Last week I had the pleasure of hosting a retreat with a circle of beautiful women in one of the most beautiful locations I’ve ever worked. The retreat centre was so beautiful and luxurious, in fact, that it wouldn’t have surprised me to see Oprah emerge from a room raving about her new favourite things.
The women who’d flown me to Costa Rica for this retreat were warm, friendly, wise and strong. They clearly loved each other deeply and were willing to support each other through thick and thin. They’d been a small community for seven years already, meeting monthly for personal development conversations and yearly for a retreat with a facilitator/teacher like me. They knew each other’s stories, and had supported each other through death, divorce, family illness and everything in between. One night, when we sat together over drinks and a delicious meal, they each took turns describing the beauty and strength they saw in each other and it was one of the most moving things I’ve ever witnessed.
When things are too beautiful though, there’s often a shadow lurking just beneath the surface.
When I say there was a “shadow”, I’m not talking about an ugly meanness or pettiness that was being masked by so much kindness and love. No – I saw nothing that would suggest that their kindness and love for each other was anything other than genuine.
The shadow was quite different from that. What was there beneath the surface (and which was acknowledged by the group toward the end of the first day) was a tendency they had to hold a SAFE space which sometimes kept them from being BRAVE.
Because they cared so much for each other and were accepting and supportive of each other’s choices and paths through life, they were reluctant to ask each other hard questions or challenge unhealthy patterns when they saw them. They all wanted their community space to feel safe, but that safety was getting in their way of their growth and perhaps even their healing.
(The added challenge, from my limited cultural perspective, is that, much like Canadians, Costa Ricans tend to err on the side of politeness. But politeness as a cultural value is often a way of masking the complexity that’s underneath.)
When a space is too safe and we’ve become comfortable in that safety, we don’t want to challenge it, we don’t want to say anything that will rock the boat, and we don’t want to offend anyone else lest they abandon us. One of the results is that we become reluctant to be too vulnerable because our shadows might scare the other people away. We choose comfort over courage and we chase away or silence anyone who threatens that comfort.
It wasn’t that these women wanted to be stuck in comfort. On the contrary – they are all brave and bold women who have accomplished remarkable things in their careers and families and they are in this community precisely because they WANT to grow and evolve. Growth does not scare them. Hard work does not scare them. Facing uncomfortable truth does not scare them. Quite the opposite – few groups have been more direct and courageous in ASKING me to help them see the shadow they had trouble seeing for themselves.
What I witnessed was less of a desire to stay safe and more of an entrenched pattern that had become part of their way of co-existing. It was a pattern that was hard to see because they were too close to it. Like a piece of lettuce stuck between your teeth, some things are hard to see without a mirror. They’d brought me to Costa Rica partly because they recognized in me a potential mirror.
Over the course of the second day, once we’d started to shine a light into the shadowy places, these women began to open up and share increasingly vulnerable and painful things – unresolved things, shameful things, trauma, fear, etc.. They also started to ask each other more challenging questions, inviting bravery, growth and new perspectives. In the evening of the second day, the pattern had shifted significantly and they were excited about what was possible with the new language and brave questions I’d offered. That evening’s conversation was vulnerable, openhearted, brave, and deep.
During the course of our last evening together, they asked me to give direct feedback about what I’d witnessed in their group, what things they seemed to be afraid to talk about, where they were stuck, and how they could continue to grow. I was able to speak honestly because I knew these women had the strength to receive what I’d say without defensiveness, as well as the courage to take whatever I offered to heart. They didn’t need me to give them courage (they already had it in spades), they simply needed someone to help them see what was hidden from their view.
What I witnessed among these women is not uncommon among communities, friendships, families, etc. where there is deep care and love. Sometimes we mistake “care” with “letting people stay comfortable in old patterns”. And sometimes we assume that holding space is only about providing safe space where a person feels free of judgement and free of the need to change or grow. Holding space, though, is much more complex than that. (Otherwise I wouldn’t have enough content for an 8 month course.)
