Facilitating Heart Connection in Prison

Whether we’re deepening our own self awareness, coaching others, facilitating groups, developing organizations, or leading social change, heart connection is the common denominator in facilitating change. We don’t have to agree to be in synch with others, but if we take off the armor and connect with open hearts, our understanding of each other deepens. Sometimes the opportunity for heart connection sails right by me, but I can still capture the sweetness of missed opportunity in hindsight. I have a story about unexpected learning about heart connection.

When I volunteered to spend three days in a maximum security prison as part of the Alternatives to Violence Project, I expected to be searched by the guards before entering, but didn’t know how much soul searching I’d be doing myself. I started out listening a lot, but revealed very little about myself. Sure, deep empathic listening is vital, but somehow I’d forgotten that mutual disclosure is a key ingredient in creating heart connection.

Oblivious to the powerlessness it would evoke, I was excited about the role play:  

Imagine your girlfriend comes to visit you, and she flirts with another prisoner. How do you handle it nonviolently?

Every one of them looked at the floor and would not speak. Reluctantly a few people mumbled.

“No way.”

“You can’t expect me to do on that.”

“Walk away. Only thing you can do.”

“I wouldn’t have nothing to do with that ‘ho.”

In smaller breakout groups the men spoke more freely. The guy with low-slung pants and a steely gaze said, “It depends how many people saw it. If a lot of people saw it…” He shook his head. “Well I wouldn’t do anything right then. But when I get out, I would find her mother. I would shake da bed with her mother and if her grandmother isn’t too old, I’d get her too.”

I wasn’t sure if he was talking about rape or seduction, but I knew he was talking about getting revenge through sex. I was rattled. So I asked a stalling, clarifying question, “You’re talking about your girlfriend winks at another guy, something like that?”

“Yeah. You don’t know what it’s like in here! Your girlfriend flirts with another guy, and you let that happen… that could get you killed. Know what I’m saying? If your girlfriend don’t respect you, you got nothing. It’s all about staying alive in here.”

I started to get an inkling of what he was talking about. I couldn’t quite imagine the extent of the powerlessness or how he coped with it. So I connected with his desire for respect, but I still didn’t get it about going after the mother and grandmother. So I ask him, “is that about wanting to get your power back?”

He gave me the unmistakable look reserved for fools. “No. I got all the power I need. It’s about making sure she know her whole family is ‘hos. I want her to think about what I would have to do to make that happen. Know what I’m saying?”

Actually I didn’t. What could that possibly do for him? To me this sounded like a need for shared understanding of suffering, and underneath that a need for dignity, but from my perspective, a crazy way to try to get it. Clueless, I could only guess his motives, “You want her to know how her flirting brings about suffering and loss of dignity?” He took that in, but I could see my words were a bit off the mark, until I used his words. “Oh, you want her to really understand what it’s like for you in here.”

“Yeah. Yeah. That’s it.”

He talked to me a few more times over the three days, each time deepening my understanding of what motivated him. I didn’t dare tell him that I thought flirting was fun. Playful. Harmless. But finally I did anyway – something about his openness inspired me to reveal myself. I went on to say, “The second someone walks in the room, I know if I’m attracted. I could try to pretend otherwise, but what’s the point? One way or another if I’m attracted to someone, any idiot can tell. For me, it’s about being real.” I could see from the glimmer in his eyes he could connect however slightly with my desire to be real. That’s when the heart connection became mutual.

Everything shifted when I shared with the group something from my inner world:

You all might think I’m here because I’m a do-gooder who wants to come in here and fix you. But I’m really here to work on my own tendency toward violence. When someone I love was tortured (tears), she went from a vibrant young girl full of life, to someone who couldn’t get out of bed in the morning, and all I could do was fantasize about using a baseball bat on the animal who had hurt her. That’s when I realized I wasn’t very different from him. Or from any of you. I’m here because I want to understand and overcome my own violence.

They were struck silent when I told them I’m still heartbroken that I hadn’t protected her, and cheered when I told them she has recovered – more than getting out of bed, she is getting married soon. They gave me their trust when I gave them mine. Our mutual trust opened up a healing process – giving voice to the desire to relieve the suffering their crimes had caused, and to let the victim’s families know about their remorse.

During our closing circle, the men shared from their hearts. One guy said, “Martha is like a mother to me, and I haven’t felt anything like that in a long time.” I was shocked to see several people tearing up, which I thought would be interpreted as cowardly, but they were deeply moved and respectful of each other’s openness. Another sang a heart-wrenching song. Gospel. His vibrant energy turned the place into a church. But the ultimate compliment came from an intense guy who got right in my face to say, “Real knows real.” Whoa.

This experience gave me a glimpse of the possibilities that emerge from working on myself; my vulnerability helps me support the growth of individuals and groups, which opens the door to development of organizations and society.

Even the corrections officer was moved. As he escorted us to lunch on day one I asked what it was like for him to be in the back of the room. He responded with a dismissive wave of his hand, “I’ve seen it all before. You can’t change these guys. I don’t even listen.” I connected with his hopelessness about having an impact on inmates. Over the three days he became more and more attentive, and on the last day he gave us suggestions about coming more often – which programs would be well-received, who to talk to, and what to say. In some small way he’d accepted us, empathized with our desire to create growth opportunities, and wanted to support the work. I have such gratitude to all the diverse programs and unique facilitators I’ve worked with and learned from. There’s a special tenderness I feel in my heart for all the participants who bring tough but real challenges that push me out of my comfort zone, inspiring me to experiment in new realms of chaos and creativity.

Written by Martha Lasley, excerpt from Facilitating with Heart

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