Saturday, 31 December 2011

thank you

A friend of mine said to me last week: "It's not the choices that are hard in life. Making the choices is easy. What's hard is dealing with the consequences of those choices.

So if I look back at two thousand and eleven it feels like I should consider not just the conversations I've had, but the consequences of those conversations.

Some of them.

A conversation with the new Chair of a big business that ended up with her saying: “Why don’t we just talk to each other in front of everyone, instead of me making a big speech?” And the consequence of her being reappraised by a few people who'd already made up their mind about what she was like.

A conversation with an ex TV man who's gone creative and invited me to do something at a brilliant event called The Story. And the consequence of
me making a speech, instead of having a conversation with everyone. And sharing publicly some of my work that's been kept under wraps for ages. With a bunch of people I’d never met.

A conversation with a friend that ended up with me not going to Los Angeles.

A conversation that ended up with a woman called Lisa grabbing the Prime Minister by the arm and telling him her story.

A conversation with eleven other jurors that ended up with someone not going to prison.

A conversation with an author in a tent in a field at Latitude Festival that ended up with me realising that sometimes the only work you have to do is to prepare.

A conversation with a producer that ended up with me doing a series on the radio.

A series of conversations with people all over the country when I tried to share some of my best secrets, which ended up with some of my best secrets being put into practice when I wasn’t there. And loving that.

A series of conversations with people about beauty, that ended up with people telling me they’d cried when they heard it.

A conversation with a group of women in Reculver WI that ended up with me realising I was mostly telling them stuff they already knew, but that it can be good to be reminded of things.

And lots of other conversations.

And lots of other consequences.

So – looking back in order to look forward, from a man who tries hard to have the best conversations possible and who certainly doesn't always succeed, I want to say thank you to the people who’ve helped me have some amazing conversations this year.

To be crude and concise: for someone who does dialogue to people, it’s been a year of being dialogued too. Sometimes.

So thank you to the people who’ve listened to me. Really listened to me.

To the people who’ve had the courage to challenge me with probing questions.

To the people who’ve checked they understand what I mean.

To the people who’ve balanced my thinking with an alternative way of looking at things.

To the people who’ve been honest with me and told me what they’re really thinking.

To the people who’ve parked their own agenda and built new things with me, new possibilities.

To the people who’ve had the confidence to let things just fall quiet for a while.

To the people who’ve shared with me the responsibility to look after the health of the conversation.

To the people who’ve had the generosity to temporarily withhold their judgement.

To the people who’ve taken the time and energy to consider their words and help me by putting themselves into what they’re saying.

And to the people who’ve created time and space. With me. And for me.

Thank you.

Here’s to a New Year of a little more.

With a little less.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

more reading

So this is the second transcription I'm uploading for those of you who like to read your conversations as well as listen to them. It's a conversation between Chris and Jacqui called normal people and you can download it here.

As you'll see and hopefully hear as well (if you choose to download and listen to it or click here to listen in iTunes) their life has been anything other than normal in some ways.

This is a conversation between a husband and wife. But it's also a conversation Between Friends, which became the title of the project I premiered at Latitude Festival in the summer of 2009, as part of the Intimate Conversations series. I published the audio shortly afterwards and it's had hundreds of listens since then. Now perhaps it'll have a few reads as well.

For me, reading this conversation as opposed to listening to it, it's impossible for me not to notice how precise both Chris and Jacqui are sometimes in the words they choose.

Sometimes their precision is at the service of simply being accurate. Like when they dispute where and when it was they first kissed.

At other times they're careful to avoid using words that might hurt each other. The tenderness is often in what they choose not to say as much as it is what they do.

And towards the end, there's a little something they do that tells me just how much they love each other.

And it's in the questions they ask each other.

They're specific but never precious.

They're deliberate but never clever.

But perhaps most importantly, beyond the directness and the straight-forward, down to earth candour that's so easy to hear and even to read, what I most enjoy and maybe if I'm honest even envy them for, is their kindness.

So thanks Chris. Thanks Jacqui.

