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003: Sarah Manley and David Christie from Innovation Arts explain how to listen to groups of up to 700 people in one room and make them feel heard

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One of the five elements of deep listening is making meaning from listening to others. My guests today are Sarah Manley and David Christie from Innovation Arts, a hybrid strategy consultancy and design agency. David is the founder and Sarah is a project manager, and they both use a form of visual communication called scribing to create solutions.

During the scribing process, a graphic facilitator will create a visual map of a conversation, even if that conversation is between hundreds of people. Businesses and organizations face complex problems that are difficult to solve in a linear fashion. The scribing process creates a visual representation of the conversation and can be used to discover systems and solve complex issues. In this episode, we discuss this process along with focus, preparation and applying design thinking to solutions.

Today’s Topics:

  • David and Sarah met as part of a large team that created solutions for Y2K.
  • The primary function of a graphic facilitator is to create a visual map of the conversation.
  • How participants focus on listening to the conversation and the scribe does the work.
  • Scribes listen with intent and make visuals of what they hear.
  • How they listen to what is unsaid and make connections with ideas.
  • Preparation includes a content briefing and learning about the company culture.
  • Being fit and healthy is also mandatory.
  • Having the discipline and mindset to stay focused the entire time.
  • How it’s about being curious and engaged with helping people solve problems in the best way possible.
  • People are beginning to understand the systemic nature of things.
  • Complex problems need to be mapped out and the skill set does not always exist.
  • Applying design thinking to a range of problems people are seeing.
  • Capturing the present, past and future in these visual maps.
  • Bringing a meaningful approach to systemic listening.

Transcript

Episode  03: Sarah Manley and David Christie from Innovation Arts explain how to listen to groups of up to 700 people in one room and make them feel heard 

 

Oscar Trimboli: 

Deep Listening, Impact Beyond Words.

Sarah Manley: 

When you’re really in the zone as a graphic facilitator one thing that you can do is make connections within the conversation that are not obvious to the speakers. And this is possible because of your experience, also your level of listening, and also the fact that you are an outsider to the conversation.

I feel like the times when we’ve used scribing to its greatest success is when we’re finished with the conversation and everybody steps back from the board and looks at it and says, “Oh man … That’s what we said!”. And so being able to present a model of this organisational issue that they can then use to communicate to other people. I mean I really feel like we’ve done a good day’s work when we’re able to do that. When the client’s able to look at the drawing that we’ve produced and understand their issue a lot better, because it’s filtered and connected and interpreted by another listener.

Oscar Trimboli:

Welcome to the Deep Listening Podcast: An Impact Beyond Words.

One of the five elements of deep listening is … Making meaning from listening to others, and I’m delighted today to be joined by Sarah and David. World class experts in visual facilitation and scribing. They’re based in London but their business is global, and they make impacts for individuals, teams, and organisations to move from questions to answers in an organisational context.

Oscar Trimboli:

The beginning of this story started nearly 20 years ago, when David and Sarah met. Good evening, and good morning, London. David, Hello.

David Christie:   

Hello! Good morning, good evening.

Oscar Trimboli:

The story starts 20 years ago, when you and Sarah met. Talk us through that.

David Christie: 

Well we were both working for a large consulting organisation. The management consultancy that was in the midst of trying to find new and novel approaches to help their clients solve complex problems, and big problem at that time was this thing known as Y2K, year 2000. You might remember it. Planes were going to fall out of the sky and everything was basically go wrong with the planet.

What this consulting organisation found was a small, but perfectly formed bunch of people in Southern California; Who had created an approach based on design thinking to help groups come together, and work through for example the difficulties of understanding complex systems like an I.T. system that might have faults in every nook and cranny that would result in something terrible happening. So, we basically met as a consequence of this new team being formed around large scale facilitated sessions to help these clients essentially solve complex problems.

I think Sarah, you were in the U.S. when this started when I was in London. How did that happen?

