The recent Kavanaugh hearings resurfaced a very old story about gender, power, and the truth of experience. When Dr. Christine Blasey Ford bravely testified, people everywhere had to grapple with the fact that early life relationships, and particularly sexual traumas, can drastically impact our lives.
In fact, while our dominant culture remains in denial about the prevalence and negative effects of sexual violence, thought leaders in feminist psychology and sociology have been calling attention to the problem for decades. While sexual violence is an extreme form of domination and abuse, these thought leaders have demonstrated how gender-based violence is part of a continuum of control and exploitation that most women begin to experience more of as they hit adolescence.
As David Brooks wisely points out in his recent op-ed, Two Cheers for Feminism, “For thousands of years social thinking has been dominated by men — usually alpha men — who saw life as a place where warriors and traders went out and competed for wealth and power. These male writers were largely blind to the systems of care that undergirded everything else.” Brooks references Carol Gilligan, Niobe Way, Alisha Ali and Pedro Nuguero, in their new anthology called “The Crisis of Connection,” for their ability to identify how the stereotypically masculine values of “self over relationships, individual success over the common good, the mind over the body, and thinking over feeling” have perpetuated harmful gender dynamics in relationships.
One way to reduce the harmful effects of gender inequality in our lives is by consciously practicing a different kind of being with our power — experiencing ourselves as having “power-with” other people, rather than “power-over” them. Despite growing social inequality, in our personal relationships, it is still possible to practice a “power-with” approach. One such approach is facilitated by a process called Safe Conversations.
I recently attended a Safe Conversations training in New York, so that I could learn and teach others the skills to help people unpack the patriarchy and power dynamics in their personal lives. After decades of research and practice, Helen LaKelly Hunt and Harville Hendrix have come out with Safe Conversations, a new way to engage in relationships, that makes it possible for people to experience deeper empathy and understanding.
How Does Safe Conversations Work?
The training I attended in New York involved multiple practice sessions, during which we broke out into groups of three’s and practiced being both members and facilitators of the structured conversations. Within an hour of beginning the training, we had begun to engage in conversations that went deeply into a space of emotional revelation. Facial expressions softened as the groups tried out speaking to each other with new, unfamiliar sentence stems like, “Let me see if I’ve got that. You said…” and “Is that what you are feeling?” and then listened in new ways, with an ear toward being able to reflect back as much of what they heard as they could.
This wasn’t the first time I had practiced the techniques. I had attended an online workshop with my husband in February of 2017, and since then, had been introducing the technique in small ways in my private practice, with astonishing results. I had seen mothers and daughters reach new understandings of their longtime emotional struggle. I had seen couples practice the technique and come away with a renewed commitment to making their relationship work. Even as people sometimes felt awkward or resisted, I saw how speaking in this new way, using Safe Conversations, was impacting them positively.
Safe Conversations helps us identify ways in which we experienced early relational challenges, and how those challenges impact our identity, as well as our sense of hope and possibility about ourselves, our families, and the larger community. The process teaches us how to both share appreciation for people in our lives, and how to safely tell the story of our own emotional challenges. Built into the process of Safe Conversations is a feedback loop that fosters validating and empathizing with each other’s emotional struggles. Essentially, Safe Conversations teaches us that everyone needs to be part of the answer to a more gender equal and relational world, and gives us the skills to connect better with others.
A parallel process of sorts has been building momentum in philanthropy recently with a strategy called participatory grantmaking, which helps donors and grantees build stronger relationships. Participatory grantmaking invites donors and grantees to become partners, with the central premise that the grantee has the experience to lead the way toward solutions. Organizations like NCRP, the Center for Effective Philanthropy, and the Fund for Shared Insight, are adding to the chorus of philanthropy experts calling for more participatory grantmaking, with many large foundations joining the Fund for Shared Insight in the past year.
Three decades ago, Helen LaKelly Hunt was part of a small army of pioneering feminist founders of some of our country’s largest and most successful women’s foundations. By funding the start of these women’s funds, Hunt helped establish new community hubs for participatory grantmaking. Most women’s funds have been under-recognized practitioners of participatory grantmaking since inception, and these practices — of moving into relationship with the grantee, listening to and incorporating their feedback, and even of including grantees on boards and in the grantmaking process — have made women’s funds some of the most effective change agents in the philanthropic landscape.
In philanthropy, participatory grantmaking is teaching us to listen and value feedback in the donor-grantee relationship. This is a significant shift, but just as important are shifts that can take place in our own everyday relationships. With new techniques like Safe Conversations, we can all be stewards of stronger, more gender equal families and communities.
Editor’s Note: Kiersten Marek is trained as a Safe Conversations Leader and will be teaching her first Safe Conversations workshop on November 7, 2018. To learn more about future Safe Conversations workshops for both helping professionals and the general public, please email Kiersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Full disclosure: The Sister Fund (of which Helen LaKelly Hunt is co-founder) is a Lead Sponsor of Philanthropy Women.