Wednesday, April 29, 2009

One of Bamboo

For the second time in two months, I'm in the East Bay, with its amazing Mediterranean climate and bewldering array of flora. In the front of the house I'm staying at, there are lots of flowers in bloom, including one of my all-time favorites: bird of paradise. In the span of about 10 seconds, here's the sequence of thoughts that ran through my head when I saw these:
—Natural selection (see my blog entry for Feb 27)
—Mah Jongg

Let me explain those last two leaps.

Maj Jongg is a Chinese game. It's a lot like rummy, but it's played with tiles instead of cards. Instead if the four suits that comprise a deck of playing cards, a Mah Jongg set has three suits (dots, characters, and bamboo), plus honor tiles (winds and dragons). Each suit has tiles numbered 1 through 9. For the bamboo tiles numbered 2 through 9, all you have to do is count the number of sticks of bamboo carved into the face of the tile to know what number you have. For the number 1 tile however, there is no bamboo carved into the face; instead, there's a bird of paradise, and you have to know a bit about Chinese mythology to understand what's going on.

While the bird of paradise is a bona fide plant (though I may not have believed they existed if I hadn't seen them with my own eyes; I have seen them with my own eyes), it's only a mythical creature. Birds of paradise—just like pandas, apparently—only eat bamboo. Thus, any Chinese person could reasonably be expected to understand how the image of a bird of paradise—that singular avian—would be pressed into service to conjure up the 1 of bamboo. Out of cultural context (in America, for instance), the meaning is obscure.

While few people would rate confusion over the meaning of a bird on a Mah Jongg tile to be anything more than an amusing curiosity, it turns out that meaning of any kind can be obscure when taken out of cultural context, and that got me to thinking about facilitation.

One of the most important skills of a good facilitator is to be able to see the meaning of an act or statement in the cultural contact of the doer, and then be able to accurately translate that action or utterance into something with comparable meaning for the observer or listener. There are two essential elements here: a) shifting perspectives (seeing reality through other's eyes); and b) bridging between different perspectives when there is confusion or misunderstanding.

I'll give you an example. Some years ago I was facilitating a group that was wrestling with the issue of work expectations for members. In the course of the conversation, the group was considering establishing a Work Committee, whose job it would be to help members find ways to contribute that would match their skills and enthusiasm with the community's needs. As we were getting into it, one young man got nervous imagining members of the Work Committee showing up at his door and said "I don't want any part of authorizing a bunch of Work Nazis to go around barging into my room asking me what I've done for the community lately."

That was the first time anyone had used the N-word in the conversation and I immediately picked up on a body reaction from an older Jewish woman. Rather than asking her what was going on ( I was pretty sure she wasn't thinking about birds of paradise), I simply assumed that the young man and the older woman had a significantly different cultural context for the term "Nazi," and I immediately stepped in and rephrased what the young man had said, without using Nazi in my explanation. What had been a throw-away descriptor for the young man, used for dramatic effect, was a button-pushing traumatization for the older woman, and I knew we were in trouble. Fortunately, I caught that particular hand grenade in mid-air and was able to dispose of it safely before it exploded. To this day, I'm not sure the young man knew what danger he was flirting with, but the important thing was that I was able to draw the poison before it had gotten very deep into the older woman's (or anyone else's) bloodstream.

Maybe I should start using the bird of paradise as a symbol on my business cards.

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