Building our social muscles – getting a conversation started

We in the western world have many options to build our physical muscles, but what about our social muscles? As Professor John Cacioppo and Assistant Professor Stephanie Cacioppo identify in their article on the social muscle, lonliness and social isolation can be as dangerous to our health as eating too much or smoking, so it’s in society’s good interests to ensure we have safe places to practice.

My favourite was a WEA course I saw many years ago with the title “What do say do after you say hello?” Whilst I never attended the course, it got me thinking that the awkwardness I experienced whenever our CEO came to visit was a skills (or social muscle) issue not a personal one.

He’d stick his head in the door of my office and say “Hi Sharon, how’s it going? and I would reply, “good Graeme, how about you?” and he would say “good”, or “busy”, or maybe “tired”.  Then there would be an awkward silence and after a minute he’d say something like “good to see you, don’t want to keep you from your work” and move along to the next office.

Eventually I went to a few “how to network” courses and later I even ran them myself.  The skills are relatively simple to learn and use, though there still is that tiny moment of awkward, silent anticipation at the start. My way of overcoming the fear is to think of the other person, not myself.  In a way I am doing them a favour by going first, by asking a question that is easy for them to answer and gets the conversation started.

I find these skills are invaluable in the facilitation work I do. I also need to use them, surprisingly, when participating in online courses or meetings where we are split into breakout rooms.  Often there is an awkward silence before I speak up and either ask the person about themselves, or about the task we’ve been given.

Here are a couple of suggestions of what to say, for the next time you are split into a small group or breakout room when you don’t know the other people in the group:

>What brought you to this session / meeting / course?

>What are you hoping to get from it?

>What’s something you’ve liked so far?  *

>What did you understand our task to be?

>What’s most useful for us to focus on in the time we have?

The first two questions are also useful when meeting strangers at an event (who knows when we might use those skills again?)

* I ask this instead of “how have you found it so far” so I don’t get the person focused on any negativity

And a handy hint for Zoom facilitators: you have to write the topic or question in the chat before you send people to breakout rooms, otherwise they cannot read the group chat once they are in a room with a room chat.




I want to make a difference – but what can one person do?

You may be hearing lots of conversations about ‘now’ s the time for change – with COVID-19 creating great uncertainty and also great possibility. You may also be hearing or saying “what can I do, I’m only one person?” The unspoken cry is “what can I do, to get the world to live according to my values, there’s no point just me acting if the rest of the world isn’t”.

But here is the opportunity – the point is living your values because you must, there’s no point if you are not living your values.

And who knows what ‘miracle’ may occur. My current dream is that our current political leaders have a thunderbolt of insight and realise that we need to do things differently and look for new ideas.

And as Economist Milton Friedman – the father of neo-liberalism – said: “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”

So let’s make sure that the ideas lying around and the examples we set, are the ones we want to live by.

10 Tips for co-facilitating online sessions

There’s always been a valued role for facilitators to co-host meetings and workshops so leaders and all involved can participate more and worry less about the process.   With COVID-19 thrusting many groups into the online space without warning, there is another important role – managing the technology.  The complexity can make it useful to nominate a co-facilitator (co-host) for online sessions and agree to distribute the tasks – managing the time, agenda, ensuring participation and marking the group’s progress towards their desired outcomes.


All group sessions benefit from preparation and planning to ensure there is sufficient time and suitable activities to cover the agenda and move in the direction of the desired outcomes.  Here are ten tips for co-facilitators to help run successful sessions in the online space:

  1. Prepare yourself: In order to make sure you can be seen and heard effectively, you’ll need to ensure your audio is working at a suitable level, without background noise and check your image and ensure that the lighting is shining on your face, not behind you. You may also choose to hide your image so you aren’t self-conscious.
  2. Prepare docs / audio / video for sharing: To prevent delays when screen sharing, do a quick pre-check that you have open all the documents you need to share and close all other files so that you won’t accidentally expose any personal / confidential docs.
    To prepare audios / videos: Download audio and video clips to your desktops if possible as there are often buffering issues. Also check that the sound of the audio / video is playing through the online technology, not playing into your room and thus needing to be picked up by your computer audio.
  3. Prepare your questions and decisions: As well as an agenda, you will benefit from typing up questions and decisions so that a co-facilitator can easily cut and paste them into the online chat while the other is talking through. And it helps to signal to the group whether the items and activities of the session are intended to: connect, share information, generate possibilities or options, make decisions, agree actions and responsibilities, confirm status etc.


All meetings and workshops require some planning to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to participate. Depending on your technology you will want to generate specific engagement activities such as polls, Q&A, chat topics, breakout room groups, etc.

