Not long ago, I taught a storytelling workshop in a corporate environment. As is the case with almost all of my workshops, we gathered the participants in circle and started by passing the talking piece and inviting each person to share one personal story. Since much of the work this organization is involved in is conservation-related, I asked them to share a story about something they enjoyed doing outdoors – either as a child or as an adult.
When the talking piece (a simple stone with the organization’s logo on it) had almost completed the circle, one of the last people to hold it said “Is this talking piece magic or something? I now know more about the people in this circle than I’ve known in all the years I’ve worked here!”
When the stone came around to me, I spoke to his comment. “No, it’s not magic in and of itself. It’s just an ordinary stone.” I said. “What IS magic, though, is the way that the talking piece invites us to listen in ways we don’t normally listen and speak in ways we don’t normally speak.”
When a talking piece goes around the circle, only the person holding it speaks. Everyone else is silent and attentive. Even though you may be tempted to interject – to offer advice, another version of the story, or your own story to top what’s been said – you must wait until the stone circles around to you before you can speak. By then, your need to interject into someone else’s story is usually silenced and you speak instead from your own story.
What results is a space where each story is heard in its entirety without crosstalk, correction, or advice.
That’s a powerful notion. It doesn’t happen often in our day-to-day conversations. Pay attention the next time you are chatting with your friend, partner, child, or parent. Do you listen to their WHOLE story without interrupting? Do you let them share sad moments without rushing to fix them? Do you honour their story with attentive listening?
Brene Brown teaches that our need to fix other people is our own “defense against vulnerability”. In other words, when you share something hard with me and I am quick to offer advice on how to resolve that hard thing, I’m doing so because I don’t want to be vulnerable, I don’t want to enter into that hard place with you, and I don’t want to admit that I don’t have all the answers.
Peter Block went even further in a talk I heard him give a few years ago. “Helping is an act of violence,” he said, and then went on to explain that our efforts to help other people are often unwelcome attempts to change or fix something they haven’t given us permission to change. By fixing a problem we haven’t been invited to fix, we are violating that person. Instead we must learn to sit with them in the problem while they work to find their way through.
“Speak with intention. Listen with attention.” That’s what The Circle Way teaches us. It doesn’t say “listen in order to fix” or “listen only until you have a chance to interject” or “speak with the purpose of outshining everyone”.
When I sit in a circle with a dozen other people, I need to be prepared to listen 12 times as much as I talk – even when I’m the teacher. And when I am listening, I need to do so in attentive silence, holding their story as sacred and valuable rather than as something that needs fixing.
The more I practice The Circle Way in my work, the more it is influencing the way I interact with people in my life. I don’t get it right all the time (just ask my daughters or husband!), but I’m a work in progress.
If you want to bring the circle into your own life, here are a few things to consider:
- The next time someone shares a story with you, whether in person or on Facebook, honour their story with intentional listening. Pretend they’re holding a talking piece and wait your turn.
- Do not offer advice unless it’s been specifically requested.
- Do not try to smooth over someone’s grief or pain with platitudes about how it will get better. Just be present in the moment with them.
- When you gather with friends or family, try passing a talking piece (anything can be used – I’ve used pens, leaves, sticks, and even a small statue in the spur of the moment) so that each person’s story can be heard.
Want to know more about The Circle Way? Ask me! I’m part of an international network involved in this work, and would be happy to talk about upcoming workshops that I and/or my colleagues are offering.
“We are not going in circles, we are going upwards. The path is a spiral; we have already climbed many steps.” — Hermann Hesse (Siddhartha)
**Trigger warning. What is shared in this post may be disturbing to some.**
I hardly know where to begin. I want to write a blog post about the complexity and beauty and challenge that this Fall has been for me, but some of the things going on in my heart and my mind are too big, too complicated, and too unresolved for words.
On the one hand, it has been beautiful beyond words. My work is growing and I am being stretched and challenged and invited into a deeper and deeper understanding of the core of what I teach. I’ve hosted a storytelling circle in a corporate environment, I’ve led women into the hills for a lament ritual, I’ve taught a workshop on women’s power at a gentle retreat for women, I’ve gathered people in a virtual openhearted writing circle, I’ve taught The Circle Way to church leaders, I’ve delivered a keynote speech on the labyrinth, the mandala, and The Circle Way as creative practices for self care at a women’s wellness workshop, I’ve hosted an online seminar on Lessons from the Labyrinth, and I’ve launched a course called The Spiral Path: A Woman’s Journey to Herself.
