Books@Work participants tell us over and over that the sessions are a “great way to get to know your colleagues, your peers, on a totally different level” as well as “de-stress.” They highlight that the program “brings us all together in a different way.” Because I have such a varied work history – in foodservice, office jobs, caring for handicapped adults – I resonate with our participants when they tell us how valuable getting to know your colleagues is and how they look forward to moments of refreshment in the midst of a busy and demanding day.
Because of this, it has been a special pleasure to participate in Books@Work myself. I first participated in 2014, with the classified staff of a Cleveland-area school. I was struck by how, at first, it was difficult for people to express their thoughts. It seemed like they were all searching for a “right” answer and participants were hesitant to hazard their opinion. But after a few weeks, people started to trust that they had something meaningful to say and that the group was interested in their ideas. After people found their voices, the conversations became more engaging. When we read John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums,” we disagreed about our interpretations, and some people told really personal stories. In the end we respected the unique perspective of each person in the room. The opportunity to share and reflect gave those staff members a chance to see each other as people instead of a job title, like bus driver or teacher’s aide.Over the past year, we at Books@Work have implemented discussion sessions as part of our monthly, in-person, team meetings. Because two of us work remotely, we especially appreciate the chance to connect more closely as a team. Spending an hour or more discussing a good story helps make up for the lack of face-to-face contact, and we are experiencing the same benefits in our team as we see in our participants’ seminars. I am continually amazed by the diverse perspectives a single story can bring out. Last month we discussed Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. We ended up talking a lot about what in your life allows you to navigate trauma and hardship. Is it purposeful work? A sense of duty? A desire to help others? It was a serious and difficult conversation and, for obvious reasons, the topic meant that everyone had an opinion that was deeply significant to them. It is no small thing to share a moment like that with your colleagues and I love how my reading of the text and understanding of myself was expanded and enriched by everyone’s input.
For each session, we rotate who chooses the story and facilitates the conversation. So far, two of the short stories used in our “in house” Books@Work sessions (“The Color Master” by Aimee Bender and “Johnny Bear” by John Steinbeck) have worked so well that we went on to offer them in other programs – but there have also been a couple of stories that we found too complex or abstract for good conversation. This process gives me a whole new appreciation for what our professors do to prepare for a program. Choosing the story, reading it carefully, coming up with open ended and interesting questions as well as guiding the conversation so it stays lively and on topic… that is a tall order! It makes me SO thankful for our professor partners and impressed by their skill and effort.
The best part of our “in house” Books@Work sessions, though, is getting to know my work mates better. The personal stories we share as we “see ourselves” in the story are an incredible window into the experiences that have shaped us individually. I know we trust each other more because of our vulnerability and honesty and it absolutely gives us more empathy for one another. I know it sounds strange, but knowing someone in a deeper way really does allow you to problem solve and make decisions about work together in a better way.
I am always excited for the opportunity to experience personal and collective transformation. We at Books@Work believe this is possible in these discussions where we challenge assumptions, share our stories, experience mutual recognition and engage in critical dialogue. Besides, it allows me to say with confidence that we at Books@Work practice what we preach!
Image: Shitao, Several Buckets, 1662-1707, [Public Domain] via Wikiart.com