Uncertainty and emergence
Episode 06: This week we’re talking to Arielle Goodman, Jenny Hegland and Jessica Srikantia.
We talked about:
Otto Schwarmer and the MIT Presencing Institute
Arielle, Jenny and Jessica are a team of colleagues that has been working together for the past six months to discover how they might be of service as a collective. Their work exists in cultivating the spaces between, such as in-between people during times of transition and not knowing, spaces within our own selves, or the connective tissue of complex systems. Together, they explore what is possible in and from wholeness. They are committed to transforming themselves into alignment with life, so that they can support this work in the broader world inclusive of and beyond their individual selves. Their areas of expertise include navigating uncharted terrain in times of uncertainty, helping systems see and sense themselves, and practicing sacred relationships with team and stakeholder groups.
Carol: Welcome. Arielle, Jessica and Jenny to the podcast. I'm very excited for today's conversation. I'm really curious just to get started and to give people some context. What brought each of you to this work? How did you guys come to start working together in the way that you are?
Arielle: I'd be happy to speak a little bit of our origin story, and then I'm going to invite Jenny and Jessica to kind of feed forward with me. I had started taking, U lab course through the presencing Institute MIT. And one of the questions that they ask is who are your partners in the work? A lot of theory, U is based in awareness based systems change, and thinking centering relationships in everything we do. And I had met Jessica synchronistically through an organization that I was employed for. And I had met Jenny, at a social justice event. And for some reason, in sitting with this question of what is my work aligned to life, who are my partners in this work, I kept on thinking of these two humans and it was kind of like the universe was asking me to pay attention. So I invited them to come together and start kind of sensing into what is our relationship and what is our shared work.
Jessica: And as Arielle mentioned, she was the connector for me to meet Jenny and vice versa. And, just one other piece I'll add is the synchronicity of, Arielle and I actually emailed each other at exactly the same moment about working together that Arielle initially thought her email had bounced back to her.
Jenny: That's awesome. I don't remember if I've heard that part of the story. That's great. And the one thing I would add is that I feel like when we first came together, I think one of the things I'm learning to do is to trust the intelligence in my body and everything in my body said, okay. These are people that I can learn from. These are people that I can deal with. These are people that are already bringing out like my most authentic self and like noticing that experience in myself and thinking like, absolutely, yes, this is what I want more of.
Carol: Awesome. Thank you. So you guys say that a part of your expertise includes navigating uncharted terrain in times of uncertainty. And the truth is of course we never know what the future will hold and we're always in the midst of uncertainty. Yet I think we often are kind of lulled into the idea that we kind of live in this illusion that we have control and we can plan and predict. And as a country and even the world, we certainly are in the midst of a time when uncertainty is just impossible to ignore. How are you seeing this particular moment and what do you see may be emerging in it?
Jessica: I can start with a few words on this moment. I think what you said about uncertainty being hard to ignore is very, very true, and it's even felt to me that we're almost living in a moment with no future in the sense that everything feels like it can change immediately. And so from this place, if it actually is forcing all of us to be living in this here and now, and one of the things that Otto Scharmer talks about is that, and this comes from the yogis, enlightened people talk about this, that the present moment is, actually a point that then it has both the past and the future in it and you can respond in two ways. You can respond by opening into the past and bringing the past into the present and the future. Or you can respond by, by integrating oneself and integrating into this present moment and opening into this future that is actually also here now and wanting to emerge.
Carol: And what do you see may be emerging?
Jenny: So the first thing I want to say is that the willingness to navigate this uncharted terrain is more of a commitment to practice than it is an area of expertise. None of us have been here before. And so I don't know that any of us can claim a traditional definition of expertise, meaning we sort of know what we need to do or how to do it. However, what I think that may be emerging in this moment and that we are embracing is an invitation to be in relationship with each other and ask ourselves different kinds of questions. So we've all heard that, you know, we move in the direction of our questions, energy follows attention and all that good stuff. And I think we really believe that. And so the moment, or what's emerging in this moment, this invitation to ask ourselves different kinds of questions for us, really centers a lot in drawing our attention to the source, the place from which we are doing our work and the place from which we are seeing the landscape around us. Right. So we can no longer rely on the map, but we can rely on what I think is our collective ability to see and sense. What is the landscape that we are in, in a given moment, then from that place of awareness together, to sense into how we can move, how we can collectively move and live within that landscape and within the reality of what it is.
Arielle: I'll just add. I think that there's a level of intimacy around the experience of navigating the unknown right now that is intelligent. That the habituated responses and patterns that are fundamental to us being humans in what we do with uncertainty, bringing awareness and seeing what comes up in us and then from a place of consciousness and choice, choosing to move in a different direction. And what's wild is that intimate experience of something that's just so innate or so normal actually allows us as human beings to sense and see the systems that we exist in today. And ask questions. How do those systems serve us? How are they harming us? Are they aligned to all of life and how we are deeply interconnected? And I think that there is so much exceptional learning. That brings our personal intimate experience to, to something that can can't always be felt and experienced or sometimes invisible. So it feels like a very, very important time in this moment in history and the present really.
Carol: Can you give me an example to, to ground that and just a little more specificity and concreteness?
Arielle: So whether that's income employment, looking at the rates of unemployment right now, whether that's people having access to, okay. I want to challenge myself to bring in my personal experience, rather than talking about an experience that's outside of myself. So tomorrow morning, I'm about to drive 12 hours to pick up my mom and grandma who have lived in Chicago their whole lives. And they're about to relocate to Texas. To be closer to my sister. Who's about to have her first baby. My grandma's in her eighties. Look at what's happening with the pandemic right now. We are seeing a surge of COVID cases in Houston, where she's about to relocate. What do I notice in myself? What do I notice in my family? In navigating something that I don't have control over, wanting to know answers, wanting to know that I'm making the right decision, wanting to be able to control this journey that is about to happen. And then inviting myself to sit with the discomfort of not knowing and that I don't have control over these things. And what that experience is like. And the pain or fear or sadness, and also love and passion and like fight or resilience, all of those things, holding all of that complexity and sitting with that and not knowing and feeling that in my body.
