Posts tagged ‘Word Drill’

October 10, 2012

“This too shall pass”

Jessie, Jeannie and Jean

“This too shall pass.” 

Common proverbial phrase repeated by my mother in her last days

Readers who know me personally will know that I have taken an extended break from writing CoRe Jolts as a result of “jolts” in my personal life.  The three most significant jolts were a severe concussion suffered in January 2011 (and continuing to impact my ability to read and write for several months following), the loss of my mother in late fall of 2011 and the more recent, and shockingly sudden, loss of my sister-in-law in late May.  The concussion had a serious impact on my concentration and focus, making writing extraordinarily difficult.  My mother’s passing had a different kind of effect: during several weeks of alternating hope and grief, anything I began to write seemed frivolous and unimportant.  The shock of my sister-in-law’s death by tragic accident only exacerbated that sense.  Perhaps in the face of such tragedy, a writing impasse is inevitable: whatever I write next seems to need to convey a suitable gravitas.  In other words, I am self-censoring everything against an impossible standard!

Michelle Taylor

Self-censoring occurs in so many other situations, of course.  If we think about our work as mediators, the learning mediator, worried about making “mistakes” and so taking much, much too long to say anything at all, may be the most obvious instance.  If you’re a more experienced mediator, you probably still remember those moments of thinking so hard about how to frame your question so that it is open-ended or reframe neutrally that you momentarily lose focus on what the parties are saying.  That feeling of needing to get it right is remarkably similar to the panic many people report in playing improvisational theatre games for the first time – self-censoring because the first idea that pops into your head isn’t funny enough or clever or …  I remember having the oddest moment of freezing like this in a high school drama class when it came my turn to repeat a series of noises that had been strung together by students ahead of me in line and then add my own sound effect.  Who would think you could actually get so caught up in judging your own sound effect that you would freeze?  But I did!  Realistically, I probably took a half second past the beat to add my completely uninspired noise, but it felt impossible to simply make a choice and get on with it.  I’m not sure what it might mean that I still remember that moment all these years later, except that it was a surprisingly powerful moment of self-censorship and judgment.

Happily, I have learned a few techniques for breaking out of this type of impasse over the years.  I need to – I help law students to move past self-censoring as learning mediators every year in my Mediation Clinic.   In that context, the difficulty of using unpracticed communication skills like acknowledgement of emotion, reframing, etc. creates similar impasses for some students every year.  On some level, it comes down to not wanting to “get it wrong” and consequently doing nothing!  Worrying that my blogging will somehow be too frivolous has remarkably similar results to worrying about a blunder in a mediation role play or in a real mediation – both result in a self-induced “operator” impasse.  This post then is itself an effort at impasse breaking, and focuses on breaking through the self-censoring impasses that can afflict mediators themselves.  And, of course, the same considerations may well apply to parties to a mediation who don’t want to “get it wrong” any more than the mediator does.

Jolts for Mediators or Mediation

1.  The impossible deadline

DockTimer

One of the most common techniques in applied improv work is setting an impossible deadline.  Kat Koppett captures the reasons that setting an impossible deadline is so effective in encouraging creativity in her instructions for the game “Spontaneous Marketing” (See Kat Koppett’s book at the CoRe aStore.):

“Enforcing shortish time limits helps the creative process.  If people feel that they did not have enough time, that does two things: gives them an excuse to not be brilliant, and honours their spontaneous responses without over-evaluating.”

As mediators, we certainly all focus on trying to create a non-evaluative space for brainstorming, but we usually try to do so by allowing generous time to develop our thoughts and contribute ideas.  Instead, try asking for a minimum of 2 ideas from each party in 30 seconds!  And tell the parties that you know it’s impossible to be brilliant in that time: that’s precisely why you’re asking them to try it – to eliminate over-thinking.

And we can train ourselves for greater spontaneity by engaging in many of the same warm-up games as improv performers use.  I’ve written before about variations on “Word Drill”.  You can find instructions for many similarly simple and easily adapted games online.  See for example, the Improv Encyclopedia.

And yes, I’m creating an impossible deadline for myself in getting this blog drafted: I’ve downloaded a new timer app (DockTimer) to my desktop that I’m using to kickstart all of my short writing projects.  13:42 left before this is ready to post!  After all, I can always edit later – just as parties can work with their rapidly generated ideas to develop something more polished.  What is most important in cases of severe impasse is simply getting started.

