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Story of a scar

1 May 2014
Noga Chipman-Steinwartz
bandaid on crack in the road

I love to listen.  Those who know me, even after a few minutes, can tell you I love talking. This is undoubtedly true (no point to try denying this…), but what I really find interesting is to listen. I'm not talking about merely listening, like listening to music or the ocean. I'm not referring to listening as in paying full uninterrupted attention to others (although this is not a simple mission either. Try it at home!). What I really love to listen to is the words between the words, the picture's background, and the short, nearly unnoticed stop between each breath.

As fate had it (with some of my own influence), a large portion of my time is invested in directing groups. These groups include Knowledge Development groups, study groups, workshops on how to direct groups, and during the evening groups of mindfulness and meditation. There, I learned from personal experience that listening is a valuable asset. If you know how to tune your ear penetrate the exterior layers and reveal subliminal flows- you just might discover hidden treasures.

It is a touching group moment I wish to share with you and even invite you to try listening to it yourself.

Wednesday morning, I'm standing on the verge of a two-day workshop for domain managers in a large communication company. In order to allow something different to occur, their manager acted wisely and changed a setting-we hold the workshop in a nice, inviting space outside the company offices.

The workshop's title is "tools for directing groups". I'm quite excited, since it is one of my favorite subjects and the group seems feminine (all managers were women), nice and supportive. I start off by explaining that our workshop is actually a journey. Besides the content which I will be responsible for providing, they are required to bring a piece of themselves to the workshop, to share and enable sharing and full participation. I'll tell the story and invite you to conduct an experiment, try to listen to the collective story being told.   Listen to the group theme that rises from what's spoken.  A group Theme is a term coined by Fox in order to describe a collective phenomenon in which different participants of a group are telling the same story or discussing the same dilemma  (sometimes unknowingly) each in his/her own individual voice.

The opening exercise I gave the group was: "tell the group about a scar you have on your body". This exercise is recommended for groups and workshops, in which the participants know each other well, possibly have been working together for years and therefore know many trivial details about each other. But our scars are usually not easily revealed. And so, using this exercise, we can know a different dimension or layer of our workmate. And hereby are the stories that were told (remember, the exercise is to listen to the content behind/underneath the content, to the hidden theme. The stories are completely true, the names are false).

Gili: "I have a scar on my foot. I got it when I walked down the steps with flip flops and suddenly slipped and rolled down the stairs. Since then, every time I see one of my daughters walk down the stairs I yell at them to be careful and remember flip flops and stairs are a dangerous combination!"

Sharon: I have a scar on my wrist. I got it when I was little. I chased another kid and he closed a glass door on me. I shoved the door away and got cut. To this day, I feel like people are constantly looking at the scar. I hate the summer because I don't like revealing the scar. I prefer the winter, when I can wear a long sleeve to hide the scar".

Maya: "My scar is under my chin. When I was young, I fell from a tree. What I mainly remember is that evening at the hospital, when the stitches were sown. My father was with me and I remember how he calmed me down when I laid my head on him. He patted me and whispered soothing words. I remember the warmth of his hand and to this day the memory comforts me sometimes".

Dana: "I have an ugly scar on my back. It happened when I fell off my bike. I always fear people will see it, always have. As a teenager it caused me to have low self esteem. To this day I wear only a one-piece bathing suit, even though this scar is only a centimeter or two big".

Yardena: "my story is only four years old. I went to a folk dancing class and swung my hand into a fan. I bled a lot. Some guy whom I did not know took me to the hospital and spent the night with me there. Since then we're close friends. He's so dear to me; he was kind of worth the injury".

Nurit: "well, my history with scars is not an easy one. I have a medical condition, quite a rare one that causes scars to appear over my body when I'm stressed. It is a Mind-Body condition: when my mind is stressed, it scars my body. This bothered me greatly for years, especially concerning my relationships with men. When I met my husband I saw he also had scars. When I asked him, we found out we both share the same condition. The moment he told me, I knew we were going to get married."

What's behind these stories? What's the hidden discussion?

Like a medical diagnosis, or a literary analysis, the search for a group theme is highly dependent on the director's personal perspective and understanding. What did you hear? I heard a discussion around the theme of: "is it worthwhile to reveal my scars to the group". As group director, I requested the participants to provide examples from their own work world. Now, the group is debating: should we reveal our weaknesses, our scars, places in which we feel insecure or unsure if we operated correctly? The root dilemma to this debate is: are my weaknesses and embarrassing moments something I should hide (like a scar, hidden by long sleeves or one piece bathing suits) or perhaps, it is possible and preferable to reveal scars and weaknesses. Revealing scars enables a connection, a relationship, just like the story of marriage or friendship that was made possible by injury/revealing weaknesses.

And what does listening to the group theme allow?

As a group director, understanding the real discussion or dilemma the group is troubled with is critical for the success of the entire process. When the participants are actually busy with the question "what is appropriate to bring to the workshop in this particular context?", when each participant is still insecure and unsure whether to bring up different issues in which the participants have experienced not only success but also shortcomings and even failure, it is recommended to relate to the issue explicitly. This will allow the subliminal to become clear to all and enable an honest discussion about the "here and now" rather than talking about "there and then".

In this case, I decided on the spot to reflect to the group what I heard (while requesting that they lead the message to the right place for them). "I feel that we're actually discussing what is appropriate to bring to the group. What revelation is beneficial and what should remain hidden or at least concealed".

This was followed by a fascinating discussion from which the group's "game rules" were constructed. This discussion created a safe, open space that enabled a fertile, critical depth process.

In conclusion, a group is a complex system in which subterranean life flows. In order for us group directors to successfully promote an ambiance of Knowledge Sharing, development, growth and mutual consultation we must pay attention to the unseen aspects. We need to listen, understand and gently channel. The rest will happen on its own.

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