Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Not Losing the Race

In the past week I had an thoughtful email dialog with a woman I'd never met before who came across something I'd written for the Diversity issue (summer 2012) of Communities magazine. The article was about the dynamics of racism in groups and she was moved to share her thoughts. As the topic is important and her comments were insightful, I'm using our dialog as the substance of today's blog.

She wrote:
I was just reading your article online, The Paralysis of Racism in Social Change Groups. I thought it was a great article, showing much more awareness about the minority person's point of view than I see in general from non-minorities. I'm African-American.

I wanted to make a comment, because I had such a strong reaction when I read this part of your article:

• If possible, try to acknowledge that for the minority person the dynamic feels like racism—something they’ve undoubtedly become sensitized to. Even better, try to acknowledge how awful this must feel. Try to connect with them emotionally, even if you don’t think you’re doing that bad thing. Note: I’m not pretending this is easy (authentically acknowledging someone else’s hurt when you feel wrongly accused); yet this can be especially effective at diffusing tension if you can do it.

Speaking only for myself, trying to connect with me emotionally would not be especially effective at diffusing tension in me. It would make me angrier. In this context, trying to connect with me emotionally, or acknowledging that what's happening feels like racism to me, would feel like a condescending pat on the head. I would prefer just this approach that you suggested:

• If you can manage it without a charge (coming from a place of curiosity rather than defiance), ask the minority person why they thought that racism was occurring (essentially, “What indicates to you that you’re being responded to differently by virtue of race?”).

Then I could state my case, what I'm perceiving, and we could go from there.

I was on your page, because I'm in process of forming a small urban shared home in the coming year. I know that good communication processes are going to be critical in the success of the house, so I'm getting as much information as I can about communication processes in the context of intentional communities. I'm a communication coach myself, so I hope to be a positive force in fostering good communication in the group.

I replied:
I'm glad to hear you found my article constructive. To be clear, I'm not an expert of race. Rather I'm a group dynamics expert, and much of my work is about how to understand and bridge differences without running anyone over. Much of that work (which applies equally well to racism, I think) entails getting out of one's perspective and seeing the world through the eyes of the person with whom you disagree.

Let me lay out my thinking about why I advocate trying to connect emotionally and see how it works for you.

In working constructively with dynamics, it makes a big difference if nontrivial emotional distress is part of the picture. Sometimes it is; sometime it isn't. By "nontrivial" I mean that it's great enough that there's significant distortion going on. The point being that a person's ability to hear accurately what's being said is compromised by their distress. People vary a good deal with respect to how much distress pushes them over the line, but everyone has a line. It's neither a good thing or bad thing; it just is, and groups are well advised to learn how to understand and work with that moment.

Overwhelmingly, my experience has taught me that if someone is in significant distress, you must attend to that first before discussing content. In many cases simply acknowledging it is enough to deescalate the moment to where the remaining distortion is tolerable. In some cases though, it takes much more. While I've developed a protocol for working that moment (when acknowledgment is not enough), I'll leave that aside for now. The main point I'm trying to make is that attempting to bypass nontrivial distress does not work. To be sure, many groups nonetheless try to do that (mainly because they have no confidence in being able to navigate distress accurately or constructively), yet I have rarely seen this work well and leads to brittle agreements.

Having said all that, I get it that you believe not addressing the distress would work better for you. While I question whether that's really true (providing the distress is significant enough--and I imagine where you feel racism has entered the picture that the distress would probably be nontrivial), I wonder if your conclusion is based more on the ham-handed ways that people (whites?) have tried to reach out to you emotionally and your lack of personal experience with that working well, rather than on a preference for keeping emotional distance.

I fully acknowledge that forced or insincere attempts to reach you emotionally are not going to work well, and will probably escalate the tension. Further, it is not a simple skill to learn how to do well. Despite that, I advocate for this approach because it's worked so well for me in 25 years as a process consultant. In fact, I don't think it's possible to build vibrant communities without doing emotional work.

