To let new learning in, you have to let some of the old stuff go. An unsettling experience even though the old ways may no longer be serving you well.
This was last week. I was in Spain (Sierra de Aracena) for the second in a series of three Creative Writing for Business programmes offered by Dark Angels. My introduction to the Dark Angels' approach was the Foundation programme in Inverness-shire last October (2013).
An immersion in Aracena business life inspires a different way of looking at how we communicate through the written word. Along with two others from the group, I was privileged to spend time with a local sculptor - Alberto Germán Franco. We learned about his work and philosophy on life. Despite the recognition he receives for his sculptures, Alberto showed profound humility. It was an inspiring experience.
Working together we processed, negotiated and captured the essence of our experiences in a written piece. Alberto was invited to a reception where we read our collective words in return for sharing his time. The experience made us deeply conscious of the writing we do in relation to our work. But of course that's the whole point.
How often do we think so deeply about how we write in a work context? I'm thinking particularly about health and social care services where most of my public service experience was based. Elspeth Murray's poem 'This is Bad Enough' captures with cringing clarity just what happens when we get it wrong.
Making health and social care services more person centred is a Scottish Government priority. There is some great work going on. The emphasis is appropriately on how staff communicate with people on a personal level. But, given that 1-1 contact between health and social care staff and the people they serve can be relatively brief, a considerable amount of communication is actually through the written word. Typically, this would be through information leaflets, appointment letters and as a follow up to treatment.
The next time you embark on writing or editing an information leaflet, think about Elspeth Murray's words. Would it pass her 'speak like a human' test? It's not really much to ask. Written communication is often developed through consensus, particularly in the NHS. While founded on good intentions, the end product may have gone through numerous re-drafts. The human voice will have been resolutely squeezed out to make room for the various professional perspectives. I understand where this comes from because I have been there myself, but it begs the question "who are we writing for?"
It's the same principle when a leader is writing to their staff. Involving teams in change and quality improvement programmes is fundamental to success. Any connection that that might have established during service improvement events can be severed in an instant by hastily written follow-up correspondence that lacks a human voice. It can be an uphill struggle from then on.
It is when we let our own humanity show through that we produce words that resonate with the people we are writing for. You rarely get the chance to see first-hand the impact your written words have on others and this is a special feature of the Dark Angels approach. Seeing Alberto Germán's emotional response to our offering made the struggle to find the 'right' words all the more worthwhile.
Reflecting back on my discomfort while in Spain, I realise I was having to reach beyond the accepted norms of many years writing in academic, professional and corporate contexts. I had to nudge these to the side to make room for my human voice. Sometimes I wish I had had the benefit of the Dark Angels approach earlier in my career but there's a time for everything. As the Buddhist proverb goes ‘when the student is ready the teacher will appear’.