Building Safety, Inclusion, and Belonging in WTR: Considerations of Social Identity, Power and Privilege, and Intrapersonal, Interpersonal and Group Dynamics

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by Erica Peng

Transforming how we connect with ourselves, each other, and the greater system is increasingly critical now, given the national and global socio-economic-political climate that reinforces division and conflict from difference, and leaves many of us in a heightened state of conscious and unconscious reactivity, threat, and distrust. Within this context, I see a great opportunity – and need – to develop and evolve WTR learning experiences and facilitator capacity to create more safety, inclusion, and belonging for all participants amidst challenges of difference, internalized power and oppression, and potentially charged dynamics.

In this article, I offer my perspective and recommendations for continued development of WTR, drawing from both personal and professional experiences. The first section describes my personal history and can be accessed through this link. This section doesn’t appear in the main body of the article due to space constraints, but it provides important context for my experience with WTR and the recommendations I offer: decades wrestling with the impacts of my identity as a first-generation Chinese-American woman born in the US, and the last ten years coaching leaders and facilitating groups and teams through challenging interpersonal and group dynamics, to co-create safety, inclusion, learning, and collaboration.

The remaining three sections include reflections and learnings from facilitating content and practices about self-awareness and interpersonal skills at WTR workshops this past year, along with my recommendations for the continued development of WTR. My recommendations are also informed by my experience incorporating WTR into a course I designed and teach at UC Berkeley Haas School of Business, called Interpersonal Skills and Embodied Leadership.

Part 2 Experiences from 2016 WTR Intensive Through a Lens of Safety, Feedback, Group Process and Development

In systems theory, feedback is a process that enables a system (such as a group of people) to maintain healthy functioning by adjusting and self-correcting based on reactions from other systems in the environment. Unfortunately, most of us haven’t learned how to effectively give and receive feedback safely and collaboratively. Without modeling and practice, it can be too risky to engage honestly. Feelings and reactions go underground, and/or erupt. Feedback conversations either don’t happen or they go off the rails. Individual and group safety, learning, and performance can suffer.

This is the cultural context within which we all exist, including WTR.

Below are three examples from the 2016 Intensive, that I hope illuminate how feedback can support group process and development, and how one might contribute feedback at a workshop, both informally as a participant and formally as a facilitator.

1. Interpersonal Feedback About Unintended Negative Impact

On the first day of the intensive we identified shared agreements about how to engage with each other. They included: “respect silence,” “welcome feedback, not fixing,” “take responsibility for impact,” and “honor timeliness.”

A day or two later I was having dinner with a group of eight or so others. One of the people in the group had visibly expressed strong emotions that seemed like grief and despair earlier that day. A few people at the table checked in to see how this person was doing. One began engaging in a way that I experienced as advice-giving and fixing, albeit with care and good intentions. I noticed the non-verbals of the person who was receiving the advice, and grew concerned they didn’t necessarily need or want fixing.

I had a choice in that moment: Let the interaction slide, or give feedback about my discomfort. I teach and model how to give and receive feedback as a core leadership skill in my work, so I felt confident about my ability to offer feedback with care. However, as a group we hadn’t received guidance or articulated an agreement about what to do if/when we experienced a “breach” in one of our agreements. I did feel some risk from going against social norms of being polite and friendly in early stages of getting to know each other.

I chose to step into the opportunity of the moment – and the risk. First, I shared the specifics of what I experienced as advice and “fixing.” Then I shared how I felt concerned that the person receiving the advice may not want or need it. I made sure to not assume the advice-giver’s intent, which can often evoke defensiveness.

The recipient of the advice did confirm they didn’t feel comfortable with the advice. The advice-giver felt apologetic about the impact, and also expressed appreciation for the feedback. I then shared more context which evolved into a conversation: I was concerned that advice-giving may cause others to hesitate from sharing (because they don’t want advice), and that it didn’t support our group agreement. Others at the table engaged in the exchange with appreciation.

I felt relieved and affirmed. And, offering direct, constructive feedback about negative impact was and usually is an awkward moment, no matter how many times one has done it.

