Episode #151 Fractal Improv: finding generosity, connection and compassion amidst our fear with Belina Raffy
We know our climate is in crisis and that time is running out. But we also know that screaming at people to wake up is not working. What if we gave ourselves permission to tell the truth – and the skills to do it with humour and compassion so that we didn’t trigger the resistances of fear? This Episode, we explore stand-up and improv in sustainable communications with Belina Raffy.
Belina Raffy, Empress and Improvisation guide, is the director of Maffick Ltd & Applied Improvisation and Thrivability thought-leader, Thrivable World Quest co-founder and global captain.
She used to work in London and New York as an Executive for one of the largest global financial institutions, in 3 years, she saw many people struggle with burn-out. She studied improvisation to find out:
1) how these skills help individuals respond to the unexpected, and navigate ambiguity
2) how it can transform our organizations as a whole. She encourages people to explore what happens when we consciously align our work with how nature and people thrive.
She believes that our ability to improvise gives us a choice about how to respond to life’s challenges. Improvisation helps us develop our creative thinking skills in service of a happier life, and play a vital part in our response to our complex, dynamic world.
It is her passion to spread these mindsets and practices and support others discover the power of improvisation.
In this sparkling, thought-provoking episode, we explore the differences between stand-up and improv, and how the structures of either and both can allow us to reach past the tribal screaming of our time, to a more gentle, compassionate, connected way of reaching each other. Humour reaches the places that charts, data and stats never will – and Belina has years of experience in creating spaces where people can find what matters most to them, and share it in ways that make us laugh – and care.
1-hour online ‘Compassionate Climate Comedy’ on 7 Nov
And next 7-week Sustainable Stand Up course starts 19 Jan
Details of all courses here
Manda: My guest this week spends her entire life finding ways in which we can be generous and connected and loving even while afraid. I met Belina Raffy when we ended up in a breakout room together on somebody else’s group. I can’t even remember where or when it was, but I discovered I was in a room with somebody who had taught improv to NASA as part of a way of creating more engagement over sustainability, because, as she says frequently, it doesn’t work anymore to scream at people. That if they were only a little bit more aware, they would be as afraid as we are. It’s not really a useful selling point. Belina instead teaches stand up and improv. And no, I didn’t know that there was a difference between these two things either.
In fact, I hardly knew what they were. But I looked on her website where it says that she’s empress and director of a company called Mafic, whose name means boisterously to celebrate. She’s co-founder of the Thrivable World Quest and she’s taught improv and stand up everywhere from Tehran to Bhutan and to a lot of companies in between. And she’s an author. Her book is called Using Improv to save the world and me and I thoroughly recommend reading it. It’s so much fun and carries so much wisdom. So people of the podcast, please join me in welcoming Belina Raffy, empress and all round amazing human being.
Belina Welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast. We are recording on the day when it’s just been announced that the UK has another Prime minister. So this is October’s Prime Minister. Doubtless there’ll be another one by January or so I would think. I hope actually, anyway. Looking at all your various exciting things that you do online, I notice that you describe yourself as an Empress and I want to know where you are Empress of? Who are your subjects in this empire? Because I think I would rather be in your empire than some of the ones that might be about to be imposed on us.
Belina: Lovely. And I love this question, and it blows my mind that nobody’s ever asked it before as well. So I’m Empress of the Cosmic Giggle, is what I think kind of that I’m bringing in, and my subjects are opt in only. So it’s a warm invitation to come play and you’re welcome to opt out as well. So yeah.
Manda: All righty. It’s a virtual space. I’m hoping that by opting into yours, I automatically opt out of whatever…
Belina: We’ll see if we can infiltrate.
Manda: Yeah. Wouldn’t that be fun? Can you imagine infiltrating with improv into the governments of our world? It would be so interesting. However, having said that, most of our listeners… Actually, they may be much more well informed than I was because when I started reading your book, I had no idea what improv was. But you’ve written a book called Using Improv to Save the World and Me, A True Story. And it’s glorious and fascinating and inspiring. And I’ll put a link in the show notes so people can get it. But for those who are listening and are like me and don’t know the difference between improv and Stand-Up, you’ve done these two things and you bring them into the world now, as a facilitator of cosmic giggles and activators of awesomeness. So can you tell us what they are and how you came to be the person doing this?
Belina: Sure, this may meander.
Manda: Meandering is good. That’s what this podcast is about. Feel free to meander.
Belina: Beautiful. So improv and Stand-Up are different and I took my first classes in both in New York City in 1996 when I had a job that was simultaneously boring and stressful in the back office of a bank. And it was stressful, I think, because they were treating complex things as linear things and they were under-resourcing the people side and they were sort of putting business as a machine on an altar.
Manda: That sounds familiar. That sounds like that’s still happening almost 20 years on. But anyway, sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt.
Belina: It’s alright. And it’s also, you know, I grew up playing in forests and stuff, and it’s not like working as a cross-functional project manager in the bank was actually making the world better. So one of the ways I said, like, let me just play with people, is I took my first Stand-Up comedy class and I love to make people laugh. I had started in high school watching HBO specials with really glorious comedians. I loved George Carlin. There was a guy named Jake Johanson who did a show on HBO in the eighties, and I can still remember lines from his set. So there’s something like really powerful and beautiful about the crafting of Stand-Up. So Stand-Up is… Well it’s a really nice definition of like, when is something funny? And one definition from a book called The Humour Code is when something is sort of simultaneously aberrant or like breaks our moral code. You know, more our understanding of what’s right in the world and at the same time is treated as normal. And that’s part of why I love using it in the space of environmental stuff, sustainability stuff, climate stuff, social stuff is because there’s so much of that. And Stand-Up comedians kind of have permission to tell the truth, because they help us digest it. So the craft of Stand-Up comedy, traditionally you write stuff, you refine it, there’s certain joke structures and pausing and ways to do things that tend to be more powerful in the craft.
