So I’ve just embarked on a new adventure, and I want to tell you about it. Enrol Yourself is a six month, self-directed, peer supported Learning Marathon – think masters program for the 21st Century. Based at the Clore Innovation Centre at the Royal College of Art, Enrol Yourself are rethinking learning using design principles, systems thinking and a strong emphasis on physical imagination.

I’m going to be using the Marathon to ask: What is the most powerful way I can interface with the world? And, what is the link between emotional safety (Ed: after I recorded this, I realised the vulnerability feels more right), visibility, voice and power on a personal and organisational level?

In this podcast I want to tell you more about my learning question, the process that brought me to ask it, why I think it’s important, and what exactly I’ll be exploring during the marathon.

Although not originally part of my learning question, it quickly became clear that visibility and voice are key elements in it. It feels good to me to keep sharing the journey, as I exercise those muscles. Each fortnight or so I’ll unpack an aspect of my learning journey, exploring the science and application of stress, connection and wellbeing and looking at how that affects our power in the world.  

I’m looking for feedback, input, inspiration, connections, fermenting – and that doesn’t happen in isolation! So here I am, sharing my learning journey with you, in case you would also like to contribute, participate, or observe as I go along.

Here’s the audio, it’s about ten minutes long. Let me know what you think by leaving a comment below, and please share with anyone you think needs to know about it. Thanks for listening!

I grew up with stories of interesting and successful people. Included in the constellation of my father’s family were the Cray twins and great train robbers’ defense lawyer. The first man to sail, non-stop, single handed around the world, one of the first black women on british TV. A pioneer of video art. A close friend of cultural icon Howard Marx. I was impressed – and also lost. I didn’t enter or navigate adulthood with any confidence in how to equal either their greatness or their record for adventure. But I wanted to. Because it sounded like a lot of fun.

My maternal background was rural, welsh, poor. My mother left when she was fifteen and in many ways didn’t look back. Except she did – in stories of the natural world that was her playground. And in song. Both my parents were deeply hurt, frustrated, unable to make sense of devastating childhood hurts which left them each socially isolated with their own differing mental health struggles. Though abundantly loving in ways, neither was able to be consistently present beyond the basic material provision.

From about the age of two I learned to focus my attention and behaviour on what other people needed and wanted. I was bright – but I channelled my brightness into the things which would win attention. Standard smarts. Excessive caretaking. The wilder, creative knowing and seeing persisted, but struggled increasingly to find a playground on its own terms. My nervous system partly shut down, a fear based freeze which kicks in especially when I need to speak up, act “off piste” and take creative and entrepreneurial risks. Intimate relating too. Any time I have to be seen, basically.

My adult journey for answers, healing and growth included enquiry on how to raise confident, connected, creative children. I homeschooled.  We did Steiner. I found Hand in Hand parenting, founded by Patty Wipfler, which includes a practice called Listening Partnerships… and things started to get very interesting. A Listening Partnership is a peer-to-peer practice for releasing stuck emotion with the specific aim of being able to think and relate more effectively. Derived from Re-Evaluation Counselling, the simplified practice was designed to help parents to that job better: but its impact spread like wildfire through my whole life, and I was soon using it for work-related challenges, big life-decisions and the minutiae of intimate relating with other adults. I became easier to be around, less triggery, vastly more capable of intimacy – and I started taking more risks in my personal and professional life.

I had long been fascinated by how organisations work – the relational dynamics, the systems element, the way you can set things up one way and get this result, arrange the human resources a different way and you’ll get that thing. What makes people happy. How happy people do a better job. I started talking with my friend, colleague and listening partner, ecstatic birth doula and parenting consultant Roma Norriss about the wider potential for listening partnerships. We quickly realised what a radical impact it could have in the workplace, on stress, problem solving, team work and possibly even innovation.

And yet, groups of humans terrify me. Coming from a family constellation that was deeply chaotic, unpredictable and unnavigable “as me”, every job I took had (in the eyes of my psyche) a threatening shadow element which took a great toll on my nervous system. I always felt the need to measure up, constantly anticipating “being found out”, yet equally struggling and yearning to be recognised on my own terms. I convinced myself that I could only succeed as a freelancer, outside of the constraints of organisational culture. Yet organisational dynamics continued to call me, perhaps as I search for answers as to how my family of origin might have managed things better?

So. What if I can hack my nervous system (nice imagery I know) so that I’m less easily frightened and can fully occupy my agency? And what if, at an organisation level, you can make this possible for everyone? What if organisationally – and culturally, societally – we can create environments where people can bring their whole self – their full giftedness – because their emotional health is not kept separate from their working life.  And what impact would that shift have on the landscape of power?

Understanding and mapping giftedness has been an integral part of my own process as well as my coaching practice for some time. Now I’m curious – what is the most powerful use my gifts? Could listening partnerships help people use their innate gifts more effectively – and be more powerful? What place does peer-led emotional release have in organisational wellbeing and performance? And while any organisational change benefits from a top-down approach, what are the limits? Could the practice have a big impact even if managers aren’t doing it? And would they, eventually, be drawn in anyway?  How does a culture of emotional safety affect the power dynamics in a group? Could it represent a kind of bottom up activism?

As I began unpacking and talking about my question it quickly became clear that this is a question about visibility and voice as much as raw power. We cannot use our power if we are not in some way seen, heard or connecting with others or the physical world. The voice and lungs are the most significant interface between our bodies and the world.

The Ventral Vagus Nerve, which is so key in regulating social engagement and many related aspects of wellbeing, directly ennervates the lungs and throat, not to mention the expressive muscles of the face and our inner ears!  One of the big things that happens during Listening Partnerships is co-regulation: your nervous system settles into “social engagement mode”, you come out of fight or flight or shut down into a more emotionally and physically balanced way of being. Social engagement mode also points us in the direction of play, and the making of art. What if the most powerful way I can engage with the world is not, in fact with a “job” but by making art?

I very much like the idea that each person can catalyse change from anywhere, basically through the power of a healthy nervous system. And I think this is where my learning question really lies: If I wasn’t triggered, how much power would I have? Social engagement mode, and a healthy nervous system, are literally infectious: we seek to “upregulate” with those in better shape than ourselves. So it is potentially very valuable social capital.

So this is what I’m up to for the next six months. Exploring the links between emotional safety, visibility, voice and power, at an intimate personal level and also at an organisational level. For the first three months I’ll be blowing this question open as widely as I can. I’ll be looking at the neuroscience of connection and performance; researching alternative approaches to organisational development; unpacking stress and its impact on our personal and collective power; I’ll be conducting my own experiments in visibility, using my voice and creating art;  I’ll be in constant action learning around ways to work with my own nervous system and I’ll be prototyping ways to introduce emotional safety into organisations and tracking it’s impact on performance. I also hope to talk to some leading brains in these fields, and will be reporting back and possibly even recording some of those conversations.

Send me your links, books, networks, conferences. Introduce me to people. Invite me to talk at your organisation. Tell your forward thinking startup friends, your NHS and social sector friends, your teacher friends and your call centre friends about me.

And ask me how often I’m taking a nap.