“Can’t you just give us clear direction so we know what’s expected of us?” That question was asked of me ten years ago by a staff person who was frustrated with my collaborative style of leadership. He didn’t want collaboration – he simply wanted direction and clarity and top-down decision making.
What I read between the lines was this: “It makes me feel more safe when I know what’s expected of me.” And maybe a little of this: “If you’re the one making decisions and giving directions, I don’t have to share any collective responsibility. If anything goes wrong, I can blame the boss and walk away with my reputation intact.”
I didn’t change my leadership style, but it made me curious about what different people want from leadership and why. While that staff person was expressing a desire for more direction, others on my team were asking for more autonomy and decision-making power. It seemed impossible to please everyone.
I’ve been thinking back to that conversation lately as I watch the incredulous rise to power of Donald Trump. No matter how many sexist or racist comments he makes, no matter how many people with disabilities he makes fun of, and no matter how many small business owners he’s cheated, his support base remains remarkably solid. As he himself has said, he “could shoot someone and not lose votes”. (I’m glad I’m no longer teaching a course on public relations, because he’s breaking all of the “rules” I used to teach and getting away with it.)
It seems implausible that this could happen, but this article on Trump’s appeal to authoritarian personalities helps me make sense of it.
“‘Trump’s electoral strength — and his staying power — have been buoyed, above all, by Americans with authoritarian inclinations,’ political scientist Matthew MacWilliams wrote in Politico. In an online poll of 1,800 Americans, conducted in late December, he found an authoritarian mindset — that is, belief in absolute obedience to authority — was the sole ‘statistically significant variable’ that predicted support for Trump.”
“Authoritarians obey,” says the author of the study, “They rally to and follow strong leaders. And they respond aggressively to outsiders, especially when they feel threatened.”
Authoritarians hold strong values around safety, and they expect a leader to give them what they need. They don’t mind following a bully, as long as that bully is serving THEIR needs for security. Hence the popularity of Trump’s proposals to build a wall on the Mexican border and to keep Muslims from entering the country, and the way his supporters cheered when he told security to throw the protestors out of the places where he was campaigning. He makes his supporters feel safe because he won’t hesitate to rough up “the enemy”. They might even put up with some of the bullying directed at people like them (hence the surprising tolerance of Trump’s behaviour among his female supporters) if it means those who threaten them are kept at bay.
Where does an authoritarian mindset come from? According to the article quoted above, there is evidence that it is passed down from one generation to the next. Religious views can also play a strong role. Those who were conditioned by upbringing and religion to obey the authority figures at all cost are more likely to vote for someone who reflects that kind of leadership. If you grew up never allowed to question authority, no matter how illogical or unbalanced it might seem, then you are more likely to have an authoritarian mindset.
There is also a correlation with how fearful a person tends to be. Those who are, due to personality and/or conditioning, frequently motivated by fear, will be more inclined to trust an authoritarian leader because the clear boundaries such a person establishes is what makes them feel more safe.
Also, it cannot be denied that an authoritarian mindset is associated with a lack of emotional and spiritual development. As Richard Rohr says in Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, those who still cling to the black and white, right and wrong of authoritarianism are choosing to stay stuck in the first half of life. “In the first half of life, success, security, and containment are almost the only questions. They are the early stages in Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs.’ We all want and need various certitudes, constants, and insurance policies at every stage of life.” Stepping into “second-half-of-life” involves a lot more grey zones and ambiguity, so it’s a more frightening place to be.
Does it matter that some of us prefer authoritarian leadership over other styles? Shouldn’t the rest of us simply adapt a “live and let live” attitude about it and not try to change people? Don’t we all have a right to our own opinions?
Though I am deeply committed to holding space for people in a non-judgemental way (and I tried to create that environment when I was leading the people I mentioned above) I am convinced that it DOES matter. Yes, we should respect and listen without judgement to those who look for authoritarianism, and we should seek to understand their fear, but that doesn’t mean that we should allow their fear and social conditioning to make major decisions about who leads us and how we are lead. That authoritarian mindset is a sign of an immature society and it is holding us back. It must be challenged for the sake of our future.
Around the same time as my staff person asked for more authoritarian leadership from me, I was immersing myself in progressive teachings on leadership such as The Circle Way, The Art of Hosting, and Theory U. These methodologies teach that there is a “leader in ever chair”, that the “wisdom comes from within the circle”, and that “the future is emerging and not under our control”. Though these models can (and do) function within hierarchical structures, they teach us to value the wisdom and leadership at ALL levels of the hierarchy.
Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze (two people I had the pleasure of studying with in my quest for a deeper understanding about leadership), in this article on Leadership in the Age of Complexity and in their book Walk Out Walk On, say that it is time to move from “leader as hero” to “leader as host”.
“For too long, too many of us have been entranced by heroes. Perhaps it’s our desire to be saved, to not have to do the hard work, to rely on someone else to figure things out. Constantly we are barraged by politicians presenting themselves as heroes, the ones who will fix everything and make our problems go away. It’s a seductive image, an enticing promise. And we keep believing it. Somewhere there’s someone who will make it all better. Somewhere, there’s someone who’s visionary, inspiring, brilliant, trustworthy, and we’ll all happily follow him or her.”
This style of leadership may have served humanity during a simpler time, but that time is past. Now we are faced with so much complexity that we cannot rely on an outdated style of leadership.
“Heroic leadership rests on the illusion that someone can be in control. Yet we live in a world of complex systems whose very existence means they are inherently uncontrollable. No one is in charge of our food systems. No one is in charge of our schools. No one is in charge of the environment. No one is in charge of national security. No one is in charge! These systems are emergent phenomena—the result of thousands of small, local actions that converged to create powerful systems with properties that may bear little or no resemblance to the smaller actions that gave rise to them. These are the systems that now dominate our lives; they cannot be changed by working backwards, focusing on only a few simple causes. And certainly they cannot be changed by the boldest visions of our most heroic leaders.”
Instead of heroes, we need hosts. A leader-as-host knows that problems are complex and that in order to understand the full complexity of any issue, all parts of the system need to be invited in to participate and contribute. “These leaders‐as‐hosts are candid enough to admit that they don’t know what to do; they realize that it’s sheer foolishness to rely only on them for answers. But they also know they can trust in other people’s creativity and commitment to get the work done.”
A leader-as-host provides conditions and good group process for people to work together, provides resources, helps protect the boundaries, and offers unequivocal support.
In other words, a host leader holds space for the work to happen, for the issues to be wrestled with, and for the emergence of what is possible from within the circle.
Unlike a host leader, an authoritarian leader hangs onto the past as a model for the future. Consider Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. Instead of holding space for emergence, he knows that his support base clings to the ideal of a simpler, more manageable time. It’s not hard to understand, in this time of complexity, how it can feel more safe to harken back to the past when less was expected of us and the boundaries were more clear (even if that meant more racism and less concern for our environment). Don’t we all, for example, sometimes wish we could be back in our childhood homes when all that was expected of us was that we clean up our toys before bedtime?
But we “can’t go back home again”. The future will emerge with or without us. We can only hope that the right kind of leadership can and will arise (within us and around us) that will help us adapt and grow into it. If not, our planet will suffer, our marginalized people will continue to be disadvantaged, and justice will never be served for those who have been exploited.
In his book, Leading from the Emerging Future, Otto Scharmer talks about leadership not being about individuals, but about the capacity of the whole system. “The essence of leadership has always been about sensing and actualizing the future. It is about crossing the threshold and stepping into a new territory, into a future that is different from the past. The Indo-European root of the English word leadership, leith, means ‘to go forth,’ ‘to cross a threshold,’ or ‘to die.’ Letting go often feels like dying. This deep process of leadership, of letting go and letting the new and unknown come, of dying and being reborn, probably has not changed much over the course of human history. The German poet Johan Wolfgang von Goethe knew it well when he wrote, ‘And if you don’t know this dying and birth, you are merely a dreary guest on Earth.’”
What he’s talking about is essentially the liminal space that I wrote about in the past. It’s the space between stories, when nobody is in control and the best we can do is to hold space for the emerging future. We, as a global collective, are in that liminal space in more ways than one and we need the leaders who are strong enough to support us there.
With Wheatley and Scharmer, I would argue that an important part of our roles as leaders in this age of complexity is to hospice the death of our old ideas about leadership so that new ideas can be born. Authoritarianism will not serve us in the future. It will not help us address the complexity of climate change. It will not help us address racial or gender inequity.