  1. Check-ins: With many people working from home and having family interruptions to cope with, it is beneficial to have a short or structured check-in, that allows everyone to express what is going on in their ‘work and life’ background. This can range from a word or phrase representing how each person is feeling, to a score from 1-10 in terms of the distractions they are facing / or how well they can concentrate.
  2. Ground rules: It’s good practice to set ground rules. Beyond the usual – one person at a time; disagree with the statement but don’t attack the person; add, not detract from the suggestions – online-specific ground rules include:

– ask people to ‘mute’ themselves when not speaking, or gain agreement for the co-facilitator to “mute all” if the background noise is distracting.  It is important to note that if the group is muted, speakers lose the auditory cues of acknowledgement, support or disagreement, so the co-facilitator will need to regularly scan the group faces for signs of agreement / concern / distress and remind those who are trying to speak while muted, or help them unmute.

– keep videos on, or agree when and how participants can turn off their videos

– ask the group to use chat for questions, interaction and feedback. This includes deciding whether to allow person-to-person chat, public chat, or only group-to-facilitator chat

– agree how the group can signal that they want to speak, e.g. ask them to physically put their hand up if they want to speak, or show them how to use functionality and have a co-facilitator monitor for requests to speak

– when and how to use advanced signals such as agreement, speed up, slow down, time for a break etc.

– gaining permission to record the session and confirming the uses of the recording and if recording, set it up to record automatically as the session starts

  1. Structured engagement: Online workshops can tend to be passive, as it isn’t easy for the facilitator to say “turn to the person beside you and discuss X”, so you will need structured alternatives and the co-facilitators will need to monitor these. Examples include:

– Polls

– Reactions, e.g. asking for: Thumbs up / down / out

– Responses: e.g. type Yes, No, Not Sure in the chat box

– Feedback: e.g. asking the group to write a comment in the chat box, give other team members encouraging or constructive feedback

– Q&A: e.g. suggesting the group flag questions with a prefix such as Q

– Sharing references & resources e.g. suggest names, concepts and links to references be typed in the chat function and distributed as part of the session follow-up.

  1. Pre-allocate people to activities such as breakout rooms: Break out rooms give an opportunity for those who are quieter, or reflective to have a voice in smaller groups. Initially you may want to pre-allocate people to activities rather than try and do it on the fly. Instructions should to be typed up and distributed before you split the group into smaller groups, so the task / question / topic is clear. People often get distracted by the technology of moving into smaller groups and don’t hear the instructions clearly.  Allow options – even within the smaller groups – for typing a response, as well as speaking, so that groups aren’t co-opted by the loudest / most confident voice.
  2. Small to large group feedback: When returning to the larger group, ask everyone to type in the chat box one insight / observation / thing they discussed, before asking for a representative to give feedback. This gives a wider summary of the smaller groups and the chat text can usually be captured and distributed.


All meetings and workshops benefit from confirming what was discussed and decided, both at the end of each agenda item, as well as the end of the session. And capturing this visually as well as verbally enhances memory and retention.

  1. Checking for agreement: It’s not as simple as going around the room and asking for a nod of approval, so the co-facilitator needs to create a formula for ensuring everyone is heard. Online meeting functionality such as Polls and Chat can aid in decisions, especially capturing questions and concerns in chat, similar to sticky notes. Asking group members to vote ‘Yes, No, Not Sure Yet’ can allow you to keep moving and flag for follow-up.
  2. Close: As well as the usual end-of-meeting formalities, there are a few additional quirks of online meetings, such as leaving the meeting vs ending the meeting, and recording, saving recordings and saving chats, all of which must be done before ending the meeting.

If you are new to Zoom you may also like to sign up to our Newsletter and receive a free download: Zoom 5 Minute Prep Checklist for new Hosts

Feeling frustrated because you supposedly have so much more spare time now that you are working from home?

Wondering how to get started on one of those longer term projects? This nails it:

“If you’re putting off a long term project, particularly one where the result is uncertain or the reward will take a long time to arrive, find a way to reward yourself as fast as you can. Just for getting it done, that short term anticipation will keep you going, even if it’s hard to see your long term progress. And then there’s another tactic. Make the hard choices easier.”

But how do we find a suitable short term reward?

If you like bouncing ideas off people – phone a friend and ask them to get a pen and write down what you say for five minutes. Then start talking about what you love to do when you aren’t working and see if you can generate an ‘aha – I could use that as my reward’.

If you like being by yourself, get a piece of paper and make a list of “things I love to do”. As an alternative, draw a heart in the middle of the page and give yourself 5 minutes to write down anything that might be a reward.

If you want to know more, click here to listen to Charles Duhigg interviewing Dan Ariely on this topic (advice is at 19.05).  Or click here to sign up for a download of my e-book: 21 Ways to Get Unstuck, Keep Moving Towards your Dreams.


Enough is enough

In South Australia COVID-19 fears are easing. But rather than go back to the ‘old normal’, now is the time to really consider what we want our ‘new normal’ to be. One way is to ask ‘how much is enough?’

And that question doesn’t only apply to money and having ‘stuff’. Many of us live with a societal pressure that says who we are and what we currently do is ‘not good enough’, so the question applies to our whole life – how much fitness is enough, how much grooming is enough, how much volunteering is enough, how much responsibility for others’ is enough?

