A Commonplace

What is a commonplace?



Now We're Talking - Some Thoughts on Second Circle

It's Saturday morning, so I'm writing this on my "weekend" laptop - it just feels too miserable using my work laptop at the weekend. It's 7:30am in the morning in February here in Limehouse, London and there's a half-light outside.

Winter was mild, so it hasn't felt quite so much like living under a stone this year, but still, it's reassuring when it starts to get light again first thing in the morning.

I didn't write anything yesterday, so I thought I'd get up early this morning and give it a good go. Saturday mornings are the best time in the week I get to actually do some thinking for myself. Though it's interesting that clown school - actually doing something different and physical has been provoking my thoughts all week. There were two things that I was thinking about writing about this morning.

One was this thing called "Second Circle" - it's an idea talked about by the voice coach Patsy Rodenburg in her book "The Second Circle". The basic idea is very simple - there are three modes of communication.

First circle is a passive mode of communication - a person communicating in first circle would probably rather not be saying anything at all, and just quietly listening. When they do communicate, they mumble, they don't speak loudly enough.

Third circle is the opposite of first circle. Third circle doesn't listen much. Third circle shouts. Third circle pushes it's view of the world onto everybody else.

Second circle is the mode of effective communication. When you're in second circle communication, you're paying attention to the world (and the people in it) and through paying attention to the world, you're actually able to get the world to pay attention to you, you're actually in dialogue.

This sounds great doesn't it? That's what we want, isn't it? Good communication? As Rodenburg points out in her book, second circle is without doubt the safest mode of interacting with the world - it's the mode you have to spend all of your time in if you're in life or death situations, like war, or prison. It's the mode you're in when you're having the optimal experiences in your life, like when you fall in love.

So why don't we do this all the time? Well, there are probably a lot of different reasons, I just want to look at a couple. The first reason is one that becomes massively obvious if you every do improvisational theatre:

People don't want to be changed

When you're doing improv as a beginner (or somebody who's been doing it a long time, like me, but forgets), what the audience wants to see is people being affected by a dramatic situation and then figuring out some way of getting out of the dramatic situation. The audience wants to see change.

But when you're on stage, even though that's what you've been told by your improv teacher, even though you want to "get it right" and you want to be good at improvising, you often find that what you do is avoid being changed.

I think I've used the cabbage example before, but it's the one that comes to mind again, so here goes.

A Cabbage

Je vous ai apporté un chou

Jane: I've brought you a cabbage

Sarah: That's not a cabbage! That's a bomb!

This is a very small Third circle interaction - Sarah is trying to take control of the situation - why? Because Sarah had decided that Jane was going to bring here a bomb! And buggered if she's going to change. Or possibly, Sarah didn't have the idea of the bomb in mind - but she's said "bomb" so that people will think she's whacky and creative - and it was the first thing that came to mind. Either way, Sarah is avoiding actually acknowledging the cabbage - she's avoiding being changed by being loud, "creative" and extrovert. This is third circle communication.

But what about if the cabbage scene went like this:

Jane: I brought you a cabbage.

Sarah: Ok, thanks (probably barely audibly).

Sarah is now trying to avoid being changed by being in first circle. Superficially, she's accepting the cabbage, but nothing about her behaviour is changing as a result. The response she makes is just enough to keep her out of trouble. In the introductory improv class that I went to, there were people who wouldn't even have managed the "OK thanks" and would have probably just smiled a weak smile.

So what happens in a second circle cabbage scene? Lots of different things can happen. Let's look at a few examples.

Jane: I brought you a cabbage

Sarah: You bitch! You know I'm allergic to brassicas!


Jane: I brought you a cabbage.

Sarah: Thank you kindly my lady, the babies was looking hungry today and cabbage soup will go down a treat


Jane: I brought you a cabbage.

Sarah: Good! Let's start pickling it! I've got the sausage, the beer and the lederhosen! This German theme night is going to be awesome.

In each case here, Sarah is reacting, and being changed by what Jane says. If Jane does the same - responds in second circle to what Sarah says, then there's a chance we might actually end up with an interesting scene.

So, if Second Circle communication is so awesome, why don't we all spend all our time in it? Well, because, instinctively, we don't want to be changed. The intriguing thing is how often people lapse into either first or third circle communication, even in a "safe", pretend situation, like improv so in real life situations, the urge to avoid actual communication with our environment is powerful. We tend to avoid being changed as much as we can.

If I step back and think about it for a minute, I see this all the time in my day job. I see clients not only telling their suppliers what to do, but also, how to do it (Third circle) or going the opposite way and saying "You tell me how we're going to do this? You're the experts." (What is that? First circle with a bit of Third circle posturing). I see a lot of "beaten down" teams in First circle, who'll at least appear to acquiesce to any instructions that the management will give them. Although, you'll almost always certainly here that there are massive problems with what the team produces, there a couple of wrongful dismissal suits chugging through the courts and the percentage of turnover of people on the team is in double figures.

And I've done this as well, as a Scrum Master, as an Agile Coach. I've yelled at my clients (if not actually, then metaphorically) I've beaten them up with feedback and bad news. I've done all that third circle stuff and when that hasn't worked, I've sometimes shut up and given up and kept quite - gone into bitter, beaten down first circle (this probably isn't a paragraph that I'm going to put on my CV). The problem with both of these strategies is that, in some ways, in the short term, they ease the pain. But in the long term, they don't do any good. In the long-term, the good stuff, value, health, sanity. Can only come from having a second-circle conversation with the world as it is.

So one way of thinking about what we need to be as an Agile coaches, is people who have a bunch of ways of getting ourselves back into second circle and making it easier and safer for other people to be in second circle.