A conversation with Patti Dobrowolski. 4xTEDx & Keynote Speaker, Live Illustrator, Author & Founder of Up Your Creative Genius.

“Wherever you go, there you are. You’re always bringing your family dynamics into it, so you just have to figure out who’s who in the dynamic of whatever you’re experiencing in the room, and then once you know that, you’ll understand what’s getting triggered, and you can work together to move through it.” –Patti Dobrowolski

In this episode of Control the Room, I had the pleasure of speaking with Patti Dobrowolski about her career helping teams navigate growth and change.  She starts with how her background in Theater has influenced her career.  Later, Patti shares her journey of awareness that has helped her make it easier for people to connect to themselves and us.  We then discuss how and why to include play at work.  Listen in for the steps to help bridge states of consciousness with the groups you’re facilitating.   

Show Highlights

[1:40] How Patti Got Her Start Facilitating Growth And Change.

[11:25] How A Reframe Can Help You Bridge States Of Consciousness.

[17:50] Tricks That Can Help Make It Easier To Connect With Them Self And Ourselves.

[24:42] How To Play At Work.  

[30:05] Why It’s Important To Ask Yourself “Who Is In There?”

Patti on Linkedin

Patti on Twitter

Patti on Instagram

About the Guest

Patti Dobrowolski, author of 9 Tips to Up Your Creative Genius and DRAWING SOLUTIONS: How Visual Goal Setting Will Change Your Life, is founder of Up Your Creative Genius, a consulting firm that uses visuals and creative processes to help companies and individuals around the world accelerate growth and change. A critically acclaimed comic performer, three-time TEDx and internationally recognized speaker, writer and business consultant, she has brought innovative visual and game storming practices to Fortune 100 companies, government, not for profits and small businesses. Her large format strategic illustrations grace the walls of Nike, Microsoft Inc, Starbucks, Pepsico, FedEx, Turner Broadcasting, FritoLay North America, Hoffman LaRoche Inc., Coopervision, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, USDA and The Seattle Space Needle to name only a few.

About Voltage Control

Voltage Control is a change agency that helps enterprises sustain innovation and teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual. Our master facilitators offer trusted guidance and custom coaching to companies who want to transform ineffective meetings, reignite stalled projects, and cut through assumptions. Based in Austin, Voltage Control designs and leads public and private workshops that range from small meetings to large conference-style gatherings.

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Full Transcript

Douglas: Welcome to the Control The Room podcast, a series devoted to the exploration of meeting culture and uncovering cures to the common meeting. Some meetings have tight control, and others are loose. To control the room means achieving outcomes while striking a balance between imposing and removing structure, asserting and distributing power, leaning in, and leaning out all in the service of having a truly magical meeting. Thanks for listening. If you’d like to join us live for a session sometime, you can join our weekly Control The Room Facilitation Lab. It’s a free event to meet fellow facilitators and explore new techniques, so you can apply the things you learned in the podcast in real time with other facilitators. Sign up today at voltagecontrol.com/facilitation-lab.

If you’d like to learn more about my book, Magical Meetings, you can download the Meetings Quick Start Guide, a free PDF reference with some of the most important pieces of advice from the book. Download a copy today at Magicalmeetings.com.

Today, I’m with Patti Dobrowolski at Up Your Creative Genius, where she is the founder and chief activator. She’s also the author of Nine Tips to Up Your Creative Genius, Drawing Solutions, How Visual Goal Setting Will Change Your Life, and Creator of the Change Genie Cards, and I have them, and they’re awesome. Welcome to the show, Patti.

Patti: Thank you so much for having me, Douglas. I’m just so excited to be here with you. I love you. I love what you’re up to. Every time I’m in some kind of room with you, I’m like, “Yes, things are going to happen now,” so thanks for having me

Douglas: Amazing. And if anyone who’s listening, can’t tell, Patti has some infectious energy, and I think that’s a big part of her style, and we’ll be talking about that a little bit today, but before we get into all of that, let’s hear a little bit about how you got your start, Patti. How did you get into this work?