Now… I don’t want to give the impression that this is a binary thing – that a space is either safe or brave and that one is better than the other. That’s simply not true. For one thing, there are times when we need to be held in safety without any pressure to change our behaviour or our choices. Especially when healing from trauma or when deep in new grief, safety is paramount and should not be compromised.
ALSO a feeling of safety is usually a first step in establishing enough trust so that we CAN step into bravery. A loving community like these women have provides the solid ground from which we can leap into courage.
BUT at some point safety is not enough and sometimes it even creates a barrier to our growth. As I’ve said before, safety can become a trap and a crutch. In fact some people who cling to their own safety do harm to others in the process. (For example, in race relations or gender conversations when the dominant people in the room demand a “safe space” what they’re really asking for is allowances for their fragility. That fragility, left unchallenged, can cause great harm to the more marginalized in the room. When I work in those spaces, I make safety for marginalized people a greater priority than safety for those who’ve always assumed the privilege of safety.)
If you find yourself in a community that has become too safe (and perhaps somewhat stagnant), here are some things that might help:
- Check-in about people’s readiness for more bravery. A community that’s thrust into bravery without preparation and/or discernment about their readiness can quickly become fractured beyond repair. Start with a hard conversation, revealing what you believe to be true about an over-reliance on safety, and ask people whether they feel emotionally stable enough to try something different. If most people are comfortable with the way things are, you may need to seek out another community to meet your needs. (Sometimes, on the other hand, when you’re establishing a new community where bravery needs to be built in, transparency around that expectation should be built into the way people are invited in. In my courses, for example, I include an indication of this expectation in the group agreements.)
- Build trust that can support bravery. If we don’t trust the people we’re with, it’s much more difficult to be brave in their presence. Trust-building involves keeping stories confidential, showing up when you promise to show up, being an engaged listener, withholding scorn, and being dependable. To build trust (and, consequently, bravery), people in the community need to be willing to be vulnerable and authentic with each other and to take off their masks so that others feel more safe to take off their masks.
- Invite an outsider to serve as the mirror. One of the things that really impressed me about this group was their openness to hearing what I was witnessing and their genuine desire to be nudged out of their comfort zones. An outsider (especially one who is skilled in community-building, facilitation and truth-telling) can offer a perspective that is nearly impossible to see from the inside. It can feel risky to let someone peer into your group’s shadows, and it can take some investment of time and money, but it can also be transformative. Be discerning, though, in who you invite in and how much you’ll allow yourselves to be disrupted.
- Invite the pink elephant into the room. One of my favourite ways of inviting the shadow to be revealed in a circle (and encouraging more bravery) is to use a pink elephant as a talking piece. (This is something that emerged out of a moment of inspiration and challenge in one of my team retreats and I credit Susan Dupuis for the idea.) When I pull out the pink elephant, I tell people that I have a sense that there’s something beneath the surface that people might be afraid to reveal, and then I pass it around the room and invite anyone who wants to share something to offer it to the group. A talking piece helps to slow down the conversation and keeps people from interjecting while tender things are being spoken.
- Practice asking braver questions. If people have indicated a readiness for brave space, then start by asking braver questions that invite new perspectives and growth. At the end of our time together in Costa Rica, the women had agreed that, when one shares a story that indicates they might be stuck in the safety zone, they’ll ask “are you ready for a brave question?” If the person says yes, they’ll offer something that will invite the person to see their story through a new lens. A brave question might be something like “What might change if you let go of this resentment?” or “How are you trying to protect yourself from pain?” or “Do you believe you’re worthy of more happiness?” (For more brave questions, check out 50 Questions that Could Change Your Life.)