I know from my own experience as both participant and facilitator, getting agreements down on paper is fairly straightforward. Challenges and/or conflicts arise when people interpret them differently in action and behavior, especially in larger groups with more diversity. This is when feedback and facilitation – and practice! – can be critical in supporting effective interpersonal and group development, learning, and collaboration.

2. Feedback to Whole Group About Unintended Negative Impact of Group Norms

A few days into the intensive, some people began arriving late to our morning Elm Dance ritual. People also started to re-gather late to Joanna’s teaching sessions after breaks. No one mentioned anything and it continued for a couple of days. As a Chinese-American with a cultural norm that emphasizes respect to teachers and elders as paramount, I had a heightened awareness of the lateness.

A day or two later, Joanna voiced her frustration from having to wait for people returning late before she could continue with her teaching. I heard Joanna’s frustration as feedback to our system and saw an opportunity for the group to self-correct. With the whole group gathered, first I acknowledged what I heard as frustration from Joanna, and my own sadness about that. Then I expressed to the group, how late arrivals were distracting me, and I posed a question about what we might do about our pattern of being late. Many chimed in to support my sentiment and the group was open and willing to get specific about actual behaviors that would “honor timeliness” once this was raised.

We came up with the following:

  • Take breaks in silence to maintain focus, attention, and the group container
  • Late arrivals to the morning dance will stand silently outside the room, hold space for those already dancing, and join after the music ends

In both of these examples, feedback came in the form of a negative reaction, as it often does, which then led to more clarity around interpersonal and group process. In Organization Development there is a well-known model by Bruce Tuckman which describes the stages of a group’s development:

Forming > Storming > Norming > Performing > Re-norming

Tuckman presents healthy conflict (Storming) as a necessary and inevitable phase in order for a team to grow and develop norms of behavior and engagement that support high-performance. The take-away: Effective feedback makes productive Storming possible!

Feedback Raises Awareness About Power Dynamics in the Room

One week into the intensive, I had separate conversations with two women of color and one international woman who shared frustration about experiencing behaviors in others that reflected unconscious bias around race, gender, and US-centric reality. Two of the three questioned whether they were behaving in a way that encouraged what they were experiencing as negative bias and/or stereotype. My heart went out to them, knowing one of the impacts of oppression is that one takes on individual responsibility for system dynamics.

I informally “checked in” with five other women of color, and one by one, each of them expressed that they also had experienced behavior and attitudes that were offensive (unintentionally). I spontaneously decided to gather the women together so they could hear each others’ experiences and know they were not alone. I also hoped they would more clearly understand there were structural power and privilege dynamics behind others’ bias and behaviors, and that they themselves were not responsible for the offenses they were experiencing.

We gathered for a quick twenty minutes and were joined by Patricia St. Onge, a member of the teaching team whom I had gotten close to through our home group. The women took turns sharing how they felt hurt and/or frustrated by comments and behaviors of other participants that seemed offensive and/or biased. It was powerful – and quite sad – to hear their negative experiences voiced all at once.

Patricia and I agreed it would be important for the teaching team, and the participants, to hear feedback from the women to get a window into how behaviors that reflected and perpetuated dynamics of power, privilege, and unconscious bias, were unintentionally impacting a significant number of women. The teaching team agreed. The women were very appreciative for the opportunity to share about their experiences with the whole group. At the same time, we acknowledged concern about the common reality of how sharing our struggle and what we experience as offensive and biased behavior can often “trigger” shame and guilt in white people.

When we stood in front of the whole group to share, what unfolded was a surprise to me. The women didn’t share examples of negative impact as they had intended. Instead, all but one spoke more generally about their personal identity journeys. I was confused at first, but by the time the last woman shared, I realized it may have been too risky to share directly, once we were actually standing in front of this group of about forty mostly white people.

In the moment, even though the women didn’t actually convey how they were impacted, I knew it would be just as important to name the power/safety dynamic that I saw unfolding before our very eyes. I was fully transparent with the group and communicated that there wasn’t enough safety for the women to share what had originally been intended.  

