Buying a car ‘with training wheels’

My two kids are great at metaphors. The latest: that they are buying a car “with training wheels”. 

They’ve been noticing their favourite vehicle out on the roads of the city for years: the Honda CR-V, circa 2000 +/-. They love the look of it; it makes them feel good. So when family friends offered a 1999 Honda CR-V to them for one dollar, they had some thinking to do. With some research, they identified the immediate repairs needed and the cost. There was research about what insurance would cost, and if it would be more economical under my insurance policy or on their own. They came up with a budget for operating costs that include insurance, registration, planned and unplanned maintenance. They researched the sale prices for other similar cars, and the shape they were in. They thought about the purpose of having a car and their budget, and where the money would come from. Then they made a decision: take on the responsibility of an awesome, well-loved Honda CR-V that they feel great about

They’ve been thinking about this, informally, for a few years, but the opportunity was in front of them and they had to make a decision. It was like the smaller version of themselves and the decision to try out a two-wheel bike, instead of the tricycle. They could have done the whole transaction on their own, but there were some training wheels: me. 

They could have done the whole transaction on their own, but there were some training wheels: me. 

Training wheels provide stability while learning a new skill. When we move from three wheels to two, those two little extra little wheels beside the rear wheel are that stability. (Even if only mental stability!) With my kids, there was a point where the training wheels came off and there was an adult hand on the seat as they figured it out more fully on their own. Then it was bike rides together, showing them the rules of the road. I offered layers of guidance, to “train” them about how the world around them works and how to fit in it safely. (Things like stop signs, stay on the right side of the road, make eye contact with car drivers, get out of the way of pedestrians.) As kids age, the nature of the guidance provided continues. 

First times are often wobbly. 

The “training wheels” my kids needed as they bought their first car showed up this way: 

  • What is the purpose of having a car? 
  • There is no pressure to make this happen now, so go at your own speed. It will happen when the time is right. 
  • What is your budget? How much do you want to spend to buy the car, on repairs, insurance? Do you have what you need to spend on the car? 
  • What is the risk of something unexpected happening to the car, or your ability to make payments? What is the likelihood of those things happening and the consequences?
  • Is this a safe thing to do, financially and physically? 
  • Does this feel right or wrong in any way? 
  • What are the steps to buy and make repairs to a car? 

With a little stability, they determined that a car was something they wanted to spend their money on. They figured out a budget. They determined that the $1 car (plus repairs) was the perfect and simple solution that meets their purposes. They researched the paperwork needed to buy and register a new car. They did most of the work, with me as training wheels on the side. 

Whether it is kids, co-workers, students, anyone for whom we serve as training wheels, this experience has taught me a few vital things about my relationship with the sovereignty of people making decisions. 

Whether it is kids, co-workers, students, anyone for whom we serve as training wheels, this experience has taught me a few vital things about my relationship with the sovereignty of people making decisions, whether they are my kids, clients, friends (or myself!):

  1. It is their decision to make, so I have to act like it is their decision to make. This involves careful discernment about what information or guidance to share, and when, to help them with their decision-making. Is the information relevant to their situation? Am I trying to push them in a direction I want them to go? 
  2. Acting like it is their decision to make means I have to ask: “Is this something you want to do on your own, or would you like my help/support in any way?” Whatever their answer, I need to respect it. After a while, I might discern that the question needs to be asked again. Again, I must respect the answer. 
  3. Acting like it is their decision to make means I offer what will stabilize them, not what will stabilize me. I need to notice if I am panicking about my kids having their own car and not let that interfere with their decision. 
  4. I need to notice when I have opinions that are not relevant. Sharing my opinion might be more about me, and what I would like them to do, rather than be helpful for them. When I offer my opinions in this way I am inserting my values into their decision making. 
  5. Supporting them to be clear on purpose helps them and me. With clarity of purpose, clear boundaries emerge about what is helpful and what is not. It enables them to put aside unhelpful advice or information. It also helps me discern what is helpful or not. 

Training wheels do not decide where the bicycle is going, or how fast it goes. They simply provide the bit of stability for the rider to make a new range of choices.

Training wheels do not decide where the bicycle is going, or how fast it goes. They simply provide the bit of stability for the rider to make a new range of choices. When my kids were learning to ride a bicycle, or buy a car, I no longer have control of where they are going. They are the decision makers. 

And most importantly, they decide if they want to use training wheels

This “training wheels” metaphor comes with great insight about respecting and allowing the sovereignty of others, whoever they are (kids, clients, partners, family, friends, or peoples). And whatever the other decides, I have a choice to make about my relationship with their sovereignty. If I want control, power over them and their decision, I will insert myself to affect the outcome. If I am not looking for power, I will offer support in ways that they determine are helpful (not how I determine are helpful). If I insert myself, even in the form of support, if it is on my terms, I am violating their sovereignty. 

If I insert myself, even in the form of support, if it is on my terms, I am violating their sovereignty. 

Violation of sovereignty takes place in clear and subtle ways. The clear ways: colonization of peoples and nations, racism, physical and emotional abuse, dictatorships. The subtle ways are in our day-to-day exchanges, and they are insidious, under the guise of being interested or helpful. (Note: The interest is not in what the decision makers want; the interest is in having something unfold the way they want it to.)

My kids, with a clear sense of purpose and budget, skillfully batted away some unwanted invasions into their sovereignty. Here are a few things said to them, and the underlying “threat to sovereignty” message: 

WHAT IS SAID THE MESSAGE 
“I think what you should do is…”  I know better than you

“An old car makes no sense for all these reasons… You should get a new car.”

I have better values than you
“Have you thought about this, about that, about this…”   You don’t know what you are doing
“I don’t think this is a good idea.”   You need my approval (or I want you to need my approval
“You should spend your money this way…”  You are not responsible

And my kids, how did they bat this stuff away? Their sovereignty did it. They recognized unhelpful information that did not align with their purpose and budget. They put it aside. 

And my kids, how did they bat this stuff away? Their sovereignty did it. 

It was fascinating to witness, and as I did my responsibility to be conscious of my motivation in a conversation became more clear. Offering unsolicited, or unwanted advice, is a primary indicator I can use to notice if I am trying to influence or control outcomes. If I am, I may be needing to feel more superior than the other, and there’s some exploration for me to do around that. None of this is about what the other needs; it has become about me and my needs, whether they are aware of this or not. 

It is also my responsibility to be conscious of the purpose of the conversation, with my kids or anyone else. It helps me keep track of my role in that conversation. Is the other asking for advice? Is the other needing me to hold space for them while they make their decision? Should I just step way back and leave them be? Do I have vital information the other does not have, and do they want it? And when it needs to be flipped around, what am I looking for from another? 

I feel like I’ve been using training wheels. My kids are helping me grow up, discerning more clearly power dynamics in decision making. They are helping me see questions to ask myself in my personal and professional lives:

  1. What does the other need of me? Advice, information, hold space, witness, distance, celebration? 
  2. What am I able to offer? Am I able to be what the other needs at this time — if not, say so. This is not personal; it is looking after self. 
  3. What do I need of the other? Advice, information, hold space, witness, distance, celebration?
  4. What is the other able to offer me? Are they able to play the role I need (they will do it, say yes or no, or be unavailable). Their response is not personal; they are looking after self.  

And the big metaphorical lesson for me, who supports people making decisions in a wide range of ways: training wheels may not be needed. If they are needed, it is the bicycle rider who decides for how long. To respect and allow their sovereignty, they make the decision, not me. Even if it means I tell them that it is their decision to make. 


NOTE #1: The exercise of sovereignty is disruptive. If I exercise it for myself, others may not like it. (They may be attached to feeling superior, giving advice, or attached to the way things were and don’t want things to change.) If I exercise sovereignty by NOT making decisions for others, that can also be tricky territory. This is how power works: it makes us want it, and it makes us not want it. 

