Creating space for transformative conversations
May 09, 2020

Elodie Jacquet is the Manager of Knowledge and Practice at SFU’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue.

Learn more about the work being done to enhance and innovate the many ways there are to convene, create and facilitate dialogue.

Holding Space: What it Means
Written by Elodie Jacquet

I re-entered the world of dialogue a few years ago, after spending several years as a peer supporter for survivors of trauma and grief.

The work of dialogue is all about creating an environment where participants can speak frankly and honestly. Holding dialogue space for individuals and communities to come together provides the opportunity to engage deeply and tackle issues large and small. It means creating a sense of trust and relationship between participants, facilitators and convening institutions. In that, it shares many commonalities with the work of trauma support.

As conveners and facilitators of dialogues we create containers to explore differences, find common ground where it is present, accept the diverse perspectives of others, and co-create solutions to major personal and societal issues.

Dialogue facilitators, just like trauma peer-support workers, create an environment in which to experience the transformative process of dialogue, explore the depths of a particular question and ponder a variety of pathways while suspending judgement on the validity of these pathways.

Dialogue facilitators avoid taking away the agency of participants, doing our best not to overwhelm them with information, stepping aside so groups can arrive at their own understandings and decisions. We try to offer support when it is needed and make participants feel confident enough to try on new ideas, experiment with trade-offs and take risks with consensus.

Today, facilitators are in a position of being space holders while dealing with our own trauma.

Enter COVID-19

These past few weeks, we have all been overloaded with information and countless warnings related to the pandemic. We are learning to cope with new fears, grief and uncertainty.

For many, COVID-19 has multiplied other traumatic experiences, including the loss of loved ones, being forced to self-isolate when dealing with ongoing mental health issues, fearing for the health of those who have nowhere to shelter, losing the safety of employment or facing the risks of having to stay confined with an abusive partner.

Even without other factors, we crave human connection while confined to our homes.  We are inventing new ways to interact in the face of an unprecedented pandemic, posting virtual dance parties and celebrating our courageous front-line workers from the safe distance of our balconies.

Dialogue at its heart is about human connection, so it can be particularly difficult to design and facilitate dialogues when participants and facilitators are affected by traumatic upheaval in their lives.

The COVID-19 pandemic has stirred up a range of responses that make dialogue challenging, from fight to freeze to flight. Some endeavour to stay in movement and muster their energies into a multitude of projects. Others are numb with an impeding sense of doom. Others might fill their time with mindless Netflix viewings, stress eat, or choose illicit or legal substance use. Others yet will flee into the recesses of our imaginations, making social isolation a near agoraphobic condition.

Our communities are reminded of other events, other times when we felt helpless, targeted or harmed. Approaching communities in this time must be done with thoughtfulness and care.

Indigenous communities in particular can feel overwhelmed by yet another major threat to their survival, after having experienced first-hand the devastating effects of colonial diseases on their communities, followed by decades of brutal policies meant to disappear them. Adding to the burden of Indigenous communities by pressing contracts and projects while they are working to limit exposure to their community members would be insensitive and counter-productive to building a trusting, equitable relationship.

Asian-Canadians are also feeling particularly targeted by the racist undertones of discussions around the origins of the virus, and may feel they need to avoid engaging to keep from being singled-out and harmed.

Holding Space During a Pandemic

Times like these demand holding space like no other.

As dialogue practitioners we have a responsibility to think through how and why we engage with others.  We must ensure we walk this collective path without judgement, without making individuals and communities feel inadequate. We must also try to avoid the urge to try and fix others. And we must be mindful of not trying to overly control the impacts of our engagements.

We need dialogue forged in a more inclusive and equitable way, creating processes where we can reconnect with our fellow humans meaningfully and with acceptance of where they stand in this time of trauma and fear.

As we create space for dialogue, we must more than ever account for the myriad of physiological responses we may have in response to this global disruption, including the ones we experience as facilitators.

For dialogue facilitators, this can mean learning how to be more comfortable with the discomforting sight of human emotions, be they tears, anger or laughter at what may feel like inappropriate times. The work of dialogue is about making space for discomfort and tension.

We must foster spaces for communities to co-create adaptations and responses without assuming we know which responses are the best.

The delicate dance of holding space will require us to relinquish control and judgement in order to offer unconditional support for the magic of co-creation to emerge, unfettered.

Relinquishing control is difficult when experiencing a traumatic situation

We all grasp for whatever control we can when uncertainty and fear loom ahead. Some will hoard supplies and food, while others attempt to develop immediate solutions, even when they don’t have all the data and foresight to do so.

Dialogue facilitation at its best suspends the facilitator’s tendency for control and allows the communities we engage with to speak and describe their own feelings and thoughts. This framing is critical to create meaningful engagement.

We also must insure that all voices be represented equitably, always important but especially significant during times of communal trauma. Equity will require rethinking some of the processes we use to create dialogues, including providing tangible benefits to vulnerable communities we seek to engage with in an effort to develop a reciprocal relationship. These benefits can take different forms, from monetary honourariums to capacity building or even the delivery of much-needed medical supplies.

Creating norms and guidelines for how we engage will have to be done in collaboration with the communities we engage, for example by ceding some of our own privilege and power to a local community facilitator who will understand the community and have their trust. When in a situation of trauma, wielding our power and privilege, even unintentionally, can add to the sense of loss of agency and prevent a good dialogue from unfolding. By giving community-based facilitators the steering wheel, they can guide the design of a unique process for dialogue that will acknowledge the particular context and needs of the community, creating more trust and giving participants their sense of agency back.

Dialogue facilitators work hard to give equal opportunities to the diversity of voices and perspectives in the conversation. More than ever, in a situation of collective trauma, we must pause and ask ourselves if we are truly giving voice to those who are silenced by the crisis.

Only then will we be able to create enough flexibility in our systems for people and communities to shift in a direction that will not leave the most vulnerable exposed or forgotten.

Our community of practice is the place to start. I encourage us as practitioners to share our strategies and learnings on this new journey, as well as provide opportunities for us to be together with our emotions and physiological responses to this unsettling reality.

---

Stay in touch for more webinars and tools to create equity in public engagement, and share with us how you hold space inclusively and equitably through our social media platforms, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We are currently collecting case-studies of some of the best practices for equity and inclusion in the field of dialogue and public engagement and would be delighted to showcase your work.

 

The views and opinions expressed in the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue’s blogs are those of the authors, and they do not necessarily reflect the official position of Simon Fraser University or SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, or any other affiliated institutions in any way.