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S05 E02 – Learning Sociocracy

Today we’re talking to Aaron Hirtenstein, an organisational development advisor, collaborator, and cooperative badass.

Aaron’s favourite books

  • The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  • A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, An Equal Music
  • Collins guide to Mushrooms

Find all of our guests’ reading recommendations at our The Tao of WAO book club.



Important note: this is a lightly-edited AI transcription of the conversation. If you require verbatim quotations, please double-check against the audio!

Doug Belshaw: [00:00:22] Hello and welcome to the Tao of WAO, a podcast about the intersection of technology, society and internet culture with a dash of philosophy and art for good measure. I’m Doug Belshaw.

Laura Hilliger: [00:00:34] And I’m Laura Hilliger. This podcast season is currently partially unfunded. You can support this podcast and other We are open projects and products at open

Doug Belshaw: [00:00:47] So today we’re talking to Aaron Hertenstein, an organisational development advisor, collaborator and cooperative badass who we’ve been working with recently on some community stuff for local gov Drupal. So welcome Aaron.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:01:00] Hi. Yeah, lovely to be here. Nice to see you both.

Doug Belshaw: [00:01:05] Excellent. I’m really glad that we managed to get you on on series five. So you have recently left a co-op that you founded, and we’ll dig into that in a moment. But in time honoured tradition, which I think we can now talk about in season five, we’d like to ask you like what’s your favourite book?

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:01:24] Yeah, that’s a really good question because it does depend on the day. It’s a little bit like your favourite film, isn’t it? Um, so the typical answer I would give is The Count of Monte Cristo.

Doug Belshaw: [00:01:39] Interesting.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:01:41] Okay. Um, which is just a long book, but like, if it’s your favourite book, what more do you want? Right? Um, the other one, which is also a very long book, is, um, uh, about a boy. Is it? Is that what it’s called? Vikram Seth.

Laura Hilliger: [00:01:57] Nick. Nick.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:01:57] No, sorry. No, no. Vikram Seth’s, um, novel, um, which I can’t remember. It’s a long time since I read it, but it’s one of the biggest books ever written. And it’s great, right? Because if you love it, it’s just a never ending wonderfulness. Um, but I would say right now, the best book is The Collins Complete Guide to British Mushrooms and Toadstools.

Laura Hilliger: [00:02:22] Oh, are you are you collecting mushrooms? At the moment.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:02:25] I am endeavouring to collect mushrooms. Yeah.

Laura Hilliger: [00:02:29] Yeah. My neighbours actually brought us to, I think they’re called stone mushrooms in English and they’re the base is like a tree trunk on one of these mushrooms. It’s what I’m having for dinner tonight. Nice. It’s a big in Germany to go mushroom hunting. It’s a whole thing.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:02:49] Germans are some of the best mushroom foragers out there.

Laura Hilliger: [00:02:53] Yeah, Yeah, they’re really good at it.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:02:54] Yeah. And it’s sort of, you know, really embedded into the community and the way of living in a way that it’s not in the UK, unfortunately. Which is a shame because it’s a wonderful place to pick mushrooms.

Laura Hilliger: [00:03:06] Yeah, it’s also, it’s quite an interesting hobby, right? Because mushroom picking can be very dangerous. There are a lot of mushrooms that people should not eat.

Doug Belshaw: [00:03:14] Who was the guy who there’s a film about, isn’t there, where he went off into the wilderness and two of the pages stuck together and he ended up dying because he ate the wrong mushroom. Have you seen this film? No. Into the into the.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:03:27] Oh, is it into the wild? Yeah. Is that what happens into the wild? Okay.

Doug Belshaw: [00:03:32] He dies. He dies at the end. He. Yes he does. He’s slow because I read the book and I watched the film. He slowly dies because he realises that there were two pages stuck together and they find him months later.

Laura Hilliger: [00:03:44] I think that’s the one where he’s in a bus, right? Somewhere up, up in. I feel like it was like Arctic. Yeah. Okay. In northern Canada.

Doug Belshaw: [00:03:55] So people listening to this don’t go randomly eating and picking mushrooms unless you’ve read the book that owns read. But I feel like we could spend the rest of the podcast, not that we’re going to, but the rest of the podcast. Just digging into this book selection. Um, I do follow Amy Guy who works for, I think, Open Data Collective on Mastodon, and she does a lot of foraging. She’s vegan and she does forage for lots of stuff. Um, but I want to talk about the two books so it’s a suitable boy because I was double checked by Vikram Seth and The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. Yeah. And on my literal thing, which is a bit like Goodreads, my little tagline is I like big books and I cannot lie because I am like you. I like a big chunky book, but I’m really interested in like, how did you get into? Stuff like Alexandre Dumas and Vikram Seth is reading like something. A family thing or just something that you got into as an escape? Or where does all that come from?

