Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Mister Cellophane

In the 2002 hit musical Chicago, John C Reilly sings “Mister Cellophane,” a song about what it’s like to be a nobody, overshadowed by his wife Roxie. In the song, he complains about being the kind of person people "see right through." Today I want to write about what it’s like to be committed to being transparent—which is similar, but different. While John C was talking about being the kind of person that people look past, I’m talking about the kind of person you can see into the heart of.

While John C’s character was safe from exposure (no one cared a fig), when you’re committed to transparency it can be tricky territory. How accurately are you describing yourself (as opposed to exposing your self-distortion)? What if you invite everyone to have a peek inside your soul and no one bothers to look (because they’ve got to walk the dog or collect the dry cleaning)? What if people are repulsed by what they see (and suddenly stop returning your calls or "unfriend" you on Facebook)?

I’ve been a process consultant for 22 years and one of my strongest lessons over that time is that I cannot expect groups to be vulnerable with me unless I’m willing to be vulnerable with them. Given that it’s seldom possible to do profound work unless you wade into the tender spots, this has led me to a surprising conclusion: I do my best work with others when I’m working on myself.

While I used to labor under the mistaken impression that groups wanted their consultant to be a Rock of Gibraltor and unphased by whatever popped out of the closet when exploring impacted distress, I’ve learned that that’s only half true. While groups do want me to be able to ride the bucking bronco, they simultaneously love hearing stories about how I’ve been bucked off in the past (en route to learning the skills that allow me to stay atop the chaos they serve up).

When I started this blog 18 months ago, I wasn’t sure what the scope of my writing would be. At first I figured it would be an experiment to see if my observations about cooperative group dynamics and life in intentional communities would spur interest in FIC and my work as a process consultant. It didn’t take long however, before it started evolving into something more personal.

My blog became an online journal. While I wrote about the things I thought I would, sometimes I delved into much more personal realms, trying to establish the foundation for my views and beliefs. Basically, I became committed to sharing whatever was up for me, in the hope that the musings of a veteran communitarian might be consistently interesting to others. Over time, I came to understand that my blog was another way to be transparent. In addition to writing being a discipline that forces me to order my thinking (and thus deepen my understanding and the clarity of my insights), I got to practice my commitment to disclosure—at the convenience of my own keyboard.

It’s an interesting juxtaposition, marrying the solitary art of journaling with public witnessing. I don’t have the instant feedback of a live audience to steer me in the right direction (helping me understand when my story is too cryptic, too obvious, or too labored). Lack of instant feedback is not, however, the same as no feedback. That became apparent recently when I started writing about my wife’s desire to take on another lover.

While I wasn’t looking for this particular publishing “opportunity,” there was no question about whether it was sufficiently engaging and I was eager to share with others what I was wrestling with. Further, I have an understanding with Ma’ikwe that our lives will be public, and each of us is allowed to use their own judgment about what aspects of our relationship we discuss with others.

Since I started writing about my own relationship with intimacy, I’ve had two friends—both of whom do professional facilitating and work with groups—contact me and inquire if I was fully aware of what I was doing. One suggested separating my blog into two parts, reserving the more intimate examinations for a separate, more discreet audience. The other wanted me to know that she was all in favor of transparency—just not that much.

As I value the opinion of both of those friends, I considered what they said. In the end though, I was persuaded to continue with one blog. First, how could I ask others to open up to me if I wasn’t willing to do the same? Second, I considered the possibility that I might lose clients who would otherwise be interested in working with me. I figured it was possible, yet how badly did I need (or even want) work with people who would not consider me because I wrote openly about my personal life?

(There’s an important distinction between my witnessing what’s going on for me and advocating that others make the same choices I do. In the realm of group dynamics I often advocate for certain points of view and practices; in matters of intimacy my aim is much humbler: to disclose, and let readers sort out for themselves what portions of my experience, if any, are applicable in their own lives.)

• • •
As a teacher of facilitation, I tell my students that if they need to be right all the time, they should quit now—because no one, to my knowledge, always makes the otpimal call in the dynamic moment. Everyone has off days, and when you flub up as a facilitator, you do it spectacularly—in front of God and everyone. The key question (if you're going to be a great facilitator) is whether can you go out there, give it your all, fall down, and then get back up and try again. Can you still throw the inside fastball to Albert Pujols after he took you deep the last time he faced you?

It doesn't take anything special to be willing to talk about your successes in public. I want to know if you can talk openly about the time swhen you crashed and burned. In my experience, the deepest learning comes from the times when I botched it, and I've found that I'm never as effective as a trainer or as a consultant if I'm not willing to the time I tripped with the soup bowl on the way to dinner table. Even when a group has hired me to help shape the greenware of their raw dynamics and turn it into fine pottery, they're ultimately intrigued
more by my feet of clay than my feat of clay.

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