Thursday, 28 January 2010

not me....

So – tonight was a first.

After training a group of people to deliver dialogue sessions on contemporary Muslim themes, finally today... someone else ran one instead of me. In Bradford. So I travelled up to support Richard. And have just arrived back home.

We agreed that my feedback to him should be shared with everyone else in the group. So I spent three hours from Leeds to London writing it. And it became a long email; but one that includes some of my thoughts on how dialogue skills can help you as a facilitator.

Most of you won't read this. But if you're someone who enjoys facilitating... you might:

Well done Richard. Irna... you're next... in Manchester.

So - it was Richard’s night in Bradford!

And he did really well. (Irna who’s facilitating the next session was there too tonight so she can testify that I’m not just being nice!) I felt very proud of you Richard and I hope you felt proud of yourself.

It was a session that grew naturally and became a fascinating evening for everyone there I think. Your natural qualities of humour, sincerity and curiosity were all present and you created a really good sense of TIME AND SPACE for us all to be in.

I’ve agreed with Richard and Irna that it would be in all of our interests to make our feedback public – it’ll help keep everyone connected and to share the learning we all get as we move through the series of dialogues in the coming weeks and months.

I’m putting down ALL of my main thoughts – mostly because this whole journey is as much about being a learning experience for everyone as it is delivering really good dialogues around the country and giving feedback to individuals.

And also because it’s our first one so we’ve learnt lots tonight. So you might want to get a cup of tea before you read it all, or save it for when you have more time.

So – what and how did Richard do?

Some of what I’m about to say might seem critical – and that’s because my job now is to remind you of the things you aren’t doing yet instinctively. But please remember (Richard and everyone else) I think you’re great, you’ve learnt so much in such a short time and this is a chance to give you positively challenging feedback on the basis of you doing it for real!

Also – this feels like a chance to bring back to the surface some of the learning we all did together last year.

So I won’t apologise for writing at length.


Before the event – Richard and I had good and healthy dialogue about his upcoming session. (And Irna and I have two phone calls booked in, one a week before her dialogue and another two days before.)

Richard prepared really well in terms of:

  1. His opening words and thoughts
  2. The territory he thought he might cover during the session.
  3. Talking to and getting to know his two guests before the dialogue started.

The chairs were set in a circle and initially Richard put the chairs in the middle but if felt wrong – so he changed it and put himself between his two guests as part of the wider circle, which worked really well.

Being able to observe this evening rather than run it, I was reminded of the importance of the ‘host’ part of the event. As people arrive – do say hello to them, it’s a quick but really important way of making them feel welcome and building a warm atmosphere. You don’t have to get into a big conversation with them but for those early arrivals you can say the actual dialogue will begin at 5.30pm and that they should help themselves to the refreshments on the table.

About 5 minutes before you start, it’s also useful to say to everyone that you’ll be starting in about 5 mins. It gives everyone a chance to go to the loo if they need to and is also a signal that they should bring their chats with each other to a close, or for the people who’ve arrived on their own (and aren’t chatting) that soon things will start.

So – we started on time... Brilliant. Starting and finishing on time is a great thing.

Zarah did the health and safety and mobile phone speech as she will everywhere – It helps people feel relaxed and shows them that someone is taking charge of the event’s parameters – it’s part of helping people to feel safe, not just physically (in terms of the fire drill announcement) but in terms of being part of an event that’s been considered and thought about.

(This is a rare thing in itself. I was at a business event this morning when the participants weren't really considered and thought about. The room was cold, the projector was noisy... dull things in themselves but cumulatively if you're a 'guest' these things make you feel neglected. Not good.)

And on to the event itself: Richard had a really strong opening. It was clear, concise and most importantly
his. It wasn’t the same as mine and it won’t be the same as anyone else’s – and that’s a good thing. Richard did some things though that I would recommend we all do: he didn’t go on too long, he used a language that felt like one he was familiar and comfortable with and he really took time to engage with us.

Richard used notes and maybe got lost in them a little bit – but held his nerve, took his time and got back on track. And no-one minded. (Remember your participants want it to go well – they’re you’re friends, not your enemy!)

Richard’s voice was clear and strong – which again is his style but even so I think you could be a little gentler with equal impact Richard. A subtle thing but it’s important not to broadcast but to invite at the beginning especially.

