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The Experience Cube (Clear Leadership by Gervase Bushe): the leadership skill of learning to speak out of the box

“Start every question with the word I. It gets you out of the problem of creating something that’s a truth for you. You might say ‘it’s really hot in here’ but that’s closing down the conversation. If instead you say ‘I think it’s hot in here,’ you’re not.”

Leadership skills

Our Associate, Ken Ingram, introducing a practical interpersonal skills session at one of our special events encouraging leaders to forget Brexit and get ready for global Britain.

We invited HR professionals and those with an interest in organisational development, leadership development, management training and interpersonal skills to join us for breakfast and find out more about our unique way of doing things.

We wanted to give them a taste of some of the leadership training techniques we use with clients, so Ken ran a practical session called the Experience Cube – which, he explains, is a “simple exercise for getting clarity” about other people’s experiences. It can be a really useful and easy tool in leadership and management training, facilitation, and organisational development and coaching.

In this practical session, four pieces of card placed on the floor, each with a different word: Observations, Thoughts, Feeling and Wants. As the participants discovered, the concept is simple, but the practice is harder.

“People get observations and thoughts mixed up all the time,” says Ken. “Someone told me they had observed someone being selfish – you can’t observe that. You’re into thoughts and judgements. People have difficulties in expressing wants, and some managers and leaders are reluctant to ask the want question because it could become a torrent they cannot do anything about. In this exercise, though, you are just trying to get clarity of what the other person wants.”

He explains that people “walk the cube,” moving from square to square as they tell the story of what is happening in their organisation, and that “there is something about being able to move that and feel that and see it. People stay in some boxes more than others.”

Coaching and facilitating with the Cube

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The next 12 minutes sees participants from some of the UK’s best-known companies and organisations working together in pairs, using the Cube to help tell their story using all four elements. Whilst some need prompts from their partners to move into different areas: others are darting around the cards as they work through all four areas.

And there is great feedback for this unusual leadership coaching technique. “I thought the thoughts and feelings would get more messed up but it was more the observations and thoughts – I was putting my own judgment on things,” said the Bank of England’s Mark Menary. “That’s really common: where we are starting from is thinking that our thoughts are the truth, and one of the reasons for forcing people to go through this process is to separate things,” explains Ken.

Another participant noticed that he had not spent much time on the Wants card, and realised he had also left his own wants out of collaborative solutions his organisation was creating.

For Roffey Park’s previous CEO Robert Coles, this dialogue and giving language to staff is a vital part of decision making “Dialogue is not a process of winning and losing… we give people a method but we don’t give them a language.” Kevin Jones, from Border Force, was particularly taken by the exercise and moved from card to card as he told his story. “I’ve just been waxing lyrical. It was a really good immersive and experiential technique. It’s a good structure for an adult conversation at work. In command and control organisations we often don’t attach importance to the emotional side of decision making and I think my colleagues would at least think they had a voice listened to.”

Prorammes to help learn more:

Clear Leadership Programme  is a collaborative leadership programme based on the globally renowned work of Dr Gervase Bushe.  Clear Leadership is aimed at middle to senior managers who want to develop their collaborative leadership practice and unlock the potential of collective success.

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