A conversation with Sunni Brown, founder of Deep Self Design & Sunni Brown Ink
“You already have this constellation internally that is very capable, in you and me and everyone we know. But some of it is burdened. And so it has intense emotional charge that hasn’t been released, or it has belief systems that are old and archaic and need to be discarded. But then once they’re unburdened, the energy and the natural expression of that aspect of you is just available.” -Sunni Brown
In this week’s episode of the Control the Room podcast, I’m delighted to speak with Sunni Brown, founder of Deep Self Design and Sunni Brown Ink. Sunni has been named one of the 100 most creative people in business and one of the 10 most creative people on Twitter by Fast Company. She is a best selling author, speaker, and expert meeting facilitator.
We talk about the fallacy of using buzzwords in value statements, Cobra Kai, and the tango of co-facilitation. Listen in to find out what The Karate Kid remake can teach us about the complexity of people.
[8:23] The proven power of taking notes by hand
[15:45] What is authenticity?
[21:27] The fallacy of buzzwords in value statements
[27:38] Cobra Kai, the more naive Karate Kid
[37:06] The tango of co-facilitation
[45:48] Dusting off your inner mirror
Links | Resources
Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers
Sunni’s TedTalk, Doodlers Unite!
About the Guest
Sunni Brown, founder of Deep Self Design and Sunni Brown Ink, is a best-selling author, speaker, and expert meeting facilitator. Fast Company has included her in “100 Most Creative People in Business” and “10 Most Creative People on Twitter.”
Sunni, author of Gamestorming and The Doodle Revolution, leads a worldwide campaign advocating for visual, game, design, and improvisational thinking. She lists empathy, emotional intelligence, collaboration, and effective communication as some of her most sought-after leadership skills.
About Voltage Control
Voltage Control is a facilitation agency that helps 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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Podcast Sponsored by MURAL
Intro: Welcome to the Control the Room Podcast, a series devoted to the exploration of meeting culture and uncovering cures for 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. This episode is brought to you by MURAL, a digital workspace for visual collaboration. At Voltage Control, we use MURAL to facilitate engaging and productive meetings and workshops from anywhere. MURAL gives teams the means, methods and freedoms to collaborate visually. Use their suite of facilitation superpowers to control the virtual room and solve tough problems as a team with their pre-built templates and guided methods. To see for yourself why companies like IBM, Atlassian, and E* Trade rely on MURAL, start your 30 day trial at mural.co. That’s mural.co
Douglas: Today I’m with Sunni Brown, founder of Sunni Brown Ink and the Center of Deep Self Design, where she helps people design their best selves.
Welcome to the show, Sunni.
Sunni: Can I call you D?
Douglas: As long as you don’t call me Doug—
Sunni: Dougie Fresh.
Douglas: —I think I’ll be okay with it.
Sunni: Okay. I might slip up and call you D.
Douglas: D’s perfectly fine.
So, how did you get started? How did Sunni Brown become Sunni Brown Ink?
Sunni: Well, there were many roads that led to that incarnation, but first was that I could not keep a job. So I was fired many times. So there’s, like, the shadow side of it, and then there’s the accidental, you know, serendipitous aspects of it, and then there’s the origin story, like the conditioning-from-family stuff. So there’s all wrapped up in that, you know? But first and foremost, I could not—I got fired a lot. And when I say a lot, I mean definitely over 13 times. And so I was good at getting jobs, but I wasn’t good at keeping jobs, which is a hallmark of entrepreneurism, but I didn’t realize that at the time. I just thought that everyone was an idiot, and somehow I didn’t belong in a cage or whatever. I was very unruly as an employee. It was actually legitimately hard for me to keep a job. Even though I was good, I was insubordinate. And so eventually I just recognized that, oh, I need to be my own boss. I didn’t know the boss of what.
But serendipitously and sort of circuitously, I ended up in the Bay Area, which is rife with ideas and opportunity and innovation and potential, and that was a great place for somebody like me. And so I ended up working at The Grove, which is a visual-thinking company, and that was my introduction to visual literacy and visual thinking. I only worked there two years, and then I left and I started my own company, which again, I think—I mean, I think unless you have entrepreneurism in your family, it’s almost always accidental. And it’s not— it’s accidental and on purpose, but it’s not necessarily something—it’s, like, something that finds you and you find it, you know? There was a lot of ingredients that made that thing come to life.
Douglas: So, tell us about the experience at The Grove. How did that shape what you’re doing now?
Sunni: It was a great experience in the sense that I was from—like, I had just graduated with a master’s in public policy, which always surprises people. But I was kind of working in the public sector, and I didn’t even identify as a creative at that time. I didn’t like the term creative. I didn’t like the term artistic. I was very pragmatic and practical. And so I was not looking for anything of the sort, in terms of ending up at The Grove, and so I was very skeptical.
So when I was first there, I was just hired as the executive assistant because I had been other people’s assistants, but I didn’t always mention I’d been fired a lot. So I was very questionable about my job-acquisition ethics. But I did always end up getting jobs. And so eventually I was working for the president, which was David Sibbet, who’s, like, the grandfather of visual thinking in the United States. And I was very lucky because I was mentored by him and then eventually mentored by Dave Gray and other kind of like—he wouldn’t want me to call him a grandfather, but another godfather, if you will, of visual thinking.
Douglas: Sort of a luminary.