Something else happened early on which was interesting and useful – we had some late comers, three of whom were young children. Richard had just started his intro and chose not to acknowledge the latecomers explicitly. And I would suggest that you always should. It helps keep that thread between everyone in the room and allows you and (more importantly) everyone else to feel okay about us being a group, thinking together. It’s harder to say to a latecomer something like: "Would you mind turning your phone off?" if you’ve not said hello to them when they arrived.

You don’t have to catch them up on everything they’ve missed, but it’s a good thing to take time, (even if it’s only one person who’s late) to update them at least on the ‘how’ bit of the conversation, if not the 'what.'

And another thing... Make sure you sit opposite the door, so if people come in the room late, you’re the first to see them. (I’ve only just realised I do this!)

In the body of the dialogue this evening...
Richard did great LISTENING, CHECKING and NAVIGATING which I would say are probably the essential dialogue skills for facilitating. What happened as a result was that we stayed together on the journey of the dialogue – no mean feat with 20 or so people. Richard thanked everyone for their input every time someone said anything, which was great (keep it light though).

There was some PAUSING too which worked well; just natural periods of no more than 10 seconds or so when we all fell quiet together which was really enjoyable.

He also did some very good summarising (in the form of questions) after someone had spoken which is a nice way of CHECKING, so long as you’ve guessed right in terms of what someone’s said. Explicit CHECKING, little and often is a good thing: for example, saying things like:

“And you’re a Mum are you?”

You feel that? Or you
and your husband feel that?”

“So you’re looking at things through a different lens now you’ve given up teaching?”

These small things give you licence to ‘interrupt’ if you like, and keep the feel of a dialogue rather than a succession of extended points of view, which is interesting but not as rare and co-creative as two people whose rhythm is composed of shorter periods of talking and not talking.

If I were to say two things to you Richard (and I did briefly afterwards) we could have done with more PROBING and DISCLOSING.

In terms of PROBING: occasionally Richard, you could have come up with a few short questions to dig a bit deeper but quickly.

For example:

PARTICIPANT: “I hate the term service providers!”

FACILITATOR: What makes you say that?


PARTICIPANT: “Adverts on sexual health should be banned!”



PARTICIPANT: “Ede should be celebrated at every school?”

FACILITATOR: Why isn’t it?

And then on DISCLOSING... It was great that people opened up and began to speak more personally as the session went on. I think you could have encouraged that to happen earlier by doing two things: first you could have asked people to speak as personally as possible in your opening. And secondly, I think you could have been more personal yourself. One of the qualities of a dialogue is that it’s a more open, honest and personal type of conversation than we might be used to in a public setting. It’s a gentle thing of course. But don’t be afraid to ask people to be personal. It’s about creating an atmosphere of trust. It’s not easy. It takes courage, sensitivity and of course experience to assess how personal or not you can be. But it’s one of the trademarks of our dialogue series... and we should be proud of it.

Another useful thing we can do is ask stupid questions – not silly questions, but questions that we (or our participants perhaps) are often too afraid to ask. Things like:

“What does YMAG actually stand for?”

“How long has R.E. been on the syllabus?”

“Sorry I’ve forgotten your name... Remind me!”

These are all the types of questions that get hidden under the veil of politeness and in a dialogue, they’re important. They stop us wasting time guessing or worrying when we could be listening.

Which brings me onto one more thing for you Richard but for all of us: you did a great job of LISTENING TO... tonight Richard. You picked up small pieces of information and then included them in your summaries before moving things on. But you missed a few chances to LISTEN FOR...

For example, a couple of times there was clearly some emotion in people’s voices: passion about their point of view, nervousness about speaking, confusion about what they were thinking... And all of these things are good and allowed, but if you explicitly and gently acknowledge these then you tell us all it’s okay to express ourselves, and that’s another rare thing in a conversation. So pick up the feeling and tone (the how) as well as the actual things people are saying (the what). It really opens up a conversation into a dialogue because it tells us you are hearing not just our meaning but some of our intention and feelings too. And as we know, feelings are sometimes difficult or embarrassing or exposing to express, so when someone trluy ‘hears’ us... It’s a profound thing.

So... phrases like these can be really useful:

“It sounds like you really care about this....”

“I can tell I think that this is something that’s close to your heart...”

“You’re really cross about his aren’t you!?”

Humour or at least a smile can be a great thing when it comes to acknowledging emotion.

