What LEGO Serious Play offers supervisors and supervisees

What LEGO Serious Play offers supervisors and supervisees

man constructing with Lego

24 September 2023

How might LEGO be useful in coaching supervision? Paul Sanbar, a coach, coach supervisor, and workshop facilitator, explains what LEGO Serious Play offers both supervisors and supervisees.

Coaching supervision is often a place to explore difficult or complex topics. This might seduce us sometimes into believing supervision is a space which requires weightiness, perhaps even the same kind of weightiness that the question or topic being brought to supervision has arisen out of in the first place. But as Einstein reminded us, ‘we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.’

So what if instead of leaning into the gravity of the moment, we allowed space for levity?  For example, through playful experiments with hands-on thinking using LEGO bricks. This form of awareness building – which adult learning theorist Seymour Papert termed Constructionism – suggests learning is most effective when it involves constructing a meaningful product. Papert suggests that when we play and create with tangible objects, we also build mental models to better understand the world around us, which of course can be a key intention for coaching supervision.

After years of researching the hand-mind connection, and training coaches and supervisors in LEGO Serious Play (LSP) methods with my Liminal Spaces framework, I refer to these meaningful LEGO products as ARTifacts. With a focus on visual thinking, let me invite you to picture this: An archeologist peering across a barren landscape of an unknown land. Some people see nothing, but the archeologist holds out hope that just below the deserted surface lie shards of pottery or fragments of tools, made from humankind’s greatest instrument, the hand. Using patience and the wisdom within their own hand-mind connection, we see this earthen artisan dig and brush away the dirt to find these singular items that shed some light on the unknown or unknowing. Alone, they are symbols and signposts. When connected together and reflected upon, the archeologist holding these ARTifacts might tell us a detailed story about a culture, a collective system, or a way of life.

Similarly, when in supervision with LSP, we use our hands to build an ARTifact of the case or theme we are bringing to a session, we open the possibility for Einstein’s different kind of thinking. We also give ourselves the opportunity to see and feel what moments before were just a nebulous array of thoughts in our head, or sensations in our bones.

Better yet, a skilled supervisor using a gentle balance of Gestalt and Systemic Constellations approaches might invite us to slow down further and reflect on the different parts of the ARTifact. Working in the here and now and with our whole selves (head-heart-hand) gives new perspectives to what is hidden and to what surfaces when we build our thoughts and hold them or merely see them before us. We may even manipulate the ARTifacts by adding bricks or taking some away to align with a new, clearer, way of thinking and seeing.

When we use these tactile tools, we make meaning through metaphors, which can be so valuable to the supervision journey. When a thinker shares a metaphor, they allow the supervisor to step into their conceptual system, which then enables the supervisor to ask increasingly meaningful questions about the parts of the system and the relationships between and amongst the system. So much of what is discussed in supervision involves relationships and systems. Seeing them laid out in front of our eyes is illuminating.

Similar to the way we might feel a distance between ourselves and our coaching clients, we may also notice the space between two ARTifacts that represent these two entities and be curious as to what exists between them. An attentive supervisor may even probe with a question such as: ‘If there was a brick or two between these two ARTifacts, what colour, size, and shape might they be? And if you feel inclined, reflect for a moment, and place them on the baseplate before sharing your thoughts aloud.’ Or the supervisor might pause for a moment to notice their own assortment of LEGO. They might feel them and connect a few bricks, then share aloud what is surfacing for them in the here and now.

Working in this manner, the ARTifacts themselves might ask us questions about the wider system. By simply pausing our solution-focused mind to step back and notice the Gestalt of the bricks on the baseplate, connections, and relationships may become even more apparent. Weaving in the work of cognitive linguist and metaphor theorist, George Lakoff, these ‘new metaphors are capable of creating new understandings and, therefore, new realities’ for the thinker.

Metaphors enable us to share our stories, and remind us that storytelling is part of being human. When we use the LEGO ARTifacts as the players and the stage, they form anchors to ground us in the story and help us track all the different parts playing roles inside ourselves. This allows our thinking mind to reflect on what is truly resonant so we can focus on what we’re sensing at the moment. And because what we’re not focusing on remains tangible, neither the thinker nor the supervisor loses sight of what else is in the system. Simply put, the story can have many twists and turns, but we’re almost always grounded in the here-and-now, enabling us to change the story in the way we see fit.

Can we simply grab a bunch of LEGO and hand them to our supervisees? We can – and – integral to learning how to facilitate dynamic experiences using this method is learning the foundations of LSP. We treat engaging a client with LSP methods for the first time in much the same way we engage a small child with a bunch of LEGO when they’ve never played with them before.  We show them how to connect one brick to another and more importantly, we let them know that there are no other rules to playing with LEGO. Much like a child needs a bit of context and the soft words of their elder, the new LSP tinkerer is best served if they are given some instructions and time to touch the bricks. But, unlike the child, the adult might have a list of life-learned rules around play that they may need to unlearn before they begin. Therefore, a certain knowledge of the LSP process is generally encouraged, so this becomes the generative tool it is meant to be.

Regardless of the tool, the key to creating a playful reflective space that elicits a resourcefully resonant experience is to effectively frame the activity and then, with clear psychological contracting, allow for as much freedom as possible. Like the small but sturdy walls of the local park’s sandpit, the child is free to frolic within the play space knowing where the limits are and thus unburdened by the fear of unknowing. This freedom within the frame is what allows for developmental theorist Erik Erikson to assert that the playing child advances forward to new stages of mastery and the playing adult steps sideward into another reality. And when the adult’s new reality is not only visible but also tangible, amazing things can happen.

To conclude, Einstein’s insights tell us that play is the highest form of research. So, if we see play as something that only children do, we are still thinking with that adult brain. Research suggests that as adults, we’re 96% less creative than we were as a child. As children, we had not yet learned to burden ourselves with possibilities-limiting rules or by self-doubt or even worse, self-judgment. These are the same worries and blocks that we often bring to supervision. Play unburdens us. Supervision with LSP and the Liminal Spaces framework gives new perspectives to what surfaces, and just might have you thinking like I do that #PlayIsTheWay.