NOTE #2: This post published with my kids’ permission. 

 

Teaching from “me in community”

I’ve been exploring a vital question for years, in anticipation of publication of my book, Nest City: how do I share my thinking and my work while being in community with my audience, especially when we are face-to-face?

We seem to think that when one or a few people talk to a crowd about community that we are learning about community. We are not. 

The question comes from long-standing ‘antibodies’ in my citizen-system (me) to the dominant learning pattern of the expert on the stage, separate from the audience. (There’s a time and a place for this, but we are not good at discerning when it is right on right circumstances for the sage on the stage; it is our default shape when we gather in groups.) I get itchy when we seem to think that when one or a few people talk to a crowd about community that we are learning about community. We are not. 

A gathering in this shape–even if the subject matter is community–is not about community. It allows us to see, or visualize, a community of shared interest, but it is not about creating community. In this shape we are talking about community but not doing community, let alone making community. If the purpose of the gathering is about community we would get to know each other; the community would get to know itself. If I leave a gathering having seen the faces of people who share my interests, but nothing else, then it was not about community. If I leave knowing names, knowing a bit (or a lot) about others, shared a bit (or a lot) about myself, found some new ideas together with others and thread some of those ideas together, then the gathering was about making community. Being in the same room, even if we are talking about community, is insufficient to claim that we are learning about community. 

I have no desire to be in learning spaces that claim to be about community when they are not. 

So when I find myself in teaching situations I put pressure on myself to create the seed conditions for community. This means I have a shift to make in my approach, as well as name the shift to the people with whom I am creating the learning habitat. The shift I must make is simple: from “me and community” to “me in community”. 

The shift I must make is simple: from “me and community” to “me in community”.

Me-and-community means I keep myself removed and separate from the community and it’s learning experience. 

Me-in-community means I am embedded in the learning system.
Here is the big difference between the two: separate learning journeys to interconnected learning journeys. Not only are participants connected to each other in their learning journeys, but my own learning journey is intertwined with theirs. We are not separate. We are in the learning together. 

This shift involves growing into new expectations of each other, new foundational assumptions about our learning habitat. For example, when I show up as the expert, what we are all thinking I will do is speak uninterrupted for a long time and lay out what I think. If we are at a conference, I speak for 30 or 60 minutes and then I get off the stage. There may or may not be opportunity for a token exchange between you and I in the form of some questions and answers. Further, I may well leave right after my presentation. Whether I physically depart or not, I leave it to you to figure out what you think about what I’ve said by yourselves. (And you are left, also, to figure it out individually, not as a group: by your selfs.)A community-focused way of learning involves contrasting basic expectation: I share what I see and sense, and then we figure out what it means to us. 

I do not leave you, rather I stay and explore with you. I might have a different role than you in the conversation that ensues, because I have a different experience, but I am in it with you. I do not drop a content bomb and run. I may have a role in holding space as the group discerns what it means for individuals, for the group, and any larger implications. I may jump in and participate with you while another holds space for us. The point: all of the perspectives in the room, all of the expertise, is allowed and invited to mix.

When we learn only from “the expert” there are massive an unimaginable missed opportunities. This is what you can expect of me: an expectation that unimaginable possibilities happen when we set ourselves up to learn together, rather than alone. 


You might also like the “how much of me” series, that gets into the power dynamics of hosts and participants, and what we expect of each other: 


This post first published in Nest City News, September 3, 2019. 

Fighting is infectious

Under the summer sun, fifteen kids, ranging in age from 6 to 10 years old, and two adults filed on to the bus last week, collecting behind me, near the back of the bus to keep the group together. I imagined the fun of a summer field trip until the adult camp leaders started talking. They were caught up in fight drama, full of fight energy. It was subtle, and infectious as it spread around the bus. If there was any fun on that field trip, it was not fun any longer. 

It was subtle and infectious as it spread around the bus. If there was any fun on that field trip, it was not fun any longer. 

The camp leaders were mad because they were running late. The group of them had been standing at the side of the road in between bus stops expecting the previous bus to stop for them. It did not, and they were furious. “What else would he be thinking? Why else would a group of kids be standing there? I called to make a complaint and they wouldn’t take the complaint because we were not at a stop–how ridiculous is that?” 

A nearby woman chimed in: “Those bus drivers! Not all of them, mind you, but there are enough around that just don’t care about people.” They went back and forth for a few minutes. In front of me, two women who did not know each other started to talk about it by themselves: “What a shame. Bus drivers these days. You can call 311 and make a complaint, but would they even listen? Would they ever change?” (Note: they didn’t hear the words of the camp leaders. They did call 311. It was the fight-feeling that was spreading.)

I found myself wanting to get off of the bus.

I wanted to escape the spreading infection of negativity and criticism and blame. I did not have the energy to witness the tempting pull to dehumanize, and demonize people we don’t even know. My stop arrived a couple minutes later and I stepped off, relieved. 

As I walked home, I thought about it and noticed that the camp leaders were:

  1. Experiencing anger about the bus not stopping for them. 
  2. Experiencing frustration that they were running late.
  3. Voicing their anger and frustration out loud.
  4. Blaming the bus driver for their anger and frustration. 
  5. Looking for and securing allies to justify their view. 

In that moment, they had hearts at war, as The Arbinger Institute, in The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict, calls it. They needed to find others to blame, rather than try to understand the situation of the other (the bus driver who drove by) or take personal responsibility for their situation. 

In that moment, they had hearts at war. 

When the heart is at war, we see and experience the world in a specific way. Here’s a summary of how The Arbginger Institute describes the heart at war: 

  • View of the world: unfair, unjust, burdensome, against me
  • Feelings: angry, bitter, justified, impatient
  • View of myself: better than, a victim (I am owed), need to be seen well
  • View of others: wrong, incapable, inferior (or superior) 

I know this stance. It is a regular occurrence in my life that I have to pay attention to with my family, friends, clients and the people I work with. From this stance, I am not able to see others as people; I see them, and experience them and treat them, as objects. When I operate this way, everything is going wrong and everyone else is to blame. When my heart is at war, I view the world as unfair and unjust, which leads me to feel anger, bitterness, and justification. When I feel this way, I may view myself as better than others, or as a victim that is owed, which means that my view of others is that they are wrong, incapable and inferior, or even superior to me. And I will look for and encourage allies to support me in this stance. It often feels like an easy way to operate, and it can take a great deal of energy to knock myself out of it. 

In contrast, a heart at peace, also described by The Arbinger Institute, is a very different quality of being. Instead of viewing others as dehumanized objects, I view them as people, with hopes, needs, cares and fears as I have, and not more or less important than mine. There are two ways of being: 

HEART AT WAR

HEART AT PEACE

Others are OBJECTS: obstacles, vehicles, irrelevancies

Others are PEOPLE: hopes, needs, cares, and fears as real to me as my own

The stance of a heart at peace appears to be hard because it involves a degree of self-awareness, and a willingness to notice what is happening within me. For The Arbinger Institute, we each, in every situation, have a sense of what we’d like to do, or how we’d like to be. The path to a heart at war is in the betrayal of that desire. Honouring that desire allows me to maintain a heart at peace. If I do not, I begin to see the other in ways that justify my self betrayal. It takes practice, and with practice it becomes easier. Over time it becomes easier to tell fewer lies to myself. 

Over time it becomes easier to tell fewer lies to myself. 

Did the camp leaders betray themselves?

I am only imagining here… Did they mean to give themselves more time to get to the bus stop, but did not? Did they sabotage this plan and then in anger and frustration blame it on someone else? Are they so entrenched in a heart at war stance that they don’t even know they’ve done this, or was it an infrequent occurrence? (Perhaps they took personal responsibility later, but in the moment they did not.)

