We spent a lot of time in our early days around the question of, “Is this a grief group or isn’t it?” and trying to understand what we were and were not qualified to do. We read books and studies and talked to lots of people with letters after their names. We soon realized the answer to the grief group question was a pretty definitive, “no”. There are lots of highly trained people who are expert in handling trauma and working with the bereaved, and we’re not trying to replace them. This isn’t about fixing, or advice-giving, or even coaching. It’s not really even about grieving, at least not in the traditional sense. None of us are qualified to tell someone what they need; hell, most of us are still figuring out that out for ourselves, and struggling to pay close attention when our personal needs change. When we hear of someone wanting to “help others through the same experience I went through,” our eyebrows furrow. We’re interested in creating accessible spaces where you can “speak your truth” with peers, or more to the point, friends.
There is perhaps no greater champion of the “no-advice-giving” rule than Parker Palmer, founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal. Palmer is best-known as the author of The Courage to Teach, and the person who made it okay to talk in corporate retreats and other secular settings about "the soul" and living what he calls “a divided life”. Among the celebrated voices in the self-help world, whose soundbites litter the cover of O Magazine and call to mind Tom Cruise’s character in Magnolia, he is neither a kook nor a salesman; he makes no attempt to proffer Five Easy Steps That Will Change Your Life Today.
Still, I was a bit worried when I picked up his book, A Hidden Wholeness, a couple of weeks ago. I was looking for practical tips that we could share with our hosts that wouldn’t feel cheesy or forced or generally facilitator-y: tips that steered clear of what one of our original Dinner Partiers, Jess, calls, “woo-woo”.
My now dog-eared copy is testament to the fact that I need not have worried. In the book, Palmer writes extensively about the “divided life”: the problem that happens when we compartmentalize, and are compelled to cover up a key part of ourselves. (Okay, fine, it can sound a little woo-woo.) But it strikes me as a far more apt description of life after loss than “grief” or “bereavement.” It’s a feeling we hear a lot, and know all-too-well personally: Long after our brains have resumed functioning, after we’ve passed one anniversary and another, and adjusted to a new normal, we discover our work still isn’t finished. We continue to project one image here and another there. We choose carefully whom we share our stories with and when. We never quite adjust to our phantom limbs.
Palmer lays out the theory and practice behind an approach he calls “The Circle of Trust”: a highly refined set of principles and practices for facilitating soulful conversation, creating the kind of safe spaces where you can listen to and learn to act on your own “inner teacher”. The result is both reflective and instructive, unearthing everything from the design of “clearness committees,” a practice created by early Quakers to help participants achieve clarity, to how to practice deep listening.
It’s worth reading in full. For those looking for a Cliff’s Notes version, however, here are a few choice quotes, and a few key tips for anyone looking to create spaces where it’s cool to #realtalk.
1. Honor the awesome in everyone. Looking for the perfect thing to say at the perfect moment? Forget it. Your goal isn’t to say something profound, or to produce a lot of head nods. It’s to create a space where everyone--yup, you included--can listen to their own voice, and in so doing, discover their own ah-ha’s.
“We all have an inner teacher whose guidance is more reliable than anything we can get from a doctrine, ideology, collective belief system, institution, or leader.” (25)
“‘I took comfort and strength from those few people who neither fled from me nor tried to save me but were simply present to me. Their willingness to be present revealed their faith that I had the inner resources to make this treacherous trek -- quietly bolstering my faltering faith that perhaps, in fact, I did.’” (62)
“It’s not about what you say. It’s about creating a space where every person can hear and discover and listen to their own voice.” (120)
2. Do not, do not, do not attempt amateur psychotherapy. The end.
“A circle of trust is not a therapy group. It is not facilitated by a professional therapist, and its members do not have a therapeutic contract with each other. In an age when therapy is practiced without credentials, competence, or invitation, the image of two solitudes protecting, bordering, and saluting each other can keep us from falling into this common form of interpersonal violence.” (63)
3. Create intentional moments of silence: Growing up, my agnostically-inclined mom insisted on starting dinners not with a prayer, but with a moment of silence. We held hands around the table, closed our eyes, and simply sat for what usually amounted to 15 seconds or so--an eternity to my seventh-grade self. I always had a slight pang of embarrassment when friends would come over and join this little ritual of ours, and it’s only now that I’ve come to really appreciate it.
Palmer suggests creating moments of intentional silence in the beginning, so that people don’t feel compelled to immediately fill spontaneous moments of silence later on. That doesn’t mean you have to spend five minutes in a meditation (unless that’s your jam, of course). A few deep breaths and the silent setting of intentions can go a long way.
4. Ease into it. The soul is shy, Palmer is fond of saying. Asking a person to share something deeply vulnerable the instant they walk into a room is generally a sure-fire way to scare them off. The Circle of Trust employs what they call “third things”--typically a poem or a song--to help kick off a conversation. Participants are invited to share whatever it is that comes up for them in hearing that particular piece or story, and to reflect on why they respond in that particular way.
For us, the “third thing” is, in a lot of ways, the dinner itself: We find it’s generally a good idea to leave a few things unfinished as folks arrive, to give people the chance to help set the table, pour drinks, and mingle casually. Preparing dishes with a story behind them--say, a family recipe, or a favorite food of the person you lost--and introducing those stories at the beginning of the meal, serves the same purpose: a way of introducing yourself and the person you lost, and easing into the conversation.
“If soul truth is to be spoken and heard, it must be approached ‘on the slant.’” I do not mean we should be coy, speaking evasively about subjects that make us uncomfortable, which weakens us and our relationships. But soul truth is so powerful that we must allow ourselves to approach it, and it to approach us, indirectly. We must invite, not command, the soul to speak. We must allow, not force, ourselves to listen.” (92)