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About this episode
In this episode, we talked to Bjørn Peterson about bringing clarity, courage and creativity to our relationship practice.
Bjørn helps social change agents find and sustain clarity, courage, and creativity, in his role as consultant, speaker and facilitator with Looking Bear Leadership. He holds a PhD in Community Resources and Development and has studied Communication and Group Identity and Transformational Leadership.
This episode includes the first part of our conversation. We discussed what it means to “love your neighbor as you do yourself,” balancing the part of us that values connection with who we are in our work life, and more.
We will share Part 2 of our conversation in the next episode/
Kalin Goble: Welcome to Practicing Connection, a podcast exploring the personal story and collective practices that empower us to work together to improve our resilience and readiness in a rapidly changing world. Here to start the conversation are Jessica Beckendorf and Bob Bertsch.
Jessica Beckendorf: Hi, and welcome to Practicing Connection. We’re so excited to have you with us and to welcome Dr. Bjorn Peterson into the conversation. Bjorn helps social change agents find and sustain clarity, courage, and creativity in his role as consultant, speaker, and facilitator with Looking Bear Leadership. He holds a PhD in community resources and development and has studied communication and group identity and transformational leadership.
Bjorn’s work intersects with practicing connection in many places. We’re going to embrace the spirit of exploration today and see where our conversation leads us. I had the pleasure of meeting Bjorn at a conference back in 2019, and since then I have been a follower of Bjorn’s work and I have tried to implement some of his work. Let’s get started and welcome to the podcast, Bjorn.
Bjorn Peterson: Thank you, so glad to be here.
Jessica: How do you come to the work that you’re doing now?
Bjorn: Well, in some ways my impulse was to say kicking and screaming [laughs] because sometimes the work that we do as somebody who values practicing connections, and I love that that’s the framing for this show, for this podcast is just it’s partly because we’re driven to it or dragged to it at times where the things we find ourselves caring about in the world just necessitate a series of questions and a journey of inquiry and exploration.
I think there’s the one hand where that’s true, but there’s also a truth that the work of connecting with people is really caught up in who I am, my whole life story in some ways. There’s a way in which it’s kicking and screaming, not because it’s how I got here only, but because you end up where you end up, don’t you? Looking back it’s easy to be like, “Well, this happened and this happened,” but there’s another part of me that goes, “I’m not sure it could have happened another way.” I’m not the fatalist that, that just sounds like but there’s also a truth to it.
Jessica: A colleague of mine and I have wondered because we’ve developed some programming together that’s all about helping people understand how to build relationships, and one of the things we wondered is did we partly find this work because we are simultaneously really good at building relationships while we are also simultaneously very bad at building relationships. Anyway, that was something that came to mind with the kicking and screaming image you gave. It’s hard. It’s the hard way through but it’s also the beautiful way through.
Bjorn: Yes, and you could give that classic biographical answer, and I have that. I grew up in spaces where I was taught ways of being together in the world and everything from like the golden rule that do unto others as you’d have them do unto you, or also the idea of loving your neighbor as yourself. I suppose I got pretty fascinated or even obsessed with those questions like, “Well, wait, how do you do that? How do you succeed at loving your neighbor or yourself?”
Jessica: What if you don’t love yourself?
Jessica: Then how do you treat your neighbor?
Bjorn: Totally, and what you find is that an awful lot of the answer to loving your neighbor and loving yourself are found in one another and that is a lifetime of recognition that is constantly unfolding before me at least, and so you go, “Man, I think I spent a lot of time trying to understand how to love other people, in some ways because I was driven by it, in other ways because of my own self-loathing and shame and sense of failure as a lover of other people and let alone lover of myself.” I think I insisted upon the love that other people should get, the justice that other people should see.
In part as a way of self punishment for all the ways in which I saw myself as a failure in those things, and it wasn’t until much later that I started to understand and seek the connection between, as you’ve talked about on this show and in the past, the connection between liberation of self and liberation of collective and how incredibly intertwined those are. It fascinates me endlessly. Now, it’s in some ways it’s kicking and screaming but it’s also just like, “How can you look away?”