Belina: So a lot of it, 99% of it is sort of worked ahead of time, but you deliver it in a very alive way. And the improv side is different. Sometimes you can get glorious laughs from either improv or Stand-Up. The improv is much more emergent. So a friend of mine, Paul Jackson, describes it as freedom within a structure. And what I love about bringing the mindset of improv and the practice of improv into organisations is that we’re playing with a structure that’s much thinner than what people are used to. And it and it introduces certain principles of how we operate with each other, which are really useful for navigating complex adaptive systems, for suspending judgement so we can just sort of dream new solutions, co-create sort of new ideas about how to approach things. And we’re also invited to notice more about what’s happening in our world. So there’s a fabulous guy named Robert Pointon, and he has a model that’s in my book. It’s a lovely triangle and it’s: let go, notice more, use everything. And actually so I did this really stressful bank job and there was something about after I started taking improv classes on the weekends, my boring, stressful job got easier. And I didn’t quite understand why yet at that point. But I noticed it and then I did it got into like Y2K compliance for the bank, which was just crazy stressful.
Belina: And I ended up doing an MBA in the U.K. to relax. And when I got out of it, I somehow got this job as a consultant facilitator to help marketing excellence. So marketing executives achieve marketing excellence. And I felt like I loved the marketing door because it was holistic that you could actually get to a lot of the organisation and how it operated through that door. But I hated the wealth extraction values and that’s where Bill Hicks, if anybody knows him, the Stand-Up comedian Bill Hicks, he has this great bit on if you’re in marketing or advertising, kill yourself. Like it’s actually hilarious about kind of playing with how awful the morals are and the wealth extraction and he does it in a really nice way. So when I was working with these executives, I’d have that kind of in my head and be like, Shut up, Bill, Not now. I have to talk about segmentation or whatever it was! But what struck me was I was doing kind of death by PowerPoint, with these smart people in a room, and I much preferred I was like, There’s got to be a better way to flip inside out learning. So that we can seed some ideas, but really have them work with it and share each other’s wisdom and things like that. So I did in the UK, gosh, probably in 2006 I think I did a pilot in Surbiton in the top room of a church somewhere, because I’d read a book called Improvisation Inc and it was about how do we bring the mindsets of improv to people in business? And I ran a pilot and I thought, I’m a genius.
Belina: No one else is doing this in the UK. And somebody said, Oh, you should meet Paul. He created a whole global group doing this. And I did, and sort of lovingly made him be my business partner. And I studied with Keith Johnston, who’s one of the best, like the performance grandaddy of improv. But always my mindset was how do we bring this to organisations? Initially, I felt really sort of hesitant about mentioning sustainability and things like that. It was like creativity and then I tried to work sustainability in there somewhere. But after I saw Inconvenient Truth and I just noticed… It did something important and something awful simultaneously. Like, I’m sitting there and I’m going, okay, everything he’s saying is really, really important. And I literally want to go into a Hummer and go shopping and get a big shotgun while it’s all still here. And I’m like, That can’t be the right response for us as a group! So I’m like, let me bring improv into the space, because it’s a technology that’s designed to help us, when when we would normally be afraid to be present and generous and connected.
Manda: Right. Yes. That. And that seems to me, reading your book, listening to all the things that you’ve done, because your response to films about climate change, whatever they are, is not unique. There is a tendency for the petrol heads to just go out and buy a bigger car or everybody to just turn the heating up a couple of notches. They can’t now because the price has gone up. But we need to find ways to be generous, connected and loving even while afraid. And we could go off and do non-violent communication classes and I’m sure that’s very good. And it always strikes me as quite worthy and incredibly dull. And I’m sure for the non-violent communication people listening who are now going to write to me in their tens of thousands, I don’t think it really is dull, but it has that sense of it’s another job. Whereas what you’re doing has a sense of radical fun. I have to say, I think going to do a stand up course where you actually have to do stand up at the end of it would be utterly terrifying. But leaving that aside, you now are not just going into businesses, teaching them how to market better by doing improv; you’re going around the world connecting in, as far as I can tell, with a lot of really high level people who get the science and are terribly afraid, but don’t know how to do the generous, connected and loving. Can you tell us more about how you made the switch from one to the other? And then what do you do and how you do it?
Belina: I got really lucky. Thank you for asking. I had some really lovely connections, so at some point, quite early on, I got connected with Andy Middleton, who’s in Wales, and he was doing really lovely sustainability stuff. And he got, early on, that improv is important in the sustainability space. So just to go back and say that Marshall Rosenberg of the Non-Violent Communication, he was one of the best speakers I’ve ever seen, and I got to see him at St James’s Church in Piccadilly and he had this great story. Sorry to go slightly off piste, but it just really stayed with me. Where he said he had been working with a lady who was a teacher in an inner school and she had been learning, practising non-violent communication. And she was in a high school, there was an adult student who stayed by later after everybody had left and he wanted to rape her and she used non-violent communication to talk him out of it and got away okay. And she was telling this to Marshall Rosenberg and she said, Now if you can only help me work with my mother. Which I love so much, like, you know, like rape is one thing, but you’re like, all the stuff just talking to your mom, it’s like another level.
Manda: Yeah. Gosh, gosh. But isn’t that a testament to how powerful it is if you know what you’re doing? Goodness. And wouldn’t the world be a different place with all of that? But that’s a separate conversation. Let’s stay with improv, stand up. So let me get this right: Stand up has scripts?
Manda: And you may play a little bit. Improv is broadly not scripted. It’s just go out there. Do you have ideas when you’re doing improv?
Manda: Do you have a kind of sense of the arc of what you want to do or sparks to seeds or something to get you going? Or do you just go out and do something?
Belina: Both. It depends on the form of improv that you’re doing. You’re always operating by certain very simple principles, like make each other look good. Sometimes short term taking is in there. Sometimes there’s, if they’re doing something called long form improv, there’s like a narrative arc that they know and then they get input from the audience. Like, let’s have an opera about cheese or something like that. And they make a whole thing following the structure. So the structure is always the same, but the content is different. Because they get those inputs on the night. Yeah stand up is, as I said, 99% scripted. The one comedian that I have been told does not script ahead of time is Billy Connolly, that he riffs, that he’s so talented at riffing that he just sort of goes for it and is masterful at it. But if you’re a normal person and you’re doing Stand-Up, you do write and refine and rehearse and you have a go. And it’s tricky because sometimes even the same set on a different night might play differently or something like that, but you’re really trying to hone so that each word counts and is powerful. And in improv, you can get lucky and have this like magical emergent moment, which is incredibly joyful. The craft is coming from the ability to improvise and the content is sort of ephemeral, if that makes sense.
