31. The mega-importance of micro-interactions part 2: Micro-solidarity and micro-appreciation
How to stand with actual real people in small ways. It's good for them and for you.
Last week I wrote about the importance of the tiny details in our interactions and communication, and how small apparently insignificant differences can have (possibly unintentional) negative impacts. This time we’ll look at the flip side – how small interactions can have a very positive affect.
Care speaks louder than words
Over the weekend I was participating in the Remix Musical Improv festival in Edinburgh. As a jazz musician I improvise a lot, but this event was about improvising musical comedy and shows in short and long forms. I managed to make some acting contributions and also played sax and clarinet to accompany some of the action. We had some fine teachers including Pippa Evans of Showstopper and I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue (and 10 years ago the co-founder of the Sunday Assembly movement of which I am proud to be part) and Laura Hall who does the music on the long-running US TV version of Who’s Line Is It Anyway?.
I mention Remix not just because it was a total blast to be doing workshops on improvised rap and musical genres, and taking part in jam sessions and stage sketches, but because it was SO WELL ORGANISED. Christine Simpson took such great care in sharing information, registering people, making sure everyone had the choices they wanted, looking after rooms, teachers and moving us between the different sessions, dropping in discreetly to the various classes and then leading the late-night jams with huge energy. She took real care of all the people involved.
I’m writing about this here because, in my experience, this kind of care is not only part of making the event run smoothly, but because it demonstrates a valuing of everyone involved. And as a participant we may not notice that immediately and directly, but it’s enormously important, really conveying that the event is about us the participants and not simply a money making venture or a vehicle for prima donna stars to flaunt their self-importance. (Remix was most certainly not either of those two things, but you know what I mean…).
When I was teaching organisational trainers to use accelerated learning methods back in the 1990s we used to take great care with the participants and the learning environment. Walking into a room which has been prepared for today’s topic, carefully arranged, decorated, filled with interesting materials and peripherals, with music and maybe flowers, and a warm and interested teacher to say hello and welcome – that shows a valuing of the people in far more meaningful ways than a wall poster declaiming ‘Our people are our greatest asset’ can ever achieve.
Decades ago, my wife Jenny (being a good 60s radical) used to go on student marches to show solidarity with the Cuban sugar harvesters and their fight against capitalism. She tells me that they had a march to celebrate the harvest one year – even though it had been unsuccessful! It’s easy to want to stand alongside a big group of people you’ll never have to meet – Cuban sugar harvesters, striking miners in the 1980s and so on. It is quite another thing to actually show solidarity with them as individuals, face to face. (The 2014 movie Pride is a nice story about what can happen when people move from general solidarity to actual personal engagement – well worth a watch if you haven’t seen it.)
My attention was recently drawn to a website/organisation intriguingly entitled Microsolidarity. The people behind it have a very interesting community building practice which starts at the level of self and progresses to partnership (pair) to small group (crew) to large group (congregation) to crowd. It’s a ‘fractal view of belonging’ – the same things coming up at different scales. They also reference the importance of leadership as hospitality (though don’t seem to have read my books on host leadership yet). It looks like very good stuff – there were summer camps in the EU and USA in 2023, and there are lots of ways to participate.
I think they’ve hit on a key point about community building. My Village In The City initiative is contacted from time to time by people who would love to be part of a thriving local neighbourhood community. On closer inspection it sometimes transpires that they want to somehow get there without making any effort themselves involved contact with actual (breathing, warm, different, unpredictable, possibly smelly) people! 😊
When people ask about how to get their ‘village’ off the ground, we advise them to aim small. Find one other person who’s keen on the same thing. Maybe advertise a get-started gathering in a local venue – and be delighted (not downhearted) when only two or three people join you. That’s a start. In fact, it’s a great start. You can talk about your hopes for the community in the future, your skills and experience that will be useful, what’s already there in terms of community (maybe in tiny traces)… and you’re off to an actual start. Having two dozen people show up would be nice… and also quite hard to engage with at first. Building out – from one other person to another, smaller groups to larger – is surely a useful way to go.
