Tangent Consulting

April 22, 2016

Asking for ‘Help!’ and Empathy

The title of this post is part II of a piece of the same name by friend and colleague Chris Corrigan over here. And what started as a piece about ‘Asking for Help’ … it ended up somewhere else!

Ever since watching another colleague, Gary Hirsch, deliver his entertaining Tedx talk on Collaboration, I’ve turned the act of “Asking for Help” into an activity at many gatherings that I design and facilitate. Gary suggests that one of simplest and most effective ways to kick-start collaboration is to simply ask for help. It seems bleedingly obvious because we all, often without knowing it, do it every day. But why, in some contexts, DON’T we?

Chris offers some more on this and I like this quote from his post:

“I value people that can do that. I think the ability to ask for help is significantly devalued in our society, where status and competence hinge on having the right answer. We all probably have stories about times we pursued the “right answer” well past the point of its usefulness, because the vulnerability of not knowing was a bigger risk that screwing something up.”

When groups come together and ask the perennial question, “How can we work together (collaborate) better? All sorts of safe, well-worn collaboration theories, methods and platforms get suggested – “Let’s establish a Working Group!” Gasp! “What about a Facebook Group?”.

Rather than tackle the collaboration dilemma directly, I prefer to setup group processes where people actually experience collaboration on something that is useful and relevant. This light approach is a little oblique and approaches the practice sideways. It’s is mashup of a few different processes and, in the right context, it works. I do it slightly differently each time and I’ve never actually planned to use it before an event … it just emerges when needed. Here’s a snapshot on my thinking that sits behind the process. My next post will detail the how.

Chris suggests that a degree of vulnerability is needed by the person asking for help. Yes, AND … those offering advice or a response also need to be willing to say “I don’t know”.

What’s Brain Science got to do with it? 

Like I said earlier, learning comes through direct experience of something, like when we play games and learn music and technique in sports. Our brains are wired in ways that make experience and emotion central to learning. Imagine trying to learn to surf by just talking about it and theorising? Well, learning to collaborate is the same … you gotta feel it dude! And this little video shows how multiple parts of the brain are activated when playing music.

To provide opportunities for direct experience, I often use activities from the world of Applied Improv (Theatre), or structured games like Paying For Predictions. These experiences live with participants for years and past participants approach me, sometimes years later, about the impact “that game we played at the Zoo!” had on their learning and world view. These processes are not magic bullets and need to be applied in the right context. But, they do cut through the cerebral noise of powerpoint presentations and traditional methods.

What’s empathy got to do with it?

“Empathy drives connection”, suggests Brene Brown at the beginning of this little clip. “Empathy is feeling with people” … “as sacred space where they find themselves in a dark hole saying ‘I’m stuck!’, ‘I’m overwhelmed’.” It’s a place where people are calling out for help. This video deals with emotions that go deeper than the kinds of things that workshop participants explore together – such as asking for help on how to better involve a local community in decision making. But the same rules apply across different contexts.

Group processes that support an empathic connection between those asking for help and those offering help is central here. To provide the kind of help that people really need, a degree of vulnerability is required. The helper needs to connect with something in themselves, in order to truly connect with the needs of the person asking for help. Brene suggest 4 things that are needed for such an empathic response:

Empathic Response1. Perspective Taking

2. Staying out of judgement

3. Recognising emotion in other people and …

4. Communicating that recognition of emotion




At the end of the video Brene hits on something that I think is crucial here. She says that when people ask for help, our automatic response to is try and make things better. So, our responses often involve jumping straight to solutions. We judge the situation and, without knowing it, fall into the trap of sounding like we have the answer. I’m guilty of this, particularly in community life!

Brent ends this video with “Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.” This reminds me a lot about a concept that Johnnie Moore introduced me to -> “Notice More, Change Less”. Applied to the help giving situation the ‘notice more’ bit encourages us to simply pay attention to the other person and to our own response or reaction. The ‘change less’ bit is about avoiding the pitfalls of advice giving in an attempt to make the situation clearer or better.


In Sum …

I had intended to describe a group process on asking for help … but i’ve written enough for now. The next post will explore the processes I’ve been experimenting with.

