What’s In Your Box? and the principles behind difficult conversations….

Over the past couple of weeks a number of people have mentioned our resilience game What’s In Your Box? saying “surely its time has come” and “where can I find out more?”.  So here is a little more about what it is and the principles behind any successful “difficult conversation” .

What is What’s In Your Box?

What’s In Your Box? is a game-like exercise we researched and created at MadeToLast Resilience to help people prepare for natural and human-made environmental shocks and stresses.  It can be played in families, communities, at street parties, schools and work-places.  It uses cards with pictures of items that participants can choose to keep or not in a safe box for use in response to a given scenario such as flood, fire, gas leak, pandemic, volcanic erruption … and even zombie invasion (for the kids – and big kids!).

The most important thing to happen in the game is the conversation between participants as they use all their knowledge and differing experiences to think through the problem.  Discussions about what their scenario may look and feel like initially and after hours and days create many “penny drop” moments which, once noticed, are hard to forget.

How does it work?

These are things that most of us haven’t needed to think about in the recent past.  The reality is that we in the UK live on a very safe set of  islands – we’re not in an earthquake zone, we don’t have volcanos, tsunamis or even tornados (except very little ones) or even animals that are eager to kill us so we don’t have a societal narrative of being aware of environmental dangers.  With increased flooding and extreme weather from Climate Change we are going to need to learn that skill, normally honed over generations, very quickly indeed.

Within the game, this process of conversation is about something very serious – quite possibly life and death –  yet away from the glare and high emotion of the actual event, we enable people to think clearly around the issue and unpeel the layers of complexity.   In practice families and teams sitting round tables are talking home truths with great hilarity “mum, just take the bottle of wine!”  “of course we need a pack of cards!”  “oh heck, nappies!” “Do we really need water? its a flood, why would the water turn off…?”.  Community conversations around flood stores sound like: “we can all bring our own spades… no – think emergency – we really won’t do that will we – OK, put spades in the store.”

During the sessions facilitators visit each table listening, nudging and asking gentle questions where a vital issue has been missed.  When the game is finished, participants can photograph their ideal “box” and where the issue is relevant to them, go home and fill a box in real life.  We love getting photos of full boxes and smiling families putting them in a safe place.

Why do people avoid difficult conversations?

In normal family or work life these kinds of conversations are viewed as “difficult” and will often get put off.   I have recently been part of fascinating research which asked questions about why we put of vital conversations.  We are asking people to think the unthinkable and they may have strong reactions – from being triggered by past trauma, to denial “yeah, that stuff about climate change/Covid is all a con” or intense feelings of futility or guilt.   However it is essential if we are go become coherent as individals, teams, companies and sectors to talk about what needs to happen now to live sustainably and well into the future.  We can absolutely do this without therapy!

Principles – the 4 Cs

The very good news is that there are some simple rules of thumb – which are exemplified in What’s In Your Box?  and which help when having any difficult discussions.  These are my 4Cs.

  1.  Connect.  25 years in conflict resolution as well as our recent experience with Whats In Your Box and Difficult Conversations never ceases to show me that connection with others, laughter and kindness get far, far further than plain data and even authority.  Over milennia, connection is the first thing established by many tribes when mediating and sorting out differences, by professionals and parents dealing with traumatised children and by doctors with patients (ones that have had the right training!).
  2. Calm and kind.  Or “composed” – whatever word works for you.  Get people to be in their bodies, not just their heads, doing breathing exercises to “ground” – even a couple of rounds of 4 in/7 out breathing will work to allow your fight/flight brain to know you are in a relaxed environment.   Polyvagal Theory (created by Steven Porges),  tells us that humans, through living in community for thousands of years, have developed a nervous system whereby if we can’t calm ourselves down (using our thinking front brain to calm our flipping out “lizard” brain or amygdala – which frankly is almost impossible), then we can be calmed by the calm, engaged presence of another human.  This is called “co-regulation” – we have literally evolved to work together.
  3. Collaborate. Engage widely to use all available knowledge – get grandma involved – she knows a thing or two about blackouts.  On a larger scale, studies already tell us that during this pandemic, schools who invested in their community, with good relationships with Foodbanks Child and Adult Mental Health Services, Adventure playgrounds and other local services were the ones able to help the families of their distressed children to stay supported and healthy.
  4. Curiosity.  I love it when children get involved.  They have no problem using the exercise of “5 Whys” which always gets conversations to an underlying need or fear and gets adults to really think about what’s important.

If you work in the environment, conservation or communication fields and want to know more, I’ll be speaking at Communicate 2020 at 10.30 on 26th November.  When we meet physically this conference always sells out, but this year the 2 days are online and for only £25 you can attend some great sessions from grass-roots activism, to funding, conservation, psychology and online communications and meet the most lovely people to boot!   Check it out here and let me know if you are coming.