A decade ago, I worked with the founder of a social enterprise that transformed the lives of young people who had been failed by the education system. They did amazing things but had a problem with their young learners – in the mornings they couldn’t get them to turn up on time, sometimes it was not at all! They solved this problem by buying a minibus and picking them up each morning at great expense in terms of time and transport. The tutors would take it in turns to drive around the houses of the trainees and, if necessary, they would almost literally lift them out of bed and dump them in the minibus.
Very quickly they discovered the unexpected benefits of providing this door-to-door transport service – that the conversations that took place in the back of the minibus while travelling to and from home to work gave them far greater insights into the real lives of these young people than any number of face-to-face conversations between tutors and students. The learners found it far easier to ‘open up’ about themselves when out of the classroom; liberated from the confines of the learner-teacher relationship. And another benefit – the young people got to know each other better, made friends, and supported each other.
I was reminded of this the other day when sharing an observation from the Australian Men’s Sheds Association (an observation that regular readers of this blog may already know) – men don’t talk face-to-face, they talk shoulder-to-shoulder. It’s a generalisation of course, but I think it’s generally true. We men are far more likely to open up and talk about the important things in life when working together on a joint project (and, I suggest, when walking side-by-side) than when sitting opposite each other, even in a social situation.
This is how the former head of the Irish Men’s Sheds Association puts it… Put 12 men aged over 55 in a room and say ‘please talk to each other about your lives, relationships and health.’ Six will leave the room immediately, and many of the remainder will sit around the walls. But is you throw in a broken lawnmower and say ‘hey guys, fix that’, within two hours you’ll have achieved your objective, plus they’ll know each other’s skills and aspirations and, of course, you’ve got a lawnmower that works!
Although pointless banter is an important element in any Men’s Shed, I think it’s also the purposeful activity that helps the conversation flow – whether that be making things to sell, getting involved in community projects, or developing personal projects in the company of others.
In my current mentoring work with long-term unemployed people, I am rediscovering the truth of the ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ theory. In those one-to-one relationships I’m aware of the unequal relationship between the ‘adviser/expert’ and the ‘learner with issues’ (not having a job may be just one of a number) and it can create an unhealthy dependency. But recently I’ve been giving car lifts to some of these people – to attend meetings with the council about housing issues, to see charities about volunteering, and to counselling sessions. It means we’re sitting side-by-side in a car and, once again, I’m having conversations that I suspect would never have happened if we were always office-based, meeting on opposite sides of a table.
For more about the magic of Men’s Sheds go to www.menssheds.org.uk