It’s February 2017.

And what a year it has been so far.

In so many conversations, the people around me – family, friends and practitioners in Leadership, Organization Development and Social Change are asking – what can we do in the current socio-political climate facing North America and the world? This is not a simple question, with no easy or standard answer. The ensuing dialogue and responses have ranged from fear and hopelessness (we’re on the verge of WW3!) to apathy (let’s wait and see) to desperate activism (I’ll march if it’s the only thing I can do!) to thoughtful analysis and committed action (here’s what I see, here’s what I can do today). None of these responses are right or wrong. I have found myself at all points of the spectrum, depending on the day or the latest breaking news. These responses are all normal human reactions to complexity, the unknown and the chaotic. In one of the moments when I was at thoughtful analysis and committed action, I decided to focus my next few blog posts on a related question I’ve heard from Leadership, Organization Development and Social Change communities – how can I facilitate in this environment?

In the book Dialogic Organization Development: The Theory and Practice of Transformative Change, I write about how to facilitate transformative learning primarily from the client-group perspective. I describe the transformative learning process and what a practitioner can do to create those conditions for clients in the three stages of Initiating, Facilitating and Sustaining a transformational change process. In this series, I offer my thoughts on facilitating through these same three phases, from the practitioner/facilitator lens. I focus on the initiating stage in this post. As we are well aware in the field of facilitating for transformation, practitioners are themselves instruments of transformation (see here and here). You cannot facilitate others through difficult circumstances and transformation if you yourself are feeling stuck in the circumstances. This applies to formal practitioners in organizations and in our communities, and anyone who finds themselves hosting a water-cooler conversation about difficult current affairs questions. We need to remember that ALL our institutions are fractals of the larger society. That means that without taking actions to actively create different environments for ourselves, we will see the issues playing out in the socio-political environment replicating in every other institutional sphere.

Initiating a transformational change process requires engaging and working through the first three of the 10 phases of transformative learning (see Mezirow’s 10 phases of transformation here):

  1. a disorienting dilemma
  2. self- examination with feelings of fear, anger, guilt, or shame
  3. a critical assessment of assumptions

First, we must work through the disorienting dilemmas that the current socio-political environment presents. A disorienting dilemma is a situation you have never experienced before – something that disrupts your status quo way of thinking and leaves you disoriented, searching – if you choose, for ways to resolve the disorientation. And because it is a dilemma, there is no one ‘right’ answer. There is no shortage of causes for confusion, perturbation and disorientation right now. For me, the experience of facing a disorientation dilemma is a signal that I have something to listen to, learn or understand better. At this stage, all that is required is recognition that I am perturbed and willingness to engage, rather than run from the causes of my disorientation.

Second, preparing to facilitate for transformation requires that I must be willing to examine my own emotional state regarding the situation, and engage the associated automatic and usually basal emotions associated with disorienting dilemmas. This can involve feelings of fear, anger, guilt or shame. I believe this is the hardest phase of transformative learning and where people either get stuck, or chose to continue to go through the process of learning and change. It is difficult, because where there are adverse consequences and human impacts, engaging our emotions means simultaneously facing our own part and/or processing the factual reality and/or realizing the impacts. This then means making choices about how to engage further. This is the place at which I can choose to be in denial and bury my head in the sand, rather than confront the raw, painful emotions wrapped up in our current socio-political environment. If for example, I, a black, African, woman, who has been a refugee and an immigrant and is a Christian with Muslim family, cannot process and be honest about my emotional responses to the current world context, how can I facilitate others to see all sides of the situation and learn from it? I cannot help others through this process if I cannot face and immediately process and address emotional responses that may be painful to me as I facilitate. I must be able to hold hurt and project faith, love, hope and trust for others so that I can hear their pain too. And there are times where I must also be radically authentic about what hurts, while sharing that in equally radical love, such that trust and safety is maintained for further dialogue. This isn’t easy. But to get to transformation, I, and we, must engage our emotional responses, no matter how painful they are. As we say in the facilitation world, there can be no shared agreement without first achieving shared understanding.

The third stage is an outflow of the second. It entails a conscious, critical, examination of the assumptions I have held about the situation before being hit with the disorienting dilemma. For example, an assumption I have heard from many in the refugee and immigrant community and that I have faced is: this cannot be happening HERE! The assumption that North American has a flawless democracy, where corruption and a dictatorship-style leadership is impossible has been broken. This and its related assumptions (It’s safe HERE but not THERE where I ran from) are all now in question and require critical examination. What does the reality that these occurrences ARE happening HERE mean for me and those like me? For others? What will the intended and unintended consequences be for America, Canada, Mexico, the countries on the American banned list and the world? We must continue to critically face the implications – for unless we do, we cannot effectively and constructively engage to realize transformational change and more just outcomes in the world, than we are facing today.

This work must start now – with every leader, every facilitator, every educator, every community practitioner and every person interested in seeing our world transform instead of continue to split under the pressures we are facing. It’s not going to be easy, but then no transformational change, whether in our organizations or society, ever is.

“The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener.”

Bill O’Brien

In Part 2 of this series, I will share a post about how practitioners can facilitate their own transformational change process in the next 3 phases of transformative learning.