Sunni: Yeah, absolutely. So those were events happenstantial. But when I first was at The Grove, I was really skeptical about visual thinking, and I thought it was kind of silly, to be honest.
Douglas: So what was the thing that really changed for you? You said you used to think “it was kind of silly.” What really connected the dots for you to realize, like, “Wow, this is something deeper”?
Sunni: Well, so, it was like application. I was first a graphic recorder. I don’t know if you know that about me, but I started as a graphic recorder. So a person would go and do live large-scale visualizations of auditory content. And what I observed in the process of learning how to be that, which did come naturally to me—it was a skill that kind of mapped itself onto my own skills readily, which was surprising—but through that process, I recognized that there was a lot of benefits of visual thinking that were happening to me cognitively. So I was remembering content really well. I was organizing it in my mind and on paper really skillfully. I was comprehending it and sort of like getting insights. And when you’re a graphic recorder, you go and you listen to every topic imaginable. So I noticed that my relationship with the content was really rich and really substantive. And I had to attribute it to what I was doing visually because it wasn’t like I was special, you know? It was like, “Oh, my god, there’s something meaningful to the brain about this way of thinking.” And that’s when I became a convert. You know, I was converted.
Douglas: That’s incredible. It makes me think about something that I’ve been talking with a lot of folks about lately, this notion of multithreaded meetings, where when we’re in MURAL and everyone is Livescribing and at the same time—now, it’s certainly not at the level of proficiency and craftsmanship that, you know, you were taken to the job as a graphic recorder—but if we’re all visually working in the meeting through MURAL or Mirro or any of these other tools and live capturing what we’re hearing, we are unsynthesizing on the fly, we’re adding nuance to what we hear because it’s our own, like, filter. Even if we are attempting to be purist as possible, something’s going to happen there. And when you look across the room of what everyone wrote down, you get this really rich picture of what was said, because it’s, like, not only what was said, but this diversity of thought layered on top of it.
Sunni: That’s cool. That’s cool that you’re doing that. And absolutely. It makes complete sense, right? It’s like this beautiful display of insight that is unique to each person. But it’s not a thin relationship. It’s a really thick relationship between you and what you’re trying to understand. And that’s why it’s so valuable. And so, then, of course, I became an evangelist about that, and that was in a different chapter of my journey. And I’m really grateful for that, because at this point, I don’t do anything without having some visual-thinking component. It’s just how I work and how I think and how I explain things to people. So it just changed everything about how I function. It’s really grateful.
Douglas: That’s really cool. You know, it also makes me think about active listening and how one of our skills as a facilitator for active listening is paraphrasing. And if you think about it, only one person can paraphrase at one time because if we were all doing that, it would be cacophonous insanity and the whole power of paraphrasing would be diminished because we’re all talking over each other. But if someone’s Livescribing or if the whole room is Livescribing, everyone’s essentially paraphrasing but in a non-auditory sense, right?
Sunni: Mm-hmm, yeah. That’s why I teach it to educators and then they teach it to students, because when you’re typing—I mean, there’s a lot of research about typing versus writing in terms of notetaking, and the research is very clear that when you use visual notetaking instead of typing on your laptop and just trying to, like, bang out as much as you can based on what the teacher’s saying, and similarly with handwriting, the knowledge and the insight is much, much deeper when you’re using visual networking because you’re synthesizing. So you’re actively distilling content on purpose, and you’re discerning what to believe and what to put on the page, and then you map it to some kind of icon or image so it comes to life. And so I think that that experience is true for everybody. I mean, I taught it all over the world, and it’s not ever been somebody who was like, “No, I prefer my laptop typing in terms of knowledge acquisition.” Like, I’ve never met that person, you know?
Douglas: Yeah, absolutely. You know, it also dawned on me. Has the research explored the notion of the spatial aspect of—
Douglas: —handwritten notes? Because if you think about typed notes, it’s direct to linear; it’s always left to right; it’s up, down—
Sunni: Yeah, totally.
Douglas: —it’s squares; it’s edges.
Sunni: There’s no structure.
Douglas: Yeah. You have that structure is enforced upon you.
Douglas: And if you’re having to think through that structure or just flow through it and even move your hand to the upper right and over here and down, it’s not so liberal—it’s more liberating, maybe.
Sunni: Yeah, that’s right. And Tony Buzan has this great page where he talks about that most kids perceive notetaking as punishment. They refer to it as punishment because that’s how it feels, because they’re confined and constrained by what you can do. And so when you make the page like a blank space, it’s basically a field to plan, and then you can show relationships between things, and you can show spatial content that has an architecture that is inherently not in listing or in writing lists. And so there’s, like, nine other things that he—He has a great book, Mind Map that he’s original. But it just describes how it’s like a black-and-white versus a color television. It’s just a whole different world. And so it’s universally impactful in that way.
So it was easy for me to fall in love with it after I got over myself, you know? I was like, “Oh, shit, this is like a power tool, and nobody knows it.” Like, very few people were interested in it or thought it was worth exploring, and it was sort of something you put on the side, like you go to art class and do that, or you be weird and do that. Like this guy—
Douglas: Or these geeks in the corner of the conference just plugging away.
Sunni: That’s right. And so I was, like, well, I would like to normalize the shit out of this. And so I was very passionate about it for a long time. And at this point, I’ve exhausted that passion. But I don’t need to have it because other people have it now. So I’m like, “Cool. The torch has been passed, and more power to all of you.”
