“If we take man as he is, we make him worse. But if we take him as what he could potentially be, then we make him capable of becoming what he can be.”
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre
It is time to revisit the four movements – noticing, accepting, honoring and living what is – as our focus expands from ourselves to the others; the next step in the widening balance just described. Here, the authentic self that has integrated subtle sensing with all other forms of knowing comes into communication with other human beings. As we have seen, awareness of the process of projection and the ability to see and uncover shadow parts in ourselves is crucial to this step. The intention is for communication with the other(s) to be free from emotional charge, so that no pain is triggered back and forth, allowing us to relate easily and be with one another without projection and (excessive) protection. We become free to listen both to what is really present within us and in others and to what is emerging through us.
1. Noticing what is – in relationship: listen to the inner being of others
The core quality and practice in this first movement is listening: listening with attention, listening between and beyond the words, listening from inner silence. Most people alive in the Western world have not been taught to listen for deeper meaning, nor to hear the essence of what our interlocutor is seeking to convey. We have been trained in conversation-combat: discussion and debate. Noticing what is in relationship means listening to the other with full attention and observing the other beyond, behind and between the spoken words. In so doing, we are not listening closely to the specific words that are spoken, but rather seeking to fathom the meaning they hold for the speaker and sensing the subtle inner reality from whence the message springs. It is listening without thinking about a counter-argument for winning the speaking-match. It is listening without prejudice. It is listening with the deep respect that everybody deserves and that we all hope for when we engage in a conversation.
I can highly recommend Bill Isaacs’ book Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, especially the chapter on listening. Reading it helped me understand why listening matters so much. The book also expands on how you can learn to listen first to yourself and your own reactions, and to the thoughts running through your head. Learning to listen also means learning to discern between what is actually spoken and the interpretations we immediately attach to what we hear. There is so much to learn!
In our Flemish women’s circle, as psychotherapists, coaches and trainers used to giving advice and ‘helping’, we had to teach one another just to listen, witness and be present to what the others were sharing. Starting out, what proved most difficult was listening without giving advice or trying to fix anything. These were the habitual patterns we had to overcome. Over time we learned to trust the deeper power of witnessing and realised that offering a clear, open mind for the full experience of the other and her communication created a relational dynamic that we had been oblivious to at the outset. Observing and acknowledging the other person and his message carries the flavour of our intertwining as fellow human beings. In this quality of listening, some aspects of this interrelatedness became apparent to us.
2. Accepting what is – in relationship: see the other’s authentic self, integrate my shadow parts
Through deep listening, you come to see the other as another human being, with his or her own history, failures, unique qualities and specific viewpoints. Continued deep listening inevitably brings you to real acceptance. Many times different viewpoints and related projections on others are the stumbling blocks where projects fail or just drag along without lustre. Accepting what is in relationship means recognising your projections and judgments and integrating your own shadow parts. It goes one step beyond suspending your thoughts about others – setting your beliefs aside for a few moments – and implies an opening of the heart. It is an unconditional accepting of this other human being in front of you; not the cold, so-called objective: “I notice what you do/say”, but a peering beneath the surface where the essential, authentic self of the other can be glimpsed.
To be able to see a person as a whole being, we must learn another central element in the practice of dialogue: respect. Respect is not a passive act. To respect someone is to look for the springs that feed the pool of their experience. The word comes from the Latin respicere, which means “to look again”. Its most ancient roots means “to observe”. It involves a sense of honouring or deferring to someone. Where once we saw one aspect of a person, we look again and realise how much of them we had missed. This second look can let us take in more fully the fact that here before me is a living, breathing being.
– William Isaac; Dialogue, p.110
It is not the other who causes my anger, sadness or frustration. These emotions and related ideas and opinions are mine. They might be triggered by the actions or words of the other, but they already existed in me before this actual moment; they spring from my (unconscious) memory, not from what is actually happening in the here and now. To open my heart for my own deeply held patterns (my shadow) is generally not an easy thing to do. It seems easier to blame others than to take full responsibility for my own feelings, viewpoints and actions. It is tempting to make the other responsible so I don’t have to change.
