Dateline Addis: Nov 6th 2014
It’s 8:35 am. This is the view from the 7th floor overlooking the roundabout on Africa Ave at Deluxe Furniture. We are scheduled to start at 9. Patrick is setting up the breakout room down stairs so I’m the greeter. This group has done two in-person workshops and several weeks of online work – I am the new guy.
“Is this the right room?”
We are polite, reserved, friendly and brief. She takes a seat at the far end of the space and opens her computer. A second person. We abbreviate the same chat as she sees her friend and they sit together. Soon a dozen people have arrived, said hello and sat as far away from me as they can. Together.
Patrick returns and the group lights up. He invites everyone down to this end of the room so we can get started. We do a round of introductions and a check-in. The room is getting warmer and we roll out some questions.
“What would be great? How do I show up (under stress)? What do I want my leadership legacy to be?”
We look at each other and around the room, laugh a little – until someone raises their hand. It won’t be quiet like that ever again.
“Confidence. I’d like to be more confident when I present.”
“I’d like to be understood better. English is not my first language, so I struggle to get people to understand me sometimes”.
“Do you get feedback to that effect?”
“Yes. Well, once.”
The last question about leadership legacy is the ten minute writing exercise. We’re cruising and they dive in.
The debrief of the writing exercise is fascinating and fantastic and leads easily right back into experience.
Patrick and I split the room into two groups and he takes his bunch away. Now we are 7. We adjust, rearrange the chairs to create an audience for a small stage and huddle up.
“The purpose if this next exercise is to practice seeing people as compared to just looking at them. Remember, your audience decides if they feel seen – we don’t. Put the needs of the audience ahead of yours as the presenter. Then we’ll get real time feedback from the audience about their experience of you. Every body is going to take a turn presenting. Your content is whatever you created in the writing exercise. Questions?”
“Who’s up?” I say.
Now the parade begins. Extraordinary human beings, one after another. All so brave, people trying to get out of their head and into relationship. Literally watching folks step gently out of their own way – amazed. I can reflect on and find learning in every person I worked with that day and I do. But I will offer you two.
First up is a senior executive from the country office, a woman from Botswana. She is wise and powerful, a dancer when she presents. Her first time through was a lovely performance, but not a lot of connection. We introduce the game: connecting with one person in the audience. Be curious about them, investigate them, invite them into relationship. When that person feels seen (not just looked at) they are asked to raise their hand.
She practices. She breathes, gets centered and starts inviting her audience into relationship one at a time. The results are lovely, powerful but sometimes slow. Someone she has invited into relationship takes their time raising their hand. She compensates by dancing towards them. The hand still hasn’t gone up and she’s close to sitting in their lap when finally the proximity boundary gets crossed. They laugh and stop.
“You didn’t raise your hand! I was trying to secure relationship with you.”
“He decides when he feels seen, not you.”
“Is that how I come across? Am I like that?”
Some people nod a little. She becomes still and looks at me.
“That is important”
“Let me try again.”
Now there is breathing and stillness and genuine curiosity. She is so loving and kind and when she sees a person, a peer and invites them into relationship, she cannot be denied. When she gets out of self assessment and into relationship she gets bigger. Her stature, her size, her presence grows. We all feel it.
The feedback she gets after the second time is radiant. People rave about her and want to work with her even more.
“What are your takeaways from this experience?”
“Breathing and the power of connection.”
“Say thank you one more time and we’ll applaud you.”
Everyone from the morning group makes a discovery or is a critical part of somebody elses – or both. The work is fantastic.
Lunch break. It’s brought in and both groups come together. After lunch I walk around the balcony and take some pictures. Ethiopia is a country of 90 million people, 4 million of which live here in Addis.
I’ll fast forward to the last participant in the afternoon group. This woman is local she is both strong and fragile. She admits to everyone early that this is her worst nightmare. She reads through her piece with much apology and ends early. The feedback is gentle but honest. There are tears.
Now her worst fears are realized and there is shame. I ask her to connect with me. She turns to me and laughs while crying,
“Good. That’s right, the stakes are pretty low with me. Let’s breathe together. Fill your lungs from the bottom up, slowly and exhale slowly. That’s all there is. If you take one thing away from this experience I want it to be breathing.”
As she re-oxygenates, a calmness descends upon her. It takes a couple of minutes but soon all the shaking is gone, all the tears are gone.
With her shoulders square and her feet solid beneath them, she kept breathing and got curious about someone in her audience. She started asking herself, what color are their eyes, their eyebrows? What shapes do I see? She started inviting them into relationship and she too could not be denied. She got out of her head and into relationship and everything that was amazing about her became visible to all of us. Once again, we all felt it. Her feedback this time was a huge victory. She had come quite a long way from shaking and crying to connecting and co-creating. Through her, the group celebrated their extraordinary journey. What a day.
Both groups now come together for the final debrief of the day. We revisit the pages we filled up first thing earlier this morning.
“Did we address your desire to become more confident as a presenter?”
“Absolutely. I’m actually looking forward to my next meeting.”
“What about your wish to be understood better?”
“I think people understand me better when I’m connected to them. That’s what I heard them say at least”
We say our reluctant goodbyes.
“Oh – let’s get a picture!”
Patrick and I celebrate that night at dinner. His stuff went well too. Good work begets good work and there is much to leverage after today. We come up with a loose plan on how to build on what we’ve done and we eye the next workshop in Aman Jordan. Patrick is living there now and traveling back early in the morning. I’m starting my vacation.
Tomorrow is my first of four days as a tourist in Addis Ababa Ethiopia. I’m looking forward to practicing what I’ve asked the participants to practice all day long – making connections with people and this new environment, inviting them to inform my content. What I don’t know is that tomorrow, a major power and communications line will be severed at a nearby construction site blacking out and blinding two square miles of downtown Addis including my hotel.
I wonder how I show up under stress?