Creating & Holding Spaces for Growth
This is the fourth in a series of posts written by Graham Leicester and Maureen O’Hara as part of a collaboration between International Futures Forum and Koreo. In previous posts, Graham and Maureen explored how we might learn to read today’s complex landscape better so that we feel more at home in it, and then develop the 21st century competencies we already possess and need now consciously to develop in order to operate effectively in powerful times. This next post considers the spaces that need to be created to enable that growth and development.
Spaces for Growth
What Kinds of Space?
In establishing spaces for our growth, development and learning, there is no single blueprint to follow.
At one level, if this is simply about providing a supportive, non-judgemental, attentive space for another person then, as How to Listen claims, “anyone can do it”. There are simple structures of peer support based on active listening and noticing (“You don’t seem yourself today, are you OK?”) plus conversational micro-competencies for how to respond when people choose to open up.
It is equally important to include a cognitive component. It is often cognitive overload, not being able to make sense of the world, that generates stress and emotional consequences. A walk on the seashore is certainly therapeutic, but a few simple frameworks with which to make cognitive sense of our world are equally valuable. Arguably more so in a professional context where decision-making in conditions of uncertainty and ambiguity is the primary, day-to-day challenge.
Some level of individual and shared competence to support each other in these ways will help to sustain a human system. But what else might be needed to encourage it to grow?
It helps to think here in terms of enabling conditions for growth rather than tools and techniques. The development is experiential, learned through practice. It is stimulated by an approach not a curriculum.
Learners need to find themselves in an artfully convened space: where they feel safe to experiment and explore; able to follow their own path — in the company of others; supported and invited to expand their awareness and their horizons but without being forced down a pre-determined path; open to discovery, challenge and surprise; rooted in life and its demands; able to explore the outer reaches of their imagination and vision — whilst still paying attention to the day job.
Some thoughts follow on the qualities that need to be brought into play to satisfy these functions. They apply equally whether we are considering a physical or a virtual space — or, as is likely in the future, a creative blend of the two.
Safe (Enough) Space
The space for growth and development will be challenging at times, provocative, edgy and uncomfortable. A good adaptive learning space generates enough anxiety to loosen certainties but will also feel safe enough to take a risk, to admit vulnerability, to explore new worldviews and so on.
Some get impatient with this concern for ‘safety’ and ask instead for ‘brave’ spaces where uncomfortable truths can be named and reality engaged. Yet even then, if they are not to be manipulative or oppressive, such spaces will need to operate from a ground of safety. As noted already in discussing the core stance (see previous post), transformative growth requires support.
Laura Pereira and other researchers working to establish ‘transformative spaces’ for this kind of learning in the global South have come up with the notion of ‘safe enough’ spaces to strike this balance. They are spaces sensitive to issues of privilege and/or social oppression and tensions in the specific social context, but not so ‘safe’ that nothing happens. The baseline is that we need to feel psychologically safe, that we are in good hands. Otherwise challenge will trigger defensive anxiety rather than learning.
We each vary a lot in what gives us a sense of security, but we can at least attend to the basics — physical, intellectual, emotional and social.
The physical dimension is most obvious, and also highlights the importance of the physical boundary — a delineation of ‘our’ space that others do not invade without notice. It should be obvious where the perimeter sits and how it is maintained.
The intellectual aspect can either provide baseline security for exploration or add to a sense of confusion and overwhelm. Be mindful of people’s understanding of what is going on. Provide a conceptual framework that is reliable for making sense of events with some acceptable degree of uncertainty. Develop shared language, symbols and metaphors. Feed a common awareness of what is uncertain inherently and what could be clarified with more information.
Pay attention to the emotional landscape. Every thought expressed comes with a feeling. A psychologically safe space is one in which participants become aware of their feelings and are able to bring them into the space, express them, on their own terms.
The social dimensions of persons gathering in groups are legion and mostly unconscious. Here too the primary aim should be to create a space that can bring them to conscious awareness and also make them discussable. Appropriate use of ritual can be helpful. Opening with a silence, celebrating birthdays, naming gratitude at missions accomplished — all this creates a sense of collective membership that adds to psychological safety.
Some of these features might be brought about through technique and physical practices. Others are ‘held’ in the relationships between people — qualities of being and presence rather than doing. Much of the work in creating and maintaining a safe enough space will be subtle and almost invisible, but with attention it is an art that can be learned.
A space prepared for safety subsequently becomes populated with people. Anything is now possible. The human drama can unfold and magic can happen. This is where we can learn a great deal from the world of theatre and the director Peter Brook’s classic volume of essays, The Empty Space.
