Compassion, not Diagnosis, Leads to Transformation

Diagnosing individual behavior or group process can feel intellectually stimulating and can give facilitators a sense of order and comfort. Diagnosis gives us the sense that “this is familiar territory” when in actuality, we’re experiencing a unique moment in time. The practice of labeling individual or group behaviors can generate respect for the facilitator’s intellect, but does it really help the group to build awareness?

Often a clinical shroud falls over the group, the hierarchical divide widens between the person doing the diagnosing and those diagnosed, the group connection weakens, and deeper awareness of the needs of the group is obscured. For instance, I felt so sad when a fellow facilitator who struggled to connect with participants from another culture, diagnosed one after another. One was “competing with the facilitator” another “dominating the conversation” and another “hadn’t dealt with authority issues,” because none of these pronouncements led to trust, insights or connection. As a result, his desire to be seen as competent never materialized.

As with most judgments of other people, the person doing the judging is usually the one who can benefit from unpacking the baggage, and discovering his own needs. When the facilitator’s tone is didactic or dismissive, people brace against the diagnostic pronouncements or feel ashamed. Or worse, they buy into the diagnosis and rush into fixing themselves without understanding their underlying feelings and layers of motivation. Based on their desire to fit into the facilitator’s expectations, participants often patch themselves up so that they can regain a sense of belonging.

The widely recognized drama triangle, a model originally developed by Stephen Karpman, describes three habitual roles: victim, persecutor and rescuer. The victim is treated as or accepts the role of damsel in distress, while the persecutor takes on the role of villain and the rescuer comes along to act as hero or savior to help the damsel or underdog. As the drama continues, people often switch roles or changes tactics. For example, the rescuer can shift their role by attacking the persecutor and becomes the new villain, by saying, “Your ego is getting in the way. How can you be so uncaring?” Or the victim turns on the rescuer by saying, “I’m not as weak as you seem to think. I can fight my own battles, thank you.”

As facilitators we have a choice of seeing each player in the drama as dysfunctional, unconscious, and selfish, or simply as people who are acting upon their desire to meet their needs in the best way they know how. To support awareness and clarity we can surface the needs by asking rather than telling:

  • To the person I perceive as the Victim: You seem overwhelmed, wanting clarity about how to protect yourself and reclaim your power?
  • To the person I perceive as the Persecutor: You seem outraged – do you need
  • acknowledgement that your intention is to support the group and build shared awareness?
  • To the person I perceive as the Rescuer: Are you a bit scared because you want to create emotional safety, spaciousness, and support for the whole group?

We can support the group by uncovering the wide range of needs in the mix, and seeing their positive intent. Excessive conceptualizing and categorizing behaviors reinforces an intellectual hierarchy that disconnects people from their hearts. As facilitators, when we compare an individual’s or a group’s experience to another’s, we’re communicating our own discomfort, desire for order, focus or stability, and our tenacious drive to make sense of it all.

Facilitators who lack confidence tend to deliver brilliant interpretations, rather than helping people achieve self-awareness through their own efforts. Although diagnosis comes from the desire to contribute to awareness, there’s another way to help individuals self- connect and groups develop a deeper understanding of their process. The alternative is to shift from diagnosis toward a compassionate discovery of feelings and needs. This cooperative exploration helps participants and facilitators get in touch with emotions and motivations in the here and now.

Instead of separating ourselves with diagnostic judgments, we can generate significant advantages by shifting to compassionate awareness. Exploring human feelings and needs is an energetic but gentle practice, with a very different feel from the cold, clinical, judgmental, “gotcha” approach that often accompanies diagnosis. Diagnosed participants often undermine themselves, sacrifice their autonomy,

and lose their sense of equality. The diagnosis often fails if the person feels humiliated by the facilitator’s perceptivity or lack of perceptivity. Facilitators can develop real heart-to-heart connection when we focus less on intellectual prowess and theory. Our interpretations are most effective when we offer them in the context of mutual caring. Since all humans share the same needs, when we connect with what’s happening internally with others, we embark on a shared journey of trust, openness to exploration and healing.

Active, empathic listening and inquiry is a status-equilibrating process that leads to a sense of community. Participants can offer compassion more easily and quickly than diagnosis, which promotes less dependence on the facilitator. The whole group becomes a resource. A sense of equality emerges much sooner because hierarchical relationships shift when participants see the facilitators more humanely – as people who also have feelings and needs that they may need help discovering. As both participants and facilitators move away from solitude, the responsibility for healing becomes a shared group process, rather than each person getting a turn on the hot seat. Each little bit of healing contributes to the next bit of healing, and everyone experiences “being held” or nurtured. A life-enhancing process of “we’re all in this together” replaces the “us” against “them” mentality. Open, genuine, authentic, supportive relationships are more likely to emerge when we shine the light on personal growth opportunities for both participants and facilitators.