And here's to friendship within marriage.

Happy reading.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

reading conversations

I'm finally releasing transcriptions of some of the conversations I've recorded, edited and published.

And here's the first. It's the conversation between Adrian Howells and myself. It's called prepared to love. (You can read more about the conversation here and download the audio here.)

I created and designed t
he audio edit to be listened to.


My work is essentially audio. And I'm delighted to say it has been listened to. A lot. It's been downloaded, played online and via iTunes more than a thousand times so far.

But some people have said they'd like to read some of the conversations I've had.

So I'm responding to those requests by publishing some of the transcriptions.

But what started as a way of giving people what they were asking for has become more than that, in two ways worth mentioning.

First, as I've begun to read the conversations, I've noticed how different they are in visual form. How uninflected. How neutral.

And I'm surprised by how much the written word objectifies the content. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised by that, but it's caught me off guard to see how much is missing in the written word that's provided through the audio word.

But the second thing is exactly the opposite of the first.

It seems to me that the written form is revealing the content as well as concealing it.

I've noticed things I haven't noticed before.

I've seen things I haven't heard.

I've noticed things about my questions. And their answers.

Missed opportunities.

Seized and unseized moments.

So that's been interesting. And educational.

And one other thing that's been interesting for me: the spaces in the conversations. And how to mark them.

When people talk, they often stop briefly in unusual places. In a way that people don't do when they write.

And sometimes it's in those little gaps people leave (rather than in the words they say) that you catch the mood, the emotion, the uncertainty, the difficulty or simply the choices they make. Those small signals in what's not said that can indicate more sometimes than what is said.

But the question is: how to mark these subtle spaces in the written form?

I don't much like dot dot dot...

It makes it look like a drifting away. And often when people pause briefly, it's anything but a drifting or a fade away. Often the breaks are unexpected. And they certainly don't make sense to read. Not at first anyway. Which is why I think they're so important. There's something very spoken about these written words.

So I wanted to preserve the breaks. I think they tell the listener that someone needed to stop talking just for a short time, maybe simply in order to say the next thing.

So, after much thought, I've gone for a slash. A light grey slash.

Like this /

And it seems to be working /

so I'll keep going with that if that's okay.

Finally, I want to say thank you to Miss Molly Grier who's been working on the transcriptions with me recently. Molly and her family have come into my life in a very gentle way this year. Apart from the fact that Molly's intelligence and honesty have been a fresh and lovely influence in the way I think about some of the conversations I've been having recently, she's also been listening and transcribing some of the podcasts for me. And she's doing a grand job. So thanks Molly. You and your work are much appreciated.

So - enjoy the transcriptions if you're visually inclined.

Adrian and prepared to love will soon be joined by:

Anjelo and when saw myself on fire here. (Audio on iTunes here.)

Jane in why not me? (Audio here).

Another Adrian (a pain doctor) in you don't talk here. (Audio on iTunes here.)

And Chris and Jacqui in normal people here. (Audio on iTunes here.) And you can read more about this conversation on the blog here.

Thanks for listening.

And for reading.

Friday, 30 September 2011

free music

Sometimes it's worth just putting a bit of good music up and around.

And apart from their exceptionally good musical qualities, one of the things I most like about Radiohead is their refusal to comply with the usual commercial restrictions of the music industry and the media.

So, after I listened to their recent session on the Colbert show in the States, I thought in the spirit of free access I'd put the audio up on the internet.

There's a good dirty version of Bloom to warm up with...

Check out two magnificently tight drummers holding the bounce together on Little by Little.

We got a bit of healthy contempt in The Daily Mail with some saxy chords coming from behind...

And finally a fantastic version of The National Anthem with a nice brass section on it...

Download. Enjoy.

(And forgive the horrendous amount of compression on the recording - that's American TV for you. How lucky we are to have Later with Jools and the BBC.)

If I get arrested, look after my children for me.

I did it in the name of music.

And freeness.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

generous descriptions

Whenever I'm asked what makes a good listener, I often end up talking about generosity.