Douglas: And we talked a little bit about that earlier in kind of the preshow chat. We both have books coming out on the non-obvious press, and I was asking you about—
Sunni: Mm-hmm. Yeah. You’re writing the one I wanted to write, you old buster.
Douglas: You know, you were writing a book on graphic recording.
Sunni: Yeah. It was, like, rapid doodling. Yeah.
Douglas: Yeah. And I was curious to hear about that. And you said, “Oh, I wasn’t inspired.”
Douglas: I mean, you were explaining how you kind of lost the flame a bit—
Douglas: —because you’ve been doing it for a while—
Douglas: —and you know it in and out.
Douglas: And it’s hard to take that kind of new—
Sunni: Yeah. Like, the beginner’s mind. It’s such an important state of mind and that my relationship with that is not in that state. So I couldn’t strongarm my way into writing that book.
Douglas: And I love how meta that experience for you and going through the conversation with the publisher was in relation to the topic you’re actually going to write about, because you talked about not being part of your being or your state right now, the passion right now. And so it must have felt inauthentic.
Sunni: It did. Yeah, it did. It felt forced, for sure. And I told him that I could do it. It’s like, it’s not that I don’t have the ability to sit down and type some shit on a page that makes sense. Like, I can do it. But why would I do that? What is the value of a factory? Like, I’m not a factory. And I mean, I can be, but I don’t want to be. And I just was like, fuck it. I’ll just—you know, he can get mad at me. I mean, I literally woke up that morning. I was like, what if he sued me? I was like, I don’t know what he’s going to do. No idea what he was going to do. Because he had the whole—all of our books were going to be published in a certain time, remember? Like, all together. So I didn’t—
Douglas: And then COVID happened.
Sunni: That’s right. And I was hoping that he would have considered that and that some of his other off—because you turned yours in on time, did you not?
Douglas: Yes. And—
Sunni: Well, that’s what I mean. So it didn’t affect you. Ugh, god.
Douglas: Well, we’re not on time.
Sunni: Yeah, but you’re—
Douglas: We turned it in, but then there was a lot of edits—
Sunni: Right, right.
Douglas: —so we’re still hard at work on it. But it’s great.
Sunni: That’s awesome.
Douglas: I found working with them to be really fantastic from a—
Sunni: Oh, good.
Douglas: —get it right—let’s take the time to get it right.
Sunni: Uh, yeah. He’s awesome, and he really impressed me that day. And so it was nice to arrive at the topic that I am interested in, I have something to say about. And for me, the most energetic time when I’m learning something is where I’m completely convinced that it’s valuable. I have internalized quite a bit of it, but I haven’t, like, reverse engineered what it is that I did. So it’s like when I was a graphic recorder, I was doing that. I had some training, but I basically trained myself. And then I studied what I was doing. And then I was like, oh, wow, that’s really interesting. So for me, it’s like that was similar with the deep-self-design stuff. It’s like I’ve been applying and practicing this stuff for, like, 13 years, and now I’m studying what I’m doing because I want to teach it. So I apparently have these cycles of that. And I was not in that cycle with rapid doodling for problem solving. And I was like, why would I fake this? This is just completely not true for me at all. So thankfully, Rohit was awesome, and he was, like, “Great. I don’t want you to write that.” And I almost kissed him through the screen. I was like, “God bless you,” because it was getting painful.
Douglas: And what’s the title of the new book?
Sunni: Well, I don’t know yet exactly. It’s still in process, but it’s something about the “non-obvious guide to being confident,” or maybe “to enter confidence.” And then the subtitle is “without being arrogant or inauthentic,” something like that.
Douglas: Yeah. And I love this notion of confidence is really important when it comes to facilitation. That’s why we both run facilitation practices just to get people experience with the tools and with new ways of doing things. And I also feel that authenticity matters so much. The authenticity allows us to be confident and vice versa. They kind of have this interesting dual purpose or this kind of linked connectedness.
Sunni: And I’ve always been confused by, what is authenticity? What does it even mean? And it’s similarly with integrity. So this is just like a sort of weird question philosophically, which is, if you’re authentically being manipulative, like you’re totally committed to that activity, then that’s not inauthentic. It’s un-optimal. It’s suboptimal for who you’re dealing with. But, like, Trump is authentically an asshole. Do you know what I’m saying?
Douglas: Mm-hmm. Yes, I do know what you’re saying.
Sunni: So I don’t even know when people describe—because I do often get described as authentic. My mother-in-law—well, she’s family so she could be blowing smoke up my ass—but she’s often like, authenticity is just your engine. And it took me a while. I was like, I don’t even know what she’s talking about. But then finally, I came up with this definition, so I want to run it by you and see what you think. So what it is, maybe, is—and I’m sure there are people who’ve done this research, so I’m right on the edge of doing all this great research—which is your internal experience is matched to your external expression. So in other words, what I’m feeling internally—so if I’m feeling disappointment because somebody didn’t respond to my text—when I talk to them, I say, “I’m experiencing disappointment about your lack of responding to me, and I’m interpreting it.” So I’m just saying what’s true for me. I’m just speaking what— So I think that’s what it is. And that’s really hard for people, apparently. What do you love about it?
