One of the cornerstones of our modern culture, the great reward that arose from being freed from earlier feudal times, is the idea of personal rights, the freedom to make decisions for ourselves. In the countries that are categorized as liberal democracies, this freedom is often sacrosanct. Once we reach adulthood, and assuming our specific group is not barred from having civil rights (as in women before being allowed to vote, blacks in the South before desegregation, Palestinians in the Occupied Territories), we don't have to ask anyone for permission to move, to vote, to enter or exit spaces, to eat or not eat, to befriend people, or to do anything else we want to do provided it's not specifically illegal. Granted, in our workplaces, we trade this freedom for money. We accept that our bosses can tell us what to do - within limits. Still, we do this freely (or so we believe).
So enamored are we with this particular version of what freedom means, that the idea of involving other people in our process of making decisions appears to many of us to be the same as asking for permission. When I used to work with couples, often a sore spot was when one of the partners would be making decisions that affect the other person without consulting with the affected person. More often then not, when I invited the person to check with their partner before the decision, they would balk. Many of them found it really difficult to discern the difference between asking their partner for permission and asking their partner for feedback about the effect of the decision on them. Back in the workplace, when I work with managers, they often struggle with the idea of involving the people they supervise in decision-making. Again, I sense that they associate any form of dialogue about a decision with loss of autonomy.
I believe that one of the best kept secrets about the rewards of choosing interdependence is the wisdom and the richer freedom that are often unleashed through entering dialogue with others as a path to making decisions: together, in complete autonomy, honoring everyone affected. To make this secret more available to more people, to help usher in a possible future, I want to share three stories about how dialogue created shifts that resulted in an outcome that served everyone better than before. Each of these stories illustrates one of the challenges that we face on the path to full integration of autonomy and interdependence.
A Birthday Party: Can Others Trust Us?
At a time of unusual crisis, when our executive director at the time was enduring a terrible loss in her family, someone within our close community was celebrating a significant birthday. I wanted to be there, to honor her, to partake of the wisdom that invites us to celebrate life even in very difficult conditions. I was also stressed beyond words, tending to holding the organization on top of all my other commitments. I was struggling to decide how to address the dilemma about the birthday party, which involved a long drive and the prospect of being in a party with people I mostly didn't know when small talk is always challenging for me, especially under the circumstances.
Temperamentally, collaborative, interdependent approaches to decision-making are what I am drawn to spontaneously. So, without any hesitation, I called the birthday friend to sort it out with her. After explaining my dilemma and asking for her input about how to address it, her response surprised and saddened me. She said something like "It's OK if you don't come." This was so far from the longing in my heart. I wanted her support in sorting it out, I wasn't asking to be let off a hook I didn't experience myself as being on. I was suddenly alone with the weight of the decision. Against the habit of giving up, I took a breath and persisted. I explained to her that I wanted her to engage with me, to support me in deciding, to be trusted. As the minutes continued, she found a way to trust that she mattered, that I really wanted to hear from her, that being at her party was just as much a part of what I wanted as was everything else I was talking about.
Once we reached the togetherness I so wanted, the solution appeared within two minutes. Someone to give me a ride there, so I wouldn't have to drive under so much stress, some way to manage the length of time I would be there, and a way to get home when things got to be too much for me. For me, this meant being able to attend to everything that was important, having her companionship in working it out, and having renewed trust in the possibility of creative solutions. For her, this meant more faith that she could show up, and my companionship in her celebration. Without this conversation, none of this would have been possible. The either/or of me going for the whole time and suffering while there, or me not going at all was all I could see. Our togetherness literally created new options.
Changing and Reaffirming a Commitment: Is Shift Possible?
My friend, former student, and colleague Elkie Deadman (this story is written with her permission and approval), was enthusiastic about organizing my 2014 trip to Europe. When she asked for a lead time of some months to make all the initial inquiries before deciding if she could truly stand behind the successful unfolding of the two events I asked her to organize, I was a bit nervous. I have a deep commitment to visiting Europe annually, and, given the lateness of the dates she picked (Sept. 2014), I was worried that if she said "no" in the end, I would be left to scramble very late in the game for another organizer. So it was with great relief that I received her final definite "yes" in late August.