Carol: You, you talked about the habituated patterns and so six months ago you would've packed up for that trip. It probably would have been about logistics, you know, do I have, did I remember my charger to make sure that I can access the GPS to get me to Chicago and you know, did I bring enough clothes? Where are we going to stay along the way? And then a simple, it seems like something relatively simple then in this time it amplifies in terms of all of the things that, you know, our concerns. And I was thinking just a simple thing, like watching a movie where a ton of people are walking down the street together suddenly is an uncommon thing. And, you know, all of those things that we took for granted, four months ago, and then, with the protest going on, I guess my hope is that there's a waking up and more people, more white people are stepping into educating themselves. And looking at how systems have been, benefiting them and hurting them also. And ways that how can, how can we live into something different? How can we start dismantling those systems?
Jenny: It is all there. And I just want to acknowledge that in this circle right now, the four of us are women who walk in the skin of white bodies. And so just to acknowledge that that is the voice from which I am speaking in this moment. But something you said is really the hope that we will continue to educate ourselves and acknowledge the ways in which we have benefited from the systems of oppression and I want to bring in here that one of my commitments and one of my invitations to all of us is that we would also be together in both individually and collectively actually, commit to healing ourselves and the work of healing because, systems of oppression have had the traumatizing impacts on all of us in very different ways. However, the ways in which we've all been born into a collectively traumatized culture, are being illuminated, in a deep way. And so I want to invite all of us for a moment, maybe to think what this might mean for us. because I'm, I'm really seeing also that what is emerging in this moment is an opportunity for us to start to integrate and work at the intersection of feeling individual collective healing and social justice and social change. Right. Because I am not sure that these things can actually be pulled apart. And that's a very different way of understanding the ecosystem than it was for me in the past. So I'm curious also to you, Carol, like what do you, what comes up for you when you hear this? Like, what is our, what are we learning about this? I think we're really just starting. To understand, especially this piece on collective trauma.
Arielle: Jenny mentioned earlier in the conversation that a lot of our work is talking about the source from which we operate from one of the phrases that comes that is used a lot by Otto Sharma and the presencing Institute team in theory you is the quality of an intervention is dependent on the interior condition of the intervener. So the notion that the blind spots are the shadows that I hold within myself. We then I will see in the work that I do externally out into the world in my relationships in organizations and the systems, so the question I'm holding you know, as if we are individually in collecting collectively birthing something new, where do we want that place to come from, what are those nutrients, what are those seeds but really I'm thinking about wholeness is aligned to light, and if there isn't an integration of these different pieces that we've lacked back in the past or harm that we've stuck in a corner we're going to see that reproducing itself in the future. So thinking about where do we want to operate from, what do we want to hold in ourselves to then birth and midwife, this new system that is in service to life.
Jessica: And this connection of our own interconnectedness that we are actually, we're not separate, is I think also becoming ever more apparent in this moment. And on the one hand, than the need to do our own healing to get to the place where we can engage in ways that are, that are actually contributing positively, and at the same time, they need to. From that place, to hear all the different voices, especially the voices that have been marginalized because this racism and white supremacy are fueled by attentional blindness. And so this is a moment where the system is actually through video and all kinds of other means that we are all, we are, we are the realities of marginalized peoples in this society are being brought in to the reality of everyone's everyday life, and that is an incredible opportunity and those, and the people who are experiencing the structural violence of the system are the experts on it and they're the ones who really carry wisdom of alternatives in my family and genealogy, through so much, the totality of the colonization in identifying with the system that I have, I have lost in need and have been in a process of rebuilding, so the alternatives, and the possibilities, we need to really hear, and transform the relationships of power from power over to power with and transform the attentional blind spots into truly inclusive honoring and listening and the dignity and sacredness of all, all life and using those opportunities to rebuild the relationships in how we exist so our food systems the sanitation systems all these systems that materially support our existence on the planet that those need to be re woven, on the basis of sacred relationship, not exploitative relationship.
Carol: I want to give you an amen. Something that you said Jenny struck me that the notion of bringing together, working towards justice and healing. One of the things that I've appreciated from the inception of the Black Lives Matter movement and the movement for black lives, and even before the hashtag that folks, organizing within that movement, we're prioritizing healing, we're prioritizing self care, in a way that I don't think was at the forefront in past activists movements probably a part of that's kept me away from the notion of activism, is that in some ways it has felt dehumanizing, because it has an incorporated any space for person to be a person, and to end the hill, and so much that that folks are learning about all the things you're talking about the structural violence generational trauma, and and yes, as you said, Jessica, for white people, those things are some are coming into awareness that have been there for forever. Well for a long time, and get hidden.
Jenny: And just to speak into that as well. That, one of the things, one of the dimensions of this connecting back to organizations is that our normal quote unquote, normal organizational culture is actually set up on this colonial domination logic and so everything from, the power over, to the emphasis on, people like using people as, Yeah.
Carol: all the things, the ways that we name these things.
Jessica: And so this, this, what we born into a culture and a society that is actually on a domination logic, already in trauma as Thomas who will talks about. And, and so, so, so much of the work is also in waking up to these things that we have just assumed and imbibed and embodied and finding the ways to heal and transform collectively,
Jenny: I think that related to our the illusion of there being a separate self. There is a dominant cultural narrative around what individual healing is and looks like and we tend to think of it as we tend to think of trauma in an individual context and related to situational things. So for example, attachment trauma shock trauma, but what is starting to reinforce the intuitive I think feminine wisdom perhaps that has maybe known this for a bit longer but that we cannot parcel apart, the trauma from the society and the culture and the relational structures, which created. And in fact, to inflict that narrative upon an individual isn't in itself a form of violence. And so we have been perpetuating in those medical model. In some ways, in the ways that we conduct therapy etc so I, I just want to name that the thing that differentiates healing individual trauma versus healing collective trauma is that we understand it, relationally, and contextually and there is never a separation so it's the relationship between us as, as people is the relationship of us who are our ancestors and everything that we carry with us, from, from that actually in our physical bodies, the relationship, the logic and the ways of being and seeing that we're taught are right and wrong in the binary and the choices we're forced to make like, so if we understand that relationally, which means that in order to work in that healing space, we have to go into something much different than an individual, just going off to do self care. And so what, what is communal care, and how does that get done in relationship because it's the relationships in the first place that created the harm and the relationships that fell out of alignment with life.
