Creative abrasion and reflective discussions

I spent the past two days in a facilitation training on Leading Reflective Discussions offered by Oregon Humanities, our state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. (Yeah, the one to be eliminated entirely, based on reports of the new president's proposed budget.)

The model of reflective discussion that Oregon Humanities uses in much of its programming involves bringing people together to chew over a big question, something that everyone can help answer but no one can answer definitively or easily. The training aimed to get folks equipped to go home and lead conversations in their communities.

The joy of a training like this lies partly in watching people who are real, real good at facilitating, and learning as they make magic happen. The first day, ED Adam Davis modeled facilitation by leading us in a conversation chewing over the question of when to intervene in the lives of others. Fifteen minutes in, we read a poem together, Okay (pdf) by Lowell Jaeger. We read it out loud, around our circle, and then dug into the poem to connect back to our big question. It's embarrassing to admit this, but I had never thought to use a poem this way. It wasn't literary analysis, we weren't talking about the quality, or even really trying to understand the poem. We used the poem as a shared space for exploration -- a place we all had equal access to. A poem! Amazing! I hadn't felt the power of literature in that particular way in a long time, and it was electrifying.

The meta-conversations about the choices that facilitators make gave me a lot to consider. I'd come to this training with the hope that I'd learn some secret trick for coming up with good questions in open facilitation. Which, I know, it just takes practice. But seeing people who are SO GOOD! and also to see people who are learning but still manage to create space for real conversation -- it gave me heart to go out and try more. I've been thinking lately about the skills involved in organizing, and this was another reminder that those skills can be learned and improved. I can learn to use participant names, I can learn to take sly notes, I can learn to structure a conversation to reduce opportunities for any one person to dominate.

We talked a lot about how, the pain points in a conversation can also be opportunities for real important stuff to happen. A facilitator can be brave and invite people to look more closely at what hurts. At one point, a participant used the phrase "creative abrasion," and it has been rattling around my head since. I'm not sure where to take it, but I feel it. I think I'll be feeling it for a long time now.