2. Forced accountability

One of my creative heroes adds an extra layer to the forced deadline that has clear applications for impasse breaking: Jane Espenson, an amazingly prolific writer for shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica and most recently, Husbands, was the first to bring the notion of a “writing sprint” to my attention, although it seems that they are a fairly common practice.

In essence, a writing sprint is a focused and discrete block of writing time that is announced to the world (often via Twitter #writingsprint), and serves as an invitation to others to join in.  While the online version has no magic checks on what you really do during your announced sprint, the announcement serves to produce a degree of accountability.

Within the workplace context, groups undertake writing sprints to develop ideas, launch projects and prepare for discussions.  The in-person writing sprint adds greater accountability and can serve as the basis for impasse breaking in a wide variety of settings.  Consider assigning a writing sprint, in combination with a very short deadline, in a mediation setting by asking individuals to create lists of criteria for resolution, negative criteria (what can’t be part of a solution is a useful tool for developing a list of interests), or simply agenda items to discuss if things are bogged down at a very early point.

3. The Obituary as Conflict Resolution Tool

In May of last year, I wrote about Gordon White‘s work in applying adult development theory to impasse breaking.  Amongst Gordon’s many suggestions for working with stubborn impasses is this jolting question to help move parties out of the rut of a focus on minutiae into a recollection of bigger picture considerations:

“What do you want people to say about your life at your funeral?”

Now that is an enormous question that could be crippling in my current state: it could easily exacerbate my self-censoring need to be profound rather than frivolous.  But let it roll around for a bit; don’t try to answer it too quickly.  With a bit of time and reflection, it becomes something quite different – a reminder that there are much more important things in life than the current conflict/impasse/etc.  In fact, it can jolt one to think about what’s really important, or it can jolt one to recognize that the immediate problem is not so overwhelming.  Either way, thinking of the bigger picture is a great way to step back from a mess of crippling detail.

Drawing on the notion of a writing sprint, in the right mediation context, parties might be asked to make a list of qualities they hope will be remembered in their obituary.  Use that list to examine or develop an approach to resolving the immediate problem – especially where there might be common values amongst parties.  For example, a person who wants to be remembered for “kindness” may embrace a conflict resolution approach within the mediation that explicitly engages in “kindness”.  That might include ground rules about specific forms of respectful listening and valuing of others’ opinions, before critiquing them.  Someone who takes pride in “efficiency” might be frustrated by the initial discussion of values, but may well be won over by the possibilities for quicker and more efficient negotiations once the process is tailored to best suit the parties.

4. Death quotes for reflection 

For the mediator seeking personal impasse breaking, an alternative approach to the big picture reflection of imagining one’s own obituary might be reflection on one of the many surprisingly inspirational quotes about death.  In a 10 minute (DockTimer-ed) online search for death quotes, I found dozens that could serve as a starting point for asking oneself “What is truly important?”  Some, such as Paul Tsongas’ oft-repeated comment “No one on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time on my business,’” directly raise the question.  Others are less direct and may provoke reflection because they don’t mesh with one’s own values.  For example, Errol Flynn is credited with saying, “Any man who has $10,000 left when he dies is a failure.” One might well argue that point, but to do so is to reflect on one’s own sense of what is important.

Here are three more quotes that struck me as possible starting points for reflection – each for different reasons:

No one can confidently say that he will still be living tomorrow.  Euripides

Do not fear death so much, but rather the inadequate life.  Bertolt Brecht, The Mother

A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.  Martin Luther King, Jr.

What quotes or other reflection devices help you to jolt yourself into a creative, or simply active, state of mind?

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January 10, 2011

Spontaneity

“Creativity arises out of the tension between spontaneity and limitations, the latter (like the river banks) forcing the spontaneity into the various forms which are essential to the work of art or poem.” Rollo May

The notion that limitations can generate spontaneity will be familiar to most mediators.  How many times have you said, “We have only X minutes left in our scheduled time …” only to see the parties shift from a determined positional stance into a problem solving approach?  Suddenly, they are able to throw out spontaneous suggestions and ideas without hesitation.  In fact, limitations can be freeing; if you know there isn’t time to do an excellent job, then you can’t be judged (or judge yourself) too harshly for a mediocre job.  Permission granted to be less than perfect, and suddenly it is much easier to brainstorm without self-censoring or immediate critique of others’ ideas.

One of the motivating ideas behind this blog was a desire to test my belief that limitations can increase not just creativity, but also productivity.  In this case, the limitations imposed by a weekly blog – the need to produce different ideas quickly and frequently within a relatively contained format – should, if the theory works in practice, promote spontaneity in the production of short written pieces.   And certainly in the world of applied improvisational theatre, spontaneity is the key to generating more ideas.

