The conversation touches on many diverse themes but always circles back to who we are and how our purposes are intertwined, for it is only when we see that our personal desires are perfectly aligned with the destiny of humanity as a whole that we will give ourselves full permission to enjoy the most exquisite experiences life has to offer.” 16.
The Choreographer With only a few weeks of rehearsals remaining before the premiere of the annual musical, the artistic director entered the village playhouse very excited. He went to the stage where all the dancers were in the process of stretching and warming up. “I have a new idea,” he said, “an idea so advanced that it will revolutionize the way you dance with your partners.” “You’re going to make the floor move while we stand still?” asked one, provoking snickers around the stage. “Pay attention, I’m serious,” snapped the director. “Now tell me, what is the main theme of this show?” One of the dancers answered, “It’s about a girl who starts off as a slave and eventually becomes a member of—” “Equality,” interrupted the director, “the main theme of this show is equality between people. Now I’ve been thinking about this and suddenly it struck me that when you dance with your partner there is inequality, because one person is leading and the other is following. So starting today, when you practice your dances for this show I want to see both partners leading.” “At the same time?” asked one of the dancers. “Yes, of course,” said the director.
The dancers looked at each other in confusion.
They had never heard of such a thing. Meanwhile the choreographer, who was taking in the scene from the second row, started laughing. “What’s so funny?” asked the director. “Your idea is ridiculous. Absurdly ridiculous,” she replied.
The director was stunned. He was not used to being challenged, especially by his choreographer, who he got along very well with. “What are you saying?” “I’m saying it will never work.” “It might, if you try it.” “We’re not going to try it,” the choreographer said. “Well, I think you owe it to me to at least try it.” “It’s not going to happen,” the choreographer replied sarcastically. “Need I remind you that I am the director, and you have to follow what I say?” “Well, this time I want you to follow me.” The director was getting red-faced with frustration. He moved to the front of the stage to address the choreographer. “Why are you doing this?” “What—you don’t want me to keep arguing with you?” asked the choreographer slyly. “Of course not!” “Because we’re not getting anywhere?” “Exactly.” “Then why would you ever want to see two people try to lead the same dance?” While I have suggested that the time has come for us all to be leaders, this does not mean that we should all be leading simultaneously. That would be like a conversation where people were all talking at the same time, which is not a conversation at all. Taking on roles like leader and follower is an essential aspect of the human drama. Life would not be capable of producing excitement, wonder and profound learning if we were all self-identical creatures doing exactly the same things. If life flows from dualities, through pairs of opposites like leader and follower, then it is important for each of us to play our roles when required. Mind you, nobody has to be told to assume roles—it comes quite naturally to us. Our Ego Self is designed to separate and distinguish us from one another.
The perception of many of our differences is immediate, and we are already in the habit of grounding our interactions in these differences. What we may need to be reminded of sometimes is that this is only half of the story.
The other half comes to us from the perspective of the Dao Self where we can see past the distinctions that separate us. When we come from this higher place we see that these roles will best help us move forward in our lives when we don’t take them so seriously. When we live solely from the Ego Self our roles can easily fall into stereotypes and become the source of value judgment and comparison. We start believing that one side of the duality is better than the other, more capable, or more right. We may think that the teacher must always be wiser than the student, and so the student should simply be quiet and listen; that the servant is weaker than the master, and therefore must obey; that without the leader the follower is clueless, bereft of inspiration or direction. As followers we are likely to harbor resentment towards leaders when this kind of stereotype is at play. We will feel that our ability to be an important part of any process is limited, and we will have few opportunities to express ourselves as individuals or feel that we are making a contribution. Even if we disagree with our leader’s approach, we will be forced to play a game that only rewards us if we try to elevate the leader’s already inflated status (see: brown-nosing). But when we become leaders we’re not necessarily better off.
The stereotypical leadership role puts us under tremendous pressure, both from ourselves and the outside environment. We are supposed to know everything, and we are not allowed to show doubt. We are expected to be responsible for things beyond our control. Worst of all, we are not allowed to make mistakes. When we do, we hide them: our shame makes us try to cover them up, lest anyone find out that we are not up for what is expected of us. What a relief it is when we are able to step back into the realm of the Dao Self. From here the roles we have taken on lose their rigidity. Suddenly teachers are learning from students, masters can be the ones who serve, and leaders encourage followers to become leaders themselves. When leaders and followers rise above stereotype, their interactions move into the flow of life. Followers are able to make a greater contribution and take on more responsibility. Leaders are able to relax and allow themselves to be human, to show and voice their doubts, and admit their mistakes to themselves and others. When leaders are not afraid to show their ignorance and vulnerability it is inspiring, and actually serves as an invitation for their followers to enter into the process in a more meaningful capacity. As humanity evolves, the status gap between leaders and followers is closing. Leadership is moving away from command-and-obey and towards a collaboration in which the insights, opinions, values and beliefs of both sides of the dichotomy are honored. Where there is a sense of equality between teacher and student, boss and subordinate, speaker and listener, there we find the new conversation. When I look back on my academic life, I realize that the new conversation was not often a feature of the classroom. In fact the higher up I went, the more that professors seemed set in their ways, even condescending at times. I remember the lifeless discussions in class, where students—including me—favored intellectual questions that would make them look smart. Professors would then answer with similar pretense. On the odd occasion that someone would ask a question from the heart or simply state that they didn’t understand, eyes would roll and sighs of intolerance could be heard.