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:04:52] Um, so the suitable boy is easier to answer, I think in that when I was in my I think it was probably early 20s So that’s 20 years ago. Um, I got really into Anglo-Indian fiction and all of them, um, you know, and I think maybe part of the reason for that is, um, I’m a massive cricket fan and cricket player, and so Indian culture has always been quite a big part of my life. I’ve played with a lot of people, you know, from the subcontinent and that kind of thing. So it’s always been a quite a. Big awareness of, of that culture in those areas. Um, and I started reading I was actually recommended the book before A Suitable Boy, the Vikram Seth wrote, which I can’t remember what it’s called now. It’s an equal music. In fact, I can’t remember what it’s called, um, which was heartbreaking. It was quite it’s quite short. It’s very simple. It’s just, um, about a man and a woman who were in love and then lost love and then found each other again, um, by passing London buses, I think. And they played music and chamber music.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:06:11] So that, that sort of put me on to him. And then I thought, okay, well this is great. I’m going to read A Suitable Boy because it’s massive. Um, and I was living in Barcelona at the time. I was on my own and I just spent a month reading that and going to the beach and swimming and reading and swimming and reading and eating food, you know? And it was like this. I just dived into this world. And the thing about that book is it’s a whole, you know, he creates this incredible family political world that you kind of dive into and it’s around the time of partition. So there’s you know, there’s a lot of exterior context going on. But really, it’s just like a soap opera of an Indian family, you know, and it’s amazing. But it goes into so much of the sort of levels of culture. And obviously it’s about arranged marriages and that kind of thing. So, um, that started me on the path down to like reading all the Indian authors, which I did for 5 or 6 years, and then I moved on to something else.

Doug Belshaw: [00:07:13] Aaron, I’ve known you for a while, but, like, I didn’t know you lived in Barcelona, for example. So, um, and also, I think you’ve lived in Turkey. Is that right?

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:07:21] Yeah, I’ve studied Turkish, uh, for my degree. I’m not sure why to this day, but I did it. Um, so, yeah, lived in Turkey for quite a long time, so yeah, Indian fiction and then obviously read a lot of Turkish fiction because I studied literature as well as the language.

Laura Hilliger: [00:07:39] Um, yeah. And where did you live? In Turkey.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:07:42] Where everyone lives in Turkey. Unfortunately, Istanbul. Travelling around. But yeah, Istanbul is the place because I was studying there, um, at one of the universities.

Laura Hilliger: [00:07:55] Yeah, I love Turkey. I’ve been five, six times. I’ve only been to Istanbul twice. Um, but I’ve spent a good bit of time. I miss it. It’s time to go back. It’s been a couple of years.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:08:09] Yeah. I’ve got a friend who’s just. Just gone out there now and is walking the the lycian way on the south coast and sending pictures and it’s hard, you know, it’s. I’m in Scotland.

Laura Hilliger: [00:08:21] Yeah. Yeah.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:08:22] The weather’s changing.

Doug Belshaw: [00:08:23] Scotland’s great, in fact.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:08:25] Absolutely fantastic.

Doug Belshaw: [00:08:27] So geographically wise, geographical wise, you’re just the other side of Northumberland National Park. But you haven’t been there very long.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:08:35] Correct. One year coming up to one year.

Doug Belshaw: [00:08:38] So seamless segway here. You are part of a co-op for ten years and that’s one of the reasons you were in Oxford, I think. But now you’ve got a new business, Shepherd Stone, which is kind of. Gone with the move and all that kind of stuff. And you’re part of other networks and part of other kind of networks and food networks and stuff. So what are you doing now that you’ve left a co-op and like, what does it mean to leave a co-op?

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:09:05] Yeah. So like in that, isn’t it? I mean, I went off to Greece for a month to figure that out and go walking, so I didn’t come up with an answer. Doug I’m afraid. Um, so, um. In the co op, you know, as a web development company, you know, design, build, maintain websites, but mainly on Drupal for the, you know, for the sort of tech for good sector and obviously like like yourselves, you know, that is mainly project based and you’re just like currently across, you know loads of stuff at the same time. So I’ve left that, you know, so all of that loads of stuff was in the box and now I’ve left and I’m out of the box and I’m just doing loads of stuff. And so, you know, two days a week I’m working for the Open Food Network, who are a platform co-op, um, that have an online platform for local food producers, but they’re also trying to build a community around that to support local food producers and sellers in a pretty hostile climate. And that’s a global project. So there’s a UK instance and that’s, that’s where I work. A couple of days a week. Um. And then the rest of my week is a project that we’ve been working on one day a week for local Drupal, um, and then one day a week working with outlandish other tech co operators and doing organisational development work through our sort of arm called building out outstanding for openness, understanding and trust. So it’s a real mix. And then I seem to be picking up little bits of freelance organisational development work, um, mainly around sociocracy and helping.

Doug Belshaw: [00:10:56] Let’s talk about that. So both because people hear the words organisational development kind of bandied around and they might have heard and they might not have heard, they might have heard on this podcast as talk about Sociocracy before, like, what is all that? What does it mean for an organisation to develop? What is sociocracy? Like, what is it that you’re you’re doing? What is this stuff?

