What’s Alchemy Got To Do With It?

A Human Rooms conversation about online community facilitation

Human Rooms is an experimental space. For now, it’s a virtual space I needed to create, to learn about collaborating with people differently. It’s a way of working as a facilitator at the intersection of technology and intersectional humans.

The reason I want to take this particular approach is that I believe tech, used in the right way, is really opening up ways of connecting in more human ways and we are only really just entering this space as changemakers.

I’m curious about the big transition we’ve made to virtual collaborative life over the last couple of years. I’m really interested in how the tools we all grabbed almost overnight for that journey are serving us two years on. I’m interested in what’s new and what’s different.

I’m interested in what’s working and maybe what’s not working quite so well. I’m looking to explore which parts of ourselves we don’t bring into collaborative spaces. I’d like to spend time thinking not just today but in a series of conversations with my guests about why that might be and how we might want to do it differently.

I’m deliberately choosing to explore all of that in Human Rooms with people who work in different ways, but all facilitate online groups that I’ve experienced. These are people who bring a particular quality to their work that I admire and have benefitted from. So the people I will be speaking to in Human Rooms would have enriched me in some way in their work.

I hope that by listening in to our conversations or reading about our interactions the insights and interactions will serve and nourish your work too.

Conversation #1 The Community Alchemist

That leads me to the exciting moment where I welcomed my first ever guest in Human Rooms Lana Jelenjev, the Community Alchemist. To get our Human Rooms conversation started I asked Lana to tell me how she felt arriving in the space this morning and to please tell us a little bit about the journey that she is on.

‘I’m a Filipina that’s based in the Netherlands. I’ve been here in Europe for the past 15 years now. My primary field has always been in the field of education, helping out the schools in creating the curriculum programmes. When I transitioned here to the Netherlands that shifted to focusing more on curriculum programmes and learning experience design for organisations.

I was helping them create impactful learning programs and with that creating impactful learning communities. So that’s how I also got into the community building space.

I specifically work more on asking “How do we create transformation within learning communities?” This is how the Community Alchemist came about. I do believe when we put people together to learn, to connect and to interact with each other, there’s a magic that happens. There’s transformation.

I see myself as a catalyst for that change. I’m creating the spaces for transformation by creating the learning arches and the learning experience design that allows for deep practice and integration with whatever programme or training has been designed. So that’s it in a nutshell.’

Transforming facilitation practices

I thanked Lana for giving a beautiful introduction to her work. Our paths have been quite similar in that we’ve both come from professional backgrounds in more formal education. As well as spending a decade in teaching, I have most recently spent two years working in co-production, which is a group collaborative process, a bit like the community learning Lana described.

From my point of view, I’ve struggled with the transition in my practice from teaching a subject to facilitating a process. I’ve gone from leading learners through a process that I was very comfortable with, guiding their learning journeys which all had concrete learning outcomes. Whilst I was doing that I was noticing that there would be unintended developmental or emergent outcomes for each individual that no one could have planned for. In many ways that seems to be that transformation that Lana referred to.

That’s what I’m drawn to. I taught English Language skills for many years. (I love apostrophes — amongst other things to do with punctuation and grammar!) But, it came to the point where I was more drawn to the transformation journeys that the learners were going on than whether or not they could identify the so-called greengrocer’s apostrophe from twenty paces.

I wanted to find out from Lana more about that shift from education into more of community facilitation and this alchemic process she described. I asked her if there were any types of tools. skills or qualities that she consciously brought across with her from one domain to the other. Or were there things that didn’t work so well anymore that needed putting down?

‘Ok so let’s cover putting some things down. Getting into facilitation and community design allowed me to appreciate emergence more than when I was in academia because it’s just so focused on “These are the learning goals. These are the objectives. This is what we want to achieve.”

When you bring in the work to include facilitation and community design, there’s a lot of emergence that happens. The control is not just within one person. That meant having a better understanding of how I react when it comes to power and the distribution of power which has been very good learning. So it was diminishing that authority role that you take on when you’re a teacher to more of the very different facilitator role.

Another thing that I also had to practice was bringing myself into this space by giving opportunities where I can also share what is alive in me and how I’m triggered if I am in a given situation. Processing all that within the people that I’m working with. It’s a very different dynamic from that teacher to student role.’

What resonated with me in Lana’s answer was this idea that in community facilitation we’re working with emergence and you’re not in control of it. That’s the bit I’m fascinated by. That and power.

Building virtual community connection

What I’ve found in the last two years during the pandemic is quite often people are just thrown together in the virtual world we’ve been living in. So in those spaces, we might do a quick check-in, or we might say who we are, or quite often role titles come in, which can be a power play if there’s a hierarchy. Then participants get straight onto the tasks. I suppose that’s kind of okay if you’re in one business and you know each other already. But I work across sectors with citizens, with professionals, and we do some good stuff and change things around, but I’ve started to wonder about building those connections? I wanted to know more about how Lana tackles this. For example, does Lana intentionally design for when people are in the space or does she give some things to think about as preparation before they come into the community space?

