The Workshop

The traffic was unusually terrible making my arrival at work 40 minutes later than anticipated. On my mind were familial concerns as they always are when you leave the household for the day, and on the radio I was listening to an audio e-book about a fragmented group of kindy parents dealing with children’s issues, school socialisation, a Trivia Night, domestic abuse and murder. As I drove in I found a park right out the front, grabbed my briefcase and handbag and raced for the door. I was hosting a workshop for professionals and it would be unseemly to arrive late.

As I walked in the door I could see them, their faces calm, pleasant and anticipatory. This was all still new, no one knew each other yet, no one had a personality, nothing marked anyone out as separate or different from each other. No complaints, no requests, no dissension, just a group of professionals. They could be from your field. As a group, they were formless and bland. They were all still a mass to be trained, formed and created anew.

I touched base with my nervous administrator who had frantically rung me on my mobile just ten minutes before we were due to start. “I’m just around the corner” I’d replied, “there was an incident on the freeway”. “Right” she said in the abrupt but efficient manner that I’d come to associate with her working style, “I’ll see you soon then”. We had an ambivalent relationship as her attitude and comments towards me always raised the spectre of the moral of the story of The Emperors New Clothes in my mind as I constantly self scrutinised my ability and performance in light of the perceived expectations of others and my cringing inability to see that I did indeed have great professional self worth.

Leaving the venue to race upstairs to turn on my computer, dump my briefcase, grab my name badge – the permanent one that had been handed to me on Day One all those years ago when I first started here seemingly cementing my new identity in this place of higher learning – I momentarily reflected on my appearance because as we all know, first impressions always count, I pondered on what sort of group experience this would be. Would this group gel? Would they be cohesive? Would they be needy, fragmented and disruptive? Or would they be grateful, committed and looking for personal and professional growth? At the end of the day, the ultimate question was, would they buy what we were selling?

I took to the stage, saw that my introductory presentation was already up on the screen and checked that the equipment was working as I awkwardly moved the slides backwards and forwards. I like performing, I like talking in front of a crowd, and I’m not in the least bit fazed by a microphone or a stage. People are spongelike at this stage, taking in whatever you offer them and you try to make it match their expectations. Just a couple of questions which I deal with easily, pleasantly and with a smile.

As I stand at the front of the room I make mental notes about where people are sitting, whether they’re sitting with someone or alone, not in the empty front row but towards the back, and I really try hard not to judge people by their own appearances but we all know that this is a game that we all play, as they too are judging me in the same way. It’s how we make sense of things in our world, as along with the visuals they silently ask, “ Can we trust you to hold us while we learn?” “Will you lead us, host us and care for us while we are learning?” “Will this learning change us!” “Are we safe here?”

I sadly note that my administrator, who, after all does have a degree in the social sciences has set up the room with rows of chairs all facing the presenter. Normally a workshop is set up so that all of the participants face each other, because the learning takes place in the form of interactions and small group experiences between the participants. Make mental note to self to raise this with her later. Be careful not to say to her that this reflects how she thinks learning takes place…

I’ve introduced the first speaker who will take them through until afternoon tea. That is a long session on one topic, but that level of input is needed for this complex area. The speaker is experienced, knowledgeable and an expert in her area. She and I meet annually at this event and, as women often do, we measure the elapsed time through a recitation of our fertility status as we recount that the first time we met she had to express milk behind a screen during the morning tea break, and that the following year she was pregnant but not showing and that last year she was about to pop as she took this very same workshop…

She gets to do the fun bit where you go around the room and ask everyone to introduce themselves. I notice that she leaves this in their control, as many introductory sessions such as these often play games with truth telling, getting people to speak with and then introduce each other, a much harder, more concentrated form of getting to know someone that always essentialises aspects of the others life. Worse still are the dreaded trust building exercises that force you into bodily contact with strangers…

