Vital Conversations

Two chaps having a vital conversation

I was keynoting on the Antimatter Principle at Agile Adria 2014 this week. As at all of the other conferences I have attended in the past year or so, I found myself feeling impatient with e.g. the hallway and dinner-table conversations, because I was feeling less connected with people than I would like. I also often feel that, amongst so many energised and experienced folks, we could be having great conversations of mutual exploration and import. Vital conversations – conversations full of energy, and life, and mutual joy. Yet we don’t seem to be able to make that happen.

At each conference, I’ve shared my feelings with one or two folks, without much in the way of ideas coming to mind.

This morning, I find an oh-so-simple idea has been staring me in the face, unrecognised, for months.

I’m speaking of this passage from an interview with Marshall Rosenberg:

SARAH: I was interested in an example you shared in one of your workshops about a group of teachers who were having a conversation that wasn’t feeding you spiritually.

MARSHALL: “Well, I was sitting around with a group of teachers who were all talking about what they did on vacation. Within ten minutes, my energy had dropped very low; I had no idea what people were feeling or wanting.

“In giraffe, we know it’s not being kind to the other person to smile and open your eyes wide to hide the fact that your head has gone dead. The person in front of you wants their words to enrich you, so when they aren’t, it’s helpful to be kind and stop them. Of course, in the jackal culture, this isn’t done.

“After listening awhile to the teachers, I screwed up my courage and said, “Excuse me, I’m impatient with the conversation because I’m not feeling as connected with you as I’d like to be. It would help me to know if you’re enjoying the conversation.” All nine people stopped talking and looked at me as if I had thrown a rat in the punch bowl.

“For about two minutes, I thought I’d die, but then I remembered to look at the feelings and needs being expressed through the silence. I said, “I guess you’re all angry with me, and you would have liked for me to have kept out of the conversation.”

“The moment I tumed my attention to what they were feeling and needing, I removed their power to demoralize me.

“However, the first person who spoke told me, “No, I’m not angry I was just thinking about what you were saying. I was bored with this conversation.” And he had been doing most of the talking! But this doesn’t surprise me. I have found that if I am bored, the person doing the talking is probably equally bored, which usually means we’re not talking from life; we’re acting out some socially-learned habits.

“Each one of the nine people then, expressed the same feelings I had – impatience, discouragement, lifelessness, inertia. Then one of the women asked, “Marshall, why do we do this? Why do we sit around and bore each other? We get together every week and do this!”

“I said, “Because we probably haven’t learned to take the risk that I just did, which is to pay attention to out vitality. Are we really getting what we want from life? Each moment is precious, so when our vitality is down, let’s do something about it and wake up.”


So, I now have a new avenue to pursue the next time I find myself feeling frustrated, impatient or disconnected. I’ll just have to remember to say something like:

“Excuse me, I’m impatient with this conversation because I’m not feeling as connected with you as I’d like to be. It would help me to know if you’re enjoying this conversation.”

Do you sometimes have the same feelings? How might this approach help you in similar circumstances? Could you find the courage to make such an interjection? How might you feel – and react – if someone else said something like this, to you?

- Bob


Wolf Magic

Wolves chilling

In a recent blog post I thanked @davenicolette for drawing my attention to an article by Eric Barker, and more specifically to the concept of the Omega Wolf. Setting aside the question of whether the behaviour in wolves is natural or forced, I share Dave’s view that the notion of Omega Wolf makes for a fine metaphor for a particular role in our organisations.

“A really successful team needs at least one person who is not a team player. Someone who’s willing to stand up to authority, to rock the boat. To not make everybody happy. To not pat everybody on the back.”

~ Eric Barker

“Every wolf pack has an omega who bears the brunt of pack members’ frustrations. This individual functions as a sort of social glue for the pack, defusing conflict and aggression before it harms the group’s cohesion…”

~ Dave Nicolette

When I read this, I instantly recognised myself and my roles in various organisations over the years. I also saw the way in which the Omega Wolf complements the Chaos Monkey so well.

And as with Chaos Monkeys, folks in the role of Omega Wolf can easily be misunderstood – as troublemakers, lamers, losers, doormats, clowns or maybe even worse, idealist.