We need leaders – at ALL levels of our governments, institutions, communities, and families – who can dance with complexity, play with possibility, and sit with their fear. We need leaders who can navigate the darkness. We need leaders who can hold seemingly opposing views and not lose sight of the space in between. We need leaders who know how to hold liminal space.
This is not meant to be a political post, and so I won’t tell you who to vote for (partly because I am Canadian and partly because I’m not sure any candidate in any election I’ve witnessed truly reflects the kind of leadership I’m talking about – they are, after all, products of a system we’ve created which may no longer work for the future).
Instead, I will ask you… how is this style of leadership showing up in your own life? Are you serving as host or hero? Are you holding space for the emerging future? And are you asking it of the leaders that you follow and/or elect? Or are you still clinging to the past and hoping the right hero will ride in on a white horse to save us?
It’s time to stop waiting. There are no heroes who can save us. There is only us.
* * * * * *
Note: If you’re interested in exploring more about what it means to have “a leader in every chair”, consider joining me and my colleague, Sharon Faulds, for a workshop on The Circle Way, November 24-26.
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Here in Canada, we’ve elected a new Prime Minister. Perhaps you’ve seen the headlines, touting his good looks, his sunny disposition, his vision for a more equitable country, his way of wearing his heart on his sleeve, his lineage as the son of a former Prime Minister, and his well-spoken yoga-teacher wife.
You may have also seen headlines about his youthfulness, his inexperience, his lack of realism, his marijuana-smoking, or his people-pleasing ways.
As is always the case when someone rises to power, we seek to turn him into either hero or villain. If we voted for him, he becomes hero and we set him up with unrealistically high expectations. If we didn’t vote for him, we scrutinize every move, compare him to the person we’d rather elevate to hero status, and prove our opinions right when he begins to make mistakes.
In time, many of those who saw him as hero will realize his halo is a little rusty and he makes mistakes just like the rest of us mere mortals. Then those who saw him as villain will smile and say “I told you so!”
When I first became a leader in the federal government (though, admittedly, far from the rank of Prime Minister), I struggled with this quite a bit. There were always those among my staff who put me on a pedestal and others who were convinced I was too young/inexperienced/optimistic/female/etc. Due to my own insecurities, I felt immense pressure to live up to the expectations of some and improve the perception of others.
In one particularly memorable instance, after I’d moved to non-profit leadership, a member of my staff started out believing I was infallible and an answer to prayer, and then, a couple of years later, was sending me unpleasant emails on a daily basis pointing out every mistake I’d ever made since I started in the job. (She’d kept notes in a little black book.) For unrelated reasons, this staff person had to be fired, and then her utter disdain for me became an even more unpleasant lawsuit (that was eventually thrown out of court, thankfully).
Around that time, I wrote a blog post about how, because I am human and fallible, I will let everyone down at least once. That’s the way of any parent/teacher/leader/human – we make mistakes. As I said in that post, though, because I will continue to let people down, I will also continue to wait for grace.
Justin Trudeau will let us down some day too. And so will every celebrity, author, friend, politician, or parent we ever put on a pedestal. And hopefully we’ll have enough grace to forgive them and continue to support them as they get back up off the ground and carry on.
Why do we seek to make heroes of our leaders, celebrities, teachers, authors, etc.? Our hero worship always tells us something about our own stories of inadequacy. We believe our heroes will fix our problems, protect us with their super-human courage, or make the world a better place with their exceptional wisdom or beauty. We choose heroes because we believe they are not as weak as us.
The problem with hero worship is that it gives us a false sense that we no longer need to take responsibility.
If a politician is a hero, then it’s HIS responsibility to fix the problems of this country, not MINE. If a teacher is a hero, then it’s HER responsibility to make sure I learn, not MINE. If a celebrity or author is a hero, then it’s HER responsibility to make sure I’m entertained, not MINE.
Hero worship is just smoke and mirrors, though – it doesn’t foster real change. For that, we need engagement. We need citizens who see a leader for who s/he really is, accept them as both flawed and powerful, and choose to work alongside them to bring about a better future. We need people who will see the leader in THEMSELVES as well as others.
The greatest possibility for this kind of engagement lies not in a hierarchical model, where the leader stands out alone as the hero at the top of the pyramid, but in a circle, where there is a “leader in every chair”. In a circle, each person takes responsibility for what they contribute to the whole. Nobody gets to pass the buck.