Towards the end of the session...
Richard NAVIGATED beautifully and said something like: “We have just 10 mins or so to go, so now’s the chance to say something you’re really burning to say...” Excellent. It gave those people who hadn’t spoken yet a chance to speak now or not at all. (And they did.)

And then... Richard finished on time, winning friends and giving Zarah a perfect cue to invite people to come and have their thoughts, opinions and ideas filmed outside and for others to enjoy talking informally with refreshments and also (very importantly) those who had to dash off to put their kids to bed or make their wife’s supper were able to do to so. So they’re last thoughts weren’t: “I hate things that don’t finish on time!” but rather they felt their time was valued and respected. A healthy experience all round.

So – I think that’s enough for now.

Richard, there are a couple of things I’ll follow up with you by phone in the next couple of days.

But for tonight... WELL DONE. It was a great start to our second series.

Now – Irna....

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

the dialogue podcasts

I'm often being asked these days where people can hear my podcasts on the 10 dialogue skills.

So on one convenient page, here they are:

Click for the Intro - a small animation to give you an overall picture..

Then there's Time and Space... without which it's hard to have a truly big conversation.

And then the 10 skills. I'd suggest... Navigating first. It's about staying together on the journey.

Help someone else become articulate by... Listening.

Describing... telling it like it is. (And then some.)

Stay connected by... Checking.

Probing... dare to dig deeper.

Suspending... keeping an open mind.

Building - genuine co-creating.

Keep it steady and fair with... Balancing.

Disclosing... say what you're thinking.

And finally (almost in silence)... Pausing.

Enjoy them.

And join me in thanking David Kershaw, Julie Batty and the late, great Rod Wright for all their help in making them.

Friday, 8 January 2010

l'homme qui...

Came across a good article in the New York Times today, about the ageing brain and memory.

Why am I getting so interested in these things?

Am I getting old?

Will I start repeating myself soon?

(Have I already started to?)

I particularly like the idea that when you get older, audio suggestions can trigger associations to help you retrieve something you can't remember.

And I was reminded of seeing (my hero) Peter Brook's staging of L'Homme Qui, a truly beautiful rendition of (my other hero) Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat at the Bouffes du Nord in Paris, (my favourite theatre building ever I think.)

At first it felt like watching a story about freaks who weren't me.

Then it felt like watching a story about people who weren't me.

Then it felt like watching a story about people like me.

Why am I getting so interested in these things?

a masterclass in acting

And this from the LA Times today.

The boy done good.

mr krabs!

How can I not mention this?

Mr Krabs of Spongebob Squarepants fame (aka actor Clancy Brown) is our Guest Actor in An Oak Tree tonight in Los Angeles.

The show opened last night with Tim guiding Peter Gallagher (Sandy Cohen from "The O.C.") in the shoes of of many fine actors and actresses before him and by all accounts they stormed it.

Well done Tim.

Well done Mr Gallagher.

Good luck Mr Krabs.

(Just say yes.)

Thursday, 7 January 2010

last known position

The current icy cold where I live in London is making life tricky.

Tricky. But not impossible.

And amongst the spinning tyres and funny hats this afternoon at the school gates, I heard someone say: "I can't imagine it any colder... Can you?"

"No!" I replied. And then thought: of course I can. But right then, in the midst of it, I didn't. I just dealt with the cold I was in.

Perspective's a funny thing isn't it? An important thing. In many ways.

So - as a tribute to Mother Nature's icy grip and perspective, I thought I'd publish today a conversation with someone who knows about being in the cold.

So this is an edit (with music) of Ann Daniels, the polar explorer. It's called: last know position.

Ann's dead famous in the exploring world. And a brilliant woman. And very much alive.

And in our conversation she talks beautifully about beauty of nature, the agonising pain of freezing almost to death and (towards the end) she talks about how she was so cold that the only way to stay warm enough to stay alive... was to use her imagination.

Have a listen now if you like.

(Or download it. It might be really good on headphones on long, cold journeys to work.)

And stay warm while you're listening if you possibly can.

I wonder if you've been at The North Pole for 90 days non-stop like Ann Daniels was last year, if you can imagine it any colder.

So spare a thought for anyone who's very cold tonight and with nowhere warm to go.

And I'm going to turn my heating down by a degree or two and take a tip from Ann:

I'm going to use my imagination.

Monday, 4 January 2010

man hugs tree in america

So, while here in Europe we shiver and slide on the ice, my good friend Tim Crouch is in balmy LA about to open An Oak Tree; the second play what he wrote.

