2016 Wrap-Up: Graphic Recorders Reflect on Human Nature and Communication
I was recently asked a great question by !Kona: “When you think of all the conversations where you are present as a graphic recording witness, do you have any current large scale thoughts about human nature, communication, or wants and desires?” As graphic recorders and graphic facilitators, we’re privileged to work in fascinating sessions, but it’s often behind closed doors.
So, I asked a dozen of my visual practitioner colleagues for their insights:
What did you notice about human nature or communication in 2016?
We agree that we’re headed into a VUCA world – characterized by Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. Responses to VUCA can include authenticity, anxiety and change, clarity, and being good to each other. Here’s 12 insights into what we noticed.
Credit: Innah Wulandari, Flickr
“I recently worked with a struggling board intent on setting new cultural norms to be more effective. Several members were new, and the board chair was hoping to build a more “leader full” organization, in preparation for succession. One thing was clear:
this group needed to have honest conversations.
Through a couple of walking talks in alternating groups of three, members were asked to discuss “What expectations do team members have of each other – what is important?” and then “What do you think we should be able to count on from one another?” We walked in one direction with the first question and walked back with the second. We debriefed both conversations in our session space with members highlighting themes and epiphanies. Success for this team came back to being seen, to building trust, and to naming and committing to certain actions and expectations – raising the standard, so to speak. They were empowered by these authentic conversations with each other, and now each feel seen and heard in a new way.”
– Stina Brown, Stina Brown.wordpress.com
VUCA as a FRAMEWORK to UNDERSTAND ANXIETY and CHANGE
“Clearly the patterns are out in the wider world. In your invitation to answer, you hit on the two biggest themes in my work this year:
1. There is no doubt now we are in a VUCA world.
2. We strive to feel we have a voice and we seek connection and understanding.
I have heard the term VUCA come up explicitly as a framework to understand the anxiety and change we’re all navigating. In other events, volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity were certainly described, if not named. When the concept of VUCA is shared, I sense the relief in the room of “Oh, I’m not alone in feeling anxious.”
While a VUCA world may feel abstract and insurmountable and abstract, participants are describing the antidote: having a voice, listening and connecting with each other. The individual, human scale of life and how we use our own voice, empower others to find and use their voice and listen to each other.”
– Brandy Agerbeck, Loosetooth.com
Credit: Andy Arthur, Flickr
“Themes I’ve noticed around communication are (1) the need to understand people on a deeper level… to identify our needs/talents/perspectives and how it all interconnects into the bigger picture; and (2) that this understanding needs to be genuine. These are themes I heard echoed across the board at meetings – from rural community planning to large tech conferences.
Being able to better understand each other means communicating clearly and precisely. Corporate and government “speak” is being trimmed away for real conversations. Where it was once considered professional to use formal corporate language or meeting design, there’s a realization that such language and approaches only serves the small few who work with it. It’s no less professional or serious to communicate in a way that is clear, precise, and most of all, engaging.
Visual communication is gradually replacing text-based communication because it’s more effective at clearly and precisely communicating an idea and connecting with the viewer on a genuine level. We’re seeing it in everything from emoticons in texting, to organizations placing greater value on infographics, graphic recording, animations, etc. Visuals explain ideas more quickly, and most importantly, the emotion behind the idea. It’s a human way of communicating.
Meetings are also evolving — there’s a recognition that integrating new ways of hosting a meeting, such as integrating play, humour, and the environment of the meeting (windows! fresh air!), are all incredibly valuable to initiating deeper conversations and connections. These things are often seen as “fluff” and “childish” but, similar to the shift to using visuals and less corporate speak, this is how we can understand and connect to one another on a deeper level. The “soft stuff” is the real catalyst for change.”
