The expert/theatre trap

At the outset of summer I found myself in the expert trap: I started talking and talking and talking, not leaving any room for anyone else.

Friend A was organizing a big lecture about community connection. Friend B, Friend C and I were talking about how ironic it was to have a bigwig speaker in town to tell us about community connection, with us all sitting there in passive listening mode in a theatre and that we would not make any new connections in our community. So Friend B got in touch with Friend A to see if she would like to circle up and see what could be done. (Friend A is of our tribe of people who see this kind of conundrum.)

The conundrum is that we don’t get to know each other when we sit like this:

theatre style

Deeply embedded in this shape is expertise and the assumption that she at the front of the room has it and we do not. It is an empty vessel approach, where we, as the audience, need to be filled with all the things we do not know. Moreover, even after we have listened for ages, we are given no opportunity to notice what we know and understand differently, to consolidate what we are learning. And we are not given this opportunity as an individual, or a small groups or large groups. We drink from the firehouse then leave with a few drops of nourishment.

It’s not that this mode of information exchange is not needed–it is, under the right circumstances (see last two posts: shapes of conversation and direction or discernment). My point is this: Friend A was caught in a swirling environment of assumption that the best way to talk about connection was to disconnect ourselves from ourselves, and each other, and assume that the expert outsider has more information on the matter than we do. The ‘machinery’ of the city is caught in the assumption that we need to be told what to do, that we are not capable of figuring this thing out. Embedded in this is the further assumption that if we are simply told, we will go and do it and the problem will be fixed.

Friend A pulled off a remarkable feat. She acknowledged the desire, and in fact the need, to hear what the expert had to say (in theatre mode), then created a new shape that allowed people to meet each other, connect with each other, and figure out what this new information meant for them, for our lives and for our city. She did this:

small circles

Instead of leaving with a only a few drops from the firehouse (as is what happens with a lecture), people left having met and connected with people new to them.  They met around topics of shared interest. They took some time to notice what the lecture meant to them in practical ways that will change their lives and the city around them; they began to integrate what they learned into their being as individuals and a loose collective. Friend A delivered on connection not just by inviting an expert in, but by creating the conditions for the audience–citizens–to truly hear the expert by connecting with themselves and each other.

I almost wrecked everything for Friend A it because when Friends B, C and I met with her I fell into the expert trap. We sat at an outdoor cafe table on a sunny early summer day and missed that we were sitting in a circle. I didn’t let others speak. I said what I see, much like is written above, and then said it again and again.

Passion, impatience and my own insecurity got the better of me.

One of the reasons I most appreciate the circle as a shape for conversation is that it helps me find my place with others in a way that allows others to also have their place in the conversation. It does not diminish me: it focuses me. And most importantly, it allows us–me and the people I am with–to better see what we need to see. It does not diminish my passion, but allows it to show up more appropriately.

And, of course, the irony is not lost on me. What I was most critical of out in the world was what I was doing myself.

What I was most critical of out in the world was what I was doing myself.

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What opportunities do you see in your city to shift from the one-way “expert lecture” to create the conditions for collective discernment? What is your role in this?

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