Douglas: Well, you know, it’s the same thing as like I think people as a society, we have been primed to not disappoint people and to avoid conflict, and so that forces people to be inauthentic—
Sunni: That’s true. So true.
Douglas: —because they’re in pursuit of this vibe or this experience or to avoid. It’s like to minimize your—
Sunni: Yeah. Conflict avoidance is huge, yes. Yes.
Douglas: Yeah. And it’s the same thing as you get a birthday present you don’t like, and you’re, “Oh, I love it.”
Douglas: It’s like that incongruency of what you’re saying and what you’re feeling.
Sunni: Yeah. Right.
Douglas: And imagine you walk into a room and you know that you need to pump up that room and get everyone excited.
Sunni: Right. But you’re not feeling it yet.
Douglas: You’re not feeling it. And there’s a pit in your stomach that you are not that is you’re not being authentic.
Sunni: Well, that, I think, creates anxiety, though, right, because when we’re trying to defy our actual internal experience, that is anxiety provoking. So that’s problematic. And it’s not like I nail it every time, but I definitely have a high fidelity to what my experience is and what my truth is, and then I share that. But I’m not undiplomatic.
So it’s interesting what you’re saying about the gift. When somebody gives you a gift and you don’t really love it, but you’re honoring that they gave it to you, that can still be an authentic experience because you may not love it, but you love that they gave something to you, that they thought of you, right?
Douglas: Right. So why not? Why is it not customary that we say that?
Sunni: I don’t know. I don’t think our culture is skillful. I think our culture is really immature in a lot of areas. And communication and conflict is one of them, a big one.
Douglas: Yeah. In our facilitation training, we often work with folks to think about how they can tap into their inner self. And you go much deeper into the internal family-system stuff. The stuff that we’re saying to do is at least just check in.
Sunni: Yeah, totally.
Douglas: Does your foot hurt?
Douglas: Does your stomach hurt?
Sunni: Yeah. Connecting to your body.
Douglas: Does it feel hot? Is there a tension in the room? Are you bringing that tension? Are you noticing it? Is that tension impacting you?
Sunni: Yeah. Right. That’s so helpful, though, Douglas. People are so oblivious to their own states. And that is also anxiety provoking. When you’re divorced from your own experience, how could you not be stressed? How could that not be stressful?
To your point, I do go deep, and I love that. But it’s also, what you’re doing with people, that’s a revelation for a lot of people. Just like, oh, oh, I do. I am hungry. Oh, I have no idea. Or oh, I am disappointed that I wasn’t seated with my friend. You know, just anything. And then I often do at the beginning of sessions, I will have them name something that’s true for them. And just that simple act of checking in, becoming aware of your state and yourself, and then declaring it, it’s like returning to yourself just for a second. And it brings you into the present moment, and it’s really helpful.
Douglas: Yeah. Any time we can have some sort of presence-ing activity in an opener, it’s really powerful.
Sunni: I know. And you know what’s funny, talking about authenticity? I think I was with you one time when we—I have people often draw, like, just in virtual facilitation, they’ll draw some emotion on a sticky note. And I will just ask, “What is your state of emotion right now?” and then draw an emoji. And then, you know, the ones that are permissible, right—there’s permissible, social, emotional experiences. So it’ll be like, the craziest one might be that someone’s frazzled, but they would never be like, “I’m depressed,” you know?
Sunni: No— So there’s social norms in that. And again, it’s like, is that inauthenticity, or is that caretaking of the group, or is that not even knowing maybe how you feel? It’s like, just, it’s complex, you know?
Douglas: Yeah. It’s interesting because if you’re intentionally trying to deceive you being authentic—there’s different levels, are you being authentic to yourself? There is intention. And then someone else could perceive you as being inauthentic because you’re like, wait, he’s totally lying to me. So, yeah.
Sunni: Mm-hmm. Yeah. That’s right.
Douglas: And integrity, I think, is easier for me because I always define integrity—because it shows up on so many companies’ values statements, and I don’t even know—I think most of the time they don’t think about what it means. It’s like, oh, yeah. It needs to say integrity.
Sunni: They don’t even know what it is.
Sunni: They’re like, everybody wants that, for sure.
Douglas: Integrity is just you do what you say you’re going to do.
Sunni: Say you’re going to do? So, okay, what if I say I’m going to throw water on Chet when he’s sleeping?
Douglas: That’s integrity.
Sunni: And then I do it.
Douglas: You follow through. But if you say you’re going to build a wall and you don’t build a wall, that’s not a lot of integrity.
Sunni: But that means that Hitler had integrity, right? So it’s like if you say—and it’s controversial, but based on that definition, that would mean that, that he followed through.
Douglas: Yeah. But that’s the thing. I think people that take these words and they glorify them as being good qualities.
Sunni: Yeah, they don’t mean anything.
Douglas: And sure, if you have good intent—like, you had to combine them with other things because—that segues nicely into something that we were getting excited about during the preshow chat. And this is just good versus bad, and in binary thinking, how dangerous it is.
Sunni: Yeah, it is. It’s one of the thinking distortions. So there’s a really great list of thinking distortions that has, like, eight on it. But this also segues into Zen practice, which is central to my entire life. But one of the thinking distortions is making things binary. And it’s so tempting. And I do it even though I have a devout practice around not doing that, where I’m seeing the nuance. It’s still, it’s the brain. Like, we are wired to summarize very quickly for survival purposes. It’s not like we’re bad if we do that. That is just biologically, it’s like a biological imperative. And so in order to soften that inclination to just label somebody as, like, stupid or smart; or a desirable, undesirable; or deplorable and undeplorable; or whatever, we have to practice. You actually have to activate the antithesis of that way of thinking by purposefully seeing the shades of gray. It is a practice, and it’s super powerful.
