Video and transcript from Emily Jane Steinberg’s talk at Austin’s 2nd Annual Facilitator Summit, Control the Room

This is part of the 2020 Control The Room speaker video series.

In February we hosted the second annual facilitator summit, Control The Room, at Austin’s Capital Factory. We launched the summit last year in partnership with MURAL to create a space for facilitators to gather, break down the silos, and learn from one another.

The three-day summit is a rare opportunity to bring together an otherwise unlikely group of highly experienced and skilled professionals across various industries and crafts—from strategy consultants and negotiators to Scrum Masters and design thinkers.

Anyone interested in deepening their knowledge on how to successfully facilitate meaningful meetings and connect with other practitioners is welcome. Together, we dive into diverse methodologies, expand upon perspectives, and learn new insights and strategies that enrich our expertise.

This year we had the pleasure of welcoming 24 speakers, all innovation professionals, who shared their insights and strategies of successful facilitation.

One of those speakers was Emily Jane Steinberg, a Visual Facilitator and Scribe at Delineate Ink, LLC. Her presentation was entitled: “Beyond Our Blind Spots — Seeing Context in a Changing World.” Her activities and lecture centered on the concept of awareness and how to expand it from a place of tunnel vision to see, identify, and ultimately eliminate our blind spots to more successfully help clients spot theirs.

Watch Emily Jane Steinberg’s talk Beyond Our Blind Spots — Seeing Context in a Changing World :

Read the Transcript

Emily Jane Steinberg:

And I’m going to ask you to just look out across the room and find a spot to gaze at, above eye level. It might be a convenient blue dot located on the wall, or perhaps on the screens. And as you gaze at that dot really focus in on it, like a laser. Let the particles of light and information come through you like a channel to that dot and really gaze into it with some intensity. And then find as you’re doing that, then you almost want to start expanding your gaze. And so go ahead and let yourself do that and really begin to expand your awareness out to the periphery, taking in more information throughout the room. And as you do, notice other kinds of information besides visual that are coming in. Sounds, thoughts in your mind, or sensations in your body.

Emily Jane Steinberg:

And just to test how far out your peripheral awareness is going, if you’ve got the room, bring your arms out to your sides and you can wiggle your fingers there at the edges of your vision. Just see how far back you can stretch and still see your fingers. And notice that the ability and the acuity to see at those edges of your periphery, is almost as clear as what’s directly in the center of your field of vision. So you can go ahead and drop your arms down to your sides now. And I invite you to come back and find your seat while maintaining this sense of expanded awareness.

Emily Jane Steinberg:

I have my index cards, just in case I forget what I’m talking about, which is expanded awareness, fittingly. That’s the name of the tool, the exercise that we just tried out, before we found our seats. And expanded awareness is also known as the learning state because when you go into a state like that, where you’re expanding out to your periphery, you have this combination both of total focus and relaxation. It actually creates the conditions to absorb new information and large quantities of information, making it a perfect skill to practice in a day like this where we’re getting a constant stream of new information. And when we shift from that foveal, focused tunnel vision out, that’s naturally what happens. So throughout the day, I invite you to try that out again and again. If you find yourself distracted, overwhelmed with content, fixating on a single point that you’ve heard somebody say, just go ahead and anchor again. These blue dots are going to be up here all day and then expand out from that space.

Emily Jane Steinberg:

Now, in a way we could actually stop right here and spend the next 15 minutes just practicing that. This tool really is that precious. It’s like gold. It’s fundamental and at the center of all the work that I do as a visual facilitator, as a public listener, not to mention as an artist and a meditator. Being able to access and function in that state is just key. But of course we’re not going to stop there. So you’ll see piles of blank paper on all your tables. And so go ahead, take a sheet of paper and I’m going to ask you to draw nine dots on it like this. And once you’ve drawn those dots, what I’d like you to do is connect all of those dots with four straight lines without lifting up your pen in between those lines.

Emily Jane Steinberg:

This is an individual exercise, so no group work at this point yet. Four straight lines continuous to connect those dots and I’ll give you one tip. If you’re trying to figure it out in your head before you start, it’s much easier to actually start by making a mark. You can’t really solve it in your head. Anybody got it, or think they’ve got it? I’ve got one over there, one over here, a few people. And those of you who do have it, have you seen this exercise before? Just to be fair.

Speaker 2:

Yes.