Patti: Well, thanks for asking. I was an actor, and then I got in a show that ended up on Broadway, and I was fascinated how did that happen, because I had never thought of being on Broadway, but I spent a summer learning how to act, and the woman who I was living with was a Broadway actress, and so she kind of embedded this vision in my head of what it was like to be on Broadway and all of these things, and it happened the next year, really literally I got auditioned for a part. It went to the Mainstage. It went to the Kennedy Center, and it went to Broadway all in this year. And I was like, “Oh my god.” I held that picture in my mind. I imagined myself there, so that to me became like a mystical experience that I wanted to know more about.

And then, so I went on and had my life as an actor, and then I became a drama therapist, and then I was a terrible therapist, so I went into business where I could honestly tell people what to do, and they wouldn’t get offended by it. And so as a therapist, you want to be empathetic, and you want to listen, and I just want to tell people, “You have a drinking problem. Get out of there. That relationship is bad for you. Go,” all that stuff. So in one of the meetings I was in, an early meeting, because I wasn’t a business consultant, and I don’t have an MBA, I saw a guy go to the board and draw a picture of what we were talking about, and at that moment I realized that was what I was going to do.

I wasn’t an illustrator. I didn’t know how to draw. I had good handwriting. I was poster girl in high school. So I started to do drawing with everything that I did. They’d send me in on these big change management mergers. They’d have fired everybody and left a few small group of people left over, and I would draw a picture of what it felt like to be them, and then where they wanted to be. And I just incorporated drawing into everything, and because I was a drama therapist, I knew how to facilitate the room, and that when I started to facilitate big groups of people, or even small family systems that were having trouble making a change, I felt like I was right in my wheelhouse, because I could get them enacting what it was, and then change what was happening.

Douglas: Wow. So much cool stuff there. I want to come back to the point you made around being an actress, and I know that you were talking about the theater being a big part of your start, and you mentioned getting into theater recently and kind of experimenting with that some more, and I’d love to hear that story again.

Patti: Well, I was really never cut out to be an “actor”. I was more of a character comic, so I would, because I loved Lily Tomlin and that style. I saw her in a performance, and I thought, “Oh my god. That’s it. That’s the kind of work I want to do.” So I would write a show about a topic that I wanted the audience to have an understanding or insight about, and then I’d play multiple characters in it, and then I got in that show that went to Broadway, but after that show, I did some work on my own. And first I did it in New York, and I got a really great review in a national magazine, and I was like, “Yes.” And then I went to Portland, Oregon and did the same show, and the reviews were, “Can’t sing. Can’t dance. Can’t act. Can’t write. Don’t bother.”

And so I just totally shut down. There was no way I was going to act again. I just couldn’t do it. It was like for some reason I just broke, and so I went back to school and got a degree in drama therapy, and honestly, I think I did that just to heal myself, because about 10 years later, somebody asked me to write a show. I was in it, about two women in perimenopause, and it became a hit and went to all the small theaters. And so I think theater and performance, even as a facilitator, I’m in a room full of people. I always do something active, like just last week, I did a road rally with some engineers, where they had remote control cars and drones. They had to drive them to the stations, but at the debrief point, there were yield signs, and they had to debrief at certain points, and it got boring just the regular debrief. Okay, now table one, table team B whatever.

So I said, “This time, you’re going to debrief in a scene. I want you to show me what it looks like when people are acting that way,” and the engineers were at first, they freaked out, and then they all did it, because we naturally played when we were kids, and all were doing is tapping into that, and so I’m going back into the theater in this phase of my life, because I want to go full circle back to that time, because there’s nothing to me that’s better than standing on the stage, telling a story, having the audience be with you in the story, and then coming to some understanding together.

Douglas: Wow. So cool. And you were telling me that as you were working on the new project, there was essentially some things that were surfacing for you. It was almost like a form of therapy as you started to work into this project.

Patti: I’d forgotten about when you write your own material you’re coming up with the story. Well, that’s already a raw experience, because you’re going to tell a story, and then will people like it? I don’t know, but this time, I’m writing a story about what it was like to grow up being gay, and I’ve taken it out of my story, so some of the stories that I tell in there, and the people I play, these are real experiences, but I’ve made it into a character, right? So I can have a little more artistic license, and it’s not autobiographical, but when I replay there’s one scene where I am working in the forest service, and there’s a guy there who really now back in the day when I came out, you had to be very careful who you told.

