STANDING AS WITNESS
By Mary Miura, Lorna Rickard, Ken Roberge and Lola Wilcox
To be able to “Stand as Witness” may be the chief skill of an individual called to the field of organization development. There are two major activities that require skilled witnessing: data gathering and data presentation. Both activities require making and delivering observations without projections or judgment. To stand as a witness is a different action from giving feedback, which requires the speaker to identify the effect of a behavior or action on the person and the environment.
“Standing as Witness” is to meet individuals, family members, and groups where they are, as a neutral listener capable of carrying multiple truths while preserving dignity and doing no harm. To witness well takes a deep awareness of one’s own self, especially biases and needs. The individual standing as witness also must be recognized in the organization or system as having a positive, protected and powerful cache; the person is believed to be neutral, and trusted to seek truth that will foster a change in the situation.
One example of the role is in Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. In this famous science fiction novel a “Fair Witness” could be called into any situation where the truth needed a record. Possessed of total recall, having gone through extensive training, and with a reputation beyond question, the Fair Witness would appear in a white robe and listen; if called to “witness” the record given was considered inviolate.
Jubal: You know how fair witnesses behave.
Gillian: Well… no, I don’t. I’ve never met one.
Jubal: (Speaking to Anne as a fair witness) That house on the hilltop – can you see what color they’ve painted it?
Anne: It’s white on this side.
Jubal: “You see? It doesn’t occur to Anne to infer that the other side is white, too. All the King’s horses couldn’t force her to commit herself…unless she went there and looked – and even then she wouldn’t assume that it stayed white after she left. (Chapter XI)
As a fair witness the report is what is observable, nothing more, nothing less, nothing projected, nothing intuited. At best intuition is a tool to aid the fair witness to know where to look.
LISTENING AS A FAIR WITNESS
What are the skills we need to be able to listen as a “Fair Witness” in our own environments? Certain actions advance the ability to listen as a fair witness, including being where the teller is, slowing down, and having no fear.
Being Where The Teller Is
When listening it is essential to conceive events as the teller sees them. This requires a suspension of judgment in favor of exploration. For the listener there is no ultimate truth, or even reality. One of our major examples involves elders in a family in the mesa ridge area of New Mexico, a dry land with large acreage ranches. On one of these ranches a group of elders aged as all the younger generations moved away; the elders were one another’s support system. As one of them came to the end of his life at 98 he began to tell stories about what shaped his life. A major part of that shaping was his experiences during WWII. On visits the younger generations would listen to the stories which came out in a long crooked road. One of the young men would correct him about “the facts” and the elder would shut down. However, if, no matter where the story went, the listener asked open-ended questions, the elder was always was able to tie the pieces together, and he would relax.
During the slow journey to rest in Death’s arms, another of the elders would look out her window and tell stories about the snake and her father and siblings that had long ago left this life. She talked about marrying, and used her husband’s middle name – he had been dead for 40 years. The caregivers and family believed her to be suffering from old age dementia, and would correct her “facts”, reminding her that her father and siblings were dead and would not be coming to her wedding. Again, if asked open-ended questions, she also would tie all the pieces together. She was struggling with finding the words that would make sense about what she was seeing and experiencing. In her own language she was saying that her siblings, father, and husband were there to help her to take her final journey.
The individual truth will probably not be told in a straight line. As we follow the individual as they wander, traveling a crooked path, we begin to perceive from the experiences selected, and see the teller’s view. The task is to go with the teller into the situation and see it from that individual’s point of view. There are no corrections to be made.
Another example is from Barry Oshry’s Power Lab, which uses a total immersion experience and proven methodology to help participants understand and develop the courage and skills to lead human systems. There is a role called the anthropologist; during the multiple-day training program, the anthropologist, who doesn’t interact, wears no clues that provide personal information (rings, etc.), and has unfettered access, records participants’ dialogue verbatim. The anthropologist stands as witness to participants’ growth, as they attempt to navigate the complexities of creating a fully functioning society within the context of a three-class society with distinct differences in wealth and power. The anthropologist reports the events of the lab through a systems perspective, using only the words the participants themselves have said. It is not “giving feedback”; it is a report of actions observed as the lab explores what it takes to engage and lead human systems. Unvarnished information from the anthropologist has the ability to change lives – 100% of participants over a 24-year study period reported significant learning.
