The second best thing for an organizer is when someone takes an idea you think is important and replicates it. So I was more than thrilled when I learned that there was a regular Transparency Tools (TT) group happening Wednesday nights at Acorn that I was not organizing.
The best thing for an organizer is when someone takes an idea you think is important and evolves and enhances it. And so it was with the Acorn Transparency Tools group which I attended for the first time the other day after some weeks of being on the road.
Confidentiality is key to making transparency work. You are asking the people in the group to take a risk. You are asking them to describe some of the most important thoughts and feelings which are going on inside of them. We ask people share with us their most intimate details. You can’t do this unless you feel like the group can maintain your confidences.
There have been two general confidentiality agreements that TT groups have been using.
- Strict Confidentiality: People in the group don’t talk about the other members’ disclosures outside of the Transparency Tools group.
- Identity Confidentiality: You can talk about things which came up in your TT group, but you must do it in a way that hides the identity of the person who said the thing, even to someone who is listening who has great knowledge of the group.
I personally prefer identity confidentiality. I want the people in these TT groups to be talking about their experiences, which are often powerful and sometimes transformative, and the strict confidentiality agreement often limits this.
The Acorn TT group developed a new type of confidentiality which might be called Group Confidentiality. The group agrees to strict confidentiality, but invites members of the TT group to talk about things people brought up, but only amongst those who were present. While I don’t like this as much as identity confidentiality, I do see several advantages to it.
With identity confidentiality there is always the chance that you might inadvertently break your agreement, because your listener might have a bunch of information about people in your group that you don’t know. So they might be able to figure out the identity of the person you are talking about. Because of this, people inside the group might be reluctant to share important information about themselves for fear it might leak out.
With group confidentiality, there is yet another incentive to be inside the group. You are given a special permission to continue to work on these interesting issues – but exclusively with people who are in the group. This further encourages people who think they might want to come. It can create post-meeting group identity and lead participants seek out members of the group to continue their own work on things which come up.
The other exercise which got modified in the Acorn TT group was the Flow of Feelings tool. This tool invites the users to talk about their different emotional states without worrying about the logical accuracy of their statements. You might say, “I am sad because I have no friends.” Your friend in the group might well object, “You have a bunch of friends, including me!” This is not helpful. If you are feeling sad, we want to invite you to explore why, not get into an argument over the ‘truth’ of your feelings.
Flow of Feelings invites the participants to check in with the group around 8 different types of feelings:
I feel angry that … I feel grateful that…
I feel sad that…. I feel happy that…
I feel afraid that … I feel secure that…
I feel guilty that… I feel proud that …
In the original flow of feelings format, one participant would cycle through these feelings, usually giving at least one statement of each. In the new format developed by the Acorn TT group, a single feeling is selected and everyone in the group throws in a response to it. The difference is significant. Even though the root causes are often quite different, being with others in the group at your moment of sadness or of pride reconnects you to them, and builds bonds and tribe.
I am very excited about these developments. Big thanks to Brude and Batco for their work on this.
The first level is simple self revelation. Most common among the our tools for this are “If you really knew me” and hot seat (where others deeply question someone in the group). While people are encouraged to be a bit daring in these exercises, you are always at choice as to what you reveal and how much.
The second level is empathy building. This is when instead of a self revelation you reflect experiences or emotional states you have had which are similar to those of another member in the group. This type of transparency frequently comes out while the crosstalk tool is in use or “i have a story about you“. After some transparency exercise (and especially after “if you really knew me”) we ask for cross talk, where the share of one participant has sparked an empathetic or other emotional response from someone else in the group. By sharing this (in crosstalk or some other tool) it builds bridges between the members of the group who have similar histories.
The third level is emotional housekeeping. When a member of the group tells another something which is standing in the way of clear and complete communication. This is most regularly done using the Withhold or Unsaid tools.
It is this last level of transparency which I refer to as the sharp edge of this tool set. This is because it is where some of the most important healing and connecting work is done. And it is also the tool in which it is most easy for people to mess up and hurt each other. In part because of this it is the tool I most often introduce new groups to, without having them try it on each other.
Often, if the group consists of people who don’t know each other, it is an inappropriate tool to use, because there is not anything important for people to clear with each other. But even when there are things to clear among participants, in the first or second transparency tools session the group may not yet have built up enough trust for it to make sense to try. And again this week while we were introducing a NYC collective house to the full Transparency Tools set, someone grabbed this tool after it was explained and used it to get stuff off their chest which was bothering them about another person in the group. [This also happened with the Catalyst Ecovillage group we trained in February.]