And I worked in fire crew, and there were only a few women working fire crew, and I was just doing it during the summer, but this guy, he was harassing me, and he was pinging me on my hard hat with these little pebbles, and he would just throw them, ping, ping, and I got so mad. I picked up a handful of gravel, and I threw it in his face, and he scratched into my car the word lesbian, and so I tell a little bit of that story in the show, and bringing up what had happened during that time and the fear. I mean, I was in a small town in the Eastern part of Washington. They would come and kill you there. It was not safe, right? So bringing that up and sort of all the fear that I suppressed has been an interesting experience for sure, to say the least.

Douglas: Yeah. On some level it sounds a bit could be difficult and trying, but on another level it could be a journey that creates more awareness.

Patti: Oh, and I would say it’s very cathartic to go through it, and then I see, “Oh, that’s interesting.” So this is the part of my personality that I sealed over. This is the part of me that would go into a room full of people, a predominantly… I always worked at a high level in companies, so they’d be mostly men and white men in that room. I’d walk in, but I’d put on this bubble around myself, and I always made sure within the first hour or half day to make sure that they knew that I was gay, like it wasn’t obvious, but I would.

And I was saying to you earlier that I thought it was a defensive mechanism, because I realized I didn’t feel safe, but boy, that made it kind of unsafe for all those guys too in the room, in a way we couldn’t drop down and have a real conversation, because I wanted to make sure they knew that I was me, and they were them, and there was never going to be crossover, which always happened inevitably in the day there was crossover, but I wondered if I had made it harder.

Douglas: Hmm. That’s really fascinating. I mean, I certainly can’t judge on whether it was harder then, but I can definitely say that there’s been moments when I’ve made it harder, and I’ve seen other facilitators made it more difficult, and that’s something worthy to sit with, how we’re showing up as a facilitator with regards to how easy do we make it for people to connect with themselves and with us?

Patti: So I think that part of what we want to do is that. And this takes skill, and practice, and you’re really good at this. This is what’s true, is that you ask a question of the room, and you’re transparent about what your experience is, and not in a way that you’re dominating the room with your experience, but you’re asking them to be able to tell you the truth, so that from the truth, we can all come to a bigger and better place with what’s happening, and I think that’s the world that we’re in now, right? That we want to find truth, but we don’t know sometimes what truth is, and so we push it away, the conversation, when we really need to have the conversation. In my area with the neighbor who has whatever political affiliation that they do or belief that they do, my goal really now in my life is bridge to that conversation, bridge to that state of consciousness, so that I can invite them, and I can walk across the bridge to meet somewhere in the middle.

Douglas: So when we were talking about this earlier in the pre-show, something that you said was pretty profound as far as self-awareness goes. And you said, “I was afraid of what might happen.” And that is, I think, a big struggle that a lot of facilitators have, especially when you’re new to facilitation, and even when we are experienced in facilitation, there are things that might throw us off, right?

Patti: Yeah.

Douglas: I was actually facilitating on January 6th, and it was right when everything was happening when we were kind of kicking the day off. And I remember in that moment I was dealing with my own emotions about it, also trying to read the room, and I was uncertain. I didn’t know these people that well, and it was virtual, so I kind of took the safe road, which I thought was the safe road, and said, “Okay, let’s not fixate on this. Let’s move on.” And it turns out those folks were pretty upset by it and wanted to spend more time on it. It would’ve been a lot more powerful if I would’ve said, “How is this sitting with everyone? Do we want to talk about this, or do we want to move on?” Give them the options. I think in the moment, because I was personally struggling with it so much myself, I didn’t even do the right thing.

Patti: Well, I think it’s hard to know what the right thing is, so it’s interesting. On 9/11, I was working at Chevron Texaco. They had just merged, and I was training the HR team at the leadership level in how to do good change listening in the room, and that happened, and I just will say that the whole day it stopped, and started, and stopped, and started. And what I learned from it was you could do both. I could have them air their discussion and talk about it, but it was also important that we use what we were working on to understand it better. And that went fine, but I wouldn’t say it was a great day. You know what I mean?

