The Clearing: Positive & Negative Space in Teams

The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus (535–475 BC), whose work we know only through small fragments of writing, described insight as a bolt of lightening creating a sudden, bright clearing a few seconds long but which sustains us far after the light subsides.

What comes to mind in hearing the word “team”?

When she first came to New York the artist Georgia O’Keefe found herself in photographer Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery (she later married him) surrounded by artists chatting up a storm. She stood gazing out the window without speaking.

The artist Andy Warhol attended a dinner party with people seated at a long table immersed in conversation. He sat quietly. A guest told how his silence gave everyone permission to speak.

No hurry. No pause.

I grew up in Brooklyn in a loving, noisy, extended family where we each spoke, as one of my sisters said, “collective monologues”. I was the quiet, creative observer. The grown-ups sometimes called me “instigator”; outside their range I invented games for friends on our block and I to play.

Imagine an environment you work in.

Recently I met my graduate students for the start of a communication course I originated in Design Strategy MBA at CCA called “Live Exchange”. We spend part of our first day drawing. Given we are in a college of art, architecture and design there is perhaps more ease with this.As artists, designers or architects we create respecting the power of negative (or empty or white) space, as distinct from the positive space: the apple on the table or sound to silence ratio.

A parallel can be made to communication: speaking is to listening as positive space is to negative. Though camouflaging itself, listening creates meaning for speaking. Like negative space, it is a shape shifter mostly without mention.

Working with teams one intention is to quiet the dominance of the already-in-place communicator to bring forth a conducive, higher order observer. The plan is to take a close look, not only at communication, but how we come to be constituted as communicators and how this is a domain for design. Our future calls for such practices.

Our group of working professionals is from India, Pakistan, Argentina, Mexico, Germany, China, the States. Acknowledging our diversity of experience the group cultivates an ethos of equivalency as listeners, speakers and collaborators. Belonging to high tone collaborations of trust is one of the profound gifts in life.

No hurry. No Pause.

The artist Susan Rothenberg said sometimes she is in charge and sometimes the painting is. Talking is like that. We humans are breathtaking yak-ers immersed in the improvisational, messy magnificence of speaking to each other.

Free and accessible 24/7, developing communication skills is the human side of change management. Our plan is to take a close look at how everyday conversations — nothing fancy — opens and closes possibility in groups where power, identity, control, influence, standards and rant come into play. This includes accounting for those who may be less than fully invested because the way teams usually communicate hasn’t always worked for them.

Working together we embed protocols to bring forth contextual knowledge: to become listeners of what is unspoken, background or underground yet has palpable force. Our standard, cheesy as it can sound, is to provide ways to bring out our best and the best in others.

What does safety in teamwork mean to you?

I like conceiving of the group as constructing a “clearing” which is conversational in nature, larger than any one of us and which we will steward over the course of a couple of months: an upbeat environment of sanctity, gravitas and humor where people with conviction put aside their hard won proficiency to research the profound intertwining of collaboration, communication, creativity, identity and outcomes.

This clearing is designed to sustain us within the challenges, conundrums and opportunities daily conversations evoke. Respecting our diversity we unpack, decipher and design prudent ways of communicating. These days we all deserve access to such learning-by-doing.

Our future calls for such practices.

We’ve all been at meetings, on teams or dinner tables where certain voices dominate while others remain background. Our habits of speaking run ahead of us.

Instead (this sounds very California) our strategy is to design a safe clearing for an emergent observer in keeping with our diverse strengths, stories and vision — authoring authentic voice to drive our communication rather than simply be at its knee-jerk effect.

We have our work cut out for us.

Practically, our intention is to “course correct” everyday speaking, listening and presence — in the moment and on the fly. We dial back cynicism a little to discern our effectiveness in conversations, relationship, messaging, presentations and outcomes. Simply put, I love teaching this.

No hurry. No pause.

In worlds dominated by the tyranny of the foreground we get busy attending to what philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002) called a “fused horizon of possibility” and what artists/designers/architects call negative or opportunity space.

What possibility are you clearing for?

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