The underlying mechanism that needs to be transcended here is projection. We see in the other something we don’t like, perhaps even can’t stand. If looked upon, this is a part of ourselves that has not yet been integrated, that we don’t want to embrace as part of our own humanness. The first movement is to become aware of my projections (observe what is). The next is to decide to withdraw from the projection (suspend my own emotional reactions), and then finally to return to my own inner balance (own the unconscious parts of myself). This requires me to extend my awareness to the subtleties of what is going on between me and the other, and to refrain from sweeping seemingly innocuous issues under the carpet. If these things are not named and shared, not brought into the light, they will grow in their own way and probably burst to the surface in a much uglier way. Honour these parts as they emerge from the shadows and the process will greatly contribute toward mutual understanding and trust.
This deep acceptance of our own downloading has major consequences in terms of how we put our feelings and ideas into words, how we talk with each other. The art lies in sharing our feelings without interpretation – particularly without making assumptions about the inner state of the other(s). Accepting what is in relationship, means sharing and naming the obvious, nothing more. I call this emotional maturity: this is my perspective, it is my pain. I hold it by and in myself and do not blame others for having caused it. Operating in this way allows us to settle deeper into compassion and love.
Accepting what is in relationship brings a deep realisation that the other is more than his or her habitual patterns, just as I am. A deeper layer is revealed that goes beyond the wounds, the shadows and the patterns of survival. We can contain the other gently, the way a wise village treats its 2-year-olds: it does not smack them, humiliate them, chastise them. It holds them respectfully and returns to the adult business. This is how we have to treat each other. It is as simple as that.
I can peer through the wounds into the deeper truth that dwells inside my partner, just as it dwells within myself. Accepting what is in relationship means paying attention to this deeper layer, this essential self of the other. It does not mean engaging with the wounding – that would need to happen in a therapeutic setting. Nevertheless, our attention can be placed on this deeper reality of the other whenever we need to in service of the overall process. The point is to connect on an essential level, where we are all human beings.
Another way to describe that quality is unconditional love — non-judgment. My interpretation of the conditions that allow a shift to take place is that you take something that’s in you, and you put it out there. It could be some kind of block in you, some kind of energy. You have lots of stuff around it: judgments, spins. You don’t like it. But when it comes into the circle field, we witness it lovingly just as it is. The power of witnessing unconditionally does something. Suddenly, the situation is looked at and blessed, and maybe it’s not as bad as you thought! ………. My belief is that your essential self is there, present with you. If you talk to me, and I start being judgmental of you, I can still engage with that essential part of you. That takes me out of my judgment of your personality. It works!
– Interview by Otto Scharmer with the Circle of Seven.
3. Honouring what is – in relationship: deepen my heart to common humanity
Honouring the other, even as she says something that ignites some anger or sadness in me, is a core awareness skill that we need to develop together. Our learning process has taught us that any disturbance between two people in a group needs to be voiced and named – though not in any aggressive or critical way, but as a neutral sharing without interpretation, applying the witnessing and listening described above. Keeping the interpersonal field between all members of a group clear is a very fundamental aspect of the group’s evolution.
Learning to see the other as more than his or her personality; to see his or her essence, even when we are in conflict, feel irritated or frustrated by each other, can feel like a big commitment – too great a commitment, even. Actually doing this is quite different than engaging in discussion about it. The other is not wrong, is not to blame. Clearing the interpersonal field means assuming full responsibility as I share my own emotional charge. No projection. No blaming. It means leaving all responsibility for the emotional charge of others with them. No projection. No shaming.
It takes time for a group or team to practice and learn this – much longer, in my experience, than any of us would like or expect. The art is to be able to sink deeper into your own heart, where connection takes place at the level of our shared humanity, where you and the other are peers. It means seeking connection at that level even when it seems that the process is going nowhere, the others are way off track and the purpose of the inquiry looks far out of sight. It helps to remember that the process is in service of the group and its purpose, not just for the sake of emotional sharing as such.