Lastly, I’ve got some quotes and cartoons (I love Hugh McLeod at GapingVoid!) that I use to support the kind of thinking that is needed in this asking for help context. There is nothing new in these ideas and they are applicable to setting up a wide range of dialogue processes – where ‘thinking together’ is needed.


Gaping Void FailureAt least I tried







GeoffBrown | Facilitation, Uncategorized | Comments Off on Asking for ‘Help!’ and Empathy

September 28, 2015

Tripped up … again!

Of late, I’ve been getting tripped by the language I use. Feedback from clients and workshop participants has forced me to bring some discipline to my thinking and pay attention to what and how I’m communicating. It’s all to easy to fly along on auto-pilot and I’ve been neglecting those I am supposed to helping.

I’ve always loved Lee Lefever’s Commoncraft video explainers, so, when a random reference to his latest book popped onto my screen I clicked the buy button. The Art of Explanation arrived late last week. Hopefully Lee’s wisdom can help me live into the tagline of the book by making my ideas and services easier to understand!


GeoffBrown | Being Present, Facilitation | Comments Off on Tripped up … again!

August 5, 2015

Our own learning journey


More and more of my work is with Russell Fisher and Suzie Brown over at RustyBrown. The work that really excites us are the multi-stakeholder journeys that go beyond the usual, one-off workshop. These groups contain a diverse mix of people and groups who have ‘skin-in-the-game’, in relation to some complex, intractable challenge(s) that they face together. These groups (representing a slice of a system or field) are often stuck and know that a collective effort is needed to make progress. Along these learning journeys, part of the task is to build stronger relationships and develop the courage to be creative, take risks, let-go of safety and be willing to “get comfortable being uncomfortable”.


Over the past 18 months we have been on a giant learning curve. We find ourselves reading and applying stuff from a wide range of disciplines including Systems Theory, Complexity, Improvisation, Facilitation, Mindfulness, Brain Science, Psychology and human systems based on ecological models.

As we draw on and bring together knowledge, new thinking and practices, we look forward to sharing the methods and approaches that we are co-evolving. I’ll write about some of here, and together we will post some of it over at the Rusty Brown blog.

Thanks to the following people and networks for the inspiration …

The Beyond the Basics team at Art of Hosting – for their globe trotting events and willingness to share everything!

The dynamic Creative Facilitation duo of Johnnie & Viv – for their capacity to see through the bullshit and find the ‘essence’ through publications like Nothing is Written.

Reos Partners – for their training and the collaboration & guidance from Steve Atkinson.

Circus Oz – for their amazingly creative group spaces, people and partnership with us.

Healthy Together Victoria – a client and partner that have provided opportunities to learn, experiment and put everything into ‘real-world’ practice!

Cognitive Edge – 4 days training recently with Dave Snowden and Michael Cheveldave helped us to crack open some new thinking and approaches to our group work.

Global Learning – Steve Coleman and Mark Spain for their friendship and collaboration

Clear Horizon – We keep dipping into their Evaluation bag-of-tricks and cross paths on work from time to time

As Viv would say … “onwards!


GeoffBrown | Facilitation | Comments Off on Our own learning journey

August 4, 2015

More of this … and less of that

I really cherish time alone … solitude. Those that know me probably laugh at that statement because I’m extroverted and talk way too much. But there’s always another side to people that you don’t see.

SUP Bowen Island


Photo – Me sharing a a Stand Up session with good friend Chris Corrigan a few years ago … Bowen Is. CA

This morning I left home at 5.15am to beat the Geelong Road traffic into Melbourne. I switched off the news because it’s all just too much of the same … and to be honest my life would be richer without it. I turned on my favourite CD (Keb Mo’) and let my mind wander and reflect on things.

My reflections centred on the stuff we pay attention to – me and the things that grab our kid’s attention. In our house, we are not dominated totally by digital media … but the focus on getting the sport’s results, the weather forecast, the latest political gaff/drama and the latest video doing the rounds on Facebook creeps in. Then there’s the public persona we all create by sharing and reposting the stuff that grabs our attention. It’s not all unhealthy, but it’s ever present. We also know (from the world of neuro & social sciences) that the things we pay attention to changes us … whether we like it or not.