Manda: Yeah. So this is taking us down a bit of a rabbit hole. But my experience with teaching circles on the shamanic basis or whatever else that I do, it seems to me that everything that happens in an energetic space depends on all the people who are there. And however much you’ve scripted your Stand-Up, which it sounds a bit like you’re an actor of sorts, you learn your lines, you go out and you present them as well as you can. But even actors say the audiences are different. So presumably part of The Art of Stand-Up is when you feel that the room is dead and you’re going to have to go off piste a bit to liven it up. Or that a particular thing is really resonating and you need to drop other bits and bring them in. Or is that moving into what improv is, where improv is just reading the room and going with the room and trying to find the wave of energy that you can surf in the room?
Belina: I think different comedians do different things. So I think you’re absolutely right that there is a sort of back and forth with the audience that you need to tune into from an energetic space. And the course that I teach combines a few things. So it does combine the improv mindset and practice, so that you can just notice kind of what’s happening around you. Suspend judgement for a little while and get the right stuff down. Do your shitty first draft. And you know, just get it out there so that you can refine it, but also to notice more about like what is your thought process? Sort of taking you out of… Like you’re not everything that you think. If you see those bumper stickers, like… to go into the witness level of yourself and kind of notice what the patterns are and things like that. So,the improv kind of helps you with that stuff, but it also helps you with… In my book, I talk about it as a secret love technology, because it really was designed when you’re on stage and feeling frightened, particularly improv theatre, that you are connected and generous and loving. And I try to bring that approach to Stand-Up, because if you’ve ever gone to an open mic night, you can see a lot of people not operating from that. And they’re sort of on fire, nervous, and they’re either attacking the audience or they’re attacking themselves. And it’s kind of awful to watch and to be on the receiving end of.
Belina: And so what I’ve done in service of let’s talk about the ideas that matter in terms of environment and climate and society like anything that makes the world a better place. Let’s make a really loving form of Stand-Up comedy about stuff that matters. And we’re going to practice in terms of presence, a lot of the stuff that comes from improv and from how we write. What helps us to write also from improv. But we still write and refine and we give drafts and I give coaching and all this stuff. By the time we get to the show, you’ll have rehearsed it like seven times and you’ll do the show. And I also MC it that way. OK, This is a really loving show and you’re part of that. So we’re going to be loving and we expect you to be loving in return. And we have this like, really magical energy that’s created.
Manda: You’re trying to make me not feel terrified by the idea of going through one of your courses. I would love it, but the idea that there’s a show at the end is just way scary.
Belina: It’s a metaphor. So the people who come to the show are either alumni or like your nicest friends. And even the process of inviting people to the show, I ask you to notice, like, are you leaking your own fear about it or are you asking them cleanly? You know, like going a bit back to like the non-violent communication; Like, are you being non-violent to yourself? Or are you saying like, yeah, I probably won’t be very good and you know, like, but come on, the 17th or whatever. It’s like, no, no, no! Like what happens if you just sit in acceptance of what is, what happens if you sit in, Like, you really have crafted this over six weeks. And I wrote a blog that is titled The Importance of Ignoring Your Spouse right Before a show. Because what I’ve noticed is that, like, people would be like, I think it’s funny, but I’m not sure. And then the spouse or like the partner will come in and it’ll create holes in the set, because the partner writes what they would do. But it doesn’t read as the person who’s presenting. And the other thing with stand up that I do, is there is no character work. This is not about acting. This is about really bringing you on stage and kind of like your nicest, smartest, funniest self. So it’s all of your insights and all of your stuff and it’s really honed, crafted so that every word counts. And I really hold this safe space of like, if you’re being… Self-deprecation, if it’s loving, that’s fine… But if you’re being like mean to yourself, it’s like, Nope, cut that out. You know, like, Nope, we’re really holding a space for I love myself, I love the audience, the system is silly. And often here’s what I love out of the system or here’s what I would really love to manifest on earth.
Manda: Right? Right. Interesting. Yeah. So I’m watching my own process and thinking that I have no problem talking to 1000 people in a room if I think I have something useful to say and that they’re there because they choose to be. Yeah, So they’ve read my book and they want to come along and hear me talk about the book or they’ve heard about accidental gods and they want to understand conscious evolution more: totally fine. But I’m going to stand on a stage and pretend to be funny at you? Notice the word pretend in there.
Belina: I noticed that. Can we take that out?
Manda: Yeah. No, I know. It’s interesting, isn’t it? So what happens, I guess, is you get a self-selecting group of people who have something to say and that comedy is their way through to saying it, which sounds great. I think making people laugh, it sounds fantastic.
Belina: People who come, come for different reasons and some of them are just tired of being sad or tired of being angry and tired of not being listened to. And this gives… The process is very healing. It gives people a lovely group of people, you know, like the invitation is coming, you know, like if you want to make the world a better place, let’s do this in a loving way. So it sort of self selects lovely people. And I tend to find that like the ones who are like, Oh yeah, but I’m not really funny in the pre survey… Like I have a survey like, how are you, how are you feeling? How is it going? And the ones who are like, you know, ‘oh, I just want to warn you, I’m not very funny’ are always like the top bill, like awesomeness thing. It’s like this course gives people permission to just try and just be playful and just bring your beautiful insights. And one of the things I worry about is like, Okay, but the stuff that I care about isn’t funny, isn’t inherently funny. And it’s like, Yeah, but there’s going to be an aspect of it that really is and if you can share, in the context building, you can share truth about some of the heavy stuff that’s going on. But if you relieve the tension with something that is also true or an extension of the truth, but is silly, it means that we can process the stuff that is heavy because it hasn’t gotten to a point where the tension is too high and we just run away. Or we go into fight or flight. So that’s why I mean, when I said I remember lines from a comedy show I saw in 1988, like, that’s how powerful it is. I give loads of improv workshops and I love doing it. You never remember what happens. Like I could sort of vaguely remember, but for the Stand-Up, I can remember words of people’s sets from five years ago.
