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How Do Co-Facilitators Develop Shared Trust

By Martha Lasley
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Originally Published in Facilitating with Heart

One of my favorite facilitators, Campbell Plowden tells about relinquishing control and deepening his trust of his co-facilitator as they develop shared leadership:

My early memories of Ken are about his way of being in the group by showing off his intellect. When he talked about his community service in the inmate community, tutoring, teaching chess, and even when he talked about his anger, he was in his head. Inmates saw him as a smart, tough guy who was respectful, but you wouldn’t want to mess with him. I thought he was sincere, but it seemed he was trying to earn his place in the group through bravado.

Finally we were on the same facilitation team of an advanced workshop. Day two felt a little flat, so we decided to do an exercise called “care-fronting.” The exercise begins with partners putting their foreheads together while talking about an issue that they disagree on. Personal space is thrown out the window. Usually they start to really hear each other and come to a greater understanding of each other, but in this case, the exercise ended with a lot of disparate energy. Some people had come together and others had become extremely agitated – lots of mixed energy floating around.

I wanted to do the next part of the exercise, a guided visualization, because I enjoy the power of my voice as a calming agent. But when Ken volunteered, I heard his sincere caring for other people, which was often deeply buried. So I said, “Go for it.”

We dimmed the lights and Ken started by saying, “Imagine you are walking in a warm sunny place and see someone you care about, but have an unresolved conflict. What are you thinking and feeling?” As soon as Ken started speaking, the room went quiet [Campbell paused, cried softly and then continued]. Ken had a hypnotic power of humanness that instantly pervaded the room. He put out his deep empathy for them and their turmoil, and he showed that it was in him to open up and show his caring, just in his tone of voice. As soon as he started speaking, I was able to let go of my tension of being lead facilitator, which I almost never do in the prison. I felt such complete trust for his control, his holding of the spirit of the group. I could release myself and fully engage in the exercise. This space allowed me to do some good, hard personal work related to a loved one.

After another intense hour, it felt like we were all in an outdoor terrain where people were wandering around blindfolded and kept burning their feet on fires that were popping up from the ground. Ken concluded the exercise beautifully. Some facilitators just read instructions verbatim from the manual and with luck the process can still work. Since participants had just been through an emotional wringer, though, this approach would have fallen short. Ken had to deliver the message in a 100% honest way and he nailed it. When he started to speak, the random fires were absorbed back into the earth, and the blindfolds came off – they didn’t need them anymore. As people sat in a circle, it felt like everyone had also gravitated toward each other around a small warm fire. Facing outward around the safety of the fire, they faced their unresolved issues with courage.

When I asked Campbell about his tears, he shared from a soul-wrenching place:

I think I’m releasing grief from Ken’s dying. I miss him. I’m so deeply saddened by the cruel irony of fate. He struggled with his demons of violence. Abused as a child, he faced the pain of having taken other people’s lives and the pain of being incarcerated over and over. Ken had just started to deeply connect with his humanity, in large part through the Alternatives to Violence process. But as he was getting out of prison, he found out he had incurable brain cancer. In spite of that, or perhaps spurred on by that knowledge, he tried really hard to make his life come together. I feel the loss of his developmental process having been short circuited. I can’t help but speculate about how much more good he could have done in the world by sharing his light.

I don’t want to over-romanticize his situation. Toward the end of his life, Ken got into trouble, jumped parole, worked in Mexico, and found some good people who cared for him when his cancer caught up with him. I like to think that he died with some peace of mind. I really wish I had been able to talk with him about the final phase of his journey. He left me with some big questions.

Ken was like a horse whisperer – except he was an inmate whisperer. But that doesn’t quite capture the essence of how he connected with people in turmoil. Somehow he summoned the energy in himself to be the calmer. He helped people to build the courage to face hard issues.

What I appreciate most about Campbell’s story is that through heart connection, he supports Ken’s emerging awareness and comes to trust Ken so deeply that he surrenders the lead role and they complement each other’s development as facilitators.

I came to know Ken through Campbell and was drawn to his authenticity and deeply moved by his exploration of what motivated his violence. Ken himself told me stories about carefully planning ways he could get into fights so that he’d come out on top. He would even pretend to be drunk to give the other person enough courage to start something. He was stunned to discover that all his violence came from his craving for respect. Fighting was the only way he knew how to get it. In prison, he’d started doing yoga and had done a lot of work on his emotions. He could name his emotions instantly. I was astounded by the depth of his self-compassion as he transformed his judgment into awareness of his intense needs. In turn, he inspired me to deepen my own practice of self-compassion.

Ultimately, Ken found a new way to get that respect, not from perpetrating violence, and not only from Campbell and me, but from the many people he touched with his deep compassion for turmoil.

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