But today, I want to highlight the generosity of describing well.

And in doing so I'm also trying to modestly offer something to anyone who's in pain; physical or emotional. Listening to Anjelo has helped me deal with pain. And I'd love it to help you too.

Pain can often be a lonely experience. Because as a listener, no matter how much of our own pain we've been through, we can't actually feel someone else's. We can't.

As well-intentioned and as nice as we are, we cannot step inside someone's body and feel what they're feeling. We can't even feel where they're feeling it, never mind the level of it, or how debilitating or even depressing it might be.

So we're destined - all of us - to have from time to time what we'll often call 'indescribable' pain. That migraine or toothache, that torn ligament, or that heartbreak and anguish that hurts us so profoundly, so intensely and it's often made worse by the fact that it feels unshareable.

So on top of our pain, we get loneliness.


That can really hurt.

So, today I'm publishing a podcast of my conversation with a man who managed to share with me (better than most) not just an account of his pain, but his perspective on it.

He's called Anjelo. He's a beautiful man. A gentle man. A sensitive man.

And he's someone whose words and voice have been with me in recent times.

In essence, Anjelo's story is all about pain and about how he understands it. Professionally and personally.

Originally from Sri Lanka and after training as a physio in Australia, Anjelo came to London to train as a pain doctor. (Something he was once told he didn't have the right qualifications for.)

And in London, out of nowhere, he came close to death three times in just a few months.

First, his lung collapsed on a weekend flight to Budapest.

Then, he had a life-threatening operation to repair the damage in his lung.

Then, as he was recovering, while he was watching a World Cup match on TV in his ground floor Victorian flat in Hackney, a fire-bomb was thrown through his open sash window.

And it landed in his lap.

(They got the wrong house by the way. It wasn't meant for him.)

Anjelo's descriptions of what happened and how he dealt with it are extraordinary. Not because they're dramatic and astonishing. But because he takes time to recall - not just for himself, but for me the listener - what actually happened and how he coped with it.

His language is careful and precise. (That's not unusual in itself.)

But what I find rare, powerful and moving is the effect of the energy and commitment he puts into describing his experience. By dedicating himself to sharing his story he creates both a perspective and a presence, at the same time.

He remembers and helps me to imagine.

He pictures and describes.

He wonders and he questions; with me and for me (us) - the listener(s).

And because he describes so generously, he makes of me the listener someone who sees it.

I have my own picture of what happened. You will too if you listen to it.

And I have my own sense of who Anjelo was and now is.

And I have a sense of what he went through on that day and in the subsequent weeks and months.

I often find myself asking people to put more energy into descriptions. I think we're all of us a bit lazy in that way sometimes. And this is such a great example of what can happen if we really invest more than usual in the way we take someone somewhere they've not been to themselves.

The listener can become the viewer.

They can understand so much more richly what that experience might have been like. And as a result they become so much more empathetic. And able to help.

Instead of hijacking a story with their own references like:

"Oh I remember when I fell off a ladder..."


"I'll never forget how much pain I was in when my girlfriend dumped me..."

Instead, we begin to find ourselves genuinely imagining what that must have been like.

For them. Not for us.

And in that moment, we transform ourselves, from merely listening to understanding.

We can check, we can dig deeper, we can wonder with instead of simply gawking at.

We can attend to someone, instead of waiting for them to finish so we can jump in with our own loosely attached story that we've been reminded of.

So - of course generous listening is important.

But generous describing is important too. They're connected. They support each other.

And I want to share Anjelo's story because he's probably the most generous describer I've come across. And by describing well, he enabled me to listen well. In fact I felt compelled to listen well.

So - my hope is that listening to this will encourage anyone who's in pain right now to consider how they share it. Because if we can describe our pain well, I suspect we increase our chances of being heard.

And supported.

And helped.

So - enjoy Anjelo if you feel that way inclined.

You can listen to it here.

(Or via iTunes here.)

Thanks for listening.

And thanks to Anjelo for describing.