In retrospect, I think I would’ve just shut down the session and had everybody go home to be with the people that they loved. And we don’t know. I just think you don’t know, because in that day, I was paid by somebody else. I’m paid by the client, and the client, if I had said, “Well, I just sent everybody home,” they’d be like, “Well, that was not good, because now we can’t invoice for that day,” like that.

Douglas: Yeah. Certainly as a outside facilitator, we had to worry about the bean counters as well as the people in the room.

Patti: Yeah. Yeah. For sure. For sure.

Douglas: I want to come back to you mentioned the word family systems earlier, and then you also talked about this history of experiencing a delightful individual that liked to throw pebbles, and then how there was a part of you that was kind of protecting you from the future pebble throwers potentially. So it made me think of the family systems framework, and I was wondering if that’s what you were mentioning when you were talking about these family systems earlier.

Patti: Yeah, I was, and I was trained as a drama therapist, so I worked with Virginia Satir’s material. I worked with a lot of different people, and one of the great mentors of mine, Jonathan Rosenfeld, he and I later worked together in the business sector. He was a coach for the head of Twitter, and they had an offsite where we really did some great work together, and one of the things that I know is that, and I would always say this to people, “Wherever you go, there you are. You’re always bringing your family dynamics into it, so you just have to figure out who’s who in the dynamic of whatever you’re experiencing in the room, and then once you know that, you’ll understand what’s getting triggered, and you can work together to move through it.”

You don’t have to tell them what it is that you’re going through necessarily, but you can say to them, “Gosh, I reacted, because in that moment, it triggered something that I experienced with my mother, and I’m so sorry. Let’s have that conversation again.” And my favorite technique of all times in my relationship and everything is the drama therapy eraser. So when you’re having a conversation with somebody, and it doesn’t go the way you want it to, you just stop the action, and you say, “Okay, do you think we could use the eraser right now? And I’m just going to erase this last 10 minutes, and we’re going to start again.” And then you do. You just start the conversation with whatever line you started with, and then it goes the way that you want it to. And I think it’s very repetitive, and you can’t be afraid to redo something, especially if you are the one that’s making it go badly. Yeah.

Douglas: That’s amazing. I love this idea of the eraser, and I can imagine it being a really powerful tool. I love these little tools that we can pull out in the moment, these little micro tools, right? It reminds me of Elmo.

Patti: Yes.

Douglas: Or I was in Hawaii, or whatever these little things that teams use to help them get through moments, and, wow, what an important moment to get through when there’s like, “Hey, wait a second. Neither one of us are proud of this. Let’s just erase it. Let’s pull out the eraser and just start over.” I love it.

Patti: Well, and I like this thing that I learned from Sonny Brown, which was the evil stick of gum, and I wrote it on my whiteboard, “Evil stick of gum,” and then somebody came to my house, and they were like, “Evil stick of gum, what’s that?” And I’m like, Well, it’s a technique where you can actually let people have the evil stick of gum, and they can say whatever they want to say. As long as it’s not pointed at somebody, they can say whatever, and then the truth is out, right?” And that’s what we’re talking about is how do you uncover the truth underneath in the root system of who we are. We carry all this stuff, and if we don’t start to talk about it, what we’re afraid of, or what’s happening in the dynamics in a team, it just not as fun.

And what’s true is I love to have fun. I’m committed to having fun in the room, and it’s what I’m known for is creating a fun environment where we do wacky things, and I’m loud, and obnoxious, and funny, and I bring everything that I was as an actor right into the room when I’m facilitating, because I love people, and I love them to remember you’re in this world, but you’re not of it, so let’s play, let’s play.

Douglas: So good. I was recently watching an awesome video from a researcher at Stanford, talking about how they think that play is homeostatically regulated.

Patti: Wow.

Douglas: Have you heard of this?

Patti: No, I love this though. Keep talking.