‘This is one of the things that I encourage clients to think about when designing the learning experience. It’s also why I don’t refer only to the work on curriculum design, but to think about the learning experience as part of the design and how you want people to learn when they’re in that space with you.

Often some organisations think it needs to be business as usual. When we are face to face, we have other spaces where we connect and interact. You know, we have that water cooler effect, asking people how they’re doing. Online we have lost those interactions that naturally flow.

So to just offer virtual space where business as usual is the norm is not fully serving people because you’re getting into a very mechanistic, very transactional mode of engagement that puts people off.

People accept this is the job and I have to do it, but this is also why we are getting the Great Resignation. It’s because people are realising that they don’t want to be within this business as usual perspective. They want to have opportunities where there is a connection, a sense of belonging, fulfilment and a sense of purpose. All the things that enrich us and motivate us to do the work that we love doing.

We need to add that in, you know, or flavours of that in the interactions, in the experiences that we’re asking from people, especially when it comes to online. So it might be that you might have different pulse check moments with your employees or with your team or with your collaborators when you’d want to be able to just say, Ooh, let’s, let’s have a more informal conversation or that you specifically add in a longer check-in and check out period within your meetings.

So, how do you design your meeting in such a way that allows for different voices to be heard? Make use of the breakout rooms or making use of pairings or the different constellations that you can create within a session. And this is also why, for me, it’s really important to look at what would be the experience that you’d want people to have when you, it comes to experiencing the work with you. In one of the momentum groups that I am a mentor of, I brought in a dancer and we did an embodiment activity. For everyone who joined, it was one of the best sessions that we did.

So it’s not just a cognitive thing. It’s also, how do we integrate the body? You know, how do we integrate our hands, our feet, our hands. When we see people nowadays in the pandemic, it’s like, oh, you’re real! You’re not just a head! We’re so used to just seeing people’s heads. So how do we integrate all the pieces of ourselves?

You’ve put that question out now. Why these conversations, Human Rooms are important for you. So how do we bring our full selves in? So how do we design that?’

Lana has hit the nail on the head here for me. It’s exactly what I want to be exploring over the coming months. I want to talk to people who design for bringing our whole selves into digital spaces.

The slider theory of engagement as an inclusive practice

I am curious because Lana mentioned embodiment and I was on a session Lana was facilitating this week and I was walking the dog and as a facilitator, I’m not quite sure how I would have coped with that randomness. Not least because the dog kept running away! So I was on mute, but I’m shouting at the dog and then I’m talking with the group Lana is facilitating.

I think if I was facilitating that session, I’d probably find myself irritating to some degree. On the other hand, I would’ve been glad that the person had come along. On that day, the Human Room I needed to be in at that point for me and my embodied living and wellbeing was just out there walking with the dog. Even though I got my times wrong and it didn’t work in terms of being a regular participant.

So I’m, I’m curious to ask Lana, ‘If you could be honest about how that felt for you as a facilitator, trying to facilitate a group with somebody (me) wandering around with a misbehaving dog?’

Lana replied, ‘For me, the work with neurodiversity is also very important. You know, it’s like because I’m part of the Neurodiversity Foundation here in the Netherlands. So I’ve been the chairperson for a couple of years now. And the work that we’ve been doing is emphasising how amazing our brains are and how divergent we all are. So if we are to put it in, in this context of embracing uniqueness and strengths, I see that everybody needs their own ways and expressions of how they can show up in life.

For me, in the community work that I do, I often share with founders that I view engagement as like a slider. People are in and out, depending on where they are in that given, you know, in that given moment. When we look at engagement in that way, it’s like almost this, “How am I to say that the person who’s walking around the kitchen is less engaged when it’s the person who is sitting there?”

What might seem like poor focus or attention is not disturbing for me. Someone might say, “Oh, I need you to be doing this while listening.”

I guess there might be a request like “Can you switch off your video so as not to confuse others?” You know, there might be things like that. But for me, I see it as again as that emergence right? Meeting people where they’re at is the best form of presence that we can give as facilitators, because then we have a sense of, okay, this is what the person needs. I believe that whoever shows up in the room are the right people to be in the room.’

I love the idea that Lana is intentionally meeting people where they’re at. I’m now intrigued to deliberately set up a facilitation space where I’m going to invite people to come to a Human Rooms conversation wherever they are. Whatever they are doing!

Because Lana is showing that flexibility and generosity of spirit, I wanted to touch on the importance of the virtual joining from an actual physical space and how we arrive, which can be affected by the space we are in.

As an example, the space that I’m in today didn’t necessarily set me up for being how I want to shop in the world as much as a dog walk might have done because I’m in the house with two young adults, a dog, and a cat. The weather was grey earlier too. I haven’t done this before, so I don’t have a warm light to turn on!

I was running around so I was going to talk to Lana in another room and then I was running around finding a spot and then we press broadcast or join or whatever and then we’re like ping and online!

I mean if everyone was to share their chaotic moments before they get online we might not get to the work, but conversely, I sometimes feel that the pre-join chaos is not allowed in quite enough. I’m interested in how we do that.

