The violent saviour

He was a conference speaker with an urgent message: we must change our ways or we will die. We will only save ourselves if we do what he says, what he prescribes. 

His subject matter was climate change, but the subject didn’t matter. It was his stance: I know more than you do and if you don’t do what I say, you will die, we will all die. At one point his volume went up a notch to say:

My initial reaction was that it didn’t feel good to be yelled at. I also didn’t feel that blasting a crowd who believes what has has to say was an effective strategy to have a us listen. I chose to stay in my seat to hear what he had to say because he is wise and knowledgable; there was brilliant content in his presentation and his message. AND simultaneously I understood that his delivery was both inappropriate and ineffective. 

There was brilliant content in his presentation and his message. AND simultaneously I understood that his delivery was both inappropriate and ineffective.

A week later I realize that what bothers me most is the message that I received: that I/we need to be saved and he is my/our saviour. I experienced his stance as one of superiority; only he knows how we will be saved. I experienced his stance as one of fear, and that the harsh truth–loud and fast–is the only thing that will spark us into action. And, of course, that the action we take must be the action he wants us to take, in line with his master plan. (Yes, he used the words ‘master plan’.)

On reflection, today I see: a 74-year-old white man with a master plan will save the world. His backstory (as I imagine it): a lifetime of brilliant and unacknowledged work, and rejection from all major decision makers. He’s a rare human who can see our future better than we can, but since we can’t hear it, or don’t like to hear it, we have tuned him out for decades. So does he yell to be heard? Is this why he doesn’t even notice when the crowd before him is a few hundred people he does not have to convince? Is he so used to yelling to be heard that this is the only way he knows to talk about his work? Is it because he can no longer trust or believe that he is being heard, or that we are not the right people in power so we don’t count?

These questions and any potential answers don’t actually matter. They help me humanize him and empathize with him, but at the end of the day my experience is the same: he was insensitive and violent in the delivery of his message

A stance of superiority puts him in a place where he has the answers and the audience (me/us), being inferior, has no meaningful knowledge, information, skill or insight. While this did not add up to anything physically violent, it was mentally violent: we are not smart enough. It was emotionally violent: we don’t care enough. It was spiritually violent: we, and the work we do, is insufficient. He denies, with a stance of superiority and unwavering belief in his master plan, the sovereignty of others. 

He denies, with a stance of superiority and unwavering belief in his master plan, the sovereignty of others. 

If he wants to motivate me, this is not how to do it. 

If he wants to motivate most people, this is not how to do it. 

In the end, a good reminder for me to always check in with myself to see if I believe I am better than others. I know I “see” things others do not yet see, but what I do with that information, and how I share it, is crucial. It doesn’t mean keeping things to myself so I don’t upset anyone, and it doesn’t mean overselling people my message.

The saviour stance does not undertake this discernment because the interaction is not about the audience, it is only about the saviour playing the role of saviour.

There’s a delicate balance in this about knowing ‘where’ an audience is, what it can tolerate, and what it needs to know even if it makes them uncomfortable. (Note: when it is an imminent emergency don’t hold back.) The saviour stance does not undertake this discernment because the interaction is not about the audience, it is only about the saviour playing the role of saviour. And this is the violence of dehumanizing the people ostensibly served: it is the ego of the saviour who is served. 


Under what conditions does it make sense to put the sage on the stage? 

If we let go of needing expertise on the stage, what could happen next? 


 

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. 

 

The power in consultation

What on earth is “true public consultation”?  This question begs to be asked after reading an article in the January 8, 2012 Calgary Herald.  Reporter Clara Ho’s first two paragraphs:

An environmental group is demanding a ‘true public consultation’ after learning of pro-posed plans to clear cut more than 700 acres of trees in the west Bragg Creek are in Kananaskis Country.
 
Sustain Kananaskis – comprised of Bragg Creek residents, trail users and outdoor enthusiasts – is calling for Spray Lake Sawmills and Alberta Sustainable Resource Development to hold a ‘transparent approval process that includes facilitated, accessible and meaningful public consultation in regards to logging activities in Kananaskis Country’.

A little more on the dynamics of the situation, as I read it:

  • The Government of Alberta (through Alberta Sustainable Resource Development) approved a 10 year logging plan that delegates forest management activities to Spray Lakes Sawmills.
  • Spray Lakes Sawmills has conducted ongoing public consultationover the last 10 years on various forest management activities.
  • Specific to west Bragg Creek, Spray Lakes Sawmills has consulted with stakeholders.  The next opportunity for the public to learn more and share concerns is at an open house January 26.
  • Sustain Kananaskis’ mission is to hold Spray Lake Sawmills and ASRD accountable to all Albertans affected by the proposed logging.
  • 90 percent of the trails will be affected in some way by the logging, including 30 km of new trails.
  • Sustain Kananaskis is advocating for a transparent approval process that includes public consultation, not just stakeholder consultation.
  • Sustain Kananaskis is demanding full public consultation so that dialogue can occur.

On the surface, the conflict appears to be about citizens (in the form of Sustain Kananaskis) demanding true, meaningful and full public consultation.  On their web site, Sustain Kananaskis defines ‘proper’ public consultation in three stages: let people know what’s going on (notification), seek their opinions (consultation), and involve them in the formulation of objectives, policies and approaches (participation).  By their own definition, they are getting consultation; they have been and are being asked for their opinion.  Whether they like the decisions made with their input is another story.

Sustain Kananaskis is actually looking for one of two things.  In the realm of consultation, Sustain Kananaskis is looking for evidence that their opinions and input affect the decisions of the decision-makers, in this case Spray Lakes Sawmills and ASRD.  In the realm of participation, Sustain Kananaskis is really seeking a role as a decision maker to shape the future of Kananaskis Country consistent with their vision.

The underlying issue in Clara Ho’s article is about who has the power to make decisions.  As is often the case, those without the power would like to have some.

The question I am left with:  Under what conditions can power be shared while maintaining our expectations for accountability?