Were they aware of the example they were setting for the children in their care, to blame things always on someone else? Deep down inside, did they feel badly and chose instead to justify their indignation and recruit allies to the cause?

Deep down inside, did they feel badly  and chose instead to justify their indignation and recruit allies to the cause? 

(In contrast, I imagine a couple camp leaders and vibrating kids getting on a bus in conversation with each other, kids and adults intertwined. “Did you see that skeleton? Did you notice how big the horns were? Did you see that room full of bugs — which one was your favourite? Oh, I couldn’t go in that room, it was too scary, but I liked the video of the old man talking about the medicine wheel.” Full of joy and revelling in the shared experience of the trip, and, perhaps, one of the adults saying, “Oh my, I so wish that bus driver saw us waving our arms like crazy when we were caught between bus stops. We must have been funny looking!)

In a spirit of having a heart at peace, and not a heart at war, I try to imagine what it was like to be those camp leaders. I have no idea what their day was like up until that point, or the trouble they will be in if late. I have no idea what their life is like, any trauma that they are dealing with. All I can do is notice how they showed up, and how their energy–not necessarily them–recruited others.

All I can do is notice how they showed up, and how their energy–not necessarily them–recruited others.

This heart at war dynamic is akin to the prevalent war mentality that Charles Eisenstein articulates in his book, Climate: A New Story. A war mentality is a stance “based on a kind of reductionism; it reduces complex interconnected causes–that include oneself–to a simple, external cause called the enemy. Furthermore, it normally depends on the reduction of the enemy to a degraded caricature of a human being.” The ‘other’ is therefore “undeserving of reverence and respect, an object to dominate, control, and subjugate.” The camp leaders were operating from a war mentality, demonizing the bus driver and Edmonton Transit Service, and when another joined in they kept going. The camp leaders and the bystander joined forces. Others drew in this anger and riled themselves up.

This war mentality is in play in so many of our human interactions. The war on terrorism. The war against climate change. The war on drugs. The war on racism. It even drifts into the war on bus drivers. This mentality is pervasive and the irony is that it maintains the status quo: 

…fighting the enemy is futile when you inhabit a system that has the endless generation of enemies built into it. That is a recipe for war.

If that is to change, then one of the addictions—more fundamental than the addiction to fossil fuels—that we are going to give up is the addiction to fighting. Then we can examine the ground conditions that produce an endless supply of enemies to fight (Eisenstein, p. 17).

When the fighting never ends, the power structures remain the same; all we do is shift who has power and who does not. (Think about the Game of Thrones: endless fighting and all that changes is who sits on the iron throne. And you can never be sure you’ll be there for long.) The “ground conditions that produce an endless supply of enemies to fight” are the heart at war. In the end, then, the question is, who do we want to be? How do we want to be? 

The “ground conditions that produce an endless supply of enemies to fight” are the heart at war. In the end, then, the question is, who do we want to be? How do we want to be?

Do we want to maintain a clear separation between us and them, between right and wrong and maintain the game as we know it? Or do we want to make the transition to a world where conflict is not about right and wrong, but a way to make sure others’ needs are met, because in so doing mine will also be met?

IMPORTANT NOTE: Conflict does not disappear when we stop operating in fight mode. I do not advocate that conflict be ignored. We desperately need to talk about what works and does not work for us and work to resolve it. Instead of reverting to a war mentality of fighting and dehumanizing, we grow our capacity to be in conflict in ways that allow people’s needs to be met. This involves a lot of work within self, with others, and in relationship to the places we call home. 

VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: I am not advocating no fighting under any circumstances. Like Eisenstein, I observe that being in fight mode all the time is not effective. There are instances where fighting does make sense: human rights violations, racism and genocide, ecocide. 

The infection that spreads, then, is not fight drama, but deep and meaningful, interconnected relationships: the ground conditions for support and care for self, others and the places we call home. 

The choice at hand for each of us: Which infection do I choose to spread? The anger and frustration that comes with fight drama, or the generative possibility that comes with exploring conflict? 

 


Resources:

Charles Eisenstein, Climate: A New Story, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, 2018.

The Arbinger Institute, The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., Oakland, 2006, 2008, 2015.


The choice at hand for each of us: Which infection do I choose to spread? The anger and frustration that comes with fight drama, or the generative possibility that comes with exploring conflict? 



This post first published in Nest City News on August 9, 2019.

Shifting to host-as-all-of-us

A community in conversation with itself does not rely on others to have the conversation on its behalf–the community is involved in the conversation.

A city (or group or organization) that brings in experts for a speakers’ series is not in conversation with itself. A city that brings people together to hear from someone (but not from each other) is not in conversation with itself. A city that presents a panel discussion that hundreds of people listen to is not in conversation with itself; it is a city that watches a handful of people in conversation about the city. The conversation is separate from the community, even when right in front of the community that has gathered.

The nuance here is significant, and you can catch it with a simple two-part question: who is involved in the conversation, and is there an opportunity for them to figure things out for themselves?

Who is involved in the conversation, and is there an opportunity for them to figure things out for themselves? 

Even when we are in the shape of community–a circle–it is possible for a community to not be in conversation with itself. This occurs when we lose track of the energetic pattern of the gathering. (For more information, please see these two previous posts: host-attractor and host-on-the-rim, and roles and challenges for the host-attractor and host-on-the-rim.)

In two posts last year, I explored two patterns–the host-attractor and the host-on-the-rim–and the challenges we experience with them. In the case of the host-attractor pattern, the primary challenge is the expectation that the hosts will have all the answers and that participants will not question hosts. The danger in this is that the community will go where the host wants them to go, from a host-ego place that is not in service to the community’s learning process. In the host-on-the-rim pattern, the primary challenge is reluctance in the community to share and rotate the hosting work. The danger in this case is that the group will go where a few people want to go, rather than discerning where the whole group is wanting to go. The result is a wobbly circle.

Two examples of wobbly circles

The challenges in each pattern are about power dynamics and the power we give–consciously and unconsciously–to hosts or community, to a handful (or one) or to the whole. ​​​​​​​While each pattern in isolation appears to have distinct challenges, it is not a binary, either/or matter. Most often, the patterns are activated simultaneously, which creates significant challenges to the well-being of our social habitat because we don’t know which direction we are aiming to move toward: the expertise in others or the expertise in us. ​​​​​​​The latter disempowers community and separates us from ourselves, while the former empowers and moves us toward wholeness.

The challenges in each pattern are about power dynamics and the power we give–consciously and unconsciously–to a host or community, to a handful (or one) or to the whole. 

These challenges appear under any of the following conditions:

  1. ​​​​​​​When a community is strongly attracted (consciously or unconsciously) to one or a few of its members and minimizes the contributions of others
  2. When a community strongly resists (consciously or unconsciously) the contributions of one or a few of its members
  3. When a community member has a strong desire (consciously or unconsciously) to be a host-attractor in the group​​​​​​​
  4. When a host-attractor does not want (consciously or unconsciously) the attention and responsibility of being an attractor​​​​​​​
  5. When a host-attractor denies (consciously or unconsciously) their presence as a host-attractor
  6. ​​When a host-attractor wants to create the conditions for the community to host itself (and shift the attraction/identification from the host-attractor to the larger community)

​​​​​​​All six of of the above scenarios involve subtle and significant power dynamics, full of shadow and projection. To best handle them, we need to be willing and able to talk about our attachments to how we perceive each other, and ourselves, in our relationships and we need to be in community to do this. Sometimes the host-attractor pattern is the right one. Sometimes we feel the need to shift into the host-on-the-rim pattern, what one reader (thanks Ian!) framed for himself as “host-as-all-of-us”. But if we are in the host-attractor pattern, relying on the guidance of others rather than our own guidance, we are not in a community pattern.