For people who don’t think about these things for me it’s a little bit like, I don’t know, living 100 feet from the Grand Canyon and everyone’s walking around being like, “Do do do, life,” and so on and you’re like, “Should we not talk about the Grand Canyon over here?” Because it’s large, and it feels like we should talk about it. It looms in my life like this thing that you just– How would you live in proximity to connection and personal and social and collective liberation without acknowledging it and exploring it, being interested in it?
It has a gravity to me that sometimes when I’d like to be quite selfish or if I’m just exhausted I feel a sense of like, “I’d rather not deal with the relationships I have to the rest of the world or the ways in which everyone else is screwed and I’m not, or vice versa.” I would just like to collapse back into myself, but there’s that huge empty space that is so much bigger than me that echoes every sound I make, every cry, every time I shift in my seat I can hear this whole other world going, “Remember me? Remember everything else,” and you just get pulled. That’s why I think of it as gravity, you get pulled back to it. I think that’s a really profoundly beautiful thing for me to live in proximity to.
Bob Bertsch: One of the things I’m curious about Bjorn and something that I think about a lot is if we feel that gravity and feel a call to consider those issues internally and externally, we’re doing it within the context of the world like everything else, and I’m curious about one of the things that I struggle with is balancing finding– Well, I don’t know if balance is the right word, finding a way to be the way I want to be in the world in the context of my job, my community, et cetera. I’m curious about your journey career-wise, and how you’ve maybe sought out or been able to find ways to be the way you want to be in the world and do the work that you want to do in the context of jobs I guess.
Bjorn: That’s tough. If I look back at say the last 20 years, an awful lot of my journey and struggle has been between a world and a job market that continuously values one part of me that I don’t hold nearly as valuable as this other part of me. To varying levels of success, I’ve tried to integrate the me I want to be, the way I want to be in the world, the things I want to think about and give my time to, with the work that others have found worthy of payment.
There’s a real tension there, and I know people who are much better at continuing on a journey or a struggle where they found jobs that pay reasonably well, they’re salaried and comfortable, and so on, and they’re able to live within that tension. I wouldn’t put myself squarely against any of that, but there’s a restlessness that’s inbuilt for me that at the end of the day and this isn’t a superior value system. This just happens to be the one I apparently keep operating out of, which is I can’t really sacrifice very well for very long.
A part of me that needs to be engaged deeply in questions of connection, of questions of interiority, or of questions of how is what goes on inside us and between us and among us just as important as whatever structural or systematic pieces that we’re building. If I feel in a career space that I’m too limited, then I tend to jettison. What that has meant is living probably with far more risk in my life than a lot of people would ever think is advisable.
They wouldn’t be wrong but I also am pretty satisfied although if you find me on the right day, I’ll break down and weep to you about why the world doesn’t acknowledge me for my real gifts and why can’t I just get paid to do what I want to do and so on, all those things live in me too. I think I’ve gotten to a point more and more where I am trying to find those balances but I think when I was coming right out of high school, for instance, and some of my earlier work in community building spaces or so on.
There was a hope that by the time I was in my 40s, that by then I’ll have my own organization or I’ll work in the right place or I’ll be done with this whole floating around working for peanuts kind of thing. To a certain extent, I suppose, that’s not quite been the path that I’ve taken. I’m fortunate to have a partner whose vocation and whose sense of calling functions much better in institutions than mine does and that’s a massive privilege. I do sometimes wonder where I’d be without her, and the answer’s probably out in the woods somewhere having not showered much.[laughter]
Bob: It’s interesting because I was thinking, as you are talking I was like recently Wallace Stevens, the American poet came up in a conversation and someone pointed out Wallace Stevens is a poet, but he worked his whole life in an insurance company. I was thinking about that and thinking that maybe it’s a blessing and a curse to find little ways to make the kind of work that we want to do fit into a marketplace as opposed to maybe Stevens, who’s just like, “There’s insurance company on the left and poetry on the right. I can just keep a solid line between them and I don’t ever have to drift back and forth between two worlds.”
Bjorn: I think that’s probably where more and more I’m getting to where I’m more and more at peace with. You could think there was a long time where being academically trained, for instance, I thought maybe the academy, the universities and colleges would be the place that would host me and I’d find my space but I was also attached to a romanticized idea of those spaces too just like we can as an artist or as anything.
