Dancing With Surprises

by Susan Charland, AICP

​Last week I facilitated a meeting that went off the rails. About ten minutes into the meeting, it became clear that our plan for the group was not going to happen. As we veered off the agenda and into disarray, I could sense mounting frustration among the roughly 40 participants–and my client. In that moment, I stood in front of the room and recalled one of my favorite books in which the author described this feeling: hot cheeks and a racing heart. Questioning why I thought this agenda would work. Fear that I was wasting these people’s time. Feeling like a failure.

“When we can learn to approach the unexpected with playfulness and lightness, we can transform what felt like a breakdown into a breakthrough.” – Larry Dressler
Moments like that are painful. But they are also a learning experience.

In “Standing in the Fire: Leading High-Heat Meetings with Clarity, Calm, and Courage,” Larry Dressler says a meeting without surprises is a meeting in which nothing important happens. Without surprises we don’t learn anything. “Dancing with surprises” means learning to be present, flexible, and work creatively when the unexpected happens. The most important part of dancing with surprises is learning to let go of expectations and preconceived notions of how a meeting will go.

This notion was true for my meeting last week. In that scary moment of confusion, we let go of our expectations and got out of the way. We let the meeting participants spend the time they needed to ask questions, pick apart the materials, and critique the process. They scrapped it all and came up with a new plan; something that they felt would work better for them. In that way the outcome was better than what we had planned because it had buy-in and ownership among participants. A little dancing made a failure feel like a win.

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