Sarah Manley: 

Yeah that’s exactly right. So, I had graduated with a performing arts degree and when I got out of school I needed a job. (laugh) And a friend of mine, who was an artist, had started doing freelance work for this large consulting company. She was an art grad, and they had just started bringing in people to do graphic facilitation. She thought, ‘Oh well, Sarah you’d be great at this, so why don’t you give it a go!’. And so, I did, and never looked back really. Started learning how to do graphic facilitation as a skill, which I added to my repertoire of other skills used on these designs and problem-solving events. And that brought me to London where I kind of never left. So that’s the story of us.

Oscar Trimboli:

So just for those who’ve never been part of a graphical facilitated session, where a graphical scribe takes moments out of various multiple dialogues that happen, just put us in a room and describe what actually happens over a period of an hour, half a day, a day, multiple days in some cases. What’s actually taking place? Take out listeners into that space, and draw a picture.

Sarah Manley:  

Well the primary function of a graphic facilitator is to create a visual map of conversation. Usually a large group conversation, although we have worked with groups as small as eight all the way up to groups the size of 700. Or even a large group, plus an online audience. So, the size of group is really limitless, but the reason you’re there is to make a map of this conversation. And that is to support the visual thinkers in the room, and also to support the overall conversation because we believe that if you’re taking notes while you’re listening to a conversation you’re really not doing the most effective listening that you could. So, what we want our participants to do is to sit there, and focus on the task at hand; On the conversation, and let the scribes take care of the work.

So, what the scribe does is listen with intent. When listening to the conversation, we’re writing down what we’re hearing. We’re making visuals out of what we hear. So, we’re making rapid connections in our brain to an image, perhaps, or a model. We’re also trying our best to make connections between what… As we’re going along, what’s being said. So, connecting the ideas, hopefully if you’re really good, you can do this visually. (laughs) Sometimes you have to just write the words down and go back to it. But you’re making connections to the words and ideas. You’re also listening out for what’s unsaid.

Part of what makes us successful doing that is that, typically, we have expertise across a broad range client issues. But we’re not really involved in the issues ourselves, so we’re like a separate third party, and that’s what allows us to listen for all this other that’s going on beneath the surface. We’re outside of it, which is what allows us to listen on this other level.

Oscar Trimboli: 

I love how you explore what’s unsaid, and the fourth level of listening is listening to what’s unsaid. Easy to do in an individual and one, or two person situation, but much more complex in a system of 7, 10, 12, up to 700 people. What I’m curious about is, you have stay in concentration for a really extended period of time, so how do you prepare for a full day session and get ready to listen to rooms of hundreds, and hundreds of people sometimes?

Sarah Manley:   

First, you prepare in a couple of different ways. Typically, you would have a content briefing from the main sponsor of the event. If it’s one of our design events, we’ve been involved in a design and shaping of the event from the moment the client contacted us with whatever problem they wanted to solve. Sometimes they’ll tell us about the personalities in the room. I always like to ask question about the company culture, to find out is this a corporate culture that people feel free to ask questions, and to speak out.

You kind of want to get to know the people in the room, and how they are likely to ask questions, and some of the things they might be afraid to say. So, you’ll start out by getting as much information as you can, although, to be honest a lot of this stuff comes to you in the moment on the day. David, you have a different kind of experience when you’re with clients…

David Christie:

Yes. Yeah that’s true. I mean I guess there are two theories to how you prepare physically, I think that was part of the jest of your question. How do you get mentally in the zone, as well then physically prepared for standing literally for what could be 12 hours during the course of the day. There’s very much, kind of, preparedness that’s required. So, ensuring that you’re fit, and healthy is definitely mandatory if you’re going to be on top of your game. It’s almost like being part of theatre, and knowing that you will probably end up with the most famous back in the world in some instances. Because people are just staring at your back a lot of the time. It could be quite daunting, and in terms of the level of listening that I would be thinking about.

I may not may necessarily be scribing as intensely as Sarah might, for example. My job typically is more infront of the room, almost orchestrating, or trying to orchestrate the conversation. So, allowing, or trying to bring people into, a conversation at any one specific point in time based on the sort of energy that you’re feeling in the room. So, in some respects you’re trying to help the scribe reach the parts that scribe wants to reach. If that makes sense.

David Christie:

Because the piece of work that the scribe is doing is at one point a mirror, so it’s mirroring back the conversation that’s taking place, but equally it’s a portal.

