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Monday, September 24, 2018

You Never Finish Designing a Workshop - A Memoir of Friendship (Part 4)

Jerry didn’t die in 2009, of course. He and the indomitable Dani found the medical team that was right for him. Jerry had major surgery and radiation therapy, followed by a long recovery. He lived for another nine richly productive years.

On the way to AYE 2010

In 2010, we again drove to and from Phoenix for AYE, taking in many sights on the way. But that’s another story. I want to talk about workshops.


My introduction to experiential learning was at PSL, Weinberg & Weinberg's week-long Problem Solving leadership class, in 2001. That class turned out to be more exciting than any of us anticipated, because the 9/11 attacks happened on the Tuesday. I related my recollections and my impressions of Jerry that day in my preface to The Gift of Time*. Jerry's co-instructor that week, Naomi Karten, described some of the class events in her wonderful piece on Experiential Learning in that book, including an incident that happened during VerseWorks, the major simulation where the whole class runs a company. In what Naomi describes as the first time anyone had done this, Martine Devos and I decided to split off and form our own company. We intended to do business with the other company rather than competing, but our classmates didn't seem to hear that when we said it and many were outraged. PSL grads will know that doing this put us in jeopardy of being sent to jail. I think Naomi initially thought that should happen, but I could see that Jerry liked it and really wanted to run with it. I vividly remember Jerry standing in front of us in his sheriff's hat, not quite loomingneither of us is tall and Jerry was an impressive heightand insisting meaningfully, "I think THIS is what you meant by that. Right? RIGHT?" "Oh yeah... Right!" So we ran with it, to the annoyance of those in the class who felt we'd done them wrong. And we learned a lot. I think everyone in the class learned more than they might have if Jerry had stopped us.

I loved PSL. It was by far the best experience I'd ever had in a classroom, and I wanted more like it. The AYE conference was the place to do that. I went for the first time the following year, and returned every year through 2010, when I finally decided I'd outgrown all but Jerry's sessions. Anyway, the conference moved to North Carolina in 2011, for excellent reasons, but it was now too far for driving from ABQ to be practical. I would no longer get to store up the Southwestern sun and heat in those precious days leading up to a Canadian winter, nor take the solitary swim I had enjoyed daily at sunrise year after year in the Embassy Suites' enormous pool.

I usually spent my AYE afternoons in Jerry’s sessions, in latter years often “assisting”. Anyone who ever assisted at one of Jerry’s workshops, or perhaps even shared a session with him, will know that it mostly meant scribing and making sure participants had enough markers. I also got to walk around and observe participants as they worked, relaying some questions to Jerry or offering help if it seemed to be needed. I learned to try and minimize interventions to the smallest possible thing that could jiggle or nudge people who seemed to be blocked. Sometimes I had a specific role, as in the times I played a unscrupulous manager pushing and manipulating the session “star” to say yes when he or she wanted to say no.

Jerry’s sessions were fantastic learning opportunities, and not only for the content.  Intermittently, over many years, I got to observe the master of experiential learning and then ask him questions afterwards. I learned from other people’s sessions too. There were some wonderful sessions at AYE, and highly skilled presenters: the conference hosts, as well as guests. For as long as AYE had guest presenters, I tried never to miss one of Naomi Karten's or Jean McClendon's sessions.

But no-one was ever as good as Jerry on his best days. I was repeatedly blown away by his empathy and total focus on an individual or a room, his purposeful and intent listening for the “music behind the words” and his sensitivity to the nuances of body language. Deceptively simple exercises, richly amplified by Jerry’s openness to work with whatever emerged in a session, often conveyed profound learning for participants. He improvised constantly, and it was fascinating to watch him repeat a session and change how he did it each time, often radically.

At CAST 2008, Jerry’s pre-conference tutorial sold out and they asked him to repeat it after the conference. It was a “tester’s clinic”, where the premise was that half the class would pose problems for which the other half would propose solutions. For the initial iteration, Michael Bolton and I were there as facilitators, according to the CAST model.

Jerry looked around the room, saw that it was roughly half and half men and women and decided it might be interesting to divide the class by gender. In the preparation stage, Michael worked with the men and I worked with the women. Immediately, we began to see major differences in how the two groups communicated and behaved.

The women sat around a table and, in fairly short order, introduced themselves, shared some stories that might serve as problems to present, devised a process for choosing the order to present problems, chose one problem and prioritized the rest, and agreed that the proposer of each story would present it to the other group while the remaining women would act as backup and help to evaluate the proposed solutions. Similarly, for the other side of the exercise, they agreed to have a small group of spokeswomen who would ask questions about the other group’s problem, work with the whole women’s group on a solution, and then propose it to the men’s group. I observed them being mutually respectful, efficient, and collaborative, and saw no need to intervene.

While the women were working together and coming to a consensus, the men’s group on the other side of the room was noticeably louder, not to say riotous. I could see men jumping up and down interrupting each other, and apparently competing excitedly. More than once I saw Michael intervening, looking as if he was trying to introduce order.

