“…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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photo credit: Greg Littlejohn
If you want to make a tasty soup, you don’t throw your ingredients onto the stove and hope they somehow transform themselves into a soup.
Instead, you choose the right container that will hold all of the ingredients and allow room for the soup to boil without bubbling over onto the stove. Then you begin to add the ingredients in the right order. First you might fry onions and garlic to bring out their best flavour. Then you add the right amount of soup stock. And finally the vegetables and/or meat are added according to how long each ingredient takes to cook. If you want to make a creamy or cheesy soup, you add the dairy only after everything else has cooked and the soup is no longer at a full boil.
Through this intentional and careful act of creation, you allow the flavours to blend and layer into a meal that has the potential to be greater than the sum of its parts.
The same is true for a meaningful conversation.
If you want to gather people to talk about something important, you don’t simply throw them together and hope what shows up is good and meaningful. Sure, sometimes serendipity happens and a magical conversation unfolds in the most unexpected and unplanned places, but more often than not, it requires some intention to take the conversation to a deeper, more meaningful level.
Take, for example, the recent community conversation on race relations that Rosanna Deerchild initiated and I facilitated. If we had simply invited people into a common space for a meal without giving some thought to how the conversation would flow, people would have stayed at the tables where their friends or family had gathered, conversations would have stayed at a fairly shallow level, and we wouldn’t have gotten very far in imagining a city free of racism. Instead, we moved people around the room, mixed them with people they’d never spoken with before, and then asked a series of questions that encouraged storytelling and the generation of ideas. Through a process called World Cafe, we arranged it so that everyone in the room would end up in small, intimate conversations with three different groups of people. We followed that up with a closing circle. (Stay tuned for more idea-generating conversations such as this one in the future.)
Especially when the subject matter is as challenging as race relations, the quality of the conversation is only as good as the container that holds it.
If you try to cook soup in a plastic bowl, you’ll end up with a melted bowl and a mess all over your kitchen. Similarly, if you try to have a heated conversation in a container not designed for that purpose, you run the risk of doing more harm than good.
The same is true for our Thursday evening women’s circle. We could have a perfectly lovely time gathering informally to talk about our families, our jobs, and our latest shopping trips, but if we want to have the kind of intimate, open-hearted conversations we always have, we have to create the right container that can hold that level of depth. In this case, the container is the circle, where we pass a talking piece and listen deeply to each person’s stories without interrupting or redirecting the conversation.
Recently, a few people have asked whether the principles that I teach (that emerge out of The Circle Way and The Art of Hosting) might be transferable to other, less formal conversations. What if I have to have a difficult conversation with my parents or siblings, for example? Or with my co-workers? Or my kids? What can I do to make sure everyone is heard in an environment where I’m certain they’d all laugh at the idea of a talking piece?
In many of our day-to-day conversations, it may not be practical or even desirable to set the chairs in a circle or bring in a facilitator to help you navigate difficult terrain. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be intentional about creating the right container for your conversations.
Here are some tips for creating containers for meaningful everyday conversations:
1. Consider the way the physical environment fits the conversation. If you want to have a potentially contentious conversation with your staff, for example, you might find that a meeting space away from your office provides a more neutral environment. If you want to talk to a friend about something that will invite vulnerability and deep emotion, you might not want to do it in a coffee shop where you run the risk of overexposure. Or if you need to talk to your parents about their declining health, it’s probably best to do that in an environment that feels safe for them.
2. Find ways to make the physical environment more conducive for intimate and intentional conversation. If you wish to invoke the essence of circle, for example, you could place a candle on the table between you. Or move the table out of the way entirely to remove the boundaries. If you want to invite creative thinking into the room, set out blank paper and coloured markers for doodling. (This would be a great way of planning your vacation with your family, for example.) Consider how the space can help you create conditions for success. Even if you are meeting online, you can still evoke safe physical space by inviting participants to imagine the common elements they would place in a room if they were all together.
3. Host yourself first. If you know that a conversation will be difficult for you and/or anyone else involved, be intentional about preparing for it well. Take some time for self-care and personal reflection. Go for a walk, write in your journal, meditate, or have a hot bath. You’ll be much more prepared to bring your best to a conversation if you enter it feeling relaxed and strong. If you plan to ask some hard questions in the conversation that might trigger others in the room, ask yourself those questions first and write whatever comes up for you in your journal. Don’t ask of anyone else what you’re not prepared to first ask of yourself.
4. Ask generative questions. Questions have the power to shut down the conversation if they come across as judgmental or closed-minded, or they have the power to help people dive more deeply into their stories and imagine a new reality together. Consider how your questions make the people you’re in conversation with feel heard and respected, and consider how a question might invite everyone present to generate fresh perspectives and deeper relationships.
5. Model vulnerability and authenticity. In order to engage in deep and meaningful relationships, participants need to be willing to be vulnerable and authentic. If you want to invite others into that space of openness and vulnerability, you need to be prepared to go there yourself. Consider starting the conversation with a personal story that will invite similar storytelling from others. Storytelling opens hearts and brings down defenses, and that’s the place where meaningful conversation thrives.
6. Listen well. People are much more inclined to engage when they feel that they are seen and heard and not judged or marginalized. Practice deep listening. As Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer teach in Leading from the Emerging Future, we need to move beyond level 1 (downloading) and level 2 (factual) listening to level 3 (empathic) and level 4 (generative) listening. Empathic listening is about being willing to enter into someone else’s story and be impacted and changed by it. Generative listening is about being fully present in your listening in a way that can generate something new and fresh out of that shared space. If you model effective listening, it will be much easier for others to follow your example. Even if you don’t use a talking piece, imagine that the person you’re listening to is holding a talking piece and give them undivided attention. When they are fully heard, they will be more likely to do the same for you.
7. Guard the space and time carefully. When we gather in The Circle Way, one person serves as the guardian, paying attention to the energy of the room and bringing the conversation back to intention when it wanders off. This person takes responsibility for ensuring that the space is protected, not allowing interruptions or distractions. When you are in a conversation that is important to you, consider how you can guard the space. Eliminate distractions like cell phones or other electronics. Consider what needs attention in order to make everyone feel safe and protected. When vulnerability is called for, for example, take care to create an environment where nobody is allowed to interrupt the storytelling.
8. Co-create future possibilities. If you enter a conversation convinced that you know how it’s supposed to turn out, you will limit what can happen in that conversation. Those you’ve invited into the conversation will sense that their participation is not fully valued and will shut down and not offer their best. Instead, enter a conversation with an open heart, an open mind, and an open will and be prepared to emerge with a new possibility you’ve never considered before. Allow the stories and ideas generated in the conversation to change the future and to change you.
When you begin to pay more attention to the container in which you hold your conversations, you’ll be surprised at how much more depth and meaning will emerge. Sometimes, this will mean difficult things will surface and it won’t always be comfortable, but with the right care and attention, even the difficult things will help you move in a positive direction.
Interested in more articles like this? Add your name to my email list and you’ll receive a free ebook, A Path to Connection. I send out weekly newsletters and updates on my work.