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:11:19] Um, I mean, Sociocracy really is an operating system for a non-hierarchical way of working. And so at its simplest, and it has a few fundamental principles that. That sort of formed the basis of that system. One is using consent based decision making, which I think you use at we are open and the other is organising your work through circles. So that’s a sort of structure of your organisation. So each circle is its own autonomous unit and you know, a team that has its has a say in how it functions and is not sort of reliant or incumbent on another, another unit. And the third main principle I would say is, is maybe a more like a mindset or a culture around, uh, iterative learning and development, um, and probably more crucially, a human way of working. So that’s bringing the whole self into work and compassionate forms of communication and I think. I think if we think we’ve all worked in fairly destructive workplaces probably and come across like, you know, the destruction of hierarchy and that kind of stuff. Um, but in some ways it’s a lot cleaner and simpler, isn’t it? You know, you’re just told what to do and you get on with it and your motivation goes down and you leave. Or if you’re lucky, you might have a good boss who’s great. But at some point, you know, you’re that line, that invisible line. Shows itself and you duck down again beneath the surface. And if you’re working in a messier way. I think that aspect of how we communicate is kind of fundamental and much more visible because you’re trying to work it out together. And you don’t just leave it to someone to go, right. Okay, I’m going to make a decision.

Laura Hilliger: [00:13:28] Can we unpack what you mean by iterative learning and development and how that sort of connects to this, bringing your whole self to work? Can you unpack that a little bit for our listeners?

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:13:40] Um, I think that when you’re I’ve been thinking about this a little bit over the, over the weekend in terms of decision making. So. Often when we are organising as a community or in a co-op and we’re organising in a way that doesn’t have an explicit hierarchical power structure, the way we make decisions is can be a real challenge, especially when you’re growing and you’ve got more people. So it might be fine between three. You can be fairly informal about it once you get to eight and you’re also running a business and time is precious. And so how we make decisions is. A challenge for a sort of efficiency point of view, but it’s also a challenge from a sort of human connection point of view because it’s really easy for people to be overridden and not heard. And it brings in all of the feelings that we have around fear and anxiety and that kind of stuff. So for me. Making decisions by consent and adopting. An iterative mindset means that we’re not looking for perfection and we’re not looking for the best thing. We’re looking for what’s good enough and safe enough to try to test and to. I would say quite a lot of the decisions we make in business, especially if it’s not building something, we’ll probably know a lot more. Once we’ve done it for a period of time.

Doug Belshaw: [00:15:16] A bit more of it. Yeah. Yeah. It’s interesting because, yeah, we absolutely all have lived in and worked in destructive environments and hierarchy and stuff. And when you said that, it made me remember how much time is expended within the hierarchical organisations I’ve worked in making things which look extremely shiny but have nothing at their core and just the the hopes that it’ll be different this time and just how jaded you get after 10 or 20 years of realising that it’s, it’s not going to get better next time because there’s nothing it’s a confection, there’s nothing actually in the centre of it. It’s just a slide deck with some pretty, very optimistic numbers and graphics on it. And there’s as you say, there hasn’t been any testing to see whether this is the right direction to go in. It’s just a hope and sometimes a lot of things are staked on it. And then there’s just the the disappointment at the end. Um, and what I’ve liked about the work that we’ve done together, local, quadruple and other things is just that continual testing. It could be user research, it could be let’s just do this and see if it’s good enough and good enough. It’s such a revolutionary thing to say because there’s not many organisations where it would actually be safe to say, Well, this is good enough for now. Because good enough for now feels like settling, whereas actually it’s a very. It’s a forward looking forward motion kind of let’s do something today, right now rather than let’s, let’s try and make something perfect. This huge confection for the future, which ends up popping like a balloon.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:16:57] Yeah, absolutely. And. Good enough for some people do take that to be a compromise. And I would strongly resist that urge and that fudge. And so in the consent process, it’s absolutely legitimate to raise a critical concern and say this isn’t good enough, this is too weak, actually, why are we talking about this if we’re not going to if the change we’re trying to make is so small, you know, and we’ve spent an hour talking about it and.