- Take care of each other. Stepping into bravery and vulnerability can leave us feeling tender and raw, and that’s a time when community support is even more necessary. If you are in a transition period with your community/family/partnership/etc., where you’re learning to be more brave, make sure you’re also setting aside extra time for play, self-care, group-care, and laughter. Eat meals together, go for walks in nature together, go dancing – anything that helps you to deepen your bond so that your container is strong enough to hold the bravery.
Not everyone is ready for bravery, and you may have some resistance in your group or family, but when the readiness is there, a brave space can bring transformation and growth that’s far beyond what’s possible in the comfort zone.
Note: Thank you to the women who hired me for this retreat for giving me permission to share it.
Learn lots more about safe space and brave space (and how to hold both) in my online course, Holding Space Practitioner Program.
Tonight is my weekly women’s circle, and I’m looking forward to it as I always do. It’s not a perfect space (we are all human and we don’t always know how to hold space for each other), but it is beautifully imperfect. We show up – sometimes 2 women and sometimes 12 – with our scars, our fragility, our fierceness, and our love, and we offer each other the kind of listening we don’t find many other places in our lives. We don’t fix anything or offer advice or platitudes. We just listen and we hold space for each other.
People often ask me to write about how this women’s circle got started, so I’m finally sitting down to offer our birth story as a gift to anyone else who’d like to create something similar.
I had been longing for a women’s circle for several years before I finally got one off the ground. I had a couple of false starts (circles that got started but then faltered and died), so I was a little leery of trying again, but I kept longing for it and believing it was possible, so I made one more attempt.
Before sending out an invitation to those women I thought might be interested, I spent some time considering what my intentions were and what I wanted from the circle. This is an important step because it helps to shape what evolves. Some of the things I wanted were:
1.) A circle that would nourish me as much as the others in the room. Doing this work for a living means that I hold space for a lot of people but don’t always find ways to have space held for me. The creation of this circle was partly selfish in that I really wanted a space where I could be as vulnerable and flawed and held as anyone else who showed up. I wanted to be intentional about inviting people with a level of maturity that they could hold space for me without expecting me to be the “expert” in the room.
2.) A circle that I didn’t have to own by myself. I didn’t want to host it every week and I didn’t want to be the primary leader. Given my travel schedule, I knew that I wouldn’t always be available, and I wanted the circle to have enough strength that it would exist even if I were away for a long stretch of time. I also didn’t want to have to do the emotional labour of keeping everyone informed, managing people’s feelings if they got left out, etc. The only way for it to work was to have shared and/or rotating leadership.
3.) A circle that was accessible to anyone who needed it. I didn’t want it to be a closed, exclusive group, where only those who were members were allowed in. I often get emails from women looking for a circle like this, so I wanted it to remain open to everyone. I also wanted us to welcome diversity and make people feel welcome no matter their race, religion, abilities, etc. (This was a bit challenging, because I also didn’t want to impose my “rules” on the group if I was not going to be the primary leader. I mentioned this desire to the group and we worked through it together to determine whether it could become a shared intention. In the end, it did.)
4.) A circle that had as few barriers for entry as possible. At first I considered having it in a person’s home, but then I wondered whether strangers would feel welcome in the space and whether accessibility would be an issue for people with disabilities, etc.. I found a wheelchair accessible space in a church on a well-traveled street (with buses available) that was available for low rent. (Note: one of the possible barriers that we haven’t fully addressed is that some people may not feel comfortable stepping into a church, but we haven’t found a more neutral space for as low rent.)
5.) A circle that would meet the needs of those who showed up and wasn’t strictly formed by my own agenda. Though I was being intentional about it in advance, I didn’t want to attach too many preconceived notions about what would happen in the circle, how often we’d meet, etc. For it to be collectively owned, I knew it needed to be collectively formed.
6.) A circle that was story-driven rather than agenda-driven. I wanted to create a space for sharing and listening that would adapt to whatever people brought into the circle each week. I didn’t want to create a book club or study group, but rather a place where we could have spaciousness for vulnerability and relationship building. (Again, though, I had to be careful about not imposing too many of my expectations on the group.)