You can get to this place where you go, “They don’t probably have to deal with grant deadlines and cranky boards and bureaucracies,” and it’s like, “No guess what? They do too,” but my answer has been to be a carpenter, to do a lot of woodworking, to build fences and decks and food delivery but I’ve learned slowly to use those things as material.[laughs] These are the things that teach me a little bit about life and give me insights.
If I’m awake to them, it really doesn’t matter if I’m in a wood-paneled office in some university or in some field painting lilies in France, or whatever your idealized version of your vocational life. It’s really about being awake and being present to where you are that drives this stuff. I want to follow by saying that I will take every day of the rest of my life to learn that lesson. That is why I’m attracted to this idea of practice that this podcast is built on it. It is about practice.
Even for me, it’s not about a practice in terms of getting better, it’s a practice of enlivenment. It’s a practice of just living more deeply into today than maybe I otherwise would have. With no guarantee of progress, no guarantee of betterment, simply I’m practicing these things because when I don’t, life can become unbearable for me for a variety of reasons that are everything from mental, emotional, spiritual, systemic, economic, political, and so on.
Jessica: There’s always something that we can be and do better in. If you can adopt the idea of practice in your life, you’re always going to be trying to be and do better. I know that’s a super vague way of saying all the things that you just said, Bjorn but when I think about connection and relationships and how we think about relationships in a lot of the work that we do in our communities or with clients and all of the different inter-organizational coalitions and stuff we might be on.
I think that often for a lot of people, relationship is just the thing that happens when you talk with people. It’s certainly a thing that can develop through talking with people but when you have people who want to think a lot more deeply about how relationships impact their work and not just in the transactional way, although I recognize that transactional ways of being are often where relationships start.
As you develop trust, they can become more relational and move on from there but I think people who are trying to think more deeply about this constantly live in this liminal space. We are constantly uncomfortable and constantly navigating, navigating, navigating. It’s wonderful and it’s hard and it’s interesting and it’s rich and it’s hard. I think you could just keep saying it’s hard, it’s hard, it’s hard. [laughs]
Bob: Also hard.
Bob: That’s the need for practice.
Jessica: Listening to you Bjorn makes me just think about part of the reason it’s hard is like I said earlier, relationships are a way through, and I wasn’t clear about that but really it can be a way through anything. A way through wicked problems, a way through even social issues but the other reason it can also be very difficult is that it requires a lot of knowing yourself and self-reflection, and it’s incredibly difficult I think. It’s incredibly difficult to know yourself for some people anyway, maybe for all people, I don’t know, but for myself, I can tell you. I do my best.
Bjorn: It is difficult. I think when you let go of that idea, you’ve probably stopped knowing yourself very well. You’re probably living in some kind of delusion because you’ve started to imagine yourself as something quite bounded. If we understand and think about how we know and what we can know and how much we can know at any given time, it’s quite limited. Our minds are brilliant, beautiful things but they’re not nearly large enough or sophisticated enough to take in all that’s going on in the world, let alone even ourselves.
We are such dynamic things, creatures that if you understood yourself yesterday at noon, by today at noon you will have changed for no other reason that you somehow knew part of yourself yesterday for a little while. Having done so you would have changed who you’ve been. With that complexity then I do think you are in a space. We all are in a space where to know oneself is a lifelong journey.
It’s a lifelong practice, but it’s also an endless mystery and can be really delightful if you’d start to delight in it. It is hard. It can be punishing, but it can be also so liberating and freeing and so I think, the tendency is to either we do with knowing the self, what we do is so many things, which is we go to the major sociological trends, right? We commodify it where we tell people why it will improve their situation economically or politically or so on, or we turn it into a simplistic moralistic fairy tales of good and bad.
It’s a good thing to know yourself. It’s the best thing to know yourself. It’s the worst thing to know yourself. We’re really quite unsophisticated as a species at the moment at holding things in the tension of, “Yes, it’s a little bit good, it’s a little bad. What do you want? it’s all of those things.” You can see how the inability to do that not only in the context of knowing yourself, but in communities, in so many different ways.