Wow. All of that in only 2 months. No wonder I’m waking up slowly this morning, with my head spinning full of the goodness of the people I’ve met, the joy of doing the work I love, the excitement of what is still to come, and the humble astonishment that people are trusting me to have enough wisdom to teach them these big and sometimes hard things.
But there’s been something else going on under the surface that is also worth talking about. Something that challenges all of this work I’ve been doing and, in the hardest moments, makes me want to throw up my hands in despair.
I have been triggered. Again and again. In sometimes familiar and sometimes surprising ways. And I have gotten angry. And I’ve wept. And I’ve curled up in a ball in my room not wanting to face the world.
It started with the vigil for Tina Fontaine, the young woman whose body was found in the Red River in my city. I wept for her innocence, wept for girls like her who continue to be exploited by sexual predators, and wept for the many murdered and missing Indigenous women in our country whose lives don’t matter to those in positions of political power in our country.
I took that weeping to the hills of South Dakota. I invited other women to walk the hills with me, weeping and holding ceremony for the grief we carry from centuries of wounded, exploited, abused, and silenced women. We resolved nothing, but we gave ourselves permission to feel the weight of the sadness. We clung to the belief that releasing our tears opens a doorway to our collective healing.
But then, not many weeks later, our country was rocked by a story of another kind – a story that was both dramatically different and yet eerily connected to the Tina Fontaine story.
One of the most famous media personalities in our country, a man we all wanted to trust because he was smart and savvy and asked intelligent questions and had even taken women’s studies in university, was fired from our public broadcaster. We were in collective shock and many of us rushed to defend his right to make choices in the bedroom that we ourselves wouldn’t make. But then the truth exploded in our faces. He had a long history of being a sexual predator, of perpetrating violent acts toward women (and some men) without their consent, of harassing young female employees and getting away with it, and of using his celebrity status to walk away from everything despicable act like the Teflon Don.
Suddenly the world erupted with hundreds, maybe thousands of stories of women who’d been subjected to the kind of treatment that this man was being accused of and had never reported it. (Check the hashtag #beenrapedneverreported on social media) Every time I checked my Facebook stream and nearly every time I turned on the radio there were stories of sexual harassment, date rape, abuse of power, etc.
Two things happened to me in the middle of all of this. Firstly, I became rather obsessed with reading everything that appeared, wanting to understand this horrible story of how someone so popular and well-loved had gotten away with such heinous behaviour, and wanting to hold space for all of the women who’d been treated horribly by this man and others.
Secondly, I was triggered.
A flood of memories came back to me and I was in the middle of my own stories. I remembered the times when, as a young woman, I worked in male-dominated environments (a trucking company and a construction company) where it was almost a daily occurrence to have a man lean over me at my desk, ostensibly to talk to me about what I was working on but obviously to look down my blouse. I remember how it felt to put up with this behaviour because I needed the money and because sometimes the bosses were the perpetrators and there was nowhere to turn to and nobody who would take me seriously.
And I remembered how it felt to be part of a sexual harassment investigation against one of the senior managers in the government department I worked in early in my career, how it seemed strange to be talking honestly about how he treated women to investigators when I’d looked up to him as my boss just weeks before, and then how it felt a little like we needed to carry some guilt when he died just months after being removed from his job.
And then came the worst memory of all.
I remembered how it felt to lay on my bed after a man had climbed through my window and was brandishing a pair of scissors over my head threatening to kill me if I didn’t have sex with him. And I remembered the violation of his hands and penis on my naked body and the smell of him stuck to my skin.
And then the accompanying memory of how it felt to have my body poked and prodded by a doctor and nurse looking for clues that might have been left behind by the perpetrator. And how they shamed me for having taken a bath to wash the stink of him off my skin before coming to the hospital, because I’d probably washed off all the evidence.
And how it felt to have the two male police officers tell me that I should think long and hard about whether I wanted to formally report this as a crime, because I would be dragged through the courts and probably be made to feel shame for sleeping with my window open on a stiflingly hot day and for living in a neighbourhood that decent girls shouldn’t live in. And then how it felt to sit in the back seat of their police cruiser and listen to them tell racist jokes while they drove me back to my apartment to gather my bedsheet and the scissors he’d brandished above my head as evidence.
