Bjørn Peterson – Clarity, Courage and Creativity, Part 2 (S.3, Ep. 8)

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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 second part of our conversation. We discussed seeing ourselves less individually and more as part of an interdependent system, using songs, poetry and visual arts to come to challenging conversation “on slant,” and more.

Listen to Part 1 of our conversation.

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Transcript

Intro: [music] Welcome to Practicing Connection, a podcast exploring the personal stories 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 Birch.

Bob Bertsch: Hey, thanks for joining us for the podcast. I’m Bob Bertsch. We’re so excited to have you along as we continue our conversation with Dr. Bjørn Peterson, Bjørn helps social change agents find and sustain clarity, courage, and creativity in his role as a consultant, speaker and facilitator with Looking Bear leadership, he holds a PhD in community resources and development and has studied communication and group identity as well as transformational leadership.

We had a great conversation with Bjørn, and we’re going to pick it up in this episode as Jessica shares a little bit of her experience with difficulty in speaking up in difficult workplace situations.

Jessica Beckendorf: I was coming from a place of seeing a lot of silence and a lot of people in that silence reinforcing status quo. I’m not blaming the people who are silent because part of my experiences come from workplace bullying. I was in a couple of different workplace bullying scenarios earlier in my career. Pretty awful ones.

I was the one who was always raising the alarm. Sometimes a little quietly, but have always felt like if I don’t say anything at all, at great– frankly at great risk, I was always saying something at really great risk. Then when I went into community development practice, I saw a lot of community meetings where people who were very powerful just being reinforced while others were being oppressed. When people said something about it, they were either ignored, which contributes to people not saying anything, right.

I guess people like me are gluttons for punishment and just will keep saying something. I just really appreciate that list of questions that you had earlier, Bjørn, where you’re like, Okay, thinking about this space, if I say something what’s it serving? How is– being really thoughtful about that I think is helpful because emotionally it’s hard to constantly be the person who’s trying to raise the alarm about something and everyone’s ignoring you, or they are seeing you as insignificant somehow, or you’re alone because no one else is speaking up either.

Maybe I just have a big mouth, but that’s where my comments were coming from. In a team setting when I’ve witnessed and been part– not been part of, I engaged in workplace bullying, but I was the target. Other people would come to me individually and say, “I see what’s happening.”

I’m like, Oh my gosh, if we all got together, this is a small enough team that we could stop this, but they wouldn’t do anything. Things like that I think are, that’s where my comments were coming from, that the other people in the room can have some,– but yes, it is at great risk potentially, and it’s maybe not even fair to ask them to.

Bjørn Peterson: No, no, it’s, I think that last point is really important. It’s really not fair and it’s not fair for so many reasons, but especially in my mind, just because we hope that collectives and communities would more often mobilize for the part of them that’s hurting ,that’s suffering. And so often, it doesn’t seem like they do.

The loneliness of that is quite a thing. I think what’s fascinating, there’s a lot of ways you could go with that reflection, but one of the things that’s fascinating to me to ask and think about in terms of what I know about you, Jessica, is that the experience that you’re drawing on, to have that insight is also a source of power and empowerment in you as you potentially act for others with others.

I think I can speak for myself, my own lifelong journeys with things like depression, I think I was in a lot of spaces where the depression was seen as a failure. It was seen just an indicator of unhealth. Which especially in American culture often correlates with a failure, a moral failure on my own part. If I’m unhealthy, I’ve morally failed myself, my body, and so on.

It took me a lot of years and a lot of self-awareness and reflection and some helpful reframing by other communities and other traditions than some of the ones that I was immediately exposed to in life to recognize that actually my deep familiarity with sadness and suffering and un-wellness is part of my superpower if you will. It’s part of what has me tuned into the things I’m tuned into.

In some ways, like your earlier statement about am I, do I care about relationships and personal connection because I’m bad at them or because I’m good at them? The answer is yes, for each of us.

It’s yes, totally. It’s, we’ve had bad relationships that have taught us something about what good relationships ought to be, and we’ve had good relationships that make us think critically and reflectively on the bad relationships we’ve had. Gosh, why didn’t that work and so on?

To take it out to like this broader scale for a second to think about it in terms of scalability and how and why this conversation relates to so many others is there’s a way in which we can think about the whole of humanity, the whole of Earth frankly, and all the sentient beings and living creatures and so on that we’re a part of as a single living organism. This isn’t my idea, loads of people have said this and understood it.

