Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Losses Along the Way Revisited

Three weeks back, someone posted this anonymous comment about my previous blog post, Losses Along the Way.

It seems like you are trying to contribute to people and some appreciate your work. In reading this blog I see a lack of trauma and power dynamics awareness and it looks Ike you have caused harm due to that. It sounds like you are trying to make yourself feel better or get others to side with you. In all of your examples I see you making things up about other people some of whom sound like they are not feeling emotionally safe and you aren't getting it so you do things that make them feel less safe including in group situations. So much so that they stop interacting with you. I think even posting this is going to have an impact on some despite your attempt to obscure identities. Some will know who you are talking about. That is a harmful use of power in my view. Instead of being curious about your actions and what you aren't seeing you write in a fashion that comes off as knowing more than others and ultimately lacks compassion and self awareness to me. Your conclusions are the same. I don't know you or these people. But in reading this I feel sad for those you have written about in ways that are most likely not how they would describe themselves, their intents or their actions. I also feel sad for those you have had this attitude with in groups. I think you need to check your privilege and power.

I've sat with this for a while and have a number of reflections. This criticism brings into question what I do in the world and how I do it, cutting pretty close to the bone.

I. Am I making things up about other people?

While it's certainly possible that I can misread people, I work hard to listen and try to establish that I have understood another's story and impact before laboring with someone when I feel they are behaving in a way that is damaging for the group.

All three people I profiled in my blog come across as strong individuals who have no problem voicing their views in group. Having said that, it does not mean that they have had no trauma in their life, nor does it say anything about where they are in recognizing or recovering from trauma. The truth is I don't know.

While I have no particular training in trauma response or in psychology, I have deep familiarity with cooperative group dynamics (which is why I was in the room) and working with people on the energetic/emotional level is a normal part of how I go about my business. I studiously steer clear of labeling people as damaged, unless that person wears the label (in which case I try to understand what that means to the person and what they're willing to share with the group about how they'd prefer to be understood and worked with). 

Further, I'm leery of suggesting that someone is acting from a trauma response (even if I think they are), as I don't think that would be well received—I may as well be juggling lit sticks of dynamite! On a more subtle level, I am concerned that if I regularly interpret behavior through the lens of trauma responses (typically fight, flight, or freeze) it may lead to less than vigorous consideration of their input, which I consider fairly dangerous.

Instead, I work at the behavior level—regardless of its origin, once it's in play and impacting the group, I try to work with it as accurately, sensitively, and non-judgmentally as possible. Sometimes that goes well; sometimes it doesn't. With the examples I wrote about, I think it's probable that Dale, Adrian, and Chris did not feel safe or well understood by me. Yet in each case there is another lens to view this through: what is the impact on the group if I do not speak up? My goal is to use my power (my influence) for the good of the whole yet there are times when individuals don't like my observations or how I express them. 

While I am at peace with my assessments (that the individual's actions were detrimental to the group), I have been brooding over how I might have gone about it differently. How much of the poor ending was a consequence of my ham-handedness; how much was attributable to the door being barricaded against my analysis and they were unwilling to look in the mirror? This is very difficult to discern, yet the best I can do is to work my side of the street.

It was unsettledness about these exchanges that motivated me to write the blog in the first place.

II. Should I be exploring tender examples in a public forum? Checking my power

The commenter questions this—will it reinforce the trauma that may be at the root of their actions? After working with groups for decades I have come to the conclusion that not talking about difficult dynamics is a major contributor to why they persist and why they tend to get so toxic (festering anaerobically in dark corners). A major part of my work is unpacking old crap that continues to infect current dynamics because the wounds were never (ad)dressed well in the first place. Not being confident about how to do this well, most individuals (and most groups) avoid it and hope for the best—which is a spectacularly ineffective strategy.

Further, I find that people generally benefit from having theory grounded in live examples, and that difficult exchanges are the most illuminating (students never seem to tire of hearing about how something I did went awry). Overwhelmingly, I have gotten positive responses to my willingness to discuss hard and tender stuff. To be fair, others have expressed concerns about possible blowback from people or groups who recognize themselves in my stories (even when I use aliases and obscure identifying details that aren't germane to my point), but I have never had someone do that, and I think the plusses substantially outweigh the potential harm.