It enjoyed a sell out run in Edinburgh when we opened it in 2005, it got rave reviews at the Soho Theatre in London two years ago, and hopefully it will cast a similar spell in Los Angeles in the coming weeks. Never mind how brilliantly directed it is. It's a piece of miniature genius in terms of its writing.

It was also a joy to direct (in a room above a pub in Barnes) with my very special colleague Andy Smith. And I only wish I could find a good enough excuse to go out to the West Coast of America and be with it again.

But there's no need. Tim will be brilliant anyway.

But for anyone who's not seen it and finds themselves in Tinsel Town - I urge you to go.

(Unless you want to be in it. In which case you should let me or Tim know really quite soon.)

The best reason for going, apart from the fact that it's a very beautiful piece of writing and a rather exquisite idea is that you'll see an actor perform alongside Tim who has no idea what's going to happen next... until it happens.

That's the way it works.

The Guest Actor has the play revealed to them as it goes along. So there's no rehearsal.

And there's no improvisation either. Every word that's said in the show has been written by Tim.

"How does he do it?" I imagine hearing you say. I can't tell you. Not here.

For those actors who choose to accept the invitation to be the Guest Actor, they get to do it just once.

(And obviously you can't do it if you've seen it. That would spoil the fun.)

So what's it like being the Guest Actor in An Oak Tree?

I asked a few friends who've done it to answer that very question in their own words and today, Hugh Bonneville, one of the gentlest and loveliest of men said this:

"Have you ever had that dream when suddenly you're no longer in your aircraft seat but instead you're outside the plane, rushing through thin air at 35,000 feet, miraculously held aloft somehow - petrified by the impossibility of it all but giddy with exhilaration?

Well, performing in An Oak Tree is a bit like that.

You can only do it once. But do it."

So there you go. If you fancy following in the footsteps of Mike Meyers, Frances McDormand, Geoffrey Rush, Sophie Okanedo and many other equally brave and talented souls...

Or if you simply can't bear the anticipation of finding out who does it next and you have to go along to see it...

Or if you have friends in LA and want them to find out for you...

Check out An Oak Tree in LA.

(Hot off the press: already booked in: Jason Alexander, Clancy Brown, Peter Gallagher, Beth Grant, John Rubinstein, and Kurtwood Smith)

P.S. We used not to give away who was doing it in advance... but as they say in theatre: "Box office is box office!"

here's to the future

Here's something that lifted me recently.

It's easy (and perhaps right) to be depressed by the lack of action at the Copenhagen talks and to feel despondent even when Obama himself clearly decided this wasn't the moment for boldness but rather for timidity and 'political reality' and put his domestic agenda of healthcare above and beyond the broader worldwide needs.

And the public and media (non)reaction to the failure of our leaders to commit to anything visionary or radical speaks as loudly to me as the failure of the conference itself (where it felt to me there was a lot of talk and very little dialogue.)

So when my stepfather sent me this letter from an 18 year old delegate to Copenhagen, I felt my heart lift a little.

Maybe there is enough hope and courage.

It's just not there in the current generation of leaders.

Here's the letter.


Amid the depression and chaos I’ve seen so many beautiful, inspiring things over the last 3 weeks.

I’ve seen 100,000 people of every age and nationality take to the streets to call for a safe climate.

I’ve seen 3 young people prove, as they finish their 46 day hunger fast, that achieving the ‘impossible’ is just a matter of having the courage to try and the will to keep trying.

I’ve seen young people take to the stage in the main negotiations to tell the world what this means to us.

I’ve helped to fill the greyness and endless corridors of the UN with colour and life and music.

I’ve had less sleep than I’ve ever had before and worked harder than I’ve ever done before. But I know so many people who’ve given even more than I have and have been doing this all year. Going back again and again to the UN, travelling overland for weeks, or having no money for months because they give all their time to this.

I’ve sat with a hall full of people as Obama announced the Copenhagen Accord. I’ve felt the sadness and the anger of that moment. Twenty mins later I was stood protesting with hundreds of young people outside the Conference Centre as the delegates filed out. It was 1 in the morning, freezing cold and snowing but no one even considered not going.

I’ve laughed so much. Cried too, but laughed more. I’ve made some of the best friends I’ve ever had. I’ve met so many amazing people from around the world who are working so hard and giving so much to this struggle.

