Non-doable Requests and Shifting Long-term Behavior

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by Aravinda Ananda

Over the past few years, my Work That Reconnects facilitation has been undergoing a lot of learning and growth in the areas of attending to power, privilege and oppression dynamics as they manifest in workshop spaces, and how to better attend to them. I have participated on facilitation teams that have been working on developing a set of guidelines that can help people be in transformative learning community together–dismantling oppressive ways of being together as we move deeper into creating life-sustaining culture in our moment to moment interactions. One of the things that has particularly intrigued me is how to support people in shifting long-term ingrained behavior. This article offers some reflections on that challenge from experiences over the past year.

The first formative event for me in this arena was working with two wonderful consultants to develop a set of guidelines that a co-facilitation team I was a part of used for a five-day retreat in June 2017 called “Rising With Roots.” If you are interested in the content of those guidelines, please see the article in this issue on Interhelp Community Guidelines. The content of the guidelines we developed for Rising With Roots greatly informed the Interhelp set.

Miki said community agreements are easily broken if participants do not own them [and] ownership requires both understanding and consent.

 Several months after offering our Rising With Roots program, I had the privilege of attending part of Miki Kashtan’s November, 2017 Convergent Facilitation training in Chicago and two things are still resonating strongly from that training, the first of which is when Miki said community agreements are easily broken if participants do not own them. Generally, ownership requires both understanding and consent.

I know a lot of people prefer to have a group generate their own agreements through a facilitated process and this can potentially be helpful with group ownership. For our Rising With Roots program, we opted not to do that, developing our own set of guidelines instead, because we wanted to see if including certain content could help support people in specific ways of attending to power, privilege and oppression. To what extent that method resulted in ownership of the proposed guidelines is another inquiry unto itself, but I will say that generally I am pleased with the way the container was held for the group to learn and grow together.

The second moment that is still resonating strongly from the Convergent Facilitation training was observing an interchange between Miki and another participant. In general, the presence and attention Miki brought to her interactions with participants was astonishing–at a level I am not used to seeing sustained by facilitators. Whenever  participants would raise their hands to speak and Miki would call on them, she would look at them, giving them her apt attention and presence through sight. Because she was wearing a microphone pinned to her shirt to the left of her neck, whenever she would turn her head to the right when speaking with a participant, she would no longer be speaking directly into the microphone and some participants would have difficulty hearing. So, a participant raised their hand and suggested, “Miki, can you turn at the waist when you turn to talk with someone rather than only turning your head, and then that way your voice will continue to be picked up strongly through your mic?”

Her response was along the following lines (really paraphrasing): “I would like to be able to say yes to your request, but I cannot/will not [don’t remember exact words] because for me it is a non-doable request. To be able to say yes to your request, I would have to change decades of habit of turning with my head at the turn of a dime, and ingrained body behavior won’t be changed instantaneously.”

it can be a nondoable request to be able to change decades of ingrained habit immediately simply because someone asks you to.

That was world-opening for me: it can be a nondoable request to be able to change decades of ingrained habit immediately simply because someone asks you to. 

 Let me emphasize, I do not perceive a request to change behavior that is causing a problem and/or harm to be unreasonable or unwarranted–simply that the reality is that long-term behavior often does not typically shift instantaneously. One of my favorite quotes from Joanna Macy is about how “the mind gets stuck in ruts and grooves.” It can take time to learn different behavior and incorporate new beliefs.

In this context, I immediately thought of the community agreement/guideline that I had commonly heard referred to as “step up/step back” and have also previously used myself (it was included in the original twelve guidelines proposed to Rising With Roots participants). It  invites people who have been socialized to speak a lot in a group to speak less, leaving space for people who have been socialized to not speak a lot in groups to speak more. I will no longer be using that phrasing involving stepping in my facilitation. I am grateful to Barbara Jefferson for first directing my attention to the alternative post-ableist language of “make space/take space.” Removing the language of stepping – a form of mobility not possible for all people – make space/take space is more inclusive for people of all physical abilities. There is a lot of language used in dominant culture that normalizes mobility and is therefore ableist, so I really appreciate this alternative language to communicate about this guideline.

But I digress.  My curiosity was supreme: wasn’t it a nondoable request to expect participants on the turn of a dime to change their behavior, quite possibly of decades, of tending to speak a lot in groups or tending to not speak a lot in groups?

the group didn’t have a mechanism for what to do when a community agreement wasn’t being followed.

The weekend prior to the Convergent Facilitation training I had just been at the annual gathering of Interhelp,  a northeast United States Work That Reconnects regional network. At the Interhelp Gathering, one participant requested that a community agreement be step up/step back (I’m only using that language this last time here because those were the words used), and then throughout the course of the weekend, the agreement was noticeably not being followed by participants who spoke a lot more than others in the group. One of the program planners verbalized this group dynamic midway through the gathering, but other than this person deciding to take note publicly, the group didn’t have a mechanism for what to do when a community agreement wasn’t being followed. That is an area that I would really like to grow in my skillfulness–what to do when community agreements or guidelines aren’t being followed.