The longer I’ve been involved in leadership, the more I’ve deliberately moved away from a hierarchical model. I don’t want anyone looking to me as their hero – I want to sit alongside them, wrestle through our questions together, and find new possibilities in the collective rather than in any one person. Even in my classrooms, I often had my students move into circles for discussion, so that each one would take more responsibility for what they contributed to the shared learning experience and none would look to me for all the answers.
When I spend too much time in front of a classroom or on stage or at the top of a hierarchy, I find it plays tricks with my ego and I once again feel the pressure to live up to the image people are choosing to cast me in. There is nothing healthy about trying to satisfy someone’s need for a hero.
When I sit in the circle, on the other hand, I am neither hero nor villain, I am simply human. And so are you.
Yes, I am still a leader in the circle, but more importantly, I have become an intentional listener, for in the circle, we always listen more than we talk. And each person in the circle is a leader and listener along with me. And as we each take responsibility for both the leading and the listening, both healing and change begin to happen.
Imagine what would happen if the circle began to inform our political spaces.Imagine if politicians were taught to sit regularly with their constituents and listen more than they speak. Imagine if opposing parties were required to sit in circle with each other and not interrupt when someone brought a good idea to the circle. Imagine if those in power were required to sit with those who’ve been marginalized and pass a talking piece so that nobody controls the narrative.
Imagine if Justin Trudeau were required to consult with a wisdom circle on a daily basis – one that kept him both grounded and accountable.
Now THAT’s a political system I could get excited about.
Shall we set aside our expectations that our heroes will fix the problems of the political system and work together to bring about real change?
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Last week, I had a unique opportunity to travel to Sedona to support a 5-day retreat and working session. A business development consulting company was gathering their team for a two day retreat, and then was offering a brand new, one-of-a-kind program where a client joined them on retreat for three days and was taken through an intense process of visioning and business development. By the end of the three days, the intention was for the client to leave with a new website and business plan. This meant that they were doing all of the writing, logo design, website development, and photography on-site in a really intense period of time.
The owner of the consulting company had the foresight to bring me in to help hold the space, host circle, and take the process to a deeper level. Though we didn’t articulate all of these things ahead of time, I was also there to do some coaching, help the client through some blocks when they came up, ground them in the soul of the place when things got crazy, and create ceremony in support of what was being done (ie. smudging, release ceremony, labyrinth walking, etc.).
None of us really knew what to expect in this uncharted territory, and some of the things that came up were surprising for all of us. There was one thing I knew, though… in this kind of intense environment, the shadow is sure to show up.
“We’re excited to begin,” I said the first day, when we gathered in circle together, “but there are some things worth considering even in our excitement and anticipation. Know this – at some point this week, things will get uncomfortable. The shadow will show up in the group. Suddenly, you’ll discover you don’t like each other as much as you thought you did, and you might not even like yourself. Little things will get on your nerves and you’ll get frustrated and restless and you may be tempted to walk away.”
“I know it will be uncomfortable, but, if you stick with it, that discomfort will help you grow. In the end, it can make this team stronger than it ever was.”
Within a few days, true to form, the shadow was there in both obvious and not-so-obvious ways. What seemed easy at the beginning started to feel hard. The relationships that seemed solid at the beginning started to feel a little wobbly. Good work and lots of learning and stretching was being done, but there was an undercurrent that couldn’t be denied. Some of that had to do with the newness of the experiment and some had to do with the intensity of trying to get the work done in a shared space.
We didn’t have a lot of time for processing what went on while we were still together, but I’ve continued to think about it since and will continue to reflect back on it with my client.
Every time I witness this kind of shadow showing up in a group, I think back to my first trip to Africa. It was an intense time, traveling in a place of heart-breaking poverty with a group of 12 people I didn’t know. That experience became, for me, a microcosm of what it means to build a community.
Fortunately, a friend had recommended the book A Different Drum, by M. Scott Peck a few months before my trip and that helped me process what happened while we were together. In the book, Peck talks about the four stages of community.
At the beginning, there is pseudocommunity when people are extremely pleasant with each other and avoid disagreement. “People, wanting to be loving, withhold some of the truth about themselves and their feelings in order to avoid conflict. Individual differences are minimized, unacknowledged, or ignored. The group may appear to be functioning smoothly but individuality, intimacy, and honesty are crushed.”