“Looking at the big picture and the long view, the lowest ranking wolf—the omega wolf—may actually be the ‘cornerstone wolf’ — keeping the pack together and peaceful.”

~ Robert Lindsay

Looking at human organisations – and particularly the dysfunctional ones (there are other kinds?) – I’d suggest that the people in the Omega Wolf roles are the great unsung – and often unappreciated – heroes of highly effective – and joyful – teams.

My Omega Wolf Credo

  • I aspire to help people by defusing stressful situations and bringing people together in increasingly authentic fellowship and harmony.
  • I aspire to care for the young cubs, the new hires, and the other folks who may be feeling disoriented and wondering how to become more part of “the team”.
  • I aspire to help people by being playful and encouraging others to “play” more, too.
  • I aspire to help organisations and the folks therein by championing the value of joy and humane relationships in work.
  • I aspire to improve the quality of individual and collective relationships by illustrating the value of nonviolence.
  • I aspire to improve the cohesion of the team(s) and the organisation more widely.
  • I aspire to raise awareness of the value of authentic harmony, the role of the Omega Wolf in contributing to that, and to make Omega Wolf behaviours not only acceptable but highly sought-after.

Who are the Omega Wolves in your company? How much do they contribute to the well-being of the organisational “community”? And how well-understood are they – and the value they add – in this role?

- Bob

Further Reading

Wolfpack Programming

Our Mutual Friends

Yesterday Tony DaSilva (@Bulldozer0) provided me with a wake-up call in the form of a tweet illustrating how a lack of mutuality commonly pervades relationships in our workplaces. A wake-up call, because I had forgotten just how strange the idea of mutuality must be for many folks, especially in the context of work.


When we talk about attending to folks’ needs, we’re talking about everyone attending to each others’ needs (although not to the complete exclusion of each attending to their own needs). You may not yourself have experienced the joy that comes from seeing other folks getting their needs met. It makes me sad to think just how many people may be in this situation. And I’m feeling thankful, even blessed, that I have experienced it myself, albeit rarely but at least occasionally.

When Rosenberg writes about this feeling, I can immediately and profoundly relate:

“… we have such power to make [everyone’s] life wonderful, and that there is nothing we like better than to do just that.”

“How basic is this need to give to one another? I think the need to enrich life is one of the most basic and powerful needs we all have.”

~ Marshall Rosenberg

Aside: When I’m thinking about mutuality – it’s generally in the sense of “common to or shared by both or all of two or more parties”.

So, how does Tony’s tweet fit here? As an example of the typical dynamic in so many organisations, and so many relationships:

  • Unilateralism rather than mutuality.
  • “What’s in it for me?” Rather than “What can I do to make someone else’s life more wonderful?”
  • Selfishly attending to our own needs and ignoring that others have needs too.
  • Missing out on the joy of serving others’ needs.

So how *could* this kind of dialogue have gone differently, had the participants been attending to each others’ needs?

Employee: “I feel depressed and frustrated because I work best and most creatively when what I’m doing feels like play. Would you be willing to let me play with this and see what emerges?”

Boss: “I feel uneasy when you mention play because I imagine my job’s on the line if this doesn’t get done soon. Would you be willing to tackle it urgently?”

Employee: “No problem. I feel energised when I have some purpose to my play, and joy when I imagine I’m making folks life more wonderful. Would you like me to keep you posted?”

Evolving Competence

A little futher down the line, time-wise, when these folks have had the opportunity both to practice, and to experience the joy that comes from seeing other folks’ needs being met, we might imagine a similar situation unfolding thusly:

Employee: “I’m guessing you’re feeling like your job’s on the line if this doesn’t get done soon?”

Boss: “Yes. I’m feeling reassured that you’ve picked up on that, because I need to keep this job at the moment, and I like to think of myself as being capable of doing a good job, generally.”

Boss: “I’m guessing you’d be happier if you could just play around with it some?”

Employee: “Yes. I feel happy and focussed because I work best and most creatively when what I’m doing feels like play.”

Boss: “Would you be willing to make it your priority?”

Employee: “Happy to. I feel energised when I have some purpose to my play, and joy when I imagine I’m doing what’s most important for others. I’m guessing you’d be happier if I kept you posted?”