Laura Hilliger: [00:17:30] I actually had an example from this morning. We had a we have our weekly meetings on Mondays. We’re recording this on a Monday. Dear listener. And we had a proposal on the table that somebody had written into into the meeting, like either during the meeting or right before the meeting. And it wasn’t a complicated decision per se, but one, you know, it did not get consent. Um, it like reading the proposal, I personally thought I was like, oh, this is easy, but it didn’t get consent. And the reason that it didn’t get consent is because somebody just needed a little bit of time to think about it. Like wanted to not make a rash decision, but rather have a minute to just sort of think around what what that meant. And it was it was quite a simple thing. And I was actually really pleased that this person was like, I haven’t had time to think about that because it’s happened to us in the past where, you know, I think something is quite easy to decide on and somebody else says, Yeah, but there could be implications and I just need a minute. And I thought that it was like just a really good reminder that, you know, what we think of as easy decision making points might require a little bit of like learning from somebody else and giving them that time is part of what it means to work in an organisation that’s, you know, consent based because. Yeah. I thought so.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:18:57] That’s really interesting, Laura, because, um. That like that to me. Your response? And I don’t know what other responses were in the room and how were the other humans were feeling. But if that was the general feeling of like, oh, that’s good, okay, let’s wait. And, and that’s it’s good to wait and allow someone to sort of come to their own place with it. Um, that shows a sort of level of emotional maturity in the group that we’re often not that’s not actually that common. I don’t think it’s quite easy to be frustrated or to want to force through something and, and not to sort of acknowledge that this is okay. Actually, this is building a level of understanding in the group and actually that kind of thing builds trust.

Doug Belshaw: [00:19:49] And the thing which I always forget is the context. It’s easy to take for granted the context that you’ve got. So, for example, in our Corp, Laura and I work together on pretty much all our projects, and I forget that not every other member of the co-op and our collaborators have the context, I feel like. I don’t I don’t rationalise it like this, but subconsciously I’m like, oh well, everyone knows about it because Lau knows about, I know about it. And then you kind of spring things on people and then and then they’re like, I haven’t got the context for this. I need a bit more time. And, um. Yeah, you’re right. It is emotional discussion. Some of it is emotional, emotionally mature, and some of it is just getting to know each other over a long period of time. Yeah, but you don’t get to know each other unless you bring your full self to work, which is why I’m always interested in that part of of sociocracy. Um, I was just interested and feel free to like, move on to the next thing. But just when you’re part of an organisation for ten years, especially one that you co-founded, how you. Untangle yourself from that, especially when you have brought yourself to work for ten years and eventually you have to say. Actually, I’m going to step out. And it might not be for, I don’t know, in your situation, it might not be forever, but actually. I just need some time. Like we have a dormant member policy. But you’ve gone beyond that. You’ve completely left, I think.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:21:18] Yeah, I have. Although I would say that an Agile collective, there has been a sort of dormant member policy that’s not the words that were used, but we that came through career breaks. And that was quite a big thing for for quite a few of us. I was the first one who went off to India for three months in 2016. Um, and then someone else went travelling around the world and then somebody else went sailing for six months into the Med. Um, and I would say that. It was unpaid, but that having that ability to do it, you know, to go off and do that kind of stuff was is fundamental to kind of retainment. Using a horrible word. But for people sticking around, I mean, it’s ironic me saying it because I haven’t stuck around. But, um, your question, Doug was around like the, you know, being a, being a founder member and being around for ten years and how that.

Doug Belshaw: [00:22:20] Yeah. Well, I just because there might be lots of people listening, most people listening I’m guessing to this will have a have a job and move between jobs. And my experience of that is you move jobs for lots of different reasons. You move jobs because you have a promotion, you move jobs because you rage, quit an organisation, you move jobs because I don’t know, you move house or you need to you want to move into a different sector or whatever and like just moving into a different part of your life and disentangling yourself from an organisation when there isn’t the I’m going to get a different job, must be quite a I’m guessing for some people listening, including me, must be quite a weird and somewhat fraught thing to do. I’m projecting here massively, but maybe you found it really easy.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:23:15] No, I absolutely didn’t go for it, Laura.

Laura Hilliger: [00:23:17] No, I was. I mean, I think that the thing that I find interesting and maybe this is a little bit what Doug is trying to ask is, is how did you manage to untangle the pieces of your identity that were so connected to the co-op that you founded and worked at for ten years? How did you you know, how did you manage to, like, take a step forward and how did you get through that? What did you do? Do you have any advice for people that are maybe trying to untangle think.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:23:50] Yeah, I don’t I don’t know if I’ve got advice, but I mean, my, you know, my experience of of it was actually quite a big shift. I’d always found work pretty fun pretty easy before, like I was the English language teacher for on and off for ten years before that and, you know, roaming around a bit and that kind of thing. And and my experience of that is like quite a lot of autonomy, which was great because I was not a big fan of bosses. That was sort of I don’t know why, but ingrained from a very early age. Um, and then coming into a co-op and founding this thing together and starting this thing, the, the, the emotional stakes got way higher. And that was something I really struggled with actually for a while, that untangling of like my personal values, identity and self esteem from, you know, the sort of rational assessment of what the business needs. And I think you can also legitimately do irrational assessment of what the business needs. Um, but that was really I found that really difficult and actually sociocracy really helps. It helps in two ways. One. We had a way of making decisions that was clear. Um, and it really I love the steps and how they simplify what’s going on in your brain. You know, let’s start by understanding what’s being proposed. How do I feel about that? And then do I have any critical concerns? Um, and most often before we would, you’d have conversations and all of those three things would be mixed up at once and it’d be incredibly difficult to navigate that. Um, if it was anything vaguely complex or even if you say Laura is like the simplest thing, you know, turns out to not be because there’s like six different perspectives going on.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:25:51] So on the one hand, that really helped and on the other, the decentralising of our work and just allowing people to just sort of take ownership of that bit for me was really helpful as someone that um, had joined and was very much central to the operational aspects of the co op, you know, from business development and hiring and figuring out pay and, you know, all of this sort of all of these intractable, difficult discussions and figuring out stuff and often like. Figure it out for yourself. What I loved about Sociocracy was like, I can just go to this shelf and pick out a few things and you know, we can adapt it to what we need, but we don’t have to invent the whole thing. Um, but leaving. Um, you know, I think I got to a point where I was not. I found very often. Actually it was my role wasn’t clear what my role was as a project manager, and I was finding that role was changing quite a lot because of how we were running projects and I think how the tech was changing and it became a lot more of a sort of almost a project administrator. And that became unsatisfying. And I think when you’re at a place where this isn’t satisfying, you then need to kind of ask questions of like, okay, well, is it is it the work? Is it the environment? Is it my role? And did a load of that. I did like loads of processes to try to figure it out. And in the end I was like, I’m not happy so I need to go and try something new.