There may have been some lively debates, but these were far from a collaborative effort to understand each other and discover new perspectives. Students and teachers alike were afraid to really open their own personal ideologies to honest scrutiny, and so most of the energy was used to defend and protect these ideologies. When it was time to look into PhD programs, the curricula I saw left me cold: more intellectualizing about other people’s ideas, and more rehashing the past in a way that did not impact how I lived my life. I had an uneasy feeling growing inside me that continuing my formal education would be like purchasing a one-way ticket to the proverbial Ivory tower. So I walked away, despite being told that I had no teaching prospects at all if I didn’t pursue a PhD. It felt like I had gotten tired of learning. But I realize now that I was just looking for other ways to learn. Over the past twenty years, I have enjoyed a host of non-academic programs, seminars, and transformational workshops, some of which had a big influence on me. Instead of just talking about different perspectives, some of these programs actually created the conditions that enabled me to shift my perspective—with all the discomfort that this entailed. It sometimes felt like the rug was being pulled out from under my feet, because the whole way I looked at the world, where I was coming from, was challenged. What I found was that it was always worth the discomfort. Whenever I was able to shift my perspective, I saw myself and the world in a more powerful way. I became happier, more confident. My vision was expanded, and I was able to let go of ideas and attitudes that were no longer serving me. All this would not have been possible if the new perspective was presented in a dogmatic way—if, in other words, it was presented as absolute and irrefutable. It needed to be offered as a possibility. Significant transformation would not have occurred if someone was simply telling me what to do, think, or believe. I had to be given a real choice, and from a place of choice I was allowed to step into what I could handle and own the changes that were happening to me. More and more I saw facilitators opening their workshops with the stipulation that the material is presented as one way of looking at the subject, and participants should question anything that doesn’t resonate with them and only take to heart that which serves them. This idea was reinforced when a facilitator acknowledged that they have as much to learn from the experience as everyone else. Rather than following a rigid set of procedures, the more skilled facilitators focused on building an atmosphere of trust and openness in which people felt safe and confident enough to share their unique perspectives, insights, and experiences. This gave rise to authentic conversation, which energized those who participated. Over time I gained a growing interest in how these workshops were presented and facilitated, and paid close attention to whether the facilitators themselves were attempting to deliver the material as possibilities or as statements of fact. I got into the habit of putting myself in the seat of the facilitator, wondering how I would handle the questions and situations that came up, and thinking about how I might present the material differently. I have come to appreciate that it is exceedingly difficult—just from the standpoint of language, let alone personal bias—to present material in such a way that it is only one possible perspective rather than a statement of fact. But this is really the only way to go if we are going to move forward. When I actually began to fulfill a long-time dream of facilitating transformational workshops myself, I was eager to bring forward this new conversation. I was very fortunate to work with someone who already had experience exploring this in her own facilitation. My good friend Carole really helped me over some of the initial rough patches when I wanted to be right or fretted when I didn’t have all the answers. I saw that it was more important to make people feel comfortable than to look smart. I saw that the skill of listening and learning to be with all the participants was at least as important as the material that was to be covered. In fact, we even enlisted the help of the participants to determine some of the content and context of the material that would be delivered. It was hard for me to grasp that I didn’t have to convince everyone to agree with all the information and insights that I had prepared. I had to accept that some people couldn’t or didn’t want to get it. If some chose to tune out, to be obstinate or to complain, I needed to learn to flow with it, to be with what is, to keep things open. Sometimes I made the mistake of vigorously trying to defend my point of view. However I learned that being wrong and making mistakes was not only all right, it could often be turned into something beneficial for the group if it was handled with humility and humor. Carole sometimes made fun of my habits and tendencies during the session itself and this helped everyone including me to relax. Our co-facilitation itself became a dance, which was especially powerful since we thought and expressed ourselves in very different ways. While I saw that leading people into the new conversation still required some direction and boundaries, it seemed to work best when these boundaries were almost invisible, when the space that we created was a circle of trust and communication in which everyone was learning and benefiting from each others’ experience and perspective. I learned that leadership in the new conversation was about modeling—walking the talk. If I showed an openness to learning then it helped to create an environment of trust and exploration. When I cleared away personal issues before facilitating I was able to be more present with the participants. Facilitating the new conversation has opened an ongoing examination of who I am being in my life, and particularly in my conversations. This is a possibility the new conversation offers all of us. As we become more conscious and self-directed, I believe we will strive to move our discourses away from unyielding structure and towards the creation of an open space in which we all can reflect, discover, and create.
The more each one of us tastes from the cup of the new conversation, the more I believe we will be looking to bring it into all of our human interact.
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