Poking the Bear


I was describing to a friend last week about a tough situation in which I found myself recently.In room full of teachers, I told them that they appeared to have shut down on their own learning.Her response:ohhhhhh, you just poked the bear.

I have been wrestling with this bear now for several days.I hold a deep intention to cause no harm to the people with whom I live, work and volunteer.But this intention is not superficial. It is not just about protecting the people around me from harm; it is as much about noticing when I and the people around me may be causing harms to others.And with this in mind, I find myself often telling clients (and other people in my life) things they might not want to hear.

But in the spirit of doing not harm, my intention is to do this in a compassionate and direct way. As my Art of Hosting colleague Toke Moller put it, a dull knife through a tomato is an aggressive and harmful act.A sharp knife through the tomato is compassionate.This isn’t about cutting people up with nasty things to say.It is about providing honest feedback – whether to an individual or a group – that is in some way what they need to hear.What they need to hear, but not necessarily what they want to hear.

So my own personal wrestling with the bear is about being brave enough to be direct and honest, because once I have poked it, I have to be prepared for the consequences – it might take a swipe at me.It is this consideration that makes me think of timing options to poke the bear:

  1. Right then and there – when it needs to be said
  2. Later – when it is a better time
  3. Never – just leave it be

As the bear pins me to the forest floor, I deliberate about what would have happened if nothing was said: nothing would have changed and teachers would teach rather than learn.If something was said later: nothing would have changed and teachers would teach rather than learn.Right then and there – the quality of the work that followed, and commitment to it, was significantly higher.The down side, I realize, is that people’s feelings were hurt because they were told something they didn’t want to hear.Some people were angry with the feedback.Some closed ranks and got defensive.Some said thank you – we needed to hear that.

The bear swiped around to protect itself. And in the end, I ask myself what it is protecting itself against, and the answer is astounding:learning.

I have slipped out from beneath the bear, for now, and I look it in the eyes.I will continue to poke the bear and give it feedback from time to time – always compassionately – because I trust that over time it will be received, constructively and positively, in ways I will never know as it makes its way through the wild world.

4 thoughts on “Poking the Bear”

  1. Beth, I really enjoyed and appreciated your thoughts. I also constantly think about the value of expressing my observations to a group about their learning, their decisions, and their actions. In situations where I question what a group is doing, I hold the following internal conversation. “What do I see and hear” that leads me to think that the group may not be acting in their best interest. I then ask myself “What do I think these behaviours mean?” and “Why is it worthwhile to say something to the group?”. If I decide it is of value to say something or “poke the bear”, I then describe to the group the specific behaviours I see and words I hear, and explain my interpretation. I then ask them what they think of my interpretation. I find that insightful discussions follow; whether the group participants agree or disagree with my interpretation. As you say, learning occurs. These questions come from “The Skilled Facilitator” by Roger Schwarz & Associates: http://www.shcwarzassociates.com. Great blog on a very complex issue. Thanks for helping me learn.

    1. Thanks, Barb. Those are good questions. Even when answered, it is a learning experience that no one can turn back on once you reveal what your observations are – and potentially what they mean. The response is always an indication of how open we are to learning…

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