Diversity Photograph: Getty Images via @guardian
by Anne Muhlethaler @annvi
The subject of communication is one that is near and dear to my heart perhaps because in my last role in a more corporate world at Christian Louboutin I held the title of head of communications.
That title was misunderstood by our CEO as well as our designer because I remember receiving a phone call when I was walking the aisles of my local supermarket shopping for groceries, being asked to explain the difference between PR and Communication: we'd had a request by someone in the US team asking to transition her title; they looked to me for clarification. I was both flattered and kind of confused too, I had to look it up before giving them an answer. In that case, it simply meant adding events, partnerships/collaborations to public relations.
When my own role changed from general management to communications, the remit had become much broader because by then our modes of interacting with each other and connecting with our clients had widely changed. The gift of social media.
Managing people from different cultures, age groups, languages and across time zones, I naturally started to pay attention to body language in meetings and video conferences. I could see the difficulties in remaining present, in connecting and in bringing energy to keep everyone engaged, listening and participating. This was an early attempt in creating safe and positive workspaces. Not a huge success across the board.
I always went a little deeper than others in both the subject or the purpose in our communications, whether a project, a press release, an Instagram strategy. The intention, the spark, the why of our modes of connecting mattered to me. Of course, going deeper takes more time, more investment. I considered how I could enlist them. My team looked at me with sideways glances when I talked at our global meetings about the importance of joy, meaning and connection. For some, the penny dropped (if a little later) and for others, they are probably still wondering what I was going on about.
Obviously, I was already following an internal compass that would shortly thereafter lead me to explore yoga philosophy and mindfulness.
MINDFUL ZOOM - WHY BOUNDARIES MATTER
In 2017, I enrolled on an online course created by a very generous soul, the famed writer, Ted speaker and marketing guru Seth Godin. In the set up of the course that he had dubbed the altMBA (alt for alternative), a five-week sprint course with about 1200 students in cohorts of maybe 30 people or so, he created a very intentional and specific framework for our interactions, one that I have come to view as a container for our student-to-student exchanges.
With all of us working on Zoom (et oui, that was four years ago and Zoom already existed) and messaging on Slack, part of the effort - or let’s call it exercise - was to listen deeply, not interrupt people so as to let them finish their train of thoughts. Refraining from giving advice, asking simple, powerful questions that would invite self-reflection, give feedback generously, and be supportive of each other. Prior to getting into the thick of the course, we were encouraged to read the book 'The Coaching Habit' where five important questions are at the core of the interactions we were to have with each other.
This was in essence the introduction for me to mindful communication. Deep listening. Not interrupting. Being there for each other.
It wasn't easy at first but then again I came to love the power of the mute button. My enthusiastic inner rumblings often wanted to jump onto something that another had said - whether in approval or disagreement - anything but mindfully respecting the boundaries we'd been given. However, I held on and in doing so, discovered that when I let someone finish expressing themselves, really listening, my own response was often very different than the reactive thoughts that had come up earlier. I learned to pause in my communication. It's not that I was incapable of doing it beforehand but in a corporate environment, it had never been either a subject of discussion or a training one could get.
This powerfully impacted our group right from day one: five of us on a Zoom call, logging in from five different countries, and for three of us, English wasn’t our first language. Plenty of room for confusion.
One of my fellow students, Cornel, felt brash to me from the get-go. With a tech background and from South Africa, something about his manner rubbed me the wrong way and in our first group interaction I thought to myself: "Damn, it’s going to be hard to work with that guy for a whole week!" I could not have been more wrong.
In the space of a few days, he became one of my favourite people in the world. We became incredibly supportive of each other and I embraced his mode of working despite it being so different from mine. Coaching questions felt like second nature to me when working with him, I felt I was really there to be his springboard of sorts as we worked on prompts together week in and week out.
THE MEANING OF HOLDING SPACE
Later on in the course, we were encouraged to further lean into silence - another practice I now discover is a hallmark of the best coaches: offering a supportive presence for the other, giving them space for their own exploration. As many of you may know, silence and pausing offer space for our thoughts to flourish. I later learned that this practice has a name: holding space.
The course felt transformational for many reasons, because of how practical some of these tools were for me. The first take away? Muting myself, cultivating presence and refraining to interrupt until someone had finished speaking. This felt like an awakening of sorts.
The container that Seth and his team of coaches had built was in large part the reason we had such wonderful interactions with each other. To this day a group of us are still on WhatsApp together. I even got the chance, thanks to our other friend Jack, to have a surprise in-person evening with Cornel in London a couple of years ago. What were the odds of me overcoming my biases, empathetically connecting with complete strangers over video conferencing and building such strong relationships online?
Actually, given how we were set up, the odds were pretty high.
As one of my latest guests on Out of the Clouds, the yoga teacher Chris Magee explained:
“One of my teachers always said, you can't help people. If you're trying to be a yoga teacher because you want to help people, you're going to fail."
He added: "You can't tell people, you can't, it's as simple as that. But what you can do is you can hold the space for them to help themselves. The framework of the practice will still be there to facilitate whatever it is that I need to get from it at that point in time.”
Viewed from that angle, the value of good teaching or good coaching resonates with me even more deeply.
I want to also note that I can be very linear (and I am guessing I am not the only one).