Manda: Can you tell us some just out of interest? Anything that you can remember? Because I’m really curious to know what kinds of things would lodge in your memory when you’re doing so much of this stuff.
Belina: So. So there’s a really lovely guy, who’s a friend of my teenager James, and he was saying how he got into sustainability, he’s like, you know, for the ladies. And then he said, Because what lady can resist a post-coital monologue on Biosphere Death? And I thought, okay, I wanted to make T-shirts of that. And I just thought that was hilarious. And he was like, He’s a lovely guy and he was being very loving. But I thought that one moment of self-deprecation was just beautifully crafted. There was another lady who her take was like, If you are in sustainability, you will be morally inconsistent and like how awful it is to have people going like, Yeah, you’re vegan, but you’re wearing leather shoes. It’s like, there’s something about the fact that this lady, who was named Jane, she was in Australia. She said, like there was something weird about the fact that if you’re morally inconsistent, but you’re trying, somehow that’s worse than people who don’t try at all. And she was like, wait a second, that’s so…so I love that she captured that dynamic. So it’s that sort of thing that.
Manda: Oh, interesting. Yes. And that’s the kind of thing that really toxic Twitter rants… I’ve kind of noticed flame walls and stepped away from them, from people trying to process that. And particularly that last one of, you know, I want to live in a five terawatt world, but we live in a 19 terawatt world. This is my new framing of the power differentials of what we use and what we could be using to be a one planet. And yet I still need to get from A to B and and it may be that in the long run we all just, you know, don’t go further than we can walk in any given day. But currently I can’t walk to the shops and there is no public transport and and it feels dreadful. And so yeah, turning that into something that isn’t just a toxic reverb would be really nice.
Belina: And actually what I’m helping people do is get there first and make it funny. Because if you’re kind of feeling guilty about some aspect of your behaviour, even though you’re trying to do good in the world, like if you can illuminate that first and rock it, like make people really laugh, you’re not hiding it. And I think for the things that we hide, that’s where things can get toxic and unhealthy. But if you can say, hey, like I’m a sustainability thing and I still buy, you know, like chocolate candy bars at the gas station, even though I know that they’re not, they’re probably.. There’s child labour, there’s the packaging has probably Killed a sea turtle, you know, like the whole… but if you put it out there and you even share all of those bits, somebody listening might go: I don’t need this chocolate bar. Because they feel safe, they’re not being attacked. They’re having a person sort of share all the different components. And that’s what I think is actually quite healthy, to kind of counterbalance that, you know, like you’re wearing leather shoes sort of thing.
Manda: Yeah. Yeah. Gosh, there are so many ways we could go with this. I’m interested in how you made the shift, because I think we haven’t got there yet from training in business. I remember also you said somewhere along the line, I think in your book, that your boss had been a ghurka, because nobody except the military could handle the pressure of a system that was treating everything as linear. Treating people as component parts that could be slotted out and slotted in and and minimised. And it seems to me that was way back that you were doing this, and it’s still in action in parts of the world, and particularly the parts of the world that our media focuses on. Which is to say big business and politics. And you’ve managed to cut from the big business and the banks to talking with people who are really trying to make a difference. So let’s go with that first. How did you make the transition from banks and business to the level that you are currently working at? Because you seem to be talking at some of the highest levels of people who are working in sustainability?
Belina: Thank you. It’s an emergent process, because I am an improviser. It wasn’t sort of a a plan thing. And it’s almost, you know when you’re trying to move like a big fridge and you’re sort of rocking it back and forth? Like I feel like I got to get a lot of my magical gigs because I’m home on the day that they call! Actually one of the joys of my life is I’m the collaboration consultant for a science accelerator lab called the Frontier Development Lab. And their partners are NASA, the SETI Institute, European Space Agency and a bunch of other groups. And so for eight weeks every summer for the past five summers, I’ve worked with the teams to help them sort of embed the improv mindset. And what they’re doing is they’re combining machine learning and artificial intelligence with domain expertise. And some of it is research, some of it is humanitarian stuff. So how do we get satellite data processed in a way right after disaster faster, so that people on the ground can respond? Some of it’s let’s map the world’s crops and know where they are and how big they are and stuff like that. Some of it is if the sun is going to kick out some big weather that might affect all of our systems on earth, let’s get like more than a three day window on that, if we can.
Belina: So they’re cross cross-functional teams or cross domain teams, they’re like artificial intelligence or domain. And they’re also being watched. They’re PhD students. They’re also being kind of watched by their dream employers who are all the partners of the thing. And it’s like, okay, how do we help people shift from complete imposter syndrome and, you know, like fear head, deer in headlights and just burying it… To playful, open, connected, generous, all of that stuff that we talked about. Because we also want… Like the teams are not competing with each other, they’re all looking at different stuff. But we want them, if they have an insight on how to build something in AI, because every year they kick out like the leading edge AI stuff in these sort of realms. It’s like, how can we help them feel generous to to meet across teams and connect as people first? And it was so interesting to do in-person first and then watch how even more important it is when it’s online. Because it’s so easy to have empathy die if you’re just online or if you’re just in an email. So working out how do we balance not giving people Zoom fatigue? Because the inherent thing is they’re on the computers a lot for this particular project. But it’s like, how do you really value the people stuff in this and make it work? So that came about; James, who I mentioned earlier with his post coital monologue of Biosphere Death, he actually created The Science Lab. He’s a beautiful guy.
Belina: I was just about to do what I thought was going to be back to back sustainable stand ups around the world, to do kind of a stand up version of what I’d done for the book with the Improv. And it didn’t sell. And like I had just planned to like, be away for several months and it just didn’t sell. So I’m like, I’m home. And I got a call and James was like, Can we send you to Rome next week? Because we have this thing and I think you’d be perfect for it. And that was five years ago and I’ve been doing it since. So that’s an example of, you know I’ve worked with big companies teaching improv. I even worked with like Nestlé twice. I wouldn’t do it again. But it was interesting to be in it, actually, and to see like, who’s in it. What do they care about? And now I think I’m just a bit more tricky on who I play with. I mean, with the time I have, I really want to have champions in the companies I work with, who really genuinely want to make a change.
