When does a story start? Who knows where the threads that make up the fabric of a life come from or when they first showed up? There are three main threads in this story, and the first seems to have begun the day I started school, aged 5. I was enthralled by the whole experience. I loved my teacher, Miss Forehead, and made up my mind, on day one, that I would be a teacher when I grew up. My decision never wavered - and so seventeen years later, I experienced another first day at school, this time as a maths teacher. But it was not everything I’d dreamed of. I loved to teach, but my ‘disciplining’ was ineffective, and when my daughter was born a few years later, I swapped teaching for mothering. Not long after that, I discovered that I loved to teach adults, but it was to take many more years before I discovered what I really wanted to teach, and why.
The second thread does not have such a definite start date, and it’s a thread I can only see now, with the benefit of hindsight. I think it started in my teens when I was thinking about becoming a teacher. I remember wanting schools to be different – less hierachical – and arguing with my father about this. Much later, I remember being outraged when I read about a theory suggesting that there are two kinds of people: people who like work, want responsibility and are creative (managers) and people who dislike work, avoid responsibility, are not creative and so have to be told what to do (subordinates). I could not accept any part of the idea that it’s possible to categorise people into two groups and that managers have to keep subordinates in check - and I found the word ‘subordinate’ particularly unacceptable.
About twelve years ago, I read in Jack Black’s book, MindStore, the oft-cited tale of the Yale students who were asked about personal goal setting: only 3% of them wrote their goals down and 20 years later it was found that those 3% earned more (and were more successful in other ways) than the other 97% put together. I’ve just read on the internet that the story isn’t true, but Black’s version of it had a dramatic impact on me. He concluded that 97% people are helping the other 3% to achieve their goals. Again, I was outraged, and immediately decided I wanted to be in the 3%. However, it only took me a second or so to realise that I had put myself in a bind: If I accepted Black’s premise as true, and if I got to be in the 3%, people in the 97% group would be helping me. And, I didn’t want that for them, any more than I wanted it for myself. It took me a while to realise that we could all be helping each other.
When I came across Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline, and The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, I was really ready for the ideas I found in them, especially those around co-creating shared vision. In this model, everyone in an organisation gets to be creative and everyone gets to say what they want. I’m not sure how often this happens in practice in organisations but this seems to me to be a much more equitable way of working. Now it seemed like there were some people on my wavelength, after all. Later still, I was to discover a way of working which encourages deep respect for individuals and their creativity…
Before we get to that, let me pick up the third thread in the story. Having spent several years teaching adults (as a Weight Watchers leader) I was now writing, researching and designing – material for members and training materials for leaders and managers - and it was at that time that I began reading books with names like: What Color is Your Parachute?; Build Your Own Rainbow; How to Find the Work You Love; The Work We Were Born to Do. Looking back now, I can see I was searching for clues. What was I born to do? How could I be doing work I would love? I had gone from the certainty I had as a child, of knowing what I wanted to do, to being on a quest.
I began to get a sense of what I would love when I took an NLP Practitioner and then Master Practitioner course. I met people on similar quests and many of the NLP tools helped me find out more about myself and what I like. (Until day one of the NLP Practioner, even the idea that I might be able to set and achieve an outcome seemed quite far-fetched.)
The next thing I came across was Clean Language and Symbolic Modelling – and now I knew I had found something which felt like a really good fit with who I am: a way of working with people that doesn’t tell them what to do, that respects people deeply, and that encourages people to answer that ‘far-fetched’ question: What would you like to have happen? Over the years I have realised that teaching is really about creating the right conditions for learning, and facilitating people ‘cleanly’ does just that.
Early in the Clean Language training, Penny Tompkins told Ursula Le Guin’s story of Ged , a young boy who studied to be a wizard. During the story Ged learns the importance of discovering the true name and true nature of things. Penny quoted from the story:
“You thought as a boy that a mage is one who can do anything. So I thought once. So did we all. And the truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower, until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he knows he must do…”
I had read in my other books ideas about ‘true nature’ and somehow this story brought them alive. The idea of one’s ‘way’ getting narrower until there’s no choice was new to me, though, and had a big impact on me.