The second stage is chaos, when individual differences start to surface. “The chaos centers around well-intentioned but misguided attempts to heal and convert. Individual differences come out in the open and the group attempts to obliterate them. It is a stage of uncreative and unconstructive fighting and struggle. It is no fun.”
If people dare to stick around after chaos has erupted, they reach a stage of emptiness. “It is the hardest and most crucial stage of community development. It means members emptying themselves of barriers to communication. The most common barriers are expectations and preconceptions; prejudices; ideology, theology and solutions; the need to heal, fix, convert or solve; and the need to control. The stage of emptiness is ushered in as members begin to share their own brokenness–their defeats, failures, and fears, rather than acting as if they ‘have it all together.’”
A group committed to wholeness will eventually get to true community. In this stage, the group chooses to embrace not only the light but the shadow. “True community is both joyful and realistic. The transformation of the group from a collection of individuals into true community requires little deaths in many of the individuals. But it is also a time of group death, group dying. Through this emptiness, this sacrifice, comes true community. Members begin to speak of their deepest and most vulnerable parts–and others will simply listen. There will be tears–of sorrow, of joy. An extraordinary amount of healing begins to occur.”
During my trip to Africa, I found it quite remarkable to witness exactly what M. Scott Peck had said would happen. When our group plunged from the warm fuzzies of pseudo-community and into the chaos and shadow, it was uncomfortable, but I wasn’t surprised to see it coming. Fortunately, many of us were willing to stick with our relationships long enough and empty ourselves of our expectations, prejudices, and solutions to get to something deeper.
I try to encourage people not to give up hope when chaos erupts and shadow shows up in unexpected places. Instead I invite them to dare to persevere, and dare to sit with the discomfort until we get to the really juicy, really authentic place of true community. (In a future post, I will write more about what it feels like to be a leader or facilitator in such a process and how our own shadow shows up and threatens to further sabotage the growth of the community. I am still working through some of my own shadow that came up last week and continues to stick with me this week.)
I deeply believe that this is why we need containers like the circle to help us hold space for this kind of emergence. When we are intentional about our conversations right from the start, when we commit to certain agreements and have a shared understanding of the process, we create a space where we can look into the shadow without blame, shame, or avoidance. I wasn’t deeply enough immersed in circle work to bring it into the African experience, but I don’t think I’d step into such an intense experience again without it. Even something as simple as the talking piece can ensure that the conversation is slowed down enough that each voice in the room is heard and respected.
Last week, we kept returning to the circle, and though there were days when there was “just too much work to do” and the time in circle took away from the work time, I insisted that at least a check-in was necessary. When we sit in a common space where we look into each other’s eyes, we speak with intention, listen with attention, and tend the well-being of the circle, we have some hope of deepening our connections and ensuring we stick with the process even when the chaos hits.
Whatever relationship you are in – whether it is in a community, in a marriage, in a workplace, etc. – you can be assured that there will be times when the shadow makes it so uncomfortable you’ll want to run from it. The tough work will be in deciding whether it is worth it to stick with the process and build a strong enough container to get through to the really good stuff.
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“…whenever I dehumanize another, I necessarily dehumanize all that is human—including myself.”
– from the book Anatomy of Peace
This week, I’ve been thinking about how we hold space when there is an imbalance in power or privilege.
This has been a long-time inquiry for me. Though I didn’t use the same language at the time, I wrote my first blog post about how I might hold space for people I was about to meet in Africa whose socio-economic status was very different from mine.
I had long dreamed of going to Africa, but ten and a half years ago, when I was getting ready for my first trip, I was feeling nervous about it. I wasn’t nervous about snakes or bugs or uncomfortable sleeping arrangements – I was nervous about the way relationships would unfold.
I was traveling with the non-profit I worked for at the time and we were visiting some of the villages where our funding had supported hunger-related projects. That meant that, in almost every encounter I’d have, I would represent the donor and they would be the recipients. I was pretty sure that those two predetermined roles would change how we’d interact. My desire to be in authentic and reciprocal relationship with them would be hindered by their perceived need to “keep the donor happy”.