Two weeks later, I was shocked to receive an email in which Elkie essentially told me that she was planning to cancel the events. Shocked is a small word for it. I actually descended into a mini-depression that took me out of full functionality for a couple of days. There was a lot that went into my strong reaction. Some of it was the helplessness - what was happening was exactly the scenario that I was dreading. Some of it was another version of helplessness - a big reason why Elkie wanted to cancel was that several other trainers were offering events in the vicinity within a few weeks or months of my proposed events, and she was quite concerned about the financial viability of the events. Since this has happened before, I felt overwhelmed by the idea that everyone else's events would stay and mine would be canceled. The most painful part, however, was the fact that Elkie made her decision without consulting with me. Instead of bringing the dilemma to me to hold together with her and decide with her how we wanted to respond, she already knew how she wanted to respond, and I had no faith that I had any say in the matter.
To complete the picture, I want to say that there was a personal circumstance that started Elkie on this path of cancellation: her 27-year-old daughter was in a serious accident, and Elkie's capacity to focus on the event, or anything else aside from coping with the effect of the accident on her family, was quite compromised. I also want to add that in no moment did I lose sight of my utter conviction that Elkie was aiming to cancel out of her care for me - she couldn't stand behind an event that she didn't have 100% confidence would be successful in terms of bringing in enough people to support both my contribution and my sustainability.
On my end, I came face to face with my deep pattern of having no faith that others could possibly shift through dialogue. I was instantly ready to resign to the circumstances. If Elkie doesn't want to do it, so my lack-of-faith reasons, there would be no point in creating dialogue. Her heart wouldn't be in it even if she agreed to honor the commitment. And, if her heart is not in it, the event would for sure fail.
This is one of the ways that we all lose. I have seen this happen again and again, not just to me. As soon as someone appears to have made a decision, very often we don't even try to engage in dialogue. In the name of respecting another person's autonomy, we give up - on our own needs, on the possibility of a transcendent solution, on the power of dialogue to create shifts in everyone, on the creative potential inherent in human connection. Knowing all this, I resolved to go against my decades-long pattern, and I invited Elkie into dialogue, not knowing whether I would even have the strength to face her. I wrote her an email in which I described the bare bones version of the huge effect her decision had had on me, and asked if she was willing to dialogue before proceeding with canceling the event.
Elkie thanked me for telling her the effect on me, and agreed to the dialogue. I want to say, looking back, that I am startled to see how hard it is for me to implement what I teach in this kind of situation. Time and again I tell people that sharing with each other the effect that our actions have, without blame, without shame, and without minimizing or exaggerating the effect, is a powerful tool for bringing us together to find collaborative solutions. What is it that would have made it so difficult for me to apply? Once again, I see the answer points to my lack of faith that my experience would matter in a way that could make a difference.
The dialogue itself was about as easy as any conversation I might have had. At the advice of one of my sisters, I explained to Elkie how difficult it is for me to hold my own in a dialogue like this, and asked her to support me in dialoguing with her. That was rich and satisfying, and wholly unnecessary, because the dialogue flowed and flowed with ease. First, Elkie raised her material and financial concerns, and together we were able to attend to them within a short amount of time. Then we looked at the quality of the relationship: what was it that prevented Elkie from approaching me before making the decision?
The answer was astonishing, because it points to one of the challenging aspects of the love affair with autonomy that we have in many of our cultures. In the wake of her daughter's accident, Elkie's resilience plummeted. When the fact of other trainers coming to the area came to her attention, she panicked. In response to panic, she was under the fog of having to do it all alone. It didn't even occur to her that she could turn to me for help. She, alone, in her mind, somewhere, was responsible for the success of the events, for everything related to it. The relief that she experienced as a result of opening up this place within herself was palpable even across many thousands of miles.