Douglas: So it means that just like food, we get hungry for it if we don’t get enough of it. Breathing is a little different, right? Breathing, you just do it autonomously, right? I just breathe without thinking about it, but eating takes intentional effort. You had to go grab the door of the refrigerator, open it, and shovel food in your mouth, but you get hungry if you haven’t eaten in a while. So your body regulates this need for hunger, and play is similar. It’s not this thing that we just grow out of, or that it’s nice to have as a kid.

It’s something that we crave as humans, and the body starts to long for it, but I think what happens is the systems and structures by which we live through stifle it. And so we just push it down, sort of like what you were talking about earlier, pushing these things down until you just cover it up, and you don’t notice that hunger anymore. We’ve starved ourselves so long that we’re just kind of numb to the hunger.

Patti: Yeah. There’s a great book out right now by Norma Kamali, and if you don’t know who Norma Kamali is, she’s a fashion designer. And when I lived in New York City, one of the biggest days of my life was the day when Grace Jones walked by me down the street. And Norma Kamali to me is like Grace Jones of the fashion world. She’s just really deep. And this book, she talks about how important it is. She said, “If there’s a dance party, I’m there,” and she’s 75, and I’m telling you, she looks like she’s 40. She looks incredible. And part of it is because she’s taken care of herself enough and really fostered a relationship with the people around her, and danced, and played, and eaten well, and all of the things.

And I think this is we sort of got on the ladder, and the ladder went up to the corporate money machine, right? And I always call that working for the man. Whenever I feel like I’m working for the man, then I know I’m not in the right space. I’m not really doing what I love. I’m not really playing in the environment. I’m just working to survive or to make money, and that is absolutely not the right way to live your life, because then you’re just waiting for retirement, and then when you retire, your body is not in the same shape it was earlier. So it’s so important to take time to play right now, to take time to do the things and find the things you’re passionate about right now and do them.

Douglas: And it’s not only things that we do in our leisure time. We can play professionally, and I think that quite often people equate play with childishness, and if we can rethink how play happens, it can really unlock quite a bit.

Patti: Yeah. And the CEOs that I love the most are the ones who really are playful, and who allow for that kind of consciousness to… And exude it, and demonstrate it, and show how you can do it. I think it’s especially if you’re in responsible to a shareholder, you think it has to look a certain way, but in fact, it’s better if you just look your way. Just be you. It’s so much better.

Douglas: I was thinking about the internal family systems, and as you were telling some of the stories there, and it reminded me of this working model I have around meeting calculus, which is you’ve got two people in a meeting, and it’s just one connection you got to be mindful of. Well, you get three people in the room, and now there’s three connections. You only added one person, but now you’ve got two additional connections. You add another person, and now these connections start to explode exponentially. Well, it didn’t dawn on me until I was just listening to you, that if we take internal family systems into this calculus, it’s even more.

Patti: Think of how many people are in the room.

Douglas: Right, because each person is bringing a whole constellation, to use their terminology.

Patti: Yeah. That’s why, when you start a meeting, it’s so important to ground yourself that you’re in the room, and that this is an environment you’re entering into to have a dialogue about something, and that the more that you can show up authentically and be aware of what you’re saying, and doing, and respectful of other people, then it changes everything. And I think one of the greatest things I learned from Lois Todd, one of my early business partners, was the point of setting your intent. She was an NLP person, and she taught me so much about mirroring the room, and listening, and elevating the things and the people that were not being heard. It was just an amazing experience to be a collaborator with her, and so many other people, but I love this idea that you understand that you bring so many people into the room, and if you know that, and people know that, then you can change that.

Douglas: I want to bring us back to the robots, and when you asked folks to act out what it looked like, you said that you experienced a little bit of hesitation, but then after a moment, they all kind of just fell in line. How would you describe that hesitation, or what were they kind of working through, and then how did they end up manifesting those behaviors? I think it’d be really interesting to visually kind of see that in our heads.