We need to be willing and able to talk about our attachments to how we perceive each other, and ourselves, in our relationships and we need to be in community to do this. 

​​​​​​​Ten years ago, six of us gathered around a teacher to learn specific material in a clear host-attractor pattern. We gathered around because we were attracted to both the teacher and the material she would teach us that would nourish our individual learning journeys. She laid out clear expectations about what we would learn, how we would learn it, and what she expected of us as participants. She created the conditions for us to get to know each other as a learning community ourselves and we choose to step into this during our time with her as a host-attractor.

​​​​​​​Most learning events create a community of shared interest, where we find people ‘just like me’ for a time, and we are buoyed with a sense of belonging. When the event is over, the connection dissipates because the sense of community stemmed from identification with the host-attractor, not the community around the attractor. In its power to create community, the host-attractor energy is not long-lasting.

Most, but not all of us, chose to stay in relationship with our teacher after the training was complete and gathered regularly, as teacher and students with shared interests. After a while, the gap between teacher and students lessened and we made a transition from a host-attractor circle to a host-on-the-rim circle. Our teacher’s role changed dramatically, as did ours. We all had to remind ourselves that we were no longer looking to our teacher to organize us, host us, and teach us–we were doing that for ourselves. We all had to allow a melting away of our earlier relationship into a new one, and we spoke about it as we did it. ​​​​​​​

While the above example is a small community of 7, this phenomenon is scalar; it applies to groups of any size, including organizations and cities.

I wonder what it would mean for a city to embark on a host-as-all-of-us journey, for citizens to be in conversation with ourselves about who we want to be as a city, and what it will take to be that city? Yes, people with expertise need to be involved, but the difference is the acknowledgement that there are various kinds of expertise that need to be integrated into city intelligence and this means those expertise need to be in conversation with each other. The perspectives of the city need to be in touch with each other.

I wonder what it would mean for a city to embark on a host-as-all-of-us journey, for citizens to be in conversation with ourselves about who we want to be as a city, and what it will take to be that city?

The shapes of our conversations, and how we host them, create social habitats that allow for–and disallow–this kind of integration. It is easy to listen to sage on the stage, for that is a comfortable pattern because it is familiar and there is less work for us to do as citizens. A city in conversation with itself does the tough work to integrate a wide range of perspectives and experiences.

A city in conversation with itself does the tough work to integrate a wide range of perspectives and experiences. 


REFLECTION

Take a moment, on a walk or with a journal, or whatever works for you and ponder these questions:

What is the default in your city? Do you show up to community events and find yourself hearing about what one or a few have to say, or do you find yourself in conversation with a variety of people with time and space to figure out what you think, and what you  have to say?  


This is the fourth post in a series about “how much of me” to put in while hosting community that wants to be in conversation with itself. The first version of this appeared in Nest City News, February 15, 2019.

  1. Host-attractor / host-on-the-rim 
  2. Roles and challenges for the host-attractor and host-on-the-rim
  3. 8 strategies to navigate power patterns
  4. A city in conversation with itself; shifting to host-as-all-of-us

8 strategies to navigate power patterns

How much of me do I insert while hosting a community in conversation with itself? This is a question I often explore in my work with cities and I’ve noticed two patterns in which hosts and community relate to each other: the host-attractor pattern and the host-on-the-rim pattern.

These two patterns are distinct in their energetic quality: the host-attractor pattern occurs when community gathers around the host (or a few hosts) and the host-on-the-rim pattern occurs when the host is embedded in the community and the role is shared by the community. ​​​​​​​

Host-attractor pattern 

Host-on-the-rim pattern

There are roles we play and challenges to be found in each of these patterns, and when we don’t acknowledge the roles in play, and the challenges that come with them, our experience can be confusing and wobbly. One of the ways the wobbles happen is by not paying attention to the power dynamics in the group. Below are 8 strategies to navigate these power patterns.

A wobbly circle

8 strategies to navigate power patterns

Here are eight strategies for hosts and participants in the variations of the host-attractor and host-on-the-rim patterns:

  1. State the desired pattern. Either pattern is appropriate, but it is essential to identify which pattern is the one you want to live into and make this clear for the group. While this is a good statement to be made by hosts, it is helpful if stated by participants in both patterns. Hosts and participants both show up better when the pattern is clear. If a transition is underway, knowing what you are moving from and to, and for what purpose, is helpful.
  2. Make the role of the host-attractor explicit in the host-attractor pattern. If the host-attractor pattern is desired, the host can describe how they will show up: “I am a teacher in this community and I have a different role from participants. This is what you can expect of me (roles and responsibilities)…”
  3. Make the role of the host explicit in the host-on-the-rim pattern. If the host-on-the-rim pattern is desired, the host can describe how they will show up: “I am a participant in this group, taking a turn as host at this time. This is what you can expect of me (roles and responsibilities)…”
  4. Notice the presence of a host-attractor in the host-on-the-rim pattern. The presence of a host-attractor in a community setting is best served by acknowledgement of the impact of their presence. A host-attractor can describe how they will show up: “I have been a teacher in this community and I have had a different role from participants. This is what you can expect of me now that I am not taking a leadership role…” A participant can also say this. This understanding may shift and change over time, and noticing this often—and how it is shifting—is helpful for both hosts and participants.
  5. Make the role of the participants clear. In either pattern, offering some boundaries about what it means to be a participant is an essential contribution to creating quality social habitat. This is most often done through the use of agreements, or ground rules. If the host-attractor pattern is desired, make the boundaries clear about the degree of participation and questioning that will align with the learning objectives. If the host-on-the-rim pattern is desired, the boundaries/agreements must be explored and agreed upon, along with the additional expectation that participants will take turns serving as host.
  6. Resist the urge to do what is expected of the ‘other’ pattern. If there is one pattern you are living into, the other pattern always has a pull to be aware of. In the host-on-the-rim pattern, the group (host and participants) could have a tendency to look to a host-attractor for direction or approval. All must be vigilant to not step into this territory or they will activate and reinforce the host-attractor pattern and destabilize the community. There is a particular responsibility for the host-attractor to not give direction or approval and consistently redirect that energy back to the community. ​​​​​​​In the host-attractor pattern, the group will have a tendency to resist the authority of the host-attractor if longing for a sense of community with less hierarchy.  All must be vigilant about the aligning the appropriate responsibility—and authority—with the host-attractor as agreed. (Note #1: participation in the host-attractor pattern is a choice. Clear purpose and boundaries articulated by the host-attractor are a good start, yet the ultimate decision to participate is made by participants. Note #2: there is great trust placed in the host-attractor to not overstep the granted authority.)
  7. Acknowledge ego, identity and community. Embedded in these two patterns, and the variations of patterns in between them, is ego and identity at two scales simultaneously: the self and the community. The hosts are front and center, with potential for a lot of ego and identity investment, or on the rim, where the ego and identity is blended with the wider community. Self-identity and community-identity are not necessarily at cross-purposes but can be felt to be. This dynamic is at the heart of the relationship between these two dancing partners, and all the shadow and projection we bring as our imperfectly perfect selves into community.
  8. Explore conflict with humility and heart. If the pattern is not clear, an unclear host-attractor role is present and this will generate conflict in the group.  Hosts and participants alike need to explore which pattern is desired and the steps needed to embody that pattern. If the host-attractor pattern is desired, it may be necessary for the host-attractor to step more fully into that role, with clearly articulated expectations of the host and participants and allow space for participants and host to digest discuss. If the host-on-the-rim pattern is desired, there is a need for the participants to step forward and for the host-attractor to step back. In both situations, regular checking-in on progress is essential. Moreover, an explicit invitation can be made to all involved to notice—and state—the drift whenever it occurs.