– Tanya Gadsby, Drawing Out Ideas
“Like Anthony, I’ve also noticed a focus on “how do we prepare for a future we can’t predict?” in the conversations I’ve graphically recorded this year. We never could predict the future, but it’s become almost impossible to predict what will happen next week, let alone in two, or ten years. A VUCA world indeed, filled with disruptive forces – technological, political, social – that change the game at every turn. While I hear a lot of anxiety about the first half of VUCA (Volatility and Uncertainty), there is less understanding of how to deal with the second half – Complexity and Ambiguity – because we tend to focus on “solving problems” rather than address messy systems. We need to spend more time on C and A, in order to navigate the V and U.
For instance, I have been thinking a lot about the need for clarity in our complex, ambiguous, and often highly abstract world. We’ve all been in meetings where people talk enthusiastically about things like leadership, sustainability, accountability, innovation, engagement, and so on. But what do they mean? My idea of leadership might be radically different from yours; while a government official’s idea of engagement might be at odds with that of a disability activist.
We operate daily, at a level of abstraction that goes unquestioned, because we don’t see how subjective these terms are, and how open they are to different interpretations.
This lack of clarity leads to confusion and makes us ineffective. If we don’t have a shared understanding of sustainability, for example, how will we ever get there? At a more sinister level, lack of clarity can be downright dangerous. The American public just elected a president who ran on the biggest abstraction of all: “Make America Great Again” – a phrase that probably means something different to different people. What happens when someone who translates it as “Make America White Again” comes into contact with someone who envisions a “great” America as welcoming diversity and inclusion? We’re already seeing the fallout from that.
So I’m making it my mission as a graphic facilitator to put myself in service of clarity. I will be pushing people, at meetings I work in, to go beyond their abstractions. I will ask questions like: What does that concept look like on the ground? How does it play out in action? How would you describe it to someone outside this room? In this small way, we can help bring fuzzy thinking into clearer focus, thereby helping those with good intentions to be more effective in their actions – and reducing the power of those with questionable intentions by exposing them for what they are.”
– Avril Orloff, outsidethelines.ca
“In 2016 I’ve been drawing mostly in three different environments – with people with disabilities on how leadership works for them in their lives, groups and communities, teaching in Douglas College’s Disability and Community Studies faculty, and supporting non-profits in organizational development. Much of this has been with my colleague, Liz Etmanski.
The “big thought” that seems to connect these events is the clarity of invitation that we support.
Someone is saying: I want you to be here, I want to know what you think, I want to know what matters to you, and so do we all. Really.
Drawing people’s conversations “speaks” this as an action (it’s too easy to just say it, and people have heard it to death). With Liz as a co-graphic facilitator, it’s as if those groups and spaces have been waiting for someone like her to enter those rooms: I do want you to be here, I do want to know what you think, I do want to know what matters to you… and so do we all. Often she is the only person with a disability in the room, playing a facilitative role they have not witnessed a person with a disability playing before. I try to explain what I’m thinking about this to Liz and she listens as carefully as she always does and says, “Well, we already knew that.” “What did we know?” “That.” She goes back to drawing. One day I will know what she means. Then, later that day as we draw someone comes up, obviously surprised at her presence, and asks, “Do you have Down Syndrome?” I tense up, defensive on her behalf, but she just leans in and gently says, “A lot of people say that to me, but I prefer the term ‘artist.’” She beams. They beam. We continue on course, drawing, coming together to fill each other with light. That’s what she means.”
– Aaron Johnannes, https://imagineacircle.com/
BE GOOD TO EACH OTHER
It seems to me that virtually every dialogue leads back to some very basic human needs/wants. Human nature doesn’t change so much as the context within which we live does. It’s said that we live in a VUCA world, a “post truth era”, a time when communication is instant, constant, and social. The internet serves as a representation of, or a window into our collective intelligence/consciousness. It’s now easy to witness on the web how the context within which we live is changing our beliefs and behaviors. For example, an academic in my meeting last week cited a recent study of young adults, the majority of which responded that democracy is “not that important to my life.”
Last week, I also mapped a dialogue with 7 street people who talked about how they had benefited from certain programs. This was perhaps the most beautiful conversation I’ve ever mapped because the truths they surfaced are so simple.
