First published May 11th 2020
Link to 3 minute video How’s Your Sea?
Last week HBR.org reported on a global study that revealed that since the outbreak of the pandemic:
- 75% of people feel more socially isolated,
- 67% of people report higher stress,
- 57% are feeling greater anxiety, and
- 53% say they feel more emotionally exhausted.
Yet at the same time it can be difficult to get people to open-up; ask people how they are and more often than not they’ll say fine, believing that’s what you want to hear. It’s hard enough when we are face to face with someone, because it can make you feel vulnerable, weak or needy, because you don’t want to admit to yourself let alone anyone else that you are finding it tough, or simply because we don’t always have the words, ability or willingness to communicate it. Remote communication makes it even harder. Even over video we lose some of the subtle, nuanced and often unconscious communication we get in the room making open and honest conversation more challenging.
So what’s a manager to do? Last week I offered you the ‘six word story’ as one way of starting to open up as a team (check back in the timeline to find that). This week I want to offer you a different, slightly more involved, slightly more risky approach. The Sea allows you to build on the openness that the six word story starts, allowing you to get a richer insight and hence better express and understand how each other if feeling right now.
It was first introduced to me over a decade ago by my great friend and colleague Anthony Landale when when he was working with me and one of my teams back when I used to have a proper job(!) and I’ve been using it ever since. So how does it work?
You simple ask everyone to think about how life is for them right now using the metaphor of the sea. Questions to get them thinking include:
- What time of vessel are you in (if you are indeed in a vessel at all)?
- What’s the weather like?
- How’s the sea state?
- What’s beneath the surface?
- What have you already travelled through?
- Where have you travelled from?
- And where are you heading?
- What can they see?
- And, crucially, how do they feel about your sea right now? How’s the journey? What’s your hopes and fears for the journey ahead?
Add in whatever other questions you think would be helpful.
Then get each person to share their story with the group. Listen (as far as is possible) without interrupting. Ask questions if necessary, but these should be to aid understanding, not to ‘solve’ anything…indeed, give up on the idea that there is anything here for you to solve, the point here is to listen and understand.
And if and when you do ask question, stick with the metaphor; so try to avoid guessing who the sea monster is, or worse, suggesting it’s John from accounts.
End by asking what help or support they need and /or what you would like to offer by way of support.
I know this can sound a bit kindergarten, but believe me, this works because its invokes storytelling and imagery, engaging our right and left brains – our emotional, spiritual and intellectual energies – hence giving us access to a wider and richer language to explain how we feel and conjuring up relatable images in the minds of the listeners who are then better able to understand, empathise and support. It also allows us to talk obliquely yet powerfully about feelings, emotions, hopes and fears in a way that feels safer.
Try it today. You might be surprised just how much it deepens the connections of your team.
* Study conducted by Qualtrics and SAP during March and April 2020 & reported at HBR.org