Note #1: Participation in the host-attractor pattern is a choice. Clear purpose and boundaries articulated by the host-attractor are a good start, yet the ultimate decision to participate is made by participants.

Note #2: There is great trust placed in the host-attractor to not overstep the granted authority. ​​​​​​​

A main feature of these strategies is this: there is no room for the rescue energy of the hero. A host-attractor can be imagined as a host-hero, the person on whom we rely on for answers and action, which means we don’t: a) have any answers or insight ourselves, and b) need to take action ourselves. The presence of a host-hero means disturbance is deflected and denied. And if disturbance is deflected we deny ourselves the experience of disturbance, we deprive ourselves of an opportunity for growth.

If disturbance is deflected we are denying ourselves the experience of disturbance, we deprive ourselves of an opportunity for growth.   


This is the third post in a series about “how much of me” to put in while hosting community that wants to be in conversation with itself. (This content first appeared to subscribers in the Nest City News in May 2018.)

  1. Host-attractor / host-on-the-rim 
  2. Roles and challenges for the host-attractor and host-on-the-rim
  3. 8 strategies to navigate power patterns
  4. Shifting to host-as-all-of-us (a city in conversation with itself)

Roles and challenges for the host-attractor / host-on-the-rim

I’ve met 12 fabulous new people over the course of the last several months in an online learning environment. We have gathered around a host-attractor, in the host-attractor pattern, and we would not have met if we were not attracted to our teacher and his offering. As a host-attractor, our teacher has laid the ground for a safe space for participants: he met each of us to make sure we were clear about what we were signing up for, he provided us with some guidelines and agreements about how we were expected to behave, and he makes himself available to each of us on our learning journeys (we are together for 9 months). Each time we meet as a group, he takes the lead and hosts us. He is the leader of the overall process at all times, gracefully checking in to make sure that what is happening is working for us, and offering us timely ‘teachings’ along the way.

The host-attractor pattern

The host-on-the-rim pattern

In the host-on-the-rim pattern, the deepening of community field comes with a distribution of leadership. I first came across this explicitly as part of a community of practice ten years ago (the Ginger Group Collaborative) that gathered face-to-face every 9 months for an ‘inquiry’, a gathering where a small team of hosts would host the others in an exploration of a topic for several days. The next time we’d meet, another small team of hosts would emerge, and so on, as a community on a journey of discovery.

Ginger Group Collaborative

It’s not one or the other though; it’s a process of discerning what is needed of me/us now.

My last post identified the energetic qualities of the host-attractor and the host-on-the-rim patterns, highlighting the differences about what brings us together, what happens, the shape of hierarchy and our sense of community.  It’s not one or the other though; it’s a process of discerning what is needed of me/us now. I ended that last post with two questions:

  1. As a host I ask: what pattern will best serve the purpose of the gathering – more host-attractor, or more host-on-the-rim?
  2. As a participant I ask: is the pattern we are activating the pattern we want to be in?

Roles and responsibilities

Thinking of the host-attractor and host-on-the-rim patterns as poles on a continuum (not either/or), there are distinct roles and responsibilities for each that, by knowing them, can help us be in the pattern we choose to be in:

  Host-attractor Host-on-the-rim
Roles A fixed host that leads the process at all times

Participants – engage actively in the learning experience with care for each other

Variable hosts that each lead the process from time to time

Participants – engage actively in the learning experience, which includes stepping in to host from time to time

Responsibilities Host – lay the ground rules or agreements for a safe container for the community, help people show up well, remove participants as needed

Participants – discern if the community and agreements are good fit (yes – show up well, no – remove oneself)

Participants – establish a clear purpose for the group and the agreements about how to be together, take turns hosting each other, hold each other accountable to your agreements, notice if you fit

Rotating hosts – remind the group of purpose and agreements, host in ways that serve what the community needs, help make space for those that don’t quite fit

To Note: Roles are clear and familiar and feel comfortable

If someone does not fit it is clear who will ‘deal with it’

Roles can be or feel vague, which feels uncomfortable

If someone does not fit, it is not clear who will ‘deal with  it’

Challenges

The challenges with both patterns stem from misunderstanding the roles and responsibilities of hosts and participants. If not addressed, there are power imbalances that make the circle feel wobbly.

In the case of the host-attractor pattern, there may be expectations of host-attractors to ‘have the answers’ and disappointment and conflict can arise if they do not have or offer answers. There is a trap that both hosts and participants can fall into: a desire for the insight of the host-attractor to be made available. I recently hosted a group of people from two organizations joining efforts to build affordable housing together and the members of one organization, a church, deferred regularly to “The Bishop”, who was in the room. While wanting to work collaboratively, there was a second trap tempting me as the host and participants: that insight of one with perceived power (host or participant) be received without question. While uncomfortable, it is healthy for participants to question and host-attractors to invite questioning because this is what allows a deepening in the shared community experience.

While uncomfortable, it is healthy for participants to question and host-attractors to invite questioning because this is what allows a deepening in the shared community experience. 

In the host-on-the-rim pattern, a different danger emerges: a reluctance or resistance to share the role of host. This pattern asks participants to step in to the discomfort of being a leader, if even for a moment. A safe community will make this possible; rotating leadership will not happen in a community where expectations and needs are not discussed.

A neighbourhood group I volunteer with decided to take leadership roles that best suited our styles: the extrovert took the hosting role, the writer was our scribe, the convener was our volunteer coordinator. While we didn’t share the explicit hosting role, we did share the work and spoke candidly about our comfort and how much discomfort would ruin our individual connection to our community and our project. We found our way because we share the work in ways that suited us. Our individual and community well-being—and our identification with our community—rested with all of us. (We expect our pattern will change as we become more comfortable with each other.)

The challenges in each pattern are about power dynamics and the power we give—consciously and unconsciously—to a host or the community, to a handful (or one) or to the whole.

The challenges in each pattern are about power dynamics and the power we give—consciously and unconsciously—to a host or the community, to a handful (or one) or to the whole:

Host-attractor Host-on-the-rim
Signs of a wobbly circle Expectation that hosts will have all the answers

Expectation that participants will not question hosts or anyone with authority

Reluctance to share and rotate the hosting work among community members
Danger Going where the host wants to go, from a host-ego place that is not in service to participant learning Going where a few people want to go, rather than discerning where the whole is wanting to go

While each pattern in isolation appears to have distinct challenges, it is not a binary, either/or matter. Most often, both patterns are activated simultaneously, which creates significant challenges to the wellbeing of that circle’s social habitat. These challenges can be addressed when we circle up and talk about what we don’t like to talk about: power.

How do you see the variations of the host-attractor and host-on-the-rim patterns in your world? Is it acceptable to talk about this, or taboo?  


This is the second post in a series about “how much of me” to put in while hosting community that wants to be in conversation with itself.

  1. Host-attractor / host-on-the-rim 
  2. Roles and challenges for the host-attractor and host-on-the-rim

 

Host-attractor / host-on-the-rim

How much of me do I insert while hosting a community in conversation with itself? In sitting with this question for years, I’ve noticed two patterns in which hosts and community relate to each other: the host-attractor and the host-on-the-rim.

Host-attractor pattern

Host-on-the-rim pattern

These two patterns are distinct in their energetic pattern: the host-attractor pattern occurs when community gathers around the host and the host-on-the-rim pattern occurs when the host is embedded in the community.

The host-attractor pattern is easy to spot; it is activated when we gather around people whose work we follow, who compel us to think and be differently, who energize us and lead us. In face-to-face situations, or in online virtual communities, we circle up around them, to learn from them. They play a critical role in helping us find a community of people who make their way through the world like us, or are on similar life journeys. The host-attractor helps us find our distributed tribe, the people like us that we might not otherwise meet in our usual life because they call us together based on a shared attraction.