Human nature leads us back to the same desires. We all:
- Need a sense of safety
- Need a sense of belonging, hope and connection
- Want to have dignity and be treated with respect
- Want to feel special, valued, unique
- Want to have a voice
- Depend on each other for love, kindness and compassion
Regardless of where the world is now, or where it goes, regardless of whether you express it on the internet, in Arabic, or in braille, we all possess one great power – that’s the ability to be good to each other in recognition of our interconnectedness.
– LIsa Arora, Get The Picture
FORECASTING and FUTURE LISTENING
When I think of the work and the conversations I’ve been a part of this year, many have focused on future thinking and forecasting. Part of thinking about the future is “looking back to look forward.” How does history inform our view of the future? Are we attentive listeners to the past? Are we willing to learn from history in order to shape more humane and collaborative futures? What do artifacts and relics tell us about the futures we might shape?
I took this photo of a rusted-out, abandoned pay phone when I was in the rural Midwest in August 2016. I wasn’t particularly nostalgic for pay phones. However, the image did make me think about technology and the notion of “progress.” We shape technology, but our technologies also shape us.
In an “always on, always connected” world where we are ostensibly never lost, never offline, and never lacking in tools that enable us to connect anytime anywhere, what have we forgotten about a time when a roadside pay phone was our only portal to connectivity? What do we miss?
I miss the intentionality of finding a pay phone to make a call, of asking myself “who do I NEED to call right now?” I miss the preparedness that comes with remembering actual phone numbers and carrying enough change. I miss the resourcefulness we needed when our options weren’t as plentiful and when we were required to rely on amenities in physical space.
It’s easy to celebrate technology as a godsend. It’s easy to remember times as the “bad old days” when we didn’t have modern technologies. I’m more interested in remembering how we managed without such wondrous and advanced technologies. Nostalgia is useful when we are humble about “progress” and realize that limitations often forced us to make thoughtful choices.
If you had a pocketful of change and one pay phone in the middle of nowhere, who would you call? That’s when you become keenly aware of who and what is important.
– Anthony Weeks, email@example.com
image by Kelvy Bird
“We have a longing to belong and know our place in the seeming order of things. Whether to exist in the context of family or tribe, find meaning in our work, or be at one in the natural world – our species seem at a loss when upended, uprooted. Survival instinct kicks in as the reactionary limbic system comes online, and thoughtful exchange seems harder to access, even though connection is one of the most basic human instincts. We open and close, like morning glories on a vine, with light and dark.
Our challenge now, in these unsteady times, is to find new muscles of resiliency to greet others, ourselves, and the planet with the kind of welcome embrace we, ourselves, would want.
This is primal, elemental, to our evolution.”
– Kelvy Bird, kelvybird.com
HUNGRY for CONNECTION
Photo by Caelie Frampton
“I’ve been stewing today on a comment Tom Friedman made during an interview about his new book, Thank You For Being Late, that relates to your observation.
He said because of the increasing isolation that’s ironically created by everyone being digitally connected and the pace of acceleration, there will be a growth of jobs in the future that are all about creating community and togetherness. He gave the example of paint by numbers parties for groups that are happening (is this just in San Francisco?) where people get together and drink wine and paint a preprinted canvas. A little bit silly, but the point was that people are hungry and will become more hungry for opportunities to be together and in community face to face.
I certainly feel this hunger with the groups I work with – the hunger to anchor to one conversation, to be together, to be allowed to connect. As things speed up, people need to slow down and be given space and permission to do that.”
– Nevada Lane, Lane Change Consulting
LONGING for CERTAINTY in UNCERTAIN TIMES
Photo by Caelie Frampton
“I hear and see uncertainty and also a collective longing for certainty, even if it’s simply a collective agreement that there is none. I see deep organizational inquiry, with a focus on individuals and relationships, and on the psychology of belonging, the value of culture, and the importance of building, nurturing and sustaining the systems that enable people to work with and for one another on a day-to-day basis. There’s also an awareness of the tenuousness of our lives, and that the ground beneath our feet might give way at any moment. People are looking around, and in most instances, really seeing (or at least trying to) the people in their organizations and their communities as extensions of themselves. There is a shadow here. The opposite is happening as well – and this tension is visible on a national scale in countries all over the world.