And so I like that you’re interested in that, too, because as facilitators, I gamify this stuff. I try to teach people that in gaming. That one in particular always blows people’s domepieces off because they’re like, “Oh, my god, I completely thought my boss was a jerk just by definition.” And I’m like, “Did you consider all the other facets of your boss?” And they’re like, “No.” I’m like, “Why would you? It’s not a practice you have.”
Douglas: You know, I think that it applies across the spectrum, too, right? A lot of times, especially folks that are brand new to facilitation, they’re so curious. Like, how do I deal with difficult people? And that, first of all, is binary thinking. The fact that you’re asking that question means that you’re thinking there’s non-difficult people and difficult people.
Sunni: You’re assuming. Right, yeah. And it’s funny because when I started facilitating, I never asked that question. I wasn’t worried about it. And I think that has to do with conflict avoidance, too. So if people are asking that question, underneath it is a fear that they’re going to have to deal with conflict or perceived conflict. And conflict avoidance was not my family strategy. So I usually turn toward it and address it, depending on the depth of the wounding or whatever. But it’s like, it’s not fearful for me.
And also, I haven’t encountered these “difficult” people. I know there are people that can talk over other people, and there are people that want to ask a lot of questions and sort of can derail some of your activities. I know there are people that try to sidle up to you and make alliances with a facilitator. But I don’t think of them as difficult. I think of them as people, just human people.
Douglas: What about the people that are desperately trying to help you?
Sunni: Oh, I love those people. It’s always—that’s so, so sweet because it’s like, how do you say “No, thank you. You’re going to make it way harder on me if you try to help”? Right? Because when I was a graphic recorder, I used to always carry these big walls, you know? You got to carry these 32-square-foot walls everywhere, and you would not believe how many people tried to help me because I was 5’5” and they’d be like, “She can’t carry that up four flights of stairs.” And I’d be like, “It weighs two pounds. It’s not hard.” But I would always just very gently be like, “No. Thank you so much. I really appreciate your interest. But it’ll go smoothly if I just do it because I’ve done it so many times.” But there are all those types in meetings.
But to your point, what does it mean if they’re difficult? Maybe they just need something, and they need you to be aware of it. And you just look for the need, the underlying need, and see if you can support that or not.
Douglas: You know, I really liked Michael Wilkinson’s framing on this. I think in his book—I forgot. It’s so many secrets of facilitation. I can’t even remember how many there are. There might be, like, let’s just say, so many secrets of facilitation.
Sunni: They’re secrets?
Douglas: Yeah, well, he’s unveiling the secrets of facilitation.
Sunni: What?! The secret teachings?
Douglas: Yeah. It’s amazing. So, his whole thing is dysfunctions. How do you deal with dysfunctions? And so I liked that framing a lot better because there’s all sorts of them, and how do we think about addressing them as they happen? And the individuals aren’t dysfunctional.
Douglas: Maybe eliciting a dysfunction at that moment.
Sunni: Yeah. Or like a malfunction, yeah.
Sunni: You know? A little breakdown.
Douglas: A little short circuit, which is an amazing—
Sunni: And I have those, too, you know?
Douglas: I mean, when are they going to come out with, like—so they’ve done E.T. with Stranger Things. They’ve done Karate Kid with Cobra Kai. When are they going to come out with the Short Circuit, like the modern Short Circuit?
Sunni: Oh, dude. How can they top the original? It’d be so hard. It’d be impossible. Oh, my god, I’ve got to watch that tonight. It’s Friday night. Thank you for picking my movie.
Douglas: There’s something about Cobra Kai that I was—
Douglas: —thinking about earlier. But—
Sunni: Oh, my god, yes.
Douglas: —I think it’s just this notion of this good versus bad.
Douglas: You know, I was thinking about that when we were talking about good versus bad.
Douglas: And it’s really interesting to me how the more naive Karate Ki— even though, like, look, let’s face it. Cobra Kai is like a series that is not really any kind of profound wisdom. But it’s funny that the more naive version of Karate Kid was, like, Danny’s just like, and Miyagi, are just like the source of good.
Douglas: And now, the more modern portrayal, as they’re older, they’re much more complex, you know?
Douglas: They’re both doing things that you’re like, why?
Sunni: And that’s the truth about people is that we’re complex. And that’s what people don’t want to grapple with, because it requires an awareness of things that can’t be tucked into a box really neatly. And the brain, it does not like that. The brain is—I mean, sometimes it’s stimulated by it. But ultimately, it needs a summation. And so it’s like that’s why you have all these characters that are easy to hate, like in Inspector Gadget. What’s the dude, Claw? He doesn’t even have a face. He’s just the bad dude behind the desk, without a face. And then when you look at comic books or graphic novels, they always go into their backstory. I mean, Black Panther, they nailed it by making those characters so complex. You could completely—I mean, I identified—I can’t remember—what’s the name of the—not the Black Panther, but the nemesis, that guy? I don’t know if you watched it. But he, at the end, I related more to him than the heroic figure, for sure, because I have flaws and failings of character. And that to me felt relatable. So it’s, like, so fascinating how that starts from storytelling when you’re five, you know? Even Star Wars. But I love Star Wars because, dude, I don’t—
Douglas: Hero’s journey.