Jessica: One thing that the narrative that individualizes racism to racist individuals is actually a narrative that faces the structural realities of how power is articulated into institutions and laws and societies and economic systems etc etc, and we need to change systems and power relationships, and the structural dimensions of all of that as major part of the work and so I was just, that's what I was resonating to as I was listening to you.
Carol: And I think it's easy to see that in for profit systems, it's easy to see how those are set up for dominance for a particular end and it's I think a little perhaps for some a little more hidden in the nonprofit sector, but it seems to me that it's all of those logics are kind of are definitely embedded in how sector has been built, and you know the assumptions that even go into, you know, what's taught, that is good governance, or you know how a board should work. And I'm just curious what you might see within that. It looks like Arielle was trying to jump in.
Arielle: I kind of want to bring this back to the initial question that you were asking around navigating uncertainty and kind of the personal example that I gave you know, around this move, like, what comes up in me. In embarking in something that potentially elicits a fear response that I can't control that I want to control how does that impact the way I relate to my mother, or to my grandmother, what am I able to hear or not hear. What am I, how am I able to feel my whole body and connect from my heart place to their heart place what happens to empathy or creativity or higher level of brain functioning. So, these things that are really intimate and real and just part of everyday life as being a human being in a really complex world, like, these are some of the elements that build up these systems that aren't serving us, and a part of that is our story around collective trauma and a way of eating that's not serving. And it's also learning like, how can we step into and figure out new ways, from a place of choice, to relate to these things. And there's a conditioning, and a curiosity that comes in that experience a lot of our work is mentioned in the bio and also what Tony was talking about communal healing is the practice of being in relationship, and it's hard. It is hard. It's hard. It's not easy, we are not conditioned or socialized, it's not a need, so it's a seeing a learning to sitting with and discovering Okay, what does it mean for me to pause sense into my body, bringing awareness and notice to whoa I'm feeling really escalated right now start to settle. Sit with, and start to feel like, what is my mother sensing into right now she's about to go on this journey, And that takes time. That takes patience, that takes training and it's not just me doing it in my own mind it's bringing it out into reality. So what does it look like for organizations to organize themselves in a practice such as this.
Jessica: And I also want to pick up the thread of this dynamic on with the nonprofit sector. One of the things that we, we see is that the, the, the resources, again the set, you know, the same replication of who controls the resources is disproportionately white and, and yet the populations being served, are often times minority and, and so there's also so there's a couple dimensions, there's the there's power there's resources and then there's also sort of a channeling into the same kind of bureaucratic organizational structures that are the same as the way you know that those were originally created as colonial structures, the bureaucracy, and so when that intersects with real communities and real needs and real, you know, human creativity and human potential, there's, there can, There can be a gap a disconnect, even, even a taking of space from other possibilities. Other, other ways of creating as just as human beings in community, and sometimes service can mask actually looking at the root cause of what created the need in the first place, what's the structural violence that created the need, if that gets removed, then people are actually their energy and their creativity and all of that their resources are freed up to create beauty themselves and so I think that's, that's part of the dynamic I see.
Arielle: I mean a question that I'm holding is in the social sector specifically the nonprofit terrain, what are the blind spots, what are the attachments, what is being held on to so tightly and in service to what, What are people afraid of and where did where were these systems born from, again, how the interior condition and the intervention. So, so those are some of the questions that I'm holding.
Jenny: and related to those, some of the questions I'm holding is, what is it for us to create the kinds of holding spaces and containers so that we can even start to go there, from a place of openness, how do we actually help each other, how bring that out of each other because if we need each other to do that work, Because we're so conditioned and this is this going back to this habitual ways of protection, you know, putting up the armor, going back to fear to the kinds of narratives that justify, like for example I need to look out for my own interest in this because I need to take care of my family, yada yada yada. And so, what is the invitation. What is the access point, what are the what are the doorways to invite people into these kinds of spaces, even once we call them, you know, because even calling them feeling spaces, or even calling them even, you know, even inviting people in this circle practice feels like, somehow, it's not supposed to be in organizations in these traditional kinds of spaces right and like why, because we have hold apart, the professional and the human, the natural human ways you know these ways of organizing ourselves and being together and circle that has existed for so many generations before us. So, what are the access points, what are the relationships that make those access points possible,
Jessica: And what are the conversations? Are you saying? What are the conversations?
Yeah, Carol. I'm, I'm curious. you've been, cause you've been working in this space so long and you've seen so much and I'm wondering, what are, what is it that you see that you'd like to share in.
Carol: Well, I think, one, one thing that you said where you know it's like service can come sometimes hide the root cause I think that's true. And I think people get caught up in an argument about which is more important. And I think the people who are being served to have needs at that very moment, need that, and people need to be working on the system to, you know, to change it. And I think what's even more exciting in this time, I think there's been a lot of work on tinkering with the system, what I feel like there's, there could be, there's like an opening to is imagining something new and different, I don't know what that's going to be, but it feels like that's more possible now than it was even six months ago.
Jessica: Beautiful. Absolutely. The freeing of our imaginations as a really important invitation and act in this time. Yeah. Thank you, Carol.
Carol: And at the same time to say you know to talk about what Aereo was talking about of how when you're gripped by fear, and so much, you know people most people's first reaction to uncertainty is fear, you know, lots of talk about anxiety and how all of that's raised and how we know you know in our brain that just kind of shuts down our creative processes so it's, you know, both are there. So in, in working within organizations and within the sector, as much as we know that it needs to shift and change, you know, one of the things that that has been kind of a driver for me is looking at, if we give, if we give organizations the benefit of the doubt we say okay, they were they were built to, to, you know, move some mission forward that's going to have a positive impact in the world, and yet, why is it so hard for those organizations to have that mission have that great aspirational thing that they want to see out there. And yet, aren't really living that internally and certainly this is really coming home. And, you know, Getting stuck and kind of doing the same thing over and over again and you know I think that's very much being brought home right now with the, with the Black Lives Matter protests where, you know, many organizations have made statements about support of the movement, report after report has come out about the leadership of the nonprofit sector being so decidedly white, and those organizations also making statements and yet being dominated by by white people and certainly, you know, the larger the budget, the larger the salaries, more, more likely to be white men at the top, so I'm curious, any thoughts about kind of that stuckness that seems to be, not just at the organizational level but at the at the sector level and then of course at the societal level.