A light went off in my head that said, “Aha, asking participants to instantly change behavior ingrained over a lifetime seems like a nondoable request.” And then I got curious–how in facilitation can I help support people to shift ingrained behavior? I have observed many times how just asking people who have been socialized to speak a lot in groups to speak less often does not produce immediate results. I have also heard feedback that the “take space” urging doesn’t automatically compute and can also feel coercive. So I am curious about exploring how to shift  long-term socialized conditioning in more depth. Some of my initial thoughts are as follows:

  1. In a community agreements/guidelines process, propose take space/make space as a community norm.
  2. Then have folks get into pairs (perhaps according to how they feel they have been socialized) to reflect on what their experiences have been.
  3. Next, set up structures for shifting behavior according to your socialization. If you have been socialized to speak a lot in groups, perhaps you could have accountability partners who could help bring your awareness to when you are speaking a lot more than others. If you have been socialized not to speak a lot in groups, perhaps having a buddy with whom to process your internalized silencing would be helpful. There is a lot of inner work each of us can do around socialization, and I also want to be careful about talking as if the responsibility only lies with the individual. How can we as groups (if we are doing group work) help hold people in shifting and transforming behavior? It is not just the responsibility of say, someone with internalized silencing to liberate themselves from this silencing on their own. The context also matters. Someone may not be speaking up in a group because it is completely unsafe to do so. How can the group also support this liberation?

In early December, 2017, I attended a guided meditation created by my friend Mike Brown focused on water, the water cycle and how water is always shifting form/phase in the water cycle–from vapor in the atmosphere to falling as rain, to flowing as a river, to joining the ocean, to freezing as an iceberg, and on and on and on: the endless flow and dance of the transformation of the form of water – water as a verb rather than a noun. Following the meditation, one of the reflection prompts from Mike was, “Think of a place in your life where change was brought to you from outside, and how did you react or respond to the change?”

How can we support one another to shift our behavior where it is causing harm?

When I responded to that prompt, I spoke about a friend who had recently changed the gender pronouns that they use from he, him, his to they, them, theirs, and how I would sometimes slip up and still find myself using he, him, or his. When I would slip up, I would be so upset with myself because respecting this friend is really important to me, and yet I was struggling with shifting ingrained behavior of associating certain gender pronouns with names and physical appearances I have been taught to associate with either male or female. So, in responding to the prompt, I mentioned this and also a shortened recap of the reflection on nondoable requests about instantly changing long-seated behavior. The questions that arise for me are: How can we support one another to shift our behavior where it is causing harm? How can we set up conditions that support shifting behavior? One thing my housemates and I are doing is gently bringing to attention when one of us makes a mistake with this friend’s gender pronouns. I am grateful for this support in changing my behavior, and am glad to have other friends to do this with so as to not further burden the friend who now uses they/them/theirs pronouns.

When Mike responded to his own reflection prompt, he mentioned how changing behavior actually requires remaking neural pathways in our brains, and requires a change not only on the mental level, but also in the heart and body.

Changing culture is a long-term proposition.

I recently completed the  Watertown Citizen’s Police Academy class – an eight-week course that a POC (person of color) member of Watertown Citizens for Black Lives had asked people to attend to build relationships and accountability with the police in the town we live in. During the last class, the Chief presented on the topic of Policing in the 21st Century. A lot of that class focused on President Obama’s December 2014 Executive Order creating a task force on 21st Century Policing. The sentiments presented on one of the Chief’s Powerpoint slides really struck me: “changing culture takes perseverance and patience.” Changing culture is a long-term proposition. Really letting that sink in is helpful to me. Also, how can we set ourselves up with support so as to do it as quickly as possible? We don’t have to go it alone on shifting culture. In fact, we can’t. Culture is a team sport.

I want to remain cognizant of different responsibilities for dismantling systems of oppression based on location within that system.

I am looking forward to continued learning and growing as I explore how community agreements or guidelines can support people in shifting lifelong behavior. How can we make it a doable request together? And when I ask this question, I want to remain cognizant of different responsibilities for dismantling systems of oppression based on location within that system. I want to be careful that people with dominant positions in a system have support for their learning and growth and that it does not have to be provided by people who have been marginalized in the system. What learning is best done in a whole community, and what learning would be more appropriate in shared identity/social location groups? There is so much complexity when working in groups with mixed social identities and locations and I want to take great care to avoid replicating systems of oppression.

This July, I am embarking on what I am anticipating to be one of the greatest adventures of my life. I will be collaboratively hosting/participating in a month-long regenerative and transformative culture gathering. My desire to do this has grown out of the evolution of my Work That Reconnects facilitation, knowing that to be true to that name, I must grow in my capacity to attend to dynamics of oppression and toxic culture as they arise in groups. I will be keeping this inquiry near and dear to my heart and look forward to holding this inquiry in community: how can we best support one another in transforming lifelong, ingrained behaviors and beliefs as we journey deeper into life-sustaining culture?

Aravinda Ananda resides in occupied Massachusetts. She is on a journey of learning how to come into right relationship with Earth and all beings and seeks to assist others on this path. She calls her life’s work Living rEvolution and has been working on a book of that title for the past 10 years – asking the question – at this late hour, how do we each want to show up and give ourselves in service to Life, in service to healing, liberation, justice and transformation? She frequently co-facilitates with her partner Joseph and is currently a part of the leadership teams of the northeast US Interhelp Network and the evolving worldwide Work That Reconnects Network. Coming back into sacred relationship with the body of Earth through food is one of her passions. Monetary appreciation for her work can be directed to: PayPal.Me/LivingrEvolution

One thought on “Non-doable Requests and Shifting Long-term Behavior

  1. Thank you for this Aravinda,
    I too am a devotee of Miki Kashtan’s work and facilitation and may have even heard you on a few calls – yes?
    This is such a compassionate approach. Something about holding our learning and longing to grow in one hand and acceptance in the other. Stretching, integrating…
    Miki is finally offering this course online and maybe some folk will be interested to join.
    Unfortunately awful timing for us here in Australia – midnight !!
    I will do my best. Thanks again, Kate Raffin, Sydney, Australia

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