In contrast, in the host-on-the-rim pattern there is no ‘attractor’ front and center. The attraction in this case is not identification with the attractor, but rather with the community, of people to each other, the community as a whole.

The energetics of these two patterns of hosting are different in significant ways. 

The energetics of these two patterns of hosting are different in significant ways. The host-attractor pattern is imbued with a teacher-learner hierarchy (not a bad thing), where the host-on-the-rim environment flattens the teacher-learner hierarchy into a community where all are teachers and learners. In the host-attractor pattern, the teacher is looked to for leadership and teaching; in the host-on-the-rim pattern, teaching and learning is expected everywhere, from everyone.

Here are the qualities of these two patterns:

Host-attractor Host-on-the-rim
Energetic shape Community surrounds the host Hosts are embedded in the community, taking turns
What brings people together Desire to learn more about the messages or teachings of the host-attractor Shared identity, shared interests, desire to learn together
What happens A teaching/learning community around a teacher A community that learns about, from and with itself
The shape of hierarchy Clear and distinct, fixed teacher and learner roles Clear and distinct shared leadership roles to support the community
Sense of community Primary identification with host; secondary identification with surrounding community is possible; sense of community is short, lasting the duration or the event or as long as there is a connection with the host-attractor Primary identification with community, with each other; sense of community is long-lasting

It’s never a clear answer, it’s not one or the other, it’s a process of discerning what makes sense for where we are now.

When a community is having a conversation with itself, these two patterns are instructive when I ask the question: how much of me do I insert? It’s never a clear answer, it’s not one or the other, it’s a process of discerning what makes sense for where we are now. Two questions I ask myself:

  1. As a host I ask: what pattern will best serve the purpose of the gathering – more host-attractor, or more host-on-the-rim?
  2. As a participant I ask: is the pattern we are activating the pattern we want to be in?

How do you see the host-attractor and host-on-the-rim patterns in your world? Who do you rally around? Who do you rally with? 


The next post will explore the roles, responsibilities and challenges that come with recognizing the host-attractor and host-on-the-rim patterns.


 

7 tips for generative check ins

The generative quality of a check in can be eroded when the holding space we create for ourselves is weakened or collapsed. Two things do this: fear of empty space and discomfort in listening. Below are 7 tips to amplify the generative quality of a check in. (Of course these 2 things affect more than a check in, but this post looks specifically at the dynamics of a check in.)

Two things erode the generative quality of a check in — fear of empty space and discomfort in listening. 

So there are the situations when we meet and leave; this is business as usual. Then there are the meetings where we start with a check in, often in the form of a question, to bring a little more of ourselves into the meeting and tune ourselves into the meeting and its purpose. Some sample check in questions: ‘How are you arriving today?’; ‘What did you say yes to?’; ‘What is your inner weather?’; ‘What do we need to pay attention to today?’. In this space at the beginning of our meeting we pause to fully arrive and focus.

When a meeting starts with a check in the rest of the meeting has a more purposeful quality for three reasons:

  1. We each have a chance to leave behind what doesn’t belong in the meeting (like the last meeting or whatever else we were just doing)
  2. We each, and together, tune in to the purpose of the meeting just starting and how we are showing up
  3. What happens in a check in shapes and informs everything that follows

A check in can be small and quick or big and long. Either way it is a significant step that helps us be our best selves — as individuals and as a group. By its very nature, a check in is generative because it helps us be more focused and productive. The quality of the check in affects the degree of generativity that emerges from the check in and the meeting that follows. It is a sense of energy that comes from our intertwining with each other and little steps to being whole together. The results show up in how we feel (connected or disconnected), what we do (we can get more done with this focus), how we do it (we are more wise) and why we do it (we have a stronger shared sense of why, even if vague).

By its very nature, a check in is generative because it helps us be more focused and productive. The quality of the check in affects the degree of generativity.

In face-to-face situations, a check in will start with one person, moving along around the circle (or table or room). In one online world I find myself in, our host is worried about the time it takes for us each to check in, so he jumps in and tells us at random who’s turn it is, to avoid the empty space in between us. The objective of hearing each voice before we start is met, yet the removal of the ’empty’ space diminishes our generativity. The reason why is simple: the space among us allows us to energetically notice when it is time to speak. It may be something someone has just said and I feel a resonance upon which to speak my words, and when I do I amplify our collective voice. It might be a word or image that resonates, or a whole story. The point is the resonance. I may have something different to say and respond to an energetic impulse to put new words in; this, too, amplifies our collective field and voice.


Tip #1: Let the space linger and trust that there is intelligence in that space; resist the urge to fill it. This compels us to slow down and hear what is happening in self and others and the whole. (This needs our attention in face-to-face and online environments.)

Tip #2 (for online space): Make the order of speakers clear ahead of time, enabling participants to see the order of things as they would if they were together in person. This can be a circulated list, or asking participants to organize themselves in alphabetical order starting with the first speaker, or moving from west to east.


In both face-to-face and online worlds, the power of a check in is often diminished with interruptions and reactions from the host or other participants. In one instance, I experience a host who reacts to many of the participants’ comments during the check in. Not only does this interrupt the field that is being generated by the check in, among all participants and the host, it shifts the attention from the whole — the community that is gathered — to the participant and host. It is an energetic wobble and while not likely to destroy the community, it diminishes the quality of generativity.

In other cases, I often hear hosts and participants verbally reacting to something that is being said, to chime in in agreement, or throw a joke in, or comment or question. This does two things: it erodes speaker’s voice and the quality of the collective field is dissipated. A check in allows each voice to be heard and also enables the voice of the whole to be heard. At a minimum, it is a space for us to practice hearing ourselves (self and selves). If I insert myself into this process, as either a host or participant, I diminish the quality of generativity.


Tip #3: Let the words of each speaker linger, without interruption or reaction. All participants and hosts have a role to play to embody this practice of deep listening, and remind others as needed.


From time to time, a check in takes a long time, when there is something that needs the group’s significant attention. Again, hearing the voices and experiences of each other is essential to discern of our way forward. In a recent three-hour check in the challenge was sitting and sitting and sitting to listen to each other and some emotionally heavy material. We took breaks to stretch each time we were a quarter of the way around the circle, but at the last break, with a quarter of our group yet to speak, many of the people who had already spoken released the field: they were chatting and visiting and having fun. Energetically, the last speakers had a diminished field to hold both them and their words. The result: the field was weakened and the last speakers words were not held as well as they could have been.


Tip #4: If it’s taking a long time, sit and sit and sit in it. This is hard work to do and it is necessary. The first speakers have a responsibility to hold the last speakers. Cultivate your capacity to sit and listen. Take breaks as needed and be mindful that the purpose of the break is to allow us to stretch and move and refocus, not break the field.

Tip #5: If time matters, let participants know how much time they have. It’s ok to limit the time a check in takes. If you think you have 30 minutes and 30 speakers, make it one minute each; if you have 90 minutes, make it 3 minutes each. With everyone’s agreement, a timekeeper is appropriate. (One client had a huge cowbell to ring if people reached their time limit. It didn’t ring.)

Tip #6: Use a guardian to create and make appropriate pauses. There are times during a check in when a pause makes good energetic sense. For example, a guardian can ring a bell to mark significant words, both to acknowledge the speaker’s words and to make space for the next speaker. Distinct from an interruption, this is a response to the words spoken from the place of the circle’s energy, not from anyone’s need to react (not an interruption). Note: the guardian can also let the group know how much time is ticking by, if on schedule or not. This enables the group to make decisions about how to use their time.