Knowing feelings had been stirred up, Patricia and I offered to gather with anyone who wanted to process reactions from that exchange. About fifteen people gathered and I made a deliberate choice to have white folks pair up with white folks and people of color pair up with people of color. My intention was to enable everyone to express and process what they needed to while minimizing the potential of triggering their partner.

In conversations with Anne Symens-Bucher and Joanna after the intensive, I reconfirmed how psychological safety is necessary for openness, learning, and group development. Given the potential for POC in mostly white groups to experience risk, vulnerability, lack of safety, and negative impacts from unconscious bias and white privilege, we agreed it would be important to create explicit structures to build safety for all participants, and especially POC, in WTR practices as well as throughout the course of a workshop.

Part 3 Building Safety, Rapport, and Capacity at the WTR Ghost Ranch Retreat: Affinity Groups, Group Process, and Skills Practice

Six months after the intensive, Joanna invited me to be on the teaching team for a WTR Retreat at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico. This was the first opportunity to put some learnings from the intensive into practice.

Affinity Groups

There were about ten POC registered out of over sixty participants. Joanna, Anne, and I solidified plans for me to facilitate an affinity group for POC. I emphasized that it would be important to have a parallel affinity group for “whites” for the following reasons: 1) to counter the potential perception that POC are gathering because we have a problem or issue, and 2) to be explicit that issues of safety and dynamics related to race, gender, white power and privilege, etc., are everyone’s responsibility and interest, not just POC. We decided Anne and Martin Wagner, another member of the teaching team, would co-facilitate a group for white people.

Prior to the retreat, all POC affirmed they did want to meet as an affinity group. It was the first time that affinity groups for POC and whites were formally and explicitly a part of a WTR event.

During the opening evening, Martin and I explicitly shared that the purpose of the groups was to create safe space for POC to gather in support and sharing, and for white people to learn about and further explore how dynamics of white power and privilege, including unconscious bias, might “show up” in themselves. Both affinity groups were optional.

At the end of the weekend retreat, everyone in the POC group expressed deep appreciation for the explicit structure and articulated purpose of affinity groups, and hoped they would continue for every WTR event going forward. Martin reported that the white group participants all appreciated the opportunity, in the context of WTR, to share how they have each experienced white privilege in their lives, as well as how white privilege has been costly to them.

While the importance of these affinity groups was clear, the content and process unfolded in the moment. Anne, Martin, and I spent a lot of time checking in with each other about how people in the affinity groups were doing, and how to best support and facilitate based on what feelings and dynamics were emerging. Martin was informed by his own experience in anti-racism trainings for white people. He re-affirmed how important it is for white people to proactively seek out trainings and spaces for white people, where they can keep learning about the impacts of white privilege without burdening POC, and exploring emotions and questions that may be difficult to share in mixed-race settings (as a result of shame and guilt, or fear of causing pain to POC).

Working with these groups was a tremendous stretch and responsibility. I am in deep inquiry with colleagues about how to design content and process for affinity groups to “do work” separately, and then convene together to share learnings and build safety, understanding, empathy, and connection. There is potential for things to go well – and also poorly – so this is an area I’m approaching with intention and humility.

Adjustments to WTR Practice and Process

Joanna and the teaching team agreed that POC might feel safer to pair with each other, specifically for one of the “Honoring Our Pain” practices. I checked in with the POC, and everyone confirmed with a clear “yes.” As a result, when Joanna framed the practice and instructed people to find a partner, an explicit invitation was extended to POC to partner with one another, along with a few words about safety so white participants understood the reason why POC were choosing to partner with each other. In our affinity group check-in later that day, POC gave feedback that this small process change provided big gains of safety.

Incorporating Self-awareness, Skill-Building, and Owning Impact

With the goal of building psychological safety and rapport as participants experienced the content and practices of WTR together, Joanna invited me to present content about the neuroscience of triggers, as well as some “trigger-management” and interpersonal skill-building practices.

