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Archives: 'Facilitation'

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

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

May 18, 2014

Excited by Possibility

As the title suggests, much of 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.

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 confidence 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

March 27, 2014

SCARF for social activists

I am not a huge fan of ‘ACRONYM’ models, but this framework – called SCARF – from neuroscientist David Rock is one of the more useful ones.

As many of us, within the Anglesea and surrounding communities, unite to SHUT DOWN the Anglesea power station, we discover that some people see the world differently to us. It’s easy to take the moral and intellectual high ground and say “We’re right and they’re wrong!” … but that sort of thinking will never unite a diverse community of divergent views. Applying the SCARF framework to our engagement strategy will help.

Here is a summary of this document by David Rock – – I have taken direct quotes and added a little of my own interpretations as well …

The SCARF model is a framework that can activate a reward or threat response in social situations. SCARF can be applied in any situation where people collaborate in groups such as at community lead rallies and information nights. The SCARF model involves 5 domains of human social experience: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. Here’s a brief description of each domain with a footnote … advice for any community leaders who are trying to SHUT DOWN a local coal mine and power station.

Status is about the relative importance to others. If people feel left out, or in a minority group at a social gathering, the associated drop in status generates a strong threat response. When threatened people often defend a position that doesn’t make sense to avoid the perceived pain of a drop in status. If leaders wish to influence other’s behaviour, more attention must given to reducing status threats in social situations.

Certainty concerns being able to predict the future. The human brain craves certainty so that it can predict the future. Without being able to predict, the brain uses far more resources and energy to process our experiences. So, as our community lobbies to SHUT DOWN the local coal mine, it opens up new and uncertain future scenarios. Large uncertainties like this one can be highly debilitating and cause people to stop listening and snap judgements. This is why we must communicate and discuss plausible and relevant future scenarios that don’t include a coal mine.

Autonomy provides a sense of control over events and a sensation of having choices. As soon as a participant at a community event feels a reduction in autonomy (with no sense of control), the experience can be threatening. When inviting people to take action, statement like “this is what you have to do now!” should be avoided at all costs. Providing people with a choice between different options can shift the perception. The set up of the room and types of processes used also plays a significant role in the experience people have.

Relatedness is a sense of safety with others, of friend rather than foe. In the absence of safe social interactions, the body generates a threat response. People naturally like to form ‘tribes’ where they experience a sense of belonging. So, as Anglesea attempts find a community voice, we should be tapping into this tribal sense of belonging. For those opposed to the SHUT-DOWN campaign … no matter what ‘we’ do or say they won’t change! Neurologically, we are wired to adopt messages from those who are ‘like’ us … from the same tribe.

Fairness is a perception of fair exchanges between people. The need for fairness may be the driver behind the formation and energy of the Surf Coast Air Action group and the SHUT IT DOWN campaign. Members of our tribe experience internal rewards for doing this volunteer work to improve our community – born out of a decreasing sense of fairness in the world. For our upcoming event in Anglesea, we need to be completely transparent about our purpose and our mission to rally support Shut the Mine down.

I’ll finish with a couple of quotes from philosopher Theodore Zeldin about the deeply social nature of the way our brains are wired together and connected in social networks …

“When will we make the same breakthroughs in the way we treat each other as we have made in technology?”

“The kind of conversation I’m interested in, is one in which we are willing to emerge a slightly different person.”



GeoffBrown | Brain Science & Research, Community & Belonging, Facilitation, Leadership | Comments Off on SCARF for social activists

January 28, 2014

On being part of the problem …

Co-conspirator of mine, Chris Corrigan, has shared a post he titled – Dealing with your slaves and seeing the world. This piece is a timely reminder about how we perceive the world around us. For me, it’s a little challenge to my own perspective … and to the stories I make in my mind about any problem that I am tackling.

I’ll only focus in on 1 angle of Chris’ post here. This quote from Adam Kahane is at the core of his post …

“Bill Torbert of Boston College once said to me that the 1960s slogan “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” actually misses the most important point about effecting change. The slogan should be, “If you’re not part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution.” If we cannot see how what we are doing or not doing is contributing to things being the way that they are, then logically we have no basis at all, zero leverage, for change the way things are — except from the outside, by persuasion or force.”