If we are analogous to a single living body, for instance, and you are a white blood cell whose job it is within the system to not do everything and to not respond to everything, but to respond to what you are formed in that body to do, how wonderful and lovely it is that we have you and how wonderful and lovely and important it is that others discover what it is within them that’s happening through the whole.

That means too, that in a community space, whether it’s a public space or a retreat or an organization or a group, asking yourself what’s going on in the whole is useful, but it’s not necessarily important to say, “What if I acted like so and so across the way or wouldn’t, what if they acted more like me?” Although sometimes there’s multiple white blood cells. so it’s not like you’re necessarily alone, but the point is just to go, if we think of this space that we’re a part of as an ecosystem, as an ecology, as a body with different things interacting, if I sit down into what I think my role is and I trust that you also have one, and that at your most highest capacity, your healthiest functioning, you are just as important to the system working as a whole as I am.

There’s for me at least both energy and hope, and the things I need to keep going and to keep trying, to keep working on these incredibly complex and difficult situations that we’ve got unmentionable numbers of, I take a lot of hope in that and there’s a part of me too that goes well, that’s why practicing connections as an idea, as an initiative is so valuable.

Not because maybe someday it’ll be number one on Stitcher, but because at least for those other white blood cells or whatever, boy are they helped to know that they’re not alone in setting this alarm off. To being this thing that sees and responds in a certain way in the world and therefore helps the world as a whole.

I then also can let go of the people I think aren’t enough like me and I can send them on their way and be like you go be not-me because we need some not-mes. We need mostly not-mes.

Bob: I love what you said Bjørn. I love the analogy and I would love to for us to continue to riff on it, but I’m going to use it as a jumping-off point to talk about something that we talked a little bit about outside of the podcast, the three of us have, and I think as you put it, coming at things at a slant because I think that’s what we maybe did a little bit there is your analogy about the world as an organism and as part of it allowed us to shape our thinking in a way that maybe would not have been possible if we did it another way.

I wonder if you can talk a little bit about your thoughts on using creativity and art and literature and music, and things like that to get into these conversations that may be some of the difficult ones that Jessica brought up earlier.

Bjørn: Yes. There’s some well-known ideas in poetry and I want to say it’s Emily Dickinson and somebody out there is going, it’s not Emily Dickinson and I can’t think of that person’s name so my apologies to–

Bob: Well make sure they call you out on Twitter. [chuckles]

Bjørn: There you go. It’s this idea that poetry, especially as an art form, comes at things on slant and it has this way of sneaking up on you and it’s why a good song can sneak up on you and you’re listening to it and you’re listening to it and you’re like this is pretty good and then they turn a corner and a line hits you and you’re just like, whoah, how did I not feel that coming?

But Parker Palmer, another thinker in the social change activism space that I think he talks about the wild animal of the soul that lives inside each of us. This idea that this inner teacher, this person, whatever you ant to call it, this thing that’s within us that speaks with clarity to us, that teaches us things that is a space of soul, or of wisdom, of enlivening, its quite shy.

Not unlike a wild animal, it’s shy and if you startle a wild animal, it will run and you may not see it again but if you are gentle and careful and thoughtful, you may be able to stay in the presence of a wild animal or thinking in terms of a skittish dog. If you’ve ever been around a skittish dog that’s growling and barking or seems a little bit of aggressive, but if you turn your shoulders so that they’re not facing and you turn your eyes slightly at a slant, your body is at a slant to the dog, and you hold out your hand and you show that you’re trustworthy and that you’re not a threat, then all of a sudden you may be able to befriend that dog, or that dog may find peace with you at the very least and just calm down and lay over there. They may not become your best friend, but a certain stability and trustworthiness to the relationship you’re going to have is established.

It’s this idea that there are these things in life that come at us on slant and because of that, it opens up a capacity and a spaciousness within our minds and bodies to encounter something we might not otherwise have been able to encounter.

A lot of my interest in this comes through the idea of metaphors and metaphor work that does so much framing for the type of relationship or the type of encounter that we’re going to have. Thinking about earlier when I was talking about the meeting space, for instance, and what kind of space people believe they’re coming into, a lot of our civic spaces that are really transformative are based on things like arts practice or they’re based on play where people are allowed to–

When you play, you can miss a shot. The famous American saying is like if you miss 7 out of 10 times in baseball hitting, you can still be a hall of fame player if that’s your career average, but in the civic space, we are often like, if 7 out of 10 things I say at a public meeting seem like a miss, I’m done. No one’s going to listen to me, I’m not going to participate and so on. So the lack of play or the lack of creative expression that comes into these spaces often contributes to the perfectionism and to the lack of spaciousness that we give one another.