Douglas: I mean, you kind of can’t go wrong with the hero’s journey. In fact, that’s something Daniel Stillman and I talk about a lot, using that in your workshop design.
Sunni: Mm-hmm. Hm, interesting. Like, taking each person through some transformational experience related to the content?
Douglas: Yeah. Basically, from start to finish, we’re going to go through this hero’s journey, where we go into the abyss and come out together with the elixir.
Sunni: Oh, that makes me just want to weep, it’s so beautiful. And it’s like even if you don’t choose—because part of the journey, you have to answer the call. So life will probably summon you. But if you don’t answer, then you don’t go on the journey, you know? And I’ve always been fascinated by people that are not available for the journey, because it’s just not safe. I mean, it’s not, by definition. But for me, it’s always worth it to step into challenges. And I think that is also a quality of entrepreneurs, is that we are kind of thrilled by freaking ourselves out.
Douglas: Uncertainty, ambiguity.
Sunni: Yes, dude. We’re like those people that like it. We’re kind of into it. And over the years, I’ve had to temper my own instinct to do that. And I know you have too. I mean, I’ve been a workaholic for a long time, and I’m, like, in recovery. But it’s also just because I like being challenged, and I like not knowing everything, because it’s such a thrill when you get some new insight or knowledge. It’s like, I feel like I’m like the Hulk. I’m like, whoa, I’m growing muscularly. I’m huge. But you could get addicted to that, so it’s like every now and then I’m always, like, on a weekend I’m like, girl, you don’t need to, like, read 40 sutras this weekend. You can just be an idiot, just be an idiot, you know?
Douglas: Yeah. Just give the brain a little break. Go on a nature bath.
Sunni: Yeah! You know, I told you I’m going to install my hillbilly hot tub. Is that okay to s—? You got—I know. I want—
Douglas: My sauna’s getting installed right as we speak.
Sunni: Oh, dude. That’s amazing.
Douglas: It’s important.
Sunni: It is.
Douglas: Yeah. As you were talking about this, some metaphors were coming up for me, around we’re taking people through this risky kind of thing, and there is risk that you’re taking. And it reminded me of rapids, right?
Douglas: So whitewater rafting. And you always hire the guide so that you don’t go kill yourself.
Douglas: Facilitation’s like the mental equivalent of the whitewater-rafting guy.
Sunni: Yeah, yeah.
Douglas: If we’re going to go on this risky mental journey, let’s make sure we have a shepherd or that guide to make sure that—we’re going to wear helmets, of course, but we’re going to make sure that we don’t bash our heads on the rocks even if we have helmets on.
Sunni: Well, and that’s why the facilitator is so important, because they have to trust you completely. And I don’t mean they have to, meaning you can’t conduct a meeting, but for a successful experience, they really need to trust you. And you, the way that I think about it, is that I demonstrate how I want them to be. So if something goes wrong, I will name that and own that, you know? If I don’t have the answer to something, I will not pretend that I do. If I want somebody to collaborate with me, then I will invite them to come and collaborate with me, and then mimic that in their group. So it makes you more human in some ways if you’re—I mean, there’s every kind of facilitator under the sun, so it’s not like there’s some gold standard or whatever. That’s just my style, is I want them to understand that perfection is not what we’re up to. We’re up to being humans. And so—
Douglas: I think that’s authenticity, right there.
Sunni: Yeah. Yeah, that’s true. But I could be being, like, what if I had an inner—because I have an inner perfectionist. I’m actually working with this part of me that is authentically perfectionistic, you know?
Douglas: Well, I meant the vulnerability you’re talking about. Like, if you don’t know the answer—
Sunni: Yeah, let’s just name it.
Douglas: —we’re going to talk about it.
Sunni: Yeah. And I’ve been making so many bloopers. Douglas, you would not believe the bloopers on the United Nations project, because I’m learning as I go. And I told you that. It’s like we’re leaping, and we’re building our parachute while we’re falling. And the client’s not that aware of it. That is an internal awareness that Jessie and I both have. But for me, it’s like, oh, my god—it’s like I’m back to being a newbie, like, the stuff I do. Like, the other day, I just flung everyone into breakout rooms, just because I impulsively pushed the fucking button. It was like, what do you do? And then—
Douglas: Well, that’s the world we’re in.
Sunni: I know. It’s so crazy.
Douglas: It’s going to happen, even—I’ve run the breakout rooms in Zoom daily—
Sunni: Yeah, I bet.
Douglas: —and I still hit things accidentally. And that’s partially because—here’s the thing. I don’t know if you’ve seen the book, The Design of Everyday Things.
Douglas: Oh, man. It’s a classic design book. So great.
Sunni: I know. I’ve heard of it. I don’t have it, though.
Douglas: In fact, the doors that are poorly designed are actually named Norman Doors, after the author.
Douglas: Well, because he points out, don’t blame yourself because the door is poorly designed.
Douglas: If there is a giant—like, you ever gone up to a door that has a giant handle on it?
Douglas: And you’re supposed to just grab the handle and pull it toward you?
Douglas: And you pull it, and then it doesn’t move because you’re supposed to push it?
