Downing Tools: What happens when the interventionist ditches design for reality

Recently, I was working with a small team, only six people, six wonderful people, who each go way above and beyond what anyone might ever anticipate possible in service of the people and communities they support. Structural Dynamics and Dialogue has been at the core of their practice for as long as it has been for me and so as I prepared for going to work with them this time I was eager to catch up with them around what they wanted to focus on in these development days together. What I heard as I spoke with them was that they were exhausted, depleted and fighting with each other when they meant to connect.

As I listened deeply, I made a decision not to plan anything specific but to prepare in a different kind of way, to really lean into their lived realities and to show up ready to be fully present with them where-ever and how-ever they might be in the days we had to work together. My stance was one of trusting that I truly was the resource I needed and that I could work emergently with them in a generative dialogue space. There was so much happening between them, and I had a way to make sense of it. This was by consciously working with multiple realities, theirs and mine, as they were playing out in the dialogue.

David Kantor and I introduced the concept of Invisible Reality and its relevance for interventionists in an article, ‘Working with an Invisible Reality’, 2014. The concept is based on the notion that in every gathering of people with a history who engage in talk directed toward a common purpose, multiple realities will affect the nature of discourse and its outcome. Two, which David names, are acutely pertinent here: one he calls the ostensible reality; and the other, the invisible reality.

There are two reasons for calling the first of these the ‘ostensible’ reality. This reality is often, until problems of interpretation arise, presumed to be observable, and experienced in the same way—that is universally–by all who are in the room. We know this to be pure nonsense, but we think it anyway. How often do we hear people say, perhaps in exasperation, ”Well, damn it, I see it—how you perceive reality—differently!”  But until the universality of perception of the ostensible reality is challenged, the false presumption that all in the room are observing and perceiving an objective and shared reality prevails.

The second reason is more critical because the consequences of the false presumption can be damaging to you and your client. For beneath the ostensible reality there lives and breathes an invisible reality. The invisible reality is what is going on in the privacy of each individual’s mind –yours included—while they are simultaneously engaging and verbally interacting with you and others in the room and its ostensible reality. You may be privy to the conversational space you and other members of the system are creating; and hopefully to what is going on in the privacy of your own mind; but not to the invisible realities of others’.

With no fixed plan but with these concepts at the forefront of my mind, I was able to really connect in with what was happening within the team and with what was needed. Then, rather than pulling things out of some metaphoric bag that I had thought of or utilised before, I found myself able to create something that was generative, new, timely and specifically for them.

We were working with invisible reality stories between individual team members and they were jibing at each other in small but noticeable ways. I stopped them and asked them to reflect for a few moments. I asked each of them to write the story they believed others in the team held about them, the good and the bad. When they had done this, I asked them to go through the story and identify what they themselves would want to Keep, Reshape or Discard from it. Then I asked them to say what they would want to add into the story that was missing. Next, I invited them to share their reflections. It was amazing. The dialogue that ensued over several hours was incredible as so much began to unfold between them! The covert opposition that had been there dissipated, the energy lifted, a sense of optimism and profound connection emerged. This was the start of them writing a new, shared story and one that included a renewed clarity about their purpose and what steps they would take next.

I left them exhausted but so happy – overall they described feeling liberated. So much was revealed in the stories. So much that had been unspoken up until that point.