Here we see empathy as the starting point for a dialogue in which each is attending more to the other’s needs than to their own. Of course, if the whole organisation has adopted this new frame, then the dynamics and context of such conversations might be somewhat – and fundamentally – different.

Absence of Judgment

We can also see, in both examples, an absence of judgment. Neither person is tied up with forming a moralistic judgment of the other person’s needs – e.g. whether they are “reasonable”, “valid”, “acceptable”, “outrageous” or whatever. Nor do they judge their own needs. Each simply takes the needs as “givens”.

Aside: In situations where folks are having difficulties in identifying or articulating their needs, it may take some mutual assistance and exploration to arrive at clarity. This is not the same as e.g. watering-down or otherwise negotiating on needs. And remembering:

“We can’t really know what we need until we get it. Only then will we know whether we need it or not.”

~ Marshall Rosenberg



Jon has posted a comment requesting a version of the example dialogue where only the employee is conscious of attending to folks’ needs. One of the many reasons I’m particularly fond of the Antimatter Principle is that it can start small, with just one person. However, it can take some patience to start with building the empathy necessary for the other person – in this case, the boss – to take the time to listen.

Here’s one way I guess such a dialogue might unfold:

Employee: “I’m guessing you’re feeling like all our jobs are on the line if we don’t get this done soonest?”

Boss: “Can you just get on with it, asap?”

Employee: “So I’m sensing that it’s important to you that the team’s in a focussed and creative frame of mind for this piece of work? That we’re able to fully give of our best?”

Boss: “Damn straight!”

Employee: “I also guessing you’re worried we won’t be able to meet the deadline, and we’ll all end up looking hopeless again?”

[It may take some time, like ten or twenty minutes maybe, continuing in this vein, with the employee reflecting back the feelings coming at them from the boss, until there's - maybe - a 'shift'. A shift wherein the Boss just may begin to consider the needs of the employee.]

Boss: “Yes. I guess how the team feels about this is going to impact its ability to meet the deadline…”



A Request

When writing these kinds of posts, I often feel uncertain and unfulfilled because I rarely know whether I’ve met anyone’s needs by writing them. Would you be willing to provide feedback in the form of e.g. a comment, below, about the extent to which this post has met – or failed to meet – your needs?

- Bob

Further Reading

Nonviolent Communication in Action – The REAL Center

An Open Letter To My Audience


Firstly, a big “Thank you” to you, my audience for your continued attention and participation.

But just why do you choose to listen to me? I mean, what needs are you trying to get met? Here’s some options folks have shared with me over the years:

Insight. As in “Oh, I hadn’t thought of it like that. But now you’ve mentioned it…”

Perspective. As in “Oh, I hadn’t thought to look at it that way. But now I do, I can see…”

Useful new ideas. As in “Oh, we hadn’t thought of that before, but that idea could be useful to us…”

General curiosity. As in “I’m curious about stuff – and maybe I’ll learn something.”

Entertainment. Not that I’m a comedian or entertainer. Don’t look to me for laughs or a dance or a song. I don’t even have a particularly sparkling personality or charisma. Some folks do find thinking-out-loud entertaining, I suppose.

A break from work. We all appreciate a break.

My boss told me to read it. Sympathies.

Push or Pull?

Whatever the reasons, most folks in my live audiences just turn up and play the blank slate. That’s to say, they seem to want me to PUSH information at them. Which is a choice I respect. But there are other choices. Like coming prepared, for example. Specifically, coming prepared to PULL information. I have an extensive blog, I’ve written papers and been videoed, I tweet a bit. I always feel disappointed when folks turn up not having any real fore-knowledge of what I’m talking about. Which, btw, is most people, most of the time.

It doesn’t really bother me having to introduce my material before getting to the meat of meeting folks’ needs. God knows I’ve done that often enough. But it’s not very stimulating for me, and more importantly it leaves so much less time for helping you folks get your specific needs met.

So, if you’re thinking about being in my audience any time soon, would you be willing to give a little thought as to whether you’d like to make some preparations, some study, beforehand? Would you be willing to think about whether pulling information might work better for all concerned? Would you be willing to give some thought as to how we might work and learn together? It would help me meet my need of providing you with the best possible value in our limited time together. And maybe it might help you get more of your needs met, too.

- Bob

Can’t Be Bothered


When folks appear disinterested, apathetic, bored with their work – and their involvement in it, or just happy to “settle”, what do you do?