There is something deeply satisfying to me as a purveyor of these tools when new users feel so excited about a tool they are introduced to that even when they are discouraged from using it, they daringly grab it pick it up and try it. So far the results have been impressive and positive.
While on the recent Point A trip, a hybrid group of Catalonyians and Acorn-affiliates met in the cozy basement room of a bodywork studio in Brooklyn. Paxus introduced this group of charismatic New Yorkers and communards to the transparency tools.
The Catalysts are an incredibly clever bunch. These folks know that if they do a good job crafting their agreements and cultural fabric, they can create an amazing eco-village. And while they are a fundamentally fun loving and playful crowd, community building is difficult work and they have been hard at it. Especially drafting written agreements- for everything. For land ownership, for the membership process, for the types of cottage industries that might happen, the mission statement- the tasks go on and on. Important, complex and often slogging work.
This is not actually what this group of people wants to be doing. What they want to be doing is falling in love. This is where the transparency tools come in.
I have experience with some of the transparency tools used, as I used to be part of a meditation community in DC in which we met 2x a month to have a sit followed by a discussion.
Often in this format and during retreats (which happen twice a year) we used the “If you really knew me…” and Hot Seat tools. I’ve already witnessed how effective they can be in bringing a group together, and it was no different with the Catalysts.
Frequently when starting, it takes a round or two of “If you really knew me” statements for everyone to start to open up. What was so beautiful about this night in particular was each person became transparent almost immediately. People were sharing their stories with each other so willingly and with so much faith that the group wanted to hear them.
We transitioned from “If you really knew me” statements to Hot Seats, the Catalysts asking questions and Paxus explaining the benefits of the many tools.
Due to the wacky Point A trip agenda and time constraints, we were only able to fit in three 5-minute Hot Seats. The group did an excellent job being clear with their questions and answers, and everyone involved continued to be engaged.
To wrap up the evening, Paxus began to explain the tools that go beyond being personally transparent and begin to create transparency in relationships. Specifically, these tools are Unsaids and Withholds. These tools can create space for resolution of conflict as well as giving members an opportunity to appreciate one another. They are also notoriously tricky.
This point in the evening is when things really got interesting. Despite Pax expecting to solely explain Unsaids/Withholds and not try to do any that evening, members of the group began to use the tools without any hesitation. Several conflicts were put on the path to resolution within ten minutes, with the tools used practically flawlessly.
What then evolved seemingly naturally- after what could be seen as complaining or criticism of the Withholds- was the graceful move into appreciations, which were equally rich and revealing. As we left it was clear the group wanted more. The Point A crowd- which are in some sense carpetbaggers from Virginia trying to build community in NYC- felt like we had really done our job.
Triple Threat Tony is a small giant and regular editor of Your Passport To Complaining. She’s involved with the Point A project as an organizer/secretarial wench and hates celery almost as much as comma misuse. Trip, as she is known to her close circle of small giant friends, smells faintly of chocolate chip cookies and rocket fuel. When she isn’t dismantling the patriarchy or destroying capitalism, she pretends to be an Acorn intern.
Pretty much everywhere I go these days I do transparency tools workshops. Part of the reason for this is I continue to be amazed at how people will grab them and run with them. Adder and I are currently at the North American Student Cooperative Association annual gathering in Ann Arbor presenting for Twin Oaks and Acorn and we did a guerilla workshop here, which was surprisingly well attended.
One thing we have well established, is that some people are much more open in small groups shares (on topics like “If you Really Knew Me”) than they are in a larger group. And from a workshop logistics perspective it is a slight headache to break up and move around in smaller groups.
So what I often do to prove the power of these tools is do a single go round of “If you really knew me” in the full group. This is occasionally funny, usually reflective, and often deeply personal.
One of the dangers of these experimental techniques is something I call the “Winos with Power Tools” problem. We are getting people to open up and say things, sometimes things which they have not even realized before themselves which can leave them emotionally vulnerable or even shaken or depressed. If we don’t take care of folks who are hurt this way, we are being irresponsible presenters – like a drunk trying to operate a chain saw.
- As responsible presenters, we check in with people in the group to make sure if someone leaves the workshop badly shaken they have someone to go to, to talk with about their experiences and support them. And if they don’t have someone, we offer to provide that important service. I did this today, not realizing the significance of what might get offered.
Having again been convinced by the full group share that people would reveal significant personal truths when given the opportunity, we broke down into smaller groups to keep practicing these techniques. And once in the smaller groups, some people opened up even further, mostly with quite positive effects.
