Jonathan poured himself a coffee and some water, and began the day.
“Good morning everyone. Thanks for creating the time to get into the room. I know you’re all very busy, and I want you to know it’s not lost on me that being here isn’t ‘free’. It demands something from each of you to set aside your schedules and be here for a whole day. Please take a minute to acknowledge yourself and each other quietly for creating this time and space to be together and begin working towards a common vision.”
Jonathan paused and then continued.
“First things first — I want to remind everyone of our agenda for the day, provide some context, set out some agreements for how we’ll play with each other, and then dive in. Before I do, does anyone have any burning questions, or something they absolutely need to share?”
No one spoke, so Jonathan began writing on the whiteboard behind him as he spoke.
“Our agenda for today is really two-fold. First, we want to get clear on what you’re going to be creating over the next year. If we don’t reach a collective agreement on this, individuals on the team will tend to pursue what they think is most important. This will create a fractured approach going forward, divide your efforts, create resentment and friction, and reduce your efficiency as a team. We want to get clear on the results you’re aiming for, as well as create a rough structure to support you in making this happen.”
Jonathan paused to check in with the team. When he saw nods around the table, he continued.
“Second, we want to begin working on some of how you’re getting in your own way. That statement isn’t personal to you — there’s nothing about this particular group of people that has more or less ’stuff’ getting in their way. That’s just a statement about humans in general. We all have our own blindspots, patterns, egos, etc. and those things will inevitably get in our way. Having these pointed out to us is not always pleasant, and we often have some resistance to accepting what is being brought into our purview. That’s why we’ll create a context for our conversation today, and some agreements to support us.”
Jonathan wrote more on the whiteboard, setting out the words “Context” and “Agreements”.
“Here’s the context I’d like to set for today. When I talk about a context, I’m talking about how we’re relating to this conversation — really the place we’re each coming from. One context for this conversation is that I’m here to tell you how you suck. If you were listening from that context, you would hear any feedback I have for you as something deficient about you, and would probably feel pretty crappy as the conversation carried on. The context I would like to invite you to hold, and come from, is that we are here in mutual support, and to create breakthroughs. Creating breakthroughs may require looking at what we don’t want to look at. From that context, receiving feedback from me, or another team member, might provide something different. Instead of it being about how you suck, you could receive it as an opportunity to create the breakthrough you want to create. Is this making sense?”
Dennis spoke up. “Yes, and what is the context you’re asking us to bring? I’m hoping it’s not how we suck?”
Everyone laughed as Jonathan responded, “You can all breathe easy — today is not about how we suck. The context I’m inviting you to come from is that we’re here to create breakthroughs together. In my experience, a breakthrough is almost always preceded by a breakdown. All that I mean by that is, if you want to build a mansion, you have to knock down the walls of your condo, and if you’re doing that, there’s going to be a period of time where your mansion is not yet built, and you no longer have the protection afforded you by the walls of your condo. This is the breakdown. It’s the period where you stop doing what is no longer working, but haven’t yet created what’s next. From this context, I want to invite each of you to welcome and embrace those feelings of discomfort — even and especially in those moments when you feel most resistant.”
Dennis spoke again, “Jonathan, what about if I have my condo in one part of the city, and I want to build a mansion somewhere else?”
Jonathan smiled politely while he waited for the laughter to die down. Mentally, he was noting that he would need to address Dennis’s need to turn everything into a joke. That would come later though, after they’d made their agreements.
“Geography aside, are there any questions about this context?”
Jackie put her hand up. Jonathan nodded to her.
“So are you saying we should just be happy when we’re getting feedback that we’re crappy?”
Jonathan smiled. “No. Because that’s still inside the context that you suck. What I’m saying is that we humans generally receive and give feedback through the lens of ’this is how I or you suck’. From that context for our listening, it’s hard for any feedback to make a difference. So what I’m really saying is that you may already have your listening tuned that way — to listening for how you suck. My invitation is that you set that context aside, and listen through a different lens today. Listen for how this feedback, whatever it is in the moment, is here to support you in creating a breakthrough, and practice holding that it is coming from a desire to support you. Can you see how a piece of feedback may land differently for you, depending on which of these two contexts you’re listening from, Jackie?”
Jackie pursed her lips and crossed her arms.
“Maybe. I think so. I’m not sure.”
Jonathan nodded. “Okay, I get it. I think as we create our agreements for today, it’ll make more sense, and I’ll check back in with you after we’ve done that and see. Sound good?”
Jonathan addressed the rest of the group. “Any other questions?”
When no one else spoke, Jonathan wrote “Listen through the lens of breakthroughs and mutual support” underneath the word Context. Next, he turned to the word Agreements.