Our first thought is often that truth is like the clear ringing of a bell: pure, simple, unmistakable. “The house is white!” we say. But as we talk, and we listen, we may discover that it’s really more of a light beige, maybe a little yellow in places. And in the setting sun it’s more rose colored. And the trim is light green. We may begin to realize that we really don’t know anything about the other three sides. As we listen to others, they may describe the truth of the other sides. We may discover that no one has seen one side; that in itself is part of the truth. Truth is almost always complex, a point in time, and a mixture of the known, the unknown, and the unknowable. The witness must carefully note all of these parameters. The witness must allow sufficient time for them to become known.
We cannot be frightened by what we hear.
The trip to the post office for the New Mexico elders was a mile from the house on a dirt road with minimal traffic. The post office was at the intersection of the ranch and the “blacktop”, as it was known (a county two-lane highway.) The elders ranged from age 82 to 96 at this time in their lives; one could not see well, a second could not hear or walk well, and the third could see and walk well but was losing her hearing. The third person was the one with a valid driver’s license. When that individual had a major stroke, the other two got the third one in the car to go to the nearest hospital, 40 miles away. The one who could not see very much drove, while the one who could not walk or hear well navigated. For the full 40-mile drive instructions came: “Move back to the right, you are in the wrong lane, etc.” After getting the stroke victim settled into the hospital, they made the trip back using the same process – only it was a bit longer because leaving Albuquerque they went the wrong direction on I-25. When the younger members were listening to this afterwards, it was frightening to think about what could have happened. Truth be told, however, there was nothing to do. The elders could live nowhere else, and they had to have some method of travel. To be frightened for them solved nothing. In dealing with elders, give them peace. They will die. You can have faith, but you have no knowledge. They lead you, and that is their truth.
Two other points on not being frightened by what we hear:
1) It’s important to guard against “important-people- itus”, where the consultant’s own fear of speaking truth to power may sabotage any ability to be useful.
2) During the struggles of the civil rights era the TV cameras and reporters provided an objective and thus fearless witness. We as a nation, trusting in this witness, were able to trust our own anger and fear, which led us to action.
When there is no fix, no answer
As in the above example, sometimes when listening it becomes clear that there will be no resolution. Another example is that there will be budget cuts, and some programs and some people will not make it. Something will be taken away with no chance of necessity being the mother of invention. When there will be harm, what then?
The elder driver who had the stroke continued to drive for all, believing it was safe for such a good driver. Caregivers would preach to them about how they were no longer safe and could kill others – that they were being selfish and irresponsible. That always left everyone upset and moved them to the place of stubbornness. What was critical was timing, compassion and being totally non-judgmental. Listening to what they felt and believed, revealed what they needed most – their independence. When talking with a non-judgmental person, the one who could still drive asked if she should give up driving. Telling the truth was to say “Yes, it was possible”, and then helping to figure out options. Eventually she decided to give it up on her own.
When there has been harm, grieve. The oldest story we have is from Sumeria. Inanna, Queen of Heaven descends to her underworld sister, stripping herself of every vestige of power. Eriskigal hangs her on a peg. Two non-human beings come for her, and they mirror her grief: they don’t try to fix it, just listen, and grieve. The beings are witnesses, similar to R2D2 and 3-Cipio in Star Wars recording the history of the allied resistance. After Eriskigal’s grief is heard, and mirrored, Inanna is allowed to return. Nothing is changed, fixed, altered by anything other than empathetic listening.
Parameters of Listening
There are situations that occur, especially when doing Action Research interviews, when listening as a fair witness does not aid the teller, the listener, or the situation.
When given information outside the parameters
When interviewing in an organization or system, people may see the interview as an opportunity to get “some things off my chest”. Now, it’s important to clarify what this information has to do with the topic being searched. Other good questions include “Why would you tell me this?” and “What do you expect me to do with this information?” These questions put the teller on notice that the interviewer is not a conduit for gossip, the resurrection of lost causes, or a fixer for past anger or grief.
When unethical people put out misinformation
There was a time when ignorance was a problem. Knowledge was difficult to come by and was a source of power. In today’s internet, digital world, it is hard to restrict the flow of knowledge; we are bathed in it. Now, those who seek power often try to do so by spreading falsehood and deception. The witness has an important role in the fair and factual reporting of dissonance and discrepancies.