Not only did we recommit to running the events. We also created a stronger bond with each other, more trust between us, and an agreement to connect periodically so that we could support each other in holding this event, so that Elkie wouldn't easily fall into the trap of believing it was all on her. As a result, I now have even more confidence in our ability to make a go of it.
Staying or Leaving a Community: Before or After a Decision?
I've been running yearlong programs since 2002, both on my own and with co-leaders. In these programs, which involve either residential retreats or frequent gatherings throughout the year, a deep sense of community tends to build. People witness each other's stories and learning process, reveal their vulnerabilities, and learn to trust the capacity of the community to sustain their healing and opening up to life and to their own power. These are deeply moving experiences to support, to be part of, to behold.
Over the years, we've had a number of experiences of people reaching the conclusion that the program was no longer working for them. These are often significant learning experiences - for the person who chooses to leave, for those who stay in the program, and for me. Much of what I have learned over the years is about the process of how such decisions are made. Along with the primacy of the individual and of autonomy, we also have very little awareness of our interdependence in the very specific sense of how our actions affect others. Time and again I have seen people leave groups or communities without real awareness that their departure changes the nature of the group they leave behind. This phenomenon is one minor instance of a larger pattern: when we don't believe that we matter, we are actually more capable of acting in ways that could create harm, because we become oblivious to the effect of our actions.
Given how committed I am to reawakening people to the ground of interdependence on which all of life happens, I emphasize, whenever I work with a group of people over time, the importance of engaging with a group about the possibility of leaving. Recently, one member of a group, let's call her Rona, brought up the possibility of leaving a yearlong program that she has been part of since January. After she expressed her inner struggle about it, I asked her if she had already made the decision and wanted to hear back for connection and closure, or whether she was still in process.
The difference between these two frames is hugely significant. I know very well that when we struggle with making a decision, there comes a point where no amount of input will have any effect, because our internal structures are done.
In this particular case, the person in question was still open, hadn't yet made up her mind. One of the difficulties on the other end of the attempts to make interdependent decisions is that everyone else is also habituated to accepting others' choices regardless of the effect they have, because of the particular sanctification of individual autonomy. That was what my friend did with regards to the birthday party I discussed earlier, and that is what most people do in moments when decisions are brought to a group. This time, however, to match Rona's openness, one other person, let's call her Susan, stepped forward to express, in full vulnerability, the effect of Rona's process on her. It turned out that Rona had brought up this hesitation about the program already four times, and Susan expressed just how much weight she felt as a result of Rona sitting on the fence like this for so long. This simple act of expression, serving as a powerful and vulnerable feedback, had a profound effect on Rona. All at once she realized that she has a pattern of not committing to things, of keeping her options open, always, hedging her bets. She knew right away she wanted to shift out of this pattern, and made a decision to stay in the program.
How Do We Make Decisions, Then?
Making decisions with others is an experiment that challenges some of our deepest cultural constructs. As I hope the stories above illustrate, it takes great commitment, on everyone's part. For the person who is initiating the potential decision, it takes dedication to remember to wait before making the decision, and involve other people in it. It takes remembering that asking for feedback doesn't mean we are asking for permission. I know, for myself, that whenever I am conscious, I want to know how my possible choices may affect others, and knowing that can dramatically change my own mind about what I want. Making decisions in this way also requires us to remind others that we truly care, that this is not pro forma, just asking for their input without openness to being affected.
For the person who is approached, making a decision together with another person invites us into deep trust that we matter, that our feedback may just be what the other person needs to hear in order to make a truly informed decision, that what we say can create a shift, and that what we hear can shift us.
It seems like a lot to ask. I can so easily see the appeal of making decisions alone and letting others "take care of themselves", as the saying so often goes. It's the same appeal as everything modern and convenient. I am left with the ongoing quandary, with the longing to have companionship in seeing the immense benefits, all around, to the deep process and relational commitment of coming into full togetherness.
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