06 Jan 2016
" Barriers were broken immediately and trust was the only option in order to succeed."
Sarah Dunn, Chief Operating Officer, ANZ Taiwan
When I began telling this story to a friend, she thought I was telling a joke. And indeed there were some incredibly funny moments on a recent Sunday afternoon during a corporate social responsibility (CSR) event.
But the event also provided some profoundly memorable and impactful lessons. I experienced a very confronting situation, learned what it truly takes to communicate, was shown in real terms how our innovation and creativity is constrained by our own thinking, and received a sharp and somewhat-emotional reminder about the need to take action on diversity more broadly.
In the lead up to the event, the only information we received was where to go, what time to turn up and to wear comfortable clothing and shoes.
Personally, I dreaded building a wall or some such physical exertion in the high humidity at that time of the year. So when the bus dropped my colleagues and I off at a university campus and we were led into an air conditioned space which was in fact freezing, I was relieved.
The sign on the building referred to darkness and when we were asked to hand in any light emitting devices including phones and watches and were handed white canes, it began to dawn on us what was ahead.
We were led into a dark space two by two, hands on shoulders. It was a thick, molasses kind of darkness, impossible even to identify how large the space was. The sensation was oppressive and disorientating, very hard to know whether it was better to keep your eyes open or closed.
As we waited for everyone to arrive inside we tried to acclimatise to our new environment. There was a lot of nervous guessing about what we would be doing. We were asked to be totally silent and just absorb the surroundings for two minutes.
They were a very long two minutes. I can suffer from claustrophobia and quietly did my yoga breathing.
There was a striking diversity: “peace”, “space” and “enclosed” for example.
For me it started to feel like a deep sense of meditation, rather as I imagine a flotation tank might be, the brain quietening from all distraction, focused simply on the here and now.
On our way inside, just as we had entered the darkness, each of us was handed an object we couldn't see. I figured out through touch my object was an eraser and talking to those around me, ascertained others had protractors, rulers and a couple of other similar items.
We were instructed to find others with the same objects without being told how many there were - and we would be timed.
Chaos ensued. People were shouting “ruler, ruler” and “protractor, protractor”, moving towards the direction in which the voices came from.
As people tried to move forward, it required physical contact to understand at all times what and who was around you. Barriers were broken immediately and trust was the only option in order to succeed.
Amazingly, five other people with erasers and I found one another amongst the 25 where all sense of direction was lost and every other sense was hugely heightened, especially sound.
Each group was then told to find a table, chairs and sit down. I had not met many of these people before but we were quickly holding hands, rapidly forming bonds.
We were introduced to our team coordinator, Elaine, who provided us with the instructions for our various exercises when the work and, frankly, fun began. I found myself embracing the challenge of my new state of total and utter blindness. After all, I had the luxury of knowing it was only temporary.
We were given a series of team exercises to do requiring us to build and create by relying on touch, experience and above all teamwork and communication. I won’t go into the detail as it’s an experience I’d recommend to anyone and pre-knowledge would steal the impact and learnings.
Upon reflection post this experience though, I have come to learn the word ‘communication’ is very broad – it can mean so many things to different people.
The discussion amongst our team was rich and collaborative. Even so, having a leader was the key, someone to coordinate, to challenge and ask questions, to encourage and to ultimately make a call on the way forward.
Delivering what the exercises required took out-of-the-box thinking, patience and conviction just to go with our decisions especially within a time constraint.
We would only know later whether our methodology and concept had paid off when we got to see the results in the light, just as it is when you release any new concept to the market.
We learned even simple things such as describing distance and how to find a common measure required innovation and creativity.
In the new environment in which we found ourselves we embraced the challenge but frankly we were still constrained by our thinking and experience rather than reaching out more broadly to all that was now around us to reach a common, winning outcome.
As time went on, I found myself gaining in confidence, to the point I ran to finalise our last piece of work, which was all good until I needed to find my way back to my table and chair, having left my cane behind in my haste. My team guided me back with their voices and we were rewarded with refreshments.
Something as simple as a hot drink can become a dangerous activity and what you take for granted is now something which can create fear. But as can so often be the case, worry turned into derision and as my colleagues and I played dolls’ tea party, the type I had played many times with my daughter when she was small, offering items to one another, we giggled, causing the tension to subside.
Leaving the space was our final challenge, finding the exit and the light. As a group we were (mistakenly) convinced by our innate sense of direction, and there wasn’t even a car or a map in sight!
However, once back outside, all seated and re-adjusted to the light after an amazingly swift two hours in the dark, we watched as the team leaders, including Elaine walked out in front of us, hands on shoulders, in a line. They were all visually impaired.
It was incredibly powerful and we felt a huge surge of emotion. We had had no idea or even sense of this. They had been at ease in the dark and we had been totally disabled.
They each provided their teams with feedback about how we had handled ourselves, worked as a team and communicated and some ideas around how we could have been more innovative under the circumstances.
We reviewed the results of our exercises and all had a good laugh while appreciating the various interpretations and skills employed. There were truly childlike results that had taken such enormous effort to achieve and while we made jokes and derided one another on the outcomes, there was a lot of introspective thought about what it had taken to deliver them and the challenges others face each and every day of their lives.
The key learning for me, especially having recently taken up a role in a low English speaking environment in Taipei, was just what it takes to truly communicate.
It’s so much more than speaking slowly or clearly, using straight forward language when asking for or explaining something.
It takes time, patience, repeating the same message in different ways, providing understanding through rich detail, imagery and examples to bring everyone on to the same page as that which you have in your head.
In fact it’s the same even when speaking to someone in the same language. That listening to the other person is vital in order to respond effectively and how important it is to try to speak and understand the other person’s language which goes beyond English or Chinese (or even Australian!).
How easy it is to assume one’s definition of speed or size or feeling is the same as anyone else’s. It rarely is. That lack of common understanding can cause any outcome, relationship or goal to be tested, delayed or even fail as a result. At the very least, you’re not all pulling in the same direction but might just muddle through to an outcome which at best is mediocre.
There was also another layer of understanding from this experience and it was a message given directly and clearly by our facilitators; in fact it was a specific request.
When we see someone who is visually impaired or disabled in any way, we shouldn't look at them around what they cannot do but rather what they could do and how they could ably deliver in the workplace with some adjustment to a role mandate or process.
It reminded me, as we focus heavily on balancing gender diversity within our organisation, diversity goes way beyond this. This will then indeed be the flexible and agile workforce we aspire to, adapting our skill sets to the needs of our broader community.
It was a truly powerful, thought-provoking experience and lasting memory for me on a hot and humid Sunday afternoon.
Sarah Dunn is Chief Operating Officer at ANZ Taiwan
The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.
06 Jan 2016
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