Preparation done, Jerry started the whole group exercise. One woman came forward and began presenting her testing problem. The entire men’s group started throwing questions at her, jumping in over each other, even interrupting her answers. Jerry let the chaos happen. One of the men asked what kind of company the woman presenting the problem worked for. Some demonnot Jerry in this case, though I wouldn’t have put it past himprompted her to reply innocently, “A brassiere factory.”

Well, that did it. The entire room erupted with men telling tit jokes. The jokes kept busting out in the role play, and there was a constant buzz of jokes and giggles among the other participants. To my surprise and amusement, my co-facilitator Michael leaned back and whispered one to me. Again, Jerry let near-chaos reign for a while, and then he called a time out, looked around the room with a benevolent smile, and asked that classic Jerry question:

“What happened here?”

And until we’d all run out of energy for it, the workshop focused entirely on exploring what had happened and why, right from the split into two groups through to the riot of gendered jokes. Jerry quietly guided the discussion, gently and persistently asking probing questions and letting people’s learning emerge.

When he restarted the original workshop exercise, the class dynamics had changed. Of course, the men hadn’t completely lost the urge to compete or become totally collaborative. But the participants showed a heightened awareness of behaviour and communications: their own and other people’s, and the overall atmosphere had become more respectful. It seemed that we had all learned a lot in that session. For me, it was also a meta-learning experience: an object lesson in creating conditions and seizing opportunities that make it possible for people to learn. Also in knowing how to let unintended disruption happen, and when to call a halt: while it still has potential for learning and before it descends into mere mayhem.

I was there as facilitator when Jerry repeated the workshop at the end of the conference. The shell was more or less the same, but it was a completely different atmosphere and experience. When I asked him about it afterwards, he talked about the variations in context between the two sessions. Not only was he working with different individuals and a different mix of people, but the timing was a factor: post-conference as opposed to pre-conference. He said you always saw major differences in personality and motivation between first registrants to a workshop and those who signed up later.

I had many more occasions to observe Jerry in action and learn from him. One year on the way to AYE, I asked him what he was thinking of doing for a session on Testing Lies that I was down to “assist” in. After hearing the usual, “It’s much too early to think about that!” I said, well I had some ideas about it. “Great”, he replied, “put them in an email and I’ll look at it tonight.” I did that.

When I showed up for the session, Jerry was waiting impatiently for me at the door. “I like your ideas. Put them up on a flip chart and we’ll structure the workshop around them.” So I did and we improvised. In the Jeep on the way home, we talked about our mutual feeling that the workshop had run out of energy near the end: why we thought that had happened, and what we might have done about it. We usually spent some of the ride back talking about his sessions and comparing impressions.

When I presented my first experiential workshop, at the EuroSTAR conference in 2008, Jerry was in my head as my virtual mentor. Having observed him work effectively so often with large groups of participants, I could approach the 42 people in that room—almost none of whom spoke English as their first language—with something that felt like confidence. I remembered techniques, guidelines, and interventions I’d learned watching Jerry work and from conversations we’d had. I felt I had a pretty good idea about when to ask questions and when to be quiet. When a trio of workmates disengaged from the exercise everyone else was engaged with because “we did all this at work”, I managed to spark their interest with an alternative task and was happy to let them run with it and not show their results to the rest of the rest of the class: “Oh no. This is private.”

That session went well: surprisingly well for a neophyte presenter. The energy was high and some of the conversations afterwards went on through lunch. A couple of the participants have become my friends. Of course, I made mistakes. I tried to learn from them by debriefing the session afterwards by myself, and later in an email to Jerry.

Jerry’s CAST 2008 workshop came to mind when I presented my “Inspiring Testing” leadership workshop for the first time at Let’s Test 2013. For the main exercise which had 2 large groups,  I had one group that seamlessly moved into working together collaboratively, and one—of mixed gender this time—made up mainly of individuals who kept competing, talking over each other and jockeying for position. When the time came for them to ask questions of the other group, they fell all over each other with overlapping interruptions. They couldn’t wait for answers and shouted out their own solutions. I’d seen Jerry turn near-chaos into valuable learning opportunities, and I was able to work happily and I think, productively, with the whole class. In the end, understanding that they’d have to come up with some sort of organization if they were ever to move forward at all, the competitive group devised one that worked for them. It was a wonderful group of people to work with, and I think we all learned from that experience. And of course, I talked about it with Jerry afterwards.

I’ve run that leadership workshop several times since, and it has been drastically different every time. I’ve had to come up with new exercises on the fly for a much smaller class, divide a huge class into three and work with two assistants before bringing them all back for one big final debrief—many variations. I’ve done similar and different things with other workshops. That’s standard practice for me now: it’s what experiential workshop presenters do, the way I was taught.