On the first evening I included a partner activity to practice authentic sharing and listening with empathy as a way to acknowledge and affirm each other’s experience, and begin building safety together. On the third and final day as a part of “Going Forth,” I facilitated a reflection that invited participants to identify and take responsibility for how our histories, triggers, trauma, perceptions, assumptions, and thoughts can and do lead to blame and contempt towards those who are different in political worldview, culture, language, religion, etc.,

After the reflection, a few people shared how they realized they had been rejecting their own Selves and others as a result of triggers from difference, shame, and guilt. There was palpable quiet as they took responsibility for their own reactions of blame and contempt, and also declared a renewed commitment to work their way back across the divides to reconnect with oneself and each other. I sensed a stirring in the quiet that I interpreted as deepening safety within the group as individuals expressed the vulnerability of owning one’s reactions.

Part 4: Recommendations for Facilitating Safety, Inclusion, and Belonging Through WTR

Currently, there are important efforts to re-examine the content and framing of WTR practices with the intention of being more inclusive of different identities and realities. However, attention to content alone is not adequate to support safety, inclusion, and belonging. As we experience WTR practices, we also experience emotional reactions and/or triggers, not only from the content of the practices, but also from each other, and dynamics in the group.

Facilitating a group of diverse individuals to build psychological safety and trust that enables learning, group development and collaboration can appear straightforward and even easy – if and when things go smoothly. The reality is, structures and systems of power and oppression both shape and are reinforced in our perceptions, behaviors, interactions, and group dynamics. Whether we’re aware of it or not, many of us are walking around in a guarded and protective stance. This is fertile ground for being unconsciously triggered and/or re-traumatized by perceived or real threats, especially in groups with many dimensions of difference, doing the type of deep work that the WTR involves.

Below I offer recommendations in four areas for navigating groups through WTR experiences amidst internal and external challenges and complexities:

  • Design and Facilitation Team
  • Elements of a Learning Arc
  • Building Capacity, Resilience, and Safety Throughout the WTR Spiral
  • Facilitator Awareness, Skill, Capacity

Design and Facilitation Team

We all are unconscious in the areas that we experience privilege and advantage. Three important ways to address this to support safety, inclusion, and belonging include:

1) White facilitators proactively engage with white privilege and anti-racism trainings;

2) Design and facilitation teams include individuals who reflect different demographics, realities, styles, and perspectives of diverse participants including race, gender, class, age, sexual orientation, physical ability, US/International, introvert/extrovert, conflict style, etc.; and

3) Facilitation teams collectively have depth and breadth of skill and experience in facilitating both content and process/dynamics.

Elements of a Learning Arc for Building Capacity and Resilience: Safety, Trust, Belonging

With a goal of designing and delivering a safe and impactful learning experience for a diverse group of participants, it is important that content is informed by a “learning arc” which includes 1) clearly stated goals and boundaries for what can and cannot be accomplished given available time and resources, and 2) elements to build safety, conceptual understanding, skills practice, and group development.

The elements I recommend are below. Please note this is not a fully developed learning arc. Due to space constraints, I only include elements that are additions that I believe would contribute to the capacity of a group to co-create safety, trust, and rapport with each other.

  • Structures

    • Affinity groups
  • Conceptual learning
    • WTR theory and practices
    • Framing practices with lens of safety and inclusion
    • Neuroscience research about triggers and how to manage them; assumptions and judgments; contempt and curiosity
    • “Four Horsemen” that lead to relationship failure (defensiveness, criticism, contempt, stonewalling)
    • Internalized dynamics from dominant culture manifest in perceptions, thoughts, assumptions, bias, and are perpetuated in how we react and interact with each other
  • Skill-building: Intrapersonal
    • Building awareness of emotions and triggers
    • Managing triggers and assumptions
    • Owning one’s impact
    • Transforming contempt to curiosity
    • Transforming shame (embodied practices for dignity, pride, self-empathy, etc.)
  • Skill-building: Interpersonal
    • Expressing appreciation
    • Empathetic listening that acknowledges another’s reality and builds safety
    • Giving and receiving feedback
    • Repairing from misunderstanding, unintended impact, conflict
  • Processes for Group Development
    • Check-ins with oneself, affinity groups, and/or other configurations to notice and process reactions to practices, content, and interpersonal dynamics throughout a workshop
    • Check-ins through feedback about group agreements
    • Check-ins about level of safety, inclusion, and sense of belonging
    • Process for sharing learnings from affinity groups

Building Capacity, Resilience, and Safety Before and Throughout the WTR Spiral

Given psychological safety is necessary for learning and group development, I believe it is critical to open a WTR workshop or event (before the Spiral) with a foundation of content and practices for building safety, trust, and belonging, and continuing with safety-building throughout each stage of the Spiral.

Below are recommendations for experiential learning and skill-building practices within each stage of the Spiral. All are practices I use in my leadership class and workshops, some I shared at the 2016 Intensive and 2017 Ghost Ranch Retreat.

I am not able to go into any detail about what each activity or practice is and facilitation approaches in this article, but hopefully the list below and brief explanation I offer at the end is enough to give a sense of the arc of skill- and capacity-building to support safety, learning, and a group’s development. All practices draw on – and build – resource, resilience, self-agency, and dignity.

An asterisk (*) indicates skills and practices that are repeated throughout subsequent stages of the Spiral.

Building Capacity and Resilience: Safety, Trust, Belonging

  • Seeing and being seen, acknowledging who is in the room (Community Welcome, etc.)
  • Overviewing the neuroscience behind emotional triggers and fight/flight/freeze responses
  • Acknowledging and managing triggers / building capacity to sit with discomfort*
  • Noticing risk and vulnerability in oneself and in others and practicing self-agency around self-care and boundaries for engagement*
  • Overviewing and practicing the basics of giving and receiving feedback as a collaborative process for learning how we impact each other (in tandem with creating group agreements)

Gratitude

  • Acknowledging the richness of our social identities that have shaped us and appreciating both the common human experience and differences we share
  • Listening with empathy to acknowledge each others’ realities*
  • Expressing appreciation about how we are contributing to each others’ learning*
  • Giving and receiving feedback about how we are impacting each other*
  • Owning my impact*
  • Self-awareness check-in*

Honoring Our Pain for the World (and for each other)

  • Acknowledging dynamics of difference: social identity, power, privilege, oppression
  • Transforming shame into embodied dignity, pride, self-empathy, etc.*
  • Repairing misunderstanding, unintended impact, and conflict*

Seeing with New Eyes

  • Transforming contempt to curiosity
  • Acknowledging hope and possibility from curiosity and openness

Going Forth

  • Setting intention and commitment for practices that support internal and external transformation and healing
  • Owning my impact and agency for hope and possibility

For “Honoring Our Pain for the World,” safety, trust, and resilience are a critical foundation for individuals and a group to effectively hold space for and support each others’ pain. In “The Three Stories of Our Time,” Joanna describes the oppressive realities of the industrial growth society at a system level. Acknowledging the impacts and injury we’ve experienced on a more intimate interpersonal level and/or in affinity groups may help build safety, trust, and resilience before a practice like the Truth Mandala, which acknowledges people at a group level and has not felt safe for some.

Practices for transforming shame are critical throughout a workshop experience because most of us have internalized shame no matter what our social identity is, dominant or non-dominant. When we retreat into our own shame and guilt, we are physiologically unable to own our impact (on ourselves or others), nor extend empathy towards ourselves or another’s experience.

Facilitator Awareness, Skill, and Capacities

Dynamics at intrapersonal, interpersonal, group, and system levels impact us consciously and unconsciously at all times, with implications on individual and group safety, development, connection, and collaboration. Given our cultural bias for concrete and tangible content, the realm of invisible and intangible process and dynamics is an area many do not recognize as requiring attention, learning, development, practice, and mastery.

At worst, risk and vulnerability may be unnoticed or unacknowledged; fear and trauma may surface; individuals enter fight/flight/freeze mode in response to threat; blame, shame, guilt, defensiveness, criticism, contempt, and “shutting down” can lead to disconnection and breakdowns in trust.