Until a couple of years ago I spent a lot of time writing at this blog. Then, I was a producer and creator of my own content based on things I was learning in my working life. For whatever reason that time is now spent as a consumer of the mass, public media … particularly the news headlines.

So, my little experiment will start by doing more of this and less of that.

This involves more of …

  • Writing here about things that I’m learning, noticing and reading –> and this is the only stuff I will share on social media for a while
  • Reading stuff of depth like considered blogs (long form), books etc.

That involves less of …

  • Tuning into the constant stream of headlines, status updates and micro-news (without any depth) of Facebook, Twitter etc.
  • The Repost/Share buttons on social media

Experiment start now and will share my learnings in a fortnight.


GeoffBrown | Just observations | Comments Off on More of this … and less of that

May 12, 2015

Expect the unexpected

When communities take up environmental health campaigns against big, multinational companies (and Governments who support them), the script is full of drama and it feels like David will never beat Goliath again. The Anglesea and Surf Coast communities had a huge win today. Alcoa announced the closure of it’s Anglesea Coal Fired Power Station and Coal Mine. They tried to sell it off … but no one wanted to buy it.

The Surf Coast Air Action (SCAA) group, together with it’s partners and supporters, waged a long campaign to disuade potential buyers. They made it clear that our community wanted the power station shut down. No one will ever know how much of a difference we made, but it matters little. The fact is, a well organised and coherent community campaign contributed to today’s announcement.

This story will resonate far and wide. It will motivate other communities to stand up for health and the environment. Government and industry will pay attention. It means that workers in the fossil fuel industry are going to continue to lose their jobs and they need to be supported to find work in emerging industries where their skills are valued. This outcome may also act as a precedent for other redundant, polluting facilities, such as Hazlewood in the Latrobe Valley, to close.

The Coal Mine and Power Station is now what they call a ‘Stranded Asset’. It’s worth nothing and will cost millions of dollars and a decade of work to clean up. We now have a tangible example of a stranded asset in our own backyard. It’s a compelling challenge and is full of opportunities. We can create a legacy out of this mess and leave behind something that is beautiful and thriving … something that is good for our health, our economy and the air we breathe.

Well done to everyone who has been involved in action and conversations over many years. Ever since the Anglesea NEIP project more than a decade ago, people have been dreaming and scheming to see this day arrive.



GeoffBrown | Community & Belonging, Sustainability | Comments Off on Expect the unexpected

December 10, 2014

How to work with a complex system – lessons from an Osteopath

Much of my work over the past 12 months has been helping clients and teams of stakeholders to lead the transformation of systems (like food and health systems) and to discover new ways of working and being together – ways that serve us well in the context of complexity and uncertainty. This post weaves together a personal story of with lessons from my work.    

Recently I’ve been struggling with an injury sustained whilst doing a simple stretch at home. When my sterno-clavicualr joint popped out, the effect was an immediate spasm of all the intercostal muscles around the my rib cage. It appeared that the disruption of this single joint caused my whole musculo-skeletal system to seize up, resulting in significant breathing problems and widespread pain. When the joint miraculously ‘popped’ back into place, the relief was as immediate as the onset.

When I look at the diagnosis of this injury through a simple cause-effect (or mechanical) lens, the diagnosis and treatment path would/should look like this …

Over-stretch causes Sterno-clavicular joint to pop-out –> Pop the joint back in and allow any damage 4 to 6 weeks to repair –> Fixed! Simple right?

That makes sense doesn’t it? It’s mechanical after all, like when we break a bone … bone fractures –> have the limb cast (or even plate & screwed for more complicated fractures) –> bone repairs over 6 to 12 weeks –> resume skateboarding!! Well, it’s been 4 weeks since the injury and my progress hasn’t felt quite so simple and linear. Technically, the above linear pathway showing [cause –> effect –> remediation] is an accurate reflection of what has happened. But, I have since learned that the ‘underlying’ cause of the Sternoclavicualr joint injury is far more complex!