Emily Jane Steinberg:

Has somebody got it who hasn’t seen this exercise before?

[crosstalk 00:04:50]

That’s okay. We’ll unpack it together. Someone who did solve it, would you mind coming up here and showing us how you did it? This is funny to write on, but we’re going to just… Come on up. Yeah. I’m going to give you this pen. You’re going to show us what you drew.

Speaker 2:

I got to bring me cheat sheet.

Emily Jane Steinberg:

Yeah. Bring your cheat sheet. I’ve done that before. How did I just figure this out?

Speaker 2:

You have to go outside the…

Emily Jane Steinberg:

So she’s going to draw four connected lines without lifting up her marker.

Speaker 2:

So, I went like this.

Emily Jane Steinberg:

Yeah. Thank you. People see what she did there? So when I drew those lines in the first place, what did you see? What do people see? Sorry. The dots. Yeah, you saw a square, or a box. Why?

Speaker 3:

Negative space.

Emily Jane Steinberg:

[Crosstalk 00:05:52]. Negative space? Because your mind’s filled it in. Exactly. Hearkening back to Solomon talked about this morning, that’s social conditioning. We perceived a box where there wasn’t a box. We were given nine dots and we filled in the boundary around it. Now the reason we do that is because we’re actually taught not to think critically about boxes like this. We’re given rules, we’re taught how to follow them, we internalize them and then the rules disappear. We don’t even realize that they’re there anymore.

Emily Jane Steinberg:

It’s like when you start a new job and the first day of work, you see all of the structure of this new place that you’ve joined. And as the months go by, you get acculturated until you don’t really see any of that box anymore. So as facilitators, it’s our job to think critically about the boxes of our own experience and the boundary conditions that we’ve been given for dealing with them and thinking with them. It’s also our job to think critically on behalf of our clients. We’re often brought in from outside as consultants and facilitators, so outside of their box.

Emily Jane Steinberg:

But if we don’t know how to recognize these invisible boxes, then how can we engage with them on our client’s behalf? Usually we’re hired to help solve some kind of a problem isn’t it? A problem if it’s not well-defined can be an invisible box. It can be a blind spot when it’s not framed well. Habits can be blind spots, urgency creates blind spots, boxes that aren’t really, there are blind spots. And across the globe in business and politics, hidden agendas, motives and alliances can sometimes intentionally create blind spots. So one of the biggest blind spots that exists that we can very easily miss in the day-to-day of our work in our lives is white organizational culture. And that’s why we ended up seeing so many DEI approaches that fall short.

Emily Jane Steinberg:

They’ll touch on hiring and personnel, maybe policy, and that’s it. So you end up with tokenism but not true diversity, equity or inclusion. Or a consultant, one of us maybe is hired to come in and do a sensitivity training in the afternoon one day. And leadership considers, “Okay, check. That issue is handled.” Meanwhile, mission, organizational structure and stakeholder relationships don’t change.

Emily Jane Steinberg:

So there are two main boxes that I want to dive into a little deeper today. And those are institutional and individual boxes. At an institutional level, unexamined and unspoken norms inside an organization, or an entity are these invisible features of white dominant culture. For instance, it’s a very common hiring practice to ask somebody to disclose their previous salaries, right? Who’s had to do that? That reinforces classism. It perpetuates disproportionality and disparity. If we don’t think about that, and we just continue that practice, we’re just reinforcing that disparity. Or we ask for a good cultural fit, but whose culture? We don’t ask that question.

Emily Jane Steinberg:

How many people hesitated to write down in the nine dots, because you wanted to figure it out first. Because perfectionism is a trademark characteristic of white dominant culture. We want to get it right. Mistakes are not something that we’re taught how to do well and then we judge other people and we confuse the mistake with the person and then judge the person who’s made the mistake, another trademark. Now the interesting thing is that a lot of these things you could just say, “Well that’s corporate culture.” Unexamined, yes, corporate culture is playing out white dominant cultural norms. So that’s all on the institutional side.

Emily Jane Steinberg:

Now, on the individual side, of course we’re dealing with individuals inside any agency or organization that we work with. But I also want to pose this in terms of us as individuals doing the work. Because if we don’t work with our own blind spots, then we’re not very well able to help our clients work with theirs. So one simple way, one simple practice to begin, is to start asking ourselves, “What biases do I have? What biases do I carry? What biases have I experienced?” And then stretching to the boundary conditions of what is not maybe yet in our conscious awareness, “What unconscious biases do I carry?” So now I’ve thrown a ton of information at you, maybe challenged some things that you say, “Well how do I just go about business as usual now? This could change a lot.” Where do we begin? By returning to expanded awareness.

