Start Anew - See More Clearly

“I decided to start anew, to strip away what I had been taught.” Georgia O’Keefe

When you walk into a meeting or, more appropriate to our current times, when you sign on to a screen full of your colleagues’ faces, are you looking without any preconceived notions? Imagine what the exchange could be like if you followed Georgia O’Keefe’s lead and started anew - stripping away what you had previously learned.

Prior to Flow Circus, I taught high school. Every first day, I would try to go into class with a clean slate and look at the students anew. But like the old building in this photograph, layers and layers of information had already been laid and were corroding my judgement. Maybe another teacher had made a comment about a student in the room, maybe a student had been in my class the previous year, maybe a sibling had been in my class, maybe I had interactions with a few in the hallways, or maybe I had formed opinions about a particular style of clothing. Any and all of these could affect how I would see and interact with a student.

To be fair to the students, I needed to first be aware of the layers of prior knowledge and then do my best to peel them back. Create space for students to show me who they actually could be. At the time, one of the classes I taught was a psychology elective. As an introductory activity, I had students tell a story about their name. I did it so I could learn their names quickly, but also because I wanted them to learn each other's names. I planned to do a lot of discussions and project based learning in that class so creating a culture of belonging was important.

Other teachers looked at me strangely for taking two or three days out of the first week to have each student stand up in front of the class to tell a story about their name. But after that first year, I started doing it in all of my classes because the investment paid off. We all began seeing each other from the first week of class. No one hid in the back of the room - everyone told a story. 

Some told them as fast as humanly possible meekly reading off a piece of paper while others improvised confidently. Some funny stories, some sad, and some made the whole room say “awww” at the same time. And as I watched, students surprised me out of the assumptions I had made. I saw who they really were right out of the gate. It was only an initial glimpse, but it created a solid foundation that we continued to build on throughout the rest of the year. 

It’s easier when you have a new group of students, but what can you do when it’s a group you’ve been working with for a long time? It’s never too late. I’m currently working with the person I've been married to for 18 years and worked with for 13. There’s definitely many layers of knowledge and assumptions at work when we interact! How do I go into a meeting with a fresh lens? It's not easy especially if it’s a conflict situation. 

Employing our Flop-osophy strategy Observe, Don’t Judge definitely helps to peel back the muck and get us to the core issue. At this point, I know the stories that I have for him. They usually start in my head with “He’s just being…” or “There he goes again doing…” If you’re in a meeting and find yourself thinking that, you’re judging the other person and telling a story based on previous interactions. 

Pause. Look at the situation like a scientist just trying to see the facts. I’ve also been practicing curiosity and asking questions to gather information that challenges my assumptions. And usually, my story turns out wrong. I don’t know about you, but my brain doesn’t like being wrong. It prefers the judgy, blame game. But for collaborative work to move forward and connections to deepen, we need to strip away the false stories we’ve learned, as uncomfortable as that may feel initially.

Now more than ever with individuals losing in-person contact, we need to discover ways to see each other more clearly.