Noticings are observations without judgment or evaluation. Noticings acknowledge like/dislike or preferences in your internal conversation. And then noticings set those aside and focus attention on what happened or is happening. Noticings invite curiousity, further thinking and discussion about the situation. Asking good questions and actively listening are also key. Noticings can change behaviour by reflecting back what’s going on.
Noticings can be used
- in a group context (family, friends at work) to ask about choices others make
- in campaigning context to help the group take stock of what’s going on and develop or refine strategy
- in a conflict or difficult situation to intervene and change the dynamic or balance of power
Noticings are not evaluations. An evaluation is an observation with judgement, a declaration of preference or an assessment such as like or dislike.
noticing – a family example
I see the washing up hasn’t been done, and when I left after breakfast, you said you’d do them and tidy up a bit. What’s your day been like? What’s happened, why has your plan changed?
Remember, body language is also important. A neutral, genuine tone is going to send a different message then these same words stated with anger or with an accusatory tone.
evaluation – a family example
You didn’t tidy and do the washing up like you promised when I left this morning. You know how that upsets me and it’s so unfair that I’ve been out all day and now you think I’ll do the dishes too. What’s wrong with you?
We all fail to follow through with our promises sometimes, and probably already feel bad enough about that, without also coming under further attack. Noticings acknowledge a situation (pleasant or unpleasant) and then seeks to find out what happened in ways that are nonjudgmental and give space to the other person to respond.
noticings and learning (to facilitate better)
Periodically through the course we (the participants) were invited to use noticings to ask the facilitators about their choices when working with the group. Their power and usefulness in campaigning and conflict situations had also been suggested.
Noticings are no guarantee of a satisfactory resolution, but they can make a difficult situation a bit more gentle and humane for all. They remove blame and allow space for explanation and different persepectives.
Shortly after this course, I had an opportunity to use noticings in a conflict situation. Here’s what happened.
16 September 2010, Virgin Atlantic flight 761, 9.20pm, London to Nairobi
I was on my way to Kenya to work for three months and finally we were boarding. I made my way down the aisle towards the back of the plane. Finding my seat I noticed the five rows behind me were vacant, yet in the very last row sat three burly men sandwiched around a black man. Standing in the far aisle was another husky man in suit and tie. The boss? Immediately I suspected a case of forced deportation. Craning my neck and I saw the black man’s arms were tied to the armrest and his hands handcuffed together. So indeed, either forced deportation or someone very serious about the ownership of the armrest.
stopping forced deportation
Twice during my first year in the UK, I schlepped out to Heathrow to try to stop the forced removal of two participants (and friends) on the asylum seekers’ human rights advocacy course I was part of delivering. In those instances we petitioned the airline staff and passengers checking-in to complain about the use of commercial airliners to forcibly return asylum seekers to uncertain fates from countries which they had fled. We failed both times and the women were returned to their country of origins where they had escaped attempted honour-killing. Although I am relieved to report that they are both still alive, their safety and survival is a continuing concern.
Other tactics sometimes used is for asylum seekers’ supporters to buy tickets for the same flight and take nonviolent direct action to disrupt the deportation before take-off. Or asylum seekers may plead, cry, scream and try to disturb passengers to a point of passengers complaining and convincing the pilot not to comply with the Border Agency’s removal orders. If taken off the plane, it is almost certain that the asylum seekers will remain in UK immigration detention, but at least they’ve saved their lives one more day and bought time to petition their case be re-opened.
this time …
While my brain was taking in the scene, the black man’s message also seeped in. He was shouting things like ‘All my family’s here. They will kill me if I go back. Why are you taking me to Nairobi? I’m from Sierra Leone, not Kenya. Help me, passengers, help!’ He also shouted unhelpful things like ‘I will kill everyone on board. And just you wait until we’re in the air, then you’ll see.’
Given his mixed messages, he obviously hadn’t had the benefit of an asylum rights campaign training. His was just a desperate plea for anything other than the plane taking off with him on it. Since I really didn’t know what was going on but it certainly appeared not to be a situation of respect and dignity for another human being, I caught the Boss-man’s attention and simply asked, ‘What is going on? I see a man with bound hands surrounded by those other guys.’
‘Nothing to be concerned about madam, we’re in control, taking him home, fulfilling the law of the UK government.’ Then ensued a rather pointless conversation with the Boss-man. I explained my suspicion that it was a case of forced deportation and as a human rights activist that was unacceptable to me and round and round we went. The Boss-man’s tactic was one of scare, to tell me that the man was really dangerous and mad, just listen to his mixed messages, but not to worry that his personnel were extremely capable and highly trained and nothing would happen once in the air. Both of us were like broken records, his a message of scare and righteousness and mine one of human rights and the illegality of forced removals. One of the last things I asked was ‘Do you enjoy your job?’ ‘Very much,‘ he replied in a clipped tone. Carrying on, I probed, ‘So what is the best thing about it?’ to which his attitude suddenly changed and he growled that he didn’t have to tell me anything.
a camera as a weapon for justice
This, I find, is often how these types of conversations end, so I took it as signal that it was time to sit down. But almost immediately, I decided to get out my camera. As soon as I stood up and turned to focus on the last row, he stepped in front of me and snapped that taking pictures was prohibited and that if I didn’t sit down he’d have me removed from the plane. Even though I was aware this wasn’t going anywhere and I didn’t have any particular strategy, I couldn’t resisting pushing just a bit more and asked which law prohibits taking photos inside aeroplanes. He repeated three times more his sound bite about throwing me off the plane, and then I sat down.
how does the flight crew feel?
New tactic. I pushed the service button to call for a flight attendant. The Chief Purser came and we had a conversation along the same lines yet less charged. Basically he told me that it was my right as a passenger to get off if this situation upset me, but there was nothing he could do. This situation was routine, he’d flown about 40 flights with people in the same situation as that man.
In a last ditch attempt to at least gain something useful from this experience I asked him two things. One, what rights did he and his crew have if these situations caused them distress, and two, did he have any advice about how anti-deporation campaigners could build bridges with airlines and flight crew to support and respect the right of people to seek asylum and live a life free of torture and persecution?
Like me, he and his crew could refuse to fly, but they wouldn’t be paid and they’d have to go before a panel to explain their actions, and possibly would be reassigned. I didn’t ask ‘or if not, what?’. And to the second part about bridges, he said that he really didn’t know and he wasn’t interested in campaigns or campaigners. As part of the flight crew his responsibility laid with the passengers, not to asylum seekers or campaigners.
I let go of the conversation there. I was tired, he had answered my questions, and it had gone past the time for take off. I thanked him and he walked off to the back of the plane. I can imagine the conversation could easily have gone down a road exploring human rights activists as passengers and appealed to his ‘sense of duty’. But then again, maybe I had and I hadn’t even realised. Within the next ten minutes, I and 12 other passengers in those back seats were re-located to seats in business class and given a glass of champagne before take off.
And the man, all I really remember is that the rest of the journey was quiet, sadly though for him, I doubt it was a restful journey. Even more tragic was a few weeks later, another man, Jimmy Mubenga, died during a forced deportation on British Airways flight to Luanda, Angola 13 October 2010. I wasn’t on the plane, so I don’t know if any passenger spoke out in protest of the brutal treatment, but I would hope someone did.