Who has/wants what skills and knowledge? An online workshop.

Last week I was invited to do a workshop with the South Australian branch of Citizens Climate Lobby. This blog post goes into some of the detail (tmi, in fact). I wrote it so I’d have something to refer to if/when I get the opportunity to do more, and as a way of forcing myself to reflect usefully. I’ve been doing these sorts of ‘what skills and knowledge do we have/what skills and knowledge do we want’ workshops for a while (see here).

I was invited because CCL is trying to exert pressure for slightly less ecocidal Federal climate and environment policy in Australia and this I have written on this stuff (PhD, Conversation articles etc). Further, the host and I have met a couple of times and chatted usefully about how groups fail and what can be done about that.

I’d be very keen to hear (directly or via the host) from anyone who participated.

The tl;dr: while people were happy and participating, this assault on ‘ego-foddering’ wasn’t completely successful because egos (or rather, one ego in particular). Better structures/formats are possible, will help…

What happened

There were about 15 people on the call, some of whom knew each other – but plenty who did not. First I, because I’d be asked to, I addressed the “what can a group like CCL do?” question. My main purpose there was to ask people to think about setting different success metrics than “changing the government” or “getting the government to make new promises.” And my proposed success metric was that a year from now, the groups are in a stronger position than now, with individuals have more skills, knowledge, and that more connections with each other, and that morale remains high.

I then asked people to get two pieces of paper, and to write down on one a skill that they have, and on the other a skill/bit of knowledge they would like. We then started to go round with people. It didn’t work with holding the things up to the screens , so switched to each person saying what it was they had written.

At about this stage, we were interrupted by some idiots who came onto the call to be offensive and pornographic (i.e. zoom-bombing). Fortunately, I kept my cool and we’re able to get rid of these people by calmly saying to them, that if they didn’t switch on their camera, we would assume that they were one of the interrupters. (Always with trolls and zoom-bombers the important thing is to deny them the aggravation they crave. I’ve known this for decades, intellectually, but only recently been begun to be able – on my good days – to execute the right strategy).

I was able to then use this as an example of the kinds of disruption that you might get with climate deniers and introduced the idea of a Gish Gallop, which is a creationists’ technique, and what to do (name the tactic, laugh at it and re-frame). I also used the military analogy of needing to train, and how it’s important therefore, to role-play and to train for situations where you are being attacked and derided and undermined – people seemed to understand/agree with that. So – a potential demoralising and de-railing thing rendered neutral/perhaps even turned to advantage.

We continued going around “the room” (screen), asking each person a skill they had. And there were various people who had things like writing letters to the editor, writing generally, public speaking, etc. being organised, mediation, accounting. On a couple of occasions I had to nudge people to wrap up, but nothing dramatic.

On the mediation, I pointed out how very very important this was – sometimes it was possible to nip intra-group conflict in the bud before it exploded and destroyed everything. There were some rueful nods.

On accountancy I pointed out that he had enormous skills in that he could teach people how to keep accounts for a small community group, but also teach folks how to look forensically at a local government’s budget, especially one that is claiming there’s no money for the climate emergency when it turns out that there is actually money for the Chief Executive to hire a deputy, and also go on “fact-finding missions” to nice places. My point being that he could share those skills so he wasn’t having to do it all himself (nobody wants their activism to be a busman’s holiday.)

That done, we went back around the room in the opposite direction, looking at skills and knowledge that people wanted. And fortunately, there was a lot of overlap/matching – e.g. one person wanting better public speaking, where another person had said they were good at this – and I exhorted people to get in touch with each other to do skills and knowledge shares.

There was time for a Q&A. Something that I had proposed in terms of keeping a database of which politicians and bureaucrats are saying what was explored in more detail.

I closed with an exhortation that people don’t allow themselves to be treated as ego fodder, because it is incredibly disruptive of groups and demoralising (1).

Folks seemed happy. All up in about an hour and a half, we covered a lot of ground.

So overall, without having gathered anonymous feedback, I think that the meeting went well. People had an opportunity to speak. I sort of made sure that everyone who wanted to go got a go and the central message of “share the skills/there’s lots of skills in a room” got across.

What I did well

  • I alerted them in advance to having to take an unshiftable personal call. And sure enough, the call came. And they were able to get on with stuff.
  • Dealt with the Zoom bombing problem – kept cool, managed to get rid of them and use it as a teachable moment.
  • There were a couple of people who said that they were perfectly happy with their current level of skills and knowledge. And it’s really important that you don’t try to ever emotionally blackmail anyone into doing things that they’ve said they don’t want to do, because that’s a supreme dick move.
  • I challenged them to go beyond just looking at the Murdoch and Fairfax press, to magazines beyond the usual suspects, e.g New Idea, Women’s Weekly etc. I also suggested that they set up a sort of a database of a few politicians and see where they have and have not changed their tunes: people were already doing most of the work because they were reading the paper every day they were screenshotting they were sending it on to folks. Why not do that? 10 or 15% extra work and have a huge extra bang for your buck.

What I didn’t do particularly well/did badly

  • Encourage people to use the chat, function more.
  • Encourage people to use the peer-to-peer messaging more.
  • Have a list of links to resources prepared so could put them in the chat in real time.
  • I should have pointed out at the outset that people don’t have to want to get better at everything all the time – for various reasons (age, busy-ness, morale, energy, whatever) they may not be in a headspace to take on the hassle of learning new skills.

Things that I might/would do differently.

  • Preparation work would be for people to write down on two bits of paper, a skill/knowledge that they have, and one that they want, before the meeting starts.
  • A warning about potential zoom bombing (we’d be even quicker than we were in getting rid of these people.)
  • I was riffing each time someone said something and expanding and reflecting back, which is fine with a group of strangers or even with a group of people who know each other a bit, but you want to be able to modulate that. You want to be able to dial that down from between every person to between every second or third or fourth, and you want to be able to recap instead. So that there is more of a flow and people can make their own connections without you doing all of that work and being “centre stage.” What I did in this workshop was probably okay, but just because it was appropriate for it does not mean that it’s always appropriate for ever; less of the sound of your own voice and more of the sound of other people’s voices (separate blog post will be posted about the mechanics of this).
  • Introduce the whole idea of a group skills assessment, absolute gaps, single points of failure (e.g. Active Citizenship Toolkit). and what comes next?

What next

I want to develop (through thinking, doing, reflecting, implementing new versions – e.g. iteratively) an online version – extremely cut-down of the Active Citizenship Toolkit and “novice lines” techniques. It will be nowhere near as good as the real thing, being able to get people to wander around a room, holding up bits of paper till they get a match across the colours. But we are where we are, can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

The first thing to do is to create “how to do this workshop better” guide and post it online for critique, encourage people to testdrive it and find out what works/doesn’t work.

Further reading

Convening groups –  (I talked about convening as opposed to building formal coalitions and again, it’s about understanding entanglement power, the flow of information.)

Press releases

Letters to the editor


Ego fodder

Inside Story. Frances Flanagan really good piece about the future we need (though less good on the nitty gritty of what we have to do differently to get it).


(1) I said beware of folk who want to turn you into ego fodder for their own emotional needs; they will design a meeting where they exhort you and extort your attention, exhort and extort and that these are vampires who are massively destructive, because they haven’t got their own shit squared away. I think that was useful.

2 thoughts on “Who has/wants what skills and knowledge? An online workshop.

Add yours

  1. A very good summary Mark! Thanks again! I agree with all you say was accomplished and think your positive attitude, connection with others, and spontenaity far outweighed ‘things that might be done differently’!!!

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