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Inviting Others to Explore the Heart of the Matter

By Susan Grove

A participant’s hand is raised. I invite her to speak. 

It felt so great to speak with my partner and be heard by them just now, but how would I realistically use this when I’m back in the flow of my work? We don’t have time for this kind of thing,” she says. 

Micah and I are facilitating a breakout session of the Hudson River Watershed Alliance’s Annual Watershed Conference with the theme of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Environmental Justice. The breakout is titled “Sharing Power in Your Collaborations” and is focused on introducing a tool GWI created for acknowledging the way resources flow within and between collaborations in different ways and for equitably balancing those resources. In this framing, “resources” covers all manner of ways that people can contribute to or be compensated for their efforts in a shared project; it doesn’t mean just “money”. It is a radical way to rethink what we get out of being a part of something, and what we can give.

A response bubbles up inside me when I hear her question. First, I want to acknowledge the participant’s sense that it can feel hard to carve out space for the kinds of conversations that get to the heart of the matter. We can be under so much pressure to always produce, produce, produce. I get that. Yet there are power dynamics in our midst that may be holding back our shared efforts. It is tempting to pretend this isn’t so. Taking some time to address this, even a short amount of time, can be transformative.

Then I point out that what we just did took all of 10 minutes: 5 minutes of solo reflection and 5 more minutes sharing with a partner who listened attentively and reflected back what they heard. I can feel a sense of possibility entering the room as I say this. We can feel the shift in energy.  

What we just experienced invites participants to ask themselves: Can I imagine explicitly addressing the power dynamics coming up in my context?

If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it 100 times: make the implicit explicit. This is one of the mantras that form the core of how we’ve come to understand democratizing work as we practice it at GWI, and as we train, facilitate and coach others. 

“Democratizing work” sounds big and mysterious. But to us, it refers to the concrete skills and tools we can learn and practice to share power, leadership, and decision-making in our work with others. Like the one we’re practicing with today, so many of these tools are fairly simple. They’re not necessarily always easy, though, because we’re not that familiar working in contexts where the norm is having voice and influence in decisions that impact us. 

It reminds me of another of our mantras: design and discomfort. We’ve learned that you cannot design your way out of the discomfort or awkwardness of working in new ways. You can only practice your way out of it.  

After the breakout session, I read through post-its with anonymous feedback on this activity. 

Participants comment on liking: 

  • having a tool to map and recognize various forms of abundance – everyone has something valuable to give!
  • being able to articulate this process, giving a name to this process 
  • sharing my power struggles
  • being able to share & reflect as well as have someone reflect back what I said

Participants share things they notice, like: 

  • being heard & hearing someone needn’t be a lengthy process 
  • how much more there is to learn and practice about this topic of relationships and navigating power dynamics (personally & professionally)

I’m energized to be co-learning with each group of participants we are honored to work with, whether in workshops or coaching contexts. I’m reminded of the joy of being in a co-facilitator role, knowing that our job is to make things easier. And I’m grateful to be doing this work.

Articles and personal reflections from the GWI team as they navigate their lives and their shared work.

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