Shrug indifferently? Sigh in despair? Tear your hair out? Shout at them? Quit?

Or do you bother looking a little deeper? Asking yourself “Why?”?
(Or even Five Whys)?

I’ve worked with many groups that, superficially, appeared indifferent, unwilling or unable to summon much – or any – enthusiasm for what they were doing. Excepting maybe feigning just enough enthusiasm to deflect the unwanted attentions of their higher-ups.

On those occasions when I’ve had the opportunity to delve deeper, I’ve always found not disinterested and bored people, but folks excruciatingly frustrated at not being able to do a good job. Demotivated by faceless corporatism, disinterested or downright obstructionist managers, demeaning policies, pointless make-work and, in general, so put-upon that I wondered why they ever stayed in post.

“If you want someone to do a good job, give them a good job to do.”

~ Fredrick Herzberg

What is a Good Job?

Many organisations, managers and teams never even get to first base (cf Herzberg) on this question. Fewer yet ever tackle the question of “good”.

Personally, I define a “good job” as one which meets the present, actual needs of the person doing the job. And it seems unlikely that other people will know what those needs are without listening to the people in question, and showing some interest in their personal needs, as human beings.

How often do we see organisations and managers seek out the needs of the people doing the work? How often do we encounter the prevailing assumption that “the needs of the work, the needs of the manager or of the organisation, trump the needs of the individual”?

Of course, if you rush headlong at the work, like a bull in a china shop, then there will be breakages. Including damage to folks’ morale and motivation. Maybe a little more obliquity might pay handsome dividends?

Hardly surprising, then, that many folks “can’t be bothered”.

Some Advice

Would you be willing to consider some advice, drawn from long experience in this area?

If so, read on.

If you are actually bothered about folks being bothered (not a given, by a long chalk), then do you believe in extrinsic motivation, or in intrinsic motivation?

If the former, then the way is relatively clear: Choose some carrots and sticks and apply them enthusiastically. Good luck with that.

If the latter, however, things become much less straightforward. How can we make people feel (and not just act) less bored, more keen? Well, of course, we can’t make people feel anything. So we’re obliged to consider how to bring about a situation where folks can find and grow their own enthusiasms.

How would you go about that?

- Bob

WarningSign Caution! Attempting to treat people as if they matter without winning the understanding and active support of your higher-ups and your peers may cause alienation, organisational cognitive dissonance, damage to your credibility, and to your career.
WarningSign Caution! Attempting to treat people as if they matter, without first winning their trust and understanding may cause suspicion, resentment, gossip, and unforeseen consequences.



I found myself with a spare day in a sunny, autumnal Washington DC and, wanting to avoid the crowds of the city, decided to drive over to Arlington National Cemetery and take a walk around.

This was years ago. Long before I had learned about Nonviolent Communication, Domination Systems, the Myth of Redemptive Violence, and so on. Walking past the monuments and graves dating back to the Revolution, I could see America’s past was bathed in blood. And tears. And pride. And patriotism.

I tried to imagine all the emotions the place had seen over the years. And failed. I tried to imagine the enormity of the wars represented by the multitude of
dead. And failed. I tried to reflect on the bravery of the deceased, and their kin. And came up empty.

For me, the overwhelming impression was of the waste. The appalling, senseless waste. And then, sorrow. Sorrow for all the fine young men, their sweethearts, their families, their townsfolk, their nation. And for our species. Sorrow for all the people who had unwittingly bought into the myth that fighting and dying for one’s country was a noble thing. The height of laudable self-sacrifice.

And respect, too. respect for the dead. And also for the living. Those, like the groundsmen, so devoted to trying to bring something good out of so much suffering.


I read the chiselled tributes to the courage of the fallen. And felt pity. Pity for their gullibility. Pity for their victimhood. And anger. Anger against the men who had sent them, indifferent to their potential. Just cannon fodder.

That day was a very sobering and influential day in my life. It was perhaps THE day that caused me to resolve to think different. To reject the comfortable platitudes of authority.

To see beyond the Myth of Redemptive Violence, and to reject it utterly.

And to question the value and nature of bravery. If bravery and courage means being willing to go like a lamb to the slaughter, I don’t want it.

