An unhurried approach to boredom and anxiety in groups
I’ve just spent a couple of weeks in Australia co-hosting some workshops with Viv McWaters. As we live on opposite sides of the planet, we relish these opportunities to see each other at work and think creatively about our practice.
We’ve been paying a lot of attention to those times in groups when there’s a sense of frustration or anxiety, or maybe an apparently awkward silence.
The impulse in these moments is to try to escape, by changing the activity or breaking the silence with a joke or clever thought. But we find that if we check that impulse, and sit with the discomfort, something really interesting often emerges.
Sometimes we do this without saying anything, and sometimes we’ll say to the group: we get the feeling this activity may have run out of steam, but we’re going to experiment with sticking with it for a while longer and see what happens.
In our practice, we realise that there are lots of opportunities to build that unhurried muscle. Sit patiently in a conversation that seems to have run out of steam; hold silence for a little longer; be patient when processes seem to be faltering.
In training facilitators, we sometimes use improv theatre games to explore the performance aspect of facilitation, and we’ve been using one called Dolphin Training quite a bit lately. Someone leaves the room, and the group then invents three actions we want that player to perform. (For instance, pick up that mug and move it this table on the other side of the room; stand here and do a twirl).
When the player returns to the room, we try to guide the to perform our chosen actions. The twist: we can only do so with simple feedback. We sing a familiar song… loudly if they are getting close to doing what we want, and more softly if they don’t.
It’s a fun game but like all these games, behind the fun is an interesting and sometimes challenging experience. When the player seems to be failing, the singers get impatient, and feel tempted to give little signals and nods or even call out tips. We frame the game as practising not doing this: what if we feel the frustration but see what it’s like not to act on it. It’s the practice of sitting with discomfort rather than acting on it.
When the player eventually succeeds, that satisfaction is greater for having held our patience. And we get to talk about the practice involved in sitting with anxiety — which we think is an important skill for facilitators and leaders to develop.
In this article from Open Culture, we found this quotation from David Foster Wallace:
It turns out that bliss — a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious — lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss in every atom.
Constant bliss is probably a stretch, but an unhurried approach to frustration and boredom can make it a source of creativity, rather than something to be escaped in a panic.