It is particularly important to look out for a common but rarely recognised phenomenon that Bonnitta Roy calls “projection into conceptual space”. People can get triggered by what somebody else is saying or stating, without being conscious of the emotional component of their experience. This emotional charge then gets translated into conceptual thoughts and arguments. Thus commences the subtle or not-so-subtle conflict, discussion or debate; connection and awareness of our shared humanity are gone. No relationship can grow or be built in this space of boredom, which is just a repetition of old habitual patterns: downloading in its purest, most lifeless form.
Sometimes honouring what is in relationship requires us to address the issue that the other is blind to – just as my friend did for me – not in a blaming way, but from a deeply human connection: “I see you as a human being, just like me.” Naming the blind spots does way more than just eliminate the negative: as members of a team, naming with and for each other what is limiting or holding us back can be profoundly opening. In a Circle of Presence, naming the blind spots helps us to come to that place of vulnerability, which plays such an essential role in building trust. As we shall see, it helps people to show up in their full magnificence.
Engaging the heart connection in the relationship is crucial for accessing the subtle, collective field of awareness. Unless our hearts are connected in the deeper sensing, the portal to authentic collective wisdom and emergence cannot open. By now, it might be clear that this is an impersonal love that has no attachments, no judgments, no requirements or expectations. Unlike the default form of love in relationships, which usually either pushes or pulls, this unconditional love has a quality of holding and letting life unfold.
One commitment we’ve had is to keep the field clear in all our one-on-one relationships, even when we’re not together. We work at it. I assume it’s like being in a marriage. If you’re really doing the relationship well, you work at it. Very few collectives commit to that. It’s not that we’re so interested in the personality level in the end. My perception is that working the personality level is a prerequisite. There’s always a threshold to cross when we’ve misunderstood and misjudged one another. We could tell a lot of stories about things we’ve been through to return to true relationship. There’s commitment at an essential level that’s a big enabler for the collective field.
– interview by Otto Scharmer with the Circle of Seven
4. Living what is – in relationship: appreciate and invite diversity in any relationship or event
When you live-what-is in yourself and truly honour-what-is in relationship, you start to become aware of the truly vast diversity present in humanity and therefore also in any group or team. This diversity must be acknowledged without getting stuck at the stage in the process where we discover that “We are all the same, how nice!” To truly bring the diversity alive means inviting and accepting different ways of sharing and expressing.
In our Flemish women’s circle, little by little each of us uncovered her own unique contribution to what we were about: one of us would propose a dance, another would invite the others into a constellation exercise, introduce herself with some writing or poetry, or initiate a little ceremony. It enabled us to get to know more of each others depths and to reveal ourselves more authentically. Later, I learned that diversity goes much, much deeper. Some people’s gift is to surface disturbance, while others sit quietly and offer an essential reflection afterwards… I had, and still have, so much to learn about this diversity of gifts. Moreover, as we continue to practice sharing these modes of expression that are so rarely allowed to surface in our mainstream culture, we are given an unprecedented opportunity to experience unknown human richness inside ourselves too.
This practice of living what is in relationship sheds light on an aspect of that mysterious phenomenon that Otto Scharmer, in his Theory U, calls Open Will. Just as I have no part in choosing what my true and unique gift will be (rather, it is uncovered), neither do others. Just like me, they too are in a process of coming to grips with what is their authentic, essential expression in this life on earth. We are together on this journey of discovery, to gain a little more understanding of this greater Will that lives through us.
When we are able to understand and embody this dance of holding the other and myself in full awareness at the same time, we can begin to understand our own unfolding as a journey in relationships, removing us from the notion that we exist as separate beings. Once we reach this point, we viscerally recognise the way every encounter with someone who is different enriches us, and vice versa. This is when we fully appreciate others who hold different points of view or who express themselves in radically different ways.
Isaacs, William; Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together. New York: Doubleday, 1999.