The commenter opined that I was abusing power. If you think of power as influence, I own that I am trying to impress upon my audience a number of things:

•  That it's important to be clear about your process agreements and then speak up when they are not followed.

•  That it's important to attempt to do this with as much compassion as possible (there's an art to giving effective feedback and most of us aren't that good at it).

•  That it's valuable to reflect on your part whenever a relationship has been damaged or ended.

•. The role of facilitator is difficult for people who want everyone to love them. Occasionally you will be called upon to speak up on behalf of the group and attempt to redirect inappropriate behavior. You cannot reasonably expect to be loved in those moments by the person(s) you are trying to redirect—and you cannot let your fear of being disliked dissuade you from acting when you know a line has been crossed. Tough love goes with the territory.

Do I think that's an abuse of my power? No, but I appreciate that others, like the commenter, may disagree. My intent in writing the blog was to tell stories—albeit from my perspective—about challenging moments as a consultant/facilitator. It's almost a dead certainty that Dale, Adrian, and Chris have different stories about what happened and why they rejected my analysis. Does that mean I shouldn't have used my power to object to their behavior on behalf of the group and good process? What would I be reserving my influence for, if not for that?

III. Checking my privilege

This is a fair comment. After all, I am bathed in privilege as an older, well-educated, articulate, able-bodied, heterosexual, Protestant-raised, white man. I've got the whole package. And it wasn't until I went to college that I started to break out of the cocoon that was my upbringing in the conservative middle class suburbs of Chicago. My journey toward greater awareness that began then has continued throughout my adult life, and I don't expect to ever be done peeling back the layers of that particular onion. It seems, to my chagrin, that I am forever uncovering additional ways in which the deck has been stacked in my favor because of privilege.

Here's what I've been doing to work on this:

• Recognize the advantage I've had being raised in a household where I never went hungry, lacked for adequate clothing or warmth, and never felt unsafe. I grew up with the enormous advantage of not feeling insecure about whether basic needs would be met.

• Taking this a step further, I was able to use my secure upbringing as a platform to question a materialistic lifestyle as a young adult, to redefine what it meant to lead a happy, fulfilled life. (Have you ever tried to tell someone who doesn't have a thing that they don't need it—that its acquisition is overvalued?) This gave me the opportunity to experiment with a different kind of wealth (relationships) and get off the let's-make-a-lot-of-money merry-go-round early in life.

• As a direct consequence of my professional work with cooperative groups, I've come to understand the power of two key concepts that bear on privilege:

a) The value (necessity) of constructive feedback

Cooperative living has helped me understand the difference between intent and impact, especially as we widen our knowledge of the incredibly varied ways people take in information, process it, and express ourselves. I've come to appreciate that everyone makes mistakes. The key challenge is learning how to be open to hearing that things haven't landed well for others (even when it's not delivered "nicely"), so that next time I might be able to do better.

b) The ubiquity of diversity

Fortunately, my work as a facilitator has enhanced my understanding of the myriad and kaleidoscopic ways in which people are different and of the need to create ways to explore what those are (telling our stories) and how we can adjust how we do our work to help everyone's input be more welcome. 

The goal is not trying to know everyone's story, avoiding the trap of thinking that I could know what it's like to grow up Black, or as a woman, or as gay. It's being aware that stories vary by person and I need to take time to hear what they are, looking for what bridges I can find. The goal is not to manage differences; it's to understand them and see the potential for the group to make better choices based on the hybrid vigor possible when all input is taken into account. It's being as aware as I can be that these differences exist and are normal—even when I'm not alerted by external appearances that they may be in play.

• I have always been a voracious and eclectic reader. In the last five years especially I have made it a point to regularly read non-white authors, both fiction and nonfiction, as a portal into seeing life through the lens of people who have had less privileged lives than I have. This works both at the visceral level (what it felt like to be marginalized or victimized) and at the informational level (combatting ignorance and the whitewashing of history).