The complex process of treatment and rehabilitation begins …

After a couple of session of observations, conversations about pain sites, work habits and past physical/medical history, my Osteopath discovered a complex pattern of underlying, causal factors that contributed to my injury. Together, these factors (like tight hamstrings and assymetrical posture) interact with each other to create an emerging pattern of dysfunction. Translated to English = the many little problems with my body mechanics create weaknesses that make me more vulnerable to injury.  So, like in all complex systems (watch the Wolf in Yellowstone National Park video below) the underlying cause of my sudden injury is not that clearcut. The remediation of these multiple factors is even more complex.

In the field of Complexity, we call these factors ‘Multiple Interdependent Variables’. Multiple being the ‘many’ parts/factors. Interdependent meaning the mutual dependence between parts/factors such as general posture, muscle flexibility/stiffness and even mental state. In my Occupational Therapy career, I discovered long ago that there is great deal of interdependence between our psychology and physical functioning.


Osteopaths understand how to work with complex patterns of physical dysfunction

Now that my Osteopath has a better understanding of my particular challenges, she has begun hands-on treatment supported by a home exercise program. The first thing she said was that there is “no quick fix for you Geoff”. She also said there were many ways of tackling my problems and that she would start with a combination of interventions including deep tissue massage, dry needling, passive & active stretching/resisting exercises. She explained her theory using anatomical diagrams and it made good sense. But she also admitted it was impossible to know what effect these multiple interventions would have on my pain levels or postural/structural alignment – “We’ll have to watch closely and see what happens” … “What works with 1 person doesn’t necessarily work with another” were some of the things I heard her say.

Recently, after a series of stretches and dry needling, I hear her say “Oooh look! That did something … your hips are now more aligned in standing, but in lying they remain imbalanced? Ok, let’s now try this …”

In Complexity (using the language of Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge), my Osteo was probing my system (i.e. my body) with a few safe-to-fail treatment options to see/notice what would happen. They are safe-to-fail because if dry-needling doesn’t appear to work,  I’m not going to be left incapacitated and we try something else. This way of working is rapid and iterative and produces immediate feedback loops. This allows us to sense if something works (or doesn’t) and from that learning we quickly respond by trying something else or doing more of the same.

In sum … my Osteopath’s way of treating my complex set of interdependent problems is to Probe -> Sense -> Respond … then Probe -> Sense -> Respond … and so on. This iterative process can happen within a single treatment session or across a few sessions.


Applying this way of working to other arenas of life

No therapist can predict what difference a specific treatment (or set of treatments) will have on complex problems like the one I have described. There is no strategic plan and we don’t know the outcomes in advance. The only way to make progress is to ‘do something’ and interact or disrupt part of the system (my body). That action (no matter how small) produces some sort of emergent effect or change – it’s emergent because of the relationships between the different parts of my body. The task is then to watch closely and quickly measure/discover what happens. Armed with a better understanding of the system itself you then respond.

The whole point of this post is to point our that most of our big challenges like tackling obesity and creating resilient communities are highly complex. Complex social challenges are defined by 3 characteristics:

The situation is emergent (1) and as a result … there is constant flow of information (2) to negotiate and this means … actors are constantly adapting their behaviour (3).

Too often we treat these complex challenges as if they are complicated or simple. We assume that we know the outcomes of our actions and we pay little attention what is really happening in the system itself. Many clients I work with have little time for experimentation and work in risk adverse cultures where failure is taboo. Funders of project teams tackling complex challenges still want to know plans and how actions will produce desired outcomes. And at the end of the project we (play the game) and write reports back to funders that somehow shows how our project lead directly to the pre determined outcomes.

Deep down, we all know that the emergent, unexpected impacts of our work are often the most important things to pay attention to. If we are lucky, we will have a funder that allows iterative changes to our plan as the project unfolds. In very rare cases, funders will even allow the pre determined outcomes to change in response to our early project learning.


What else to read & watch

This post was inspired by Chris Corrigan’s post –> Back from a Cynefin Deep Dive.  If you want to learn more about complexity and a very cool decision making model called the Cynefin Framework, dig into Chris’ post and the embedded links to other goodness.

Also, please watch this video on how Wolves change the course of rivers in Yellowstone National Park. Taking the wolf as a metaphor … what could the ‘wolf’ represent in the system that you work in?