Doug Belshaw: [00:27:34] I decided to change everything at the same time. By moving house. Yeah, moving job and having a baby all at the same time. So. Fantastic.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:27:43] Yeah which isn’t great from a, you know, from a data point of view. I’ve got no idea what’s worked and what’s not.

Doug Belshaw: [00:27:49] You need to rerun the experiment. Aaron. Come on.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:27:52] I’ve not done it very well.

Doug Belshaw: [00:27:53] Yeah, Yeah. I want to dig back into something which you talked about because I know you haven’t mentioned this yet, but I’ve. When I was doing some work with you at Outlandish, the work around Font, which is based on non-violent communication, had a massive impact on me and not just professionally but personally as well. Um, and I feel like you’ve been potentially weaving that in some of the stuff with Sociocracy and then maybe they go hand in glove and I think we’ve touched on low. Have we touched on non-violent communication on this podcast before we must have done.

Laura Hilliger: [00:28:25] I Yeah, we’re in the fifth series, so I’m sure that we’ve, that we’ve used it at some point. But just to actually, I don’t think that our listeners maybe know what font is.

Doug Belshaw: [00:28:37] Yeah so I just want to dig into that actually like what is font, What is non-violent communication? Just because I think everyone thinks that they’re maybe an unviolent communication communicator, like I’m not going around the place saying I’m going to punch people in the face. Like, what? What’s the problem here? Like, why do we need non-violent communication and and font and stuff? Because I found that as useful, if not more useful than the sociocracy stuff.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:29:05] Um, I presume we’re allowed to swear on this podcast.

Laura Hilliger: [00:29:08] Fuck no.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:29:11] The reason I ask is that I remember going on a non-violent communication workshop, um, probably a year or two into starting at Agile, and I invited a colleague on it who is well known to you. He’s begins with F and I said, Do you want to come on this non-violent communication workshop with me? And he said, Fuck off. Why would I want to do that? And so I very quickly realised that, you know, even with the best intentions, you know, things can come across loaded. Um, so non-violent communication is, I’m not, I don’t think I’m the best person to, to explain it really. But mean it’s, it’s a way of speaking and listening um, that um, acknowledges the, the feelings and needs of the other person as much as yourself. Um, and so font is stands for feelings, observations, needs, thoughts. And that is, I’d say more like a verbal protocol, a way of like structuring your, um, your expression. And that clarifies what is going on in your head and your body. Um, so being able to say, I’m feeling angry. And then to say, you know, I need support. And then to say the thoughts that are going on in your head and actually knowing that those are different, that the thoughts that are going on in your head are different from the feelings that you’re having. And those feelings are usually sensations in the bodies in the body. Um, and then finally, observation, which is like the factual data that we can see and hear, um, going on. So if you imagine a video camera in the corner of a room, what would that video camera pick up? And that is all we can say, really. We can say, you know, the door closed. We probably wouldn’t say you slammed the door, which would be a bit more of a judgement, for example. And you left the room and you closed the door. So and it fits in with sociocracy because I think, um, when you get into. Um, consent based decision making. Really what you’re talking about is requests and that’s part of non-violent communication is to be able to express your needs and make a request of the group. And consent really is, you know, that within a group context, maybe rather than 1 to 1. Mm.