Manda: So that takes me to another question, but I want to come back in a bit to how do you actually prevent Zoom fatigue and look at the energetics of working online. But before we get there, this is neatly segueing into where I wanted to go, which was certainly in the UK, and I imagine in the US, most of the funny people are on the progressive side of the political wing. There are, there are very, very few funny reactionaries and the BBC always gets into terrible trouble because the Tory party thinks they own the Beeb and they haven’t got enough comics on it and they try and get in somebody right wing and they’re wildly and desperately unfunny, and they never get to be invited back. And I’m wondering, as you go around, there must be some human beings inside Nestlé. I’m guessing they don’t stay very long, but I might be projecting all of my stuff about water onto Nestlé. What happens if you’re in a company full of Republicans? How do you get to be generous and loving and connected while in fear? If you’re on, what seems to me, and again this is all my projection; to be a side of the political spectrum that depends on fear and control and doesn’t want people to be generous and loving and connected.
Belina: Yeah, it’s a beautiful question, and I want to tease out that the nature of the work that I did with them was very different. It was how do we collaborate, so that they can be better managers at the factories that they were working at. A lot of them were from Eastern Europe and Asia and things like that. And for them this was like the best thing they could have ever done financially short term for their family. So they were pleased to be there. This was very different from their schooling, you know, like they were used to ‘this is what the right answer is’. And the improv was interesting for, I guess, whoever chose us to go into Nestlé, because they needed that shift of nobody else is going to tell you the right answer if something unexpected happens, or if something needs to be co-created that hasn’t existed before. You need to be able to do that. And that’s why we were brought in. So it had nothing to do with sustainability. It had nothing to do with, like all my passions, I found it very funny because a friend of mine sort of brought me into that gig and he and I co facilitated; and they gave him a blue chocolate box and they gave me a pink chocolate box. Seriously, it was… But yeah. So as I said, it was interesting just to kind of get a sense of them. And that was one of the times where I was like, I care about sustainability, but I felt weird about bringing it. Or like I was looking for avenues to bring it, instead of that’s why I’m going through the door, if that makes sense, right?
Manda: Yeah, absolutely.
Belina: So now that I’ve shifted, now that I’m out, and I have been for years, about somebody who cares about sustainability. That’s the reason why I want to walk through the door now.
Manda: So do you find many, let’s say right of centre people coming along? Or is it, as far as you can assess, mainly the people who are already generous and loving and connected. And if anyone listening thinks they’re right of centre and that they are generous, loving and connected, please get in touch. Because this is, I’m sure, a huge blindspot on my part. And it’s not that all Tories are actually inherently evil. At least I’m prepared to believe that if someone can persuade me of it in ways that I find authentic. So Belina might be that person. Have you had many right wing people turn up?
Belina: No. Yeah. And it’s funny, a friend of mine, a really beautiful friend of mine who is… I grew up moving to many different countries and places and stuff, and she was a friend of mine from North Carolina. And she’s actually, she and her family are quite liberal. She’s a music teacher, but in quite a conservative area. And so the people that are around her that don’t believe in the pandemic or don’t believe in any of this stuff, she calls spreadnecks instead of rednecks, that was very nice. But it’s funny, she kept trying to get me to listen to a comedy bit by right wingers that she finds funny, even though she doesn’t share their values. And I couldn’t because my stuff is so riding the energy, I just couldn’t. Like, I got 15 seconds and I’m like, No, I just can’t because they’re not coming from…
Belina: You know, like, and everybody’s welcome to play in the field. But it’s not what I want to help get stronger and more powerful. I want the people who just want permission to bring more love. Who want permission to kind of heal and remember that they’re not alone and, you know, like they’re not in it all by themselves, but also to take themselves more lightly. Like, you know, improv I think of is happy Buddhism sometimes, where it’s sort of, you know, like it’s sort of tilted a little with joy. And the comedy lens of of Stand-Up…let me go back. The reason I combine those two is because I was doing a lot of improv mindsets more and more with sustainability people. I worked with the Red Cross Climate Centre for a while and brought interactivity in the improv way to a side event of the COP, called Development and Climate Days for Disaster risk reduction. That sort of crowd. And they’re known as like the fun side event of the COP and they get like really cool stuff done. I’d been at a Degrowth conference kind of a few years before and there was this fabulous man named Pablo Suarez, who was from the Red Cross Climate Centre, and he was using play to get information across to farmers because he realised every time he got out the spreadsheets or the charts.They didn’t want to hear it.
Belina: So he was using things like dice to help them understand probability and being… He’s just masterful at it. When I met him, I’m like, We need to talk. So I was on the board of directors of something called the Applied Improv Network at that point, and I sort of lovingly stalked him for about three years just because I loved what he done. And I said, Please come to one of our conferences. And when he came, he really got it. So that there was a formal alliance that was made between the Applied Improv Network and the Red Cross Climate Centre. And that’s why we went to the COP. And then they’ve done like loads of other stuff since then together and that just made perfect sense to me, because humanitarian responders need to be able to improvise on the ground. They do it well. And what they were using us for is how can we communicate and collaborate across organisation, or even within the same organisation when the departments are really different. And the improv really helps for that too. To just let’s park the egos, let’s park the agendas and just what’s needed here and how do we be of service of that.
Manda: Yes. And I’m thinking that I absolutely hear you. I can imagine 15 seconds into what hard right Republicans think is funny, would would have me basically lying on the floor bashing my head against a wall. But somehow we need to bring everybody together. And I’m guessing that they would have the same response to things that we think are funny. And that somewhere along the line we have to get to the root of what is it that we do all hold in common, because our framing of the worlds are so different at the moment and tribalism makes them more different. And I imagine, if we were to get I don’t know, someone from North Carolina who isn’t your friend music teacher, and asked them what their priorities were, they would probably say it was about community and being loving and generous and connected. It’s just that what those words mean to them or the image that they have of the people they’re being generous and loving and connected with, is potentially different to ours. And have you come up against that wall in a way that gives you a sense of how to dissolve it? And if the answer is no, then it’s no.
