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5 things we can learn from Sean Evans and the Hot Ones experience.

You may not be familiar with the YouTube show Hot Ones. Here’s a quick intro; the premise is that celebrities from all walks of life eat x10 chicken wings that progressively get hotter whilst they’re being interviewed by the charming Sean Evans. At the end of the interview, they get 30 seconds to plug the film/ album/ show/ whatever they’re selling.

On one level, it’s light entertainment; you get to watch famous people gradually unravel as the heat takes over their sense and sensibilities whilst gripping on to their rational brains and they try answering questions. On a deeper look, it’s a masterclass in deconstructing a formal and usually superficial space (the celeb interview), introducing an embodied and sensory experience coupled with uncertainty (is my body going to have a meltdown with each bite?) whilst dependent on the space holding done by the host. What results is the breaking down of walls, a display of vulnerability and intimacy and often surprising outcomes.  This got me thinking; there’s lots we can draw from Sean and his approach when it comes to holding spaces for exploration and designing new systems. Hot wings optional. Here are my top five.

1.       A clear plan with a twist:

With Hot Ones, you’re presented with the premise from the outset, there’s no trickery. People like to know what to expect, it makes them feel safer. The uncertainty comes from not knowing the outcome of their own reaction to the experience – this is the very deconstruction of the format, inhibitions shift as the embodied cognition of the participants is disrupted by their bodies being put through something unfamiliar and often shocking.

How we shape spaces and experiences should account for our audience’s predetermination towards uncertainty and adaptability. Learnings from trauma-informed design (spear-headed by the lovely folks at Chayn), shows that whether in 1:1 interviews or group sessions, keeping participants informed before, during and after, builds confidence and trust in the process. Work with particularly vulnerable groups should allow some room for emergence but the process itself should be clear.

Given the nature of our work and the topics and experiences that we often cover, can it be appropriate, within the known and predetermined processes/ spaces that we offer to switch it up, introduce the unfamiliar, surprising, or uncomfortable? Can we facilitate spaces where participants can be taken out of themselves to be exposed and vulnerable to lead to honesty, trust and better outcomes? It depends on who we’re working with obviously, one size never fits all. The “unknown” doesn’t need to be as extreme as hot wings but can be through the incorporation of walks in nature, using a short breathing exercise at the beginning or during sessions, or asking participants to bring an item that is important to them to share why. I’ve used all of these at some point over the years.


2.       Empathy towards the unknown:

Sean’s right there eating the wings along with his guests, he knows what they’re going through and simultaneously guides them through the process and occasional pain. This sharing of experience builds trust and a comradery that would be absent without it. It breaks down barriers.

For us, though we may not have first-hand experience of issues we’re working with, it can be through the understanding of the challenges that our participants may face that helps us to connect. When holding space for collaborations and multi-stakeholder co-creation, building in time for people to not just understand each other’s experiences and where they’re coming from but who they are as people, makes for deeper connections.

Deep listening practices allow for people to feel truly heard and seen. Nancy Kline’s work takes this further in Time to Think where the 10 Components of Listening also suggests that the act of being listened to allows for the better formation of the thoughts themselves. The clarity has natural knock-on effects into our actions. This is backed by science when our meta cognition (awareness of our thoughts) is coupled with interoception (awareness of our embodied responses to events/ encounters) to allow us to better understand our reactions to world events. Supporting people to feel into and notice how they respond to each other, the ideation, and the outcomes in a physical way provides added nuance and much more considered feelings towards what is being co-created.


3.        Curiosity in the unimagined:

Given the premise of the show isn’t to sell anything until the end, the interview and conversation on Hot Ones is free to flow elsewhere. The genuine interest is then their expertise, opinions, and insights. Asking good questions is an art form and using them to shape research interviews or collaborative spaces is a skill. Sean Evans is a master question crafter, asking for considered opinions and explanations. It could be from the best sandwich in the town where the person grew up to the complexities of crafting musical experiences. What approaching with curiosity does is it shows a genuine interest in what people think, the richness of their experience and a fundamental respect for who they are.

