Think about development days or training courses you’ve undergone for work. What comes to mind? Quite likely, the first thing is DEATH BY POWERPOINT. You sit through hours of slides and find your mind wandering to the unanswered backlog of emails you have waiting for you. Or worse: answering those emails while the instructor’s commentary becomes white, droning background noise. It’s easy to grow skeptical of these courses.
They promise to make us the leaders we were always meant to be, improve our time management or just show us how to do our core jobs in a slightly improved way. These courses aren’t cheap, and from what I have heard, people rarely return to work as genuinely better employees and/or colleagues.
With that in mind, shouldn’t employers instead invest in their employees’ character? For example, helping them to become more self-aware and more empathetic. Some studies tell us that it is these traits that help CEOs accomplish more, create customer loyalty and make employees more effective leaders.
I’m not a CEO and I don’t currently have a formal leadership role. But over past years I have been wowed by how much better I feel about work when I take the time to truly understand myself and others. So when I found out that my employer, Auka, pays for courses that support an employee’s development plan, my thoughts immediately went to a very unusual course I knew of.
Hiding my emotions
My development plan included some bullet points about improving my communication. When my tasks at work didn’t go according to plan, I had a tendency to spiral into self-blame and would become reluctant to communicate. I would communicate anxiously and hold back my emotions.
We thought I could do better.
So I enrolled in the Acem training course in interpersonal communication, which was organised last week.
Acem is a meditation organisation founded in 1966 at the University of Oslo, as the “Academic Meditation Society”. Abbreviated as “the comm course”, it originated as training for meditation counsellors, but opened to the public in the 1980s. The original intention was to learn to talk about the subconscious, as a step towards getting more out of meditation. But it turns out that understanding your own motivations for how you communicate is also useful at work, among friends or in the family.
I spent eight days there, Saturday until Sunday a week later. The main activity was “comm groups”, supplemented by un-facilitated meetings, communal labour and other outdoor activities.
Feedback while safe: the comm groups
It took only an hour into the group sessions before we were tasked with evaluating each other and how we communicate. This was one of the foundations of the group work: liberal feedback about each other’s communication. Was it forthright? manipulative? sincere? ingratiating? Are you pretending you’re someone you’re not? Did your story touch me, or was I irritated or uninterested? Are you projecting your own shit onto others?
I knew this and dreaded it for weeks before the course. I’ve always been sensitive to criticism. But gradually over four or five days I experienced something very odd: this climate of constant critique yielded a profound sense of safety. Embedding myself in something like this was entirely new to me. If I share honestly, and anyone can evaluate me sincerely, and I’m still accepted, I don’t have to worry.
So what do seven strangers talk about for 37 hours? About ourselves, mainly. We talked about issues from our lives. A code of silence bars me from mentioning examples, but every area of life was fair game. We shared stories of family, feeling left out, sexuality, romance, illness, shame, death. This rarely got boring, and if it did, it usually was because the person was going in circles around their issues, which you can bet someone would point out!
The facilitator, a meditation teacher, would guide the group’s communication toward directness. If I hid my opinion behind a question, he would call me out. If my opinion did not really address the other person’s form or content, he would ask people “What does the group think of Leif’s statement?” Usually I would be concealing an emotional charge, and expressing it directly was much more productive. (When I had simply fumbled my wording, I was allowed to explain myself, of course!)
Still, the vast majority of feedback was not from the facilitator, but from other group members. And surprisingly, this eventually included me. I gradually found the courage to tell the other members honestly how they came across. I even managed to stop sugar-coating my critique—with great difficulty, after many repeated requests from the rest of the group!
It’s worth noting that Acem does not intend this interaction style as a model for everyday communication. We can’t go around constantly criticising each other’s communication in minute detail. However, spending 37 hours doing so teaches us how we may be sabotaging communication in the outside world. We learn to give honest feedback when that is needed. We practice connecting to our own emotions and drives, and to other people.
What are you most ashamed of?
In addition to the 37 facilitated group hours, there were 10 hours of unfacilitated meetings. We would prepare by interviewing each other—about close personal relations, significant life choices and what we are most ashamed of—and then each person would present the life of one other, with a short talk and a hand-drawn poster.
I will never forget the heading of my shame poster: “NERDY/SOCIALLY INCOMPETENT”. They were my own words, yet it was enough to make me gasp when I first saw them in large lettering on a poster. (I am deeply grateful to the person who had the courage to write them out!)
These interviews and presentations gave rare, deep glimpses into the minds and lives of strangers who normally would only show me a façade. I felt a deep empathy and connection to them afterwards, and this affected my view of humanity more generally. Everybody has their shit. We are in this together.
More fun with groups…even for introverts!
Other days, we would fill out forms evaluating all the other group members, and spend a meeting walking through our average ratings. As you might guess, some people were surprised at what the group thought of them! The statistics triggered candid discussion of where we might be deluding or concealing ourselves.
And if that weren’t enough, we spent even more time together on less structured activities, such as communal labor (the Norwegian tradition called “dugnad”), kitchen duty, hillside walks and swimming in the fjord (frigid). Thus: starting at breakfast, 8:15, until ten or eleven at night (after tea, cakes and exotic fruits) we were rarely apart from our group or someone in it for even an hour at a time. Needless to say, this was intensive. After only a day or two, however, it felt normal to me, and even as a lifelong introvert I started looking forward to getting back to them.
What I got out of it
- Sitting in a group with the unique combination of safety and frankness—that was a remarkable experience that will stay with me. I gained a visceral sense of how differently I act in that situation. I know better who I am.
- I practiced receiving criticism better, without intellectualising, and giving it clearly, without muddling it by sugar-coating.
- I worked on bad habits, such as exaggerated cheer and affirmation.
- I learned to hold back on “bridge-building”, when it’s more productive to let people work out their differences.
I was surprised to realise that each member of the group had a unique set of lessons. I dare say that I had none of these points precisely in common with anyone else. Some had to learn the very opposite of my lessons!
Thus, you can’t sum up this course in a “bullet-point curriculum” and dismiss it with “Oh, I know those things”. Rather, I spent that week learning lessons that grew out of me as an individual playing out my life in a group.
This was a rare kind of opportunity for me to grow in a way I really need to. I am happy that my employer took my personal goals seriously. Decision-makers at Auka proved that “more honest communication” wasn’t just a buzzword: I see that they really do want us to give better feedback and take suggestions well. They want employees to grow their character and abilities.
Returning to work, I remember the lessons and practice them. I’m not “finished”: transformation takes time. But I trust that this launchpad will send me far.
The next communication course is 24 May–2 June 2019 near Oslo, Norway. English-speaking groups are also available.