There has been more emphasis on the value of Trust this year than in the past. How do we gain it, hold it, and sustain it? Responsibility has also come up – responsibility to and for each other, our communities, our organizations – as well as, the critical need for increased experimentation. These things all feel deeply interwoven.
I continue to see a shift in the way people understand both themselves and their teams/organizations – increasingly thinking in terms of elastic and dynamic ecosystems. On the shadow side, I see people grasping at old structures and supports, out of misplaced hope and/or desperation. Some still believe that the boat we rode in on will weather the storm.”
– Sita Magnuson, dpict
Talking with, and not at, each other
Belonging and Land
Over the past few months, I’ve noticed that whether it is an international meeting, a government meeting, or a grassroots gathering, people are looking for three things: community, increased capacity, and better communication. As a graphic recorder and facilitator, I try to tune my listening into those things. And recently I’ve noticed that there is a deeper, spiritual level: it is also about belonging, and our connection or disconnection to the land.
Understanding the values belonging and the land can help us make decisions, and inform how we treat each other. When I get stuck, or need guidance, I can ask myself: is this a step towards more belonging? Is this a step towards healing the land?
Land and belonging shows up everywhere. The One Health model in international public health makes these connections and conflicts clear – humans, animals and the environment are interdependent. Land and belonging were also key themes at an Indigenous youth life promotion (suicide prevention) international gathering. Youth named that their healing came from being reconnected to culture, and being with elders out on the land learning traditional ways. At a session in a big city, social service agencies were struggling to support isolated, frail seniors who have worse health outcomes. We can treat it as a health problem – or a community problem: how do soaring housing costs impact lower income seniors to move out, or to not feel welcome in their own, changing neighbourhoods? And belonging and land collide where I live on the unceded Indigneous territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh: What types of resource extraction projects can happen here underneath the unceded city and who decides? Who are your leaders and whose voices do you privilege? On whose land are you working?
The work that I do helps me see how all our issues are deeply connected. What will help is when we strive towards belonging, and also healing – ourselves and the land.
– Sam Bradd, www.drawingchange.com
“I agree wholeheartedly with Lisa’s points, particularly on people wanting to feel respected and heard. What I’ve noticed across meetings is that often people talk around these core human values, without explicitly saying “Let’s treat each other with more respect. How can we do that…?”. Or they overcomplicate things by talking about how processes, policies, or technology could improve the situation.
I’ll share a story that I heard last week.
It was an all-day meeting with a group of government bureaucrats. The theme of the day was how new technologies, particularly, big data was essential to adapting to the future. The presenter was an external expert; young, tech-saavy, hipster-type. He described a problem an insurance company was having with customer complaints. Their claims costs were skyrocketing because of a steady increase of claimants lawyering up, thus increasing the cost of the claims. They wanted to know what was going on, why were claimants lawyering up? Under what circumstances were they not? So they took a huge data set of phone recordings and analyzed them with an algorithm to identify the factors that caused claimants to lawyer up. The conclusion: service agents who treated claimants on the first phone call nicely, with respect, and shared concern for their situation tended NOT to lawyer up.
At this point, my take-home thought was, “Wow, this is a great conclusion, but kind of a no brainer”. The presenter’s take-home message was “This is the power of big data! Big data can help us understand what kind of employee we should be hiring to speak to claimants”.
So sometimes I see people overcomplicate things. They overthink things with their head, and overlook the importance of thinking with your heart – which is really what makes the difference between technology and humans. Robotics and AI and big data can all do things faster, better, bigger than us, but if it’s to improve human happiness/success/satisfaction, considerations of the heart are vital.”
Yolanda Liman, Drawing it Out