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Getting Over Our Touchy-Feely Allergy

March 8, 2017 by Joseph DiCenso

If I had a quarter for every time a workshop participant said something like “I hope this isn’t going to be too touchy-feely,” I’d be set for life—at least when it comes to parking meters.

The taboo holds firm in the government agencies and educational institutions I work with; yet, it seems something is shifting. Here are two moments I experienced during a recent three-day workshop I co-facilitated.

  • A white woman asked to talk with me about her work with Cherokee and Creek tribes in reaching a just settlement after a portion of the Trail of Tears was damaged by a federal agency she works for. As we talked, twice I was moved to tears. We cried together. Afterward, it was clear that she was not looking to me for advice or counsel; what she really needed was to be able to tell her story and be listened to.
  • I attended a break-out session hosted by a woman of apparent African descent. The topic was “Power”. She led off by asking us to go around and each speak to what we felt in our bodies when we heard the word “power.” The group drew its chairs into a close circle. We were surprisingly open and vulnerable with each other as we talked about gender, spirituality, dominance and other lenses through which we viewed power.

Not once during those encounters did I hear someone utter a warning against too much “touchy-feely.”

Story, Strategy, Structure

Marshall Ganz, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, teaches about the need for story, strategy and structure. He speaks from the context of social justice and community organizing—movement-building (he left Harvard in 1964 to join civil rights efforts in Mississippi, later working for the Farm Workers Union). However, he could well be describing the work my colleagues and I do.

Ganz says “stories matter to the heart”—they provide motivation, courage, connection, hope. They “rearrange meaning”. Through their details, they’re able to “communicate the emotional content of the value[s]” that move us to act.

To be willing to tell our story most of us need to know that someone will listen. For us to hear and be moved by another’s story, we must lower our guard and open ourselves. We have to be present.

Having heard and been moved by one another’s stories, we can then discover together, a shared purpose, or strategy, something we might rally around, some reason to collaborate.

And for us to collaborate over the long haul, we will need structure—agreements about how we will work together, make decisions, share power, divvy up the work, etc.

Allergy, Fragility

After many years of witnessing “touchy-feely” eye-rolls and grumbles, I have come to think that what looks like disdain may more accurately be called fragility. Some of us have a kind of allergic response to too much emotion, due to our innate personality, upbringing, or socialization (in a culture like the U.S. mainstream, for example, that values “thinking” over “feeling”). We’re wired or trained to avoid letting our guard down, showing vulnerability or speaking from our hearts, among other displays of “softness.” As a result of that avoidance, we have an under-developed tolerance for more than a certain amount of feeling. This is our “fragility”.  (Thanks to my colleague Robin DiAngelo, Ph.D. for this concept—which she uses to explain the behavior of some white people when engaged in conversations about race.) And we protect that fragility by means that to many observers look like strength or toughness. We dismiss, disdain, avoid, shut-down or attack. In other words, our fragility can effectively shut down certain conversations—or prevent them from happening in the first place.

Years ago, the super-intendent of a school system I was working with—a white woman—walked out of a 2-day workshop after witnessing one of her teachers cry in front of the group. The teacher was fine with it, but her boss “freaked out”; she was trained to tackle issues of race, privilege and oppression—the focus of our workshop—intellectually, not emotionally.

From Guarded to Connected

The organizations I work with—and our country—have many difficult conversations waiting to be had. Painful—and hopeful—stories waiting to be heard. We need the tensile strength to stay put in the presence of strong emotions, ours and others’—anger, shame, embarrassment, confusion, fear of looking “bad”, grief, remorse. We need courage and grounding to sit tight and listen to a story that’s hard to hear. We may need simply to connect to our shared humanity. Author and meditation teacher Tara Brach says “If you know you’re the ocean, you’re not afraid of the waves.”

This may require some of us to move beyond our allergic reaction to feelings. To develop the strength, skills and courage to move from head to heart. And collectively to create a culture of tolerance for our whole selves—feeling as well as thinking.

If we can do that, and really listen to each other’s stories, we may discover, among our differences, a common interest or value, a shared motivation, a cause we might rally around. This portion of the journey cannot be forced, scheduled or controlled. If we approach it only from our heads we will miss the boat entirely. It takes heart. We must be willing to touch, feel and show our humanity.

Heart, Head and Hands

Now a word to the highly-allergic: we still need you—we need hearts, heads and hands. As Ganz articulates, stories alone do not create movement; we also need strategy, structure, and action. So there’s plenty for thinkers and doers to contribute.

And if we’re willing and able to start by hearing each other’s stories, our strategies will spring from and express more of the humanity in the circle; our structures will help us honor that humanity as we work together; and our actions will be guided by a deeper sense of connectedness—to a common goal and to one another.