How a non-judgmental stance helps when facilitating difficult conversations about diversity
By Harrison Snow
Trauma results when an individual or group suffers a natural or man-made catastrophe.
If the suffering is strong enough, a certain amount of associated feelings and memories are repressed as a survival strategy. Trauma and its repression can occur on an individual, family, organizational or social level. The strategy of denial, repression or addiction may provide some refuge from the pain. However, the price is steep and symptoms often occur as a silent call for help.
Facilitating a discussion about diversity often raises issues about race, class, gender and criminal justice, to name a few. These topics are hugely difficult to discuss in a group because of the intensity of feelings that may emerge. Feelings and judgments can spring not only from an individual’s personal history but also from unresolved family and social trauma that has been stored in the individual and collective subconscious.
You may have seen how these discussions generate high levels of projection, intensity of feelings, judgments and a demonization of the “other.” People who are emotionally triggered by a difficult topic often no longer see or hear the person they are actually talking to. When this occurs, curiosity, openness and the ability to listen empathically are lost.
If a charged situation occurs, it is essential for the facilitator stay grounded, nonjudgmental and neutral. If the facilitator takes sides, the level of emotional safety for at least part of the group will evaporate, along with the possibility of learning. If we lose sight of our shared humanity and slip into survival mode – fight, flight or freeze – the frozen past will continue to recreate itself. Slavery, the Holocaust and the systemic abuse of groups like women and indigenous peoples are examples of traumas that still reside within one or more of those levels ranging from the individual to the collective.
The constellation process developed by Bert Hellinger, a German psychotherapist, is one way to explore the impact of the past on the present without being overwhelmed by it.
First, the process allows us to strengthen the inner sources of support the participants can draw upon. A stronger and more resilient sense of self helps the participants find more inner space and a grounded presence to speak their truth and hear the truth of others.
Second, the process enables the participants to connect with some aspect of the past that resides within their personal, family and/or social collective unconsciousness. How or why this works we don’t know. But since it does work we can make use of it to make visible an imprint of a trauma even if it occurred long ago.
Third, if we are willing to suspend our assumptions and preconceptions, even for a few minutes, it is possible to step outside our normal worldview and get the visceral sense of a worldview we might avoid, disagree with or even deplore. This is not a cognitive process. It is embodied and therefore easier to grasp through the body instead of the mind.
The closest corollary is the oft-cited injunction to walk a mile in your opponent’s shoes. Understanding is the antidote to judgment. From a place of mutual understanding, we can slip out of the predetermined roles that play out in Karpman’s Drama Triangle, which identifies the charged interactions of the victim, rescuer and persecutor. Stepping out of those roles, we step out of the trance state imposed by the triangle and see each other with new eyes.
The facilitator who is aware of the influences of his or her personal, family or group history has more capacity to respond in a conscious manner to the needs of the moment. The modus operandi of the drama triangle is to claim the role of the victim or rescuer for oneself and project the role of perpetrator on the other. Even disagreement about minor details can invoke the perception that those who hold a different opinion are in the camp of the perpetrator. Such conversations can increase the sense of social alienation by fostering judgment and exclusion that seem justified.
Topics which reflect the polarity of being right or wrong or good or bad can threaten one's sense of self, especially if that sense of self is fragile. Not talking about difficult topics, however, is not a long-term solution. One's sense of safety is always at risk because of the tension is sublimated and projected on to one’s environment. This dynamic occurs at the individual, group, family and national levels. Various political or social movements can exploit these dynamics to gain followers and wield influence.
If we explore this frozen past we are less likely to recreate it. What keeps us locked in the frozen past? Blame, shame and denial are coping mechanisms that stop the process of grieving or compassion. These same mechanisms keep people entangled with each other in the drama triangle. When the events that need grieving go back to previous generation, our minds and mental concepts fail us. Melting the frozen past comes about not through judgment but from grieving together.
Seeing with new eyes enables us to transcend the polarities that define an issue. This inner movement opens up more space in the system. Energies long trapped or forgotten are able to surface and move. That seeing and what is evoked allow something to be completed that was incomplete. In its deepest movement, the essence of peace and balance are being restored. Truth and reconciliation committees in post conflict countries to a great extent employee the same principles. We have to surface “what happened” and then bear witness without judgment.
The constellation process maps “what happened” systemically by asking what are the component parts and how do they relate to each other. Participants are asked to represent the different parts and notice how they respond to each other. Although they may have little factual knowledge of the issue, the information needed resides within the subconscious. Finding a way to acknowledge what happened, happened, can give everyone in the trauma a place to stand that protects their dignity but does not avoid responsibility.
The doorway to the subconscious is through emotions that are rooted in the physical body. If we can tune in to what we are feeling physically and emotionally and allow it to express through us, new insights will emerge that the rational mind could not access. No matter what group we belong to or identify with we are connected to and part of the reality we are co-creating as a society.
A recent example of this process was the frustrations of the diversity specialist in a large organization. He was frustrated that the leadership team showed little interest in discussion about diversity or equal opportunity. He and others believed the leadership team was biased and unwilling to hear the concerns of those who felt disenfranchised.
How could he advance any meaningful discussion or initiative when the leadership team seemed so unreceptive? Representatives were selected and placed in physical relationship to each other for the leadership team, the coordinator and the employees.
The facilitator noticed that the representative for the diversity specialist was not looking at the leadership team or the employees but gazed at a point several feet away. The leadership team also seemed unable to make eye contact. The employees seemed in their own world, isolated from the others.
A representative was placed in the empty spot where the specialist was looking. The representative reported that he was “old deep pain” that was yet to be looked at. It was likely this pain was in the personal or family system of the specialist. It was also possible if not probable that the pain was in the organizational and social system everyone belonged to.
The specialist was asked to point out this pain to the employees and the leadership team. He was not blaming the leaders or the employees. The pain had been around a long, long time. It needed to be seen and acknowledged. It was difficult to look at but he would do all he could to support the leadership team and the employees in looking at it without condemnation.
As these words were spoken, everyone in the group relaxed and looked at each other. They felt better and ready to relate to each other. The actual specialist shared he gained an insight from the constellation and could now see new possibilities for discussing diversity issues in his organization.
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