With these intentions held lightly in mind, I arranged for the space to host the first gathering, and I sent out an email to everyone I knew who’d ever shown interest in being in a women’s circle. I invited them to come with their own ideas of what we might create together. I also created an invitation page on my website and, because I wanted to be inclusive, said that “all who identify as women are welcome”.
I arrived at the church early and set up the circle. The intentions about how a space is arranged helps create the tone of the gathering, so I set up a comfortable circle of chairs, with a small, low table in the centre. I covered the table with a tablecloth and placed on it a candle, a bell, some talking pieces, and a box of tissues. (I have yet to attend a women’s circle where tears don’t flow.) I also brought an assortment of teas and had hot water and teacups ready.
Fifteen women came to that first gathering. I read a poem to open the circle, and then we did a check-in round (passing a talking piece around the circle, inviting people to share a little about who they were and what brought them to circle) and then we had a conversation about what people might want from circle, how often they’d like to hold it, what our shared values were, etc. Someone suggested “I think we should have it every week and even if you can’t make it every week, at least you always know that it’s available to you.” There was enough interest in this suggestion that we decided to make it a weekly gathering.
For the next five months, since I have the most training in hosting a circle, I served as host. I arrived early each week to set up the room, I gave gentle guidance about the practices of circle, (ie. We speak with intention. We listen with attention. We tend the well-being of the circle.), and I helped the group find its own groove.
There were a few bumps those first few months. There was some resistance to the talking piece round, for example (people wanted to interject with questions, advice, etc.), and some said they wanted us to have more free-flowing conversation. Some lamented the fact that we didn’t have more time for informal conversation over tea. We considered whether we should adapt the format, having a circle time and then having a less formal portion of the evening.
In the end, what emerged for our circle was this simple format:
- When people are seated (starting at 7 p.m.), someone rings the bell to call us to pause. Somewhere along the line we adopted three rings as our preferred choice for opening and closing.
- If there are new people in the room, someone (usually whoever brought the bag) shares the principles of circle and a little about the flow of the evening.
- Whoever has brought a poem or quote to share reads it. This is entirely voluntary and not planned. Sometimes we have a reading and sometimes we don’t.
- Then we have our first talking-piece round. Whoever wants to start picks up the talking piece and shares whatever story is on their heart to share. We tend to dive deeply into vulnerable sharing quite quickly. It’s a chance to unload our grief or celebrate our joy – whatever has been going on for us that week. Nobody interrupts and nobody attempts to fix.
- The first sharing round usually takes about an hour. Once that is finished, we put down the talking piece, grab tea if we want it, and have about 20 minutes of informal conversation.
- Depending on how much time we have left (we try to end not too much later than 9 p.m.), we either do another full round of sharing, or do a shorter round with each of us setting an intention for the week.
- When the second talking piece round is complete, we ring the bell again and the circle is over. Usually we’re not in a rush to leave our chairs and we sit for some more informal conversation.
This is the format that works for us and may or may not work for other groups. It allows us to show up without anyone needing to do any advance planning and it frees us up to share without needing to attach our sharing to an agenda or theme.
After about five months of serving as the primary host, I had some travel coming up and knew it was a good time to pass on the leadership. To ease that transition, I created a circle kit that could float from person to person, depending on who was available each week. In a cloth bag, I packed the following items: (Some of which were purchased for the group from our shared funds, which we take a collection for periodically to pay the rent.)
- the key for the building we meet in (with the security code written on the bag)
- a bell
- an assortment of talking pieces
- a tablecloth
- an assortment of teas
- a candle holder and candles
- a box of tissue
- an envelope with the group’s funds
Our circle kit now travels from woman to woman. Each week someone volunteers to take it home and show up the next week to unlock the building and set up the space. Those who take responsibility for the bag have also occasionally replenished it with tea, tissue, and candles. This means that there is no onerous responsibility placed on anybody’s shoulders and we all share the ownership.