In all these instances we can see a hidden belief that ‘more is better’. This belief runs our world and our lives. But it doesn’t have to. A belief is “just a thought that we keep on thinking”, so we can choose to start thinking other thoughts. Admittedly, a strong belief that is also held by many others can take a lot of effort to shift. But now is a good time and its worth it.

So how much is enough for you and about you? If you are not currently doing enough or being good enough, whose voice is judging you?  What would it be like to say “I am <good> enough and what I have in my life is enough for today. I don’t need to do or be or have more.  I will enjoy what is already here”?

Staying socially connected even as we are physically distancing

Words matter. So does connection.

In these difficult times we need to connect more than ever – with people and with nature – to calm and energise ourselves. Instead of saying “I’m self-isolating”, try “I’m physically isolating myself and I’d love to say connected”.
How can we do that?
Walk to your local park, beach, or tree and call someone you care about. Describe one thing that you like about your surroundings (if your thoughts are dismal try describing the colour, the shape or the feel).
Tell the person one thing you appreciate about them / about having them in your life.
Smile if you can. Every bit of positive energy helps at this difficult time.

Hope or Trust (Faith)

Scientist Dr Lauren Oakes poses this question to her peers:
“When you think about the future in terms of environmental change, how would you distinguish hope from faith? Do you experience either or both when thinking about the future (of planet, humanity, or self)?” From: In Search of the Canary Tree, The Story of a Scientist, a Cypress, and a Changing World

Exploring our responses to her question, you may not resonate well with the word faith. If you don’t, swap “trust” for “faith”.  Which is stronger. You might like to look at your writing, I suggest that people who start a sentence by by saying “I hope …” change it to “I trust …” and see if that generates more a positive than tentative tone to the sentence.

and what of the phrase “I guess…” which many people use, either because they are not completely confident, or they don’t want to come across as arrogant. With a critical audience it can leave them wondering – even subliminally – if you really do know your stuff.

Lastly, the differences between “I think…” and “I feel…”.  The former tends to indicate a more general truth, while the latter a more personal truth.  Neither is right or wrong, both can be useful in the right situation.

Fierce Self-Compassion

A recent article by compassion researcher Dr Kristin Neff raises some important points about different ways of being compassionate. Often people notice a difference between what Dr Neff calls ‘yin, or soft compassion’ when things haven’t been going well, compared with joyful compassion when all is well in our world.


Now this article by Dr Neff, raises another type of self-compassion – fierce self-compassion – when we say ‘Enough.  For my safety and well-being, I must stop allowing that to happen again’.

Whilst it is important in leadership and service roles to listen to the client and to colleagues, it is also important to learn to express our limits. These may be limits on the day – if we are tired / everwhelmed / something negative has happened; or values limits – this is not okay for me to keep  seeing / hearing / experiencing.





Laughter or Ridicule? What are we listening for?

Saddened to hear of the violent death of Eurydice Dixon’s and tears welled up at Lisa Wilkinson’s (the Project) quote from Margaret Attwood:

‘Men are afraid women will laugh at them, women are afraid that men will kill them.’

How can we minimise ‘honour’ cultures where Aussie laughter is heard as ridicule and instead encourage a culture where we are all able to laugh at ourselves.

Federer and the performance benefits of working part-time

The professional tennis circuit is a punishing arena for men’s and women’s bodies.  To aim for #1 requires a level of commitment and a volume of matches that seem beyond the capacity of the human body to sustain.  Hence, our heroes regularly need injury time off, or even worse, limp off the court without finishing their matches – leaving the public without the contest we have paid good money watch.

The rule of sport, and most working lives, seems to be “play full-on for as long – or as short – as you can, then retire”.

Roger Federer understands the cost of full-time commitment to the game. In mid-2016 he took a six-month recovery break and looked to be facing the end of his career. But in 2017, he staged an amazing resurgence, winning the Australian Open and Wimbledon, among others.  Instead of returning to full-time tennis, he cherry-picked the games that he would play and we heard him use the term “part-time” at both Wimbledon 2017 and at this year’s Hopman Cup win. In the Hopman Cup interview he explained: “I’ve played almost 1500 times so you have to be careful now. It’s nice, I work part time now. I work in the morning, I’m off in the afternoon or I do it the other way around. It’s good being a dad, good being a husband, good being a tennis player. I have the best of all worlds, it’s great.”

Many senior business people face a similar dilemma, working too hard and not participating in their children’s development, until a disease or illness knocks them down. Then they re-evaluate and have to decide whether to persevere or retire. They often don’t have the choices that Federer – a self-employed professional – has the advantage of making.  Federer can choose which competitions he enters.  The only thing he may have to give up is the ambition to be number one again, if he is not playing as many competitions as his compatriots.

Federer is a great example to reinforce that “part-time” doesn’t mean “poor quality” or “poor commitment”.  In fact, many part timers work harder than their colleagues and yet they are distrusted.

Given the paucity of good quality part-time jobs, it’s time to start having more conversations to remind our leaders that having happy and high-performing part-timers can be a better option than requiring senior employees to remain full-time and frazzled?