And how it felt the next day, to have to give up the triathlon I’d been training for, because I was shaking from trauma and my neck was stiff from when he’d tried to choke me to death.
Yes, I was triggered. And I was angry.
I was angry that there are still so many sexual predators who prey on young women in their beds, in their workplaces, and in the universities they attend. I was angry that so many of them get away with it because the victims recognize that it will be harder to report it and live through what the justice system puts them through than to go away quietly and focus instead on their own healing.
I was angry at the abuse women were taking in social media because they dared to step forward and call out a sexual predator who happened to be a well-loved celebrity.
And then another story emerged and I got even more angry. Two politicians were suspended for harassment toward women.
And suddenly I felt overwhelmed with how much women still have to put up with, with how much my daughters are still at risk, and with the ways that harassment and sexual misconduct of all kinds is swept under the rug not only in trucking companies, but in the halls of power in our country.
That’s when I began to feel despair. Is anything really changing? Is there really any reason for hope?
We want to believe that women have more rights and protection than they once did, but is the patriarchy just going underground and becoming more insidious in its way of undermining women’s power?
Just a few weeks ago, I taught a workshop on women’s power, and now suddenly I found myself wondering whether any of that was really going to make any difference. Sure it’s good to help women step into their power, but will they really be able to access it if the patriarchy beats them down again and again and weakens them by making fun of them when they stand up for what they believe in and ignoring them when they’ve been violated?
Is all of my work just a bandaid solution when the real disease is so very big and insidious and powerfully abusive?
I don’t know the answer to this huge problem. I don’t know the remedy to my despair. I don’t know if all of the teaching I’ll ever do in my life will ever make one iota of difference in a world that seems to be getting worse every day.
I don’t know how to ensure that the world will be more gentle to my daughters than it was to me.
And that’s when I returned to the teachings of Margaret Wheatley. Four and a half years ago, I participated in a workshop she was teaching and at the time she was grappling with her own despair. She kept asking herself what her efforts were worth when the world seemed to be getting worse day after day. In the time since then, she’s written a book about just that, and she’s come to the conclusion that it is best to give up hope of making change, and simply commit to the work because it is the right thing to do.
“My great teachers these days are people who no longer need hope in order to do their work, even though their projects and organizations began with bright, hope-filled dreams. As ‘the blood-dimmed tide’ of greed, fear, and oppression drowns out their voices and washes away their good work, they become more committed to their work, not because it will succeed, but just because it is right for them to be doing it.”
I re-read that, and once again, I lift my head out of my despair and I turn toward the work that is calling me. Because it’s all I know how to do and it’s all that I have to cling to.
Because I believe that gathering people into circles is the best way to shift the imbalance of power in the world and to bring women and men into spaces where they can speak about hard things and find healing together.
Because I believe the labyrinth teaches us that the whole journey is important – the hard parts that bring us far from centre and the gentle parts that circle closer to Source.
Because I believe that storytelling has the capacity to shift us away from blame and shame into deeper listening and more openhearted understanding.
Because I believe that we each have to do our inner work of healing and growth so that we can show up as warriors in a world that needs us to be courageous.
Because I believe that even if none of this causes the world to shift, it will at least shift the world for me and the people I sit in circle with and that is what matters right now.
Because I know that I couldn’t have healed from the wounds that man inflicted on me in my bedroom if I hadn’t found the kind of personal practices (journal-writing, mandala-making, mindful wandering, etc.) that I now teach others to embrace.
“Let us walk away from that mountain of despair-inducing failures and focus instead on the people in front of us, our colleagues, communities, and families. Let us work together to embody the values that we treasure, and not worry about creating successful models that will transform other people. Let us focus on transforming ourselves to be little islands of good caring people, doing right work, assisting where we can, maintaining peace and sanity, people who have learned how to be gentle, decent, and brave as the dark ocean that has emerged continues to storm around us.” – Margaret Wheatley
And so I invite you, once again, to commit with me, to gather in circle for storytelling and tears and healing, to have real conversations about hard things without shame, and to heal from all of these wounds one tiny bit at a time.
Because it’s the right thing to do.