So how we create space, how we practice connection using things that don’t send us into defensive positions, that don’t send us running because they scare us or that keep us present long enough to listen to something we didn’t think we were going to hear or be able to hear are really valuable in this kind of work that we’re talking about.

Jessica: Bjørn that I think can also translate to if you serve clients one-on-one and you’re supposed to be the “expert” in the room and 7 out of 10 times, it’s a miss, it could be very difficult for your client to feel they can trust you and at the same time I think about words of wisdom from Adrienne Maree Brown in her book Emergent Strategy, one of the strategies is to trust the people

And so I think as a facilitator or as a service provider of any kind, you not only have to trust the people that are coming into the room in that they bring all kinds of knowledge about their own lives and about themselves and about their feelings about whatever topic it is or whatever it is you guys are gathering around, but also, you need to trust yourself to serve in a way that walks that line, that is fully open while also making sure to build that trust along the way.

I think you still can play. It’s just like you said, Bjørn, 7 out of 10 times in like a public forum if it’s a miss, that’s difficult. In adults coming together, I think I’ve told you this before, it’s one of the reasons why I love being a practitioner of applied improvisation because when I see adults play, it is incredible, it is transformational, it is beautiful and yet how do we bring more of that play and that interplay and exploration? I’ve said that before, exploration with each other both in one-on-one settings and in these group settings where people are trying to look to you to maybe be an expert of some sort. That was a lot. Sorry.

Bjørn: No, it’s good stuff and there’s so many things that brings up. Some of the things that get in our way of play are some of the things that we can try to address ahead of time to a certain extent. Sometimes, look truthfully I’m the person for whom certain play are really going to set me off, and that has to do with my own personal trauma, my own personal background, things I experienced earlier in life that make me– for a long time I thought I was just like a grump and didn’t want to do certain things. I was like, “Bjørn, get over yourself and do this.”

It wasn’t actually until some reflection on white supremacy culture and some of the religious spaces that I was a part of where I started to realize, oh no, this is my body and mind going, alert, alert, alert like there’s unhealthy decisions ahead in this play but you can’t.

Jessica: Trusting play is hard, especially with past experiences for sure.

Bjørn: Totally. My point is certainly not that you’re going to be able to find play that avoids all other people’s trauma. You’re not. You just can’t know what particular painful thing has happened in the past of every person who comes into the room, but some diversity, some variety helps quite a bit in terms of that.

What I think is so amazing about, say improv or something else that gets us out of our metaphorical, the way we are organized, metaphorically– and I mean this in terms of sometimes like face-to-face, and it goes back this slant idea, it goes back to this us versus them idea is that we are set up to have a certain proximity and relate in experiences when we encounter someone physically in a certain way.

If I have a hug, there’s certain things that physiologically and emotionally, mentally should go on in theory if I’m healthy, but if I sit down face-to-face with all my people next to me and you sit down across from me, then like I have a similar, there’s a prophecy spoken into the space that’s usually self-fulfilling. Play, like improv can disrupt that.

The other thing that I really like, I’m about to do it with a group here in a couple of weeks again is take people on walks in the woods, silent walks to think about an issue. We pose a question, we put a lot of time and thought into the questions that we ask, but we might explore something like workplace dynamics, for instance since that came up. We invite people to find new metaphors in the environment to give expression to older experiences or current experiences in order to hopefully open up new ways of thinking about it because we can become quite ingrained in our structures and our patterns of thinking.

This area of work brought me into the study of metaphor analysis and so on, because I was curious about how did the stories that we tell reveal some of what’s going on within us from an identity standpoint as community workers? And so I did some work in India and some other places and made some similar observations in Scotland and South Africa and of course here in the States. One of the things I noticed is that we tend to play out organizational metaphors or structural metaphors again and again where we have characters and our stories might vary, but there are characters in the world, there are forces in the world and we make sense of the world and therefore choose our corrective action or intervention or whatever in the world based on those characters that we create, those stories that we tell and retell.

Metaphors are always a partial explanation of any phenomenon or any story. For instance, if I say that we were arguing, you would draw on metaphors that you have for arguing in order to make sense of my story, and for many of us, who might have drawn on a metaphor or conceptual metaphor, for instance, that George Lakoff pointed out, which is that argument is war.