When the truth is difficult
To listen neutrally takes a deep awareness of one’s own self, especially biases and needs. Your views, morals, ethics, experiences, and especially judgments are not relevant. You must listen to the telling in its totality, holding its own integrity, if possible without comment, but with great empathy. The more heartrending the story, the harder it is to listen to in this way.
Mary King, in 1993 editor of the Perspective, ALP Forum, wrote an article about her experience of surviving the Oakland firestorm. Fleeing her burning house she drove down a canyon road that minutes later was jammed with traffic in which twenty of her neighbors died. She found herself telling people about it and either their eyes would glaze over or they would comment about the opportunities for self-growth in the situation. Finally locating a newly-formed support group of women fire survivors she discovered they also were like the Trojan princess Cassandra – “compelled to tell the truth, but condemned to never find a listener”. She quotes Jeffrey Jay, then director of the Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Studies and Treatment in Washington, D.C. as saying that people who have lived through a trauma have literally come to the brink of the abyss and peered in; from that point on they are witnesses to a “terrible knowledge” which the culture, in its denial, cannot bear to hear.
The psychic fragmentation and the shattering of illusion of control which accompany trauma strike hard at the culture’s deepest fears. As unintended embodiments of these fears, trauma survivors become persona non grata.
In worst cases the fear not only manifests as silence, but as judgment. The puritanical heritage of New Age ideology emerges when one suffers a trauma. (Mary King, March/April AHP Forum)
Mary King’s trauma event was large, noticeable, newsworthy, and involved a lot of people. For many of our clients their trauma involves only themselves, perhaps, and their manager. It goes unnoticed, even by themselves. They would not identify as a trauma survivor. But while listening as a fair witness you may see that side of the house, and decide to name it for what it is.
STANDING AS WITNESS
In the end, after listening, the time comes when the listener will gather together all that was told, and prepare a report. At this point the listener will stand as witness to all that has been heard. Each person has spoken the truth as seen at that time. The report must be an accurate, neutral statement of what was told by the tellers by the witness, and told without personal judgment. A second science fiction example is Orson Scott Card’s “Speaker for the Dead.” In a book by that name Card develops the role of a person who goes into a situation after a person has died, and listens to all who knew the individual tell their views.
Jane: The xenobiologist of Lusitania… called Novinha…has called for a speaker for the dead. ….
Ender: What had this girl, what had Novinha done that would make her feel such pain?
And so he listened as Jane recited the facts of her life. What Jane had were statistics, but Ender was the Speaker for the Dead; his genius – or his curse – was his ability to conceive events as someone else saw them. (Chapter 4)
The speaker is inserted into a situation, has access to all information and people, and learns how the individual has shaped/been shaped by the community. Having listened to all the stories, the task of the speaker is to tell the truth of a person’s life, and in so doing, free both the person and the community from illusion. The telling transforms the living as well as allowing the passing on of the dead.
When we, as an organization development consultant or in any other role, enter a situation as intervener, our task is to discover right action. In Action Research we interview as many people as necessary. Lacking the total recall of Henlein’s Fair Witness, or the trained empathy of Card’s Speaker for the Dead, Action Research enables us to present the variable truths to the organization, and the organization confirms or adapts them. Only then does the intervention occur, and, in Action Research, right action too is decided by the organization, not by us. We enter the situation as a neutral listener, and report as a neutral presenter.
What truth does the Witness tell?
The person Standing as Witness has no power to create a truth that is not there, nor to modify a truth that is there. The witness observes, listens, assembles and speaks, including making no recommendations other than the tellers’ own. The role of the witness is well summarized in the familiar courtroom oath: to tell the truth (saying nothing false), the whole truth (leaving nothing out), and nothing but the truth (adding nothing not known to be true). Like any excellent scientist, one doesn’t say more than there is, and doesn’t fudge the research. In contrast to Reporters, who may misrepresent or carry an agenda, the task of the witness is to stand and deliver, and to do so without fear. This is one reason why organization development consultants contract with the highest up the chain leader as possible.