As this process happens you can feel the mild anxiety in the room as people try to calculate when their turn will come: will she go in straight rows? Will she start at the back or from the front? And in relation to the content what will people reveal of themselves to what is really a group of strangers at this point? Where they work, what particulars differentiate their workplace from similar ones, how long they’ve been there, what their interest in the workshop is and what they hope to do with their new found knowledge and skills in future seem to be the norm…

A couple of people come in late, sharing what all people who can’t run to time share, stealthily entering, heading straight to the back of the room, delicately sitting down, painfully slowly taking off jackets and scarves as they try to be invisible and not upset the proceedings while at the same time trying to catch up and pick up on the key concepts being discussed. They hold the gaze of the presenter but don’t look sideways at all. Another person enters much later still, and pries off a chair from the back room where they’re stacked high against the back wall. Later still I see that he too is now incorporated into the group as he’s moved forward now and sits with the others, adding to the conversations with pertinent comments on topics being addressed.

They’re talking about miracles now, about miracle questions that get people to change their perception of what’s happening in their lives. And how would you describe your perfect day? Great perceptions on the self and the self in the world. I’m loving where this discussion is taking my thoughts as I sit at the back of the room and see the backs of heads, wonder what is going through their heads as they think about all this.

There are peals of laughter emanating form the room, always a good sign that strangers can come together and find a commonality, a humorous and even hilarious one that unites them in friendly laughter that reduces any tensions from not knowing each other as the newness of being here starts to wane. Everyone starts to recreate the familiar within the room, like laughing at common jokes. We all begin to see each other, we normalise our surroundings, as we notice things and make them part of this cultural milieu.

Now there’s the guy who is questioning the suppositions of the presenter, another one who wants to take the intellectual high ground, the woman who embeds everything she says in her own experience and through Those experiences that are relevant from her workplace. The clown marks himself as the one who will provide the emotional valve that allows everyone to reduce their emotional tension as he breaks the bubble with a gag. Now we’re starting to see who’s who, starting to see the differences that mark us, and it’s interesting.

The caterer arrives and the admin assistant is nowhere to be seen. I leave the room to attend to invoices, arrangements for today, tomorrow and the next day’s nutritional requirements. Where is she? I walk back into the main building and she’s at her desk upstairs on the phone about some other business. I stand and wait but she’s in no hurry to hurry. I write a note: “The caterer is here and wants to speak with you”. Who is in charge here I ask myself, where is the power in my standing around like this? This is my low self esteem, my sense of my own illegitimacy and a pointer to the problems of attending to the domestic in the workplace. I have Imposter Syndrome. And I feel like a bitch because this woman has done a fantastic job in making the arrangements for this workshop to happen.

When I return to the workshop I see that the geography has changed, that everyone has moved into small groups now and they’re chatting, talking earnestly, problem solving issues, and doing the work that they’ve paid to do. The chairs, with the little table built in, the kind that swings over so that you can write or sleep on it, have all been rearranged. Suddenly all the backs of heads are reduced and it looks like dodgem cars as everyone’s facing each other, not going in the one direction anymore and ideas and talk are colliding. A creative process is taking place.

The facilitator signals that it’s time to break for morning tea, but no one can hear her as the buzz in the room is palpable and the work of the workshop becomes evident. And people continue to do the work rather than move to the sociability of the morning tea session.

Let’s not pretend that the breaks are anything other than less formalised aspects of the workshop. Anthropologists love the ‘foot in the door’ syndrome, and I think that just because a session involves less formality doesn’t mean that it’s not part of the experience of the workshop that must also be addressed. We don’t ignore sociality as being invisible to the work of the workshop, after all, this is the crux of the issue when it comes to identifying cultural praxis. Culture is all that we do, and if we’re in a workshop, then all of the experiences are part of that workshop, those on the timetable, and those that aren’t.