“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage”, he writes. “A person walks across this empty space while someone else is watching, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”
This is the essence of human interaction. It is also the essence of reflective practice. Between them the actor and the observer have created a space out of nothing, a human space that can now move and expand and enable in any direction.
Keith Johnstone’s fabulous book Impro, on improvisation, starts from the same simple framework — two persons interacting in an empty space — from which whole worlds can be imagined into being.
Brook’s essays beautifully describe the space created and held between actors and audience, which can on occasion transform the base material of ordinary and familiar exchange into something freighted with meaning, “in which each moment is lived more clearly and more tensely”. The mundane is revealed in a new light, we see into the inner life. There is a moment of insight, of transformation.
The effect is created mutually — it lives in the space between actor and audience. As we would expect when the Rogerian principles are honoured, the quality of the audience’s listening and attention raises the quality of the actors’ performance — there are good houses and bad houses. If we are ‘holding’ space for others it is the quality of our attention to that space that will make it potentially transformative.
This is less about doing and more about being, particularly knowing intuitively how long you dare hold the moment without intervention. Brook describes a production of Measure for Measure in which the empty space is filled with silence:
“I asked Isabella, before kneeling for Angelo’s life, to pause each night until she felt the audience could take it no longer — and this used to lead to a two-minute stopping of the play. The device became a voodoo pole — a silence in which all the invisible elements of the evening came together, a silence in which the abstract notion of mercy became concrete for that moment to those present.”
He is eloquent on the role of the director, who is “there to attack and yield, provoke and withdraw, until the indefinable stuff begins to flow.” As already noted, the space must be safe, but within it we need to be brave. That applies as much to the facilitator as to the participants.
There is no easy blueprint, no linear method, no plan. “In a sense the director is always an imposter, a guide at night who does not know the territory, and yet has no choice — he must guide, learning the route as he goes.”
The theatre is living and immediate. “A director learns that the growth of rehearsals is a developing process; he sees that there is a right time for everything, and his art is the art of recognising these moments.” These are literacies. The first step is awareness.
In thinking about learning and development we are not generally trying to coax a performance out of a troupe of actors. But we may be trying to encourage persons to find a character in themselves, an expansion of their day to day capacity, new ways of interacting with or responding to others, something that lies just beyond their learning edge.
What Brook teaches us — alongside some simple exercises for exploring the miracle of human to human communication — is the subtle role of direction in these processes, and the crucial role of everybody in the room in creating the space. Listening grants speaking. We pay attention, like a gift.
The capacity for self-awareness and reflection is a ‘threshold competence’, one that opens up the route to developing other attributes, the key to the treasure within. Harold Bridger described this as ‘the double task’ — to be able to act and reflect on one’s actions at the same time. It is the beginning of wisdom.
The space for growth and development needs to encourage this quality. Therapists are sometimes trained to imagine another version of themselves sitting in the top corner of the room, up against the ceiling, looking down on them as they perform. We can cultivate the same habit in ourselves.
Mindfulness exercises and periods of shared silence can help. Eugene Gendlin’s ‘focusing’ technique helps participants become grounded in a space, aware of themselves and fully present to the ongoing flow of experience. That opens up channels of perception and self-awareness. There is a ritual element too in such shared practices which, as noted previously, can help a group become more aware of itself.
Given that we believe the 21st century competencies are innate, the critical process of growth involves offering people an experience that engages them in some activity and then an opportunity to reflect on it. In this way even in simple events they will discover things about themselves and about the pattern of relationships they find themselves in. Doing this in a group process encourages a diversity of perspectives, multiple ways of knowing and processing a common experience — which accelerates the learning.
This is an approach at odds with the traditional passing on of technical tools or methods, or abstract information. But it is what is required of those professionals likely to be most effective in dealing with complexity and uncertainty in the real world. The challenge today is to make sense of each set of unique circumstances as we go, drawing on reserves of experience, intuition, tacit knowledge and all the hidden skills and capacities that technical rationality has relegated to obscurity. This is a learning stance of reflection in action, an art more than a science.
Indeed, the arts — dance, movement, making, music, poetry and so on — can play an important part in opening new channels of perception and reflection. The space we create will be poorer without them. In particular, they can allow what we might call ‘the transcendent’ to enter the room — a spiritual dimension, a spirit, that informs all of our lives but often dare not speak its name.
The space needs to be expansive, to provide room for and to provoke growth and development in people’s knowing, being and understanding. As noted previously, overwhelm is not just emotional, it is cognitive as well. Some help in coming to terms with the conceptual emergency — what psychologists call working through — will have a beneficial impact on the existential emergency that is inevitably part of transformative learning.
