by Ted Lewis
Facilitators of restorative dialogue processes hold space for hard but healing conversations. This framing emphasizes how facilitators (from the French word facile, “to make easy”) do not direct the process as much as hold the process. Holding implies a non-directive approach that is very mindful of all communication dynamics. At best, facilitators hold space for people to share deeply from the heart, listen deeply from the heart, and ultimately be heard deeply by others.
Being heard by others is actually a third element of interpersonal communication alongside speaking and listening. A traditional mapping of communication involves Sending and Receiving. But Being Heard, as a distinguishable feature, is what allows communication to loop around and come full circle. It requires the response of the listener back to the speaker.
Can this feedback loop even be done through emailing or phones? It’s possible, but not common. When human emotions are involved, there can often be unintended consequences, causing misunderstanding, alienation, or even harm. We can never assume that what is Sent fully matches up with what is Received. Healthy, two-way response communications, which involve a feedback loop, need to happen for the initial speaker to know that they were understood as they wanted to be understood. For this reason, it’s best to avoid email for resolving emotional issues.
Nonverbals, communicated through body language and facial expressions, help greatly with respect to this response element. Zoom meetings fortunately allow for that closer, face-to-face interaction, but even this venue limits what I call the natural exchange of human energetics which are normally detected in physical proximity. Many mammals already have instinctual capacities for ‘reading’ another creature that comes close. People do too, with their hearts, but we have also unlearned this capacity to varying degrees.
The story of Hagar in Genesis 16 and 21 illuminates the power of being heard. Twice, Hagar finds herself tangled up in a relational triangle with Sarah and Abraham which is thick with tension. Sarah is prone to Fight; Abraham is prone to Freeze; and Hagar is prone to take Flight. Each episode, Hagar ends up alienated in the wilderness, feeling hurt and lonely. But God faciliates a dialogue process with her in which she is profoundly heard. Both stories also include desert springs that sustain life and allow her to move forward in life.
It’s worth noting in the first story how Hagar is “seen by God,” and later she names the spring “the Living God who sees me.” God also foretells of Ishmael which means “God hears.” In the second wilderness scene the crying boy Ishmael is heard, and God, again, is responsive and validates Hagar in her pain, encouraging her toward faith in the future. There are a lot of communication dynamics going on here! Even when we don’t have the chance to process things with the people we feel separated from, God still creates a space for healing and resolution in our hearts.
The more I facilitate meetings or provide workshops in restorative dialogue, the more I am conscious of the power of ‘being heard.’ People need to have an actual experience of this positive power, for only then will they feel motivated to go further into a healing process or go further into their learning journey. One way I sum up this experience is facilitating a shift from the head zone to the heart zone.
I recently was helping several church leaders who were at the front-end of a larger process that could potentially involve their whole church. I could tell they were feeling unsure about moving forward, even feeling a bit stuck. So I re-framed our time together so they could have a time of deep sharing and deep listening. I gave a moment of silence for them to consider, “What’s been the hardest thing for you in recent months?”
As each one shared, it was tempting to let them all sequence up their experiences and give them space to talk. But I also knew they needed to be held in a new way to foster a shift into the experiential heart zone. So after the first person shared, I had the others respond in a way that helped the speaker to feel like they were truly heard. The listeners echoed things back and validated the substance of what was told.
Each person, therefore, was given this special time for folks to respond from the heart and make them feel understood. When it finally came time to reflect back on what they experienced, they all said how amazing it was to slow things down and have that extra time of understanding and validating. Each person had truly received something new that fueled them better for moving forward into an unknown but brighter future.
Whether you are in a place to facilitate hard but healing conversations for others, or in a place to drink in the living-springs of being heard well by another, these lessons in communication remind us that as human beings we all, together, stand in need of being heard and affirmed for what we’ve experienced. And this applies equally to those who have been harmed and those who have harmed. Both have stories to tell, and before they have each been heard well, it is unlikely they will shift toward hearing new things.
Featured Image Art Credit: Hagar and Ishmael – “Clear Vision” by Lauren Wright Pittman