Sunni: Push it.
Douglas: So on the push side, there needs to be a push plate, and on the pull side, there needs to be a pull handle.
Sunni: Right. Like, you’re not the dope here.
Douglas: Yeah. Exactly. You’re not the dope. He said, never blame yourself for bad design if someone designed it poorly. And so that’s what everyone does. Like, my mom always tells me, I don’t understand computers. I’m like, well, that means they didn’t design it so that you could understand it.
Sunni: Aww, that’s very nice of you to say that. Because it does make people feel stupid when they can’t do things.
Douglas: Yes. People always say they’re stupid when it’s like, man, someone did a poor job of getting you there.
Douglas: And I think Zoom breakout rooms have a lot of room for growth.
Sunni: Yeah. And I think they’re working on that, and I know they’re making new features and changes to how it—
Sunni: Like, they just did the Gallery View. You can shuffle it around.
Douglas: That’s right.
Sunni: That’s another thing, too, though. It’s like all these new things constantly coming, so there’s capabilities you don’t even know you have, and then there’s some that fall off. So it’s just a constantly changing environment. And so I’ve just made mistakes left and right, and then I remember what it’s like to be a beginner. And thankfully, I have this foundational practice and that confidence about facilitating and making mistakes and just knowing that it’s okay. But if I were a beginning facilitator, it would be so stressful. It’d be super stressful to try to step in.
Douglas: Absolutely. And the thing is, you just found—in a way it’s almost like fracking—you hit the depths of what’s possible. You would become an expert in facilitation. And then this new fissure opened up because of remote, and now there is a new area to play in and a new area to fail in. But at the same time, you weren’t building a parachute while falling. You know what I mean? You were in the squirrel suit, already at terminal velocity—
Sunni: I was already in my gear.
Douglas: And as you’re floating down, you’re like, “Oh, let me assemble a parachute, because then I’m going to float down even slower.”
Sunni: That’s right. Yeah, that’s right.
Douglas: So I think there’s something beautiful in that, right, because you can lean on the experience you have to then go into new, uncharted territory.
Douglas: And that uncertainty, while it’s scary, also leads to a lot of opportunity.
Sunni: Totally. And that’s why I love facilitating with expert facilitators, because we all know that. A lot of the stuff, a lot of the terrors and the weird delusions and the distorted ideas you have about the practice when you first go are gone. They’re just burnt off by experience. And then, so, it’s just, there’s a lot of joy for me, because I online I always have a co-facilitator if it’s longer than, like, an hour and a half. You know what I mean? And I love trusting the capacity of that person, because it’s crazy, because the other day, Jessie and I were like, I could tell she was looking for something in the back end of Zoom, and I could see from her body language that she had no clue where it was. And so I just started talking. I was like, “Here’s why we’re doing this, and this is the value of it. And I ask the people questions.” And I was just doing it to fill in the gaps so that she could—because I looked at her again. I was like, “Okay, she found it,” and now I’m going to close. But that’s like a tango that we have because we work together so often. But it’s just, it’s very sweet. It’s a very sweet process to have.
Douglas: What you’re describing is so much harder in the virtual space, too, because of the signals we have. When we’re in the room together—
Douglas: —and vibing, whether it’s Daniel or John or Eli or any of the facilitators I’ve facilitated with quite often, it’s like you can feel it almost in the air. Like, we don’t even have to make eye contact necessarily. It’s just like, “Oh, I know they’re still riffing.” And then, you know, it’s almost like when you can tell someone’s looking at you. So when they’re done looking at you and ready, like, better if you just got the— So I feel like what you were doing is a pro move to be tearing through the tools and trying to revisit the vague signals we do have in virtual.
Sunni: Yeah. It’s so funny you’re talking about this because Jessie and I were talking about this this morning. When you’re asking about my origin story, so part of my early conditioning had to do with hyper vigilance. So I was very aware of what emotional state people were in and what their next move was likely to be. So I’m really attentive to body language. And that, for me, is still very available in Zoom. I mean, I can tell—and Jessie was making fun of me this morning. She was like, “Oh, my god, girl. You name people that they have a question before they have even unmuted themselves or even know they have a question.” But it’s because I’m watching their body language. When people are about to ask a question, they do things. They move forward. They lean toward the camera. They kind of, like, gesture in these bizarre ways. Sometimes they stop and start. And so for me, that visual and gestural information is still there. So I’d just be like, “Hey, Frank, it seems like you want to say something.” And then Jessie was just like—she was making fun of me, because she was like, “That is so weird that you—” but I’m so sensitive to it, you know? And I thought that was normal, but then I realized, oh, yeah, no, that’s my trauma. Basically, that’s the gift of trauma.
Douglas: You know, that was one of the things that really jumped out to me when you were telling me about internal family systems and giving me the whole low-down there, and I found it really fascinating that things that were previously traumatic or these—I can’t remember the Internal Family Systems parlance—but these guards, these managers, that were created because of old wounds are part of yourself. And they can be, they can sometimes be disruptive, but they can also serve a function. They can give you superpowers that other people don’t have.