Meaning that it’s the kind of argument where I shot down your ideas and you there was going to be one winner and it was a battle of attrition, or it was whatever, but this tells you the character of the interaction we had and those types of conceptual metaphors that live deeply within our lived experiences and our interpretations of previous experiences help set the expectations and ground rules and horizons of possibility for future interactions.

Whereas if I had told you that we had an argument, but you understood that argument was dance, then you might have thought, so you went around and around and you fall, you led, sometimes they led sometimes. Now I’m evoking a completely different potential experience of the same reported thing, argument.

This is partly what metaphor work can help us do in communities or collectives, is it can help us access metaphors that open up possibilities and conditions and interactions and relationships that we have tended to look past, because we just think, if I tell you that our problem as a team is that all we can ever do is argue and I’m thinking in terms of war because that’s how it’s played out, what way out of those habits of interaction might we find if the next time we started feeling like we were arguing, one of us could name to say, could we have this discussion as though we were dancing? It’s so weird and I don’t know about it and it sounds dumb and whatever, but could we just try it and just see where it goes, and just see if just a tiny little bit more spaciousness might be found?

And in the best examples that I’ve seen, people find whole new organizing metaphors for problems that they have just not been able to get past because they used to think their funding model was a brick wall and now they think it’s a dry river bed. For some reason, that shift in metaphor allows new possibilities and new wonderings to come along to create possibility and capacity where it wasn’t just hours or days before.

Jessica: I have a question about this because I’ve worked with a lot of different groups and I’ve even implemented some of the work that you’ve done. In fact I was very much attracted to this idea of coming at things at a slant and even using the art, literature, music.

But I have to say that when I work with groups, that’s the part that I think they have the toughest time with and frankly, it’s the part that I understand. Yet I would like to learn a lot more and I’d like to learn to do this better.

So how, practically, can you go from thinking for instance, your funding model to really shifting that metaphor, because I don’t know, has that been your experience too, that groups have a hard time with this idea of completely changing? It’s changing a complete mental model really.

Bjørn: It is. It’s a big ask. There are two things that I try to keep in mind, and one is that we don’t have to land on the perfect metaphor right away. In fact, part of what we’re trying to do is suggest that the metaphor might be more dynamic than we’ve tended to have it be. Just giving it permission to not need to be singular and perfect is a big important permission thing.

Then second of all, part of why I do this where I try to pose these questions in the walk through the woods is because if we want people to draw on lots of different metaphors, but then we ask them in a conference room around a plastic table and the same IKEA furniture or whatever, that’s in every single room and they’re going to all just turn into like, maybe we should be a Swedish furniture company and that is obviously not the goal.

Jessica: What I see over and over is we just need to come together, write down the tasks, assign the tasks and break. That’s all I ever see.

Bjørn: Yes, totally. I think part of it too is that for many of us, for one, we don’t always understand the way our own minds work. All this can sound a little bit weird and so actually from a pedagogical standpoint, from a learning philosophy standpoint, there is value in explaining to a certain extent what we’re trying to do. I’m going to say five things and you’re going to be like, I do all five of those, five of those things and then we’ll have to have more conversation.

Explaining the pedagogical value is can be valuable. Also to a certain extent– and I don’t know what you do, but for instance, I like to bring some different options to get them started at least. Sometimes what I’ll have groups do as a way of introduction and also introducing music into, for instance, the experience is say, so what you’re talking about in my context is the cycle of praxis idea where people are trying to unpack a lived experience to identify felt needs and address those felt needs.

Then they get to a point in the process where there it’s suggested that they draw on ways of knowing beyond the academic and if I put it that way, most of us would be like, I don’t know what that means. What should I do? So fair enough, but what I will sometimes do or invite people to do is think about to introduce themselves to the experience using a song or a poem or an object and to say bring an object that represents for you some way that you are experiencing this issue that we gathered to talk about.

That’s where all of a sudden participants might bring in stuff that’s totally off the wall. I’ve done this in a lot of different ways, but everything from songs where it’s like, play us a song and here’s what we’re going to do. Today is going to be about listening to good music. Who doesn’t love that? You’re going to feel like it’s a waste. Trust me, it may be. Get used to some waste and we can come back to that in a second

But the point is, where we would be like, “All right, Bjørn, tell us about this. I don’t know this Lizzo song that you want us to listen to. It’s about Damn Time.” All right. I’m going to say, “So the song I brought today, my name’s Bjørn. The song I brought today It’s About Damn Time by Lizzo, and here’s why it makes me think of the situation we’re in. Let’s listen to it.” We listen to it. Everyone hears it, they get to reflect on what I was saying, and then as a facilitator, I’d say, “Bjørn, any other thoughts on that before we move on? Thanks for sharing.”

