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  • Writer's pictureTrisha Lord

The Component of Appreciation through the lens of a traditional African cultural context

found this paper by Olúfė mi Táíwò (an extract of which is above) deeply thought-provoking in that it spoke to something I have been grappling with.

For some time now I’ve been wondering about The Thinking Environment, with its emphasis on independent thinking, in the context of African culture, which is traditionally communal. In a recent Facilitation Programme I had a fascinating dialogue with one of the participants about her experience of the Component of Appreciation through the lens of a traditional African cultural context in which singling any one person or persons out for specific mention would be considered inappropriate, even if they had done the lion’s share of the work to make something happen.

I have, over several years now, explored the recommendation we make of keeping eye contact as a way of signifying attention - as the listener - when set against the injunction against eye contact in some indigenous cultures, particularly across hierarchical power differentials within those cultures. Nancy Kline tells the tale in one of her books about the agreement to place ears alongside one another’s that replaced eye contact in her work with a Maori tribal elder. So we’ve always prescribed that if anything we suggest in a Thinking Environment goes against what is considered appropriate in a different cultural context, then practitioners and participants can work that out by thinking about it together.

Those explorations would be seen as the Component of Difference in action – prioritising the difference within group identities and understanding the lived experience of people from different groups so as to make sure that the environment that is being created is inclusive of those differences, and the Component of Equality is upheld.

We all know about how tricky it is to overcome implicit bias. Because it is implicit it can be pretty difficult to spot unless something happens to wake us up to it.

I had a recent experience of this myself. Apparently, it was described thus to me, the “wear your heart on your sleeve” bias that has received so much press in recent years through the meteoric rise of Brené Brown’s work on vulnerability is a very ‘white thing’. Or perhaps something that is more celebrated and valued in cultures centred around individualism versus communalism.

In a pre-workshop discussion with 5 facilitators, three of whom were white and two of whom were black, I was asked how I felt about being informed (as opposed to being asked) that I was co-facilitating with someone I had never met before. One of the other (white) facilitators said “I can imagine I might have found that quite challenging?”

I didn’t even stop to think. It didn’t even occur to me to question this invitation to share my feelings or what impact it might have on the others in the group. One of whom was the person who had invited the co-facilitator in to work with me, and one of whom was that co-facilitator. I wasn’t overly dramatic or upset. I merely said I had found it “unusual”. I said “it’s never happened to me before in the 30 odd years I’ve been facilitating”. Both of these statements were accurate, even factual. But the invitation to share my feelings felt like something natural, something I had a right to do. Especially because, well, I did have some feelings on the matter. And I had been navigating them for a few days already.

The right I assumed I had to express how I felt landed for the person who had invited the second facilitator in as though I had “thrown her under the bus” in front of her other colleagues.

What I did would never have happened – it seems – if everyone in that group had been made up of people who prioritise a communalist perspective.

I am so grateful that my client was able to clear the air with me, so that I could see things from another perspective, and learn and grow. And I was humbled and moved by the gracious way in which she opened another lens through which I could see my behaviour.

I am fairly clear that even in cultures of communalism, it is the individual brains of the individuals in the group that need to think well, and clearly, with rigour and grace, together, about the needs of the community. But what interests me is what impact those different cultural biases have on the kind of thinking we can do for ourselves depending on the assumptions, values and beliefs of the different cultures from which we come.

Just because something is “cultural” doesn’t make it good. Breaking the bones of young girls' feet and binding them so as to make them more sexually attractive as women is a case in point.

I am grateful for the awakening I received in the debrief I had with my client after that conversation, and the learning I took about what I assume is de facto acceptable which may land in a deeply different way for someone else in the room.

I am so grateful that my client was able to clear the air with me, so that I could see things from another perspective, and learn and grow.

I am grateful for The Thinking Environment in that it creates a psychologically safe space in which these types of learning conversations can take place. And I am grateful for scrutiny and discovery, without which The Thinking Environment could become codified and rigid, making it anything but a thinking environment at all.

It’s not easy for us to be wrong. We human beings like being right. But as Olúfė mi Táíwò boldly declares in the closing paragraphs of his paper, being right, and rigid “makes short work” of things, when in fact life is nuanced, complex and multi-faceted. Life needs us to be able to soften at our righteous edges and discover what we do not know, the knowing of which might make all the difference to where we are going and what happens next along the way.

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