In my group someone admitted that they thought they were a sociopath. This was someone who I had already been concerned about because of things they had said in earlier exercises. This was not a joke, they were fully serious. When we reconvened into the big group, they slipped away before I could get a chance to talk with them about getting more help.
I walked out of the workshop worried about the welfare of this person who revealed this disturbing thing about themselves.
[Edited by Judy Youngquest]
One of the more enduring concepts i have co-developed is the perfect nag. The idea is simple enough, you are working with someone, they are supposed to help keep you on schedule or on task. You can predict some ways you will fail in your work, often this is missing a deadline.
So how does your perfect nag respond to this failure on your part? Just as you pre-programed them to. Perhaps you are someone who is best motivated by gentle encouragement. Perhaps you need a firm task master. Perhaps you need to work with a peer on setting another deadline which will fit the current circumstance better. Perhaps you need failed deadlines to have harsh consequences that will modify your behavior to take new deadlines more serious. Perhaps this time you should just let it slide.
Whatever you need, the perfect nag will provide, because you have “programmed” them before the failure to respond to you with the kind of encouragement/threat you need. As with any important relationship, there are significant advantages to negotiating responses to communication break down or failures in maintaining agreements before they actually happen.
So here is the challenge. Think about the person you are most bond to in agreements, the person who is most affected by you doing what it is you say you will do. Go to them and have a frank conversation about how they can best support you when you come in below their expectations and less than your commitment. Go design and implement your own perfect nag.
[Edited by Judy Youngquest]
Regular readers will know i am excited about transparency tools. For me, one of the most intriguing aspects of this relatively new interpersonal exploratory endeavor is that we get to design and test new tools. We tried my newest favorite this evening at Acorn.
It is called “I have a story about you” like with “if you really knew me” it is a fill-in-the-blank exercise. Like with Withholds and Unsaids it requires the permission of the person you have a story about.
But once you have permission (which is generally granted) you can spin your yarn about someone else in the group and talk about all the things you imagine to be true. I told one person that the unusual mannerisms they displayed appeared optional to me. I thought they could present themselves in a quite different and more accessible way. If they wanted to they could “pass” as being part of the mainstream culture and not so bizarre. I theorized a number of reasons why they might be doing this, but because of confidentiality i can’t reveal those reasons here. They confirmed my suspicion, and by doing so we moved a bit closer to each other and certainly saw each other more clearly.
I told another person that i felt like they had some type of previous drama or trauma that i did not know about and it was affecting them in a way i did not understand, that i would perhaps have more empathy toward them if i knew the story. At first they correctly commented that this is one of those general statements which is likely true about nearly everyone. And when i got more specific they denied my story completely and gave me a different insight into who they were, also helping us to see each other clearly.
Finally, i got to tell someone that i suspected that because they were conventionally attractive they probably got a lot of attention they did not want as well as some niceness that was pleasant and desirable, but that on balance they would choose to be outside the conventional beauty standards, which was part of why Acorn was attractive to them. I was part right, and their explanation of my incorrect assumptions helped me understand them, while validating some other things which i had long suspected and were now common understanding.
These and other experiences lead to the evolution of this tool. Now we instruct the person who the story is about to begin their replies to the story with “What you don’t know about me that supports some aspect of your story is _____.” Specifically, instead of starting with the natural tendency to deny or correct, instead start with what about the story is close to right, or perhaps in the neighborhood of correct. There is always time to correct later, and perhaps there is not even a need sometimes.
So i have to confess, part of my excitement about this tool is that i developed it, and i am excited about tweaking it more to make it more powerful. But beyond my own ego gratification around being clever, it is clear that this new transparency device adds to our toolbox in a way which serves us.
[Edited by Judy Youngquest]
The Federation for Egalitarian Communities provided a mutual aid grant that funded this incomplete work. When it is finished it will be announced here. Thanks to the FEC for their support of improved communication in communities and outside of them. If you have suggestions for additional transparency tools, please comment on this post.
Draft Fingerbook on Transparency Tools and Transparency Groups [PDF version]
What is a transparency group and should I join one?
A group of people willing to share intimate information about themselves with each other, who are willing to explore their histories and emotions. While transparency groups are not designed to be healing in nature, it is generally the case that these searches improve the lives of those who try them.
You will need at least 3 people and it’s best if the group is fewer than a dozen. You should find a group who is willing to meet regularly, weekly is often desirable. Frequently, the members of these groups share something in common, a hobby, a residence, a team, a job, a community, a political or spiritual group. And transparency groups are not for everyone and often people who start out in them drop out when they find it is not their cup of tea.
