Seeing Each Other: A practice for growth and liberation
On my first visit to India a few years ago, I spent a day at Assi Ghat in Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges River, or Mother Ganga to some. I watched family after family place the bodies of loved ones on funeral pyres and light them. I must have watched 40 or so bodies get cremated that day. I felt waves of heat and sadness wash over me as the fire consumed the remains of someone who was special to at least one person. Before visiting India, I knew that Hindus choose to die or be cremated in Varanasi (and have their souls laid to rest in the Ganges River). For them, dying in this holy place leads to moksha, or complete liberation that ends the cycle of rebirths. That way, one doesn’t have to return as a cow or a cricket and live out lifetimes as different creatures before becoming human again to continue working towards liberation.
Whether we believe in reincarnation or not, many of us want to be free. We want liberation, and we would prefer to experience it while we’re alive. Right?
We want liberation from oppressive systems, structures, people, relationships, ideas, mindsets, and, of course, Covid. You can add to the list. The point is, we do not want to feel or be bound by constraints, be they financial, physical, spiritual, social, or psychological. How do we experience liberation? There are a number of ways. Some of us attempt to foster liberation through our teaching (think bell hooks, RIP), preaching (think MLK, Jr.), coaching and facilitating (think Jennifer Garvey Berger), and also through parenting (think…ah, your parents, you?). There are different pathways to liberation. I have been practicing and paying lots of attention to the developmental growth pathway. By this I mean practices, tools, and frameworks that support people to see and make meaning of themselves, others, and the systems they live and work in. As we help people grow and develop, chances are that they experience some liberation along the way. I called this dynamic liberatory-growth.
I engage in quite a bit of developmental work (coaching, facilitation, and teaching) with Afro-Caribbean people and many others across the globe who consider themselves members of marginalized groups. The more I partner with them, the more I discover that they are not just changing on the job, shifting their perspectives, or growing into new meanings and selves; they are also experiencing more ease and freedom to be more of the person they want to be. They say the experience feels liberating. But liberated from what? For them, mostly from internal and external oppressive systems and structures. The external systems are barriers to entry and advancement that are kept alive by discriminatory practices like sexism, ableism, homophobia, racism, classism/elitism, and so on. The internal systems are the phenomena that represent the limiting ways we hold ourselves and our capabilities that are born from and sustained by the repeated wounding of our navigating external oppressive systems. Some of us call this internalized oppression, internalized homophobia, and so on. This might be what the great Jamaican philosopher and musician, Bob Marley, was referring to when he sang in Redemption Song, “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds. Have no fear from atomic energy cause none of them can stop the time”. And it’s not necessarily that easy to emancipate ourselves. We could do with a little help.
I remember the first time I experienced developmental coaching. I was leading a project almost a decade ago where I was the only Black person and non-U.S. citizen on the team. I often felt like my colleagues ignored, excluded, and misunderstood me. Here is how this played out. I would offer a perspective on something and they would look at me as if I just cursed their mothers. Later, someone else would say the same thing and be met with praise for their originality and enthusiasm for further exploration. Oh, that used to annoy me. So much. Not only that, but I also constantly questioned my competence, communication ability (mostly because of my Jamaican accent), and my place on the team. I did not feel like I belonged. So, I reached out to a developmental coach for help.
I shared the situation with her and the challenges I was experiencing as a result. I was almost in tears as I talked with her. She and the developmental coaching approach she used, which included an assessment, supported me a great deal with seeing my own sense-making about the situation. We explored the leader I wanted to be and I focused my attention on shifting my mindset and behaviors to align with that. Something was missing though.
I wanted to examine the intersectionality of those identities that mattered most to me in the situation – my race, nationality, language, and religion. I was used to, and tired of, holding those marginalized identities as things that disadvantaged me. I wanted my coach to see me from my cultural context, to appreciate my identities, and to explore with me how they – cultural context and identities – shaped and were still shaping me.
True, I wanted to see more of the things that were subject to me. Developmental coaching helped me with this. But I also wanted to be seen through the intersectionality of identities I represented and the context and culture that were alive in me and in our relationship. I wanted my coach to “Listen to See” with me. Listening to see is one way we can support both growth and liberation (liberatory-growth).