When I hear people (and myself) talking about any problem – communication at the local school, device/screen addiction in their kids, the Alcoa Coal mine – the image in my mind looks like this …

on being part of the problem


Imagine if we could really see our own part in every complex problem we perceived – local or global. I think this self perception would fundamentally change a lot of conversations. A deeper understanding about our part (and the parts other’s play) in the problem helps to build up a better picture of the whole. You can apply this to different scales – individual, team and organisational, national.

Chris concludes his post with a few questions:

“So, what is your experience in affecting change from inside the problem?  How do you work towards justice while recognizing your complicity in the very problems you are addressing?”

The practice-challenge to myself is a question about how I reframe things in my own mind. Here is one personal example I’ll apply it to:

What is my part (and how am I complicit) in the device-addiction that has crept back into our family life since returning from our 5 month trip last year? And then … how can I affect change from within the problem?

Geoff Brown


GeoffBrown | Being Present, Facilitation, Just observations | Comments (2)

January 14, 2014

Viewpoint shift

The line that separates my work and play isn’t really a line at all. Experiences with family and friends teach me as much about myself as time in front of a group. Each serves the other and they are connected. So, the notion of a work-life balance doesn’t make sense to me anymore – I am seeing this term through new eyes … with a new perspective.

In 2014, I’ll be keeping this Pattern Card (from the Group Works set of cards) at the top of the deck. It serves as a personal reminder to step into the shoes of others and listen. I’ll use this card when designing group processes and support individuals, teams and organisations to notice more and see things through other perspectives. And at home this card (like many others in the deck) are a great teaching tool.


GeoffBrown | Being Present, Facilitation | Comments Off on Viewpoint shift

December 12, 2013

A story of Text2Cloud that (finally) works in Australia

2 years ago I worked with Chris Corrigan and Steven Wright at the first World Indigenous Housing forum in Vancouver, Canada. With over 600 delegates, a key technical design challenge was about “how to” harvest individual and small group ideas and from a group of that size?! In a long story short, we engaged the brilliant Luke Closs to build us a text2cloud system. Our brief was to enable delegates to text their insights to a central number. We needed to be able to access the data quickly and discover themes using online tools such as Wordle. We needed a ‘digital’ harvesting tool that would capture the essence of (analogue-style) conversation between people.

Luke’s system worked beautifully for our team in North America and I couldn’t wait to use it back home in Australia. I hit brick wall after brick wall and – due to the militant policies of Australian mobile carriers – I just could’t find a way to use Luke’s brilliant code.

Then just a couple of months ago, friend and colleague Fran Woodruff asked for my advice on text2cloud systems after hearing my Vancouver experience. That’s when Fran alerted me to Poll Everywhere – a online service that essentially replicates what Luke built from scratch over 2 years ago. Thank you Fran!

Last week, I had the pleasure of working alongside Viv McWaters and together we experimented with Poll Everywhere at the Game Changer Conference with over 350 delegates. It worked and here is what we learned about using a text2cloud system to harvest ideas from large groups …

1. Text2Cloud is a useful replacement to the traditional (and tedious) post speaker Q&A session

As questions came in from the delegates, our MC and Viv reviewed the questions as they scrolled up their computer screens. The texts arrive in real time and provide the reader with an instant snapshot of the emergent questions that usually remain invisible. For some people their questions never get seen or heard. We were able to synthesise the breadth of the questions and select the most compelling or common questions to ask the guest speaker. Speakers also agreed to provide brief answers to every question after the conference – this formed part of the proceedings. 


2. Text2Cloud is a great way of harvesting priorities from group dialogue and cafe-style conversations

At the end of small group conversations, we invited participants to text in the priority ideas and actions. We were able to harvest these easily and reflect them back using the large screens as they ideas came in. 


3. Reflecting back the themes/patterns (in real time) from large groups is powerful


4. Applications are not just limited to working with groups in the one room. Why not use this system to capture feedback/responses from anyone involved in a project or initiative even if they are geographically dispersed!

5. Everyone (well at least 99+% of people) knows how to text and most carry text-enabled devices with them to group events

6. Poll Everywhere is a text2cloud system that is easy to learn and it does what it claims it can do!


Let’s keep experimenting with these new harvesting technologies! When used well, they can be a great compliment to processes involving dialogue and group conversations.


GeoffBrown | Facilitation, Vizual Thinking | Comments (1)