Particularly when in a foreign environment (virtual or not), when doing something new, uncomfortable, maybe even scary, if someone trustworthy tells me what to do, I will do just that.
It goes beyond a great workshop. That’s how I enjoyed a couple of fabulous trips thanks to my friend Marion Hume. When I mentioned a potentially upcoming trip to Australia, the ex editor-in-chief of Vogue Australia downloaded all her favourite things into an email and shot it over. Her tone was so clear, I pretty much did every single thing she said, including meeting and becoming friends with her wonderful friends Mimi and Fumi.
FEELING THE INTENTION OR TRUST IS THE CONTAINER
In order to further dig into the topic of mindful communication, I want to dig into that word, container.
A container is a place where you hold things, says the online dictionary I just consulted. To contain, to enclose. Babies like to be swaddled, children like boundaries; well a container offers clear delineation created to offer a certain type of experience. Whether you consider the learning of the altMBA or my wonderful vacation down under, I was set up for success because of the clear intention that was brought forward by the course creator and my Australian friend.
I think the first time the word container became notable (meaning not used to describe a water jug or something physical) was during my yoga teacher training. The lineage itself, Anusara Yoga, had a very detailed curriculum, itself another container: the teachings framed as a support towards learning philosophical concepts, ethics as well as the asana, and anatomy. Suzanne and her co-teachers were also intentional as to how the course would unfold. And we later were taught the how-to (for us new teachers) and the power of creating an environment that would support our future students.
Having had this first-hand experience, I can share that all these felt like safe and accepting environments where one was invited to flourish.
AN INTENTION TOWARDS DEI
My next experience of this concept came from two teachers - Xiaojing Wang and Christine Cordero - from the East Bay Meditation Centre in San Francisco, who were guest lecturing for my certification course a few months ago. EBMC for short is a mindfulness meditation centre that was created with the mission to be a welcoming environment for people of colour, members of the LGBTQI community, people with disabilities, and other underrepresented communities.
‘Our mission is to foster liberation, personal and interpersonal healing, social action, and inclusive community building,’ they clearly express on their website.
The pre-recorded session named 'Diversity Presentation' was a real eye-opener for me, a new lens, but not in the way I could have expected. I was guided to close my eyes and visualise in my mind’s eye the experience they had created. With great detail, I was invited to use my senses to be transported to the space. From the welcoming words, the art on the wall (with diverse representation) we went on to imagine the look of the gender-neutral washrooms, noted the quality of the air, purified to support asthma and other sufferers, before being ushered into the kitchen to make a cup of tea, where everything was accessible at waist level, adapted for wheelchair users amongst other groups. And finally, I was told about the quality of empathy and warmth emanating from these semi-imaginary walls.
Of course, my summary doesn’t compare to the actual guided visualisation I went through. Yet can you see the power in the container that they built, with such clear intention? I remember that they named the exercise ‘foreshadowing’ because most of us cannot go in real life where we haven’t gone to in our minds first.
What a powerful reminder that when talking about diversity and inclusion that we need to consider the full experience, putting ourselves in other’s shoes, trying on their worldview, and seeing whether our vision is far-reaching, inclusive enough.
I went to have a glance at the course transcript to see if I could bring you a little closer to my own experience and found this beautiful quote.
"Beloved community is formed not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming all of the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in this world [...] So, what we wanted to share today is really about not just diversity and inclusion, but what it looks like to affirm with positive joy all of who we are."
BUT WHAT OF OTHER ENVIRONMENTS?
Visualising an experience in order to full-proof its coming to life wasn't alien to me. I have used this many times in designing events for brands, from receiving the invitations to all the different touch points along the way, you know, the whole ‘surprise and delight’.
To a certain extent, that’s what Customer Journey is also all about: designing with purpose, aligning with values and overarching goals. Few brands do it with the gusto of EBMC so I invite you to explore their mission, values and strategy on their website to see for yourself.
So with that in mind, I hope you see where these three courses helped me dig into the meaning and value of creating safe spaces, or containers.
The first one was a learning on interaction with each other, (using the mute button to help) listening deeply, learning to give feedback with generosity and discovering the coaching approach of asking powerful questions rather than giving advice.
The second one was learning to create an intentional immersive experience, including ritualising the practices, making stepping into the studio, the learning space feel comfortable, inviting, inspiring.
The last one powerfully (for me at least) addressed how we can consider building a welcoming and inclusive space, the power of projection, and using all my senses to do so.
WHY DOES THIS MATTER?
Don’t we all want to feel safer in our interactions?
Don’t we all want to feel included? Taken into account, with empathy?
I know that I do, whether as a client, walking into a shop or as an avid online learner, or a company collaborator and consultant.
I believe in our creative power to design better, safer modes of interaction where we all feel welcomed, safe and supported. I invite you to consider the customer journey, the next Zoom call you have, or the management meeting you will host as containers too and see how you can hold space for others, intentionally, to foster more collaborative communication. Who's with me?
Want to give it a try? Here are some ideas:
Start with the end in mind - project yourself into it. What is the dream, the vision, how do you imagine the interactions?
Establish your values
Create a clear intention from that end goal - make holding space part of your intention
Put yourself in the shoes of the people you’ll be working with / interacting with
Then go and build it