As a Voice Dialogue teacher and facilitator, it is humbling to realise how hard it can be to separate from a powerful primary self and how vigilant we must be least we go unconscious and are taken over by its energy. I once heard Hal Stone describe such a self as being like a huge planet - before we know it, we have been drawn into its orbit and captured by its high gravitational pull. I was reminded of this recently while teaching a management seminar in Modena, Italy.
Over the past few years, the poor economic climate has meant that many companies have cut their training budgets. As a result I have been asked to lead seminars alone. Although this has meant working harder, it has made a part of me very happy, as I have not had to take into account the opinions, concerns and needs of a co-trainer. I have been able to do it my way, i.e. the way my Seminar Leader self likes to do it.
In Modena, however, my Italian client had sufficient funds for two trainers, and once again I was asked to work with a colleague - someone whose style and approach was very different from my own.
I began training when I was just 17 years old. The wife of my English teacher at high school was the local representative of the European Student Travel Organisation (ESTO). Her job was to find host families and English teachers for groups of French teenagers coming to London on two-week study programmes. One of her teachers had fallen ill and her husband had suggested me as a last minute substitute!
“But I have never stood in front of a class and taught anybody anything,” I protested. “I know you have it in you,” replied Eric, “It will be a good experience for you - and you will earn a little holiday money too! It will really help Penny out if you can take it on.” My Pleaser could not refuse him and with great trepidation I acquiesced.
I can still remember the butterflies in my stomach, my sweaty palms and my pounding heart as I was introduced to the mixed sex class of 25 rowdy youths: “This is Mr Kent, your English teacher,” announced Penny. Some were younger than me, but most were my age or older. How was I going to control them, let alone teach them anything? What authority could I possibly have? I felt shy and vulnerable and wished I had never agreed to do this.
There was a moment of silence as they stared at me - a mixture of wariness and expectation on their faces, checking me out to see if I was worthy of their respect. I knew I had to be proactive. I had to seize the initiative.
As I stared back at them, something shifted inside me and to my surprise I suddenly felt suffused with a calm, quiet energy. My mind cleared and in a cool, confident voice I heard myself say, “Good morning everyone. Let’s begin the first lesson.” My Seminar Leader was born.
Eric had been right, I did have it in me! I continued to work with ESTO during my university vacations and when I graduated I followed a career as a trainer. Over the years, my Seminar Leader grew from strength to strength, learning from each new opportunity and assignment. By the time I was in my late 30’s it had become a powerful force in my professional life. Just how dominant - and domineering - it was only became clear to me in the late 1980’s when I was teaching cross-cultural communication seminars in the USA.
I met Patricia while studying Voice Dialogue in Tucson, Arizona. She was also a trainer, with some expertise in international business relations. We got along OK and decided that it would be fun to run a workshop together. The marketing, planning and preparation went well, but when it came to delivering the training I found myself becoming highly judgemental of her style.
Sensing that all was not well, and also feeling some negative judgements towards my way of working, Patricia suggested that we do a joint Voice Dialogue session with another facilitator, Rick, to explore what was going on. After explaining the situation to him, we all agreed that I would be facilitated first while Patricia observed.
When Rick asked to speak to the part of me that had something to say about Patricia’s way of training, my Seminar Leader immediately made his presence felt and I moved my chair over to where he wanted to sit.
“Could you tell me how you feel about Patricia as a trainer?” asked Rick.
“There are only three trainers in the world that I respect and she’s not one of them!” pronounced my Seminar Leader in no uncertain terms.
“What exactly upsets you about Patricia’s style?” enquired Rick.
“She is too laid back, too wishy-washy, lacks pace and momentum, doesn’t work according to the agreed plan, deviates and digresses, seems intimidated by the participants, lacks confidence and, as a result, loses her authority and control over the group. Why John agreed to work with her I’ll never know. She’s useless!”
Speaking as this self I felt very powerful and self-righteous in my condemnation of Patricia. Quite simply, she should never be allowed to stand up in front of a group again! More judgements followed, delivered with a vehemence that clearly shocked and upset Patricia who was trying her best not to react to my highly opinionated self.
After a while, Rick invited me to separate from my Seminar Leader and I moved my chair back to centre. Immediately I felt a much younger energy tugging at me and Rick invited this energy to speak. I went over to the opposite side of the room and curled up on the floor with eyes tightly closed.
It was my Shy Child - the same part of me that had been so nervous and anxious all those years before as I faced my first class of French students. This part of me did not like my Seminar Leader or the way he behaved when he took me over. “I hate standing up in front of people. Why does John do that kind of work? I don’t want to be the centre of attention with everyone looking at me. I’m scared of them. And now I’m scared of Patricia,” whispered my Shy Child.
“Why are you scared of Patricia?” asked Rick.
“Because that Seminar Leader guy has upset her and I’m afraid she is hurt and angry and won’t like me any more,” came the answer.
Rick spent some time with my Shy Child and then asked me to move back to the centre. I took a moment to experience myself sitting between these two very different energies before finishing my session. It was now my turn to observe as Rick facilitated Patricia.
The first part of her to speak was a very indignant, Judgemental Mother that couldn’t stand my “overbearing and condescending” Seminar Leader. She hated the way men treated women as being less important and less able, and railed against the patriarchal attitudes that “pervaded and perverted” society. As she spoke, I felt my Shy Child cringe at her words. It felt like she was going to annihilate me.
However, when she moved over to the opposite side, a very young Fearful Child spoke. This self was cowed by the judgements of my Seminar Leader and felt bruised and humiliated. It turned out that Patricia’s father had been a very powerful and domineering man who had always told her that she was no good at anything and would never amount to much. His advice was that she should find a man, settle down and live her life as a loyal housewife and mother. The dismissive tone of my Seminar Leader reminded her of him.
Listening to the opinions, fears and concerns of our different selves shone a spotlight on the underlying tensions that existed between us. We were able to understand how on a deep level our defensive primary selves were interacting in a negative way as they endeavoured to protect our younger, more vulnerable selves. It was clear to me just how identified I had become with my Seminar Leader and how his judgements of Patricia reflected my own disowned material. My Seminar Leader was actually terrified that I would lose control and not be able to handle the class. His powerful presence ensured my safety, but had inevitably caused problems in my working relationships with other trainers, especially when they were more easygoing in their approach.
These memories came back to me as I observed my colleague in front of the class in Modena. I heard the voice of my Seminar Leader formulating a very negative appraisal of her. After ruling the roost for the past few years, having to work with a co-trainer again reminded me just how powerful a presence this primary self can be in my work life. It also gave me the chance to reconnect to my Shy Child who, 40 years on, still does not want me to be doing this kind of work!
I reflected how the dance of our selves in relationships of all types - with colleagues and co-workers, as well as with significant others - can act as guide to what we need to acknowledge and embrace in ourselves. As I detached myself from the gravitational pull of my very talented Seminar Leader and listened once more to the fears of my Shy Child, I felt the judgements about my colleague fade and found them replaced by feelings of tolerance, empathy and appreciation.