Below are a few examples of traditional diagnosis, followed by alternatives:

Acceptance Anxiety: I sense some anxiety in the group. Perhaps you want to know that you are accepted, liked, or wanted?

Orientation Anxiety: Several people have not spoken. Could this be a need to understand? Perhaps the group wants clarity or a sense of shared-orientation.

Performance Anxiety: As the anxiety rises, I’m wondering if it’s about a desire for mastery, personal power, or competence.

Emotionally Frozen: People in the group have not expressed their emotions. Do you want to protect yourselves from turmoil?

Avoiding Pain: Is the silence about unexpressed grief? Would you like to have your emotions accepted and to trust that people care about what’s happening with each other?

Repression: Are you afraid to express your anger, wanting to protect your identity or sense of self? Underneath the buried rage, do you long for the freedom to explore?

Projection of Anger: The deeper the pain, the stronger the desire for healing. You may feel helpless, really longing for a way to step into your power and create mutually-satisfying relationships.

Jocularity: The jokes may come from a desire to relieve tension. What happens when you sit with the tension, feel it fully, and connect with what matters most to the group?

Mockery: When you say, “Awww, let’s have a group hug,” maybe you’re afraid to trust the growing intimacy of the group?

Avoidance through Complaining: Focusing on the dislike of the temperature, the chairs, and the food may be a way to protect yourselves from intimacy or possible judgment if you express yourself openly and authentically.

Collusion: When two people distance themselves physically and emotionally from the group, they may need reassurance that the group values freedom and autonomy.

Transference: (submissive, defensive, dependent, or approval seeking) I sense some old pain. Would you like to feel safe enough to trust that you can get everything you want in a relationship?

Scapegoating: (One person is blamed for lack of group progress) By focusing on one person’s behavior, this might be a comforting way to explore the changes you want to see in your own behavior.

Competition: Three people have interrupted each other within the last five minutes. I sense that agitation is rising and that people desperately want to be understood and would like to be seen for their competence and power. The group is not taking time to let each other know that they understand what has just been said.

Retreat: More than one person seems to be sad and alone; perhaps you want to trust that people care about each member of the group.

Covert Processes: (racism, sexism. and homophobia go unchecked.) When you say that, “Gay people are destroying marriage and morality,” maybe you just really want to have a solid sense of belonging to a group of people who share your values and some reassurance that you can have the lifestyle that you love.

Suppression: After saying the words, “I feel,” instead of sharing your inner feelings, you express what you think. Perhaps this comes from anxiety and a desire to create acceptance in these new relationships. I have more trust that relationships can be built if you express your emotions and share your inner world openly.

Negation of Spiritual Presence: I’m feeling uneasy, experiencing a shift in my energy and a desire for openness to the spiritual essence of each person.

Past Distress: Your distress may be coming from hidden pain of not giving or receiving enough love.

If that resonates with you, would you like to connect with your pain and your desire for unconditional love?

Domination: Minaz and Paul speak more often than the rest of the group. Shirzad and Chloe have not spoken. I sense some discomfort in the group, perhaps because you want inclusion and shared opportunity to voice your internal experiences.

Repression: Are you afraid because you want to protect your identity? Maybe the desire for group acceptance keeps you from speaking, but underneath you are seeking the freedom to explore and express yourself fully?

Power Struggle: Everyone needs power. If we define power as the ability to meet needs, then shared power increases our ability to meet needs exponentially. I sense a lot of frustration in the group, with individuals looking for ways to get their personal needs met, but it’s a struggle because you haven’t conveyed that others’ needs also matter.

Authority Issues (seeking approval, compulsively attacking the group leader, rejecting suggestions, questioning authority, acquiescing, or challenging competence.) Maybe your anger stems from a desire for partnership or equality. I’m unclear about whether the group wants to be led, or if you want freedom and a way to create shared leadership?

Gender Issues: Women were interrupted six times in the last hour; the men were interrupted only

once. When a man was given credit for something a woman said, no one objected. When I see the men speak twice as often as the women, I’m concerned that women give up their power for the sake of harmony.

Task Orientation: Unscheduled time is filled with clearly-defined, familiar tasks. This may be a strategy for building relationships and trust. This could also be a way to protect yourselves from the discomfort of letting each other know that you care about one another or that your relationships matter.