Maybe he goes, I” forgot to say that it was because of this, and this, and this. All right, cool. Thank you. Moving on, Jessica, tell us about your song.” It just gets people, for one, it allows a piece of art to do the self-expression that, for those of us who spend a lot of time on self-awareness become quite practiced at. But for a lot of people, it’s like, I don’t know. What do you mean by self-awareness?

What do you mean talking about myself? What do you mean by any of this?

So giving people things outside of their own tongue, out of their own mouth, some way to introduce themselves, allows them to start thinking in terms of the cultures, and the circles that they’re a part of. What it also does is it fills the room with metaphor. It fills the room with imagery and objects, and poetry that later Bob can be like, “I didn’t think about this at all, and I had never heard of Lizzo, but actually, there’s that line in it, and what Bjørn said it meant to him, that’s exactly what I’ve been thinking, and been feeling.”

It now starts the communication between me, Bob, and the room that wasn’t there at the beginning, because we didn’t know how to access that language. I think especially in some of the communities that we’re a part of, y’all are in Wisconsin, North Dakota, I’m here in Minnesota. People who come from my Northern European backgrounds sometimes, we’re not always effusive, and [laughs] we don’t always give you lots of data to work with when we’re listening. Sometimes we’re like, no, that’s not right. Okay, and that’s it.

Jessica: We’re really nice most of the time. [laughs]

Bjørn: Really quietly nice [laughs] How do you draw people out, and how do you make sure too that the same voices aren’t dominating? That’s another useful way where you can go through, or have some people bring an object that represents the situation that they’re in, or an object that represents the courage that they feel, or the reason that they’re deciding to act, Right? Any of that can be valuable and provides material for the room that’s not just about what you brought too, which can be useful, but how do you get more people involved in the curation of that cultural material than just, for instance, again, me as the white heterosexual overeducated man

One of the things that I take some personal, and professional solace is hearing about Stephen Hawking, who wrote A Brief History of Time, who’s this crazy physicist. He spent a good chunk of his life– and people can blow me up on Twitter correcting me later too on this, but he spent a good chunk of his life, and work explaining the universe in one way, and being all in on it.

Then he changed, and basically spent the second half of his life refuting his own groundbreaking theories. There’s a part of me that’s like, “Yes, I’m not Stephen Hawking, but I’m comfortable with the idea that I might revise all of this in a few years,” and knowing that that could be true liberates me a little bit at the moment to just go, “I’m not here to be a guru. I don’t need that kind of pressure [laughs]. I’m not that perfect, and I don’t want that attention. If somebody comes along and can do this differently, or better, that’s great. I’m reading you this poem because I am and somebody else didn’t. I don’t know what to tell you.” [laughs]

It’s weird. There’s this wonderful meeting that happens, and if you read my journals, you’d find they’re full of me coming home at the end of a day, where I felt like I was so vulnerable with a group, and they met me there, and I am always like, “Holy man, it happened again. I can’t believe that humans respond to vulnerability with generosity, and hospitality,” because so often, it feels like they don’t, but in actual human-to-human relationships, not when I’m on social media, and I can throw bombs from behind my computer, but when I’m actually with other humans boy, there’s something good in us that does so often respond, and not every time and I have those traumatic experiences as well, but it is beautiful, and I do take hope in all the times it does happen.

Bob: Oh, Bjørn, I want to thank you so much for being on this episode of Practicing Connection. It’s been a wonderful conversation, and I think I speak for Jessica too. We’re so thankful to have this opportunity to learn from you and learn with you, and hopefully, we can talk again soon. Thanks so much.

Bjørn: Thanks so much for having me. It’s been a real treasure.

Jessica: I had so much more I wanted to talk about. We’re going to have to continue this conversation. [laughs]

Bjørn: Can’t wait.

Bob: I want to thank you, our listeners as well for joining us for this conversation. We’d also like to thank our announcers Kalin Goble, Hannah Hyde, and Terry Meisenbach for their help with marketing, and Nathan Grimm, of course, who composed, and performed all the music you hear on the podcast. Thanks, Nathan. Finally, thanks for joining us, and I hope that you’ll join us again real soon. In the meantime, keep practicing.

Outro: The Practicing Connection Podcast is a production of OneUp, 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 ward number 209-487-730-360.

[00:36:35] [END OF AUDIO]

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