It really disrupts the need to divide and separate and sort out to know who’s on my side and who’s not, to look around and be like, are we the ones who like this thing, or are we the ones who don’t like this thing? I don’t know, let me check with my people, let me find out what we’re going to say about this. Politically, and from a power position, from a power over position. We find benefits in that, but it has a potentially, and I think often in our, and certainly there’s endless examples at the moment when we constantly take every encounter as a thing that will sort us into teams or good and bad and enemies and so on.
It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. We go, “Why are we so divided?” I don’t know, does our side think we’re so divided because of this or because of this? It’s like the question of division becomes a new moment to pick a team, and it’s not to say that there’s not right and wrong. It’s not to say that there isn’t good and bad. It’s not to say any of that, but rather to take notice and again, find some self-awareness as collectives as individuals and how do we, in some ways, lazily divide ourselves and sort ourselves into self-perpetuating us versus them relationships.
To your point, when all relationships become us versus them, or most of them at least, of course, we put our tail between our legs and run or we double down. We find our weapon of choice and we perfect it so that in whatever relationship we’re in, we know how to win. We know how to come out on top. We know how to maintain our power. It’s not always that binary. I think we’re all capable of each of those things, but you see how relationships can become this hard, scary thing or this panacea where everything can be solved because it’s the best thing ever.
Jessica: I see all the time people refusing to engage in difficult conversations or refusing to even admit that they have an opinion about something, and when I think about being able to constantly work at knowing yourself also helps you to know yourself in relation to the people around you, but when you’re not willing to share what your thinking is, because either you’re afraid, they’ll think it’s wrong or you’re afraid that it’s wrong because I believe that we are always learning.
Part of learning is being able to talk with each other about what our thinking is currently today, right now, and listening to someone else about what they’re thinking is currently today, right now. They may not change my mind on anything that I’m currently thinking. They might even solidify based on what they said. I might be like, “Wow, I don’t want to be like that.”
I’m going to separate myself like you said into this us and them mentality, which is not healthy but what I’m trying to say here is the refusal to share in a way that is exploratory and learning, and even if you are not being exploratory when you speak and you’re just speaking your mind, as long as you’re doing it in a way where you’re also willing to listen to someone else speak their mind. I guess to me, all of this is really tied in tightly to knowing ourselves and to being in relationship with other people. I just feel there’s a huge disconnect right now. We don’t need to talk about politics right now, but there’s a huge disconnect.
Bjorn: Let’s do it.
Jessica: Let’s dig in right now.
Bjorn: Let’s do it. We don’t talk about politics very much, not in the explicit way. We do see that like you’re talking about Jessica, where people are afraid to express themselves. Of course, they’re afraid to express themselves. They’re not in a trusted space. It’s not a safe space. I put 30 people in a room and stand up in front of them and say, “Hey, tell me your opinion on this.” Maybe we need relationships and trust and safety there before we do that.
I don’t know where that– Two things that they might not ever intersect, but there’s something there because I think what we’re observing in the culture, especially the online culture is a lot of all that sharing that is done in safety because of distance, and then we wonder why people won’t express themselves when there’s proximity. There’s no more safety in the distance like they have online and we haven’t created a safe space with proximity for them to do that.
Jessica: Oh, that’s such a good point. I work in rural communities and I’ve done a couple projects where I get together some people to have conversation, to have open, honest conversation and these conversations are recorded sometimes. I had somebody express to me and it was just something that didn’t occur to me and I’m so glad that they were willing to share this cause they expressed some vulnerability in doing, in telling me about it but they said, “I know of someone who shared their opinion and word got around and they lost their job.”
This opinion was not the opinion that should make someone lose their job, but they’re in a small community and they spoke against the wrong issue. Their boss apparently was on the other side of that issue and it just ended up making them lose their job. There are serious consequences and it’s not necessarily a safe space when you’re in proximity. I appreciate you bringing that up.
Bjorn: I think that’s really big. When you read my introduction, there’s these three words that I’ve taken a long time to start to put together, which was this idea of clarity, courage, and creativity. Part of the reason I put those three together is because for me, and for my interest in study and social change and social transformation, finding and sustaining those three things in life, both as an individual and as collectives is vital in order to potentially speak truth into spaces.