Belina: The improv and the stand up in the way that I’m doing it seems remarkably and beautifully universal. So I gave improv workshops in Tehran, in Tokyo, and like all these different places, and there’s something joyful about just that human connection and, and being held in a loving space. And I’m guessing some of them are more conservative than others. You know, I’m part French, and France was the hardest place to do it. For some reason, I think it’s because their education system is so like analytic. Or if they’re doing something joyful, it’s like frivolous; important but like, separate from the work. And my stuff I even try to not call things icebreakers, because it’s like no, no, this is we’re practising how to do the work. This is part of the work. The how is part of the what. But France for some reason was a tricky. Germany like, you know, like they love it. So I’ve done it in many different things. I’ve worked with a big chemical company BASF and, and for me I’m mildly dyslexic and for me I had to keep… Because it was more on service design and creativity and bringing improv in for service design for them. And and they’re very safety conscious. They have a very, know internally they want to make sure that they don’t spill chemicals and all this stuff. And I could tell I had a tricky gig because I had trained up like some of their managers to watch after groups.
Belina: And the whole thing was like, okay, at one point at a certain time you’re going to have the group say, We like that idea of the other group more than this one. They’re going to help them prioritise. And I go in there and it was just about to happen and the lady said, Which one do you vote against? Like, it wasn’t like, what would you vote for? But it’s which one do you vote against? And I’m like, Woo, I got my, I got like, I got to work on this. But what kept me happy in this slightly stressful gig with them, was to keep BASF in order I had to remember the phrase, I created the phrase ‘boobs and so forth’. Just so I wouldn’t mess up the things when I was telling them like, ‘So you BASF people’. So I would get it in the right order. And as a Stand-Up, I actually said that in Germany, like this is what I did, so next time you see a billboard, you could do boobs and so forth as like a hand motion. And I was told, like months after the set that my friend and her boyfriend had been passing and they both went like I did the hand motion in front of BASF. And it made me really happy. And I think I went off piste there. Sorry.
Manda: That’s okay. Off piste is good. And heading back to something you said earlier, you said you’ve been to Bhutan, which is where they have gross national happiness instead of GDP, which always strikes me as a very good thing. I met a guy once who claimed he knew everything and reckoned it was all a marketing ploy. But I thought, I don’t care if it’s a marketing ploy, if they’re still spreading Gross National Happiness. He was someone who thought GDP was the only index that mattered, so I don’t necessarily take him seriously. But what was it like in Bhutan? I’m just really interested that they got you there to help with their gross national happiness, maybe?
Belina: I got to work with a communication company there, and it was through a friend of mine from the Philippines who does really cool performance improv, but he also does humanitarian improv stuff. But he had a connection with Bhutan. I had always wanted to go. This company said yes. So I got to work with social entrepreneurs on improvising and how they can use it to better design better services for the people that they support. And I also got to work with Bhutanese journalists who wanted to focus on environmental stuff, on how to use it to communicate more effectively. Have we talked about let go, notice more, Use everything?
Manda: You said at the beginning. This was the three rules. Yes.
Belina: Yeah. So Robert Pointon’s thing. Let go of anything that’s not serving you in the moment. Notice if something’s not serving you or notice like more about your resources and use everything of service of what you’re there to do. And so that’s Robert Pointon’s core capabilities of improvisation; what are we doing when we improvise? And when I shared that in Bhutan, my favourite feedback was this was actually a spiritual practice. I love that. That was my favourite one. And somebody else said, like, Let go, that’s very Buddhist.
Manda: I was thinking when you said that, that it did feel very Buddhist, that let go and notice everything, noticed more, I guess. Yeah, that’s exactly what we do when we meditate. But you’re doing it as a living practice, which in the end is what it’s for. I had a teacher once who said, We don’t practice meditation to be better people, we practice meditation to be better at meditating. But it took me about 5 minutes to go: I don’t know, actually. I’m practising meditation so that I can be fully present in the moment through waking and sleeping. Otherwise there’s no point. It’s like practising painting a wall so that you can paint more walls, which unless it’s your job, there’s no point. I thought that was extremely lovely.
Manda: As we move on, you are a part of something called the Thrivable World Quest, which just seems to me such a lovely title. Tell us a little bit about what that is, how it arose and what it does.
Belina: Yeah, thank you. So there’s this fabulous lady named Michelle Holliday, and she did a TEDx and I fell in love with it. And I was in the UK and and I was supposed to go to Montreal. It was one of those weird things where it’s like, I feel like I have to apply to do a workshop at this conference. I have no idea why, I don’t have enough money to go, but I have to do this. I don’t know if you’ve ever had that happen before. And I did, and they accepted me and I’m like, Oh no, I have to go now to Montreal! And I asked my friends like, you know, I think I had seen her TEDx talk, and I said, It’s a TEDx talk. And I said, like, if I’m lucky, does anybody know her? And if I’m lucky, I can have coffee with her. And I ended up connecting with her and she said, Just come stay at my house. So I stayed at her house and she helped me run a few workshops outside of the De-growth conference. That’s the same one I met Pablo at. I think it was 2012, and I realised UK was getting more and more angry. I’d lived there for 15 years. Since 2008 it was sort of just kept sliding down and people were, you know, like really unhappy. And because I work energetically, I was just finding that really overwhelming. And so I was like, I can’t… I’m going to visit Montreal, I’m going to be a visitor for slightly over a year, to work with this lady and see what we can co-create together.
Belina: So she has this really cool model that’s very holistic and a beautiful question. Her driving question is what would be different in your organisation if we really wanted life on the planet to thrive? And we’re like, okay, that’s a beautiful thing. But she also knew to get there play was really important, but she didn’t know how. And that’s where I’m like, Ooh, I can help you. So she has this model that’s, that’s wonderful and friends of mine were running something called the Global Service Jam. And I thought, okay. And actually I’d been a mentor and stuff for that, but I was like, I want to run something joyful with the lens of sustainability and have it be my secret way to teach a bunch of people who’ve never met improv before. So that they can engender trust quickly, embody the topic that we’re there to do, but also have that improv experience. So that if there’s unprecedented weather, they can respond more effectively. It’s a fractal thing, improv. So we did it. We launched it in, I think it was January, so this must have been 2013, because January 2014 is when we launched it and we did nine different events and each event had multiple cities around the world. And we had Tehran and we had Tokyo again and we had Berlin and Baltimore and a bunch of cities.