Listening to See is one of the competencies Vernice Jones and I teach in the Leading Inclusively Lab. Listening to see helps us lead, liberate, and love across differences. There are three places we orient our attention when listening to see: self, other, and context. We look at these places to unlock any barriers – internal and external – to our seeing, embracing, and engaging with others and the differences that matter to them and our relationship. Listening to see can satisfy a fundamental desire to understand the unique perspectives of others (and how the identities that matter most to them factor into the perspectives they hold).
Listen to see Self
- The focus here is to explore what might get in the way of seeing others as they want to be seen. Fundamental to seeing others clearly is knowing ourselves more deeply. So, we listen to see our own behaviors, assumptions, biases, beliefs, preferences, values, etc. My developmental coach was a White American woman who grew up in Europe. One of the things she shared with me as we talked is that she had never coached a Black man or someone from the Caribbean before. She shared that her first encounter with a Black man triggered shock and fear in her. This was important for me to know and for us to explore in our coaching relationship. As James Baldwin declared, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
1 According to adult development theory, one way to think about how adults develop is that they make more things that they were once subject to, or unconscious of, something that they can look at, play with, and shift if they choose to. The subject-object shift is moving from this is how I am or the world is to acknowledging this is just a way I see myself and can be, or a way to look at the world.
Listen to see Others’ differences
- Listening to see others’ differences means looking for, engaging with, and appreciating their various social identities (e.g., gender, age, race, sexual orientation) and personal attributes (e.g., values, expertise, mindsets, experience) from a place of humility and compassion. We do not look and engage to satisfy our own curiosity. We look and engage so as to understand why and how their differences matter to them. This is primarily why I include gender pronouns on zoom meetings, for example. It’s not so much for me, as it is to communicate to others, “I see you and how you identify is important to me.” Otto Scharmer warned that when we refuse to see what matters to others and attune to that, we’re committing what he calls Attentional Violence towards them. I’m guilty of this, sometimes. And I hate knowing that I wound others through attentional violence. I don’t think most of us are violent people. So, how do we avoid this kind of violence. I think that when we appreciate others, their differences, and the identities that matter to them, we embody the Spirit of Sawubona, a Zulu greeting that means, “I see you.” It’s as if we look at others, attune to the visible and invisible differences they represent, even if they are hard for us to embrace, and declare, “I see you, and you are important to me.” Can we see each other this way? Absolutely!
Listen to see Context
- When we listen to see context, we are expanding our field of vision to see more dimensions of others, ourselves, and the space we share with them. When we listen to see context, we explore how other people’s sociocultural context and background influence their current experience. Part of practice here is to identify and interrupt harmful patterns of behavior and ways of engagement that could undermine, minimize, or oppress others. It was difficult for my developmental coach, at times, to see how being Black and from the Caribbean had anything to do with my leadership. She made space for us to explore this together. I saw more that leading from the margins is complex. Those who lead from the awareness of their social marginalization are constantly navigating all kinds of challenging dynamics in social and professional spaces, where some feel like outsiders, others are constantly having to prove their competence and worth, all while trying to minimize further attacks on their psychic space. We also pay attention to the shared context, or what some might call the relational field, that we’re in together, whether as coach/coachee, facilitator/participant, or educator/learner. Listening to see the shared context is recognizing we each bring our identities, cultural background, and context to our engagement, and that they all influence how we be with each other.
Listening to see is a dynamic practice, like a dance with inner and outer complex moves, that enables safety and inclusion. When we feel safe and included, we free up energy to be more present in situations and experiences that support growth and development. These situations and experiences may feel heated and uncomfortable. Stay in the heat, as long as you and those you support are able and willing to. This is the kind of heat that can burn away constraints and lead to liberation. Imagine, liberatory-growth in this lifetime.
At the end of my day, witnessing the mass cremation on the banks of the Ganges, I saw a young couple with an infant. They were further upstream, having some kind of ceremony for their new baby. They dipped the baby in the river, a practice Hindus believe cleanses the soul and leads to liberation. Watching them, I felt like I was standing between life and death, fire and water, and the sadness of endings and the hope of new beginnings. I was appreciating the thought that there were a lot of opportunities for Hindus to experience liberation as they grow. And that liberation is a collaboration, where some people pile on the heat and others cool you down a bit. Each of us plays at least one role in this collaboration. That role is seeing each other. May our world be a place where everyone feels seen.