I spent my work in COVID-ville, otherwise known as the City of Sails. The purpose of my visit was to run or facilitate a variety of workshops for different parts of the University. Running workshops is always a high energy and interesting experience, meeting a variety of people and attempting to use a wide set of skills to help people to work together successfully.

I find it interesting how long it took me to see that the point of leading workshops is largely not the ‘wisdom’ that I have to impart, it is far more about facilitating the people who are the team to move forward more knowledgeable of each other’s many facets, in a co-operative way. A workshop often is also intended to impart specific subject knowledge or upskill people in a specific capability, but all this should be taking place in an environment where teamwork is enhanced. There are far more people in a team than there are leaders, so the most effective way of a group of people being more effective, productive and having more fun is for them to support each other in those endeavours.

People are, of course, by far the most challenging aspect of any situation. I laugh about how people use the term ‘It’s not rocket science’, to mean that something is relatively trivial, in comparison to rocket science. I do wonder if that might morph to ‘it’s not AI’ (Artificial Intelligence), as rocket science has got a lot easier, while creation of AI is still in its infancy and therefore appears very difficult. However, I think, a more accurate comparison to denote simplicity might be, ‘It’s not people science’.

One of the aspects of workshops I have focused on over the last few years is introductions. It’s something I didn’t even think of questioning for a long time. Introductions are critical, of course, because they come at the beginning of any meeting. They set the scene and tone of what is to follow; people are much more sensitive to such cues than we often tend to consider.

In the academic/research/industry spheres in which I normally operate, there was a standard way people introduced themselves. It generally runs chronologically, might start at people’s qualifications/place of highest qualification, goes through the employment positions people have occupied, and is designed to sound like a rocket ship taking the person to a stratosphere beyond that occupied by others in the room. Part of the point is to convey competence, but I always feel that a significant part of such introductions is a one-up game, in which everyone tries to sound more elevated than the other people.

I’m not much of one for hierarchy. That’s why I set up my own business and have never had any aspirations to employ staff; I like to work with people, rather than have people working ‘for’ me – I find it very rare for power relationships in the workplace to be used constructively. Therefore, elevating oneself through an introduction doesn’t sit well with my value set. I had come across Māori pepeha as a form of introduction, but they were not commonly applied in the settings where I worked and, if they were, it was because the lead person was Māori and/or the focus of the meeting was largely around matters related to Māori. So I had paid little attention to the purpose of nature of such introductions, aparting from noting that they were formulaic, but in a different way to Pakeha formulaic introductions.

At the same time as not liking hierarchy, I do like efficiency. That was another reason I hadn’t thought too deeply about introductions. The standard introduction is nice and quick, everyone can rattle it off, then the group can get on with their business at hand. Clearly, I really wasn’t thinking about the setting in which the group might be getting on with their business or, for instance, whether improved co-working might itself be critical to efficiency.

I think my eyes were really opened to the power of introductions when I attended a workshop for the Better Building and Housing National Science Challenge. The meeting was run by a skilled Māori facilitator. Her introduction used a ball of string. She held the ball of string and started talking about herself in a general way, including both work and personal life, neither a standard pakeha introduction nor a pepeha. The group’s instructions were that, when someone related to a statement the facilitator made, they should put their hand up. At that point she handed over the ball of string while retaining hold on the end of the string. Then the person with the ball of string started talking, in a similar way to the facilitator. Someone put their hand up to say they related to a statement, the ball of string was passed over, and on it went. The introductory session did not end until everyone was holding some part of the string. The network of string was then put on the floor as a reminder that we were all part of a network.

This introduction made so much sense. It warmed the room up in an interactive way. Everyone learnt something about everyone else which made it easy to go talk with someone didn’t know at lunch, because you already knew something you had in common with them.

I have played with these types of introduction since. The string method only works if you have a group of maximum 20 people, and a space in which passing around a ball of string is feasible. With a larger group (around 100 people), I first got everyone to stand up. Then I said items about myself to which I thought others might be able to relate and asked people to sit down as I said something relevant to them. I had one person who was a sticking point, I reckon they might have been deliberately evading sitting down, but I got them there in the end. This is a much more one sided method, as I couldn’t remember something about all the individuals, but it certainly put me as the ‘expert’ in a less elevated position as everyone watched with bated breath to see if I could find enough commonalities to relate to everyone present.

At a recent workshop I tried getting everyone to say 5 words about themselves that expressed their diversity. I gave a set of words for myself as an example:

  • Mountains – where I always feel at home.
  • Philosopher – because questioning everything is an underlying practice I employ constantly.
  • Traveller/cyclist – (this one was an acknowledged cheat because I used a slash to help me through not being able to resolve to 5 words only) because I love to travel to places where I am out of my comfort zone and see new things, and I often do that by bicycle.
  • Friend – my network of friends is of critical importance to me, and I count my family as my friends.
  • Creative – creativity in gardening, construction, music, writing and thinking are activities I get a huge amount of pleasure from.

I gave the room 5 minutes to think of some words to myselves and then started to do the rounds from a random table in the space. I then I had discovered I made a mistake. The second person to speak up said, “I think you are making it hard and uncomfortable for minority groups by asking people to state 5 words.” I was somewhat floored, struggling to think why minority groups might be disadvantaged in this situation. So I asked him if he could expand the statement for me a little further to give me more insight into this problem. He explained that he is gay, and he was unsure as to whether to say that in this forum or not. Then he went on to say that he wasn’t going to use ‘gay’ as one of his 5 words.

I was still a bit stumped, I have to admit. My 5 words, and those of the first speaker, included nothing about our gender identity. Why did he feel that he had to consider whether to make a statement about being gay? Later, I realised that I used the word ‘diversity’ to indicate that I wanted people to try and think of different aspects of themselves, rather than have a highly related set of words. At present, ‘diversity’ is commonly used to denote the need for a range of social and ethnic background, genders and sexual orientations. There is quite a focus in Universities on gender and sexual orientation, as I mentioned in another post. I am pretty sure that the use of this word probably triggered this person’s brain, possibly without him even realising the particular word he was reacting to. I will be careful in future as to how I explain that I want a variety of personal descriptors, and to emphasise that people only need to provide items that they are comfortable sharing in the particular forum.

There’s always more to learn, isn’t there. And, given that there an infinite variety of people, there’s probably an infinite number of things to learn. Talking of variety of people, here’s a song I wrote about that infinite variety in life.

Dance on the Edge of the Precipice

Published by janecshearer

I'm a self-employed life enthusiast living in Gibbston, New Zealand

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