Arielle: Noticing that I keep in bringing it back to the personal today which I think is really fascinating. I think it is easy and safe to be able to point the finger to the world outside of myself. It is easier. It is safer. I get to preserve a degree of separation, reinforcing the same systems we are swimming in, I get to make something an object, and not feel connected to it to separate myself from it. And then there's this sense of righteousness or like reinforcing, like, what is right, what is wrong, again all the ingredients that we've been talking about in these systems that are not serving us and so like, look one inside oneself, to reflect, to see wholly and fully takes courage. It takes an openness and awareness and a vulnerability, and there's real reasons why I've seen in myself or organizations, resist doing that and it to me it always starts with home, right, it starts with my home, my body my home and then the relationships, what does it take to do that. And then, and then aligning ideology or what I'm saying into practice and behavior. What does it take.
Carol: Yeah. And I appreciate what you say, what you're saying about how easy it is to get into that kind of systemic analysis and have it be an other out there that has nothing to do with me,
Jenny: and what's coming up for me also is. This is why tending to growing different kinds of skill sets in ourselves together is so important, because we can't just say these things and expect ourselves and others to step into this work together. Practice takes a lot of practice and we don't have the practice grounds. You know I'm a golfer and you don't just go out on the course and play you go to the driving range and you go to the putting green and you hit, hundreds and 1000s of shots, you know, and then you get on the course and every single shot is different because you have a different line you have a different angle of attack and you have different you know a different plane, you're trying to hit the ball from and a different piece of grass and I believe we need to and this is part of the work that we're doing together is create the practice fields that are safe enough not comfortable if this work is not comfortable but safe enough, like the reality of safety is there for us to challenge each other in these ways and really like start to use embodied practices that we can access the wisdom in ourselves and the wisdom of the collective social anxiety because it is there but it is frozen, and that's what that's what trauma does is it keeps it keeps intelligence, frozen in our system. And so, you know, that's part of why the healing is so important, but I think that's also part of why the practice, the focus on practice and what we practice. So some of the things we practice you know a lot of it has to do with practices that allow us to be in structures of sharing power, even just in one room for one hour, even to practice that is hard, right, because we're so used to somebody facilitating the meeting, and somebody just deciding the agenda and somebody's telling us what's important to talk about and these are all conditioned ways of thinking that systems of oppression rely on in order to feed themselves in order to sustain themselves. So, what are the practice Spaces, we're building together where we practice being encouraged where we practice, accessing the courage on community building power accessing it and building it. Where are the communities and the spaces or the Sacred Spaces, we're creating, even within our own organizations, even if they're even if it's more a momentary right where we can practice doing that and what we practice we become, eventually, but it takes a long time but we have to start with the practice, and it feels like that's something that, because of our because we were so conditioned to focus on the outcome. It's hard to prioritize being in the practice for practice sake,
Jessica: so I also very much resonate with what both Arielle and Jenny shared and that, and the integration through practice of individual and collective work and I have noticed also how, in many groups that I have been in, I teach some in the classroom, especially I've noticed this, that we have collectively lost the ability to shift from hierarchical to these these participatory, collaborative relationships that Jenny was talking about and so the practicing those in those little component parts is, is where the big, you do that, the little pieces and the big change happens, and also noticing the ways in which, like Arielle was saying about the individual, we are part of these systems and so these systems are in us and we are in the systems and so we can then that, that provides an access point also for doing the work, because as we do the work inside it's also doing the work on these, on these ways of being and seeing and doing and creating, and especially as we open that up to doing that collectively.
Carol: I would love to ask 16 follow up questions but I'm going to shift gears for a minute, and there's one thing I like to do at the end of each episode and just ask a couple fun questions. I've got one for each of you, Jessica. What is a mistake that people often make about you.
Jessica: I think, sometimes people think I'm sweet and I'm not so sweet. There's a lot in there.
Carol: And Jenny, what are you most looking forward to in the next 10 years,
Jenny: So noticing my resistance to the question let me just give myself a second and see what might come up here. I think what I'm looking forward to is seeing and being in what unfolds in my life and in my relationships and in the life all around me, the more I choose to let go of trying to control it. Like I'm very looking for, I'm looking forward to that process as uncomfortable as it is to being what life has in store.
Carol: and Arielle, what chance encounter changed your life forever?
Arielle: You're looking at it right here. That was an easy one. Truly meeting these special humans and sensing into what we are co creating together.
Carol: So what is next for you guys? What are you stepping into, what's emerging?
Jessica: I think that that opens up this fascinating question of this interplay of emergence shading into planning and like so far we have been way more on the emergent end, and things have shown up in our field, as the work we're meant to do and we've responded to that, we are also starting to craft intentions around how we invite collaboration and connection, and the serendipity of the emergence is really how life shows up knocking on our door as you know, telling us where we're meant to step in.
Carol: So if someone did want to invite you into something, how would they get in touch with you? How could they find you?
Jenny: You can find all of us on LinkedIn, and in addition to that, we're in the process of building a website that we are envisioning as an invitation to discover our shared work with other others wherever they may be and so we are putting our hearts into sort of the process of how can that website, you know, not just be really a reflection of the very things that we're trying not to reproduce, but instead a real invitation, a real invitation to be in relationship to blur the lines between partners and clients and to words and how we, how we are in relationship with one another in traditional business context, we're in a lot of inquiry around this together and so we're, we're using our website as a way to challenge ourselves to find language is not perfect but at least a starting point for how we can offer that invitation sort of a channel through which we can engage with others in more broad ways.
Carol: All right. Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate all your wisdom that you bring and the work that you guys are doing. And, we'll be excited to see how this practice continues to emerge and, good luck with everything as you move forward.
Arielle: Thank you, Carol. It's been a pleasure. Thank you so much.