There’s been an ebb and flow to the circle. Sometimes we’re strong, regularly attracting ten to twelve women, and sometimes we go through a period when only two women show up each week. Sometimes newcomers come for awhile and then don’t come back. Some members will only come every three months or so, when they can get away from family duties.
It’s hard to know right now what the lifespan of the group will be. Before Christmas, when few people were showing up, we wondered whether it was worth it to keep making the effort. But since then, there’s been a bit of a resurgence, so we carry on. There is enough commitment to it that it seems worth it.
There is a natural lifespan to groups like this, and even if it some day falters and fades away, I will always know that it meant something, that it held an important place in the world and it made a difference for whoever showed up. Many beautiful things have happened in the circle and lives have been changed from being part of it. We’ve opened up in ways we rarely do otherwise. We’ve bonded with each other on an authentic level that’s fairly rare in our culture. We’ve become best friends and it’s not unusual for us to gather for Saturday breakfast, when we want more of each other’s company.
We’ve learned a lot about holding space for each other by showing up week after week without expectation, without agenda, and without advice. We’ve peeled away our masks, shed lots of tears, and weathered many storms together. We’ve gotten better and better at offering each other unconditional love.
If you’re ever in Winnipeg on a Thursday evening, we’d love to have you join us!
If you want to know more about how to start your own circle, here are a few resources:
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I was on a fourteen hour train ride between Brisbane and Sydney the day the U.S. election was sealing the fate of the country for the next four years. I’d chosen train travel over flight because, after the intensity of facilitating two sold out retreats and a one-day workshop in a country far from home, I needed many hours of integration, electronic disconnection, solitude, and staring out the window at the vast countryside. Slow travel offers me self-care in times like those.
For those fourteen hours, I had no access to internet, so I didn’t know who won the election until hours after it had been announced.
I say that I didn’t know, but really… I DID know. Hours before an astonished fellow traveler announced to the rest of us in the railcar what she’d read online, a sudden ominous, panicky feeling engulfed me and I knew intuitively what the outcome was. I had a strong sense of the shadow showing itself in the world. I knew that the world was about to change – and not in a good way. I didn’t want to believe it, but when the woman exclaimed “Has the whole world gone mad?!” my fears were confirmed. A man who is openly misogynistic, racist, narcissistic, and emotionally immature is about to become the leader of arguably the most powerful country in the world.
Yes, I’m Canadian, and my life and the lives of my children may not change dramatically because of this election, but what happens in the U.S. affects the world. What hurts my Muslim, Black, GLBTQ+, Indigenous, and Mexican sisters and brothers hurts me. And this is not an isolated incident – it comes too quickly on the heals of Brexit to not be seen as a global pendulum swing toward protectionism and the far right.
There is good reason for the ominous feelings in the pits of so many of our stomachs. White supremacy and the patriarchy have reared their ugly heads and they appear to be winning this round. The shadow is big and ominous and it demands to be seen.
Just a few days before sitting on that train, I had a similar ominous feeling in the pit of my stomach, but this time it was much more personal and close to home. I was facilitating the second retreat at Welcome to the BIG House when things started to go sideways. No, they were not on the “Trump winning the election” global scale of ominous, but not unlike what’s happening in the U.S., group shadow had showed up at the retreat and was threatening to derail everything we’d worked to build.
I’d known from the start of the retreat that something was slightly out-of-balance. It started with a gut feeling when I walked into the room and it continued when the opening sharing round did not invite as much vulnerability and trust as it normally tends to. The next morning, I was even more certain that there was some stuck energy in the group when a simple exercise fell flat. We were simply trying to walk in a circle together, looking down at the words we’d placed on the floor, but, try as we might, we couldn’t get the circle to move. We were stuck.