I’ve sat and chatted with young people from Kenya, China, India, Lebanon, Canada, the USA, Ghana, Malaysia…I could go on. And I know that despite all our differences, what unites is far stronger than what divides us.

I know that there are hundreds of thousands of people who came to Copenhagen and that every one of us has a lifetime worth of passion and energy to give to this movement.


I will be honest. This took me a long time to write. I almost didn’t want to tell anyone how disastrous the outcomes of these talks have been.

There are 3 main components for a strong global deal; it must be fair, ambitious and legally binding. Copenhagen has delivered none of these things.

The Copenhagen Accord is a joke. But somehow I couldn’t laugh, only cry.

The biggest problem is that it has no targets at all. Nothing. Although the text talks about less than 2 degrees of global warming it contains none of the targets necessary to achieve that. Countries just enter their own voluntary emissions reductions into a table in the appendix. 120 world leaders gather, and all we get is a global google doc. It’s ridiculous.

$100 billion is committed in long-term finance, meaning yearly from 2020 onwards. This is half of the amount required. It’s a start, but it includes private finance as well as public, which is about the largest loophole imaginable. To top it off, developing nations are only entitled to any of the funds if they sign onto the Accord. That’s effectively bribery on a global scale.

Unsurprisingly the Accord has been condemned by many nations who know it is nowhere near what is needed to ensure their survival. It has only been signed by 25 countries, including India, China, the USA and South Africa. Unable to achieve consensus the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has “noted” the Copenhagen Accord and eventually agreed on Saturday to continue as before with negotiations working on the same tracks; Kyoto and Long-term Co-operative Action (which includes everything from deforestation to adaptation).

So basically we haven’t moved forward and we have probably gone backwards. Before Copenhagen we had the Bali Action Plan, which was a political agreement that set out a time frame to achieve a legally binding deal. Obviously Copenhagen was the deadline and it wasn’t met. Now we have no time frame or action plan. Just empty words about the importance of a legally binding deal at some point.

But the story of Copenhagen is not just a story of failure.

There are 112 countries that have now stood up in support of 350ppm and a safe and stable climate. They represent the poorest and most vulnerable nations. It is their lives on the line, yet they are under huge pressure from rich nations to stay quiet. Not to make a fuss. To just die quietly.

They have been able to make a stand at Copenhagen because we in the global movement have stood with them. I have had delegates from many developing nations stop me just to say thank you. Thank you simply for being here to support them.

Speaking on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States, the lead delegate from Cape Verde told us they need the global climate movement to be their voice. That without us they will die in silence.

Courage is what we need now. It is hard to watch Copenhagen fail after so having put so much into trying to make it succeed. Courage is what will allow us to go on from here.

Copenhagen was never going to be the end of the movement. The work doesn’t end once we have a legally binding global deal. The real work then is making sure we meet the targets set and that nations deliver what they promise. As young people this is our future. We will find the courage to carry on. Kumi Naidoo, director of Greenpeace, told all of us at the Conference of Youth, “it’s not giving your life that matters, it’s giving the rest of your life.” I know I will, and I know I will not be alone. Over the last 2 weeks I have met thousands of young people from around the world who are ready to do the same.

What I will carry with me most strongly from this is that we shouldn’t look elsewhere for hope. So many hopes rested on Copenhagen and these talks, but our hope should rest with each other and what we can achieve together. Our hope should rest with the beautiful global climate movement we are building.

Here’s to the future.


Thanks Issy. Thanks for going. Thanks to you and your young colleagues for giving so much of your life so far.

And thanks for taking the time to write so eloquently.

Here's to the future indeed.

Friday, 1 January 2010

speak your brains

My two closest and dearest friends and colleagues have started their new year with new blogs!

Tim Crouch (playwright, author and performer) has just today arrived in Los Angeles ready to perform An Oak Tree (co-directed by a smith and my good self) and is speaking his brains on his blog here.

And Andy Smith (performer, writer and artist) with whom I have co-directed three of Tim's plays is starting somewhere here.

Andy has said that my blog has in some way inspired him to start his. Andy's writing and thinking is one of the greatest things to have come into my life. Tim's gifts as a writer need no help from my flattery.

So, in these days of separation and sometimes (only) virtual togetherness, how lovely to know I can read them both occasionally even when they're in Los Angeles and Oslo.

Good luck gents.

Write on.

twenty ten

It's begun. Have a good one everyone.