Starting from a place of curiosity allows for the emergence of magic particularly when this curiosity comes from the participants themselves. When it comes to systems change work, asking groups of experts to leave pre-conceived ideas of solutions or their own work at the door and enter the space with an open mind to see the full ecosystem and sit in the imaginings of what could be possible is frankly, really hard and takes time and often multiple iterations.

Sparking curiosity can come from shifting the dynamics of shared spaces and taking participants on an out-of-body experience where they’re asked to feel into and become something/ someone very different. The work of Joanna Macy and the Work that Reconnects, uses practices like imagining the thoughts, reflections, and feelings of non-sentient beings to what’s going on in the world, or using past and future ancestors and how they may respond to today’s actions for inter-generational reflections. This embodied approach can spark surprising responses and connection to previously untapped thoughts and emotions by asking people to get really curious in ways they may not have experienced.


4.        Rigour in the details:

Sean Evans sure does his research. He gets to ask great questions because he’s done his homework. He’s read the books, watched the films, read and watched interviews, listened to the music and as a result he knows about childhood mishaps, first jobs, second dates, the most obscure of experiences. Then he frames them into insightful questions. It’s disarming, which makes for a great TV experience but most importantly, it shows them that he’s taking this ludicrous situation, and them, seriously.

For convenors of spaces, it can’t be stressed enough how much of a difference understanding the different people, their organisations and their perspectives (which are sometimes different) can make. Add to this relational dynamics, politics (local, global or even inter-organisational!), personality types, neurodivergence, race, gender and power and there are depths and nuances coming into the room that haven’t been imagined. Rigour in the design process means that building in due diligence time to do the ground work on the characters who will be there makes for a deeper experience for all. Again, Chayn’s 9 Principle approach to trauma-informed design provides a really solid basis for thinking about what elements may be helpful for the people that you’re working with and the questions that you ask upfront for how the sessions/ sprints/ workshops should be designed and approached. It’s excellent food for thought.


5.        Personal Connection:

The success of Hot Ones rides on the fact that those previously on a pedestal are now seen as interesting, insightful but best of all, as human. Their eyes water and their noses run when hit with hot food, just like the rest of us. The fact that you learn a few things along the way is the cherry on top. It’s a personal connection for the viewer. From the interviewee, they’ve been reminded of childhood moments, teenage antics and asked to critique their career and choices whilst having an experience that exposes their vulnerabilities. They’ve shown up to do an interview and someone’s cared enough to do their research and to seek out an opinion to get to know them. They feel seen and leave a bit dazed by what their bodies have just gone through but because they’ve been guided along the way, they are better for it.

The success of collaborations, partnerships or stakeholder engagements are based on relationships. We tend to work better with people that we like, trust, respect and share values with. Having a place to explore ways of being open; sharing vulnerabilities, fears, hopes and aspirations is crucial in transforming and creating new systems. By stepping into the personal, and the whys of years of dedication and commitment to social, economic or environmental change and understanding each other, can the work on transformation truly begin. The initial success of a community like Catalyst 2030 can be attributed to the shared experience of the global pandemic and people coming together to ideate solutions and form practical actions within a place of shared values. There was a common understanding of what people were going through and what was needed by way of response – to each other, as well as the communities they served. People who’d known each other for years superficially, through being connected in a shared vision now call themselves chosen family.

A lasting takeaway is that despite the pain and getting through all the heat, the interviewees all end up thanking Sean and saying how much fun it is. They’ve been pushed physically and mentally, but they’ve come out having achieved something. That has to be the mission for the work that’s required for transforming systems and moving to regenerative development practices, otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to do it!

So, there you have it, a show with hot sauce and even hotter wings can be inspiration for creating transformative systems and effective collaborations. Who’d have thought it?


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