The Juggler: A number of years ago, we headed out to the mountains of North Carolina to run a camp through the 4H extension program. We had done a similar camp the previous summer and looked forward to working with the kids and staff again. The first morning went without a hitch, but then at lunch the director of the program told us there had been a change. For the afternoon, they wanted to send us to work with the teens at a different location. No problem - we actually preferred working with teens. But the looks on their faces stopped us in our tracks. They went on to warn us about the "tough kids" in the program and that we shouldn't worry if they don't all participate. They seemed particularly leery of one girl they referred to as the "ring leader" of the group.
Luckily by this point, we had conducted enough workshops with a wide range of kids and adults (some more willing than others) and we knew the power of play. Within minutes of entering the room, we could easily tell that a girl named Sam fit the description the director had given. She postured in a way that said "I'm layered with armor. Don't mess with me."
The Struggle: We quickly picked up on the fact that Sam led the group, but not due to earned respect or trust from her fellow campers and staff. She had gained control using fear. Wary of her lashing out, they played into the role she created for herself. Whatever had happened to her in her younger years had clearly scarred her and created the tough exterior. I knew I would never be able to understand what she had been through, but I wanted to give her an opportunity to step out of that shell, at least for a few hours.
Everyone started with one juggling ball ensuring instant success and confidence. Moving on to the next steps quickly and emphasizing that everyone learns at their own pace created enough of a challenge to engage all of the campers. As I gave feedback to one camper, I heard the most delighted squeal coming from another part of the room. I turned to see Sam actually smiling and giggling like the young girl she had once been. The armor had come off.
The Breakthrough: The fact that Sam laughed didn't surprise me. The reaction of everyone else in the room did. So engaged in their own learning process, the other campers barely noticed at first. But as the workshop progressed, they began laughing with each other at the silliness and cheering for each other's successes. The staff, on the other hand, noticed Sam's response right away. They had been watching her closely maybe half expecting her to start chucking the balls angrily across the room. Little by little, they dropped their own guards down and began practicing alongside the campers.
The Insight: As Plato once said, "You discover more about a person in an hour of play than a year of conversation." With the protective layers off, the staff saw these "difficult" campers in a new way that impacted the rest of their summer. As the staff learned to juggle alongside the campers, new connections were forged. Playful learning of new skills for no reason other than the sheer joy of doing it creates a level playing in which we can see each other in fresh light. Previous expectations and narratives get challenged.
In Five Dysfunctions of Team, Peter Lencioni identifies the first threat to healthy teams as being a lack of trust due to a fear of being vulnerable. Researcher Brene Brown's two TED talks and book Daring Greatly wrestle with this concept of vulnerability. Her studies show that in order for connection to happen, we need to allow ourselves to be seen. Sam had made sure not to show her own vulnerability as a way to protect herself and maybe numb herself to whatever pain she had experienced. Juggling helped her show a little bit of her true self at least for a little while. As Brown notes, vulnerability is not a sign of weakness, but a measure of courage and necessary for innovation, creativity, change, and joy.
Those campers continued to juggle throughout the summer after we left. They now had a common ground to engage and eventually they began helping each other learn different tricks. A few of them even worked together to create a juggling routine for the end-of-summer talent show. A huge risk and a perfect opportunity to practice courage.
The Takeaway: Our experience that summer made me realize the importance of creating a space for people to practice vulnerability. Here are a few strategies we've found to be effective:
Practicing and modeling vulnerability goes against most of our airbrushed, test score obsessed, and quota driven culture. Juggling reminds us that although results are important, the imperfect process of learning reveals much more information and creates the space for trust to develop.