Patti: Yeah. Well, this is a group of engineers I’m asking to do this, and they weren’t actually engineers. They’re project managers in an engineering firm, right? And so one of the things that I knew and know about people is that to perform is really scary for them, can be. But if you lower the bar to the ground, and you say, “Anything goes,” and just have fun with this, and I’m going to give you a very simple equation, one, you’re going to imagine that you’re taking on that this action plan, you’ve put it in place, and it’s been successful, and show me what that looks like. So I’m very specific. They know what they’re doing, right? They’re just debriefing what they’ve already discussed, and they’re putting it into a scene.

And so you make a simple equation for them to follow, and then you start by applauding right off the bat. I’m like, “Now, what’s true.” The two flaws that we have in a system is we turn our butt to the audience, and so nobody can hear what we say, so everybody face the audience, number one, and number two, applaud always before they start, and we’ll start it with action and cut. And that way the scene doesn’t go on and on. It can only be a minute long. We’re just getting a snapshot, and everybody can step up to that, and everyone has to participate, so they can’t default, “The three of us are chairs, and they’re a person talking.” Right? Everybody gets into the action, and it was shocking, and surprising, and fun, and I videotaped every single one of them and sent it to the director, and she was like, “Oh my god. That’s hilarious.” I go, “Yeah, see?” And they did that.

Douglas: Amazing. I love it. And it’s just nurturing and supporting. It’s great leadership. I think that’s a great example of how facilitation skills need to find their way into leadership more and more, right? Because not every leader is going to be running sessions where the team is acting out these different scenarios, but gosh, if they could learn to be more supportive, more encouraging.

Patti: Well, yeah. And even if they learned simple tricks like write something on a card, have people choose it for a deck of cards, and then gamify whatever it is, any meeting that you’re having, even if it’s an all hands meeting, make it fun for people, so that you don’t know what the order of the agenda is going to be that you’re going to do the… They’re going to choose by choosing the card. This is what I’m going to talk about first. You make it into a more spontaneous thing, and spontaneity is the moment you’re in your best self. You’re in your essence as soul, right? You’re in an experience, and your natural capacity and your natural skill is to imagine, and play, and draw, and draw. I mean, drawing is what we all know how to do. Even if we’re not good at it, we know how. We know how.

Douglas: That’s really fascinating when you say, “You’re in your essence when you’re in that spontaneity.” Coming back to the internal family systems, is there a guardian, or a person, or one of your family members active when you’re in that state, or is that stuff suppressed, and it’s more you actually showing up?

Patti: You know the moment when you’re in the state of flow, right? Where you are out of the way, and the flow happens. That’s really what happens. That’s your natural state of being, and that all the other stuff, the personality, the family systems, the belief about what you’re capable of, that’s the structure, the covering of you, of who you are, and that if you can unpeel that, and be that, and I think give permission to other people to be that. What’s true is I have on my bathing suit underneath this shirt that I’m wearing right now, because as soon as we’re done, I’m going to go jump in the pool, and then I’m getting out, and I have another call right afterwards.

But part of that is because I want it to be fun for me. I want to have fun with just myself, and so that I bring that to the conversation. And if you can connect to the part of you that loves to play, no matter how it is, whether you get on your bike, or you’re playing with your kids, or you’re playing with your dog, this is the essence. This is the essence of true love is when you’re in the state of free flow play.

Douglas: Wow, amazing. I want to end right there, and I want to invite you to leave our listeners with a final thought.

Patti: So here’s my thought, the next time that you are getting ready to put on yourself, when you’re getting up, and you’re going into your day, stop and ask yourself, “Who’s in here, and how can I connect more with that person, that self, that part of me that is able to express and do anything anytime?” And then see if you can go into your day with that perspective and invite the play into the arena.

Douglas: So incredible. Patti, it has been such a pleasure, and I’m saddened to bring this to a close, but every close is an opportunity for a new opening, so I am excited for your dip in the pool, and we’ll talk again sometimes soon I’m sure. Thanks for being here.

Patti: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me, Douglas. You’re amazing. Thanks for everybody for listening.

Douglas: Thanks for joining me for another episode of Control The Room. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive updates when new episodes are released. If you want to know more, head over to our blog, where I post weekly articles and resources about radical inclusion, team health, and working better, Voltagecontrol.com.