Micro-affirmations: connecting with individuals
Last time I wrote about microaggressions and how seemingly tiny remarks can be debilitating to those on the receiving end. This time we will look at how to use tiny remarks not to be aggressive but to be supportive and affirming. This is a really good skill for those of us wanting to organise people in ways that are both humane AND effective, so read on with interest…
I mentioned the work of Rayya Ghul and her colleagues at the University of Edinburgh. Rayya talked to students and staff and wrote about how comments about race, gender, sexual orientation, disability and class could very easily wear down those on the receiving end -even if the remarks were unintentional. She published resources for staff and students (written with Katie Nicoll Baines) which you can download free from her Researchgate page. These resources also give some excellent pointers on how to use micro-affirmations both as a counter to microaggressions and as a great way to support people. Here are some of the suggestions:
· Learn all students’ names – if you are not sure, ask them to help you pronounce them. Practice saying the name and/or make a note of the phonetic pronunciation.
· Ask for and respect people’s pronouns – do not make assumptions when enquiring about partners
· Show interest in students, ask them about their aspirations.
· Affirm a student’s potential to succeed – the future is unwritten and up for gtrabs
· Highlight the student’s specific abilities and progress to them and reinforce this through appreciative enquiry – help them to articulate their strengths and to build on them.
· Validate their experiences – believe them when they share their concerns or report incidents
· Listen actively – lean forwards and focus on the student
· Affirm their feelings – if they say they’re (for example) nervous then agree that’s tough right now (and it’s probably very normal)
· Make clear statements about expected behaviours and what will not be tolerated – state them and have them visible.
These now form part of the guidance for staff at the University of Edinburgh. In general these are very small but important things, all based around noticing little signs and taking a genuine interest in the person in front of you. Doing them well is not easy! While this list assumes a teacher/student relationship, it’s quite easy to see how it can be easily adapted to other settings such as community development or leading a team.
In passing, I can’t help noticing how in my own (English public school) education we were somehow implicitly taught to do the opposite of these things, to ‘put people in their place’ (taking each point in turn):
· Don’t learn people’s names – just give them nicknames based on some unfortunate physical attribute which you can then use instead
· Assume they are just like you – if they aren’t they’re probably not worth your time
· Show no interest in their aspirations, simply tell them about your forthcoming and inevitable rise to success
· Highlight their specific shortcomings and leave them in no doubt what those shortcomings are
· Invalidate their experience by telling them that you’ve had it worse and anyway they shouldn’t moan
· Don’t listen at all – doing most of the talking is a good way to seize the initiative
· On no account affirm their feelings, which in any case are simply signs of their inadequacy
· Do not make clear statements about expected behaviour – these must be picked up through a process of cultural osmosis and becoming ‘one of us’.
To be clear, perhaps I am exaggerating a bit here - and writing with a certain degree of truth and experience. Actually, my school experience wasn’t that bad, compared to others to whom I have spoken. Have you experienced managers or leaders who do these kinds of things? I hope they’re becoming rarer these days.
The immense potential for using little interactions to show care, take an interest in people, actually show solidarity, go slowly, give space, simply be with others on a small and personal scale, is a key piece of organising in a humane and effective way. Which is what we’re all about here at Steps To A Humanity Of Organisation. Look out for a chance in the next 24 hours to do a little light micro-affirming and see how it feels to you.
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Dates and mates
Don’t miss the SoCoCon online conference this weekend on Sat-Sun 14-15 October 2023. It’s the Social Constructionist Conference for therapists and change agents, organised by Kirsten Dierfolf (SolutionsAcademy) and Jan Müller (iFR Hamburg). It’s free to join - register now at the website. I will be leading a workshop session (Saturday afternoon 4pm UK time) on Moving from mind/body to person/world: the next step of de-muddling, and there are plenary panels including luminaries like Ken Gergen, Dan Hutto, Harlene Anderson and Jim Duvall. This is an amazing opportunity to hear from and engage with top thinkers in the world of changing conversations - do join us!
As I mentioned above, Christine Simpson is hoping to organise another Remix festival next year, almost certainly over a weekend. Sign up here for more information as it comes in.