Oscar Trimboli: 

I’m curious. Over a 12-hour day, or even a 3-hour day, or even a 1 hour session. It requires not just extraordinary concentration, and Sarah described this multi-dimensionality of you’re scribing, you’re listening, you’re trying to make meaning, you’re trying to bring out what’s unsaid. No matter how fast they speak they only have to speak at 125 to 150 words a minute, and yet you can think at between 400 and 900 words a minute. So, there is an opportunity to drift off, and how do you have a set of disciplines around your mindset to stay in the dialogue for that period of time. What are tips and tricks you can provide to our listeners? When you jump out, and you are distracted, how do you get back in? Obviously the first point is noticing. Once you’ve noticed, how do you come back in?

Sarah Manley:   

I think about it like playing an instrument. I play the piano, and sometimes when I’m really into a practice session I don’t really notice I’ve been sitting there for three hours. I think that’s experience, and it’s just the habits that you build up for yourself. (laugh) I was just remembering the time I was scribing a session and, it was for a Dutch client. He was spending the beginning part of his session, just sort of chit-chat getting to know the room, and I was like ‘Oh man, he’s not really saying anything, I’m just going to draw some landscape.’ I was drawing little people on bicycles, little Dutch houses, and little canal boats, and all of a sudden the speaker said, “And that’s how we solve the problem. This seemingly insurmountable problem in our own workplace.” And I was like, ‘Oh no I missed it, I missed it’ (laugh) I missed the main part of the conversation. And I think the only thing to do is just… First of all, you can’t show that you’ve missed it, so… I sort of dialled back on the bicycles, and the canal boats. (laughs) And you just really have to put your back into concentrating and listening, like surely he’s going to give a hook. And most people do, especially in the kind of world we operate.

There’s a pattern to the speakers, which is to prepare you for what they’re about to say. They’ll say the thing, and then they’ll repeat it. And so luckily for me the speaker did repeat how they solved this seemingly insurmountable problem. Then I was able to get back into the conversation, but I also tell this story as a cautionary tale. Because it really is easy to let yourself kind of slip, and think ‘This whatever they’re saying isn’t that important, it’s just chit-chat’, and often times there’s something there that you need to be paying attention to. So, for me that was a big lesson.

Oscar Trimboli:

Wonderful example of the lossless, coming into play there beautifully. David how for you how do you stay focused and on game?

David Christie: 

For me it’s about being curious. The good thing for us is we are actually brought in, we’re engaged by people, to help people solve a problem. So, I guess my objective, always, is to get people to solve that problem in the best way that they can. Which isn’t necessarily the most creative way, it just needs to be the best way that would work for that group, or work for the organisation. So, my attitude going into that conversation is about being furiously curious, and being able to hope, or expect, or wait for a nugget that’s basically going to materialise.

You know, I guess 20 odd years into doing this, I think I just learned to be fairly intense in my listening, in my expectation that there will be just something marvellous that someone will drop into a conversation. And it may be that wild idea, but it may not. It may be something that’s just naturally emerging with the group. But I just stay focused for that period of time. I think if you go in with an open mind, and you feel excited that some new possibility will emerge, but it’s your job to fish it out. I think that’s how I personally manage to stay concentrated.

Oscar Trimboli:  

The beautiful example, the opposite of lossless. The curiousness. So really the beautiful example, the opposite of lossless. The curiousness. So really really good example there. I’m curious of the kinds of techniques clients tend to use that don’t make a difference, and then they call you. When people come to you, what’s broken?

David Christie:

Well, so, I guess from my perspective I’m looking at this bit just broader than graphic recording. What we’ve witnessed over the last 20 years is that people are starting to understand the systemic nature of things. So, whereas in the past there were lots of different dynamics within organisations, for example, the CEO and the board were all powerful. They had all the answers. The degrees of complexity were just not there, or at least not understood.

What we’re seeing now is that, if you’re not a systems thinker you can’t operate. You have to think in terms of systems, because everything is interconnected. We’ve seen very clearly what happens when the system breaks down.