In the example above where an online host randomly names people in the check in, the purpose is order and efficiency. There may be times when this is appropriate, but that depends on the purpose of the check in. If the purpose is to generate interconnections between people, apply the tips above. Knowing the purpose helps determine the right kind of ‘order’ to impose. Other forms of order allow a greater degree of generativity: if the space is uncomfortable, offer an explicit order of speakers; resist the urge to interject comments (aside from diminishing the field, this also lengthens the check in time) and let the words linger; let people know how much time people have and let them know when there time is up; use a guardian to let people know how much time is ticking by.


Tip #7: Be clear on the purpose of the check in. Is a quick round to see how people are doing in that moment sufficient? Is it a longer round to hear how they are doing and what they think we need to do today? Is it an even longer round to allow reflection on significant events? A different question to ponder: is it unrelated to the rest of the meeting, or can it feed the rest of the meeting?


This is what I notice in any part of a conversation: when we fear empty space, we long to fill it; and when we are uncomfortable listening, we long to insert our voice over the other. The tips above seem to help amplify the generative listening space — for both self, other and the group gathered — in any part of a conversation, at the beginning, the middle or the end.

Do you have any tips to add to these? 


 

Welcoming outsiders

At a conference welcome reception last fall in Canada, I stepped in to join a conversation in progress. The room was full of people I did not know, so I chose a group where there was one person I had met a few hours ago, and three others new to me. I did not interject and interrupt and overstep the unwritten rules for a new arrival; I waited for a sign that I would be welcome. The person I knew, gave me a quick nod and (appropriately) continued to speak in the conversation already underway. The others did not look at me, not even a glance. I thought to myself, “my, this is strange, to not acknowledge the arrival of a newcomer to a conversation at a welcome reception.” I discerned that it was not a private conversation and made the decision to not insert myself further and conduct a little experiment: how long would they continue to not acknowledge, let alone welcome, the presence of a newcomer?

I stood and listened, observing. I waited about 10 minutes then moved away to release the experiment. I allowed time for the conversation to shift and adjust, change its focus, find those moments of transition to bring in the newcomer. They did not do it. For 10 minutes they chose to not acknowledge the presence of a newcomer, let alone welcome and weave in the newcomer.

How long would they continue to not acknowledge, let alone welcome, the presence of a newcomer?

At a separate gathering last fall, I found myself in a conundrum: to participate—or not—in a North American Indigenous ceremony in Europe. I chose to not participate and begin to explore why it did not sit well with me (what I figured out can be found in this post: Colonial blind spot).

At this gathering we were not in the shape of a traditional conference, rather in the shape of listening, a circle, so I spoke what I was struggling with: that the use of an Indigenous ceremony by Europeans without the acknowledgement of the European colonial involvement in the attempted cultural genocide of North American Indigenous peoples did not sit well with me. A few others spoke of other forms of discomfort with the ceremony and somehow, despite being people good at listening and hearing and discerning, we did not know how to handle the uneasiness in our midst. The discomfort did not have a place to land and we who felt and spoke it were left sitting with our unease without the felt awareness or support of the wider community. We were left outside.

The discomfort did not have a place to land and we who felt it and spoke it were left sitting with our unease without the felt awareness or support of the wider community. We were left outside. 

Two yellow backpacks 

As I made my way through these two experiences, two women sporting yellow backpacks arrived to help me make meaning of them. Both are extreme explorers of the world, comfortable in their own skin and being their own self even it they don’t quite fit the ‘norm’. They both arrived when I needed them.

Yellow backpack #1 is Willemijn, who whisked me off to The Hague after the gathering in Europe. With a handful of compatriots, the Netherlands was revealed to me in the most beautiful fashion: by bicycle, by train, by bus and tram, by car; with guided tours of their favourite things; by sharing family and favourite food; and with time for me to explore on my own. Willemijn opened her home and her life to me, adjusted her schedule to fit me in. We got to know each other and appreciate each other. We had time to simply be with each other and talk about many things we found we shared in common. She coordinated the communication with her compatriots to help us find time together too. What she mostly did was share herself and it was beautiful and generous.

Yellow backpack #2 is Celine, who co-hosted a session with me at the traditional conference. We resisted the conference inertia and took our space in the conference to make room for participants to explore their own expertise. Afterwards, we decided to share a meal and found ourselves in an intense conversation about deep personal matters. After having revealed a bit of ourselves to each other with our conference session, we found in each other an instant trust and safety from having revealed. We both tuned in to there being more for us to explore with each other and we both said yes. It started with an unusual conference session where we were allowed to speak to each other. We were able to notice an interpersonal connection and then act on it. (Noticing interpersonal connections is not encouraged at traditional conferences by design, despite intention otherwise.) What she mostly did was share herself and it was beautiful and generous.

I met Willemijn first and had been feeling like she was a guardian angel sent to tend my hurting soul. We didn’t even talk about what was hurting; we enjoyed each other’s company and it was perfect. When I met Celine two months later, I first noticed her yellow backpack, just like Willemijn’s, and how they contain the essentials needed for the day, to serve its porter well. (It always amazes me what comes out of a backpack!) I also noticed how the cheery yellow backpack reflects the spirit of these two souls who make their way through the world with a happy confidence in doing things a bit differently than the norm. The backpacks are a bit dirty because they are well used; these are gals with practical life experience, around 30 years old, charting their unconventional paths with confidence.

What made me look more closely at the yellow backpacks and these two gals was the depth of conversation in which we easily found ourselves. 

What made me look more closely at the yellow backpacks and these two gals was the depth of conversations in which we easily found ourselves. Their openness to drop in and be honest and real about themselves and with another, was spectacular. As I listened to Celine, I could not stop thinking of Willemijn and her yellow backpack. I knew I had more to notice here when I heard Celine say that she is learning to play the cello – just like Willemijn. There just can’t be that many awesome yellow backback-sporting cello-learning 30-something-year-olds in the world, can there?

At 48 and recently single, these two yellow backpacks are a reminder of what I already knew:

  • I love that my life path is a bit unconventional
  • My body feels great when I wear a backpack
  • There are messages in the symbols of the wilderness of the human experience
  • There is more going on in a conversation than what we say, or the shape/form the conversation takes
  • Good conversation matters

Find and meet

Conference design has an energy that keeps the experts and participants separate from each other and, most importantly, keeps the participants separate from each other. Unconsciously and consciously, this is by design:

Whether there is one expert at the front of the room, or a panel, the effect is the same: expert and participants. Furthermore, in this format the participants are not expected or allowed to talk to each other. In an environment like this participants (and speakers too) might see each other across the room, session after session, but rarely speak to each other, and if they do it is more rarely substantial. We speak with those we know, lightly with those we do not know, and often not at all to those we do not know.

A loaded program of presenters and people sitting to listen to those presenters allows minimal community – the people in the room share a similar interest and do not talk to each other. The energetic emphasis on the design is on expert content, not creating the conditions for people to magically find each other. At this particular conference there was great emphasis on conversation in between conference sessions, and there is a significant limitation to where those conversations will go because they have little to build on from the conference itself – interpersonal connections are not cultivated. We keep our distance because we only, perhaps, see each other when we choose similar sessions, but we don’t ‘find’ each other. We don’t ‘meet’ each other. Even over coffee, we keep our distance.

We keep our distance because we only, perhaps, see each other when we choose different sessions, but we don’t ‘find’ each other. We don’t ‘meet’ each other. 

What I mean by ‘find’ and ‘meet’ is this: we share ourselves beyond a simple shared interest; we share stories and struggles and tap in to our collective wisdom; we give our ourselves and receive in return. It may be two of us or twelve or two hundred. But to do this, we have to let go of the sage on the stage—the expert outside of us—and trust the expertise within and among us as a community. When we don’t trust our own expertise we block our ability to access our own expertise.

