A conversation with Sunni Brown, best-selling author of Gamestorming and The Doodle Revolution.

Sunni will be speaking at our upcoming event — Control the Room: The 2nd Annual Austin Facilitator Summit! Taking place at Austin’s Capital Factory on February 6th, learn more and get your tickets here.

The amount of impressive stats on the author, public speaker, and expert meeting facilitator Sunni Brown is a bit staggering. So, I’ll start by sharing two to whet your appetite. Her TED Talk on doodling and how it improves our creative thinking has drawn more than 1.4 million views. Second, she was once named one of the “10 Most Creative People on Twitter” by Fast Company.

Like myself, Sunni is Austin-based, so I was particularly excited to connect with her for this conversation. I’m also happy to announce that she’s one of the keynote speakers for the upcoming 2020 Austin facilitator summit — Control the Room— which is happening in February. (Check out the link if you want to attend and hear her speak!) A couple of weeks ago, Sunni and I had an energizing conversation. Read on to learn more about this fascinating, multi-talented powerhouse.

Sunni Brown, founder of SB Ink.
Sunni Brown, founder of SB Ink.

Sunni is the founder of SB Ink, a creative consultancy that’s unique for its use of a variety of effective, yet sometimes unconventional cognitive and facilitative techniques (think: Infodoodling, Applied Improvisation, and mindfulness). Sunni is also the best-selling author of Gamestorming and The Doodle Revolution, and her forthcoming book, subtitled Deep Self Design™, “uses visual thinking to teach a do-it-yourself, evidence-based method of dissolving powerful personal obstacles.”

Her work has been featured in The New York Times, The New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, WIRED, CNN, Oprah.com, and Entrepreneur, as well as being featured twice on CBS Sunday Morning and the TODAY Show.

Zen and the Art of Facilitation

One of the things I love about Sunni’s approach to facilitation is how she pulls in a multitude of practices. Her toolkit of skills extends what we expect from facilitators and design thinkers and moves into entirely new realms. For example, she’s a student of Zen Buddhism. And while being a Zen practitioner might not seem like a necessary skill for a creative consultant, she’s found it incredibly useful in her work and that it makes her an even better facilitator.

“Zen practice is about creating open and safe conversations for all human beings,” Sunni shared. “I didn’t go into Zen thinking, ‘This will make me a better facilitator.’ But it inherently does because of the qualities that emerge when you practice for a long time.” The complexities of working with groups of professionals or executives in creative sessions can undoubtedly benefit from the skills that Zen teaches — things like patience and non-reactivity.

“Zen practice is about creating open and safe conversations for all human beings.”

Sunni doesn’t think these skills are a prerequisite for someone in facilitation. But, as one goes deeper into their career, it definitely helps: “Ultimately, when you get into group work, if you don’t move into human behavior and psychological development, you’re going to miss a lot. You’re not going to know how to work with a lot of things. That’s probably true for most facilitators who do work with groups for a long time. You have to start asking the human question.

Sunni giving her TED talk “Doodlers, unite!”
Sunni giving her TED talk “Doodlers, unite!”

These skills have helped Sunni take her facilitation methods to the next level: “With facilitation, you can have a lot of chops, and you can be skillful at creating experiences that drive toward goals. The technical aspects of facilitation — you can master those pretty quickly. Those are not mysterious. What becomes mysterious is getting people to trust you, getting them to trust each other, allowing them to express their authentic voices. Getting them to take risks. That’s the whole other level of practice.”

“What becomes mysterious is getting people to trust you, getting them to trust each other, allowing them to express their authentic voices. Getting them to take risks. That’s the whole other level of practice.”

Two of Sunni’s books.
Two of Sunni’s books.
Two of Sunni’s books.

Empathy with Boundaries

This idea of Zen naturally led to a discussion about how Sunni deals with difficult participants or stakeholders when she’s facilitating. Sunni was quick to point out that while Zen and her other mindfulness practices help her to be calm, non-reactive, and empathetic with participants, it doesn’t mean she’s ok with any behavior. “I’m actually not accepting of a whole host of certain behavior. Anything that shuts down other people — I’m not accepting of it. It doesn’t mean that I don’t support the person. It doesn’t mean I’m not compassionate for what they’re doing. It means that if they’re bringing behavior that is compromising other people’s experience, I don’t tolerate that.”

She explained a bit more about why these boundaries are essential: “When you’re holding space and creating a container for a group to do something, how you do that is critical. I have to simultaneously convey that they can trust me, that I know what I’m doing, and that I’m not going to be a pushover or tolerate bad behavior while at the same time not shaming them.”