Over the years, I often ran ideas for workshops and exercises past Jerry, or described something new that I’d tried. He always asked questions that made me think deeply. Sometimes, he tried out his ideas for new exercises on me, and he asked me to review a draft of the final volume of his Experiential Learning series. A couple of times, he demanded more information about an exercise I’d tried, with the line, “Details! I need more details so I can plagiarize!” When I teased him about that once, he said he didn’t really need to plagiarize: he could con all the information he needed out of me in the car and credit it to an unknown source. Jerry was always so generous with his own ideas and exercises, I was pleased when he wanted to use mine.

Observing how Jerry worked, working with him sometimes, talking with him, helped liberate me from any vestiges of anxiety or guilt about my own native last-minute-ism. (Even for that first EuroSTAR workshop, I had designed an important element the night before.) I learned to develop and trust my instinct not to over-plan and to work with the energy in the room, wherever that might take us. I learned to run with new ideas and take chances with new exercises. Jerry did this always, and encouraged others to do it too.  As I wrote to a mutual friend after hearing of Jerry’s death, if Jerry believed in you, he believed you could do just about anything. So you believed it. And then you did it.

Shortly before he died, I emailed Jerry with a description of a 2-day workshop I’d just taught in Beijing, talking about how interesting and challenging it had been to do a workshop entirely through an interpreter, and saying that I would do some things differently next time. In his last email to me, he replied with a penetrating question about that experience, and a reminder:

“You never finish designing a workshop.”

Friendsand Family

Very occasionally you meet someone and you just connect. You both know you’re going to be friends and that it will be an important friendship: one that deepens over time until you become family. Some years after we met at PSL, Jerry told me that he had recognized that connection with me on first meeting. I had felt it too. It took a while for us to strengthen the bond, but the thread was there from the beginning.

Those friendships just are. They don’t threaten or diminish other relationships or friendships. If anything, they complement and may enrich them. I have other friends who are family for me, and so did Jerry: lots, I assume. I have a partner who has been my best friend for more than 35 years. Jerry had Dani, his soul-mate for more than 50 years. Jerry and I liked and admired each other’s partners and took time to get to know them so they could become friends too.

Once, after lunch in the Weinberg house, Jerry and I were bantering and capping each other’s remarks as we often did. Dani stood up suddenly and declared, “This is driving me crazy! You two are just like Jerry with his younger sister!” Dani left the kitchen and we sat at the table grinning in recognition at each other. “That’s it!”, Jerry said, “we’re siblings!”

And that’s what it always felt like, though we were closer than many siblings. I knew other people thought of Jerry as a great man, and in the back of my mind I did too. But that wasn’t usually in the foreground. As friends, we were equals. I didn’t defer to him or hesitate to argue with him when we disagreed, and he never expected that I would. He occasionally inflicted advice or told me what to do—much as an older brother might. I’m not good at taking orders or unsolicited advice and I almost always pushed back. Sometimes he backed off immediately; other times he was a little hurt and got defensive. As I’m sure I did too.

I asked Jerry for advice, and I used him as a sounding board for ideas. He knew a lot more than I did and had experience I could only dream of. I valued his knowledge, expertise and wisdom, and learned from them. Jerry asked me for feedback on some of his ideas and book drafts. He said he learned from me, too, and I believe that was true. For a great man, he was extraordinarily humble and open to learning from others.

We sustained a long and lively conversation over many years: when we met and over email. We shared a sense of wonder about the natural world. We enjoyed each other’s curiosity and sent each other things that fed it, with words and photos. We each wrote as easily and personally as we talked, and it was as natural to us to talk in writing as it was in person. We really did talk about everything. Once, Jerry suggested that it would be interesting to try and see if there were any topics we unconsciously avoided. Or consciously, I said. We didn’t come up with any. Sometimes the conversation was deep and we would explore a topic, like thinking, over several days of emails. Other times it was trivial and playful. It was almost always playful.

We were friends, and we were family.

As I was driving home from Toronto the other day along the hideously busy Highway 401, my partner said, “I wish you could look at the amazing clouds over here.” I took that in, and then in my head I heard a gruff voice saying:

“No—don’t you look.
You keep your eyes on the road!”


One day on that first road trip when I was oohing and aahing over the scenery, Jerry said, “Stick with me, kid—I’ll show you wonders!”

I did. And he did. He always had.

I miss Jerry dreadfully. I see silly signs I want to send him, think of things I know he'd love to hear and things I'd like to ask. Six weeks after his death I still sometimes have trouble believing that he is no more. He was always so there.

But I know that after someone I love dies, with loss there is also a sense in which they are always with me. With Jerry, of course, along with the memories, I have his books and emails, as well as the many, many things I learned from him and will go on learning.

I read somewhere that after Virginia Satir died, Jerry said that he still had a relationship with Virginia; just that it was different now.


It’s different now, Jerry.


*The Gift of Time is a book I edited in honour of Jerry's 75th birthday in 2008. It has essays by many of Jerry's friends and colleagues describing their own work and the influence Jerry had on that work. You can order it directly from the publisher, Dorset House, or you can get it from Amazon. All royalties from sales of the book go to two of Jerry's favourite charities.

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