Confrontation: The group seems to value peace and harmony over the values of openness and trust that come from dealing openly with conflict. Meeting both sets of needs could contribute to the well- being and development of the group.

Dependence: When you ask for permission to contribute, I see an intense desire to respect and learn from the facilitator. Without giving up on those values, you may also want to claim your own power and trust in yourself that you have something meaningful to contribute to the group.

Fleeing: The familiarity of talking about the past keeps us from being present to the opportunity to connect at the heart level right now. Repeatedly talking about the world outside the group means we avoid the emerging issues and miss the opportunity to connect right here and right now.

Norms: The absence of touch, intimacy, and emotional expression could stem from the group’s collective values of efficiency, productivity, and progress. One of the strategies used to meet these needs is to focus on the task rather than the way people work together. Another strategy is to build stronger authentic relationships that contribute to the actual efficiency of the group.

Ultimately, I want to eliminate labels, not just when I speak, but in how I think about people. I’m glad I know that the victim/attacker/ rescuer/ savior scenario is a classic pattern in group behavior because it deepens my awareness of our shared humanity. We may use a common language to explain human behavior, just as we use common language to describe needs, but individual motives are unique in any given moment.

Some would say that “rescuing” is a perfectly valid way to describe a behavior, and I think there’s some merit to that argument. Labels serve as a short cut to understanding behavior but detract from connecting with each individual at the heart-level in the present moment. If someone repeatedly interrupts another’s process, it may be helpful to know that others perceive him as a rescuer and can see his positive intent. The richness of the group process is not in the labeling of the behavior but in exploring the motives of the behavior. As much as I would like to remove labeling from my thinking, when labels do come up, I want some compassion both for myself and the person I’m labeling.

The psychologist Irvin Yalom says, “The superego, the id, the ego; the archetypes; the masculine protest; the internalized objects; the self object; the grandiose self and omnipotent object; the parent, child, and adult ego state—none of these really exists. They are all fictions, all psychological constructs created for semantic convenience. They justify their existence only by virtue of their explanatory powers.”

Although labeling is a convenient short-cut for describing familiar behavior, labels don’t help us open our hearts to the people we’re judging even when we’re using positive labels. A practice that fosters inclusion is to transform labels as soon as they arise by connecting compassionately with the person we’re labeling. By translating labels into compassion, we deepen our connection to what is happening now.

In addition to translating diagnosis into awareness of needs, I’ve learned over time to make my language more inclusive. When I’ve said, “The group seems to want inclusion,” I’ve gotten push-back in the form of, “I’m part of the group and I don’t care about inclusion right now. I want freedom to do what I want.” So I learned to cherish the unique voices in the group the same way I cherish the inner voices of an individual by saying, “Ah, so some of you want inclusion, and now I’m hearing that some of you also want freedom.”

I liken the collective needs of the group to the collective needs of an individual. Each of us has a committee of voices that want to be heard. Even when the needs sound like polar opposites, I frame them as compatible needs. Likewise when people in the group take different positions, “We need to come back on time,” and “We need to come back when we’re ready,” both voices can be heard if we connect with the needs of each position—one may want to honor the value of learning that’s possible (when everyone is back on time), while another may need respect for each individual’s freedom (by coming back when they’re ready). But these needs are not incompatible: we can cultivate both learning and freedom simultaneously. Only the strategies are incompatible. A third strategy that might meet both sets of needs is to start the learning on time and still give people the freedom to come back as they are ready.

I’ve heard a few people claim that groups don’t have needs – only individuals have needs. Since all human beings have universal needs, certainly groups of all sizes share those same needs. When we attempt to identify the prevailing needs of an individual or a group right now, we may get disagreement on which has priority, but we can still acknowledge that the group collectively has needs, as expressed by individuals. If Jane says she needs rest, Soledad needs adventure, and Alex needs action, I can validate their experience if I say the group has expressed needs for rest, adventure and solitude.

It can sound jarring to say that an organization needs trust, communication and leadership, when in actuality, the people in the organization are the ones with the needs. In individualistic cultures people experience connection and feel understood if we identify their unique needs. In cultures where collectivism is valued, people feel understood if we talk about the group needs. As a facilitator, it helps me to see the group as an entity so that I can envision wrapping my arms around all their needs at once, instead of running around embracing each individual’s needs separately. As long as we use language that comes from the heart, people will be able to hear our compassion and desire for inclusion.

Written by Martha Lasley, Originally published in Facilitating with Heart

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