Personal skills for social designers

As designers we are great at imagining futures and bringing them to life. But when we work with humans and our collective future, we are not working with physical or digital material that will gladly accept and adapt to our vision. We are working with the invisible stuff that animates our actions. It is our thoughts, internalized norms, beliefs and values, relational stances, emotions, fears, intuitions that animate our actions. Learning to work with, nurture and shift our inner experience is key to shifting our behavior and relational stances. As we get good at this, we can make the space for others to do the same and we can intervene with more finesse into tricky conversations.

During this mini-course we will not have time to go deeply into these skills, but it is our intention to expose our students to “inner skills.” We will post readings so you can gain a better intellectual understanding of each and assign weekly practices to gain a new craft.

Skill one: Self awareness

Peter Block talks about human beings being both cause (creator) and effect (product) in their social systems. We are shaped by the world and we shape it. This week we are paying particular attention to the place from which our actions originate – our inner life as it stands in relationship to the world and others around us. We will use techniques from mindfulness and psychology to do so.

Suggested practices

  • Mindfulness: Ten minutes of mindful meditation each morning
  • Daily check ins: When you become aware that something is bothering you, delve into the depth of your experience
  • Journal: Use timed free-writing to help you get your inner experience onto the page

Note: step-by-step descriptions of the suggested practices are included in your homework packet. 

Skill two: Self-compassion

When we take a deeper look at ourselves, we often bump into uncomfortable things. We might discover high levels of anxiety, the voice of a harsh inner critic, shameful thoughts, fierce judgment of others, memories of a painful past, and so on. These inner experiences do not happen to us, they are us. When we resist them (avoid, deny, silence, numb, distract), we make our own humanity our enemy. Our aim in this week is to learn to look at our experience with compassion. To welcome all of our experience as part of being human and be open to learn how to work with ourselves.

Suggested practices

  • Create a safe space: Somewhere in your home, create a physical space that feels like a sanctuary. A place that exists outside of the hurried routine of life. Visit it.
  • Journalling: Put your inner experience of accusation and kind wisdom into conversation with one another
  • Three chair exercise: Embody and voice the inner critic, the accused and compassionate observer

Skill three: Question your Beliefs

As we have learned from David Bohm, thought is a system that we have internalized through the process of enculturation. Thought is the system that reproduces our current systems and problems. In order for us to step outside our culturally inherited script, we need to identify and question our unhelpful beliefs and help others “see” their thought also.

Suggested practices

  • Keep a “pain journal” as described by psychologist Hayes to help you identify the thoughts, beliefs, judgements behind difficult moments and interactions
  • Question your thoughts using Byron Katie’s questions
  • Use the “Reframe Tool” to unpack sticky situations

Skill four: Work with strong emotions

Even though there is little agreement about exactly what emotions are, we have all felt a surge of joy or anger, a wave of sadness or prickly irritation under our skin. And most of us have learned to either discharge emotions into the room or numb and suppress our emotions – neither of which leads to healthy lives and happy collaboration. This week will immerse you into understanding emotions from various perspectives including conflict mediation, facilitation, psychology and Buddhism.

Suggested practices

  • In the moment acceptance: When an emotions arises, welcome it using the technique we practiced in class (“I allow you, be as you are…”)
  • After-the-fact inquiry: Use Musho Hamilton’s steps to sit with, really feel and then inquire into a strong emotion
  • Emotions in action: Print out and carry Rosenberg’s emotion list with you so you can begin to name your feelings and broaden your emotional vocabulary. Use the NVC framework, start to say how you feel

Skill five: BecomINg still and Listen to our innate wisdom

We’ve learned that our minds tend to be like monkeys and judging jellyfish. Yet, there are times when we need to become still and access our inner wisdom. Times when our inner compass needs to take us beyond our cultural script. Scharmer calls the dialogue between your current and future self “presencing.” In this class we talk about reflecting. Names are less important than the act of becoming still and opening and accessing your inner knowing.

Suggested practices

  • Practice switching brain states: from narrative circuitry to direct experience (We    practice the “sense drench” in class)
  • Learn to stay present to your direct experience and free-write from that place 
  • Create an hour of stillness in your day

Skill six: Work with past pain and shame

As we talked about in class, most humans encounter a share of pain and trauma in their lives. This is a very difficult part of the human experience and it feels easier to forget about the past. Yet when trauma goes unaddressed, it can cause more harm in our lives and the lives of others. The invitation for each of us is to engage in a journey of healing. Telling our stories, allowing ourselves to feel what we feel, asking for help… all of these help us move towards, as Van der Kolk says, a place where we can be present to all of our lives without being re-traumatized by the past events. 

Another aspect that we touched on in class is the inherited privilege given to us by our group identities. This can be especially difficult for straight white folks of high economic income. It can trigger feelings of guilt and shame. We cannot build a future together without addressing these systemic inequalities that we have inherited (encouragement to keep on learning about this goes here!). Let’s learn to work with our sense of shame so that we can come into difficult conversations from a place where we can acknowledge everyone’s humanity and worth and stay present to what people bring into the conversation.

Suggested practices

  • Map out the sunny and shadow side of your identities
  • Make art about a painful event in the past
  • Seek a trusted friends which whom you can share shame (as per Brenè Brown’s instructions.)

Skill seven: Nourish your creative fire

Kids — they know how to play and how to nap so very well. Adults? Not so much. We know how to work, how to learn, how to be productive and how to use our creativity in service of industry. That’s all really great, but what about really resting and recovering from work? What about rekindling our sense of wonder or believing in, accessing and nurturing our own creative fire? What about questioning our beliefs around failure? This week is about slowing down so you can rest (it’s hard to create when we feel depleted) and then taking small steps to feed our creative souls.

Suggested practices

  • Rest! Take a “Sabbath” – choose any of Muller’s practices to do so
  • Reconnect to inspiration: Take yourself on an artist’s date
  • Engage in making something you’ve been wanting to for a while 

End notes

Oh boy, that was seven skills all at once! Remember that building any skill takes time and practice. Consult the stages of adult learning when you feel frustrated. Remind yourself that having knowledge (“I know what I should do here”) comes before skill (“I can do this.”) Just keep on engaging, trying, fumbling, finding what works for you and celebrate your successes! And rest a lot. When you’re learning a new skill you are re-wiring your brain, you might want to change up some relationships and rituals in your life also. All of this is taxing work, I encourage you to take time to sleep and rest.

0 comments on “Personal skills for social designersAdd yours →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *