Capacity to Be in The Unresolved

I love the higher view, this one above taken from seat 17A on a flight returning to Utah last week. It’s approaching Salt Lake City from the south (and eventually looping around to land from the north), looking over the Oquirrh Mountains and into bits of the actual Great Salt Lake.

I’ve been noticing a collage of common themes lately, from broader view if you will. Some of it from the group hosting that I’ve been in. Some of it from listening to others in their group hosting.

The common themes include tension, intensity, wound (historical + current), complexity. Sometimes there are closely-related themes like grief, inner and outer conflict, caution, protection.

Some of the “what” that is often named is about long and historical realities, that have been often denied. The “what” includes diversity, equity, inclusion, power, privilege, facility, justice. I’ve learned that what is often behind the “what” are the realities (yet so often ignored) of historical colonization (taking lands presumed empty) — it’s imposed transactional ownership. So often what is behind the “what” is also the reality of slavery (so many shadow sides of capitalist roots).

It’s a lot right.

Here’s what I’m noticing in my facilitation and in hearing it from others. All of these topics are important. And, I think all of them matter in the context of day to day gatherings. That’s what coming into awareness entails. It’s true for individuals with the deep, and often not fully resolved stories that many of us carry. It’s true for groups with the denied and avoided aspects of culture that have created difference, othering, dehumanization, and a bunch of other rather intense and ugly cultural patterns.

When an event is named with purpose to explicitly take on such things, yup, that one is going to need some unique and deliberate container to hold some messiness. And, I’ve learned, in such circumstances there often is some messiness that needs to be outside of the container. Sometimes it’s the realness of anger. Or hurt. Or disregard.

When an event is not named with such explicit purpose, I’ve learned that often what is needed is container again (I rely a lot on circle) to hold us in the unrevsolvedness of it all. We don’t repair centuries or millennia of injustice in an hour meeting. We don’t make it all right. We don’t resolve or absolve wound and injustice in an afternoon, nor in a weekend. What feels honest to me about what we (sometimes facilitators, sometimes hosts, sometimes community) can do, is come into more relationship of what is inherently unresolved.

This is deep human capacity work. And it takes honesty to be willing to be in relationship with it. It’s not just my brain that will convince me to trust dogs when I’ve been attacked before. It’s not just my brain that will convince me to not fear the hot stove when I’ve been burned before, or when the people I know have been burned.

The work of coming into relationship with our fears, our scar tissues, our worries — and to know that it isn’t likely that these will be resolved — this is so much the deep work of community and groups and nations these days. It’s the capacity to know there will always be some inherent unresolved in which we can meet each other, that I believe is a key starting point for evolving together in more honest and lasting personal and communal change.

I’m glad to be part of seeing the collage. And inviting attention to what lays beneath the surface in these rather complex human psyches through with we live, in times like these.


On Complexity — Connected, Interdependent, Adaptive, Diverse

Many of us are learning about complexity. It’s not knew. This has been essential in most eras of change. There’s a personal relationship, or ongoing apprenticeship, that is needed to learn about complexity. There’s also a broader system level of learning that counters so much of how we’ve assumed that organizations work. Many of us are learning about more accurate positioning of the mechanized story of people and organizations. It matters that the early 1900s initiated a whole movement that divided labor and maximized productivity. There are times that of course remain, when operations are very dependent upon such efficiencies, but such mechanized operating modes are only one of several choices.

Some of my learning about complexity lately has been listening to a series of lectures by Scott Page, a math, economics, and systems theorist. Page first names that there is an inevitability of needing to become more aware and able with practices applied to complex systems. So, might as well get a bit more savvy. You can wish that one country’s denial stance on climate change doesn’t impact another country’s affirming stance. But it remains true that the wind doesn’t pay attention to stances when it blows pollution one direction or another.

Page goes on to name four characteristics of healthy and robust complex systems that I find myself paying attention to, particularly to some of the common resistance or just plain difficulty of applied practice in regards to these characteristics.

  1. Connected — for a complex system to be healthy and robust, there must be connection. I’m thinking people systems as much as anything here. It’s the work behind the work, the thing behind the thing — so much of the work that I do is about creating connection among people, teams, etc. So much more going on than creating a nicety and momentary feel good. It’s why, for example, a series of small table conversation in a World Cafe, can become essential experience for a group working their way towards a new strategic plan.
  2. Interdependent — no one person can do all that is required in a complex system. There is dependence upon others. There is interdependence. We want to add interdependence, going together, rather than decrease it if the overall system is to be more robust. This contrasts so much of the rugged individual that is so deeply engrained in western culture in particular. I continue to love the African proverb, “If you want to go faster, go alone. If you want to go further, go together.” Interdependence is part of this surrender to going further.
  3. Adaptive — so much of the work in organizations and its peoples these days is fostering an orientation to not just maintaining systems and procedures, but adapting them with insights to carry us through changed and changing circumstances. When the cold weather comes and your trying to protect a garden harvest, it doesn’t do much good to talk about how the last 20 years of weather were different. If you want to save your garden, you have to adapt and try a few new things. Cover the tomatoes. Warm air fans to get through the night. A well placed fire to keep the grapes protected. Consistency matters — this is the story that most of us train to. However, it’s adaptation from the consistency that gives us overall more health and robustness.
  4. Diversity — diversity of peoples, age, background, gender, experience, perspective, ideas. In an ecosystem, one species can be impressive for its size and scale. But it can also be peculiarly vulnerable. One infestation of beetle or larvae can wipe out forest species. It’s diversity that can save the forest as a whole. Segregation in human systems are more often political, economic, and habitual. Yes, human systems require policy change to go with a bunch of heart changes. However, life is always happening at the edges where differences are welcomed to intersect. Again, diversity is for robustness, not for temporary accommodation.

Many of us are learning. About language. About practice. About tools and methods to help find our way in the inherent messiness that complexity reveals of what already exists. So much of the work these days is reorienting ourselves to a more informed approach in the complexity that already is. There just isn’t room (and perhaps never was) to deny or avoid the complexity. Might as well get more savvy together — insisting upon diversity, adaptivity, interdependence, and connection.

From Complex Facilitation to Complex Inner World

Yellow roses in my back yard this week. Beautiful. Thorny. In bud. In spent life. Clean. Covered with aphids. Simple. Involved. It’s all there. Hold that thought.

Chris Corrigan is the person that I go to when it comes to all things complex facilitation. He’s who I start with when I begin to follow a question. About ten years ago Chris got really deliberate with his learning about complexity — workshops, reading, writing. He’s continued over these ten years. The guy’s got a brain that is phenomenal in his ability to connect, develop, remember, and grow ideas. One of the most unique humans I’ve ever come to know.

Recently, Chris posted a dandy list on his blog about improving awareness and skill when it comes to complex facilitation and frameworks for coming to comprehend more of what is in play with complexity. The beauty of this is that Chris insists on leaning in to more of the complexity, not less. He’s committed, like many of us, to an evolutionary adaptation of capacity, rather than numbing ourselves with oversimplified reductionism more well suited for cheap t-shirts or cheap political maneuvering.

Chris’ list is really good. And I know that when he offers such learning, there is brain, heart, and belly in it. I’ve listed each of his points below. Treat yourself and go read the whole thing on his site.

  • Complex facilitation is highly participatory. 
  • Outcomes are emergent and therefore unknown at the beginning.
  • Use stories and base the work in reality.
  • Remember that all complexity work is about patterns.
  • Work with cognitive stress and overload.
  • Not everyone will enjoy it.
  • You don’t have a safety net.

Also about ten years ago, for me, it became clear that some of my deliberate learning and practice in the field of facilitation was moving more toward how the inner world connects to the outer world. The human to human side — turns out there is a fair amount going on under the surface. My educational background is psychology and organizational behavior. My life experience has pointed me many times to a deep sense making, trying to understand and feel the nuanced and deeply involved inner world that projects the reality of an outer world. It’s pointed me to a complexity that is personal and interpersonal. My life orientations and practices have lead me to seek the spiritual as much as the spreadsheet, the poetic as much as the production.

So, with some commitment to continue this learning in public, and with “not all figured out” transparency, and with gratitude for Chris’s complexity commitments,  below is a bit of Chris’s list applied to inner world awareness.

Complex facilitation is highly participatory. Yes, relationship with self is highly participatory. It requires a continuous process of checking-in with ourselves. We are moved my experience that can render us in very different states in very short periods of time. Asking who am I now, or how am I now, invites a depth of attending to the oodles of ways in which we are not fixed creatures. We are not machines. We are impacted, or can be impacted, by everything from the slight breeze that momentarily animated the trees in the neighboring park to the news flash that signals the rise or fall of the stock market. Knowing self isn’t passive.

Outcomes are emergent and therefore unknown at the beginning. Yah. We humans, individually and collectively, are not a granularly prescribed destiny. Not all that we plan works out. Not all that we hope for works out. Despite rather attractive paradigms and marketing that advocates taking control and removing fear from the human life, spiritual traditions have been teaching us for eons that our lives are a rather constant process of adapting and unfolding. You can see where this gets tricky. But what about intention? But what about plans? But what about goals? What about manifesting? Yes, those things matter. However, the seduction of such is that with a good enough plan, we can remove uncertainty in our lives. Not true. Outcomes, even of self, are emergent.

Use stories and base the work in reality. Indeed. It is massively enjoyable and useful to meet each other in our stories. It’s how we come to know who we are. A person in my life that had a lot of influence on me in my college years in the early 90s used to say, “I don’t know what I think until I write it. I don’t know what I really think until I say it out loud.” For most of us, we are just barely getting into the shallow end of the pool of understanding ourselves. The key is to invoke the story. Even the snippet of story. As an example, this morning I was thinking a bit about efficiency and productivity. I was feeling a little wobbly about a project that I’m working on. I wanted (maybe needed) to find a story within me of how I connect with efficiency and productivity. In the spirit of freedom to follow what arises, I followed the image and then recalled the story of one of my first jobs working part-time in the produce department of a grocery story when I was a kid. I was rather efficient and rather productive trimming that lettuce, and was regarded quite highly for it. That story animates a personal experience that connects me into the reality of today.

Remember that all complexity work is about patterns. And it’s true for human living. Seeing patterns is largely about being willing to look. Being willing to get up on the balcony to get the higher view, even of ourselves, that isn’t possible to see from the trenches. Patterns in human lives that seem so personal, are really universal. Ah, the pattern of abandonment. Ah, the pattern of fear. Ah, the pattern of fanciful hope. Ah, the pattern of protection. The key here isn’t just seeing the pattern, but rather, being willing to look and make sense of life experience through that lens. To get curious. To snoop around a bit on the interior. If I look at behavior and give myself permission to see it through a patterned lens (e.g., fear), I can come to see more of if / how that pattern is impacting who I am now. The pattern of being afraid of losing or being seen as incompetent can really create some restrictive orientations now. Some withdrawal. Yup, I do know a bit of this one.

Work with cognitive stress and overload. Oh dear. Life is involved isn’t it. Life is demanding. Life requires such multi-tasking. Life, in the day to day, requires such a never-endingness. The internet doesn’t go to sleep or take a vacation. Email doesn’t really either. Social media platforms seem always ready. And here we are, humans that do require sleep, rest, pause, down-time. We humans aren’t perfect and we aren’t meant to be perfect. Sounds a bit simple, but learning to be kind to ourselves, or to be deliberately varied with ourselves, really matters. It’s when ten minutes in the garden is more valuable that ten more minutes on the overdue project. It’s when a dumb movie is more valuable than another informative documentary. We humans, with our physical and emotional and intellectual and energetic bodies, will run into walls and limits. Plan on it. Not as failure or shame. Just as real and universal that calls for some variety.

Not everyone will enjoy it. There are times when I get tired of my own words. When I don’t like what I’m sharing with groups, or even with myself. There are times when I don’t like the story I’m telling myself or the reality that I’m needing to face. Ah, a hard task, calling out my son for his shitty or selfish behavior. I don’t really want to do that. And sometimes I don’t need to, even when I think I have to. I don’t like the feeling inside myself. Here’s some of the good reach — I don’t like the discomfort I’m feeling in me about needing to call him out. It ain’t all 100% enjoyment. The evolution of ourselves also involves being willing to lean in to what we don’t enjoy about ourselves.

You don’t have a safety net. Yup. It’s all happening. It’s real time. This business of being awake, and aware, and learning, of chopping wood and carrying water — it comes with bumps and bruises. Sometimes with broken bones and deep gashes. There’s no avatar to live it for us. There is no stunt-double that we can simply have stand in for us. The safety net is a nice illusion. But in the end, I suppose that our complex inner lives require us to live. That’s what our bellies cry out for. Real life.

The roses, the buds, they stand for a rather rich complexity. Whether out there, facilitating with groups. Whether in here, working with self and other selves.

Thx again Chris, for being a friend in the garden.


The Complex and The Menial

My friend has been chopping wood. This is the part stacked in the field near his home. It will get moved to another stack to keep it dry. And will be chopped to further small pieces to work with his wood-burning fireplace that will keep his place warm in the coming cold of fall and winter.

I find myself speaking a couple of simultaneous narratives lately. For the work in organizations. One is the chop wood story. It’s the jobs and tasks that we do that are a bit more tasky. The must be done jobs. The sustainence things.

The other narrative is the bigger human story. Sometimes the cosmic story. Who we are as human beings and how that is evolving and changing as individuals and as communities.

The bigger story gives context to the day to day. The day to day helps give us room to ponder the bigger.

I like speaking both of these. It’s invitation to stay in the involvedness that I would suggest is an essential attention level these days. It’s invitation to grow skill at being in the complex, not just the menial. The non-linear, not just the linear. The aspirational, not just the obligatory.

Ah, life. In these many domains that all of us live. Sometimes it’s chopping wood. Sometimes it’s figuring out how to be in relationship with the whole, ever-changing forest.