Doug Belshaw: [00:31:56] And I remember Abby and Outlandish when she was doing some of this training, saying that if she’s going into a tricky meeting or something like that, she’ll she’ll do it proactively like so that she can get into because you have lots of thoughts going around and as you say, like feelings and stuff, but figuring out what it is that you need, like what it is that you want out of it. Um, that particular font thing can be quite useful for getting out of your spiralling. Oh my goodness, this person hates me. Whatever. Into what it is that you need from the other person, the request that you’re making of them. Um, which I found revolutionary, both, as I say in professional life, but also in my personal life with my wife and whatever. And in fact, my wife did that font course as well, which was quite interesting because at one point she said, Don’t you start using that non-violent communication stuff on me.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:32:57] That’s that’s a very familiar story from from an interaction with my partner in a kitchen. Absolutely.

Doug Belshaw: [00:33:06] It’s almost like it’s unfair for you to use those tools against me. But actually what you’re trying to do is get to the bottom of stuff. It’s almost it’s not a superpower, but, you know, it’s like a it’s a mechanism you can use. And sometimes, you know, I’m not actually talking about my marriage in this particular point. It just happens to be following on from what I was being saying, sometimes the other person just wants to keep arguing. And when you start doing the non-violent communication stuff in the font, what I find really interesting is that the the person who just wants to keep on arguing, you’re basically downing tools and saying, Hey, let’s have a mature discussion about this. Although the person is doing it to you because I’m often the person who just wants to keep on arguing and it becomes it becomes like you can’t fight if both people don’t want to fight. So it’s it’s I find it fascinating. And for anyone who hasn’t done any of this work before, the workshops are outlandish do which helps with which will put you in the show notes you should definitely check it out. It’s wonderful, wonderful stuff.

Laura Hilliger: [00:34:08] Yeah, we actually did it. The we did it the, I think it was called conflict reframing the workshop.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:34:16] Reframing conflicts, which I’m fortunately I very often mispronounce as reflaming conflict, which is exact opposite of what you’re trying to do.

Laura Hilliger: [00:34:27] Yeah, we we actually did it as, as a co op. Um, and I, like Doug also found it revolutionary and Doug and I, you know, we’re pretty friendly on the podcast, but sometimes we really butt heads because we’ve known each other for a long. I mean, we outright fight like brother and sister sometimes. And a couple of times we actually remember font. And then, you know, we say, Hold on, wait a second, we need to get through this. Let’s just shut up for a minute, figure out what’s going on in, in our heads. Figure out, you know, I mean, we’ve literally turned off video like the video and Zoom spent five quiet minutes thinking about, you know, what am I actually feeling here? How can we get through that and use that to push forward? And it’s it’s been really great.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:35:15] Yeah, it’s interesting for.

Laura Hilliger: [00:35:16] Collaboration, too, you know?

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:35:18] Yeah. I was going to describe your relationship as combustible. And. Um, but I the other question I would have was like, how? Since doing that that workshop. And it’s obviously like you’ve both liked it and that work and you’re kind of it sort of I think it tunes in naturally to where you are. And I wondered whether that’s the same for the group or whether it’s sort of become a. You know, a dominant mode within we are open or it’s more personal that sort of, you know, you use it. Laura for example, or whether it’s, you know, it has it become cultured in that way?

Laura Hilliger: [00:35:59] Uh, that’s actually a really interesting question. So I. I don’t think that it’s become cultured in the way that like in the workshop. I remember that part of the curriculum, the learning the topics was really about the idea that we’re sort of we’re programmed to understand conflict as negative, but conflict doesn’t have to be negative. It can be really positive. And that, you know, the, the the font being a mechanism to deal with negative conflict isn’t the only way to use it and that you could actually use font to deal with positive conflict too, or project conflict or whatever. And I don’t I don’t think that we’ve embedded it into the culture as much as maybe we could because I certainly use it as a way to kind of escape negative conflict. Like I realise that there’s conflict in the room. I realise that I’m feeling something that is maybe not particularly positive or optimistic or whatever, and I use it as a way to like as a way mainly to help the people around me understand what I’m, what I’m experiencing and what’s kind of rubbing me the wrong way. And I feel like if it was integrated, like if it was more integrated, that maybe we would we would use it as a way to, I don’t know, review, do a debrief, for example, after a client meeting or something and be like, Hey, let’s, let’s talk about our, you know, what did we observe? What did we feel like? Let’s, you know, like that. We could use it more proactively, I guess.

Doug Belshaw: [00:37:31] I think part of that and I do agree with what Laura said, is that the other two members of our co op are. A lot more emotionally. I don’t really use the word stable, but you know what I mean. Like, they’re much more like less up and down than Laura and I are. I would say. And so maybe it’s definitely had a positive effect, but like, it’s maybe different. For them because they don’t express themselves as vociferously, maybe as Laura and I do. And so maybe, yeah, it’s going to be different for different people. But it’s a really interesting question that we need to go back and have a think about, about whether the impact has been personal or kind of group. And it’s probably more than the personal side. Yeah.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:38:16] So I’d say like my experience of it as well is that you’ll find in a team like a thinking of Agile collective that some people just. Don’t want to go there. You know, they’re just like, maybe they can see the rational, the benefits rationally. They can kind of understand it, but it’s not something they feel comfortable using.