That challenge was further exacerbated by:
- a history of colonization in the countries where I was visiting, which meant that my white skin would automatically be associated with the colonizers
- my own history of growing up in a church where white missionaries often visited and told us about how they were working in Africa to convert the heathens
In that first blog post, I wrestled with what it would mean to carry that baggage with me to Africa. I ended the post with this… I won’t expect that my English words are somehow endued with greater wisdom than theirs. I will listen and let them teach me. I will open my heart to the hope and the hurt. I will tread lightly on their soil and let the colours wash over me. I will allow the journey to stretch me and I will come back larger than before.
In another blog post, after the trip, I wrote about how hard it was to find the right words to say to the people who’d gathered at a food distribution site…What can I say that is worthy of this moment? How can I assure them I long for friendship, not reverence?
That trip, and other subsequent ones to Ethiopia, India, and Bangladesh, stretched and challenged me. Each time I went, I wrestled with the way that my privilege and access to power would change my interactions. I became more and more intentional about entering into relationships with humility, grace, and openheartedness. I did my best to treat each person with dignity and respect, to learn from them, and to challenge my own assumptions and prejudice.
Nowadays, I don’t have the same travel opportunities, but I still find myself in a variety of situations in which there is imbalance. Sometimes I have been the one with less privilege and power (like when I used to work in corporate environments with male scientists, or when I traveled with and offered support to mostly male politicians). Other times, I have access to more power and/or privilege than others in the room (like when I am the teacher at the front of the classroom, or I am meeting with people of Indigenous descent). In each situation, I find myself aware of how the imbalance impacts the way we interact.
This week in Canada, the final report on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings related to Residential Schools has come out and it raises this question for all of us across the country. Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the commission, has urged us to take action to address the cultural genocide of residential schools on aboriginal communities. Those are strong words (and necessary, I believe) and they call all of us to acknowledge the divide in power and privilege between the Indigenous people and those of us who are Settlers in this nation.
How do we hold space in a country in which there has been genocide? How do we who are settlers acknowledge our own privilege and the wounds inflicted by our ancestors in an effort to bring healing to us all?
This is life-long learning for me, and I don’t always get it right (as I shared after our first race relations conversation), but I keep trying because I know this is important. I know this matters, no matter which side of the power imbalance I stand on.
If we want to see real change in the world, we need to know how to be in meaningful relationships with people who stand on the other side of the power imbalance.
Here are some of my thoughts on what it takes to hold space for people when there is a power imbalance.
- Don’t pretend “we’re all the same”. White-washing or ignoring the imbalance in the room does not serve anyone. Acknowledging who holds the privilege and power helps open the space for more honest dialogue. If you are the person with power, say it out loud and do your best to share that power. Listen more than you speak, for example, or decide that any decisions that need to be made will be made collectively. If you lack power, say that too, in as gracious and non-blaming a way as possible.
- Change the physical space. It may seem like a small thing to move the chairs, to step away from the podium, or to step out from behind a desk, but it can make a big difference. A conversation in circle, where each person is at the same level, is very different from one in which a person is at the front of the room and others are in rows looking up at that person. In physical space that suggests equality, people are more inclined to open up.
- Invite contribution from everyone. Giving each person a voice (by using a talking piece when you’re sharing stories, for example) goes a long way to acknowledging their dignity and humanity. Allowing people to share their gifts (by hosting a potluck, or asking people to volunteer their organizational skills, for example) makes people feel valued and respected.
- Create safety for difficult conversations. When you enter into challenging conversations with people on different sides of a power imbalance, you open the door for anger, frustration, grief, and blaming. Using the circle to hold such conversations helps diffuse these heightened emotions. Participants are invited to pour their stories and emotions into the center instead of dumping them on whoever they choose to blame.
- Don’t pretend to know how the other person feels. Each of us has a different lived experience and the only way we can begin to understand what another person brings to the conversation (no matter what side of the imbalance they’re on) is to give them space to share their stories. Acting like you already know how they feel dismisses their emotions and will probably cause them to remain silent.
- Offer friendship rather than sympathy. If you want to build a reciprocal relationship, sympathy is the wrong place to start. Sympathy is a one-way street that broadens the power gap between you. Friendship, on the other hand, has well-worn paths in both directions. Sympathy builds power structures and walls. Friendship breaks down the walls and puts up couches and tables. Sympathy creates a divide. Friendship builds a bridge.
- Even if you have little access to power or privilege, trust that your listening and compassion can impact the outcome. I was struck by a recent story of how a group of Muslims invited anti-Muslim protestors with guns into their mosque for evening prayers. An action like that can have significant impact, cracking open the hearts of those who’ve let themselves be ruled by hatred.
- Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know the way through. Real change happens only when there is openness to paths that haven’t been discovered yet. If you walk into a conversation assuming you know how it needs to turn out, you won’t invite authenticity and openness into the room. Your vulnerability and openheartedness invites it in others.
- Don’t try this alone. This kind of work requires strong partnerships. People from all sides of the power or privilege divide need to not only be in the conversation, but be part of the hosting and planning teams. That’s the only way to ensure all voices are heard and all cultural sensitivities are honoured.
I welcome your thoughts on this. What have you found that makes a difference for conversations where there is an imbalance?
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Ever since facilitating a conversation on race relations last week, I’ve been thinking about what it means to really listen. There were many challenges for me last week, and some of the greatest challenges were those that showed me how much deeper I need to take my own listening practice. Here’s what poured out of me this afternoon, after a few days of contemplating listening.
Listen, my heart said.
You don’t have to fix anything right now,
you just have to listen.
Listen to the wounded.
Listen to the joyful.
Listen to the fearful.
Listen to the warriors.
Listen to the poets.
Listen to them all.
Gather the bits of wisdom
they scatter on the ground
like seeds in the Spring.
Gather the bits of stories
they drop in your basket
like morsels for a picnic.
Gather it all
and let it change you,
let it reshape you.
Let it crawl under your skin
and plant itself there
like it was always part
of your own dna.
Listen to the elders,
to the children,
to the women,
to the men,
to the Spirit,
to the earth,
Listen for understanding
Listen when they’re silent.
Listen when they’re loud.
Listen when they’re happy.
Listen when they’re sad.
Listen when they hurt you
in their efforts to hurt less.
Listen when they disagree with you.
Listen when you disagree with them.
Before you do anything else,
before you step onto the path,
before you become an agent for change,
before you know the answers,
before you try to lead anyone,
And then let your deep listening
be your guide
and let your courage lead you forward.
“The moment we commit ourselves to going on this journey, we start to encounter our three principal enemies: the voice of doubt and judgment (shutting down the open mind), the voice of cynicism (shutting down the open heart), and the voice of fear (shutting down the open will).” – Otto Sharmer
Lessons in colonialism and cultural relations
Recently I had the opportunity to facilitate a retreat for the staff and board members of a local non-profit. At the retreat, we played a game called Barnga, an inter-cultural learning game that gives people the opportunity to experience a little of what it feels like to be a “stranger in a strange land”.
To play Barnga, people sit at tables of four. Each table is given a simple set of rules and a deck of cards. After reading the rules, they begin to play a couple of practice rounds. Once they’re comfortable with the rules of play, they are instructed to play the rest of the game in silence.
After 15 or 20 minutes of playing in silence, the person who won the most tricks at each table is invited to move to another table. The person who won the least tricks moves to the table in the opposite direction. All of the rules sheets are removed from the tables.
The game begins once again, but what people don’t realize until they’ve played a round or two is that the rules are different at each able. At some tables, ace is high and at other tables it’s low. At one table, diamonds are trump, at another clubs are trump, and so on.
Newcomers (ie. immigrants) have now arrived in a place where they expect the rules to be the same, find out after making a few mistakes that they are in fact different, and have no shared language to figure out what they’re doing wrong. Around the room you can see the confusion and frustration begin to grow as people try to adapt to the new rules, and those at the table try to use hand gestures and other creative means to let them know what they’re doing wrong.
After another 15 or 20 minutes, the winners and losers move to new tables and the game begins again. This time, people are less surprised to find out there are different rules and more prepared to adapt and/or help newcomers adapt.
After playing for about 45 minutes, we gathered in a sharing circle to debrief about how the experience had been for people. Some shared how, even though they stayed at the table where the rules hadn’t changed, they began to doubt themselves when others insisted on playing with different rules. Some even chose to give up their own rules entirely, even though they hadn’t moved.
In the group of 20 people, there was one white male and 19 women of mixed races. What was revealing for all of us was what that male was brave enough to admit.
“I just realized what I’ve done,” he said. “I was so confident that I knew the rules of the game and that others didn’t that I took my own rules with me wherever I went and I enforced them regardless of how other people were playing.”