“If you really knew me …” is one of the most basic tools for these groups. You complete this sentence with something which is largely not known by the group. It could be personal, it might be significant or just interesting, “If you really knew me you would know I had a fight with my lover this morning.: If you really knew me you would know I am afraid of heights” “I want to change jobs””…”I am doubting my faith””…”I don’t trust my boss” … “I have felt sick for days”. You can have one or several rounds of “If you really knew…” at the start of your meeting.
Cross-talk – with many tools it is important to let people finish what they are saying or for everyone to get a chance to speak, before you add something which was inspired by the things others said. And an important part of transparency is saying how things others have said make you feel, especially if the feelings are strong. Cross-talk is where you respond to another person’s spoken sharing.
Suggestions for cross talk:
If you are hurt or angry about something said, start your cross talk with asking if they are ready and willing to hear your feelings (see withholds).
be concise and as specific as possible.
talk more about your feelings and less about what you think, use sentences starting with “I ….” rather than “You….”
cross talk should be about things between you and the person you are responding to regarding things that they have just recently shared with the group
“What is hard for me to say is …” Shame, embarrassment and reservation are all targets of transparency techniques. This simple fill in the blank exercise is a sister to “If you really knew me”. It is also usually done in a go-round format and can be followed by cross-talk.
Withholds – if there is someone in the group who you are feeling less present with because of some unexpressed feeling or undisclosed upset, then you have a withhold (Suggestion: if when you look around you notice there is someone you’re not feeling connected to because of some unexpressed feeling or undisclosed upset, then you have a withhold). One of the purposes of these groups is to move through these feelings or beliefs by expressing them. Another purpose is to increase connection, and one way we block connections is by letting little upsets or fears build up. The channel between us then becomes clogged, so sharing ‘withholds’ is done in order to keep a channel clean and release a block. Because these are sometimes hard to hear, you should ask permission of someone, the standard format is:
Chris: “Sandy, I have a withhold for you. Can I share it with you?”
[Sandy checks in with themselves to make sure they can really hear it]
– or –
If Sandy says “no” the conversation ends and it is important for Chris to not try to convince Sandy that they should be allowed to tell them anyway. And hopefully Sandy does have space to hear the withhold. After the withhold is shared Sandy says: “Thank you”. A back and forth about the content of the withhold does not take place until 24 hours have passed.
When Chris tells Sandy the withhold, as much as possible, they talk about their distrust or judgement, rather than venting from an angry place. “I heard that you said………. and I felt upset about that. I thought you were being selfish and inconsiderate,” or, “I saw you do……. and I made it mean that you……………….. Now I worry that you will…………….” Don’t get too hung up on the format, Chris is encouraged to express how he really feels about whatever it is Sandy did or said.
Your job when someone shares a withhold with you is to listen, and not respond. After the withhold has been expressed you say “Thank you” to the person. If you did not understand their share you can say you have a clarifying question. But if you don’t agree with what they said or you want to correct their understanding of what happened, this is not the right time for that. Usually withholds are done in clusters, as in, the entire group takes time to see who has withholds with whom and then several people take turns sharing withholds with various others, always starting with: “I have a withhold for T. Are you open to hearing it?”
There is a new tool called “Unsaid” which is a withhold without the 24 hour wait. Mostly this has been used well, but I have let in quite some defensiveness in some sessions.
For the emotional strength and cohesion of the group, clearing through With-holds and unsaids are probably the most powerful tool in this set.
Hot Seat – This tool selects a specific person who the entire group will ask questions of – usually for a fixed period of time (between 5 and 15 minutes is recommended). Questions should be designed to be helpful and make the focus person be self revealing or gain deeper insights. The person in the hot seat should try to help the group see them more clearly – to be transparent. The people asking the questions should not hide from difficult topics, but their questions should come from a place of caring for the person, rather than attacking them, AND, it is okay to be critical, if this will help the person see themselves more clearly and reveal self destructive patterns.
In the last minute, the time keeper asks for ‘burning questions’ indicating that time is almost up and encouraging those people who haven’t asked their significant questions yet to no longer hold back.
I have a story about you. In this exercise participants are encouraged to tell stories they have about other members in the group, which are based on their assumptions or extrapolations. “I have a story that because you just had an ugly polygamous break up. You are doubting your commitment to poly and are wondering if you should go back to monogamy.” The prioritized responses you are looking for are:
What is true about your story that i had not said before is ____
Perhaps the reason you have this story is piece of my history that you are perhaps unaware of.
