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Love (and Work) in a Time of Corona (Part Three)

January 7, 2021, Author: Chris Breen

I ended Part Two of this series of three Love (and Work) in a Time of Corona reflections with the following intentions for future teaching:

It is time to start. I have a new determination to do this walking with a measured pace that takes time to play with the nuances of each situation. There is no destination in sight (or in mind), but there is a clarity of purpose that asks me to serve those who approach me to work with them. I want my teaching to serve humanity in attempting to find a way to end our separatist views of the world. I want to encourage participants to join me in taking personal as well as collective and organisational responsibility for adding positively to the human and non-human spirit in the world and planet. I want to be part of a movement that encourages and assists a new form of leadership that shares this vision. Let the new journey begin …

The journey did in fact begin in earnest only a week after I wrote these words!

Yet another past EMBA student approached me to work with the full staff complement of around 30 of a company (ON) on whose board he served. The company had recently gone through a leadership change in both position and style, and he wanted to offer a learning programme that empowered every individual in the team to use self-reflection as a way of contributing more effectively to the team. He asked me to cover concepts such as personal bias, error and illusion, personal contribution to conflict and courageous conversations. In addition, he wanted me to work with selected senior team members in building and growing their personal leadership capacity. Given the inner place I had reached by the end of the last blog above, I knew I had to accept!

It was a magnificent journey that pushed me to the limits and challenged my understanding of what was possible using technology and how open and vulnerable participants would be prepared to be on an online platform – and how open and vulnerable I would allow myself to be!

We finished the programme in the first week of December after completing ten three-hour ZOOM sessions plus two one-hour homework check-in ZOOM sessions. I was exhausted after giving it my all and was thrilled to head off into the wifi-free Robertson mountains the following week.

During this downtime, I had the staggering thought that this particular programme had possibly been the best teaching and learning experience of my fifty-year teaching career. I was delighted to get some confirmation of this when I opened my email account at the start of the new year and found this gift: Chris Breen – We Thank You.

I wrote the above on my return to work on the morning of 6 January (here in Cape Town) in the middle of a second wave of infections and a new set of lockdown restrictions. I had a feeling that I needed to complete my inner 2020 story with a description of the subsequent outer action, but found myself writing hesitantly, and by the time I finished for the day, I was still not thoroughly committed to the writing.

Everything changed when I awoke this morning to the news of the storming of the US Capitol by dissatisfied voters during which, tragically, five people died. I remembered my italicised intentions for future teaching that I requoted at the start of this writing. They suddenly seemed to grow an importance of their own in which I knew that I had to complete this blog.

I’ve decided to highlight some of the core aspects that I think formed the cornerstone of the success of the programme, especially those that emerged from my inner COV-19 processes and struggles with coming to terms with the online format. My hope is that those who read this blog are able to resonate with my intentions and consequently find possible seeds for their own practices.

CLIENT SUPPORT. This particular programme was such a unique experience. Eugene had completed the EMBA a decade earlier and had tried to get me involved in doing some work in his previous companies on at least two occasions. He knew exactly what he wanted from me and could articulate this in terms that fitted into our shared language. I met with the coordinating team of three to present the proposed programme for approval. All three stayed in contact with me throughout the programme. We met on ZOOM at the end of the first module to share views and plot the path ahead. The in-site company member of the three (the third was also a board member) signed up for some additional coaching sessions to make sure that he was on board and could make optimal use of each session in the daily running of the company. Finally, Eugene was always available to give feedback and advice, and was always supportive of my suggestions.

DESIGN. The design I proposed was initially based on the basic format of  the Executive Personal Leadership work I had done inhouse for several companies in the past. However, my initial somewhat fraught COV-19 experiences (described in an earlier blog) had drawn me to David Whyte’s work on The Three Marriages and, in particular, to the foundational importance of attending to our Marriage to Self. I incorporated these ideas into the basic design below, which was to be delivered in twelve three-hour sessions over three modules of four sessions each.

