Best known for projects—like the Trampoline Hall DIY lecture series—that combine academic pursuits with a playfully experimental ethos, this Toronto culture-scene character is now focussing his energies on a straight-forward, skills-building workshop series at the AGO on the fine art of negotiating with people.
Whether known as artist, facilitator, anecdotist or all-’round cultural character, Misha Glouberman has clearly earned his creative keep around town—most notably, for his role as the host of DIY lecture series Trampoline Hall.
In contrast to the “unuseful” classes and improvisational events he’s held through the Misha Glouberman School of Learning, Glouberman says his upcoming weekend crash course, “How to Talk to People About Things” is less about art, and more about skills-building.
In its second year running, the intensive workshop will—starting Saturday (Feb. 11)—run for a couple of weekends at the AGO, with a six-week version of the course held at Hart House’s Barnicke Gallery this spring.
In anticipation of Saturday’s launch, Glouberman mused about nature versus nurture and the novelty of having a purpose:
It’s hard to know what to call you, other than a “Toronto figure.” What career title would you give yourself?
I don’t know. It’s always a real mystery, I think. I do a lot of different things. So, “Toronto figure” seems as appropriate as anything. I do live in Toronto.
What’s the purpose of How to Talk to People about Things?
It really has a purpose, unlike a lot of my other classes. For a long time I taught classes, and they were very specifically classes that didn’t have a clear purpose—they were kind of art projects in different ways. And I kind of resented things that had a clear purpose; I’d be upset if people brought a clear purpose to them. But for this workshop, there’s a real purpose. I really want to help people with a set of skills about communication and dealing with situations of conflict and negotiation.
What’s the format of the class?
It’s a mix of stuff. It’s pretty participatory, so a lot of time is spent playing different games and doing simulation and role-play exercises—things like that. There’s a little bit of time of me lecturing—my goal is to figure out how to have as little of that as possible. Then there’s a lot of time spent talking about what you learn from these exercises. People bring in examples, but the point of the course isn’t to coach people on those specific examples, it’s more to develop skills they can use generally.
What are the kinds of things people tend to struggle with when it comes to talking to people… about things?
I think the biggest thing—the thing I’m most interested in—is that it’s incredibly hard to break out of one’s own point of view. Not only is it hard to do that, it’s hard to understand how hard it is. I think that when two people are talking to each other, in any situation where there’s a disagreement or you want different things, each of them thinks their way of seeing the situation is objective. Learning to see things from other people’s points of view is incredibly important. Understanding the degree to which that is hard is perhaps a slightly less obvious, but really important, point of view.
What makes you qualified to teach this?
I think I’ve always been really good at understanding how people talk to each other and the kinds of things that are going on; it’s something I’ve been interested in my whole life. I remember being in grade school and kids would raise their hand and ask a question and the teacher would give an answer, and I would think, “Oh, they’re not understanding each other. I can see what the kid’s asking and I can see why the teacher’s not answering [properly].” It’s evident in why I do Trampoline Hall: A person sometimes goes up on stage and says something that isn’t so clear, then the audience asks a question that isn’t so clear—part of what I do there is help clarify that communication.
More recently, I’ve gotten really interested in reading this whole body of work on negotiation.The stuff I do mostly comes out of an approach to negotiation that was developed at Harvard Law School, which I learned from a company that teaches this in Toronto called Common Outlook. I’ve worked with Common Outlook for years, helping them teach their classes. It’s proven and established stuff—not just me offering my insights, which is what most of my other classes are.
How much can being good at talking to people be learned, and how much is innate?
I think it’s very, very learnable. Massively learnable. I think that, as with almost any skills, people certainly have various degrees of proclivity for it. But there’s a tremendous amount that can be learned, partly through practice and partly through having a framework to apply something to. One of the big things is, you can do stuff forever and not get better at it if you don’t have a framework by which to judge your progress and know if you’re doing well. That’s what a lot of this material is about.
Have you changed the class much from last year’s?
It keeps evolving, in little bits and pieces. I think the biggest change for me is to figure out how to make the material more flexible as I teach. So as I get more comfortable with the material, I’m able to kind of let the course be more like a conversation and less like a lecture. But doing that takes a lot of learning on my part.
What kinds of people took the class last year?
Wonderful, nice, good people. I don’t know, it’s been a real mix. There’s a lot of people who come to talk about things in their jobs—so, people with jobs? People who are trying to figure things out with other people. In terms of age, it’s been broader than I might’ve thought initially.
Were the participants largely fans of Trampoline Hall, or of you?
That was part of the thing that was interesting to me in terms of who came out. There’s a lot of people in Toronto that teach negotiation classes, and one thing that’s a little different for me is that I sort of have a reputation on my own, which is not a reputation for doing something like this. So one of the things that’s really nice for me is there are people that took my class who weren’t originally thinking, “Oh, I’m looking to take a class in negotiation,” but rather, they hear about it because they sort of know about things I’m up to.
That for me is a really exciting audience to reach—this stuff for them is even more new than someone who was explicitly looking for the class. One of the things I hear a lot from people who took the class is they didn’t realize negotiation is something we do all the time, and it hadn’t occurred to them that this is a skill they could work on and get better at.
Do you think your workshop is part of a trend of non-traditionally artsy or hip things—like lectures—being infused with a creative quality?
I think it goes in the other direction. For quite a few years I’ve taught classes that were pretty clearly like a piece of performance art in some way, like running a participatory sound-improvisation thing. In some ways it looked like a class, but in some ways it was a performance. That was stuff that would happen in galleries or art spaces and would get funding from arts organizations and stuff like that. It was pretty much art. And now, I’m doing a class like this one, which in my mind, is somewhat of a continuation of that other work. This class is very applied, and the question of whether that can be considered part of an art practice or not, I don’t really know. I do know that there’s a lot of stuff in the art world where artists are doing things that don’t look as much like art—the Darren O’Donnell stuff is a really good example of that. Some of the stuff he does looks a little bit more like activism or social work, and increasingly, maybe it is activism or social work.
Is there a big difference between the two-day intensive version and the six-week workshop?
This is my first time teaching the crash course version on my own. I’ve taught those a lot with Common Outlook. So I don’t really know, I’m going to see how it happens. I mean, I think there’s an intensity you can bring [to the crash course], but I think a lot of it just has to do with what people’s schedules look like. For some people, it’s hard to book a weekly session, and for some people it’s hard to book a weekend.
How to Talk to People about Things runs Feb. 11-12 and again on Feb.25-26 at the AGO (317 Dundas St. W.), 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Cost of a weekend session is $248 ($200 for AGO members.) For more information on upcoming classes, visit Glouberman’s website.