She continued with:
You're right about this:

"I wonder if your conclusion is based more on the ham-handed ways that people (whites?) have tried to reach out to you emotionally and your lack of personal experience with that working well, rather than on a preference for keeping emotional distance."

It seems to me the key element is trust. I would only be angry to begin with if I thought there could be racists in the group.

I'm sure trust is the issue, because recently, a good friend of mine (non-black) said something to me that was highly insensitive to blacks. On a scale of 1-10, it felt like a 9.95 to me (only because nothing is a perfect 10). It hurt me deeply, and I was upset about it for two weeks. It's had a lasting effect on me, but I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that my friend had zero intention of even bothering me. My friend was actually surprised that I was upset at all. This person may never "get it," and I'm okay with that reality, because I know this person well, and I know their intention is to be a kind and accepting person.

So, I agree that (if trust is there) it makes sense to deal with the emotions first.

Getting to the place of trust is the thing. I see how critical it is to choose members carefully and to establish these processes for handling emotions and decision-making.

I responded:
Trust is a chicken-and-egg dynamic. On the one hand you need trust to more readily see good intent and be less triggered. On the other, being seen accurately helps build trust. The heavy lifting here, in my view, is learning how to get good results (in this case, an authentic bridge to someone's emotional experience) when trust is damaged, or otherwise weak. Often, that's where skilled facilitation (or skilled group members who are sensitive to the need) can play a major role. It's damn hard to trust someone who has just done a grossly insensitive thing. Often, the exact same words—even said with the same tone and body language—will land differently if they come from someone other than the person who was the trigger.

I also want to make a comment about membership selection. While I am definitely supportive of being deliberate about it (especially with regard to social skills), no amount of screening will eliminate awkwardness or tension all together. Don't make the mistake of equating the volume of conflict with the health of the group. The test is not how much conflict you have, it's how you handle it.

She followed with: 
I'm not sure I agree with what you said about trust. I wouldn't trust someone just because they understand me and see my side clearly. They still may not have good intent. Any time I think I have good reason to believe a person doesn't have good intent, I will proceed with caution. If I have no specific reason to be cautious, if I'm neutral or I definitely trust them, then I'm quite open, as I am with you.

That would indeed be a heavy lift with me. If I think a person doesn't have good intentions toward me (regarding any type of issue), my emotional response to them isn't going to change unless that source of dishonorable intention is somehow removed. Maybe there's a misunderstanding on my part. Maybe they change their point of view—unless you're talking about learning to love someone who's working against you or who truly dislikes you. To me, that's a separate thing. Also, I could learn to work with anybody within a structure, like established rules in an intentional community, the same way I work at my job with someone I don't have a lot of rapport with (we just don't seem to like each other). 

I'd be able to cooperate with the person I'm upset with, but a facilitator or group member probably wouldn't be able to change my emotions.

Are you really talking about trying to alleviate my upset? To make me "not feel bad" about an upsetting incident? Maybe I'm unclear on the goal of the facilitation.

My reply:Often, though by no means always, bad intent is projected onto someone because that's the thing that allows you to make sense of what they've said or done. Overwhelmingly, my experience of working with groups in conflict has taught me that it's generally possible to uncover a plausible, innocent explanation (rather than that they're out to get you or believe you're inferior) if we take the time to unpack the dynamic and understand it from each player's perspective. (To be clear, I'm not saying the person did a smart thing; only that they didn't intend a mean thing.)

With that in mind, when I facilitate conflict I ask participants to suspend judgment to allow me the chance to explore perspective. If part of that exploration includes reaching out and holding each party accurately in both the their energy and their viewpoint, I can often get enough flexibility that people are willing to change their feelings and let go of the story that the other person acted from bad intent. This is huge.

To be clear, the facilitator only invites people to change their feelings (by which I mean anger toward the person, rather than upset with their action); there is no arm twisting. If it doesn't happen willingly, then it doesn't count. 

• • •
I just love it when people are curious about why things fall apart and what they can do to put Humpty Dumpty back together again—where no one has to be the bad guy or labeled an asshole. It gives me hope.

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