- Bob

The Management Violence Inherent In The Golden Rule


I’ve never had much time for compassion. For me, the concept seems too violent, too manipulative to embrace it. I’m all for “connecting with others in meaningful ways”, and for generosity, and kindness, (although, niceness, not so much). And for a life of meaning and purpose, too.


1. a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.

I just don’t find it useful to lump all these ideas together under the banner of “compassion”.

Of course, compassion, especially compassion in the workplace, is going to be better than a lack of compassion. I just feel we can, if we but think about it for a moment, do so much better.

The Golden Rule is a great example of what I’m talking about.

It’s the sheer, brazen unilateralism of the Golden Rule that bugs me. At least, as it is most often, simplistically, perceived. Oh, and the violence inherent in the very notion of “rules”, too.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

George Bernard Shaw spotted the flaw:

“Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may be different.”

~ G. B. Shaw

So To The Platinum Question

And thus the Platinum Rule (or here, the Platinum Question) comes into sight:

“How about treating others the way they want to be treated?”

Of course, this means finding out how others might actually want to be treated. Which opens a whole new can of worms regarding dialogue, enquiry, empathy and, yes, humane relationships.

So how about we eschew compassion in favour of empathy and non-violence? How about we consider other folks’ tastes in relating to us, and others? How about we embrace not the Golden Rule, but the Platinum Question?

Would you be willing to give this a go in your workplace, with your colleagues, peers and (God forbid you have any) higher-ups?

- Bob

Further Reading

The Rise of Compassionate Management (Finally) ~ Bronwyn Fryer
The Compassionate Mind ~ Emma Seppia

Business Benefits

Some suits jumping

“It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.”

~ Will Rogers

How many times per minute do you see someone claiming their approach / service / idea / book / snake-oil offers “business benefits”?

So often, I’ll wager, that the phrase has just become meaningless noise. I mean, It’s hardly something to distinguish one from the masses, is it?

It’s not even as if “business benefits” are what business people are looking for. No, really. Go take a look at Core Group Theory (Kleiner) or read through Dirty LIttle Secrets (Sharon Drew Morgen) if you’re in any doubt about that.

Deming’s First Theorem: “Nobody gives a hoot about profit.”

~ Bill Deming

What do you feel when you see the phrase – or one of its related, fatuous, kin (profit, business success, growth, …)?

It’s easy to fall for the “groupthink” that leads to the fallacious assumption that business people are driven by these kinds of thing. Hint: Try asking a “business person” what they themselves, personally, feel – and need.

You might be surprised. And they may be, too.

- Bob

Further Reading

Positioning ~ Al Ries and Jack Trout
Who Really Matters ~ Art Kleiner
Dirty Little Secrets ~ Sharon Drew Morgen
Value Forward Selling ~ Paul R. DiModica

Are You Sitting Comfortably?


[TL;DR: How most folks stick to their comfort zones, and what that means for the businesses they work in.]

“No matter how comfortable we are, we always have to take the next step.”

~ Steve Jobs, re: the creation and naming of NeXT and NeXTStep

I like getting outside my comfort zone. Well, not like, exactly. It’s more that I feel compelled to do so, and quite often. I seem to have some voice inside my head saying “This is not good enough. Break out of your comfort zone – and push the envelope, again.” I guess I like the feeling that psychologists call “eustress“.

“Everyone needs a little bit of [positive] stress in their life in order to continue to be happy, motivated, challenged and productive. It is when this stress is no longer tolerable and/or manageable that distress comes in.”

A Mentor Can Help

In “Great Boss, Dead Boss” the author Ray Immelman expresses his view that a leader has to have the psychological courage to take each next step on the company’s journey. To have the urge to transcend their own emotional discomfort, and make leaps into the unknown, nevertheless. He also talks about the value of leaders having mentors with the psychological strength to help them grow even further.

Business Partnerships

In my working partnerships, over the years, I have often felt a sense of frustration with said partners and their reluctance to step outside their own comfort zones. We have lost opportunities, and compromised progress towards the (shared, common) purpose of the business because of the mismatch between our different levels of tolerance for discomfort.

Aside: By “opportunities”, I mean opportunities for personal growth, joy, success, enlightenment, fellowships, etc., and not so much just commercial opportunities.