Everything you’re saying is absolutely fair in terms of how do we make room for dissent? How do we make room for these things? A lot of that has to do with the conversations you’ve had here before on holding space and modeling those things. In terms of practice, I think there’s a lot of little things that I like to do in classrooms or in community settings or so on that help signify to the group what conversation we’re about to have because people have a lot of capacities, but when they come to a space, they often draw on the well that gets pointed to and if the well that they start being pointed to is debate, they go to debate, they go to defensiveness, they go to attacks.
Likewise, if they see a generosity and a spaciousness they often can reach into that well too, both of those things live in the same people and that’s what you can see. We’ve all seen people who in one space are an absolute lion and in another space seem to be quite meek. Why is that? I think it’s because everything we know about psychology and sociology comes to bear in terms of what’s going on within us from family systems to dramatic experiences and all those things but also on very immediate level, things about the space that we come into suggest to us what we should be prepared for.
Many public spaces for civic dialogue and so on are set up in ways that recreate and invoke those established domination of power over focused power structures and spaces. It’s not too surprising when we create those spaces, invite people to those spaces, use all the same language and logos and everything else all the communication symbols that tell people come here and bring your in vulnerabilities, bring your best weapons because this is going to be a brawl versus people from the beginning standing up and saying, “I’ve got an un-fully formed thought that I want to just say out loud.
It’s going to be a little wrong and it might even be messy and ugly but let me say it and then we’ll go for it. I’m not worried about being right by the way, I just want to learn.”
Now if I frame what I’m about to say in that way, it invites a generosity advices. You feel yourself rise with your hospitality to what I’m saying. Now, this was a question that came up in another episode where you were asking about how do we hold space with two people where maybe the other person isn’t ready to hold space or doesn’t know they’re ready to hold space.
Can I be the only one holding space? If we develop a deep trust in and understand the complexity of the people that we’re sitting across and you can always come up with examples of people, this is just going to be maybe a bridge too far for but in many people, maybe even most people, I can call out something that lives deep within them from somewhere deep within me where we invoke a certain kind of space together and they end up holding me not because they’ve been trained and because they had that intention two weeks ago, but because they are human and something in me in them recognizes each other and we rise to a space of mutual holding.
Mutuality I feel can be invoked by skillful facilitation. That doesn’t mean it’s foolproof. Some people can just come and decide they’re simply not going to participate. If that’s the case, then the question for me becomes can my heart hold their dissent? Can my heart hold their refusal to participate or what’s the task for me in encountering that? Part of what I want to do is learn from that space and increase my own sense of spaciousness, my own sense of what can I be present to.
Claudia Rankine, a brilliant poet laureate, I think she said one time, she’s an African American poet and she used to get picked up by random people all over the country, and it would be just somebody’s uncle would go to the airport and pick her up and drive her two hours to wherever she was going to read a poem. Inevitably, they would say something that just would make her go, oh my gosh. The question she asked herself was, how can I say this so you stay in the car with me?
I find that to be a really useful self-reflective question when I’m in spaces. Not that I don’t call wrong, wrong, not that I don’t stand up for what’s true but how do I do it in a way that’s true to the capacities I have in that moment? Some moments I have the capacity to say, how can I say this so you stay in the car. Sometimes I totally lack that and it’s okay for me to just be like, I’m not going there today. I’m going home. I’m going to trust the universe will send somebody else to keep you in the car. It is this balance. I do think it’s a practice.
Jessica: What you’re saying I think can be applied to group settings also. You started out talking about one on one and thinking about your own capacity for what you can handle, but I think you can do the same thing in group settings. In fact, I know all of us we’ve talked about how we are facilitators. I think a lot of times a lot of power is given to a facilitator in the room. Whether it’s given or taken, I guess it depends on the facilitator.
I think that in group settings and in community settings, a lot of power is given to a particular person running a meeting when really everyone in the room has a lot more power than they utilize or than they even realize. When you’re thinking about in a group or team, you could use this for teams too. In a team setting, we’re all responsible for what’s happening in this room and so group members can also start realizing that and holding each other accountable.
There might be someone who has dissent allow them to have dissent. The group members can also hold that person accountable for any inappropriate disruptions or whatever the issue is. I think a lot of what you’re saying is like one-on-one you can be a space holder. As a facilitator, you can be a space holder in a group setting or a team setting but everyone in the room can be a space holder for what’s happening and can have responsibility for what’s happening.
