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Creating an Empathetic Board: The Power of Feeling “Gotten”

By Rosa Zubizarreta November/December 2015

Board members need to collaborate in order to arrive at collective decisions, and it isn’t always easy. Here, Rosa Zubizarreta of Diapraxis, which specializes in collaborative leadership and “flow-friendly meetings,” provides some insights to help boards develop the empathetic approach that is crucial to this work.

Boards are often dealing with high-stakes issues, where the difficulties of the situation are compounded by the fact that participants may have significantly different perspectives. As human beings, we know from experience how easily our differences can trigger one another into defensive postures, and how unproductive and unpleasant that can be. From a group facilitation perspective, the challenge is to foster conditions that allow for learning and discovery, along with the creation of new shared understandings. In turn, this leads to new possibilities for shared action.

Within the growing field of brain science, researchers have been mapping how, whenever humans are triggered into a fight-or-flight state, we temporarily lose our connection to the open and creative state of mind that allows access to higher-order capacities. Conversely, when we shift into connected-and-creative mode instead of fight-flight-freeze, our brains become more open to hearing other perspectives and better able to handle complex problem solving.1

This has confirmed one of the key principles of Diapraxis’s facilitation work, which is “maximizing creative tension, while minimizing interpersonal anxiety.” As facilitators, we want to foster inclusion and creative thinking by welcoming a wide variety of perspectives; at the same time, we work hard to help each person feel understood and accepted. In our experience, this creates a creative incubator, where the natural human drive to learn, create new patterns, and make meaning can flourish freely.

The Key Role of Empathy

We are also witnessing a growing body of research on the power of empathy. For example, in the field of positive psychology, Barbara Frederickson2 has been documenting the powerful physiological effects that are brought about as a result of empathic understanding. She describes the experience of “feeling gotten,” or being deeply understood by another, as a “micro-moment of connection,” and sees the cumulative effect of these moments as key to our well-being. This has been another confirmation of our facilitation approach, which is primarily focused on creating these moments of connection through empathic understanding.

Some of what we have learned from our practice runs counter to the conventional ways of facilitating meetings. For example, instead of asking participants to put their initial positions aside in order to follow a step-by-step problem-solving sequence, we find it helpful to welcome participants’ initial solutions. Indeed, when working with facilitators who are learning our approach, we often describe participants’ initial solutions as their “best creative efforts to date, with whatever limited amounts of information they have had at their disposal.”

Thus, by welcoming and appreciating each person’s best creative effort to date, we invite each participant to step into a larger field, where all of us together can explore the wide variety of initial solutions they are bringing. These initial solutions are just that—the launching point for our creative journey. As we do this, and each participant feels that his/her initial solution has been heard and “gotten,” we find a growing sense of openness among participants to one another’s perspectives.

What is key to remember here is that simply saying something aloud in a group does not usually equate to feeling heard. Instead, to feel deeply heard, humans usually need to experience that someone else has really “gotten it.” Whenever we are facilitating, we see this as our prime directive: listening deeply to what each person has to say, reflecting back to make sure we have understood, and recording the gist of what they have said, in their own words. Of course, the attitude with which we do this is key, and I will say more about that later on. Just going through the motions with this can be worse than useless!

Working with Critical Energies

While welcoming and appreciating participants’ initial solutions, we also welcome and appreciate their critical thinking. Edward de Bono,3 in his brilliant “Six Thinking Hats” framework, defines this as “black hat thinking”—the energy that points out everything that could go wrong. This kind of thinking has its own gifts to offer; for example, you wouldn’t want to buy a new car without knowing that it had gone through extensive crash testing! Yet de Bono points out how crucial it is, for anyone holding a “young green shoot” of creativity, to be protected from premature exposure to this black hat energy.

In our own practice, we have confirmed the importance of protecting creativity. At the same time, we have found other ways to do so. Unlike de Bono’s approach, and also unlike a conventional brainstorming session, we don’t need a separate time for welcoming critical thinking. Instead, we have found that we can usefully welcome it whenever it arises. Yet to do so we need to strongly protect the creative energies in the group by asking participants to redirect their critical energy toward us as facilitators.

In practice what this means is that whenever a concern comes up, we verbally acknowledge it as a sign of care. We recognize that the person who is voicing the concern is demonstrating that they care about having an outcome that works well. If they didn’t care, they would not go through the trouble of voicing their concern! At the same time, we ask the participant to tell us about their concern, so that we can reflect it back to them and make sure we have understood it. We have usually already talked about this at the beginning of the session in our agreement-setting preliminaries; however, we don’t hesitate to actively remind people about this whenever it comes up, as we see protecting creativity as a key part of our work.4

Our primary intention in welcoming concerns is twofold. We really want to listen to the person with the concern, and help them “feel gotten” by reflecting and recording their valuable concerns. At the same time, we want to offer the person who generated the original creative idea the opportunity to sit back and “overhear” the concern that is being put forward. We sometimes remind the concern bearer that the idea generator will be able to hear the concern better if it isn’t being directly addressed to him/her. By being off the hook in this way, those who generated the idea, as well as those who support the idea, are more likely to remain in an open and creative state.

Yet it doesn’t stop here. Just as we offer empathy for the concern, we also want to draw out the concern bearer’s own creative energy. So whenever that person feels that his/her concern has been fully understood, we proceed to ask how he/she would address the situation. We then reflect back our understanding of his/her creative solution to see if we have “gotten it”; thus, we are inviting him/her also to step into the creativity incubator.

