First, empty your cup

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Remain a beginner always in teaching (and learning)

Clinical education can be a challenge given the diversity of learners’ experience, standpoint, discipline, areas of interest and perceived relevance of the topic. My approach to this blog is similar to my approach in working with health practitioners: regardless of how many months, years or decades of experience we bring, an open mind and willingness to learn are the key attributes to help take knowledge and skills to the next level.

The title of this blog post was inspired by Garr Reynolds‘ book The Naked Presenter, where he talks about applying the principles of Zen to presenting and facilitating. These include simplicity and authenticity, as well as keeping an open mind. Here is a Zen story about bringing an empty cup to the learning context:

A scientist went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the scientist talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor’s cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The scientist watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. “It’s overfull! No more will go in!” the scientist blurted. “You are like this cup,” the master replied, “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
Lately, I have been using this story to kick off a training or workshop by asking for a volunteer from the audience to read the story, and then inviting the group to collectively reflect on the implications for the work that we are going to do together. It’s a nice way to “level the playing field” when there is a mix of new versus seasoned practitioners – especially as those who are newer to the topic often feel constrained from contributing and participating actively. Underlining the reality that we are all engaged in a continuous process of learning and development – regardless of skill level – affirms the value of every voice.
Connecting and engaging the group at the start is essential in any presentation or educational session, and I like how the concept of “first, empty your cup” sparks peoples’ interest and immediately communicates respect and equity. As George Bernard Shaw said, “In the right key one can say anything, in the wrong key, nothing. The only delicate part is the establishment of the key.” A strong start helps establish the right key.
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