Lana also mentioned neuro divergence. I identify as a neurodivergent individual. I know that sometimes when I’m called on to be in virtual spaces, not when I’m facilitating, but if I’m a participant if I’m quite sensitive and if things are run in a particular way, I find myself disassociating. I think inventing this concept of Human Rooms is almost a response to the recognition that I’ve spent a lot of the last two years in a possibly disassociated state.

That disassociation doesn’t mean I’m not listening. It doesn’t mean I can’t perform, but it does mean that I’ve drained myself and I don’t want to drain myself. I’m interested in another facilitator like Lana’s view. Facilitators show up with their whole selves since we can’t facilitate any other way in my experience.

Working in community in online spaces

I was interested to ask Lana, ‘How have you found the online facilitation pandemic experience? Have you found it more or less enriching or differently challenging in terms of the resources and energy that you bring to it?’

Lana replied, ‘Thank you for opening up the conversation on this thinking about how the experience, especially of always being online has affected you. Bringing those questions that you carry around Human Rooms from this wanting to find spaces where you’re not disassociated and where you can fully bring yourselves in.

One of the things that came up from you while you were sharing about this was the question about how do we create safe spaces in the first place? I think this is also the disadvantage of people just moving from the physical space to the virtual space where we did not bring in the usual protocols. So in a face to face situation because you’re so used to it in an organisation where you have the organic culture and some protocols might be written or unwritten that you get used to.

When we moved to the virtual world, those protocols are gone to some extent and suddenly we’re faced with questions about how do we go about doing business? So work, doing life, using zoom and using other means of virtual communication. For me, it’s fascinating to explore how do we want to be with each other when we are face to face or virtual? This is a conversation that we don’t often have.

Who’s in the room?

I mean in any given constellation, team, organisation or project, we just jump in as to who’s in the room. Yes, you’re here now so what do we do? And then there’s that exploration of how we would want to work with each other. I did an activity for one collaboration that I’m part of and we did an activity called “Who’s in the room?” There’s a very easy slide asking who’s more of an introvert and who’s an extrovert. Then we also had a question about who’s a morning person and who’s a night owl. And that even just that question was just like, “Oh, that person is a night owl so I can ask more questions there during the evening. And this person is a morning person. So I don’t message that person at nine o’clock in the morning.” These are just some things that you get to know from when you inhabit those spaces where a deeper understanding of who’s in the room is allowed and explored.

I’m fortunate enough to have been online even before the pandemic. Most of my working life has been online for the past six years. It’s not something that I would say you can just jump in and say, okay, this is how you do it, you know. You learn from different sessions. So the check-in work, maybe try it out in a different constellation and with a different group. It’s also picking up on what’s working and what’s not working. That has helped in creating more of that engagement and those welcoming and safe, brave spaces.’

Lana’s experience means she is so accomplished in the online space. It feels like the rest of us have rushed in over the last two years. Ok, I’ve done some zoom meetings before the pandemic, but Lana’s been developing this rich practice for at least three times as long!

I think it’s interesting to explore people’s identities online, where they live, their practices, their rhythms, their neurotypes if you like. I am highly aware that at half-past eight in the morning this isn’t optimum for me but I had to grab this time with Lana to learn from her since she’s so busy and very generously offered me her time. I’m not a morning person. It jangles me up a little bit so it’s going to take me a little while to get myself together and go back to my rhythm.

So whilst we wrap up this great conversation I wanted to say I went to one of Lana’s 90 day envisioning sessions at the very beginning of January this year and it was an absolute eye-opener. Lana introduced me to a Liberating Structures tool called Ecocycle planning which I’d thoroughly recommend taking a look at.

Lana says that she has these sessions on 90 day planning workshops spread out throughout the year. She provides a facilitated space where you can explore how to intentionally plan your next 90 days. She told me, ‘I’ve been practising for the past few years now and would love to encourage others to also make use of the energy of the 90 days and bring projects, ideas, to make it happen and create more impact in the world.

I would love to connect more with people who are passionate about facilitation, learning experience design, community design and impactful work. Feel free to reach out to me on my LinkedIn page.’

And so we checked out together by answering the question, ‘How are you leaving?’

Lana said, ‘I’m leaving with an interest in spreading more of this. Asking what are these practices that we can utilise to make this virtual or online space be more connecting. I love that you’ve already been adding the check-in and the check-out questions of how are you and how are you leaving as a part of this Human Rooms conversation. So I’m leaving with more curiosity around that and how to bring more of these practices out to the world.’

I left the space feeling relieved that the technology worked. I am also very grateful to Lana for sharing her time. I’ve been involved in the Happy Startup School Vision 2020 work recently, and we’re doing a seven-day challenge as part of that. So I felt grateful to everybody who’s on that and particularly the buddy group I was in. They’re brilliant.

I also wanted to give a shout out to the Happy Startup School which Lana is part of with Carlos Saba and Laurence McCahill as well because the programme they’ve created has been wonderful in terms of offering opportunities and, and creating connections, which I believe are sustained connections and that’s really what Human Rooms is all about.

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Jessica Russell

Jessica Russell

Freelance writer. ADHD PhD research student. Educator. Author of The Life of Louise Norton Little, Mother of Malcolm X http://jessicarussell.co.uk/