IFF has articulated five critical shifts that can help to enhance our range and understanding in powerful times, moving beyond a traditional Western Enlightenment worldview. These will expand our knowledge literacy and in turn expand any space in which they are incorporated and honoured.
From Subject-Object to Subject-Subject: Many of the triumphs of Enlightenment thinking came from taking the objective viewpoint, separating an observer who is conscious and aware from the thing observed, which is assumed not to be. That is a partial view. It needs to be complemented by a worldview that sees ourselves as subjects and participants — a relational universe.
This is why Carl Rogers insists on the concept of the ‘person’ rather than the ‘individual’. A person exists only in relationship, living a life in a pattern of other lives. Likewise, there are qualities of life, like love and language, that can only be held in common. When we meet subject to subject, the encounter changes both and a new universe unfolds.
The triumphs of Enlightenment reason came from suppressing this subject-subject worldview. Think of it as ‘second order cybernetics’: the difference between phoning home to say you are stuck in traffic and phoning to say that you are traffic
Expand What Constitutes Valid Knowledge: We tend to honour and privilege a small subset of human knowledge based on abstract rationalism. It is the basis of our science, public policy, management, education. In a complex world we need to expand our worldview to include also ‘non-rational’ knowledge as found in the arts, in music, in intuition, in acts of the imagination, in embodied knowledge, in the science of qualities as much as the science of quantities.
We should also reclaim and value collective knowledge that emerges in groups, knowledge that arises out of being in relationship (no one is as intelligent as everyone), knowledge that rests in communities, indigenous knowledge. All knowledge is local, contextual, the product of a culture. In the West we have elevated some forms of knowing over others — see the syllabus at our elite universities. But we need to admit a broader range of knowledge if we are going to make effective decisions in today’s world.
From Organisation to Integrity: This shift is discussed in detail in the book Dancing at the Edge. It is based on the work of Martin Albrow and his observation that an ‘organisation’ is now a dynamic pattern of relationships between its own members and between them and an ever-changing world of competing loyalties and different value systems. It is a human system, a ‘human being’. Albrow calls this an ‘integrity’ — an organisational form that maintains a moral purpose over time and is therefore willing to be held responsible for its actions even in an uncertain world.
Individuals will belong to many different integrities: organisations, political parties, social clubs, the family and so on. Each negotiates its relationship with the world around the four poles of recognition, sovereignty, reciprocity and agency. The integrity model has proven to be a great diagnostic for groups and teams — to help them work together, to work with others, and to identify and maintain their integrity.
Shift in Our Relationship With Time: It is a defining characteristic of Enlightenment thought to make time a measurable and therefore a scarce resource. Some cultures see time as infinite rather than scarce and cyclical rather than linear. In the West we tend to regard natural resources as infinite and time as limited when in reality it is the other way round. This shift encourages us to see and to manage a world of flows rather than stocks. What looks like fixed structure is revealed as slow-moving process. Everything flows — just at different rates.
The cyclical view of time helps to shift our sense of an ending, which is always an echo of our fear of death. We need to complete, to close well — understanding that this is what makes room for the next cycle. An expansive perspective pays attention to endings as much as beginnings, hospice work for the dying culture as much as midwifery for the new.
From Fragmentation to Wholeness: The Enlightenment perspective breaks complex systems down into discrete parts in order to understand them. An expansive perspective favours holism, connection, integration and a systemic view. These are not alternatives but complementary views: the ideal is ‘holism with focus’.
Ultimately the whole is contained in the part, and vice versa. William Blake claimed to be able to see the universe in a grain of sand. We are artists of our own lives, in a pattern of relationship with other lives. We must always be paying attention to our needs as an individual to survive, but equally cannot be healthy alone. This is an inevitable tension — ‘being me and also us’ — which cannot be denied.
Together these five principles offer generous prompting to expand our Enlightenment consciousness to embrace other ways of knowing, thinking and making sense of the world and our place in it. An expansive space will encourage and honour these values and principles.
A space for development, from which one emerges somehow transformed and subtly changed, has an element of magic and mystery about it. It is a ‘liminal space’ — the space between, a limbo, neither the new world nor the old. It is a temporary space, like the enchanted forest or a dream, from which we expect to return — but subtly changed.
The Latin root is ‘limen’ meaning threshold. We cross a threshold into a liminal space, and we do not recognise the territory we find there. It is a land of mystery, uneasiness and discovery.