She compares it to the concept of servant leadership: “You are of service, but you’re not a doormat. I’m clear when I’m up there as a facilitator that I am here to hold space, but not for bullshit. I establish group norms: ‘This is what I’m looking for.’ It’s not a condemnation; it’s an invitation.”

One way that Sunni invites people into acting with different norms is by calling attention to potentially counterproductive habits at the beginning of a session: “Here’s an example from some scientists I’ve worked with: I’ll say to them, ‘I know that some of your behavioral norms involve being really intellectual. And I love that about you, and it’s very useful as a tool. But, here’s the downside of it, and here’s the upside of it.’ You call it and name it and talk to them about it. I assume the best of them, assume they’re not doing anything wrong. They’re just defaulting to something.”

In Defense of Ice Breakers

We shifted to another “hot” topic (pun intended) in meeting design — “ice breakers.” Sunni has a thoughtful approach on icebreakers and feels that they can be fruitful if they’re deeply linked to your meeting’s purpose and not just something fun or silly: “The term icebreaker is problematic because it’s so old. I call them primers or fire starters, and they have a purpose. There’s nothing worse than, ‘Hello, my name is…’ That’s superficial and meaningless. If it’s boring to you, it’s definitely boring to them.”

Sunni’s antidote to the dull, predictable meeting icebreakers is something more meaningful: “If I design something that’s ‘an icebreaker,’ it’s going to be directly related to [the meeting participants’] experience. It’s not going to be something they’ve done before. It’ll involve some kind of storytelling.” Another pro-tip to glean from how Sunni uses icebreakers is that she often asks the group’s leaders to do the exercise or activity first. She’s not afraid to have a high-powered banker play Hangman to get a meeting going, or she’ll do it herself to get everyone primed up. When execs or leaders show a willingness to be vulnerable, it encourages the rest of the group to loosen up as well.

Power of Outcomes & Vulnerability

We also talked about any major learnings that Sunni has gleaned from her less-than-ideal adventures in facilitation. She shared the importance of receiving clearly-defined goals from your client or stakeholder when you’re planning and leading an event. Because when the facilitator doesn’t know the ultimate goals, it’s close-to-impossible to design a successful event. Sunni learned this the hard way when she had to facilitate a major event and didn’t get solid insight into the goals from her client. Because of this, she went into the big day feeling less-than-confident in her agenda and activities.

Beyond the importance of defined goals, Sunni learned something else essential that she took away from this experience: the power of vulnerability. Leading up to the event, she felt she needed to name the situation she was in: “I thought: I can’t lie. I can’t stand in front of this crowd and pretend like I’m proud of this agenda. I called one of my mentors, and she said, ‘I think you need to claim that at the beginning.’ And so I did. And I didn’t blame anybody. I said: ‘This is an inaugural event, and the nature of these are messy.’ I just put all that out there, and seriously, the anxiety left the building. I was off the hook for it being a flawlessly-executed experience, which was not possible.”

It was a big learning moment: “It was okay as a facilitator to name that the process I designed might not deliver on any of their expectations.”

Visual and Kinesthetic Thinking

Since Sunni is an expert on visual thinking, we talked about the power of graphic facilitation, which she does as well: “It has so many benefits, but one of them is that you start to externalize what people are saying. You have that on display in front of people, and you can begin parsing the definitions— visually articulating what they’re saying and asking, ‘Is this what you mean? Does it look like this in your mind? What’s your mental model?’ That helps to accelerate and clarify. It looks cool, and it is cool, but it’s deeply functional as well.”

Visual notetaking work that SB Ink did for the company Spiceworks.
Visual notetaking work that SB Ink did for the company Spiceworks.

Beyond the visual or drawing-based, Sunni finds movement can also help with creativity and decision-making. “A lot of times, when people are about to make a decision, I will have them go outside and go on long walkabouts, so they can synthesize before they come back and decide.”

“I’m not interested in meeting humans on a cerebral only level. You don’t get your best work at that level.”

Additionally, she shared how physical exercises have been helpful when working with the above-mentioned scientists who are used to working with their intellectual selves: “We had them do something called bodystorming. Suddenly, they’ll discover, ‘Oh, you were a martial artist. You never said that before.’ They’ll realize that one of their colleagues has some physical prowess, and they had no idea because they never even get to know that aspect of them. So, it humanizes everyone, and you start to see people as three-dimensional. I’m not interested in meeting humans on a cerebral only level. You don’t get your best work at that level.”

Sunni’s multidisciplinary approach to facilitation is truly inspiring. I can’t wait to read her new book when it’s published and am thrilled that she’ll be speaking at “Control the Room.” I hope you can join us if you live in Austin!

Want to hear more from Sunni? Please join us for the Control the Room 2020, which will be held Feb. 5–7, 2020. You can find out more and buy tickets here.