This week we’re talking to Beth Sperber Richie.
We talked about:
• What is burn out is and why burn out is so prevalent in the nonprofit sector
• What the research shows about rest and productivity for organizations.
• What vicarious trauma is and how it impacts staff and an organization’s culture.
Beth Sperber Richie, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and consultant in private practice in the Washington, D.C. area. Dr. Richie works with non-profit leaders on how to sustain their staff and their mission given the grind of social change work. She gives workshops and presentations on managing stress and burnout, vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue, improving cross-cultural communication and counseling skills and setting boundaries for front-line employees. Her workshops focus on practical skills and engaged involvement of all participants.
Sponsored by Grace Social Sector Consulting
Learn about the Effective Online Facilitation, 4 week group coaching program.
Carol Hamilton: Hi Beth, welcome to the podcast, it’s great to have you on.
Beth Richie: Thanks, great to be here.
Carol: Could you tell us a little bit about what drew you to this work and how you got to where you are?
Beth: I got involved doing clinical work with trauma survivors. I'm a psychologist, so the clinical work came logically out of the stuff I was studying when I was back in graduate school. I began working with trauma survivors clinically in the nineties, and as much as I'm passionate about that work, I've enjoyed that work and feel that it's been very meaningful to me over the years, I began to realize that I'm talking to one person at a time and I'm helping one person at a time. I started to look for the ways in which I could multiply the impact that I could have, and consulting with organizations just seemed like a logical next step. It really started when a friend of mine started an organization that helped landmine survivors all around the world, he was asking all the right questions about how to get landmine survivors back into the workforce. How do we take somebody who’s a farmer and who's lost their limbs in the landmine accident, and get that person back into the paid workforce. How do they support their family, but wasn't really asking the questions about what the impact of the trauma is on the person. I started asking him those questions and that led me to work as a consultant with his organization.
Then, because it was a new organization to talk to him a lot about what organizational policies and procedures and what practices can you put in place for your staff that's going to be dealing with this really traumatic material on a daily basis. That was what got my foot in the door. I saw that ‘here's a way to have an impact on many more people at once.’ That's what really hooked me to the idea of doing consulting in this area. I know that when you and I first spoke, we talked a little bit about the whole idea that you have about how important it is to make a healthy organism, relational cultures that it's not just enough to work with an organization, the goal is to help them make the organizational culture healthy. That's such a dovetail for me with this work that it's an opportunity to help organizations where people are helping folks who have experienced trauma, how they keep their staff healthy and how do they keep the organization healthy as they move through working in this arena, whatever that arena might be.
Carol: Actually, part of the goal of this podcast is to help progressive nonprofit leaders do that work that they want to do to build a better world, but without really becoming a martyr to the cause. Much of your work centers around that, and one of the things that you help organizations with is managing stress and burnout. I feel that that is such a large part of the nonprofit sector that people almost see it as a given.
Carol: To the point where, if they're not experiencing it, they think they're not truly dedicated to the cause.
Beth: Yeah, like they're not working hard enough if they're not in pain.
Carol: I'm curious, how do you define burnout? Cause I think it's a term that's thrown around a lot, but burnout is another level and I'm not sure that everyone really defines it the same way.
Beth: Well, I think you're right. Everybody does not define it the same way. When I'm working with organizations, I get people to take a look and do a little bit of an assessment of their own level of burnout. For me, burnout is not just that there is stress in your work because lots of work has stress. Burnout to me is like the moral distress or the moral level of fatigue, where you just find it difficult to get the motivation to do even a simple list of tasks. The other piece of this for organizations that work with trauma survivors is the vicarious trauma of hearing those stories has an impact on the listener, to the point where they can actually get post-traumatic stress symptoms, similar to the ones that the survivors themselves get, where their worldview is actually shifted. I think that that's particularly a hallmark of vicarious trauma, but I think it's true, in burnout that it's almost a worldview switch where, what used to be something that motivated you and got you excited, that you had the drive and the burn to make this change in the world that gets to the point where you're tired and hopeless, [to the point] that there's actually been a shift in the way you view the world. To me, that is the difference between burnout and just general stress. I think general stress is easier to recover from than burnout. I have a couple of nonprofit leaders that I'm working with at the moment who both like the idea of burnout rehab. That's what we've been calling it.
Carol: What are your steps for burnout rehab?
Beth: It depends on the individual human being, right? Each burnout rehab is its own special thing. [What] I say to everybody I work with is you need to find the thing that works for you and then apply it liberally. The metaphor I use is that of a stress fracture. Despite not being athletic myself, I produced three children who are athletes. One of my children played right through a stress fracture, he continued to play. My daughters are the same way, one of them had her knee ripped open in a soccer incident and she wasn't even aware that she was bleeding. They had to take her off the field because apparently it's not legal to bleed while you're playing soccer, you have to be taken off the field. She didn’t feel that it was necessary, but those to me, those metaphors of the stress fracture or you're playing hard that you don't even realize you have a ripped open knee, is exactly what happens with our nonprofit leaders that they're working hard and strong. [They’re so far] beyond stressed that they're at the point where they don't even realize that they're bleeding or that they have a stress fracture. In the same way that with a stress fracture or with an open wound, you would have to come off the field. That's step one for burnout rehab.
[The problem,] as far as I'm concerned, is how to get off the field when you don't want to get off the field completely. The athletes don't want to get off the field completely, they don't want to go off the field at all and neither do the nonprofit leaders. We have to get them off the field, and one way or another figure out ways to put boundaries around their work, either in terms of time like, “you are allowed to work X or Y amount of hours a day and that's it, or you are no longer allowed to work Saturdays and Sundays, or I know nonprofit leaders that I've worked with who are working on vacation, I remind them that that's not actually vacation. Some of it is putting boundaries around the work, recognizing that you have a stress fracture and therefore you shouldn’t go back out on the field and play the sport again. The other is to figure out what's sustainable for them in the long haul, how can they individually find that burnout rehab that works, the metaphor I like is the idea that we all think about filling our cup, is your cup half full, is it half empty. The whole notion of a full cup to me is that that full cup can then spill over onto other people, a lot of nonprofit leaders feel that if they're not feeling burnt out, then they're not really working hard or they're not really doing it right. I remind them that their own cup is actually a way to help other people, because it allows them to keep going in the long haul.
