Playing with the edge of risk

Fellows (from left to right) Fred Leichter, Kim Jacobson and Anne Gibbon join Richard Cox for a studio session on May 7. (Emi Kolawole) The fellows would like to learn more about telling stories and leading workshops in the remaining weeks of the year. How do they do these two things, and more importantly, how do they do them well? Enter Richard Cox, an executive coach and consultant.

"Every... class I do is a chance for me to [discover] learning from people -- not for me to impart it," said Rich, a lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and an instructor at the London Business School. A speaker coach and improvisation expert, Rich has also worked with the Clinton Global Initiative and helped Istanbul prepare its Olympic bid. His work focuses on "helping people unlock their abilities and reach their full potential," he said Wednesday to the fellows gathered at the d.school.

Rich sat with Anne Gibbon, Kim Jacobson and Fred Leichter to discuss how to "play with that edge of risk" in their work. The group started with a brief introduction before diving into individual vignettes.

Fred grabbed one of the underlying principles of design thinking, "show don't tell," and suggested it be changed to "experience, don't show, don't tell." Those experiences, he posited, could be a repository of activities to prompt engagement. Yes, and, Rich added: "We don't learn from the experience. We learn from the reflection on the experience."

Stokes, he said, "can be just for energy, but for me the only reason to do an experience of any kind is so you can debrief it. All of the power is in the debrief."

The debrief is an opportunity to pull on the threads that get participants headed in the direction you'd like them to go.

"How do you balance personal reflection with group reflection," Fred asked. "How do you balance it to pull out the people who are thinking more complex things or not saying anything."

Rich recommended having groups do paired or smaller-group debriefs, with the central question being one of engagement. In those moments of silence, after you pose debrief questions to a large group, it's important to acknowledge that the social pressure of speaking in front of a large group may be too intimidating. There's an opportunity then to encourage individuals to share with a partner, reducing the social pressure. When you bring the group back together, ask people to share their partner's experience with the larger group, Rich said.

It's also important that you don't validate some reflections and not others. "Everything [participants say] is right," Rich sad. "You want to reward them for speaking up."

Rich later revealed that the "A/B Story Switch" is his favorite exercise to help groups with communication. More specifically, the exercise works to teach empathy. Here's how it goes:

  • Have person A tell Person B a 30-second true story about themselves (something usually within the last two weeks, and nothing necessarily epic).
  • Then, tell person B to pick up the true story person A told them, and have person B tell the same story back to person A in the first person.
  • Next Person A has to tell the story back to person B, then add an additional 30-seconds of fiction. In other words, person A now has to tell a full one-minute story, with the addition of a made-up next step.

Finally, don't be afraid to share your materials with the group, Rich said. "[A book] is like a very expensive business card," he said. "You are only as good as your integrity and your commitment."

Keep an eye on the whiteboard, we'll have more on Richard's session with the fellows in our next post!