Years ago I heard a seasoned Head Teacher talk to some worried parents about how to have ‘difficult’ conversations with their young people.

Basically, it consisted of doing just about the opposite of what earnest, well-meaning, people might usually seek to do.

A top-tip was to get rid of the dishwasher.

You see, the trick was to appear not to be trying to have a conversation at all. The trick was to not focus on the other person, and not to attempt eye contact.  The trick was to side –step the existing and tricky power structure between you both and to get into an easier and more natural ‘I and you’ pattern.

Washing up together created perfect conditions: attention appeared to be on another task, eyes were trained on a soapy water or soggy tea-towel – depending on who had drawn the short straw – and conversation became just about as casual and benign and enquiring as it possibly could.

So why do we throw this excellent advice out of the window when we are in our offices?
Why do we create squirmy and fear-inducing settings for the conversations that matter?

What might the washing up equivalent be at work?

Meetings are hard to abolish – but we could at least spend more time on ‘check ins’, or standing, or asking open questions of each other.

We could use images more often, and less self-consciously.

We could play with metaphors and fairytales to open a discussion, or to make our case, or to excavate issues that are worrying us.

A great way to start a team conversation is to elegantly by-pass the usual judgement/ compliance by using props and conversation-generating tools.  Have a look at Packtypes.  These excellent people will come in and help you navigate the trickiest of issues. It will feel like a speedy and benign journey of joint discovery.

And in the meantime? Some rubber gloves and a dish brush might be a good place to start.


P80pxtreelay day at the table next to me. Role play day.

The interviewee is leaning forward, shoulders slightly hunched in his suit jacket. He reacts to each comment from the interviewer as the cleverest thing ever. The interviewer dominates the table. She checks herself discreetly in the mirror after particularly emphatic points. And it’s all going fine. They’re both getting what they need, doing what they came here for.

But have they actually met each other? I don’t think so. The roles have met each other.


Identity. It’s been a theme this week. “I can’t be ‘me’ at work.” “Will the real ‘me’ stand up.” Like a slogan on a tee shirt.

And everyone is wrestling with it.


The beautiful film about Jane Bown – Looking for Light – released last week gently reveals how a talented, small, un-assuming, perceptive woman could create photographs that reveal to the viewer the real ‘me’ of so many well known people.

Apparently she would walk around the subject unobtrusively, looking for what felt true. She would whisper,
“Ah, there you are” as the pictures she was looking for happened. Everyday language for that process is ‘taking’ the picture. Jane Bown talked of ‘finding’ the picture. Isn’t that beautiful?

And there’s nothing fluffy about ‘finding’ the picture. The stunning, definitive picture of Samuel Beckett was taken after Jane insisted he honour his promise (Beckett had agreed to being photographed and then changed his mind). She was reluctantly allowed 5 frames, as he left a theatre rehearsal. So the finding happened with a determination, a sense of justice and fairness, a sense of now or never. Two people really ‘meeting’ each other.



Do you remember that old saw about fearing the camera taking the soul? A colleague recounted a story this week of a small car altercation.

She leaped out – another driver had reversed into her. The ‘guilty’ party quickly had the mobile phone out, clicking away collecting pictures of the situation from all angles. Including a picture of my colleague. Who asked that a picture not be taken. The demon reverser repeated ‘yes yes of course’ but seemed to fumble over deleting. My colleague realized, too late, why this was: the picture was being sent somewhere first. So far, so familiar. Except my colleague is still wrestling with the unexpected sense of having been robbed of something important: that picture, taken against her wishes, could be anywhere, and seems ..almost…to have taken part of her with it.

After realising how complicated all those feelings are around identity in a picture, further complications in our everyday lives are looming. Are you familiar with the phrase ‘Identity is the new Money’? Originally coined (hah!) at the time of plans for National Identity Cards, it is the title of a new book by David Birch (publisher London Publishing Partnership April 24 2014) describing how electronic payment systems will develop. The very concepts of ‘money’ and ‘identity’ are changing fast, and converging. Soon, transactions will be based not on money, but on our identities, or aspects of our identities.

And just as I try to fully grasp that, there’s a commotion. A full-speed small person has cannoned into another customer (all this is happening below knee height) and coffee is flying everywhere.

Now, fancy that. In the dance of patting, and wiping, and placating, our interviewer and interviewee have jumped up and are relaxing as they put things right. They are actually looking at each other, and sharing spillage stories.

Ah, there they are.