And when talking with potential clients, etc., I regularly see the same kind of dynamic; folks who are “settling”, comfy in their warm, cozy and safe comfort zones. History tells me these are folks I cannot work with for long – or at all.

I’ve often found myself introspecting:

“What’s more important? Harmonious relationships, loyalty, friendship, etc. – or progress, taking the next step?”

Somehow, finding an acceptable balance over the longer term has eluded me. Maybe this, too, has something to do with needing to take the next step, make progress, move on.


Working in e.g. an organisation, team or partnership where there’s a mismatch in folks’ tolerance levels for discomfort; where some folks want to take the next step and others are comfortable in their comfort zones, can lead to:

  • Frustration.
  • Distress.
  • Demotivation – for the comfort-seeking and the discomfort-seeking folks, both.
  • Distraction.
  • Anxiety.
  • Withdrawal.
  • Maladaptive and depressive behaviours.
  • Dysfunctional social interactions.
  • Impaired cognitive function.

I see a tolerance for discomfort, an impulse to step outside one’s comfort zone, as closely correlated to organisational effectiveness (a.a. Rightshifting Index). And another reason to seek to match folks with similar tolerance levels.


I’m not sure even now, having experienced many instances of seeing folks stuck in their comfort zones, and the doldrums that result, that I have any answers or advice on how to deal with this, except perhaps Immelman’s:

“Strong tribal leaders have capable mentors whose psychological limits exceed their own.”

~ Ray Immelman

Oh, and talking about the topic. Maybe this post can serve your team or company as an entry point into that kind of discussion?

How about you? Are you inured to your comfort zone? Have you a story about some time when you stepped beyond that zone and found something wondrous?

- Bob

Further Reading

A Closer Look at Intrinsic Motivation ~ Kendra Cherry
The Science of Breaking Out of Your Comfort Zone ~ Alan Hendry

Learning to Let Go

I’ve just come back from six weeks in Delhi, working there with around eighty people engaged in software development – mainly coding and testing – as members of a number of different product teams located in various other geographies around the world.

This post is by way of thanks to the Delhi folks for their hospitality, generous spirit, and humanity – and for helping me (re)learn a valuable lesson.

The Lesson Relearnt

The lesson in question is: people do not learn from hearing things.

I see my present role – of which my time in Delhi was but one example – as fundamentally about inviting folks’ curiosity and interest. No more, no less. In essence I am asking the question:

“Would you be willing to examine with me – or amongst yourselves – your current views and assumptions regarding the field of software and product development?”

Whether they choose to accede to the request or not matters to me – not because I have any agenda for them, but because my needs include making meaningful connections with people, and helping folks’ life become more wonderful. Given the amount of time folks spend at work, I can think of few better opportunities to pursue my needs. If people choose not to engage with my request, I respect that choice, even though I personally see it as a lost opportunity for all concerned.

Letting Go

So, of what am I “letting go”? I’m letting go of the need to be an expert. Of the need to have answers to their problems (I don’t even know their problems, really). And of the need to tell them all about how highly-effective software and product development works. As someone who has been examining my own views and assumptions of software and product development for the best part of forty years, I’m letting go of the idea that I can help people learn and grow by simply telling them things from my own experiences. Unless they ask. And they may not know that asking me is an option.

“We cannot teach people anything; we can only help them discover it within themselves.”

~ Galileo Galilei

Some years ago, recognising the dysfunctions inherent in telling folks things, I used to withhold information unilaterally – until I thought folks were ‘ready’ to hear it, piece by piece. Having learned from e.g. Argyris, Noonan, Kline and Rosenberg, nowadays I try to make it clear that, to the extent that I have any knowledge or information that might be useful to someone, the timing and manner of its sharing can be something on which we can decide together.

I suspect this notion of self-paced ‘pulling’ of information or knowhow is pretty novel to many people. And so I suspect that many may not connect with the notion straight away. At least, not in a way that they might immediately benefit from.


In summary then, in attempting to help folks have a more wonderful life at work, I believe that if I have any part to play it’s in simply being there, with them, giving of my full attention:

“The quality of our attention determines the quality of other people’s thinking. Attention, driven by deep respect and genuine interest, and without interruption, is the key to a Thinking Environment.”

~ Nancy Kline, More Time To Think

- Bob


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