Carol: I think [it also] models that for any staff that are working for them, because I've talked to many executive directors who say: ‘well, I tell my staff not to work on the weekends,’
and I say ‘okay, are you working on the weekends? Are you answering email? Are you sending them an email on vacation?’ Well, if you're doing that, no matter what you say - my mother loved to say, ‘do as I say, not as I do,’ but clearly that doesn't work. We watch how people behave and that's really the expectation. People see that and they feel they have to work towards it.
Beth: They have to match what the leadership of the organization is doing. I’ve said more times than I can count that whole thing about emailing on vacation. You can have a company policy that says you absolutely must take X or Y amount of vacation, [and] I know a number of organizations that respond to this [with] mandatory vacation. [They say,] you must take a break ‘cause we want you to be here for the long haul, but then they write emails on vacation. If you're writing emails on vacation, then your staff gets the message [that] they should never take a break. We've got excellent research out there that talks about what taking a break does for people and how much more productive people are, even after a short break. It doesn't matter what field they're in, this research has been done across many different fields, I think one - I'm not going to come up with a citation right off the top of my head - but I think of one group that looked at basketball players, their free-throw percentage went up when they took breaks from working out. We know it's true with folks in the arts. We know it's true with folks in business. We know people have looked at this in terms of the research, on taking a break on from many different perspectives.
People who take vacations get higher ratings from their supervisors in terms of being more effective employees, and it's correlated very strongly with the number of days of vacation they actually take. We know that the research tells us that this is how we rehab for burnout and how we come back. As I say, it's an individualized program in terms of how you actually get the person to make the cognitive switch to: this is actually good for me, I really need to do this. I have sports injuries and I feel like I've probably experienced burnout at some point in my career, [and] I do feel like with both, you don't come back to where you were before the injury. I think it ebbs and flows over the span of a career, what you might've been able to do in your twenties, or maybe when you were in a startup phase with an organization, it needs to shift. Yet the times people don't shift because they started out a certain way, working a certain way either for an established organization or as a founder let's say or whatever, and then that just becomes the culture. So being much more mindful of how you’re setting those boundaries and then what are those different things that fill your cup?
Carol: I feel like I've seen much about that research that you're talking about and yet somehow in our culture, there's still so much bravado about this macho, ‘we've got to always be working, got to always be busy. I'm busier than you.’ stuff that I'm trying to step out of.
I don't need that, but how the hell is it for most people, they think, ‘well, it's not possible for me to do it differently.’
Beth: Yeah, and some would see [it as] a failure of their imagination that they can't imagine that taking breaks would have a positive impact on that, that they could do it in a different way than they did it in their twenties now that they have different responsibilities at home, it’s ironic. I think that Corona and the Coronavirus has caused a lot of people to really rethink and to look for new ways to figure this out. Just plugging through is not going to work if you’ve got an eight year-old at home who needs your attention and needs your help getting the education that they need. Folks are, are looking around and saying, ‘oh wait, I have to figure out a new way.’ I think that this is an opportunity, that's the silver lining, there's an opportunity here to get a little bit creative about how people approach their work and look at it in a different way. When you described the whole notion of burnout rehab being this combination of sets and boundaries, and then the TLC and how you fill your own cup.
What I always say to people is ‘sometimes how you fill your cup is the work,’ and I like to say self-care is not always a bath bomb. Like this is not about going to the spa.
There are a lot of people for whom the work itself is fulfilling that it does fill their cup. I say amen to that, then you're probably not burnt out, but for other folks in your organization that might not be true. The other piece of this is that, when you’re trying to figure out how you’re going to fill your cup. Part of the reason the work fills your cup is when you are connected to the mission.
What ends up happening is we get into getting ready for the board meeting, the actual getting ready for the board meeting becomes this huge stress. That is a disconnect for me. What is our mission or what is our goal? Even though the board is important and that helps move the organization forward, it is connected to the mission [and] when we get too wrapped up in the, ‘I've got this meeting and then that meeting,’ or ‘I need to make these fundraising calls,’ or ‘I need to get ready for the board meeting,’ whatever the day-to-day logistics of the organization are that those logistics disconnect from the mission and the part of what refills our cup in the work is mission-driven work or mission-focused perspective.
That's something that people can get this too disconnected from, and that can contribute to burnout. When someone says, ‘no, I just care so much about this one work. That's what drives me. That's what fills my cup.’ to that person, my response is ‘okay, when was the last time you were really connected to the mission of the organization, as opposed to just what it takes to run an organization.’ For people who are not yet willing to say, ‘oh, I just need to fill my time cup.’ That means going out in nature, for those people, I would say, ‘ when was the last time you actually were connected to why you came into this work in the first place?’
Carol: They could do both. They could take a walking meeting. I've been doing a lot of those since Coronavirus. I am pro-walking-meeting.
Beth: There are ways to combine moving your body, being outside, and something done, it's a win, win, win.
Carol: You work with organizations where the staff are really experiencing what goes beyond day-to-day stress of vicarious trauma and compassion, fatigue. Can you first, both define those things and then tell me who's typically affected and how that shows up in organizations?
Beth: Absolutely. The difference to me between vicarious trauma, let's say in burnout, is that piece that I said before of a shift in worldview of seeing the world as a little bit less safe, or that if you had gone into this believing that there are good people in the world and there's good things in the world, being exposed to a steady diet of trauma can eat away at that pretty quickly. The other way I think of it is in terms of how you get burnout or how you become burned out and how you get vicarious trauma, you could get vicarious trauma after a particularly difficult one-time experience, whereas burnout is more like the steady drip of water eroding rock. You wake up one day and look around and say, ‘oh, I'm burnt out,’ but it's been based on this slow, steady drip of the difficulty of the work that you're doing.
