Even the ‘Oppressor’ Deserves Safety and Support

This weekend I reflected in gratitude at my LOH experience in the past year.  After resonating with Dr. Suchman’s moving keynote at a physician health conference in 2018, I sought him out to express thanks.  He encouraged me to apply for the program.  Then he coached me twice on getting institutional support, something I had never done before.  All through the program, he and Diane Rawlins, two of the best teachers I have had (and that is saying a lot), led us all through ten months of complex conceptual learning and skills practice.  Even better, they helped us synthesize and integrate learning between sessions, applying concepts through practice in our natural habitats, knowing we could report back to the group to debrief and trouble shoot before heading back into ‘the trenches.’  LOH runs annual reunions, refreshers and mixers during which attendees from different cohorts can meet, bond, and both expand and tighten our community of lifelong learners.  In the time of COVID, alum meetings have occurred about every two weeks over Zoom, from the comfort of our homes all across the country.  The more I think about it, the more I wish everybody had this kind of safety and support—this kind learning laboratory and community—to acquire scary new skills that, when practiced, benefit many more people than just us learners.

I imagine this may be what participants in the White Men’s Caucus feel.  Read all about it in Four Days to Change, which I started and finished in about three sittings.  –No really, read this book.  It provides a unique and profoundly important perspective on the true meaning of inclusion, that is, white men absolutely need to be included in leading and benefiting from systemic change for equity, not just passively doing the changing for others’ sake.  During the Caucus retreat, white men are both challenged and supported to dig deep into their own privilege.  Inescapable mirrors of truth and profound discomfort, and also of love and compassion, surround them for four days.  They are expected to feel tremendous guilt and shame, both natural emotions that occur on the path of self-discovery and humility.  But rather than weaponizing these feelings, facilitators love the attendees through them, shepherding them through the emotional (shit)storm to a place of self-compassion and forgiveness.  This is where their outward humility, openness, and sincere advocacy for inclusion and diversity take root—because they experience it first hand from their teachers and peer learners.  Leadership is hard enough, but leading initiatives in diversity, equity, and inclusion is a whole other dimension of complexity.  How can we expect any leader, white male or otherwise (but white males especially), to do it well alone, without a core peer group willing to hold their feet to the fire with both love and conviction? 

I wrote earlier this year, “Practicing inclusion INCLUDES the OWG (Old White Guy) ‘oppressor’!  If we talk only about him needing to include others, while we make him feel excluded himself, how can we ever expect to enroll him in our cause or even behave in the way we ask? We do how we feel. And when we feel threatened and marginalized, especially from a place of loss, we act accordingly.” 

Michael Welp writes in Four Days, “(My mentor) inspired me when he (said), ‘The only way to touch other white men is through love.’  His words have always stayed with me.  However, the overall pattern observed in my dissertation was that white male diversity advocates disconnected from other white men and drew most of their support from white women and people of color.  They were frustrated and angry toward other white men.” 

Imagine people of your own tribe, a tribe you may lead in good faith, suddenly confronting you about biases and prejudices that you never knew you had, telling you how you’re harming people all around the tribe, and that you have to change it all now, adopt a new set of beliefs and initiatives today, and they will accept nothing less than your complete and unquestioning compliance because you are simply in the wrong.  Would you respond better if they came at you with such accusations and demands, or came alongside you with a grave and critical invitation to curiosity and learning together, for the good of the whole tribe, yourself included?  Which approach is more likely to yield tangible results in the near term?  Which one is more likely to still engage you in the long term?

We can learn important lessons from addiction medicine.  Patients succeed in rehab with a lot of grit and commitment.  They also benefit from the unyielding support and dedication of treatment staff and various environmental safety precautions.  But relapse rates are high (40-80%) in no small part because the safety and support so crucial to getting sober in rehab too often simply do not exist in an addict’s natural habitat.  

The converse was found to be true among American servicemen who fought in the Vietnam War.  Up to 20% of them were found to be addicted to heroin while overseas.  But upon return, only 5% of those who recovered relapsed.  After rigorous study (by a well-respected woman researcher, whose results and report were initially questioned and even derided—but that’s for another post), it is now widely accepted that the environment plays a key role in our behaviors, habits, and ability to change.  Soldiers in Vietnam, as James Clear writes, “spent all day surrounded by cues triggering heroin use: it was easy to access, they were engulfed by the constant stress of war, they built friendships with fellow soldiers who were also heroin users, and they were thousands of miles from home. Once a soldier returned to the United States, though, he found himself in an environment devoid of those triggers. When the context changed, so did the habit.”

The system often dictates, or at least strongly influences, how we perceive, think, behave, and relate.  And we are the system, every one of us.  By assimilating to the dominant white male culture, even as we see ourselves as resistors, we perpetuate it.  But when we resist by only opposing our white male counterparts, rather than enrolling them in the resistance movement as equals, we undermine our own progress.  Everybody deserves the safety and support to do their own personal Reckoning, Rumbling, and Revolution, as Brené Brown describes in her book Rising Strong.  Real positive change is grounded in vulnerability, humility, and courage.  If we really expect our white male leaders to change in ways fundamental and profound enough to advance equity in any meaningful way, they need the safety and support to reckon and rumble with their resistance, their rage, their fear, culture, identity, relationships, memories, realizations—all of it—with people they can relate to and who can hold them up fully, who will not turn away or against them.  As I wrote last week, more and more I see that perhaps only other white men can truly do this.