It was hard to put a finger on what was going on. There were beautiful, openhearted people in the room who came willing to learn and to engage in meaningful conversation. Nobody was openly disruptive or serving as an “energy-vampire”. When we moved into smaller circles, the energy flowed more easily and intimacy and trust seemed more present, but when we were in the large group, there was a flatness and disconnection that didn’t seem to shift.
I questioned everything. Was the group too big? Had the purpose of the retreat been unclear and so people arrived with differing expectations and intentions? Was I trying to mix together the wrong content? Was my ego getting in the way? Was there some underlying conflict I didn’t know about? Was there a cultural disconnect I didn’t understand? I didn’t have the answer.
On the afternoon of the second last day of the retreat, we started to talk about shadow. I explained how shadow is made up of all of the things that we keep out of sight because we’re afraid to bring them into the light. These are not necessarily all bad things – they are simply the things we fear will make us feel unsafe if we reveal them. Beginning with an exploration on personal shadow before we moved on to group shadow, I invited the group into a guided meditation in which each person explored the messages they’d received in childhood about which parts of their personality and identity they’d learned to keep hidden because it wasn’t safe to reveal them. “Perhaps you learned to keep your voice down because you learned it was unsafe to be too loud. Perhaps you hid your body because revealing it wasn’t safe.”
Before we could move into a conversation about group shadow, the shadow showed up and revealed itself to us. A few people in the room spoke about the shadow that was coming up for them within the container of this retreat. (Giving more specific information would betray confidences, so I will simply say that they were honest about their personal shadow and how it might be contributing to what was happening in the group.) As soon as the words were spoken, it felt like a bomb had been tossed into the room. Suddenly there was something staring us in the face that many of us were afraid to speak of. Some were confused and disoriented by it, and all felt some measure of discomfort.
What should we do now? Everyone looked to me, hoping I could magically make the bomb go away. I knew I couldn’t do that alone and I knew we didn’t have enough time or energy left in the day to fully dismantle it.
With my head spinning in circles like a roulette wheel trying to land on the right number, I reached deep for what my intuition told me was the next right step. “It’s late in the day, we need a meal and a rest, and I don’t believe that we have the space and time to fully address what just happened,” I said. “We need a strong container to hold the shadow that just showed up, and we can’t be strong if we don’t care for ourselves first. I know that, as the circle host, my resources are spent at this point in the day, so I don’t think we’ll serve ourselves well if we stick with this right now. I’m going to suggest that we close with a check-out round, and then we each do what we need to do to care for ourselves throughout the evening. In the morning, when we are refreshed, we will come back into the circle and hold the space for what showed up. I will set aside the teaching exercises I had planned so that we can give as much space for this as we can in the short time we have remaining.”
For the check-out round, I asked the question “what are you curious about?” Most people spoke to their curiosity about what had just happened and how it would be resolved. When everyone had spoken, I read the following poem:
Lost (by David Wagoner)
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree of a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest know
Where you are. You must let it find you.
In closing, I offered this invitation. “Tonight, I invite you to sit with your discomfort. Go sit with the trees, if that helps. Don’t try to resolve it too quickly. Sit with it and ask what it is here to teach you. Because in your discomfort is great opportunity for growth, learning, and transformation.”
By the time I got back to my own room, I could feel the heaviness of what had just happened settling into my body and I could hear the gremlins beginning to offer their displeasure in my head. “Did I do the right thing? Did I fail the group? Should I have been more forceful or decisive? Will I let them down if I don’t teach the parts of the curriculum I’d planned to teach? Will we really be able to resolve this in the morning? What if everyone leaves the retreat dissatisfied? What if I fail?”
I turned to my go-to self-care stress-reducers. First, I climbed into a bathtub full of hot water and epsom salts. I stayed there for nearly two hours – as long as it took to slow my breath, still my brain, ground my body, and give comfort to my heart. Each time the gremlins attacked, I took deep breaths, said a prayer, and repeated a few of my favourite mantras. I also sent out a couple of SOS text messages to dear friends who would hold space for me from afar, and, after my bath, I unpacked what had happened with Georgia, the owner of The BIG House and the guardian of the circle. As we were talking, sitting in darkness in her living room, two creatures showed up in the room – a large frog by the kitchen sink and a bat flying through the open window and fluttering above our heads.
