Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Carbon Neutral Dialogue

So - an early start. And a big day of working with 18 young people who're part of Dan Snell and Emily Shenton's magnificent Arrival Education. The project is called Green Ambassadors in which a select group of teenagers who've been through Arrival's Success for Life programme, get to first go down to the Eden Project for a week and then to a series of businesses to check out their environmental credentials and report back (after our two days of reflection) to an audience of parents, the businesses and various interested parties including close colleagues of Mr Brown. It's a fantastic project and one that should happen every year, bigger and better and knowing Dan and Emily it probably will.

"Blimey," said a friend of mine on the phone last night. "Talking to teenagers about dialogue - the hardest gig yet!" Well - maybe it is when they're yours. (And I won't let my expectations rise too high about the frequency and quality of dialogue with my two boys when they're bursting with hormones in a few years time.)

But these teenagers, young men and women, many of them with stories and backgrounds you wouldn't choose for anyone as a start in life, utterly defy the common perception of diffident, difficult people to work with.

Hard work? Yes. Sometimes.

Challenging? Yes, sometimes.

Astonishing? Yes, really astonishing sometimes.

Honest? Well - yes. Mostly.

Capable of having profound, personal conversations, in front of each other, making themselves truly vulnerable with adults present? Yes.

Absolutely yes.

Round the circle we went at the beginning of the day...

"How do you want to be listened to?" is the question.

"I've never been listened to" says one young man. Not as a protest, or a gripe or a moan. As an honest declaration.

"Okay - so how do you want to be listened to today?" comes the question again from Dan, instinctively caring, but constantly challenging.

The answers are as quietly spoken as they are sincere and heartfelt:

"As an adult."

"As an equal."


"Level with me."

"Be straight with me."

"Care about me."

"Don't assume anything about me."

"Make sure we want the same thing."

Time and time again... the core principles of dialogue revealed themselves. Not in my words; in theirs. And it took a morning. To go round everyone. And listen properly. To probe occasionally. To check. To hold a silence. To speak truthfully. Truth. Fully. An amazing and moving and exhausting morning.

The flip chart remained untouched.

We didn't need written words. Because people were listening.

The energy came and went; of course it did, (particularly with the five who are fasting for Ramadan) and with the energy went the concentration occasionally.

But listening is as energising as it is exhausting. A carbon neutral dialogue activity if you like.

And at the end of the day, after finishing as late as we could, one by one the teenagers leave and (in Dan's house style) they get a shake of the hand and a few words of reflection as they leave the room. As in the rest of the day, they're afforded equal status, respect and dignity. Their hand and their gaze is held, they listen smile and leave.

Back to their homes.

And back at my home - a game of football with my boys, in Richmond Park. The sun setting as we try to kick the ball as high as we can. Bill in his new football boots, ready for secondary school. Stanley in Billy's old trainers. Me in my smelly ones.

Stanley decides he has a new running style: "Like Usain Bolt. Relaxed, but really fast." He does 50 metres in 11.47 seconds.

And then, second time round he smashes his record:10. 58. Astonishing.

Billy does 9.20. Just to remind everyone, including himself that he's got the edge.

They've both got the edge as far as I'm concerned.

But they're not the only ones.

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