Suddenly there are shocks coming from places that you’ve never imagined a shock would come. So essentially that’s a very big change in how organisations now understand they should resolve complex problems. The linearity has disappeared, so the idea of mapping out that system as Sarah said right at the start of the discussion. That’s increasingly important now, and the skillset to be able to do that is not a typical skillset that exists within organisations themselves.

I think that’s probably the most startling notion I’ve seen. The other one is really then the appreciation of design and design thinking. I mean who would have thought you could be applying design thinking to the range of problems we’ve seen, or we’ve been asked to help with. For example, the World Economic Forum in Davos. Where we’re handed a number of different challenges.

Sarah Manley:  

When you’re really in the zone, as a graphic facilitator, one thing that you can do is make connections within the conversation that are not obvious to the speakers. And this is possible because of your experience, also your level of listening, and also the fact that you are an outsider to the conversation. I mean, so I feel like the times that we’ve used scribing to its greatest success is when it’s not even obvious until we’re finished with the conversation, and everyone steps back from board and says “Oh man! That’s what we said, that’s how it is, that’s what we said!”. And so being able to present a model of this organisational issue that they can then use to communicate to other people. I mean, I really feel like we’ve done a good day’s work when we’re able to do that. When the client is able to look at the drawing that we’ve produced and understand there issue a lot better. Because it’s been filtered, and connected, and interpreted by another listener.

Oscar Trimboli:

If you think about the you think about the role of stories in that, you capture stories, you hear stories. Quite often in my work with clients, until they close off a previous chapter, and give it credit, or acknowledge the fact that it is a story from the past that’s holding them back to the future. It’s really difficult for the team, the people, the organisation to step forward. To what extent are you capturing both the past, and the present, and the future in these amazing maps, and models that you’re creating for these clients?

David Christie: 

I think, just going back to the idea of the mirror in the portal. I think there’s a very strong element of that. Sometimes there’s a lot of baggage that basically needs to come out in order for a group of people to be able to move on. For example if there’s a history of failure for getting projects done for example. That can have a lot of scarring to it, or when we do have working around complete resolutions. So, working with various different groups in for example, the Middle East. We have to build a future first with which is around building commonality, building trust. Dare I say it, trying to build friendship.

Sarah Manley:    

Well I was going to say I think one of the key benefits that a graphic facilitator brings to that conversation is, because the work that we do at innovation arts does deal so much in future state visioning. What the graphic facilitator really brings to that is being able to take a picture of it, and I think essentially that’s what we’re doing as graphic facilitators is providing that future vision. I mean, I think a lot of times there’s issues in the past that are all bound up in the context of what brought them to our door. What we do as facilitators is try to pull them out of the past, and get them into the future, like being able to present that credible future is part of our job.

Oscar Trimboli: 

Wow we’ve covered such a broad spectrum. I was so excited to secure you for the interview for our audience, because the work you do is world class. The impact you have is deep, and it’s all because of you bringing to life the power of systemic listening. For individuals, for teams, and for organisations, and the ecosystems, and stakeholders they deal within and outside their organisations. To Sarah and to David. Thank you, and I’ve really enjoyed listening.

David Christie:  

Thank you, it’s a pleasure!

Sarah Manley:

Thank you! you!

Oscar Trimboli: 

In my work with organisations. I always make a distinction between the three perspectives of listening: Listening as an individual, listening as teams, and then systemic listening. How organisations listen to others inside their organisation, and those that they serve outside of their organisation.

What struck me most in our conversation with Sarah, and with David is the power of systemic listening and the ability to bring a meaningful approach to those in the room. Whether it’s 5, 50, or 500 to make sense of very complex issues in a simple visual artefact. This is a powerful tool that I’ve seen work well in the organisations that I consult to. Not only because it helps the people in the room at that time make sense of what’s being said. It gives everybody an opportunity to listen, but most importantly yet, lets the people in the room hear what they’ve said, and what everybody else has said. There is great power in systemic listening, and one of the ways to bring that to life is through the visual artefacts.

I think David, and Sarah’s work is quite extraordinary. It’s world class, and I was really excited to have them as part of this podcast. For you as an individual, ask the question. Are you listening completely to the person’s story? As David and Sarah did in their examples with organisations. Listen completely without judgement, listen completely with empathy, and that will help you become a deeper listener

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