And it was a three and a half hour event and we would have a topic that was kind of secretly from her model, but, you know, like some people hate models. So and anyway, all the bits of her model are connected. It’s not a rigid thing, as you would imagine, because it’s about life. So we had this whole kind of mythology around it that we’re on, it’s a thrivable world quest. We’re all lovely pirates. And each each of the bits of the model are an island, and there’s going to be multiple ships going to the island. But instead of hoarding the treasure that we find, we’re going to share it with each other and the world. So that’s what we did. And. And yeah, that’s what the thrivable world quest is. So if anybody sort of looks up the website, it sort of looks like.. It’s sort of frozen in time, kind of like, you know, in Star Wars where Han Solo got frozen by Jabba the Hutt and he’s sort of stuck there? Our website is a little bit like that. But I brought all of that stuff and I did some workshops at the Eden Project, like off the back of that, because they loved me having done that.
Manda: Brilliant. I’m thinking I should connect you up with Sam Conniff who wrote the book Be More Pirate, because he thinks pirates were loveable people anyway. They created some of the first social systems. They had some of the first pensions, they had an injury pension so that if anyone on the ship got injured, they got a special share. So it was in everybody’s interest to make sure that nobody got injured. And he said they had the best marketing, because they had the skull and crossbones. And once they’d established the reputation of that, 90% of the time, you’d run it up and a ship just surrenders and nobody gets hurt and you get all the gold and you don’t have to pay out the injury pensions. Nobody loses an arm or leg or an eye or anything. And they had same sex marriages and they had a form of governance where there was the captain who was the captain in a war, and then there was the quartermaster, who was a much more democratically elected person who ran the ship when you weren’t in battle.
Manda: What’s not to like? It was brilliant. So I think bringing that together with the Thrivable World Quest, that sounds so exciting. And I love this question. There must be something about Montreal, because a few weeks ago we spoke to B.Lorraine Smith, who is also, her materiality thing is all about how do companies behave if instead of producing a 750 page greenwash document that they’ve paid several hundred thousand dollars for someone to create, showing how important they think their green credentials are, if they actually did stuff that was was designed, their whole business was designed to create a world that would flourish. And she’s in Montreal also. So it must be we all need to go to Montreal. Clearly when we apply for political asylum from whatever the heck hell England is becoming, Montreal is going to be high on the list. I can learn French. It’ll be okay. You just need to get there. Because you you did leave Canada under an armed escort. It didn’t sound quite as fluffy as you’re making it sound. You want to tell us about that?.
Belina: Sure. Yeah. I was a little surprised at that too. So I still have my limited company in the UK, but I looked into the legality of actually sort of moving to Montreal. And if you’re not under 36 and a millionaire, it’s kind of hard. So what I kept doing is, they’d let me stay for X amount of time and then fly out and do something in England and then come back. And my last time there around the year mark, they sort of were like, You’ve been here quite a long time. So they stamped something grey and documented into my passport. And so I always had like my next flight out so I could always prove like, I’m only here for this. And they said, like, you really got to be at the airport when you… And you got to come 4 hours early and you got to call on a specific grey phone, when I got to the airport, so that somebody could make sure that I was getting on the plane. And what was so nice actually, was I had a lot of sort of soul mates in Montreal that I didn’t know about. So a year was a good time to kind of seed all of that good stuff. And I was really ready to be in the world. And that’s I kind of launched the Using Improv to Save the World tour from there. So yeah, so I called the Grey Phone and a nice man on the other side of security met me and he just made sure that I got on the plane and he had a gun. Like he didn’t point it at me or anything, but like he did have a gun. And I thought like, what am I going to do, giggle people to death? Like, I didn’t… I started the Thrivable World Quest.
Belina: That’s how I left Montreal. But I’ve been back since. It’s like they haven’t banned me or anything.
Manda: Okay. You’re okay to get in. So let’s assume we really don’t have very long. Are you seeing the kind of ripple effects of what you’re doing, shifting people to the edges where something might emerge? Because what we see, I think when we watch television, which I don’t, but I occasionally peer over Faith’s shoulder or read Twitter. We’re fed a diet of the bad stuff. But with this podcast and the conversations I’m having, there is so much generative stuff just under the surface but also just under the radar. And you seem to be in place to really see what’s happening just under the radar. So can you give us some cheery stuff from under the radar and tell us that it’s all about to break out above the radar quite soon, please?
Belina: I hope so. Yeah, I do, actually. I mean, the reason I’m about to go to Honduras for the third time in a year. Okay, So I don’t know if you’ve been to the Frontline Club. It’s like my favourite place on the planet in London, and it’s the Independent Journalist Club, and they just do amazing documentaries.
Manda: I’ve had lunch there several times, yes, but I don’t go in the evenings.
Belina: About 11 years ago I saw a documentary called Up In Smoke, and it’s not the Cheech and Chong film, it’s a documentary. And it was about a really interesting scientist, ecologist who made a breakthrough in an alternative to slash and burn farming. Like it’s a nature based, really powerful thing. And I asked the first question. I was like, How can I help you? And that tropical ecologist is now my partner. And that happened during the pandemic. So several years later, we had stayed in touch. And the filmmaker who made that, who is British, is living in Berlin. So the tropical ecologist, he’s based normally in Cornwall, but he has this project that he’s done for many years in Honduras. They now have 420 families just in Honduras, who switched from slash and burn to this nature based organic agroforestry solution. There is a community saying we want to use the solution now to knit back together two pieces of national park that they had burned asunder. And that’s the first time that’s happening in Central America. Now, here’s here’s the cool bit that the universe did. So right before I was about to go to first Peru to work with Shape and then to Honduras to see my fella and see the project in person. I was working with Tchibo. I don’t know if you’ve heard of them?
