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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Davies

Thorny Questions

Updated: May 27, 2023

This week has been a very busy but incredibly rewarding one, flying to London on Tuesday morning to run a session on how leaders can influence those they don't have direct, delegated authority over, before heading back to the airport for a flight to Copenhagen, to spend three days working with an Education Technology firm, helping their leaders think about where they are, the challenges they're facing and the direction they're heading in.

Whenever I design a session, whether it be team coaching, facilitation or training delivery, I'm always very clear with the client of the importance of adaptability and of keeping the sessions flexible and emergent. Ultimately, my role in these situations is to help the group understand what they need from their time together and to facilitate them in getting to this and that can sometimes mean reshuffling agendas and throwing activities out, in order to create the space for deeper dives where the need emerges. In other situations it can mean creating a new activity or session in real time, in order to allow something which has surfaced to be given closer attention. That's always challenging but it's equally invigorating and incredibly powerful to see the participants get their teeth into tough topics and answer thorny questions in the pursuit of understanding and progress. Sometimes you think an activity will take two hours and the group are satisfied with the outcomes after 30 mins. On other occasions, the opposite happens. This week, it was the latter!

The group I was working with, in their exploration of where they are right now, needed the opportunity to surface some of the tensions, frustrations, worries and anxieties that they were carrying. As such, we got down to work with a very open, candid session where they showed incredible vulnerability and honesty and really leant into the discomfort of this type of conversation. Individual reflection and capturing of ideas took place, before these were collated and unpacked, one at a time.

The session was heavy. Afterwards, I grabbed some dinner and headed back to my hotel feeling physically exhausted, reflecting on what had taken place. Before leaving the office, the team had ordered in some pizzas and I got the chance to speak to a few of them individually and get their reflections on the day and the words 'heavy' and 'intense' were themes throughout. These showed on the faces and in the postures of the attendees. I spent an hour or two cycling leisurely around the city, visiting the grave of Hans Christian Andersen and the Little Mermaid statue, reflecting on what had taken place and on how I'd showed up that day and I think everyone, including me was glad when bedtime came.

The following morning, I rose and headed for breakfast, taking my trusty notebook and pen with me. Over a cup of tea, I scribbled thoughts down in my pad about what had gone well and the contribution I'd made or not made at points throughout the day and the impact which I'd had. It poured out of me onto the page and my understanding of what I needed to do and how I needed to show up on day two became clear. I've long appreciated the value of a reflective practice and it never ceases to amaze me how things emerge and clarify as you talk or write them down. I left the breakfast table feeling energised and I wasn't the only one.

When I reached the office, we briefly reflected on day one and set the scene for day two and got into the work and the mood, atmosphere and energy were like that of a different team! Day one had been heavy, intense and challenging but by giving the team space to have those conversations and raise those topics, it was like a weight had been lifted from them. They attacked every activity with passion and energy, they were supporters and cheerleaders for one another's ideas and they each took the constructive challenges of the day with exactly the right intent - not of criticism but of opportunity. We checked in at lunchtime and they spoke of day one having been therapeutic and cathartic and we re-planned the afternoon's activities to ride the wave of energy and passion which had been created in the morning. It became one of the most impactful and powerful days I've spent with a team in my decade of doing this kind of work.

Thorny questions, challenges, worries and anxieties. Every team has them and if you pretend yours doesn't, you're missing a huge opportunity for growth and progress. As I look back, I think of Wednesday's session as a massage for the team. When you get a sports massage it relieves tension in areas of your body and leaves them feeling renewed. In other areas, the massage simply brings your attention to those areas of tension, not relieving them but allowing you to move forward knowing they're there and giving a signal to explore them more deeply.

Don't walk past this kind of opportunity. Build the safety, the openness, the honesty in your teams and show that you're not frighted to visit those darker places in pursuit of building a team that people are passionate about working in and which achieves incredible things!

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