Laura Hilliger: [00:38:39] Well, we have to be quite vulnerable, right? Yeah. To, you know, to really say I’m I’m feeling this because of these thoughts and this is what I’ve observed, but this is how I like it is quite a vulnerable way to sort of sort through what’s going on in the mind and especially, you know, especially if, um, if you are a bit combustible, like Doug and I can be. Um, yeah, that’s, I, I honestly, I can’t imagine what it’s like for, for people who have seen Doug and I like in conflict what that feels like. Like, I know Aaron that you’ve seen what it feels.

Doug Belshaw: [00:39:19] Like from the inside.

Laura Hilliger: [00:39:20] So yeah, I know what it feels like from the inside too. It’s like, Ah, I hate it.

Doug Belshaw: [00:39:26] But then and you know.

Doug Belshaw: [00:39:27] Dear listener, like it’s once every, well, maybe three times a year. It’s not like, Yeah. All the time. Yeah. Yeah.

Laura Hilliger: [00:39:34] Sure.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:39:36] Just to build on what you were saying, Laura, I’d say yes. It’s uncomfortable and not everyone feels uncomfortable and we’re taught that it’s not the way to be at work. And so depending on how much that programming is there and depending on how much your personality is aligned to this. You know, a different way of communicating. I think that has a massive effect on how people, you know, respond to it.

Laura Hilliger: [00:40:04] It’s I mean, it’s really interesting that you say this is not how we how we’re programmed, you know, to not be like that at work. And the thing is, is like with people that I really respect and trust, they might see that like both of you have seen conflict in, you know, instances. But there are like plenty of like I do put on the mask sometimes, you know, like I am capable of the mask and I prefer to work in an environment where I don’t have to keep the mask up, where I can actually feel what I’m feeling, express it, catch myself, deal with it, whatever. Um, and I mean, that’s what bringing your whole self to work is, right?

Doug Belshaw: [00:40:48] Yeah. And I’ve got something on my wall, which reminds me, and it was something that Laura shared with me from someone who used to work at Greenpeace with her. And it’s about professionalism and like, you don’t need to be professional because I feel like especially in the UK, being professional somehow is elided with keeping a stiff upper lip and like, you know, as you say, Laura wearing the mask and not bringing yourself to. So it is quite a revolutionary thing to do, to say I’m bringing all of me into my work place.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:41:20] And a slight anecdote, an amusing anecdote on this is that I remember fairly recently doing a couple of workshops, um, with Abbie and um. We do a check in at the beginning. So we just go around the group and say, How are you doing? How are you feeling today? And the first workshop checked in and said, I’m feeling all right. I’m a bit hung over. Um, had a few drinks last night, so I’m just feeling a little bit squiffy. Second workshop.

Laura Hilliger: [00:41:47] Squiffy?

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:41:48] Yeah, that’s an English phrase.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:41:50] Sorry.

Doug Belshaw: [00:41:52] Not quite right.

Laura Hilliger: [00:41:53] Okay.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:41:54] Um. Foggy.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:41:56] Foggy headed. Um, second workshop. Apparently, I said the same thing. Um, and so after the workshop, after the second one, you know, the person I was working with sort of wrote and said, Look, I’ve got to say this, I feel a little bit uncomfortable, but, you know. That some people in the group reacted that and they remembered that you checked in being hung over the first time and the second time. And we kind of that didn’t that didn’t feel very professional in terms of like offering us a service and delivering a service to us, which I thought was really interesting one, because I’d hardly drunk for 18 months because we were trying for a baby. And two. Um, I don’t know if that actually had an impact on what I was delivering at all, and that’s not what they said either. It was the perception of professionalism. Um, and that just sort of it was really interesting. I was like, okay. And sort of questioning whether I would do that again. You know, whether I’d say say the same thing and be honest. And I was like, Do you know what I would? Because I don’t see that that has an impact necessarily on, you know, what I’m doing. And I think I’ve.

Doug Belshaw: [00:43:07] Told both of you this before, but I remember when I worked for Moodle, hired outlandish to do a design sprint very first day, introduced Sociocracy and Cayley at Outlandish and she said that she’d argued with her mother and that she was potentially waiting for a phone call from her mother and she was feeling quite emotionally upset about it and whatever. And I saw the CEO of Moodle and other people in the group and even me a little bit kind of like. First of all, is that relevant to what we’re doing today? Like cold hearted, rational kind of thing, but also like, is that unprofessional? And then realising like, Oh, that totally changes the dynamic of what it’s okay to share in this group. And as Lois said before, now I can let the mask slip a little bit. I don’t have to. I can’t take it off completely because I don’t know everyone completely yet, but it’s just these little chinks that enable you to not have to check yourself all the time, but to just say what you think. Um, hopefully a non-violent way.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:44:06] Yeah and we’re working on Zoom, right? Normally. And so you see this little box, that’s what we see of people now is particularly in the virtual space. But I’ve got no idea if Doug’s wearing trousers. Yeah.