• For the past 18 months I have a been a regular participant in an anti-racism group where participants unpack our personal journeys of discovery, much of which has been obscured by privilege.

We meet weekly for an hour via Zoom. Currently we've been working with Resmaa Menakem's My Grandmother's Hands as a study guide, which focuses on the concept of racialized trauma response and how that's stored in the body. The author examines this through three main lenses: white body, Black body, and blue body (police), providing insights into the roots and damage of systemic racism. What's special about Menakem's approach is that the principal work is done kinesthetically, rather than rationally or emotionally. I'm excited to see where this leads.

Am I doing enough? I don't know.


M&M said...

Above I see you doing what you’ve done to others it seems, explaining and defending yourself without really being curious about the other persons expression. Your questions are not actually questions are they? See that example? I did a question that’s not a question. Anyhow, here are some ways to be less defensive, more warm when responding to someone giving you feedback especially someone who’s in a workshop where you have power:

1. Reflect what they are saying (not your opinions). Above you show how you reflect on you and your reactions to the post but you don’t once reflect what the poster (me) is saying or try to clear up your misunderstandings or put effort into understanding something you might not get. You just defend yourself. I imagine you’ve missed many growing opportunities by doing this. If you’re really confused don’t try to have the last word. Ask questions, be curious without answers, be vulnerable in your not knowing.

2. Empathize. With the person sharing not yourself.

3. Listen to the person sharing. You say you listen (then explain how) yet you didn’t really listen to the post, you argued.

4. If you can’t do that then listen to and empathize with yourself. It seems to me you are triggered and don’t recognize it so you get defensive. Feel your body, your tension doesn’t lie even if your mind might. You might feel scared, sad, embarrassed. Or maybe no emotions come up but you notice your heart rate increase or tension or urgency. Sit with it. Knowing trauma exists doesnt mean making stuff up about others, it means sitting with the body, your own body too. Take time. Let it emerge. There is always unconscious, implicit stuff happening. Your response to alarm (even if it’s not recognized by you right away) might be to explain yourself and defend yourself. As a group leader this reaction can cause harm. It’s a typical reaction so not unusual. Being a leader is hard. In my experience it requires a lot of repairs and growth. Repairs meaning hearing harm we’ve caused and the impact and looking deeply at ourselves for how that happens and trying to do it better. It not about not causing harm, we will all cause harm. It’s about repairing ruptures.

As a person born with lots of power and then taking a power role I think it’s important to notice your own trauma and triggers or else you act them out and hurt people.

I appreciate you responding and thinking on things. Can you sit with your body and sensations and feelings and notice your own vulnerability? Some can’t and that’s it’s own trauma response. I hope as a leader you can more often than not work on being in the unknown. Thanks for the discussion and energy.

Anonymous said...

I don’t understand the focus on whether someone may or may not have experienced trauma, M&M. Laird described some experiences as a facilitator for communal groups working through problems specific to living in community. Are you sure you’re not projecting your own trauma onto these encounters?

Anonymous said...

The more I think about it, it seems you like to pin problems onto one person. Yes, there are people with difficult behaviors but the whole community needs to find a way to come together and be empathetic to everyone. With that said, your original post seems to blame certain people for the reason the mediation didn't go well. One person even bad mouthed you, from what I remember of the post. I would venture to say some of your clients (the whole community) may choose to go another direction because the proof is in the pudding. Did you help the community? Did they find ways to turn conflict into a way to bring the whole community closer? Or did they pin the blame on the tail of one person and call it a night? Did you give them tools in facilitating and communicating and did they use them (that's on them of course)? Did you ask for feedback? Especially in the examples you gave. Ask those who were satisfied and those who weren't? Did the whole community stay in turmoil? Did many choose to give up and leave? I agree with MM comment above - self reflection on your part may help your future clients. It could at least not traumatize some who are in the receiving end of your mediation and just want to have a caring community that they were promised.