Thursday, 20 May 2010

150 years

Well - my year just gets luckier and luckier in terms of the people I get to work with, meet and learn from.

This week - it was this man: Peter Henrichsen. A wood farmer in what used to be East Germany.

As part of a project in the last couple of days, I got to talk to him, listen to him and understand a bit of what he does.

What he does... is farm wood. (I mean farm as a verb.) He grows trees from seeds. He nurtures them, cares for them, and of course harvests them. Sustainably. And actually rather beautifully.

I could write about how much I learnt from Peter's project for ever but this evening I wanted to capture something else: a lesson I learnt from Peter that's refreshed me and my approach to dialogue.

So... Peter doesn't speak English.

And I don't speak German.

So we used a translator. Brian. Who was great. (Thank you Brian.)

My conversation with Peter was going to be important. My role on the project was (partly) to dig a little deeper and extract richer, more expansive responses from someone who (I was advised) was happier sometimes with a more claustraphobic, one word answer. Peter ( I was informed) was "a working-class guy, a real countryside, rural man. Not very outgoing."

Actually Peter was just shy. Or maybe just quiet.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

So, my role was to open up someone who might not be used to talking openly, honestly and publicly. Great, I love a challenge.

But a question crystallised for me on my flight over to Berlin:

Is a dialogue (a real dialogue) possible with a translator?

Is the inherent slowness of a translated exchange going to de-energise our conversation to the extent that it becomes boring?

Maybe it'll just be really clunky...

Well, if my question was: could a dialogue happen, I found the answer was... yes.

Very much so.

Was it as fluid as when I speak the same language as the person I'm in dialogue with?

No. Of course not.

So did I lose stuff? Was there a cost?

Yes, of course. Plenty of things were lost I'm sure.

But did I gain anything? Was this an opportunity for something else to happen?

Yes. Yes. YES. (Things I could never have expected.)

And one amazing thing in particular, in terms of listening.

Because I couldn't understand the content of what Peter was saying, I found myself able to really listen and to hear other things, (knowing as I did that any second, Brian was going to translate for me the meaning.)

(See how my syntax has been affected by being with German speakers!)

Now, admittedly, even in a foreign tongue, Peter was easy to listen to. He's a fascinating man, his energy, his presence was enigmatic and full of life. Magnetic. Utterly magnetic. I was drawn to his passion, his intelligence, his gentleness.

And because I found him to be so interesting as a person, it was easy for me to give at least as much energy as I usually do when I'm listening.

But because there was no point in me listening for the content, I found I could use all that energy to listen for other things: the things maybe I miss when I'm so focused on the meaning of words.

So what else did I hear? What else did I get?

Peter's tone: the timbre, the sound of his voice. And I heard the slightest of inflections, the smallest of pauses, the changes in pace and rhythm.

And my eyes now had energy to spare too: I saw the gentlest of facial expressions, subtle changes in the tension around his mouth and brow. I saw flickers of his eyes, occasionally glancing from me, to Brian, to the sky, to the ground.

And finally, I detected something I couldn't quite describe at the time. Something... less technical than anything like tone of voice or body language...

I think, (I hope) I detected, heard, sensed even... that he liked me. Just a bit. Enough.

Which relaxed me. Which relaxed him. Which relaxed the conversation.

So - just a light touch point here I suppose which is that difference in languages is SUCH a great example of where dialogue is needed. And such a great opportunity to co-create. And if there's a desire to do it, a want, a need... (and a translator) then it's not only possible but it's almost a richer opportunity than in 'normal' circumstances.

And the quality of listening might be that much better.

I'll finish with something Peter said in conversation with me, something I will never forget. It's about thinking long term.

And it's about considering the future.

Our future and our children's futures:

We don't know what will happen in 150 years.

We don't know if the wood will still belong to us.

But if people 150 years ago had thought the way we think...

There would be nothing to harvest today.

I feel duty bound to do what I do.

It's something that comes from within.

Thank you Peter.

You've made my life a richer one.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

poll position

Good luck to everyone who voted today.

Personally, I'd prefer a ballot paper that said: "Please express your top three preferences and then say why."

Then you'd go into another room and someone would listen to you. And then, after they'd listened for a while, they'd put down whether you'd really understood what it was you'd just done. And then they'd weight your votes with a rating from 1 (if you didn't really know what you were talking about) and 10 (if you were really on top it all).

It would take ages but we might get the government we deserve.

Maybe that's why politics isn't for me.