Enable natural hierarchy 

When people find themselves in the same place at the same time a community of shared interest becomes visible, and because of this we can feel a sense of community, particularly when we are felling isolated. The mere existence of ‘people like me’ brings elation. There is more to community than this when we choose to consciously weave ourselves together, which amplifies our sense of community. And if that community sits in a circle, that shape itself is not enough if the field of relationships between us is not sufficiently nurtured.

If a community sits in a circle, that shape itself is not enough if the field of relationship between us is not sufficiently nurtured. 

Circle is form of meeting where leadership is shared and a diversity of perspectives is welcomed and accommodated. This is also an environment in which ideas in conflict can be difficult to handle if power imbalances are not acknowledged.

If a circle is flat, with no hierarchy or resistance to hierarchy, there is no room to acknowledge power imbalances—and diversity of life experience. A flat circle resists conflict because it wants to consider itself peaceful and welcoming no matter what, even if the opposite is the case. A flat circle, despite its claim to welcome diversity, remains shallow in experience, meaningful only for those on the inside. There isn’t room for those with an ‘outsider’ point of view.

A not-so-flat circle acknowledges the subtle and explicit hierarchies that naturally occur in human systems and explores them.

A not-so-flat circle acknowledges the subtle and explicit hierarchies that naturally occur in human systems and explores them. In doing so, conflict can be held, explored and resolved. This is a circle that endeavours to hear itself and the power dynamics within, and this accommodates more diversity.

Acknowledging the natural occurrence of hierarchy is enabling, both from the structural support it provides, but also as a topic of conversation that allows us to see ourselves better. When we allow ourselves to talk about power, real and perceived, we see our relationships far more clearly. When we don’t, we block ourselves from creating community beyond the sharing of a common interest.

Community means belonging 

We feel community when we feel we belong. We can share a family bloodline, or share geography, in a neighbourhood or city. We can feel community in an organization of any size. We can feel community in social media as we find people with shared interests across the planet. This experience can be meaningful and superficial at the same time (this is often just the right thing!), or it can be meaningful and involve being deeply held as we make our way through the challenges of life as individuals and as communities. As we find ourselves increasingly challenged with the pace of change and conflict in our world, being deeply held and having the capacity to hold and examine conflict is essential. We need to do a better job of finding and meeting each other.

As we find ourselves increasingly challenged with the pace of change and conflict in our world, being deeply held and having the capacity to hold and examine conflict is essential. We need to do a better job of finding and meeting each other.

The conference participants shared an interest in building community sustainability and the standard conference design fostered surface belonging. Community resilience is fostered when a range of ways of being in relationship are activated in the community, ways that reach below the surface of a shared interest.

The circle gathering participants shared a way of meeting (in circle) that fosters conversation in ways that reach below the surface. In this case, when community struggles with noticing and acknowledging power imbalances, it resists the diversity needed to enable resilience.

A resistance to welcoming and accommodating non-expert or outsider perspectives was present in both gatherings in explicit and subtle ways. It manifested as a resistance to talk to each other and invite the outsider in. In both cases, there was a yellow backpack in the room, sitting there, waiting to be unpacked, waiting for its mysterious contents to be revealed and examined. And for the people who gather round to invent their way forward in the mutuality of community.


In your experience, what enables community to welcome and explore the outsider? 


ps – so far, I am resisting the urge to acquire a yellow backpack as I already have too many backpacks…


Recent and related posts

  • The unspoken – a poem on the question of what to do when you find yourself holding the unspoken.
  • Colonial blind spot – People of European lineage – if we are not accepting our story of attempted cultural genocide, we are causing harm. We are propagating the bliss of ignorance.
  • Care out in the open – Care needs to be out in the open or it isn’t happening. To care out in the open means I am willing to be changed by what I hear.
  • Harm happens, intended or not – A welcoming city examines how it defends itself from change, how it maintains the status quo by denying that others are harmed.
  • A welcoming city has transportation choices – All people, regardless of their chosen mode of transportation, exhibit care and look out for each other. That’s how it works: accommodation.

Self empowerment threatens

Self empowerment threatens the stories we have been telling ourselves for as long as we can remember. Whether its myself I’m empowering, or watching another reach into their own empowerment, my life is changing. My choice:

  • be upset, feel threatened, find ways to thwart the coming change
  • be supportive, feel excitement, find ways to nuture the coming change

The choice is, in the end, about fighting or allowing.

The choice is, in the end, about fighting or allowing. 

In my last post, Beware listening through stories, I describe two ways people showed up for me while I was going through a tough time. Simply put: they listened through their stories and grief and were unable to support me, or they put their stories aside and listened and encouraged me in my own story. The former was about fighting threats to their view of the world; the latter was about creating the conditions to help me find my way. (Both are reasonable responses, yet as the receiver, only the latter feels like love and care.)

At Donald Trump’s inauguration in January there was great talk of a wall. At that same time, I was making my own wall to protect myself in a difficult time. I needed to figure out what my boundaries were. Here’s what it looked like in my journal:

I came to the realization that I am not going to stop doing what I need to do to be me, to grow into who I am growing into. On my side of the wall, at the end of a 21 year marriage, it meant looking after myself in a whole new way. (I know, this begs description and this will come.) What it meant was self-empowerment.

I am not going to stop doing what I need to be doing to be me, to grow into who I am growing into. 

On the other side of the wall was upset. What came my way was advice, fury, sadness, directions, and explanations — and a need for explanation. I imagine what was brewing for many behind the scenes: confusion, envy, anger and grief. When I am low, however, support does not come in their reactions to my reality, despite their best intentions. Others’ advice, fury, sadness, directions and need for me to explain what happened are about them and their journey, not me and mine. Hence: a wall.

Others’ advice, fury, sadness, directions and need for me to explain what happened are about them and their journey, not me and mine. Hence: a wall. 

Travel through the wall is two-way. When fragile, I stay on my side and raise the ramparts for those stuck in their story and their projections, unable to support me when I need it. Those able to walk alongside me, to care for me and my story, come through. This is moment by moment boundary setting to ensure that when I feel fragile, my needs come first.

When I feel strong enough I travel through the wall into other people’s stories, to walk alongside them without my story. To support them in their own awareness and self empowerment. I do this when the following conditions are in place:

  1. I am open, able to release my story
  2. The other is self-aware, knows that their story is their story
  3. The other is open to exploring the tension they experience in their story, what is going on for them
  4. There is love, care and safety for us

I realize now that what I have made for myself is perhaps more of  a cocoon of sorts, than a wall. It’s a safe place where I become more me, to prepare to be more me out in the world. Inside the cocoon I am not necessarily alone; there are people who join me and support me in my journey. Those that are able to travel with me join me. I leave the cocoon more frequently now, I go back and forth, stronger and more able to leave the parts of my story behind – not forgotten – to join others in their journey.

It seems the cocoon is not a one-time place and time for transformation, but one I can carry with me and make for myself whenever I need it. It is the boundaries I set for myself and the interactions I have with people, and the discernment about when I am able to be with them in their story out in the world and my expectations of people I invite into my cocoon, my side of the wall. I imagined the wall as permeable and so too is the cocoon. In addition, the cocoon is not a one-time event; I conjure it when I need it because change is not a one-time event. (I like my friend Michael’s take on change: think of it not as a noun, but as a verb.)

We all have the same choice, whether the change comes from within or without: resist our transformation or allow it. 

Self-empowerment is threatening to our sense of self and others’ sense of self. People will go to great lengths to keep us we were, and we will go to great lengths to keep them as they were. We all have the same choice, whether the coming change comes from within or without: resist our transformation or allow it.

As you become more you, what boundaries do you put in place to support your own empowerment?