Spontaneity is not, however, something we find natural in most circumstances.  From our earliest days, we are trained to control our impulses.  As we get older, we learn that we should evaluate our thoughts before expressing them.  The more serious and business-like the setting, the more self-censorship we should impose so as not to make “silly” suggestions or express ill-considered ideas.  Conflict, of course, means  even more self-monitoring and hesitation before we speak; the “other guy” will criticize all our ideas so we’d better think carefully before sharing them.

Looking to the world of applied improvisation, we see a number of professionals who have devoted study and practice to solving exactly that problem: improvisers train to develop their “spontaneity muscle” and the tools they use to develop their own capacity to relax their censoring and rebuttal impulses can provide wonderful ideas for application in mediation.  Some of the simplest exercises can be imported in their entirety into a mediation in order to give people a mindset “jolt” by explicitly warming them up for spontaneity.

A fabulous resource for mediators – that doesn’t make it’s way onto mediator resource lists, but should! – is Kat Koppett’s Training to Imagine: Practical Improvisational Theatre Techniques to Enhance Creativity, Teamwork, Leadership, and Learning.  This week’s jolt is adapted from Koppett’s description of the exercise, Word Drill.  I encourage all mediators to explore this book for many other transferable ideas too.

Jolt for Mediators or Mediations

Word Drill (variation for mediation)

Set-up:

It is important to explain the reason for proposing a “jolt” exercise in the midst of a mediation.  The mediator can identify the impasse facing the participants and discuss the need to “shift gears” in order to move into problem solving mode.  “Perhaps this suggestion will sound a bit odd, but …  What if we use an exercise to kickstart spontaneity that is completely separate from the current issues?  If we warm up our creative thinking, then come back to the issues fresh, perhaps we can come up with some new ideas.”

The Exercise:

Word Drill involves one or more persons rapidly throwing out words that have no connection to each other.  Another participant responds as quickly as possible to each word with the very first word that occurs to them.

There are quite a few variations on the format for Word Drill, most of which involve placing one person in the “hot seat” while everyone else fires words at them in rapid succession.  This can work in some mediation settings, especially if the mediator goes first in the “hot seat” to show that it is really not connected to the issues in dispute – it’s not a trick to get people to agree.  Once the mediator has taken her turn, it’s much safer for a party to agree to be in the “hot seat”.

To run this version of Word Drill, the mediator will invite everyone else to take turns throwing words to the mediator, encouraging the participants to be ready to go as quickly as possible.  Participants can think ahead, and should try to throw out unconnected words for the mediator to respond to.  After a few rounds, one of the parties can move into the ‘hot seat”.

A variation that may be less threatening in some circumstances is to have the mediator lob all of the words back and forth between participants.

For example:

Mediator to party 1: Dog   Party 1: Cat

Mediator to party 2: Cedar     Party 2: Snowfall

Mediator to party 1:  School    Party 1:  Reading

It’s important to emphasize that there are no right or wrong answers.  The goal is explicitly to get used to throwing out spontaneous ideas and not self-censoring or critiquing in order to create a mood in which the group can brainstorm effectively on the topic in issue.

Variations:

  • Start with the mediator throwing out the words, and then shift to a round table approach where everyone passes a word to the next person.
  • When the exercise is flowing smoothly, shift to allow the disputing parties to play as a pair going back and forth, modeling the type of back and forth communication needed in the mediation.

Debrief:

Ask the parties to comment on the process.  What challenges did they face in coming up with words to throw out?  Did they want to find a “good” word before speaking?  How much did they feel like self-censoring?  Did that change as the exercise progressed?  Are they ready to try to bring the same energy to discussing the items on the mediation agenda?

Variation for Mediator’s own warm-up:

  • Before the mediation, the mediator can warm-up their own “spontaneity muscles” for their role in facilitating by playing a solo game.  Try to make rapid associations of words in your head or out loud without evaluating the associations.  See how long you can stay “in the moment”.
  • While this may be a little “too much” for some, I decided to try recording a series of words with pauses and burning them onto a cd to play in the car on the way to a mediation.  This allowed me to play word drill with random words, rather than with a chain.  Some readers will know that I also tried this out with a recording of a variety of phrases in need of reframing to get myself into a reframing mindset.  I’ve found that a cd that starts with word drills and moves into reframing is an excellent warm up for a mediator.   Asking my daughters to help record ensured lots of variation.
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