I have a strong emotional response to this story because _____
[Non-defensively as possible] This is why i think your story might not be true _____
What are your blind spots – this could be done as part of a hot seat exercise or by itself. What do you think are the problem areas that a member of the group is not seeing about themselves. Are they denying something which others think are true? People hearing about their blind spots are encouraged to start responding by saying “What feels true about what you are saying is …” Rather than responding defensively or contradicting the suggested blind spot.
Flow of Feelings – Quick emotional cycling techniques borrowed from the emotional side of your brain.
Training: The Natural Flow of Feelings, also known as Emotional Housecleaning:
I feel angry that … I feel grateful that…
I feel sad that…. I feel happy that…
I feel afraid that … I feel secure that…
I feel guilty that… I feel proud that …
This is a method of taking some trash out. Only one person does a flow at a time, the others only hold space and do not interrupt or comment. It’s a flushing out of the emotions. Following the order and trying each one on is an intention and an attempt to fan out the feelings, as getting in touch with things that might be obscured is thought to help us move past something. Identifying what might be affecting us is a powerful way to overcome it, or at least understand it/ourselves. The sentences should be short, and simple language. Think of 5 or 6 year old language. Sentences do not have to be factual, you are encouraged to try on something even if you’re not sure- no one is taking this as truth. For example “I feel angry that my husband hates me, i feel sad he thinks i am ugly”… staying away from abstract sentences such as “I am angry that I have a negative interpretation of my husband’s actions”, instead go for “I am angry I think this”. Also feel free to change words to represent feelings, especially encouraged with angry. To say “I hate that” or “I can’t stand that” or curse. Make it real. After you have exhausted each one, move onto the grateful side. Repeat each sentence until you feel done. Its okay to move back and forth from angry to guilty and back to angry, especially if stuff comes back up. Follow the general order but stuff bubbles up sometimes.
Transparency is not Consensus
While this finger-book recommends use of transparency techniques in collective decision making groups, it is not a replacement for consensus, or sociocracy, or other decision models. These transparency tools are designed to help us better understand each other and build trust. They are not a substitute for a formal decision process, though they usually help these processes run smoother. What the authors of this guide recommend is that collective groups run their decision making practice and their transparency work separately.
i have been delinquent in posting about the Loud Love event, which overall i was super pleased with (special thanks to Angie for jumping in at the last minute and being the world class organizer that she is). Here is one participants view on the event, complete with exerts from the upcoming Transparency Tools fingerbook i am crafting with Marta (if you have good pictures, please let us know we need them).
Two weeks ago, I attended “Loud Love: Relationship Strategies to Change the World,” an ‘unconference’ on relationships in rural central Virginia. It was a really powerful and cool experience, and I want to share with you some of the tools I learned–including tools to increase knowledge of others and yourself, and to help sustain long-term relationships. I want to share these tools with you because I think they are really important and useful to everyone, in all manner of relationships–not just to the sort of people who go off to a weekend conference on polyamory organized by a bunch of hippies in the woods. I also want to share them with you because I really do think better interpersonal relationship skills can help change the world, and in the conclusion I’ll muse a little on how.
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One of the hardest things for me when i was learning to be a ZEGG forum facilitator was to avoid the temptation to use this powerful introspective tool for therapeutic purposes. It seemed like a natural. This dynamic theater tool used for symbolic and direct self expression was a powerful force in looking into yourself and if you could see into yourself why wouldn’t you want to tweak yourself to improve yourself. Like most white males i like to think of myself as a problem solving get stuff done kind of guy. So if you have tools and you can see things are messed up, then you are somewhat obligated to try to improve things.
What it is supposed to be used for is self expression and self reflection. These are quite different things. Self expression can be all manner of transparent revelation, What i learned to the forum and now thru its evolving sister group Not Forum is that being transparent has tremendous value in and of itself and this is why it makes sense to practice, even if you do not have a goal towards self improvement work.
At the top of the list is self knowledge and trust building. If you are doing these exercises you are looking in and trying to figure out what it is that you are doing and how you show up, even if you cant fully capture the whys. And by going thru this work with others, you are learning how to be open to sharing aspects and elements of yourself which are generally kept secret oft even from yourself. The honesty in these groups weave trust and deepens relationships.
The title of this post relates to this side effect of transparency work. There is a therapeutic gravity which kicks up and on when these tools are practiced seriously. While transparency alone wont heal you, if you are not actively resisting it, it will push you that way.
So it was with some glee that Thomas told me today that the FEC would likely fund the tiny grant i submitted for a transparency Fingerbook. The money is so small that i really submitted the application to force the project off my “this is what i want to do” list and onto my “this is what i need to do” list. Because now it is a deliverable from someone else.