The other piece between burnout and vicarious trauma, to me [is that] vicarious trauma is actually probably about being exposed to traumatic material, whereas burnout can happen in all sorts of organizations. You might be an organization that is working on social change and you might feel burnt out by the slow pace or by the backward steps that you feel like is happening in a particular environment, but that's different from actually being exposed to traumatic material. Who tends to get vicarious trauma? I would say most times it's first-responders. It's in this environment, healthcare workers, but it's also people who hear the stories. I've worked now with two and am working with two different gun violence prevention organizations. You might go into that because you're politically motivated and you feel like you want to change the political strategies and you're an advocate, but you’re telling the stories of people whose lives have been shattered because of a murder that they experienced or because they were part of a mass shooting or because of other traumatic material that, that they're going to have to process.
Anyone in the organization who is having contact with survivors and in most gun violence prevention organizations, the survivors are at the forefront of the advocacy work. You're going to be hearing those stories and anyone from the person who's sitting at the front desk to the CEO, to the ED, whoever it is, one in the organization could potentially be exposed to the traumatic material. That's different than just the burnout - one of my children works in the climate change field and she might argue that there's some pretty traumatic scenarios out there. It's an example of it's a long haul. It's a lot of work and you could get burnt out by the enormity of the problem and the small steps that you are making to make change in that arena, but you're not actually being exposed - for the most part - to actual trauma or to the traumatic experiences of others. That's a big deal, and certainly people who get vicarious trauma can be burnt out, but it's not always true that people who are burnt out all have vicarious trauma if they've not been exposed directly to that material.
Carol: My daughter worked doing direct service with a number of different groups, working with students in lower resource schools, helping them with college access and there was always something going on with one of the students, maybe not directly with them, but then with their friends, family, and just hearing those stories all the time. One thing that was interesting that you said before was that people can experience PTSD symptoms. I feel like in the media, and what people have heard about PTSD, it's okay. As if veterans are the only people [who] experience PTSD and that's not true. I'm curious if you could just share some of the signs that people might, if they're experiencing that and not really knowing what's going on, what might be some things of how it shows up for them?
Beth: Particularly for people who [have] vicarious trauma that I always described the post traumatic stress disorder symptoms as being a pendulum swing between numbing out and over feeling or, or feeling to a larger degree. We call it hyper-arousal in our field. That you go from 0 to 60 in terms of emotional response. Some of the other classic symptoms are people having nightmares or having flashbacks to the event that can even be true. If you just heard about the event and didn't witness it or didn't experience it yourself. I can say personally, one of the ways that I realized I had vicarious trauma in the early days of becoming a therapist to work primarily with trauma survivors was that I would have nightmares about the things that had happened to my clients happening to myself or to members of my family.
It can show up in all sorts of different ways, but I think those are the two hallmarks if you're feeling a lack of feeling, a numbed response to something that in the past probably would have generated some response for you or in the opposite direction. I feel like everything people think of PTSD being somebody hears a car backfire and they think it's a gunshot and they jump through the roof, but that can be true for anybody. They can have a hyper-emotional response to a story here, to a smell. to a sound that is not like a gunshot, there are lots of different ways that people can experience that. That could be true for your daughter as well. She’s heard those stories enough that she becomes hypervigilant about scenarios that she might be in that are similar to what she's heard from her clientele.
Carol: How does this impact the organization at large? I mean, certainly it impacts the people who are providing direct service working on the front lines, but I'm guessing that there are ways that it shows out throughout the organization and impacts culture as well.
Beth: Yeah, it's a great question and absolutely the most obvious [is] when you have high turnover in an organization, because people, , as you said, people think of the progressive nonprofit world as - I've had people say to me, ‘we assume that people will be gone in about 2-2 ½ years.’ That that's the timeframe and that they see that as an acceptable outcome. They’ll just get some new 20-something graduates from college
Carol: And give them vicarious trauma.
Beth: Exactly. I think that there’s the sense of it [being] inevitable and my feeling is [that] it's not inevitable. It doesn't have to be inevitable and you lose things as an organization; that turnover is really expensive. It's expensive in terms of time, cause now members of your staff have to spend time - even if you have an HR department - other members of your staff or content folks are all going to have to interview people and figure out who they want to bring on. You have that time issue. Time, obviously, costs money and people are not doing the other things that you need to be doing. When you're doing that work, you have to train new people over and over again, you lose the historical memory that goes with the folks and you lose the relationships that those folks have built, whether it's with a board member or with a fundraising source, a funder, or with other members of the staff you lose when they burn out and leave, or when they get vicarious trauma and leave, you lose all of these intangibles in addition to the time and money that you've spent on the hiring process. Turnover is more than just another hiring process, which is exciting.
Carol: It also impacts all the people who are left behind because I'm thinking over my 20-plus years at nonprofits to think I'd have to go back and calculate, but what was the percentage when I was actually doing a part of someone else's job because we all had to. So-and-so left and we had to divy it up. People don’t feel like there's the bandwidth or the resources to hire a temp, or that feels harder than just doing it yourself or those kinds of things, there's all sorts of ripple effects.
Beth: Those ripple effects then potentially contribute to the burnout of the rest of your staff, because they’re doing more work.
Carol: It’s a vicious cycle
Beth It can be, my feeling is [that] it doesn't have to be right.
Carol: What are some of the things that organizations can do to take steps to have it not be an inevitability?
Beth: There are actually some decent organizational assessments out there, mostly talking to the members of your staff to figure out - one of the things I think that's helpful about bringing a consultant like me in is that I can do that in a way that folks potentially can feel like their responses are actually anonymous. They can be - hopefully - a little bit more candid and honest about what their experience is like. Sometimes people don't even realize that that’s what they're doing. [They’ll say] ‘I'm sending an email on Sunday night because I'm living at home with my family during Corona. I know that tomorrow morning, when you all need this information, I'm going to be homeschooling my kid.’ Okay, great. How about you try making that explicit, I'm sorry, I've sent this email more times than I can count. I'm sorry.
I'm sending you an email on Sunday night. I don't expect a response and the reason I'm sending it on Sunday night is because I know you need this tomorrow. I know that I have the following things tomorrow that are not work related. I have to take my kid to the doctor in the morning, therefore, whatever it is to just send the message. a piece of it is assessing the culture. To see whether this is a, we should be responsive all the time. This is a 24/7 experience, always be available. See if that message is being sent out there, but the other piece is to actually ask staff what would support them.