So what happened at morning tea? A few people refused to go, staying put where they were, happy to sit and chat unrefreshed. Everyone else headed out and I directed them towards the two platters, one filled with cut up sweet cakes and the other offering an array of fruit slices. Both were bright, colourful and appealing. One was better for you than the other, but they disappeared equally as participants grabbed a small plastic plate, a too – large napkin and a plastic fork.  They headed outside for the warmth of both some informal interaction and some sunlight. Groups of two stood, chatting, eating and drinking. One man stood apart yelling into his mobile phone in a language other than English. Some headed for toilets and I stood and chatted again with the presenter.

What am I doing here I asked myself for the hundredth time? I am the perfect woman as I move around the room making contact with strangers, small talk and work talk and industry talk and workshop and education talk. I make eye contact, I make them feel at home, and I check to see if there’s anything they need. I find out where they’ve come from, how far they had to travel, what experience they’ve had of this content before? Are there any commonalities that we share? We make small talk about the surroundings, about the history of the place, about services, about the industry about the state and the nation. I usher people towards the food and drink and make sure they’re fed and watered. I sigh to myself thinking about the next research project that I want to undertake, about the theoretical framework of the work that I could do and the academic arguments that I could contribute to, even the wellbeing of people that the potential results of my work could affect. “Another lamington” I ask?

Workshops are not cheap. Time and money. They have to be thought about, you need to check that the industry wants or needs this and you have to find out what else is out there that might already be addressing the issues that you want to teach about or train people in. There may be reference groups whose needs must be addressed, whose memberships may have to be included, along with industry experts whose time and expertise you need to identify, access and appropriately pay for. There’s the content of the workshop which needs to be developed, and may need to be accredited and/or certified by organisations that have authority in these areas. These may all take a bit of time. And training, staffing, advertising and marketing too. And resources on site need to be addressed here too, the kind that you take for granted like a room, the chairs, heating and cooling, IT resources, catering, pens and paper and name tags.

We’re all back to facing the front again. People are talking for longer now as they reprise the findings of their group work. It’s working. It’s happening. I’m thrilled.

As I’ve had experience of being in a group and the dynamics associated with groups I’m always on the alert to identify who will inhabit some of the key aspects of group dynamics. It’s not an experiential psychodynamic form of group therapy though, so these may not be so evident. Groups are great because they mirror the bigger world as people are true to form and begin to inhabit their familiar roles, taking up familiar positions and delivering familiar responses to familiar stimuli. That’s why groups are so great.

I sneak out to get into the good books of my admin assistant by helping with lunch preparations but find that this is the worst thing that I could do because unwittingly I’m somehow giving her the message that she is incapable of successfully completing this task. So I back off after a curt, “It’s OK, I can do that”. I need to learn my place in the workplace too, and that is inside with the participants, assisting, mediating, supervising, contributing, sharing, being authoritative, organising resources and working the room. So back I go, only emerging when the first presenter says, “Let’s break for lunch now…” There is not enough lunch for the appearance of generosity, and my admin decides to contact the caterer and get catering for an extra four, wrily noting that “There’s more men here than I thought there would be…”

A break for lunch is needed as there’s been a few people sneaking out and going to the toilet before the break. They need air, and they also need food. The workshop has become intense as the participants work on scenarios that reflect real life and some may be seeing aspects of themselves in some of the cases being discussed. Examples, case studies and evidence drawn from real life is always problematic in this way. They are supposed to serve as a means to illustrate change processes, but end up becoming instructive as individuals draw from them to point to needed changes that should be made in their own lives.

As the afternoon arrives the energy changes. We’re all tiring as the shadows start to lengthen. The reality of the hard conversations that have been had, the examples discussed, the reading and preparations undertaken beforehand and the work yet to be completed starts to be realised by all those in the room. We are tiring, flagging in spirit.

The presenter is starting to wind up, and as she’s returning in two days, we all know that anything not completed today will be taken up and addressed then. We all slightly envy her as she starts her preparations to wind up the topic, formalise the final formalities, and manage her exit as she moves to leave. The high note on which we all started is now satiated as we bid her farewell.

… And now for the next speaker…

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