By the time I climbed into bed, I was relaxed and confident that, if I could get my own ego out of the way, the circle would be strong enough to hold the shadow in the morning.
The next morning, I started by asking the group for their permission to clear out the centre of the circle. We’d let it become cluttered with some creative containers we’d made earlier in the retreat as well as other things that didn’t need to be there. “I want to clear out the centre,” I said, “to remind us of the intention that brought us here this weekend. This retreat is called ‘Living with an Open Heart’, and that is what we came here to do. We want to place our intention to be openhearted at the centre of the circle and remind ourselves that, whatever happens in this space, we commit to connecting back to our own open hearts.”
Then I asked the question “How are you arriving?” and passed the talking piece for a check-in round. People were tentative at first, but then there was a gradual opening up and the energy in the room began to shift. It felt like a little light was peeking through a window. Part way through the round, a few people started to open up more than they had before in the large circle.
Once we’d completed a check-in round, I said, “My intuition tells me that we simply need to allow the talking piece to make its way around the circle again and invite people to say whatever they feel needs to be offered into the circle.”
One person asked “aren’t we going to confront the shadow that showed up here yesterday?” I responded with “‘Confront’ isn’t the language I’d like us to use. Instead, let’s do our best to speak with open hearts so that we can reveal and shine light on the shadow that we’ve all brought into the room.”
This time, while the talking piece passed around the room, people cracked open even more, especially those people who’d revealed the shadow the day before. What they offered into the room revealed deep awareness and learning that had happened overnight. Each person was willing to own what she or he had brought into the room.
The energy shift was palpable and people leaned in to the centre in ways they hadn’t before. They were finally beginning to trust the circle to hold their vulnerability and personal shadow. Some profound shifts happened for several people, and one person in particular admitted that this was the very first time she’d ever come to a place where she was safe in a group setting. “When I knew that I was safe to sit with my discomfort and then come back into the room, I felt like I was truly safe with other people for the first time in my life.” She wept and many of us wept with her.
Several people thanked the shadow-bearers. “If you hadn’t spoken what you did into the circle yesterday, we would have walked away with only half of an experience, not knowing what we were missing. This morning was worth every bit of discomfort we felt last night. I am leaving this circle with an open heart.”
We were ending the retreat at noon, so we only had time for a short break and then a check-out round. During check-out, each of us spoke to what we were taking with us from the retreat, and many spoke of life-changing shifts they’d experienced.
“Some of you were uncomfortable giving up the teachings that I had prepared for this morning,” I said, “but if I had pushed through with my curriculum, it would have come from a place of ego and not openheartedness and it would not have served the good of the group. Also, all of the things I had planned would have kept you in your heads, but what happened here this morning brought us all back to our hearts. You have taught each other much more valuable lessons than I could have taught you.”
A few days later, when I was on the train and had received the news of Trump’s election, I thought back to our experience at the retreat and wondered what it had to teach us about the state of the world right now.
Just like at the retreat, there is an underlying shadow in the world that we haven’t always known how to talk about. There have been some brave souls who’ve spoken about it throughout history, but many have been killed, tortured, or ostracized for their efforts and the rest of us have been scared off by what they’ve endured. If I were to give it a name, I would use words like “patriarchy” and “white supremacy”. There are other related words… “consumerism, greed, environmental destruction, protectionism, etc.”
It’s been under the surface for a very long time and, collectively, we’ve tried to ignore it because it brings up shame and fear and makes us feel unsafe to speak of it. But in recent years, it’s been surfacing more and more and there are more and more brave souls willing to speak of it. Many of those brave ones – like those in the Black Lives Matter movement, or those protecting the waters from the Dakota Access Pipeline, or any feminist who dares to face the trolls online – continue to suffer the consequences. The courageous ones continue to do it anyway, because they are called to be the light-bearers.
