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.

IAF Conference goes online next week!

Its conference season and one I particularly look forward to is the International Association of Facilitators conference, usually at a central location in the UK, boasting many interactive sessions over 2 days, where we get our hands on new tools and techniques – and Lego – and hang out in neighbouring restaurants.  Not so this year.  We will be partaking, piecemeal of equally wonderful sessions over zoom and other platforms with their amusing and frustrating foibles.  Our food and coffee will be our own, but, curiously, I suspect the feel will be pretty similar.   On Thursday 22nd October at 12.15 I’ll be running a timely session on “Facilitation in a time of systemic and collective Trauma”, using some of the trauma training I’ve had recently in tandem with 25 years of facilitation and conflict resolution and prevention.  Here is what I say in the blurb.

“In this contemplative session we will explore, largely in discursive small groups, some of the facilitation challenges posed by the plethora of stresses humanity currently lives with – from Covid-19 to racism and environmental collapse. We will examine different kinds of trauma – personal, collective, intergenerational and systemic – where they come from and how they act on the body and mind. You will have space to consider and discuss with others what it means for your work and how you might address issues of trauma when they come up in events.

If you a facilitator or do facilitative work within your organisation and would like to sign up for the conference, a week-long smorgasboard of delights, go to https://bit.ly/IAFEWFacWeek20.  From there you will see the whole list and can choose what to sign up for.

I am so looking forward to it – let me know if I’ll see you there!

Out and About

Its that conference time of year again… here are some of the events I’ll be attending and speaking at over the next little while.

International Association of Facilitators Conference, 18 & 19 October 2019, Birmingham

Tomorrow is the first day of the 2 day UK IAF conference.  I haven’t been to this one for ages, but have very fond memories.  I’m particularly keen to hear Suzannah Landsdell’s experiences of running Citizens Assemblies around Climate Change issues.  Like me she is an Involve Associate and I expect to be doing quite a lot of this kind of work soon.

Generally this conference is an orgy of flipcharts, pens, and experiments at the edges of facilitation practice.  We get to see new digital tools and renew acquaintances – and in this case, Birmingham, have a great curry!

Adoption UK Conference, 9 November, Harrogate

This is very project specific for me, in relation to Difficult Conversations.  I’m looking forward to finding out the most up-to-date advice on life story work with children and begin to think how this learning can spread into other work where deep difficult conversations about identity need to take place before movement forwards can happen.  Hopefully next year our reasearch team will be able to speak at events like this and share some useful tools for having these conversations.

Communicate!  12 & 13 November, Bristol

I love this event and went in previous years even though I was theoretically on leave…  Its a chance to meet pretty much anybody who is engaging with publics and building partnerships in about conservation and the natural world.  It is arranged by the Bristol Natural History Consortium and partnerships with the BBC, most environment related government departments, Bristol Council and all the national wildlife groups.

This year I’ll be running a couple of workshops around deliberative democracy – Citizens Assemblies and the like.  We will do a practical session which will hopefully produce some ‘lightbulb’ moments, then review the principles of really high quality dialgoue (at the involve end of the engagement spectrum) looks like.  I suspect environmental organisations will increasingly be requested to take part in TV programmes, debates, and also more time-heavy policy-making processes – probably for central as well as local government as well as major employers and industries.  They will need to know if what they are being asked to to is a quality process  – that knowledge is what they will get from these workshops.

I’ve just been told that all the 2 day passes have now sold out but there a 5 day 2 passes left.

Previous and ongoing…

Recently I’ve been helping a group at Bristol City Council to think through approaches to meaningfully involving citizens in decision-making.  What does that look like?  How do we do it well?  These meetings are open to all staff and members and the contact is Councillor Paula O’Rourke


Introducing…. “Difficult Conversations”

There has been quite a pause in the business of MadeToLast since I adopted a little boy and Kate had a baby earlier this year.   However the wait is over and we are back, or at least I am for now, with a raft of new ideas and ways to embed true resillience into society.

I have been working closely with Bristol University to develop a bid for the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to co-create training for social workers, adoptive parents, foster families and all carers of ‘looked after children’ around how to talk to children about past experiences – things that happened before coming into care – Difficult Conversations about Children’s Care Journeys.

For me the work came about after I had noticed, as far back as my original adoption training in 2013, that lovely adoptive parents were not talking to their little ones sufficiently about their lives previous to adoption.  “We’re in the honeymoon period”, “she is too young to talk about that”, “I worry what his behaviour would be like if we tried to talk about that again…” were all phrases I heard.    This raised red flags for me.  Working in conflict resolution and more importantly conflict prevention since 1996 I had learned that a lack, and indeed a fear of communication is often behind some of the worst disagreements and ultimately costly and painful outcomes in any arena – be that around dangerous chemicals in the environment, ongoing tensions between an IT and an HR departments, or the potential enactment of a highly controversial government policy.  And of course, with our own children.

During my adoption training we were encouraged to meet birth family, find out as much as we could and then use that information judiciously to help our children build an understanding and story of their life.   This was fantastic advice and fast-forward to getting my son,  I was lucky enough to be able to do just that.

This interface between children, the past, the future and adoptive parents fascinated me.  These kinds of difficult conversations were what I “managed” on a daily basis with stakeholders, decision-makers and the public,  so I was eager to learn how social workers and carers addressed this most difficult of areas.   Essentially the advice was to have the conversations, use the facts you know and have them early, but there was little beyond that.

I knew I wanted my child to be as resillient as possible and so I felt I needed to tell some positive stories about his past to create memories and identity.   Based on conflict resolution and positive psychology theory I came up with a number of strategies for slipping in real information into his awareness from a very early age.  He now appears to be now beautifully curious and open about his story – when he feels like it and on his terms!  And of course there will be bumps in the road…. which is why I wanted to find out more.

In January of this year I approached Dr Debbie Watson at Bristol University to see whether my anecdotal experience was reflected in the research.   I had met Debbie at an event for a beautiful “memory box” called Trove, an interactive case where looked after children could place the things that came from their birth parents.   I wondered at that point whether my idea had been already addressed, but it turned out that Trove had been a wonderful way of eliciting conversations from the children, but had now landed the resarchers, parents and social workers with lots of children asking questions they were not quite ready to deal with.   That was exactly what I wanted to help address  –  enter the collaboration on “Difficult Conversations”.

From this deep work with the University and its partners I hope to draw out some of the deep human responses to difficult conversations to be able to use with some of the other difficult questions of the day – not least how we respond to environmental and social breakdown…   Every time I talk, people ask me to develop more gentle conversation ideas around dementia, bereavement, ivf children, and physically and mentally disabled people who feel their lives are being run by medication and doctors.

Do get in touch if you have any ideas or questions.