P.S. I'm aware that many people don't or can't find time to listen to the podcasts I put out, so I wanted to do something I wouldn't normally do and that's publish the transcript of what he says as well as the audio. I'll do that soon. Watch this space.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

altogether better

If a story's any good, it's worth hearing more than once.

And on Thursday, I heard a good story three times.

I'd been asked to facilitate part of an event where the aim was to celebrate ordinary people who've been doing extraordinary things for others.

But it was about more than celebration. This was an event about grabbing people by the arm and saying "Look: this is happening. And with the right kind of help, it can happen more."

So it was partly about congratulation and reward. But it was about inspiration too, courtesy of some hard core living proof that great and small things are happening every day.

My role on the day was a simple one: to help a few people tell their stories. But we weren't interested in statistics and set-pieces. What we wanted to create was an authentic, powerful conversation that might capture both the head and the heart.

A public conversation.

A conversation that would get behind the facts, the figures and headlines.

A conversation that might reveal some of the passion and desire and humanity behind the blurb.

So - I spent the welcome lunch trawling the room, asking people about their projects, their stories and their lives.

And in amongst the hundred or so award winners, sat a group of people from a programme called Altogether Better. (Good name. Great people.)

And to one side and sitting alone was Lisa.

She looked a little edgy. And a tiny bit overawed by the glamour and elegance of Somerset House.

After a quick chat with the people running the project, I caught Lisa's eye, sat down and asked her about her story.

"I'm a bit shy." she said. "And I've got a bit of a stammer."

"That's okay" I replied. "I've got plenty of time. And it's just you and me."

(I think I might have smiled at her.)

"Okay." she said.

And slowly she told me her story, for the first time:

I'd been away for ten years /

In Canada.

And when I came back /

I bumped into my abuser.

And as a result /

I started to /


It took 18 months to get any counselling.

But I had a wonderful doctor /

Who said come in every other day /

Until we get can get you sorted out with someone.

Just check in with us.

Every other day.

So I did.

And eventually /

Well /

I got better.

And now /

Now /

I run a group for young women with mental disorders. Day to day life changing things.

That's how I earn a living.

I'm not on the dole any more.

And /

I haven't self-harmed for two years.

A short silence fell between us. I found myself looking at Lisa intently. I think I was looking for clues as to how okay she was or wasn't feeling about disclosing so much so soon.

"That's an amazing story Lisa" I said. "You know that don't you?"

"I'm not very confident." she replied. "I trip over my words sometimes."

She smiled.

"And I have a stammer."

I'm sure Lisa did have a stammer once. But I couldn't hear a trace of it. And maybe her sense of confidence wasn't as strong as some in the room, but it sounded to me like it might be ready to grow.

I put my cards on the table:

"Lisa. How would you feel about telling your story again? To everyone. If it makes it any easier, we could have a conversation about it, rather than you feeling you have to spill it all out.

"A conversation? In front of everyone?""

"Yes. In front of everyone."

We kept looking at each other. I was conscious of not wanting to push Lisa. But it felt like this might be an important moment for her, to say yes. Or to say no.

So I told her that I thought what she'd achieved was amazing. And I I told her that I thought other people might think so too; that she might inspire other people. I told her that of course it was her choice. And then I asked if she felt she might be ready.

Her eyes smiled.

"Try me."

So, after some fabulous stories of swimming pools reclaimed, bus-shelters rebuilt and able bodied teenagers learning how to help disabled bodied teenagers, it felt like the moment to give Lisa the opportunity to speak.

So I turned to her.

Her face was as pale as a sheet.

"Lisa. We were talking earlier weren't we?"

She nodded.

"How do you feel about sharing your story? About how you got to be here today?"

Without a pause, she breathed in to speak.

"Take your time" I think I said.

And she started.

Concisely, gently and with Sheffield steel in her eyes.

I'd been away for ten years /

In Canada....

And I heard the story for the second time, while a hundred people heard it for the first time. But this time - towards the end - she stopped.

In mid-flow.

Perhaps I should step in and rescue her?

Perhaps she'd been too brave.