GeoffBrown | Leadership, Living Systems & Complexity | Comments (1)

November 20, 2014

On Noticing …

The more I work with groups, talk with clients, spend time with family, or spend time alone with my own thoughts … the more I realise that our capacity to perceive, listen and notice more is the greatest gift we have. Noticing more is a thing of mastery. You can never perfect it and you can always, always get better at it.

When I turn my ‘noticing’ inwards on breath and letting go of thoughts … problems diminish and clarity comes. When I turn my noticing to the outside world and to other people … I am struck by the beauty and wisdom around me.


GeoffBrown | Being Present, Just observations | Comments Off on On Noticing …

September 30, 2014

Reflecting on life in my 40’s

I’ve been having flashbacks to my own childhood lately and I’ve figured out why …

My eldest boy (Griffin) is 11 years old and, for some reason, 11 is about the age when I can vividly recall events, moments and interaction with my dad. That year was 1983 when Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ was released. Coincidentally, my dad and I had our first children at precisely the same age (within 3 days of each other).

So, when doing things with my kids, more and more I am remembering my life at 11 … when dad was my age. When I took this photo of Griffin emerging from the surf after riding a few monster waves, I remembered dad’s look of pride. I didn’t surf at 11 (hell, I wish I had), but I still remember dad praising me and giving me words of encouragement. I find myself doing the same with my boys and maybe even in the same ways as dad did with me.



GeoffBrown | Gone Supping, Just observations | Comments Off on Reflecting on life in my 40’s

June 10, 2014

Interact first … then decide what to do!

I am about to step into a large workshop with my 2 Rusty Brown team mates. Despite having clarity about the overall purpose of the gathering, we struggled to pull together a coherent design for today’s workshop. Our Skype call featured lot’s of ideas and periods of silent reflection with me filling the space with more ideas – that’s what I do when self doubt creeps in!

After watching the latest Game of Thrones episode and a great night sleep, I reflected on yesterday’s struggles. Some events, no matter how thorough the planning and briefing is, are impossible to pre-design in any sort of detail. This is where we rely on sound principles and practices to get through and serve the groups we work with.

A room of 60+ individuals (who have just been part of a re structure) is a complex system made up of many, connected parts. It is not possible to ‘know’ which are the best moment by moment processes ahead of time. When we start interacting with the system (in about an hour from now), we will get feedback which will inform our decisions and the processes that follow. It feels messy and challenges our need for certainty and detailed plans … but that’s facilitation for you!

And to throw in a distantly connected piece by Johnnie Moore (Game of Thrones & the stories we tell ourselves), Johnnie says about the stories we tell ourselves

We love them, but we get tripped up by them. Something to remember when working with people.”

Re listening/watching Johnnie’s latest reflection (at the link above) has helped me to focus for today’s event.


GeoffBrown | Facilitation, Living Systems & Complexity, Yes!And Improv | Comments Off on Interact first … then decide what to do!

May 19, 2014

Excited by Possibility

Much of my recent work has been with Russell Fisher and Suzie Brown. Under the banner of Rusty Brown, we have combined our skills and blended our experience. As we learn more from the doing together, we are remixing the way we work and our offering to the world. Personally, I have a renewed passion for my work and a clearer purpose than I did when flying solo.

Rusty Brown

Last week I was co-facilitating with Russell and there was a moment when I repeated a set of instructions exactly as Russell had just given. Russell and I have a relationship where feedback is valued as a gift and, in a quiet moment, he rightly asked me why I had repeated his instruction. I wasn’t even aware of it and initially his feedback caught me by surprise!

On reflection, Russell illuminated a blind spot that I often get tripped up by – and a very good reminder to re-read a post called “The Art of Giving Instructions” by Chris Corrigan. Russell’s feedback is always perceptive and I am grateful for the opportunity to further hone my craft. Even when I work on my own, as I did on Friday and again tomorrow, I am able to draw on Russell and Suzie. Our collaboration provides me with an intangible kind of confidence and company when I need it most.

For the first time in my consulting career, I am investing in building something beyond my own solo-practice. It feels right and I am excited by the possibility.

GeoffBrown | Facilitation | Comments Off on Excited by Possibility

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