In May, Eva Schonveld and I had the opportunity to attend the international Transition Hubs gathering in Santorso, Italy (not far from Venice). It was preceded by an Inner Transition training organised by Transition Network’s Inner Transition coordinator Claire Milne, together with Madelanne Rust-d’Eye, a body-based psychotherapist, and Peter Cow, specialising in social permaculture and the 8 Shields work.
The theme for the training was how we create regenerative group cultures. Much of it was learning by doing, and we spent a large part of our first day identifying and creating “the container” which would help us feel safe and comfortable enough to be able to be honest, understand each other, express empathy, and ultimately feel the self-sustaining creativity that can emerge in such an environment. So we introduced ourselves, played a couple of games, agreed on group rules, stated expectations and made agreements with the group, but also with ourselves, about what behaviour we would like to see.
Peter introduced the acorn model of group leadership of the 8 shields, where people take on qualities and actions of the eight directions of the compass to help spread out and share the support needed for a well-functioning group:
As more people stepped in to take on these different roles and tasks, the pressure on our three facilitators obviously decreased, but it also created a shared sense of responsibility, and things did seem to just happen of themselves at times.
Madelanne brought a very interesting piece on how our nervous system works, and influences our behaviour in a group. The part of the nervous system we want to be in, the Social Engagement System, regulates our digestion etc. – it makes us feel relaxed, safe, and able to interact with others. However, our nervous systems haven’t changed since the Stone Age, which means that our everyday reality of traffic, big workloads, noise, verbal or online disputes, deadlines (etc. etc.) often trigger our fight or flight response, without us having the opportunity to act on it. So we can find ourselves with a lot of energy built up inside coming from our nervous system wanting to respond to its perceived danger by attacking back, or running really fast and far. But we very seldom do that, leading to conditions of anxiety, stress or burnout. So if we can give ourselves the opportunity when working together to move, shake things off, make noises, breathe, and practice simple things that automatically push us back towards the Social Engagement System, such as eye contact, physical touch, etc., we will probably see much more productive meetings.
We also spent some time looking at empathy – our ability to feel and deeply understand others. As such, it is a quality of presence that can help people’s nervous systems to feel safe and relaxed, leading to creativity naturally arising in the group.
My experience was that when somebody listened to me and repeated what I said in their own words, trying to understand without making suggestions, I could take my ideas further and together we arrived at ideas that were much more exciting and fun than if I had just kept my thoughts to myself. The suggestions was that if this empathetic environment can be created in a group, there are no limits to its creativity and regenerative capacity. Connected to this is how we give and receive feedback. How do we communicate with each other, and how do we become aware of how our responses affect the other person? The statistic of the day was 5:1 - we need five positive feedbacks to one negative to feel good, appreciated, and constructively develop. We discussed practices to create a safe and supportive way of giving feedback, such as agreeing on formats for feedback beforehand, discussing emotions and related needs, opening meetings with regular gratitude rounds, creating structures to give the group regular permission to express feedback so it doesn’t come at an inopportune moment.
We spent an afternoon experimenting with a version of the theatre of oppressed, which we called theatre of cooperation. We played out a scenario I think many of us can relate to, where members of a Transition group have too much to do, there aren’t enough people, and they struggle to recruit more members. Trying to intervene and set the destructive dynamics of the group right, it became clear to us that the best intervention would have been to have spent time and efforts creating a healthy group culture in the first place, rather than trying to save already stressed out group members or replace them by new.
My conclusion from the training is that Inner Transition is not only the touchy feely emotional heart stuff that some feel very comfortable discussing, and others feel shy or nervous about, and is often left on the shelf of “nice things we’ll do when we have time”. What I realised is that Inner Transition is the backbone of creating a healthy, creative group culture, which in turn is vital for sustaining our Transition Initiatives and their role in local communities. So often, our groups rely on the efforts, stamina, and courage of individual volunteers. Without that backbone, no wonder we can suffer from stress and burnout, conflict, miscommunications, mission drift, stagnation… And the right time to do something about all these things is not when they occur, but create practices that reduce the likelihood of them in the first place.
So, ending on a practical note – how can we do this? Claire has some plans to develop a year long investigative journey into what Inner Transition can look like across the world, so keep your eyes open for that. We resolved during the course of the Hubs gathering to create an Inner Transition community of practice, where there will be an online meeting once a month to connect with others thinking about Inner Transition, and share what we are doing. And perhaps, if we have enough energy and time and motivation, we could look into having an Inner Transition training and sharing event in Scotland soon. What do you think?