Triggers, curious questions, and judgement –

Reflections on the IODA/Flourish conference in Stellenbosch 6-8 Sep 2017

I am posting this one day earlier than usual so that the conference goers who may read it can do so before they hit the bustle and business of Monday’s return to work.

  • Trust me to make mistakes
  • Trust me to make them boldly
  • Trust me to reflect on them (if I am liucky enough to spot them)
  • Trust me to say I am sorry
  • Trust me to make the same mistake again.



This post may trigger you, provoke some confusing feelings or cause you to judge me or some of the others in the story. I apologise if it doesn’t.

Reflections on the IODA/Flourish conference in Stellenbosch 6-8 Sep 2017

Day 1, Episode 1

It is the session before lunch. We are facilitated through a process of visioning. The method includes systems mapping and embodiment .Three quarters in, after mapping the problems concerning diversity in our organisations, we are asked to take a position that expresses our desire for the future of OD (organisation development). The large majority of people go into kumbaya mode: holding hands, or standing arms on each other’s shoulders in a circle. I don’t want to be locked into this picture, and I don’t want to be separate from the group, so I stand against the circle where people are clumping and packing themselves tight in order to get into the circle. Accross from us the circle is thin and people are reaching across furniture unable to reach each other’s hands. The woman behind me nudges me and tells me to go and help them. I say “no thank you, I like it here.” She accepts it.

We reflect on our experience and I tell my reflecting partner (call him X) how I did not want to conform and how I am very weary of being peer pressured into conformity as an answer to dealing with diversity. . He tells me to ask myself a curious question about my response. Immediately I am triggered. I feel irritated by his remark. I notice the feeling, and do not react on it.

Day 2, Episode 2

It is the last session of the day – an integration session meant to help us all reflect on our experiences of the day. It is set up as a thinking space. It starts and ends at specific times and we all sit in a circle, but there is no other structure. Anyone may speak about an experience or where they are at. I am one of three new people in the group. The others had all come to this same integration session the day before.

There is silence and a few contributions. Then one participant, call her A) reflects: “I would have liked to build on what we did yesterday, but I do not want to exclude the new people. So I am saying nothing.” One of the new people say that she came precisely because she heard yesterday was so meaningful, and did not want to derail the flow of that. I say I don’t mind if they pick up from the day before, I did not mean to intrude. Participant A responds: “I did not mean for my words to make you feel like intruders.” I smile and respond: “So, by trying not to exclude us, you made us feel like intruders?” Immediately another participant (B) cuts in: “That is your interpretation.” “Yes, I own that.” I say, and again I feel triggered in the same way as the day before.

I notice my response and sit with the feeling, stewing, while others offer more contributions. When there is another lull, I say: “May I say something uncomfortable?” Having obtained permission, I say: “I have been triggered the same way a few times now and I want to talk about it.” I explain how B’s remark irritated me. “The phrase ‘that’s your interpretation’ made me feel shut down and like my interpretation was invalid. We judge judgment with phrases like ‘that’s your opinion/interpretation as if we have a choice as humans not to judge. Judging is what humans do. I did not mean to be judgmental, though, I meant to summaries what I heard A say – yes, offer a perspective and therefore a judgment, an interpretation.’ I saw some vigorous nodding from others in the room. There were a few more remarks and the session ended.

Day 3, Episode 3

We are 5 women in a van on the way to a site visit. One from Chilli, four South Africans – two coloured, 1 black and 1 white (me). Yes, I name the races because race plays a role in every South African story. The black woman is sharing an experience in a session the day before. She tells how the presenter said in a passing remark “we all learned these things in Grade 8.” The black woman tells how she put up her hand and said that we cannot assume that everyone here did Grade 8, or that they learned the same things.”

After the session, while she was reflecting and writing in her journal, one of the white participants came to her with her ‘coachy-coachy voice” saying “My colleague and I are curious about what you said. You seem so angry. We wonder why you offered such an unproductive remark. Would you like to talk about it?”(My paraphrasing). The black woman felt irritated at the interruption and even more irritated by the sense of judgement coming from the woman. She responded that she did not want to talk about it. The women renewed her invitation saying that they are available if she changed her mind.

The next day (day3), the white women’s colleague approached her, the black women. Again she was interrupted by the white woman while she was in an engaging conversation with someone else. Again she was invited to talk and again she declined. Sitting in the van we all talked about how we use the phrase ‘I am curious” as a judgement, instead of being truly authentic and curious. We also talked about white people’s need to understand what black people mean and how they try to avoid discomfort, requiring black people not to rock the boat.

Judging is what people do. Everyone’s judgement is a valid perspective. Our judgements are informed by our experiences and they are our stories. As coaches and facilitators our job is not to judge judgement, but to accept every contribution as a contribution. We have only two kinds of curious questions that are useful:

  1. The kind you ask yourself of your own triggers. What has made me feel this way? Act this way?
  2. The kind that is genuinely interested in another’s point of view, authentically asked because you really do not know.

We cannot use curious questions to be helpful to someone else and in the process judging their judgement as being judgemental.

Graphic of White work and black work

Note to white people:

For heaven’s sake do not interrupt black people, it is rude. When you do talk to them, do not do so in order to make them explain themselves so you can understand. It is not their job to help you with your fragility. If black people always have to explain themselves and in doing so be careful not to upset you, they will never be free to voice their experience, tell their stories and air their judgements. Go and do your own questioning and reflecting, that is your work, not theirs. Also, dear white people do not try to understand everything black people say, our attempts to understand are too often renewed attempts to control. While you are at it, don’t do any of these things to anyone else. If you do, reflect, say you’re sorry and try again. You will fail often, but don’t stop trying.

Thank you to the two coloured women for enabling the space for this conversation, for your compassion and contributions in the discussion. Thank you too for your humour. Without you, it could not have been possible.

Thank you to the Chilean women for your silent witnessing and curious attention that contributed to the holding of the space.

Thank you to participants x, A, B and the black woman for helping me see clearly what I only saw vaguely before.

We are united in our brokenness.

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