My learning doesn’t stop

January 21, 2016

 

I’m learning with every step, becoming clearer, more curious, asking better questions that help others find more insight and clarity.  Here I’ve tried to trace some of this development:

  • As an undergraduate at Swarthmore College I learned to ask deep questions, to tell the truth, to be skeptical about making any assumptions, and to listen carefully to get past surface chatter.
  • My scientific training (at Swarthmore and at Harvard) taught me about creating and refining models. A model is useful because it leaves almost everything out, but can be problematic for the same reason — because it leaves almost everything out. We create and evaluate imperfect models all the time, and knowing how to deconstruct them is critical.
  • A summer working with the respected social scientists Robert Abelson and Philip Zimbardo on the manuscript for “Canvassing for Peace” gave me very practical experience developing strategy, testing its application on small sample sizes, responding to surprises, and implementing a revised and well grounded plan. It was also an opportunity for me to explore collaboration between academics and activists.
  • Several years working with the American Friends Service Committee – first as a member of their Peace Education Staff and then as director of public relations (at AFSC this was called “Information Services”) taught me how to target and focus messages about controversial topics — keeping some edge, but building on shared values and concerns.
  • Years of experience as a manager in a small rapidly growing software company, that during my tenure became a division of General Electric, taught me how to work effectively within complex organizations, collaborating with competing management segments. This job offered me a “sandbox” to learn about power, loyalty, innovation, and the importance of clearly defined mission and plan.
  • Working as an independent consultant – designing and developing information systems for business and non-profit organizations,or focusing on usability and user interface – I honed my skills of listening, of change management, and of assessment and evaluation.
  • Through all these years, I served on the boards of a variety of non-profit organizations – nurturing the Merriconeag Waldorf School (now called the Maine Coast Waldorf School) from a nursery and kindergarten into a K – 8 school with a million dollar building and significant organizational capacity, running a capital campaign for a Quaker study and conference center in Western Massachusetts, helping a local interfaith organization grow from a dream into a vibrant reality. I also had the opportunity to work with organizations that were seriously fractured, and learned what kinds of weaknesses most easily lead to failure, and how best to address these.
  • Participation in the year long “Leadership Intensive” program offered by the Institute for Civic Leadership (now called “Lift 360”) gave me a chance to reflect on all these experiences, to explore models of collaborative facilitation and leadership, and to develop more connections within the greater Portland business and non-profit community.
  • As a consultant to non-profits, I’ve honed my skills at facilitation, strategic planning, coaching, questioning, collaborating, and leading workshops and retreats.
  • For three years, I was Recording Clerk of the New England Yearly Meeting of Friends – taking minutes of week long gatherings at which as many as 500 Quakers from around New England conducted the society’s business. My task was to listen and record, with each formal minute approved as the meeting progressed. Often it was my job to suggest a minute that reflected the unity we had found, but also the matters that still required more work together. I was considered part of the session leadership, but viewed my role as a servant task.  I found my gift of helping a community find its voice — both the voice of its agreement, but also of the discord or lack of clarity.  It’s a gift to be able to articulate clearly the points of our disagreement.
  • I’m a great listener, a reconciler, and a creative force skilled in consensus-based approaches. I was one of the authors of book chapter on the process of Quaker decision making, and have often been called upon to help divergent groups work together. Working within complex organizations, I know how to formulate great questions, and draft talking points that will help others facilitate constructive change.
  • I’ve another life as a photographer of dance. While this might not appear to be parallel to the other experiences listed above, I do believe that deep engagement in a creative process – where even with best efforts things don’t always proceed as expected or as planned, and where agility can be as important as mastery – offers many lessons that are surprisingly applicable.

 

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I’ve identified six critical skills, that serve me well in my coaching and consulting.  In fact, I think these may be all the skills that I need.

But check me on this.  Comment on this blog with what you think might be missing or wrong.

1. Listening (and looking, and listening)

Listening is an active process.  It’s not summarily waiting until the other speaker is done, so that you can respond!  At best, it includes offering some feedback, that allows you to test whether you’ve understood.  And the other modes — looking and listening — are just as active.  As a photographer, I have to constantly ask myself, “What’s visually interesting her”, and, “What am I seeking?”

2. Asking great questions

Lots of questions come from a wrong place — trying to show off, or make the speaker wrong, or some such.  Great questions illuminate, open up a deeper dialog, expose important issues.  They may also show some bias or committment, but they are not argumentative debating points.

3. Giving and receiving feedback

The most helpful feedback is offered with understanding and compassion.  It may be as simple as, “I see you doing this, and wonder why you feel you need to?”.  Feedback to you is best received as helpful advice — not as criticism.  It’s coaching, editing, insight that can refine, sharpen, augment.

4. Design thinking

A good design is an economical, functional, beautiful solution to a well-understood problem.  It may be an elegant bridge that supports many cars, or a simple tool to cleanly cut pieces of pie.  A design may be a process, an interaction, or may be embodied in an object.  Design thinking is focused on creating such full solutions, rather than makeshift steps that appear to solve an immediate problem.

5. Feeling and showing empathy and respect

Conflict can be constructive, if we see those who differ from us as helpful messengers of new points of view.  Even if those points of view seem to us completely wrong, perhaps even counter to our core values, an empathetic and respectful relationship leads us to seek understanding, welcome deep sharing.

6. Integrity, including being able to say “I don’t know”

Truth telling is becoming increasingly rare these days, but it still matters.  And one of the most important truths — especially in business situations, is that we don’t know the answer.  Why not just say so?