Given these daunting internal and external realities, I find it helpful to remember that misunderstanding, unintended impact, and conflict will inevitably arise and trauma will inevitably be re-triggered. Below are some of my on-going areas of practice and development for handling challenging and emergent dynamics, which in turn, builds safety and trust.

In terms of how to develop these skills and capacities, consistent self-awareness and mindfulness practices are important to cultivate awareness and self-regulation of one’s internal state. However, practices done on one’s own are not adequate for surfacing unconscious tendencies and bias, understanding whether I’m effective or not, and developing capacity to manage my triggers amidst challenging dynamics.  For this, I strongly recommend experiential and interpersonal practice through group process formats that involve feedback, such as T Group mentioned in section 1.

Intrapersonal

  • Name one’s reactions and triggers, both emotional and somatic (Modeling self-regulation and managing triggers is a critical embodied practice for building skill and resilience to be present and support a group’s development and process, as a group member and/or facilitator.)
  • Self-regulate and manage one’s own triggers in order to connect with all participants and support group process.
  • Increase comfort with discomfort and uncertainty
  • Surface awareness of unconscious processes: what shapes my own perceptions, assumptions, reactions, behaviors

Interpersonal

  • Sense and acknowledge risk and vulnerability that may not be verbally or visibly expressed and encourage participants to exercise self-agency for exercising self-care and boundaries for engagement
  • Notice when others are triggered and/or re-traumatized and support them in-the-moment to self-regulate and manage their nervous system response
  • Model skills and behaviors that build rapport and enable participants to connect authentically and safely: empathetic listening, vulnerable disclosure appropriate to level of safety and development, giving and receiving feedback about impact, “repair” from conflict
  • Model how to fully own one’s negative impact despite positive intent
  • Model how to receive acknowledgement with dignity as a contradiction to guilt and shame
  • Practice inquiry vs. advocacy
  • Take appropriate risks to be vulnerable and courageous to create an environment where people feel more safe, appreciated, included, engaged, and motivated

Group

  • Align stages of a group’s development with appropriate learning and practices
  • Sense, name, and facilitate interpersonal and group dynamics arising from systemic and structural dynamics and/or unconscious bias related to social identity, power, status, privilege, oppression, bias, blind spots, etc. For example: Who is speaking and who is not? Whose stories are being told and referred to? Who are the quieter voices in the room?
  • Facilitate interpersonal and group connection and understanding through difference, misunderstanding, unintended impact, conflict, etc.
  • Sense and acknowledge fear or distress at a group level, particularly in response to a participant who may be re-triggered and re-traumatized, and facilitate individuals and the group to re-establish safety

In closing, emotional reactions and emergent dynamics are messy! Human engagement and relationship dynamics are daunting. For all the resource channeled into outward exploration into our solar system and beyond, we have yet to dedicate equivalent exploration into our own internal landscape, and how that internal landscape impacts and is impacted by interpersonal, group, and system dynamics.

And yet, I’ve experienced time and time again, the potential and possibility of our human spirit to reach through entrenched disagreement, misunderstanding, and conflict with empathy and openness…grace and forgiveness. In the same way systems thinking opened up a new paradigm of interdependency, I believe the universe of intrapersonal, interpersonal, group, and system dynamics are the new frontier of reconnection and healing of our time.

I share my experiences and perspectives with humility about our simultaneous resilience and tenderness – and with great hope for the continued evolution of WTR and facilitator skill and capacity – as we transform internalized trauma and shame, and reach across divides and conflict towards connecting more deeply and authentically with one’s Self, and in relationship with others and the greater natural system.


Erica Peng: I’m a leadership coach, facilitator, educator, curriculum designer, storyteller. But my favorite comes from a participant of one of my workshops who said my business card should read, “Freedom Fighter.” Having spent over four decades fighting to reclaim my truth and dignity, my life’s work is to support others in their journey to do the same. To rest and recharge, I spend time with my other loves… Daniel, my cat, and the plants and creatures of my garden. I am grateful for how they ground and tether me to this earth. More about my work is at: www.deepstreamleadership.com

paypal.me/EricaPeng

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