To be clear, this post is not an apology for white male supremacy and the vast suffering this mentality has wreaked all throughout history.  I just think it’s important, and too seldom attended to, that white men also suffer in and from the culture they dominate.  And in order to really change this culture for the better, we all need to support one another, white men included.

November 5:  Peer Coaches Make Me Better

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NaBloPoMo 2019

When you’re working through a challenge, who helps you?  What is it about them, how are they most helpful?  How not?

Through the years I have learned what I can get from certain people.  I know to call this person when I need validation, that person when I need a devil’s advocate.  I also know which people to avoid altogether—those who cannot be trusted with my vulnerability or confidence.

But when I need to hold space and tension with an issue, to patiently look at it from different angles and process the perspectives, I look to my peer coaches.  I feel gratitude and gladness for these friends today, after my LOH group had our monthly peer coaching call.  As we progress through our 10 month leadership training, we take tenets and skills home from each retreat to practice.  Monthly Zoom calls have no agenda, other than to reconvene, share, and mutually support.  Every time I come away appreciating just a little more how nothing in life—work, personal things, social context—can really be separated from anything else.

These friends are not my first or only coaches, however.  In 2005 I started working with Christine, my life coach.  Every session, 14 years later, is still transformative.  How is this possible?  Curiosity.  Christine coaches every call squarely and unwaveringly from this perspective.  It was not long before I realized how powerfully this method could alter my own encounters with patients.

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The best coaches have no preformed or decisive answers.  They have the uncanny ability to ask the best questions–Open, Honest Questions (OHQs)–which then lead clients to their own best answers.  They help frame and reframe problems.  They point us to alternate perspectives and help us open our minds to narratives other than the ones we too often grip so desperately.  It was my second year in practice when I started asking coaching questions to patients, and I have never since feared any symptom, syndrome, or answer.  When there is no clear diagnosis or answer for someone’s distress, I can just keep asking until something helpful emerges.  Most often it’s not a single piece of information that gives clarity; rather, it’s the story that materializes.  Coaching skills help me help my patients find and tell their stories of health and wellness, illness and pain, agency and action.

Here are the tenets of true Open, Honest Questions, from the LOH syllabus:

  • The best single mark of an honest, open question is that the questioner does not know the answer and is not leading toward a particular answer.
  • Ask questions aimed at helping the other person come to a deeper understanding (help them access their own inner teacher).
  • Ask questions that are brief and to the point without adding background considerations and rationale—which make a question into a speech.
  • Ask questions that go to the person as well as the problem or story—for example, questions about feelings as well as about facts.
  • Trust your intuition in asking questions. Inviting metaphors or images can open feelings, new lines of thinking, and unexpected possibilities.
  • Try to avoid questions with yes-no, right-wrong answers.
  • Avoid advice disguised as questions.

My best friends are my peer coaches.  And now I have my LOH cohort-mates.  We make no judgments about one another’s circumstances, feelings, or experiences.  We make the most generous assumptions about our motives.  Our role in each other’s lives is almost never to give advice; rather it is to hold space, listen reflectively, offer moral support, hold up core values, and help one another query thoughtfully and honestly.

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Questions asked and reflective statements made on the call today:

  • If you left work tomorrow with enough money to be unemployed for 6 months, what would you do?
  • How does it feel to speak (your issue) out loud?
  • When you think about current state compared to past, how does it feel physically in your body?
  • Sounds like you’re working on a core tension.
  • What do I/you want now?
  • What’s roiling around in you?
  • Who around you can get creative with you?

We each bring diverse questions and challenges to each call.  But somehow we always relate deeply, and listening/querying helps us each learn from every other.  Today I saw central themes emerge around identity, contribution, voice, and meaning.

In the end, I think there are few things more important in life than meaning and connection.  These are the gifts from my peer coaches, and they always make me better, no question.

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This Is My Hogwarts

Sylvan Dale Lodge

My friends, I belong.  This weekend marked the beginning of a ten month training program in communication, leadership, connection, and creativity.  9 of us made it to Colorado after the bomb cyclone (Patrick, we missed you—can’t wait to meet you in May!) to launch Cohort 11 of Leading Organizations to Health (LOH).  Our teachers, Tony Suchman and Diane Rawlins, led us through three days of introspection, skills acquisition and practice, and formation in community.  It all happened at the Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch in Loveland, surrounded by mountains, river, wildlife, and a rich history of family and hospitality.

We are training in relationship-centered care and administration, helping one another embody our best relationship tendencies, so we may help our organizations function at higher levels of connection and effectiveness.  It’s too exciting!

I walked into the lodge at Sylvan Dale, saw the vaulted ceiling with the icicle lights, and immediately thought of Hogwarts.  I came to this place, called by something to the Why of my soul, to be with others like me.  We are here to train, to hone our skills for good.  Within the first session I realized I can totally be myself in this crowd.  Here, I’m no longer a lone voice focused on relationships ahead of everything else, no longer the only one who cannot help seeing how the nature of our relationships permeates every interaction, every decision—and how we recreate them in every moment.  No more self-editing and explaining, tip-toeing around what matters most to me.  I can fully inhabit my relationship convictions here, in this space and among these new friends.  I feel an ease of purpose and values in this group that I come to, like a deep well, to fill my bucket and irrigate my garden of personal and professional growth.  Here, I am not a black sheep.

I now have 9 new people-nodes to connect and integrate into my existing relationship webs—a new and emerging system.  We share stories with common themes, new insights, and mutual support.  These ten months we will form and evolve as individuals as well as a community.  It’s a type of love, really…  At least that’s how it feels to me.  Hooray!