When you dare to speak of the shadow, it can show up in the room like a bomb that’s been dropped, surprising and disorienting us all. Trump’s presidency is one such bomb dropped into our world, revealing to us the shadow that exists in ALL OF US. We can’t simply blame a few scapegoats – we have to take ownership of this shadow if any real change is to happen.
Just like at the retreat, we need a strong container that can hold space for the shadow. We need people who aren’t afraid to speak of what they hide inside themselves. We need people who will come to the circle with open hearts. We need strong leaders who do not back down in the face of conflict or their own fear. We need people who are willing to sit with their discomfort so that the learning and wisdom can emerge. We need those who will turn to the trees and to the creatures for wisdom and guidance. We need prayer warriors and caregivers. We need those who offer sustenance and shelter. We need warriors and lovers.
We need commitment, courage, compassion, and curiosity.
If there had not been strong and committed people in the room with me at the retreat, there is no way I could have held it alone. The circle would have crumbled and we all would have taken our fear, discomfort, and shadow with us, probably stuffing it further down so that it would emerge in much more destructive ways later on. The shadow doesn’t go away – it just goes underground for awhile until it finds another crack through which to crawl.
This is my challenge to you – can we gather together the people we need to create a container strong enough to hold this shadow? Can we rally our co-leaders, our allies, our prophets, our teachers, our guardians, our disruptors, our light-bearers, our disenfranchised, our marginalized, our priests, our caregivers, our helpers, our prayer warriors – anyone who is willing to hold the rim while we wrestle with the shadow in our midst? Can we sit with our discomfort long enough to let the learning and wisdom sink deep into our hearts? Can we stand firm in the face of those who continue to hide the light?
Can we commit to real change rather than surface platitudes? Can we dare to face our own shadow so that the collective shadow loses strength?
I believe we can. Let us begin.
“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.
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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.
Interested in more articles like this? Add your name to my email list and you’ll receive a free ebook, A Path to Connection and my bi-weekly reflections.
As I approach my 50th birthday, I am celebrating my “why”. The above picture is just that – me, in the middle of my “why”.
In the picture, I’m teaching from the floor. When we teach The Circle Way (as I did last week), we often teach from the floor. Rather than standing at a flip chart or chalk board at the front of the room, we kneel or sit on the floor inside the circle with a flipchart in front of us. Or we simply sit in the circle at the same level as everyone else.
Why is that important? Because we don’t teach from a place of hierarchy. We teach from a place of humility, a place of service. We teach from a place that demonstrates our own commitment to being in the learning with those we teach.
In that photo, I was talking about “the groan zone”, the place in the middle of a decision-making process when we feel like we’ve lost our way, but we’re really on the verge of bringing something new to life. (From The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making.) I’ve spent a lot of time in the groan zone, and it’s because I have that I have found my why.
My why is found in teaching from the floor. My why is unfolding as I sit in the circle. My why is being a lifelong learner and sharing that learning from a place of humility. My why shows up when I practice holding space.
I teach from the floor because I believe in connection. I believe in deep conversations. I believe in community. I believe in the circle. I believe in confident humility.
Here’s an inspirational short video on finding your why.
If you want to find your why, I know what can help… The Spiral Path.
As I mentioned last week, I’m making a series of special offers this month so that you can celebrate my birthday month with me.
This week (and for the remainder of the month), I’m offering The Spiral Path to you at 50% off. So that you, too, can find your why.
To claim your offer, enter the following code into the coupon field on the registration page: birthday
Also, Mandala Discovery is still on for 50% off until the end of May. Same instructions – use the coupon code: birthday.
You can get two of my courses for the price of one!
And next week, I’ve got a brand new offering that I can hardly wait to share with you!