Doug Belshaw: [00:44:19] Right now I’m holding a hot water bottle. There we go. So I didn’t know that.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:44:25] No, I didn’t know that, but good choice.

Doug Belshaw: [00:44:28] There we go.

Doug Belshaw: [00:44:29] Talking about online, offline things. Um, just to finish off, because I think we’re pretty much at our time. Have you noticed in terms of this kind of work you’re doing in terms of bringing your full self to work, non-violent communication, consent based decision making? Um, is it easier online, easier offline, just different? Does it depend on the organisation? Like, what have you found?

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:44:52] Do you mean delivering the workshop, delivering the work or.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:44:56] Impact working and engaging with each other?

Doug Belshaw: [00:44:58] Yeah. So like right now I could be pretending to be listening to you, but actually checking my emails where I can’t do that offline. But also maybe it’s easier to engage with people and be realer in inverted commas or more straightforward because you’re not going to come and punch me in the face because you’re several hundred miles away or whatever.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:45:21] Yeah, I think there’s a lot in that, isn’t there? Um, because. You know, our normal working environment now is slap, slap, slap, slap, slap, zoom, slap, slap, slap, slap, slap, zoom. And and so there’s a lot of stuff in the slack, slack, slack, slack, slack bit that we could talk about. But if we’re talking about like how we interact, you know, online together directly and synchronously, I think it’s really interesting because I would say that, um, a lot of these practices really help because you are already constrained by the technology that working in rounds is really useful and is, is sort of a lot easier in some ways more natural to do synchronously on Zoom than it is, um, sitting in a circle together or, you know, sitting across a table because.

Doug Belshaw: [00:46:18] I’m doing it now. I’m interrupting you. But that’s partly because I can’t. I can see your bodily cues, but also I have a tendency to want to look into the webcam when I talk so that people feel like I’m looking at them. Yeah, but in in person you can see each other’s cues, like intention to speak, whatever, but sometimes you can’t get your a word in edgeways. So I guess the rounds. Yeah, whether online or offline. Just give everyone a chance to speak.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:46:47] And that was my phone going because I was unprofessional and I hadn’t muted it.

Doug Belshaw: [00:46:52] Shocking. Yeah.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:46:54] Yeah, absolutely. And and, um, the, the flip side obviously is like, you miss the little, the random interactions, right? When you’re walking down to the meeting room with your colleague or whatever. Yeah. And you know, they’ll chat about whatever it is they’re. I miss all of that massively. Um, and I think that’s why I find the check ins really important. And in the Open Food Network, like we use the check ins to sure share how we are, but also and I think we do it as well when we’ve been working together, we bring in a little anecdote about what’s been going on with this. You know, someone’s just picked four kilos of mushrooms. Oh, wow. You know, and then you start talking about and you sort of bring in and you do have to formalise some of those like, informal, random interactions that you have. Um, but I think they’re vital. Otherwise. When you get into the slack bit and you haven’t bonded. The, you know, the difficulty, miscommunication that can happen, you know, in a text format is massive. And I think if that’s not underpinned with real connection and sort of understanding of like Doug is a human, it’s a bad example. So Laura is a human. Then it can escalate incredibly quickly just from like one word that someone’s misinterpreted.

Doug Belshaw: [00:48:17] I feel like that’s going to be the title of my next blog post. Or if you if you get it in there fast enough formalising the informal because that is fascinating the way that you have to schedule stuff which was usually spontaneous but do it in a way that doesn’t feel forced like that is that is the the thing to do. I feel like we’ve run out of time. Although I could talk to you as ever. Forever. And we’ll have to go on a walk sometime. Um, any last things that you haven’t had a chance to say that you’d like to make sure that people listening. We can always get you back on. I guess if you’re. If you’re willing. But anything else that you haven’t had a chance to say that you’d like to clarify or clarify or add to what you’ve said so far?

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:49:01] Only that if there’s anyone out there who’s thinking of setting up a local food hub and is wondering how to do that, the Open Food Network is the place to go.

Doug Belshaw: [00:49:11] Cool. So if people want to be like, Hey, I want to have a chat with Aaron by myself, or I’d like to like, follow him like a bit of an online stalker, um, where should they go? Where should they seek you out?

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:49:22] I’m very passive on social media, unlike unlike some. So I am on Twitter. I am on LinkedIn. Um, you can find me by searching my name. There’s only one of me. Um, and the other option is you can send me an email at Aaron at

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:49:42] See what I did there.

Doug Belshaw: [00:49:43] Cool funky new TLD. Nice one. Well, Aaron, thank you very much for joining us on this podcast episode. It’s been an absolute pleasure and we look forward to talking to you again soon.

Aaron Hertenstein: [00:49:56] It’s been fab. It is absolutely flown by!

Laura Hilliger: [00:50:01] Thanks so much!

Doug Belshaw: [00:50:03] Bye bye!