Emily Jane Steinberg:

So go back to a dot in this room up above your eye level and put that problem, put that question on the dot. It could be a particular client issue that you’re struggling with right now. It could be something I just said. Put that problem on the dot. Leave it there. Let it really sit there tight and let it be a little claustrophobic and uncomfortable. That’s fine. And then once again, begin to expand out to the periphery of your vision, leaving it be on the dot, as you begin to take in that expanded awareness. And while staying in that expanded awareness now, I want to ask you, where is the problem? And try in vain as you might to discover that from this state of expanded awareness, you actually can’t access that problem. Sure you could leave it. You could get fixated and it’s right there waiting for you, no doubt. But in expanded awareness, you can’t maintain a negative state.

Emily Jane Steinberg:

So knowing that this actually only gets easier with practice, we have to ask ourselves, why would we ever choose to do our work from inside that small box again? And incidentally, but not accidentally, moving into expanded awareness is a shift from deductive and linear thinking to somatic and intuitive awareness, which naturally means it’s also a shift away from white dominant cultural norms. Now, I believe that it’s our job as facilitators to help our clients make these bigger connections. To their stakeholders, to outside realities and to each other.

Emily Jane Steinberg:

I think it was Douglas who mentioned earlier this morning, how isolating it was for him as a CTO. Leaders are often very, very isolated. It’s our job to break down that isolation and help create connections. And remember with the nine dots, the way that they are connected is by going outside the box. These points outside of here are where leverage and strength comes from. They’re also where our stakeholders are. Just like a bridge, if it doesn’t have those cables coming out to somewhere outside of the bridge, it’s not as strong.

Emily Jane Steinberg:

It’s also our job to keep getting out of our own boxes, to cross-pollinate and to leverage our privilege and our experience not only with our clients, but with our peers. So sometimes some of us work individually, sometimes we work in teams. But when we work in teams, is it just for the length of that engagement with that client or is it over a longer period of time? For what purpose? Is there a larger theory of change that drives our work beyond that or are we just trying to actually make our nut for the year? And even more so, even when we do start to break down the silos and the boxes for our clients, if we don’t make connections between them, we can be very effectively helping them, but we’re still going to just be moving from one box to another to another. And I really believe we can do more.

Emily Jane Steinberg:

Now, these internal moves of expansion that we’re practicing, moving into expanded awareness from foveal vision. And moving from seeing these nine dots as a box to seeing them not as a box, are really immediate examples of a shift from an ego-centered, small-minded perspective to an ecosystem awareness. And I believe as facilitators, that is exactly the shift that we ought to be trying to engender both in ourselves and for our clients. And on the organizations that we serve. And when I think of ecosystems, I naturally also start thinking of a web and a network. And the fact is that we can be that web and that network that connects our clients in this larger ecosystem. And the definition of networking that I’ve heard that I like best comes from The Peoples Institute. And they say, “Networking is building a net that works.”

Emily Jane Steinberg:

We often think of it as, “Oh, networking, just one litter away from not working.” Or, “I just got to get that business card handed out.” But no, it’s about actually building relationships based on principle and humane values. And that’s our job. To move between different parts of the ecosystem, different clients, different sectors, different projects, and to begin building those connections and serving as network weavers, as funnelers of resources. Because creating a healthy ecosystem takes all of us. And if we expand our context just a little bit, Toni Cade Bambara said that, “The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.”

Emily Jane Steinberg:

Now as facilitators, I think we’re social artists. So I have to ask the question, what revolution are we here for? To me, it’s an ecosystem revolution. Expanding our context and our sense of responsibility is critical to our survival. Otherwise, why are we here? Just make a better meeting and then what? To what higher purpose? So as you continue to practice expanded awareness, practice breaking down and transcending these boundary conditions and cultivating this expanded sense of our accountability, responsibility, and frankly, ability. Let’s leverage what we all actually know how to do. Really bring it all. Please consider the next time someone asks you about your work, or you’re about to give that elevator pitch. Don’t just answer the question of who are you, what do you do? But consider answering the question, who’s are you?