Module 1: Marriage to Self. Disrupting Certainty; Subjective Bias; Introducing Complexity; Marriage to Self; I am Good Enough; Reclaiming Self; Starting Habits to ensure Self-Care and Well-being.

Module 2: Marriage to Other. Vulnerability; Words Create Worlds; Shadow Projection Work; Hinge Moments; Archetypes.

Module 3: Marriage to Work. Diversity Conversations; Trust; Inter-personal Appreciation and Growth feedback; The Way Ahead.

PRESENCE. As described in the second blog in this series , I have spent the better part of over 30 years developing an interactive, perturbatory teaching style that is strongly located in Varela and Maturana’s Santiago Theory of Cognition and enactivism. I had developed confidence in my ability to read my audience and select the appropriate amount of challenge, disruption or support for each occasion as it arose. However, this ZOOM platform created a whole new world where I was suddenly deprived of body language as a source of information. I had already muddled my way through my first ZOOM teaching session with an EMBA class of 60+, but I wanted to speed up my learning of the medium.

I decided to take the plunge and sign up for a six-week Improv Train the Trainer course run by Michelle Clarke, who runs the Coaching via Technology FaceBook group. I was already familiar with the enormous insights provided by Improv (see, for example, the Ten Commandments of Improv), and had both done workshops as a participant and included it as a core part of a previous UCT GSB Executive Leadership course (LEP). I wanted to be thrown out of my comfort zone as the teacher, and take on the role of an Improv participant on an online platform who had to risk and move out of my introvert safety. I wanted to be able to observe myself and others in action, and take note of my ZOOM presence.

In the company of around twelve wonderful companions, these weekly sessions helped me find a way to ‘read’ the room on ZOOM and gave me the opportunity to ‘see’ myself in action (as you will see below).

METHODOLOGY. My first amateurish EMBA session brought me an enormous methodology gift. My normal face-to-face teaching in the later stages of a programme usually involve me taking more of a back seat through the use of video talks. In that infamous first online EMBA session, it soon became apparent that my internet link was not powerful enough for me to play the scheduled video TED talk, and I eventually had to send out the link so that the 60+ participants could each watch the talk on their own before coming back to the ZOOM meeting room to discuss it. This forced me to rethink my sessions and I returned to the ideas of an early mathematics education mentor, Dick Tahta. In the example of teaching a Geometry lesson, Dick would ask what the core concept was that I was wanting to address in the lesson. Once I had identified this, the next question asked me to identify the canonical image that would encapsulate this concept and the activity that would imprint this image on the learner.

My sessions in this ON programme consequently centred around the selection of the most appropriate activities to meet these criteria and the ways in which they could be introduced and held to maximise their impact.

TECHNOLOGY. The Improv course paid enormous dividends in improving my use of the ZOOM medium. I increased my versatility through the use of both Chat and Poll functionality (where appropriate) as well as improving sound quality through the use of advanced Share Screen options, Background Screens and Name editing. However, the most exciting tool was the ‘hide non-video participants’ feature. I could immediately see the purpose of this as many of my old activities involved the use of volunteers coming forward to demonstrate a concept or role-play something. Now I had a means to do this online and I soon got the chance to try this out in the course when I facilitated an activity!

(This extract highlights the many opportunities for learning. My presence might well be strong, but clearly the positioning of my face on the screen could be improved! One also needs to let go of control and be prepared for a participant taking a quick break … And finally, it’s always a good idea to try the activity out before using it in class; I belatedly notice that the medium has changed the dynamics of the activity and my partner is actually standing beside me and not in front of me …! 