Bob: Yes. Here’s the obvious statement of the day. It’s more complicated though. If it’s the two of us in the car and I’m just trying to keep you in the car, that’s so much simpler than–
Jessica: Because I’m just going to speed up.
Bob: Right. Exactly. When it’s multiple people, it’s so easy because I’ve seen it happen before. It’s so easy for that to be turned from holding accountable to putting that person out of the car basically or saying you’re not welcome in the car. It’s definitely tricky.
Bjorn: Yes, it is. I think in an ideal setting, perhaps you have multiple people who feel like they can help set the tone and lead in spaces, and oftentimes, though, you’re the only one who you know of is there in that way as the facilitator. I can think of a lot of examples where as a participant watching a space go away that I’m going, “Oh my gosh, I hope this doesn’t keep going this way because this isn’t what any of us are hoping that this was going to be.”
This is where for myself the idea of courage really does matter. It is not a simple thing or an easy thing to practice vulnerability in a public space. It’s not always a fair thing to expect or ask somebody else to do that. Particularly if you’re somebody who comes from a background that’s not mine where I’m a white heterosexual male, I’ve got a lot of power and privilege systemically and so it’s easy to imagine that what I can or should do in a space is what everyone should or can do in a space.
That’s not always and rarely the case. As I do think about being in that room where it is lots of different people, I do think about what is the power balance in here. Where are the power centers? If I choose to use my voice in this space, what am I allowing to happen through me in the space both systemically? Is it a moment for me to step up and speak as the white heterosexual overeducated male that I am? Or is it a time for me to take a step back?
There’s a constant discernment as a part of the action side of all this inner knowledge. That is always asking and listening carefully, and this is where the presence idea comes in, to really be present to what’s happening. What keeps unfolding in the space and to what extent do I reinforce that in what I say, how I say it, when I say it, if I say it, and so on. If I do it. One thing that I do tend to feel is willingness to risk vulnerability, and I say the word risk, emphatically, because when we are vulnerable, for it to be real vulnerability and not just a practiced emotional manipulation, which more and more I see.
To be real vulnerability, there’s a risk involved and the risk means I don’t have control of how it goes. Part of letting go of that control is itself combating things like white supremacy. It’s understanding that perfectionism, and that need to control the outcome and need to control the space and to be really attached to those things is part of the way that these oppressive systems marinated into me from over the course of my life. There’s a little bit too of relaxing into the idea that I’m not going to have a perfect town meeting.[laughter]
I don’t need to, and actually, a functioning, just-loving society doesn’t need every meeting to go perfectly. I think sometimes one of the things especially within a white supremacist mindset, which, again, I would say most of us were marinated into for living in the US is when we heard somebody like Dr. King talk about the beloved community, we heard the perfect community, rather than what we heard the community where isms don’t happen, and there’s no injustice, and there’s no failures of capacity, and there’s no lapses in judgment, and so on.
Rather than what I think is, which is a community with a capacity to deal with all the messiness and failures of life together with 9 billion people on earth. We’re going to screw it up, we’re going to hurt each other. What will it take for us to deal with those things in ways where we reduce, if not eliminate, harm and suffering due to injustice, but also hopefully, deconstruct and replace systems where generation after generation people are harmed.
Those capacities are lifetimes of practice, both as individuals and collectives. We try to develop tools and things that will help, but we also try to develop personal practices and collective practices that call us back into a faithfulness to that sort of vision and resilience to those capacities within ourselves.[music]
Bob: We’re going to pause our conversation with Bjorn Peterson, right there for now, but you’ll be able to hear the rest of our conversation on the next episode of the Practicing Connection Podcast. Thanks so much to Bjorn, for participating in the conversation, and thanks to you for listening in today. We’d also like to thank our Announcer Kalin Goble, Hannah Hyde, and Terry Meisenbach for their help with marketing, and Nathan Grimm, who composed and performed all the music you hear on the podcast. Thanks again so much for joining us. We hope you’ll tune in next time when we’ll hear more from Bjorn Peterson. In the meantime, keep practicing.[music]
Kalin Goble: The Practicing Connection Podcast is a production of one-off and is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, US Department of Agriculture and the Office of Military Family Readiness policy, US Department of Defense under award number 2019-48770-30366.
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