Working without an External Facilitator

In sharing with you how we work with empathic understanding in our facilitation practice, my hope is that you will feel free to experiment and adapt these practices for your own use. For example, in a group without an external facilitator, it’s often possible to ask those who are least involved in a particular conflict to serve as temporary empathic listeners who can help each “side” feel heard, as well as the others in the circle. As the situation starts to feel less stuck, do remember that these participant-facilitators also have their own perspectives that need to be heard, and have someone else volunteer to step into the empathic listener role.

One key point here is the distinction between using “active listening” as a technique and practicing empathic understanding with clear intention, self-awareness, and integrity. By definition, if we are using active listening techniques in a rote manner, they cease to be a genuine expression of empathy. We are no longer offering someone else the possibility of authentically “feeling gotten.”

Even worse is when active listening is used in a manipulative way to accomplish an ulterior motive. For example, if a facilitator uses active listening with the intention of getting a participant to settle down in order move on with the agenda, it is unlikely that the participant will feel truly heard and valued. In situations like these, the technique does not cover up the underlying experience of disregard or manipulation. Instead, people are likely to become “allergic” to hearing their words reflected back to them!

It’s a sad truth that active listening, the format for communicating empathy originally inspired by the transformative work of Carl Rogers,5 has often been misused and abused. Yet we humans still want to feel heard and understood. If our intentions as listeners are clear and appreciative, it’s usually safe to let the other person know that we want to check our understanding and to ask if it’s okay to reflect back some of what we have heard. Our willingness to be corrected is often the key test of our sincerity—after all, it’s not about whether we are “getting it right” but, instead, about offering the other person the opportunity to “feel gotten.”6

At the same time, we also know that empathy does not always need to take a verbal form in order to be effective. Indeed, Nancy Kline’s brilliant research on creating “Thinking Environments” shows that human beings think more effectively when receiving silent yet appreciative attention than when not receiving any attention or receiving negative attention.7,8 In fact, learning to listen with presence and awareness, and without saying anything at all, might be the best initial training for later learning to offer unobtrusive and attuned reflections.

Communication as a Relational Process

One of the underlying assumptions that frames our work is understanding communication as a relational process. Instead, our default cultural assumption is to see communication as transactional. From that perspective, we tend to focus on whether each person has had a chance to speak. From a relational perspective, we realize that having a chance to speak is not at all the same thing as feeling heard.

Similarly, from a transactional perspective, the focus is on facilitators’ impartiality. Of course, we don’t want to take anyone’s side over anyone else’s side. Yet from a relational perspective, it makes much more sense to see our work as taking all sides, a stance that is sometimes referred to in the field of family therapy as “multidirectional partiality”9 or, more simply, “multipartiality.” While we are not doing therapy, when we take each person’s perspective in turn and offer that person the opportunity to “feel gotten,” we are generating a field where participants can tap into their own creative energies, rather than getting stuck in defensive routines.

Once participants have the opportunity to experience the value that their different perspectives can bring, and to experience those different perspectives as different forms of caring rather than as threats, we often find that things begin to shift. Participants often begin to spontaneously listen to one another more deeply, to become curious when they encounter additional differences, and to offer one another reflections to check their understanding. At this point, our role as facilitators is to move into the background, where we can be available to step in as needed.

Of course, the larger context also plays a key role. In a majorly unstable or abusive situation that is chronically triggering fight-or-flight, it may not be possible or appropriate to create a sheltered space for working creatively with differences. However, what is most often true is that everyone is well intentioned, yet the lack of sufficient listening has created a polarized situation where no one feels understood. The good news is that it’s usually quite possible for such a situation to shift toward the better.

Rosa Zubizarreta can be contacted at rosa@diapraxis.com

Notes

1. David Rock, “SCARF: A Brain-Based Model for Collaborating with and Influencing Others.” Neuroleadership Journal No. 1 (2008): 1–9.

2. Barbara Fredrickson, Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become (New York: Penguin Books, 2013).

3. Edward De Bono, Serious Creativity: Using the Power of Lateral Thinking to Create New Ideas (New York: Harper Business, 1992).

4. Rosa Zubizarreta, From Conflict to Creative Collaboration: A User’s Guide to Dynamic Facilitation (Minneapolis, MN: Two Harbors Press, 2014).

5. See, for example, Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person (London: Robinson, 2004).

6. For those who wish to explore the nuances involved in offering listening responses that help someone to connect more deeply with their own experiences, we highly recommend Gendlin’s chapter on “The Experiential Response” (1968). While written in academic language for therapists, anyone whose professional work involves listening can benefit greatly from it. Eugene T. Gendlin, “The Experiential Response.” In Use of Interpretation in Treatment, edited by Emanuel Hammer, 208–227. (New York: Grune & Stratton, 1968). http://www.focusing.org/gendlin/docs/gol_2156.html

7. Nancy Kline, Time to Think: The Power of Independent Thinking (London: Octopus Publishing Group, 1999/2014).

8. Nancy Kline, More Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind (London: Octopus Publishing Group, 2009/2015).

9. Ivan Bozormenyi-Nagy and Barbara R. Krasner, Between Give and Take: A Clinical Guide to Contextual Therapy (New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1986).