It should be stated that this man is a stay-at-home dad who volunteers his time on the board of a family resource centre. He is by no means the stereotypical, aggressive white male you might assume him to be. He is gracious and kind-hearted, and I applaud him for recognizing what he’d done.
What is equally interesting is that all of the women at the tables he moved to allowed him to enforce his set of rules. Whether they doubted themselves enough to not trust their own memory of the rules, or were peacekeepers who decided it was easier to adapt to someone else who felt stronger about the “right” way to do things, each of them acquiesced.
Without any ill intent on his part, this man inadvertently became the colonizer at each table he moved to. And without recognizing they were doing so, the women at those tables inadvertently allowed themselves to be colonized.
If we had played the game much longer, there may have been a growing realization among the women what was happening, and there might have even been a revolt. On the other hand, he might have simply been allowed to maintain his privilege and move around the room without being challenged.
Making the learning personal
Since that game at last week’s retreat, the universe has found multiple opportunities to reinforce this learning for me. I have been reminded more than once that, despite my best efforts not to do so, I, too, sometimes carry my rules with me and expect others to adapt.
Yesterday, these lessons came from multiple directions. In one case, I was challenged to consider the language I used in the blog post I shared yesterday. In writing about the race relations conversation I helped Rosanna Deerchild to host on Monday night, I mentioned that “we all felt like we’d been punched in the gut” when our city was labeled the “most racist in Canada”. Several people pointed out (and not all kindly) that I was making an assumption that my response to the article was an accurate depiction of how everyone felt. By doing so, I was carrying my rules with me and overlooking the feelings of the very people the article was about.
Not everyone felt like they’d been punched in the gut. Instead, many felt a sense of relief that these stories were finally coming out.
In the critique of my blog post, one person said that my comment about feeling punched in the gut made her feel punched in the gut. Another reflected that mine was a “settler’s narrative”. A third said that I was using “the same sensationalist BS as the Macleans article”.
I was mortified. In my best efforts to enter this conversation with humility and grace, I had inadvertently done the opposite of what I’d intended. Like the man in the Barnga game, I assumed that everyone was playing by the same set of rules.
I quickly edited my blog post to reflect the challenges I’d received, but the problem intensified when I realized that the Macleans journalist who wrote the original article (and who’d flown in for Monday’s gathering) was going to use that exact quote in a follow-up piece in this week’s magazine. Now not only was I opening myself to scrutiny on my blog, I could expect even harsher critique on a national scope.
I quickly sent her a note asking that she adjust the quote. She was on a flight home and by the time she landed, the article was on its way to print. I felt suddenly panicky and deeply ashamed. Fortunately, she was gracious enough to jump into action and she managed to get her editor to adjust the copy before it went to print.
Surviving a shame shitstorm
Last night, I went to bed feeling discouraged and defeated. On top of this challenge, I’d also received another fairly lengthy email about how I’ve let some people down in an entirely different circle, and I was feeling like all of my efforts were resulting in failure.
At 2 a.m., I woke in the middle of what Brene Brown calls a “shame shitstorm”. My mind was reeling with all of my failures. Despite my best efforts to create spaces for safe and authentic conversation, I was inadvertently stepping on toes and enforcing my own rules of engagement.
As one does in the middle of the night, I started second-guessing everything, especially what I’d done at the gathering on Monday night. Was I too bossy when I hosted the gathering? Did I claim space that wasn’t mine to claim? Were my efforts to help really micro-aggressions toward the very people I was trying to build bridges with? Should I just shut up and step out of the conversation?
By 3 a.m., I was ready to yank my blog post off the internet, step away into the shadows, and never again enter into these difficult conversations.
By 4 a.m., I’d managed to talk myself down off the ledge, opened myself to what I needed to learn from these challenges, and was ready to “step back into the arena”.
Some time after 4, I managed to fall back to sleep.
Moving on from here
This morning, in the light of a new day, I recognize this for what it is – an invitation for me to address my own shadow and deepen my own learning of how I carry my own rules with me.
If I am not willing to address the colonizer in me, how can I expect to host spaces where I invite others to do so?
Nobody said this would be easy. There will be more sleepless nights, more shame shitstorms, and more days when my best efforts are met with critique and even anger.
But, as I said in the closing circle on Monday night, I’m going to continue to live with an open heart, even when I don’t know the next right thing to do, and even when I’m criticized for my best efforts.
Because if I’m not willing to change, I have no right to expect others to do so.