In some ways the existential emergency stems from just such a condition. In powerful times we have lost faith in the old rules and patterns but not yet found new ones. Gramsci wrote that in this gap “a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”. But equally this can be an opening to learning, growth and expansion.
In a liminal space, between structures, we can be held in our confusion long enough for new patterns of coherence to form. We need a space to hold the crisis, the unknowing. Resist the impulse to settle for quick fixes or one of the ever ready ‘ten steps to wellbeing’ programmes. Look for the creative edge: because we feel something’s brewing that could take us to a new resolution.
People’s psychological defence mechanisms serve a purpose and we must respect that. There is trepidation in stepping into the dark wood. But eventually breakthroughs occur. They are not engineered. They are transforming moments, self-organising, spontaneous. The moment the future becomes present.
The standard metaphor for transformative change is the process by which a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. This is indeed remarkable. The caterpillar weaves itself a cocoon, then effectively dissolves itself into a kind of soup. That soup includes ‘imaginal cells’ which endure the dissolution to act as the foundational structure to reconfigure the rest of the material into a butterfly.
It is an alluring metaphor for human development — the imaginal cells containing a presentiment of the future. But human development is different and altogether more alchemical. We know that a caterpillar will turn into a predestined form of butterfly. But human transformation, individual and collective, is utterly unpredictable. It can happen at any time. And we do not know what will result until it has resulted.
It is imagination, enchantment and surprise that characterise human transformation, not biological process. Coleridge wrote of “the willing suspension of disbelief” that allows us to immerse ourselves in alternative realities for a while. Keats praised a quality of ‘Negative Capability’ — “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
By keeping this in mind we can consciously design spaces that are not just revealing of life, not just facilitative of growth, but capable of enticing us into a parallel alternate realm affording deep insight and unexpected change.
In the next section we encounter the creative practice of Helen Marriage, a producer of such spaces on the grand scale. Like bringing a giant puppet show, ‘The Sultan’s Elephant’, to the streets of London over four days in May 2006. There is footage of David Lammy, then Minister of Culture, standing on the steps of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square addressing the weekend crowd, exulting in the collective rediscovery of belief in “joy, wonder and magic”. They had been drawn into enchantment.
Marriage’s practice, often working with the power of myth and fairy story — familiar sources of other-worldly transformation — involves the public creation of liminal space. It is magic manifesting in real life on a city-wide scale. She introduces a temporary disruption to normal patterns, familiar landscapes. The city becomes a stage. It flexes to accommodate the artistic project and performance. Audience, actors, administrators, city officials, bureaucrats, everyone involved has a part in creating and sustaining the magic.
Once the show is over, everything must return to normal, as if it had never happened. That is part of what makes it liminal and transformative — was that real, or was it all a dream? The streets once again become an ‘empty space’. But the space itself is transformed. It is not possible to walk those same streets now as previously. They have revealed their hidden potential and will forever evoke it in those who were there to see it.
There is a read across here to Hakim Bey’s notion of ‘Temporary Autonomous Zones’, deliberately created at the boundaries of established patterns to provide spaces to escape formal structures of control. Burning Man, a temporary city/festival erected in the Nevada desert every year and now with a hundred regional chapters around the world, is the best-known example. These structures are designed to be temporary and are dismantled after use, on the assumption that anything permanent would deteriorate into formality and lose its creative spirit.
Carl Rogers used this idea to help groups resolve seemingly intractable divisions. His invention of the encounter group in the late 1960s created liminal spaces in which people on different sides of conflict could engage their differences to meet as persons and find ways to mutual respect. Gender, race, sexuality, violence, the war in Vietnam — issues that otherwise seemed too hot to handle — could be explored within the safety of temporary spaces, expertly held.
At a personal level, IFF uses a framework called ‘Power and Edge’ developed by our late friend and colleague Jim Ewing. It suggests that we all have certain go-to competencies, techniques, talents, capacities that we know we can rely on — our ‘power’. These feel reliable and permanent. At the same time we also have other capacities, less developed perhaps, less conscious, but there all the same — our edge. Others can often see our ‘edge’ more clearly than we can (“That time you drew a cartoon for the report, you should do it more often. You’re really good at it.”).
Especially when we are in a crisis or under pressure, we tend to fall back on our power. In order to develop our edge, we need consciously to put our power to one side, to try something else. We need to step across the threshold, into more risky territory. Dancing at the edge.
We are most likely to do so, to expand and grow into our innate capacities, if we are in a safe enough space, a reflective space for rehearsal and discovery, an empty space full of potential, an expansive space inviting us to try on other worldviews for size, and a liminal space — which we understand as temporary, through which we pass, and from which we can and will return.