Gradually, that is what has happened. Over the past 10 years, since I discovered Clean Language, I have switched from being a full-time employee of Weight Watchers to working full time in Apricot Island. And the range of activities that Apricot Island has undertaken has become narrower, until now, everything we do is in some way linked to Clean Language. People in the Clean Language community tend to have similar values to me, and so while in one way this can be thought of as a narrowing, there are many opportunities for exciting collaborative projects with like-minded people. Many times in the past ten years, it has felt like my quest was over: I now know (again) that I am a teacher, and now I knew what I wanted to teach… but then along came Phil, with another quest(ion)....
Phil Swallow and I have been working together to develop our trainings and other offerings over the last six months or so and we’ve been asking ourselves: Why Clean Language? What is it about this way of working that attracts us and keeps our attention? What are we doing this work for? This hasn’t been an easy question to answer. There are many reasons I favour this way of working and I believe that our clean facilitation makes a difference to people and that our training helps to spread this deeply respectful way of working, and make it accessible to others. But none of these reasons is the same as a vision, shared or otherwise. What are we trying to achieve in the world?
You have probably guessed that a book came to my aid in beginning to answer this question! The book is called The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. I don’t think I have read one of these ‘how to find your passion’ kind of books since I encountered Clean, so it is intriguing to read it from the perspective of having found mine… I find myself agreeing with him rather than wondering ‘yes but how?’ as I used to do. I know now that I am ‘in my element’ when I am teaching Clean Language.
Then, a few pages into Chapter Two, I read this:
“One of the key principles of the Element is that we need to challenge what we take for granted about our abilities and the abilities of other people. This isn’t as easy as one might imagine. Part of the problem with identifying the things we take for granted is that we don’t know what they are because we take them for granted in the first place. They become basic assumptions that we don’t question, part of the fabric of our logic. We don’t question them because we see them as fundamental, as an integral part of our lives.”
The word ‘assumptions’ jumped out at me…
One of the main skills of a Clean Language facilitator is to be able to keep our assumptions to ourselves, by sticking to the discipline of asking only Clean questions. By doing this, our clients’ assumptions become more apparent to them. And then we can use the questions to help them challenge their assumptions about themselves. The penny dropped! So this fantastic tool that David Grove developed can help people to find their own true nature. Of course, I already knew this at some level. What I have been searching for has been right in front of my nose for a long while. It has been important to me to find my true nature, the work I love, my life purpose… and of course, that’s important to others, too. And it’s important to me that people have an opportunity to know themselves and what they want and lead fulfilling lives.
So there it is. The three threads are now enmeshed. I am a teacher. Not a ‘telling people what to do’ kind of teacher, but a ‘providing an environment and encouraging the conditions where people can learn’ kind of teacher. Of course, when Phil and I are teaching Clean Language, we provide structure and activities, and share our knowledge… but it’s the open and relaxed atmosphere which means it’s ok to ask questions and for participants to share their knowledge too, and which makes it effective. Of course, the subject we’ve both chosen to teach – Clean Language – helps with this a lot, with deep respect for every individual built in. If we start to stray into ‘telling people what to do’, the material we’re teaching soon reminds us of what we value.
Working one-to-one with people using Clean Language is all about encouraging conditions for learning. In this mode, the opportunities for ‘telling’ are much reduced. I have been tempted, of course, and sometimes given into temptation. And I have regretted it those interventions. I cannot know what is best for someone else and I have learned to trust that they do.
When I am teaching Clean Language or facilitating cleanly I am ‘in my element’. I have found my true nature. And now, I am aware that the work I do can encouarge others to find their true nature – or whatever they want to find.
My attention is drawn to the question: And when people find their own true nature, then what happens? It seems as though that may be the next part of my quest...
Tags: clean language