my 20s – I couldn’t stay awake – but this was entirely different. There’s no other way to describe the feeling, than that is was wonderful. It felt great.

And it was through this process that I gradually had the realisation that the reason I chose running through the bush as my “alive” moment, was because of an instantaneous moment through the fog of labored breathing and heavy legs, when I was completely aware of my surroundings. I could see, hear, smell and feel everything. It was a rare and wonderful moment. So, if you are reading this Jules, thank you!

When we had come out of our bliss, Jules arranged us in a circle and asked us if there was anything we wanted from the group. And then things got really interesting. And I’m not going to tell you what because it would be like spoiling the end of a good book.

Except for one story.

From out of nowhere, a woman in pink and grey said that she would like support for something. She started to tell the story and then began to cry, gathered herself up, and through tears relayed that her mother had grown up in the convent that we were standing in. And that she had been bastardized by the nuns, and went to her grave hating nuns. This woman’s obvious grief that her mother had to live through such pain was palpable. Her pain hit me and everyone in the room like a hammer. Her wish was that she could come to the convent without feeling that grief in future. Suddenly the history of the place we were in was very very real. No longer a television show or a book. No longer an intellectual exercise. Very, very real.

I didn’t expect that.

Photo credit: Stevegotcamera

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