It involves nothing more than pausing in the middle of a meeting or discussion and going around the room to hear from each person how they are actually experiencing the issue at hand – right now, in the moment. It seems like an obvious thing to do, but in my own work in organizations it has been rare enough.
I like to think of this practice as ‘sounding’. Boats take soundings, whether by lead line or echo, to discover the depth and contour of what lies below the water’s surface. The intention of ‘sounding’ as an organizational practice is similar: to obtain a quick reading of the emotions, intuitions, ideas, confusions, and curiosities that lie below the surface of a given conversation.
Recently Kufunda Learning Village was trying to put together a new finance team. In the organizing meeting, there was clear agreement on the need for such a team and on the basic functions the team would perform, but when the time came for people to volunteer, no one responded.
It would have been easy for everyone to react to this standstill by projecting all sorts of negative constructions onto the group. “People don’t care enough to do this.” “There is a lack of leadership here.” “Lots of talk, no action.” Etc. . . Instead, we realized that we didn’t actually know why people weren’t volunteering, so we simply went around the room to each person in turn and asked everyone to say something about how they were feeling.
The whole process took ten minutes and it transformed the conversation. It turned out that there were all sorts of motivations and emotions at work. Some people felt they were currently overcommitted but could see themselves volunteering in the future. Some were considering serving now, but hadn’t made up their minds and needed affirmation from the group that they would actually be welcome on the team. Some were really interested, but wondered if they had enough experience; they wanted permission to join the team as learners not as experts. Still others didn’t want to serve formally, but wanted to support the team and hoped to attend meetings. As we heard from everyone, frustrations lessened and courage and compassion increased. In the end a number of people volunteered. The resulting team, which included several people who had not taken on broad leadership roles before, has turned out to be very dexterous and effective, and team members’ strengths complement each other extraordinarily well.
Sounding is important because in general people are very poor at reading and understanding each other’s inner lives. Most of us might think we are among the exceptions – that our powers of psychological insight are remarkably keen – but I think this is a grand delusion. We are experts not at comprehending each other but at projecting our own perspectives, desires, and insecurities out onto the world. We are gifted and unapologetic fantasists, and we have three choices. We can continue deceiving ourselves that we understand perfectly what other people are experiencing. We can work very hard for a very long time to train ourselves to become more realistically empathetic. Or we can simply ask.
Here are the rules of sounding as best I can figure them out so far:
- Focus on a specific work issue or question. (Sounding is different from general check-ins or check-outs, both of which can be very helpful.)
- Go systematically around the room and ask everyone to speak. (Don’t just open up the floor.)
- Do it in the middle of a conversation. (Sounding is most useful in the heat of the moment, which is also when we are most likely to forget to do it. A good time for sounding is when things are particularly difficult/stuck/heavy or when they are suspiciously easy and convergent.)
- Share feelings, intuitions, struggles, half-formed ideas, etc., not just opinions. (Sounding is not about restating or defending your position. It is about expressing how you are experiencing something.)
These are just rules-in-progress for me. Perhaps they don’t hold for all situations. Perhaps they can be adapted. But as I try to put them into practice, the results always seem to be helpful.
Sounding is a specific example of the general practice of “inscaping,” surfacing the inner experiences of organization members and using those experiences to shape and guide the organization’s work. The more I observe and experiment with inscaping practices, the more I am convinced they the hold the key to releasing common organizational blocks and to transforming organizations into vital and creative expressions of their deepest aspirations.