Belina: I think of them as coffee and pyjamas because they sell a weird combination of things. They’re a really big German company. And I was working with these great ladies in the Netherlands, who had been for years working with Tchibo to train facilitators who protect human rights, to work with the people in their supplier factories. And the champion for that is an awesome internal tchibo champion for goodness. Like she is an activator of awesomeness. So she had made sure that that program became really powerful. But then she shifted to coffee, but she was still in touch with what the human rights crowd was doing. And I did, using Improv to Save the World Workshop with them in the summer, mostly because I was home and they said, Can you do this next week? And I said, Sure. And they loved it so much. And they said, Look, can you design a three day conference on working with power for us? And what I did is I combined improv Solution Focus, which sort of sits in the landscape of positive, appreciative inquiry, positive psychology. It’s a really lovely approach to change. And intuitively I’m like, we need to do something like a Quaker Clearness committee at the end of each of these three days. And we did, and it just blew their minds and it was incredibly powerful.
Belina: And the coffee lady was in that, and I said, Oh, by the way, I’m going to Honduras. Do you have any suppliers in Honduras? And she said, Yes. And I said, Here’s the Inga Foundation. This is the group I’m about to visit. Do you think any of your suppliers might be interested in checking out you know, what this powerful system can do? And so we did an experiment in December, last December. So it was a bunch of agronomists, giggly me and the Inca Foundation. What they did, we took them to the demo farm in the morning, and then they had me doing improv with them in the afternoons to have really good conversations about biodiversity. How do we improve the life of farmers, How might we do this better if we really wanted life to thrive? They loved it. And they said, You know what? We’ve never had a training like that. All of our agronomists always train the farmers in a very didactic style. Can we do a training of trainers in May? And that was my second time in Honduras. I was there with a fabulous lady from Peru. And, you know, part of me is like, Oh my God, there’s a bunch of ladies going into a room of Latino agronomist engineering men, and we’re going to sit in a circle and talk about our feelings for three days, like, what are we doing? And they loved it.
Belina: And it totally shifted. They, like, learnt it, adapted it, and were ready to try it with farmers. And what was really powerful for me was: an organisation that wants to follow a nature based solution has to be able to improvise. Because if you try to implement a nature based solution in a didactic and linear way, it ain’t going to happen. And I think I was like working around towards that for a really long time. But that became really clear, like when organisations tried to bring the approach of Agile in, but they couldn’t improvise and it fell over and it didn’t work. Same thing with if companies really want to make a profound change and they want to use nature based stuff, which is like a lot of the technology that everybody’s clinging to, doesn’t do it. Like we’ve got to go back to nature. So yeah, so they love it. And now they’re going to pair up, this was my suggestion, they’re going to pair up their agronomists and like a key coffee farmer to the Inga Foundation for two weeks at a time, to really deeply embed them, to bring it back and adapt it back with their coffee farmers. So that’s some good news I think.
Manda: That is just amazing. That’s yes, very, very inspiring. Well done, that woman. And I love it. That an organisation that wants to implement nature based solutions has to learn to improvise. So actually the single most important thing that any of us can be doing is spreading the concept of improvisation at all of the levels of whatever networks we’re in. So that exactly as you said, I cannot imagine a group of women sitting down with a group of Latino agronomist, engineers, (men) and getting them all to talk about their feelings. That just… I’m thinking possibly Latino better than… Let’s sit down with a group of agricultural engineers in the UK and get them to talk about their feelings. But I’m sure actually in the end, you’re your skill set and your capacity to improvise in the moment will give them the space to do it. Because my experience is that in the beginning, if you said right, you’re going to sit and talk about your feelings, they would just get up and walk out. But if you introduce it in a way that allows that to happen, that actually most people are really very glad to have the opportunity to do that.
Belina: It was like two days after we had the trainer. The two kind of top managers who are awesome in the supplier company, who are like running the agronomists. The two guys are great and they were part of the training. They had to go to a site that they thought was going to have X amount of farmers and there was three times X, it was like around 100 people; they were not expecting that and they had to throw out their plan. And like, this is it, you know, this is it. We’ve got to use some stuff we just used. And they got them into needs based and they had great conversations because they had to shift from, Chara who I co facilitated with, said we can’t do just training anymore. We have to do training, facilitation and learner. You have to be all three every time you meet with people. And and it was so profound and they said not only have they adapted with farmers now, they always meet in a circle. They’d never met in a circle with the farmers before. But they’re using things like finding the value in each other’s ideas with their wives and children as well.
Manda: Wow. That will change the world. Okay, I think that’s a good place to end on because we’ve gone way over time, as we always do. Well, yeah, we seem to have a very patient audience. Thank you people for listening, but that was just great. The idea that we can begin to bring in the people who are actually every bit as impacted as the people that generally get sent to hold the conversations. And that they can be given the emotional tools. I think at the start of this conversation I hadn’t realised the extent to which what you’re teaching is a resilience tool. Tool’s not the right word, but my brain is switched off and I can’t think. But it’s there. What you’re doing is helping people to cope. You’re giving them coping strategies and ways that actually work and that they can share. And if this is replicable and it begins to share, if it’s got an our number greater than one, as we know, it will spread around the planet and make a huge difference. So all we have to do is make that our number greater than one. So I’m definitely planning to come on one of your courses, see how I can manage to do that. So Belina, thank you so much for coming on to the Accidental Girls podcast. I would love to have another conversation in about six months and find out where you’ve got to, but for now, that was fantastic.
Belina: Thank you. Thank you so much. This has been delightful. Thank you.
Manda: And that’s it for another week. Huge thanks to Belina for all she is and does. And if you too want to find out how to be generous, connected and loving, even while afraid. Or possibly even while not afraid, she has some courses coming up. There’s a one hour online compassionate climate comedy course on the 7th of November, so very soon and then the next seven weeks Sustainable Stand Up course starts on the 19th of January. Details of both are in the show notes, but if you want to go straight there, you’re looking for a sustainablestandup.com And even if you don’t go in the courses, finding ways to bring compassion and generosity and humour enough to step past our growing sense of terror, seems to me as vital as all of the other structural things that we are thinking of. So please find ways to be generous and compassionate and loving in your lives this week
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