Sunni: Yeah, they do. Absolutely. They’re 100 percent really powerful. And that’s one of mine is I have a manager who’s very watchful, and so it is a super power. Now, the problem is I can’t turn it off. So, like, if I’m, for example, in mediating between my husband and his mom, it will kind of be exhausting for me because I know that they’re going to have an argument 10 minutes before they do, because I can see where the tones are changing and what the language, how the language is changing. I can see them turning, body language turning away from each other. I can see a color of their skin gets redder and redder. But they’re not, like you were saying, people are not aware of what’s happening internally to them. So they’re not yet aware. So for both of them, the energy, the intensity has to be a certain threshold before they even notice. But for me, I notice it way early. And it’s exhausting because I’ll just be like, “Dudes. I’m going to walk out now. Five, four, three, two. Okay, your mom’s pissed.” It’s funny.
But as a facilitator, it’s really useful. It’s a really useful skill, and I’m grateful for the spontaneous—like, going back to IFS, the spontaneous creation of these skill sets based on—and it’s not always from trauma. It’s just from navigating life, you know? But there is a spontaneous creativity that the body and the mind does to meet whatever circumstances are there. And that’s why I have such gratitude for how wise and skillful all of our systems are. So even if a person is “difficult,” I respect that there’s some aspect of what they’re doing that is a protective function and that that’s quite healthy for their system. So I just have a deeper, a kind of an abiding appreciation for malfunctions and for strategies that people have, because I’m like, dude, I am the same way. We’re designed the same way. I get it, you know? And I just respect it.
Douglas: Yeah. It’s amazing to see what strategies other people use and which ones that we can authentically borrow versus things that maybe I don’t want to touch that. Maybe that’s not such a good tool for me.
Sunni: Yeah. I wonder how many you can borrow, because there are qualities that other people have that I wish that I had. And I kind of admire that they have them, but I don’t personally have them myself. Like, what example?
Douglas: From an internal family systems, I doubt there’s much borrowing we can do unless we do some deep, long work. I was thinking more from the surface level of, that’s an interesting strategy. Ooh, I like the way that they’re asking folks to… Who haven’t we heard from next? I think there’s a lot of fun little prompts and questions and things that we can borrow from folks. But it’s critical that we do it authentically. If it doesn’t feel comfortable in your belly when you’re saying it, maybe leave that one at home.
Sunni: Right. Aww, I know. It’s so insightful what you’re saying about you can’t really borrow them, because I always think about coaches and coaching and why would that work in terms of if you’re trying to say, like, if somebody hires a coach to be more assertive, it’s like, well, you could hack it. You could put on an assertive demeanor. But it wouldn’t really be born of your essence. You wouldn’t really be the source of it. So I always think it’s interesting, the methods that coaches use to attempt to get great things from people. For me, it has to be natural for them. So you just want to unlock their natural strength.
Douglas: I like that word natural. I think that’s very similar to how I think about authentic, is of being natural.
I want to talk about the coaching thing for a second, though. You know, I think part of it is people not taking a robust definition of greatness. They’ve found some thing that they think is greatness, and then they’re glommed onto it, and they’re like, teach me how to… I think you were talking about, like, being more confident or whatnot. But what if people more generally said, “I just want to improve. And what does that mean to improve? And let’s explore things more openly.” I think that kind of coaching can be really, really interesting, right? Let’s see how I can explore where my strengths create weakness. In some of the coaching work I’ve done, it’s about how I figure out what I’m not good at, and then is it something that I can improve on? And if not, if it’s truly a deep-seeded weakness, let’s delegate that. But let’s let that be a part of my self-awareness. Coaching should be about becoming more self-aware.
Sunni: That’s right. And unburdening some of the parts of you, because you already have this constellation internally that is very capable, and you and me and everyone we know. But some of it is burdened. And so it has intense emotional charge that hasn’t been released or it has belief systems that are old and archaic and need to be discarded. But then once they’re unburdened, the energy and the natural expression of that aspect of you is just available, which is crazy because that’s what Zen practice is all about too. Zen practice, there’s the metaphor they use is like wiping dust from a mirror. So your mirror is already there. You can’t change that. It’s just who you are. It’s part of the natural emergence of an incarnated being, is that you’re like a reflection of the universe. And it just has dust on it. So the practice is about getting some of the dust off.
There was a big reversal of the way I grew up, which was, like, oh, you’re born in sin. And I was like, wait. So I’m just fundamentally fucked up? I was like, oh, I can’t relate to that. But people do, you know? And so I think the approach of assuming beauty in the person and then just helping them release some of their inherent capacity is just a really benevolent way to approach coaching. But it’s not that common.
Douglas: Sunni, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you today. And just want to give you a chance to kind of close out, leave anyone with any final thoughts. Or I know that we’ve probably got a lot of folks that are really interested in how they can find out more about your work and what you do. So anything they should keep in mind?
Sunni: Well, I was thinking about your audience. They’re mostly facilitators, right? They’re people who are interested in that practice?
Douglas: Yeah. Our listeners are facilitators as well as leaders that are interested in these techniques and how they can improve their meetings and their employee experience. I think, generally, the audience are growing into just a general appreciation of how meetings could be better.
Sunni: Yeah. You’re so good at what you do. If people are interested in a lot—I mean, you and I covered so many great topics that I’m like, “Oh, is our time up? It’s so sad.” But deepselfdesign.com has some good resources on it. And my other business that is the original venture is sunnibrownink.com. Those are both resources. And you can find me all over the Internet.Outro: 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 more, head over to our blog, where I post weekly articles and resources about working better together, voltagecontrol.com.