In the Power Lab during the anthropologists’ report, participants are given ample opportunity to speak the truth as they see it. These reports, with their diverse perspectives, often help the person or group expand their seeing and understanding of the events they’ve experienced.
In classic Action Research the report includes any viewpoint mentioned by more than one person. Rarely is one truth seen by all, and including this diversity of view is reporting the truth. Often the discovery that there are multiple views of the truth leads to action and healing.
Report to the leader first
The first person to hear an Action Research report is the leader. It is critical that the contract or up-front agreement has prepared the leader for the responsibilities of hearing the report, and the necessity of working with the consultant to present the report, and prepare the group to be able to hear.
The leader can make rewording suggestions. After the report is made to the group, the leader may have comments whose purpose is to clear up false perceptions. Generally a facilitated discussion follows with the goal of creating a plan and action steps. It is at this point that the consultant may leave the neutral position, and make suggestions not made by the group. The group is free to accept (or not) these ideas, and add them to the discussion.
On the other hand, the leader may approach the situation by assuming:
a) You’ve heard me and them
b) You see my point of view
c) You will take up my cause.
Here is an elaborate dance: the leader needs the listener to no longer be neutral; indeed, neutrality may have been seen as a technique to gain information. If the leader assumes a rigidity of position, it’s important to acknowledge that view, that standpoint, and step sideways. Stepping sideways works through these three questions:
What do you need said in public so you then can hear what the other side is saying?
How will you know that what you need said has been heard?
What will it take for you to put that down and hear the other truth?
For example, a manager of a new team arrived trailing rumors of his harsh, unfeeling management of his old team. What he needed to be heard in public was that he had been ordered to shape the old team up, and, like a good soldier, had followed orders. The team did shape up in the end but resented him for it. How he knew that had been heard was when he was asked “Were you sent here for the same reasons?” and answered that question with a “yes, but I’m hoping for more cooperation this time”. What it took for him to set this need down and hear their points of view was that they decided to work with him, not against him. Then he could hear what behaviors he might change to further the goal.
What to do with destructive information
What if the listening process has uncovered some destructive information? What responsibility does the witness have now to the truth? To determine the truth and tell it to every one who’s interested? Or to wait until someone asks for it? Or to do something required by the information and tell no one? Who owns the information? What type of governance is needed?
At times information may not be reported because of its volatility; an example of this was an intervention with a government agency whose long-term employees disliked their new manager, and wanted to make life as difficult as possible that she might fail and one of them become her replacement. In this case, information given as malicious gossip was not reported, but the group behaviors of the employees were. The reporting session with the group proved a very difficult discussion for all concerned.
An example of telling no one is from a team building assignment with a freshly hired crew for a new and experimental methane plant. The men had asked for and finally insisted on seeing the plans for the plant. They were convinced it was an unsafe design, and certain conditions might result in a fireball that could explode the plant. Their immediate leadership was over a hundred miles away, and interested in bringing the plant’s construction coming in on time and on budget. When the consultant was put off, and ridiculed for listening to the men “who know nothing”, she went to her chain of command. Her VP went to the VP of the plant chain, and was in turn put off because the economic situation was unstable, and the company needed this plant.
What’s the truth?
– men are afraid – no one will listen
– the engineering safety truth – yet to be determined
– leader’s truth – whose career is on the line
– business’ truth – quarterly returns matter
– system’s truth – if the men are at risk, so is the company
Choices? To go around the direct reporting line VP to the CEO on hearsay would have been political suicide. Standing as witness, privately the consultant located an out-of-state engineering firm to review the design; all identifying information was removed. The consultant submitted three small reimbursements in the budget under teambuilding expenses, and paid the engineering review company from those. Small but specific adjustments were recommended to make the plant safer; she shared the results and these suggestions with the team only. The independent review was never mentioned, but the men subsequently “identified” desired changes, fought for them one by one successfully, and a safe plant opened on time and on budget. “What’s the truth?” was a question less important than “How may the truth be served?”
What might not be included
There are times when the listener hears information that requires taking action outside the contract parameters. Three examples are:
The leader may be having an affair with, for example, one of the people involved in a conflict, or there is apotential for an EEO suite or other legal action. This situation may require a legal consultation, and upper level support for an intervention with the leader.
There is an accusation of graft by the leader. (reported to proper authority)
There is a safety issue (call for an assessment)