INTIMACY. I’ve come to believe that the crucial aspect of my work lies in the challenge to create a field of Intimacy in the programme where the focus is on heart and body engagement as well as the mind. The development of Trust between participants will depend on the levels of Intimacy established during the course and the skills learned will need to have an ongoing life after the course is finished. My second blog in this series had been deeply influenced by what turned out to be a prescient Charles Eisenstein online course in which he drew attention to the dangers of our focus on war-like othering without compassion for the variety of stories that underpin our lives as well as the crucial importance of a different focus on our interbeingness in the world. I have tried to highlight some of the ways in which I attempted to pay attention to this aspect as I developed my skills and the programme.

Movement. In the past, I have relied on close proximity in vulnerable group and one-on-one sharing to do this as well as exercises such as Mirror Movement and a 90-minute Biodanza vivencia-like set of fifteen silent activities, most of which involve touch.

The final part of our Improv training invited each of us to facilitate an activity. I took the plunge and decided to explore the possibility of setting up a Mirroring activity. The group members were wonderful in accepting the challenge. I arranged them randomly in pairs using breakout rooms, and then I took them through a preparatory process where they first grounded and appreciated themselves with their eyes closed. They then opened their eyes and looked deeply into the eyes of their partner so that they could see their shared interbeingness. When the music began, they started to co-create the shared movement so that there was no leader or follower.

The feedback afterwards strongly suggested that this activity created a high level of shared Intimacy. The results encouraged me to introduce the activity into my next session with the 60+ EMBAs.

Music. One of the ways I prepare to teach is to spend the time immediately before the session listening (and sometimes moving) to music. The music usually starts out quite energetically and moves towards a peaceful and centred conclusion by the time we start. For this programme, I decided to be upfront about this and invited participants to join me in this fifteen minutes. (We had already established a rule of arriving in silence five minutes before the starting time). This became a wonderful process as I now had responsibility for putting together a playlist and I started linking the music to the theme for the session. Participants also gave feedback on the music they liked and even started sending me their own favourites for consideration for inclusion.

Feedback. The Chat function (set to only be for me as host) opened up a wonderful possibility of getting instant private feedback at the end of each session. While it was not compulsory, I did follow up by sending emails to those who kept silent and, in this way, opened up a different form of conversation. This feedback gave me the chance to adjust my next session to cater for any suggestions, address concerns expressed or write personally to open up conversation on what I felt to be private issues. On a few occasions, this led to separate coaching sessions, which were fully supported by the client.

Trust. Only in the last few sessions did we actually start explicitly focusing on Trust, but we had been developing it throughout the course. I firmly believe that I cannot ask participants to be vulnerable about their own lives and failings if I am not willing to do the same. At the start of each session, I would describe my main learning from the previous week and how I had been able to learn from my mistakes, or at last make progress in remedying a persistent issue. Trust was built up through the many breakout-room conversations that they shared. I introduced Nancy Kline’s Thinking Pair quite early in the programme as a means to start sharing without getting comment or judgment. This moved on to giving specific focused vulnerable questions to discuss in pairs or groups in the breakout rooms. I made sure the breakout-room setting kept the group together until I chose to bring them back – no early avoidance exits!

One of the most rewarding comments during the programme came from the most senior leader when he said that, while it was hard to give specifics or identify any cause-result product, the team was working a whole lot better together and members were talking far more respectfully, so he could say that the impact of the course had been amazing,

The above picture is just one of many taken from yesterday’s invasion of the Capitol. Eisenstein’s plea for Political Hope fell on deaf ears and the divide has widened, with drastic consequences.

I end this blog and my 2020 COV-19 journey recommitting myself to the core sentiments with which I started it:

I commit my teaching to serve humanity in attempting to find a way to end our separatist views of the world. I will encourage participants to join me in taking personal as well as collective and organisational responsibility for adding positively to the human and non-human spirit in the world and planet. I will endeavour to support leadership that shares this vision. 

My teaching journey in 2021 starts in a fortnight’s time so it feels important to carry these commitments with me as I meet and interact with the new group of participants. In light of this, it seems highly appropriate that this new group consists of academics/activists who have dedicated themselves to working to improve society.