Last on this short list of the qualities of different kinds of space is prophetic space. It comes last not because it is least. This is perhaps the most powerful kind of space and the most elusive.
The concept draws on the thinking of Walter Brueggemann, an old testament scholar who has written widely on the role of the prophet in society. He identifies the work of what he calls “the prophetic imagination… to walk our society into the crisis where it does not want to go, and to walk our society out of that crisis into newness that it does not believe is possible”. This is a rare, liminal, capacity — to hold people between two worlds, between hope and despair.
In Reality, Grief, Hope: three urgent prophetic tasks Brueggemann explores the enabling conditions for this quality of prophetic imagination to be expressed, especially in moments of crisis.
First, we must embrace the reality of what has occurred and what is revealed. He speaks of facing up to reality where it might clash with official ideology. Then we can acknowledge our pain and grieve for what is lost: grief in the midst of denial. Only after such preparation can we fashion an authentic hope, a mature hope that is not fantasy or escapism, a hope that engages with reality, a hope that speaks to and springs from our moral core.
Brueggemann’s inquiry concerns how to restore the church as a space in which the prophetic voice might be heard. For the voice of prophecy is drawn from us by the ‘space’ we find ourselves in. It arises, he says, “in a way that contradicts the evident facts on the ground, contradicts what the listener expected to hear, and contradicts what the speaker intended to say”. It comes “from elsewhere”.
Brueggemann highlights Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech as the voice of prophetic imagination. “What King does is fill the space in the liminal season of US life between old failed racism and new human community with the cadences of possibility.” We might also have heard this voice at the Inauguration of President Biden in January 2021 in the stirring words of a young poet, Amanda Gorman, who proclaimed that America is not broken just unfinished.
What kind of a space can bring forth this voice? Brueggemann calls on us to nurture spaces of imagination “in which unuttered possibility is uttered, thoughts beyond our thoughts are thought, and ways beyond our ways are known”. This is the highest bar — but consistent with all that has gone before.
Hosts and Guides
To conclude this exploration, it is worth taking a moment to think about two important roles required for all of these spaces: hosts and guides.
There is a vast storehouse of resources for anyone wishing to host generative gatherings, many written during the heyday of personal growth workshops which began in California in the 1960s and spread around the globe allowing an entire generation to push themselves to their liminal edge.
Priya Parker offers a rich and valuable contemporary guide in her The Art of Gathering. She is particularly good on openings and endings, the liminal, threshold-crossing moments for a group or a gathering that effectively frame and create a space. She observes, for example, that the space opens as soon as you issue the invitation.
On hosting itself she identifies the need for somebody to exercise ‘generous authority’ — in other words to hold authority in service of the group. The host’s role is to protect the guests (ensure a safe space), to equalise the guests (have them participate as equals) and to connect the guests (perform introductions, turn the individuals into a group).
She suggests that we can rely on ‘etiquette’ for a cohesive group that has absorbed a common culture, where the rules of behaviour can remain unwritten. Otherwise we need Rules, which help to establish ‘a temporary world’. Rules rather than etiquette allow for greater diversity. And the purpose of the gathering, the purpose of establishing the space, should act as the bouncer on the door. Though not always possible to prevent, persons who do not share the purpose of the gathering should not be admitted to the space.
To act as a guide in these spaces, into and through the territory of growth, development and possibility, can be challenging and is more an art than a science. Dante chose the poet Virgil to guide him through purgatory (another liminal space) in his Divine Comedy and the female presence of Beatrice to complete the journey through Heaven.
Gerard Egan, whose The Skilled Helper offers what has become a widely used approach to person-centred counselling, likewise suggests that a certain degree of worldly wisdom, an expertise in “the fundamental pragmatics of life”, is required to be a confident and competent guide.
Carl Rogers offered his own thoughts on the role in an essay from 1969. He outlines a number of propositions which resonate nicely with the qualities of space already discussed.
Guides, he suggests, should make available the widest possible range of opportunities for learning — including themselves as a resource for the group. They should be alive to both the intellectual content and the emotional feelings expressed, or not expressed, in the group, being particularly alert for anything indicative of deep or strong feelings.
Once the tone and climate of the group is established, Rogers suggests that the guide can increasingly become “a participant learner, a member of the group”. Throughout, as a facilitator of learning, the leader “endeavours to recognise and accept his or her own limitations”.
The takeaway message, just as in Peter Brook’s essays, is that the guide is in the process, not just managing it. Audience and actor are one, co-creating an experience from which they both learn and through which they might both be transformed.