Just as you asked me before, well, what does burnout rehab look like? my response unhelpfully was, it depends on the person. The same thing is true. What's going to work for this staff? I don't know, but I'm going to ask the staff what they think, ‘Oh, well, we're going to put in a wellness program.’ That's always my favorite. We're going to put her in a wellness program, we're going to convert this empty office into a wellness spot, we're going to put water sounds and an exercise ball and some yoga mats and let people do what they want with it. My feeling is don't waste your money. Even though that's not a lot of money, don't waste your money. Spend some time talking to your staff about what actually feels like a wellness moment for them. Maybe what feels like a wellness moment for them is everybody actually getting together and talking about the work, right? Maybe it's about sharing wins. I have one organization that I work with that in the last couple of weeks has decided to give all of their employees eight hours of flex time to use during the work-week. At any time you want to discuss it with your manager, but here's some flex time because they're recognizing the impact of coronavirus and what it means to have your whole family at home. You might not have computer access or wifi access at X or Y time during the day, or you may need to be caring for an elderly relative or for a child or for each other or whatever it is. That was something that came from the staff. As something that would be useful to them, if they just felt like they were not stuck inside those core hours then they could help their kid during the day and work at night. Maybe they can't get an eight hour work day, [but] having those eight hours of flex flexibility gives them an opportunity that they otherwise wouldn't have had, but to me it's really about assessing from that particular staff what feels to them like it would sustain them in the long haul.
Carol: A lot of this comes down to setting appropriate boundaries and, as you said, filling your cup. What are some of your favorite ways to fill your cup?
Beth: Being in nature is huge. On mother's day, my husband, who, he and I have been married for almost 30 years and he knows me. He knows the goal is to get to some body of water. There are no large bodies of water near where I live but we can walk to a creek and that'll do, we get outside near water. That for me is the big one. Then the other one is music, either making music with friends or listening to new music that I just got exposed to for the first time. Those are really big for me in terms of filling my cup. How about you?
Carol: Well it's funny, water for sure. I once went on a vacation where we only were by water one day and I realized, no, this is not a vacation for me. I need to be by water, the entire vacation, whether it's a beach or at a lake, or kayaking or some body of water, anywhere I [need to] have water. I spend my summer at the pool. I'm a little nervous about this summer. I think kayaking] will be the thing that keeps me going throughout the summer months. Also doing something that uses a different part of your brain. You talked about music, I used to play music as a younger person and maybe one day I will again, but these days I've been playing around with drawing. I'm no great artist, I actually do not call myself that purposefully so that I can continue to just dabble in that. Then for me, sports, anything active. Getting the body moving, all those things that don't have to do with being at a computer.
Beth: Getting away from the computer is huge, especially right now. What I say to people is that sometimes it even helps to be doing something that is a volunteer thing. My family packs boxes at a local food pantry and it's physical work. I like that, it's different.
It's not sitting at a computer, but also, I'm not in charge. That fills my cup. Being able to do something that's good and helpful for somebody else, but I didn't have to organize it. I can just show up, pack my boxes, be with my family and leave. Fantastic. It doesn't have to be a bath bomb. Sometimes it is actually about providing service, but providing service in a way that feels different for you or is not the same thing over and over again, because our brains crave novelty, and we need to use our bodies in different ways and we need to use our minds in different ways and anything we do that steps away from our day-to-day can be very useful.
Carol: I actually have often reminded boards and people working in recruiting volunteers that they shouldn't assess that, say they need someone to work on marketing and communications that they should go after someone who does that professionally well, in fact, they may want to do something totally different and they may want to facilitate your small groups or do workshops or do some other thing, and someone else who is interested in that and may want to try out those skills as a volunteer. Oftentimes volunteering gives you an opportunity to try something different, or like you said, just show up and be told what to do, not be in charge. You have something concrete that has happened by the end, this had a clear impact on someone.
One of the things I like to do is play a little game at the end here. I have a couple of icebreaker questions. Let me pick one. If you could never work again, how would you spend your time?
Beth: Oh, if I could never work again... I hate to be one of those people that sounds like the people we're talking about who are burnt out, but honestly, I really do love this work that I'm doing with organizations. I would do this for free, that's a terrible marketing strategy, but it's true. I do need to pay the bills, I can't do it for free, but I think that would be one thing I would do, one of the things I know about myself is that I like variety. That would be one thing I would do, somehow finding a way we mentioned to be near a body of water would be something I would do. I would play my guitar and sing as often as I possibly could, find some other people to hang out with who had nothing else they had to do and just spend hours singing. My life could be one long campfire with a guitar. I would love that.
Carol: What are you excited about? What's coming up next for you? What's emerging in the work that you're doing?
Beth: I actually had an opportunity recently to do a webinar for some social service agencies in DC. The mayor of DC, mayor Bowser has put some focus and some money into looking at the district's response to trauma. I've been able to do one webinar in a series, and I'm going to get another one in the can coming up in the not-too-distant future and I'm really excited because those are the folks who I most want to be in touch with. Those are the frontline workers who are the government folks in DC who are handing out food stamps and who are trying to find people housing and who are trying to find people jobs. I think both burnout and potentially vicarious trauma is high in that group of folks. I'm really excited to have an impact on those folks who are providing such important services in DC.
Carol: How can people find you more about you or get in touch?
Beth: People can find Fermata Consulting on LinkedIn, F, E, R, M, A, T, A, or email me at email@example.com. I would say LinkedIn is probably your best bet.
Carol: We'll put those links in the show.
Beth: That would be terrific. I'm always happy to hear from folks who I don't know, who have questions about the work I do. Feel free to reach out and shoot me an email and I'm happy to be back in touch.
Carol: Well, thank you so much. I appreciate you being on.
Beth: Sure, I'm looking forward to hearing all of your podcasts, not just this one.
I am Carol Hamilton, nonprofit consultant and podcast host. My passion is helping organizations cultivate healthy, inclusive cultures that live their values, fostering learning, creativity and results. Find me at Grace Social Sector Consulting and download free resources.
Grace Social Sector Consulting, LLC, owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of the Mission: Impact podcast, with all rights reserved, including right of publicity.