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Online Listening Circles

The responses to all online working and meetings vary. From “works better than I thought” to “I can’t take it anymore, I want real contact again”. It is clear that it is more tiring to meet online, and the reasons and remedies are listed by many, including participation expert Levuur.

One of the reasons they cite is that it is less easy to see the other person as a complete person.* In person this often happens spontaneously, for example at the coffee machine, or during a lunch. We hear each others stories and share wisdom without thinking about it, thereby building strong connections that will get us through all the challenges we are facing as a team.

Speaking to a manager recently about the situation, she said: what was important before is even more important now, and that is working on building a strong team, day after day.

That is why I offer a mini team building. An online listening circle of about 2 hours in which we come together around a “hot topic”, with storytelling as a format. No endless talking and dull talking, but a ritualized process with alternating stories and silences. An exercise in listening and sharing. Including intake, decision-making process, preparatory process and aftercare. With the special extra: a creative harvest of the circle in the form of a poetic observation.

In organisational contexts, we constantly interact at level of action, knowledge and ideas. Thanks to this interaction, we get things done. During a listening circle I invite you to meet on a different level. Not to tackle a theme with ideas, actions or knowledge, but to look at it from the perspective of life experience and stories. Hence Storytelling.

An example of storytelling
During a leadership training course, participants had a hard time taking the lead during a group assignment. They did not want to appear “bossy”. I told them the story of Aline, a play I wrote and directed.

Of the four characters, one had to get things going again and again. The actress who played her was absolutely fantastic. At least at the premiere. The second night she played nicely but with an energy level below zero. The piece collapsed. When I asked her afterwards what went wrong, she confessed to me that she had received so many compliments after the first performance that she was afraid that she would draw the attention away from her fellow players. So she had decided to play “less energetic”. “Sweetheart”, I said to her (as actors sometimes call each other), “will you please shine like never before at the last performance tomorrow? Not because you are better than the others. But because your brilliance makes the others shine! ”
The next and last performance was a resounding success.

The workshop participants understood the message. During the following assignment they shone and they let each other shine.

This is what we will be working on:

  • A theme that concerns you.
  • Participatory decision making: you decide together whether you will embark on this adventure or not.
  • Listening with attention, also online: how do you do that?
  • Speaking with intention through storytelling
  • Reflection and translation into concrete insights regarding the theme.

This is how we would set it up:

  • Is this a good idea for my team? We discuss this without obligation online. (with a core team, maximum 2 people) Together we decide whether this is the right form for the team. If yes, then we determine the theme. We are also looking at which online platform we can work with. By default I use Zoom because it has a number of nice and handy features, but of course I adapt if your organization prefers a different platform.
  • What exactly is it and how do I tell the rest of the team? A storytelling circle gives you as a team the opportunity to connect with each other around a theme that concerns you. It is also an exercise in (even more) listening with attention and sharing with intention. I will send you a video message to frame the process and invite the team to make a decision together: we go for it or not. You explain to the team yourself which theme you have chosen and why.
  • What if not everyone agrees or has a hard time with the format or theme? To make an online storytelling circle work, it is important that everyone is on board. I therefore assist you remotely in a decision-making process. I provide you with a written process and I coach online 2 team members to supervise this process internally. Purpose: concerns and objections are identified and addressed. If necessary, we look for adjustments and solutions in an online follow-up meeting with the core team. If the final proposal is not accepted by the team, it means that something else is needed. We can discuss this together.
  • We are going for it! How do we prepare? I will provide you with a preparatory document that each team member can work on individually. It contains tips and exercises on listening and storytelling.
  • D-Day! I accompany the storytelling circle – with a colleague responsible for technical facilitation – and conclude with a poetic observation.
  • That was nice, satisfying, profound, interesting, completely different from what I expected… And now? I will provide you with the creative harvest of the circle, an evaluation and a number of questions that you can discuss together in the next team meeting so that you can express what exactly has come in and link it to your daily reality.
  • That poetic observation was great! What else can we do with that? Poetry is a way of paying attention to deeper wisdoms that are shared – in words or not – in such a circle, so that they stick longer. You can have the poem that emerged during the circle put in a beautiful lay-out and send it to everyone. You can make it a living object in your team, that evolves, maybe someone would like to make a drawing, or someone else would like to add a verse. I can also deepen the observation myself and turn it into a song. Or you can just let go, and take it up again a few months later. How do you feel now? What are you still applying? What has changed? What has been snowed under? Which sentence stuck? What was helpful?

* My sense is that this is often also a problem in organisations offline, due to time pressure or a predominantly mechanical view of people. (as little radars in a machine or numbers on an xls sheet). Taking a moment to reflect and connect from human to human is crucial. That is why I also offer listening circles in person, whether or not as part of a learning process or team day.

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