Perhaps she wasn't ready after all.

I looked back at her again. And it was clear.

She was ready.

She was ready. And she was pausing. She was taking her time.

And she'd saved her big line till the end:

And for two years now /

I haven't self-harmed.

How to describe what happened next?

Honestly I suppose.

The room burst into applause.

Co-workers. Government ministers. Journalists. Bloggers. Tweeters and techies alike.

If it hadn't been so genuine, it would have been tacky.

But it wasn't tacky. Far from it. It was one of those rare moments when a bit of something real happens in front of you. And we all knew it.

But Lisa hadn't finished.

Lisa was on a roll.

The reception that evening was at No 10 Downing St.

The famous black door was thrown open to everyone who'd won an award.

Champagne, orange juice and fizzy water flowed. Canapes were served while eyes widened at the sight of the portraits, the furniture and the chandeliers.

David Cameron arrived as promised, shook hands, showed interest and made a heartfelt and witty speech.

It was all going to plan.

And then, as DC (as he's called at home) began to leave, surrounded by his modest entourage of small neat women, he felt a hand reach out and grab the sleeve of his jacket.

"Mr Cameron?"

It was Lisa.

"Have you got two minutes? I'd like to tell you my story."

And I heard Lisa's story a third time, while David Cameron heard it for the first time.

And he listened. And he was respectful in his reply.

And then he had to go. And celebrate his first year in office.

Which left Lisa and me, looking at each other, surrounded by astonished guests and No.10 staff. Her face was beetroot red. And beaming.

I honestly wondered if she might explode.

But she didn't explode. She grabbed me with her great big gorgeous arms gave me a hug I'll never forget.

"What have I done?" she squealed.

"You just grabbed the Prime Minister and you told him your story" I said.

"But, I could never have done that before!" she said, tears streaming down her face now.

"Well. You just did it now" I said. "And you did it pretty well."

Naturally I've asked Lisa's permission to tell this story. And I've also asked if she'll record a conversation with me. And she's said yes. So soon you'll be able to listen to her speak for herself about her experiences and her journey in life so far. Not just about the day in London and to No. 10, but the many, many days that led up to it.

So for now - thank you Lisa.

You are an inspiration.

To me and many others no doubt.

You seized the day.

And grabbed the jacket of power.

(And by all accounts you got to sit in DC's chair in the Cabinet Office.)

And it feels to me like you are well on the way to being truly altogether better.

An addendum
I could have started this post by telling you that the event in question was run by Steve Moore, Lucy Windmill and the brilliant team of people at Big Society Network.

I could have told you the day was all part of David Cameron's passion for the Big Society.

But I chose not to.

And I wonder how differently you might have read this story if I had.

Or whether you'd have read it at all.

As anyone who knows me will testify, I'm not a big fan of the Conservative Party (which as a friend recently pointed out to me probably makes me a better facilitator at events like these.) But I don't think I'm alone in disagreeing with most political parties about something important at the moment.

And for me, the idea of a policy that sets out to encourage us to look out for and after others, to be humane, to take responsibility, to act and challenge constructively rather than criticise from the sidelines is something worth beginning.

And that's all the Big Society is. A beginning. And like many beginnings it's having some false starts. Some clumsy articulations. It's being confused with other things. And it's fallen through some trap doors.

But whatever the ins and outs and rights and wrongs of branding and perceptions, last Thursday was not a day about political parties or government. Not really.

It was a day when I experienced for myself ordinary people creating change. Here. On these shores, where resistance to change always has (and probably always will be) strong and useful.

Some of the people I met were creating change long before the phrase Big Society was coined. But some people have only just started, like Lisa.

And if some of the change we need is going to come from people like Lisa, who's found the courage to take on her past, learn from the good people around her and transform her new growing confidence into action and helping others...

I'm up for that.

Because it's altogether better.

Altogether Better is run from Yorkshire and Humber Public Health Observatory who are about turning information into health intelligence.

You can read a full list of the fabulously inspiring organisations and individuals who won a Big Society award here.