The Integral Facilitator’s Nightmare (oops) Challenge

Diane Musho Hamilton

Diane Musho Hamilton

I took an interest in the clip that was all over the internet last week of an episode of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, the comedian-talk-show-host exchanging with Sam Harris, the atheist-turned-mindfulness author, and Ben Affleck, the actor. If you haven’t already seen it, here’s a link to view the clip of their heated discussion.

Bill Maher begins the discussion by asserting that both he and Sam Harris have been trying to make the case that “liberals need to stand up for liberal principles” like freedom of thought and speech, religious freedom, freedom to leave a religion, and equality for women, minorities, and homosexuals, but says you can’t say those things about Muslims.

Sam Harris responds by asserting that, as he said, “Liberals have failed when it comes to theocracy, and have been sold this meme of ‘Islamaphobia’,” which is the problem of conflating criticism of Islamic doctrine and with bigotry towards Muslims as people.

Ben Affleck finds their position intolerable. As you watch the discussion unfold, you’ll see the moment where Bill Maher asks Ben Affleck why he is so upset, and Ben Affleck replies that what Bill Maher and Sam Harris are saying is “gross,” “racist,” and is just like saying, (he mocks), “you know, you have your shifty Jew…”  In other words, according to Affleck, the conversation they are trying to have about Islam and Muslims is fundamentally racist.

This is the overwhelming moment when I imagined trying to facilitate this conversation. And it is why I think it caught the attention of so many people online and in the media, from the likes of Bill O Reilly to Reza Aslan to Dustin Di Perna.

In his op-ed piece, DiPerna points out how much the conversation could have benefitted from an integral clarification, particularly regarding levels of development because as he says, “two perspectives are simply talking past each other.”

He suggests the help of a developmental model, like that of Jame Fowler’s or Jean Gebser, because he writes, “what is needed is the critical comprehension that individuals, with different levels of development, are enacting Islam (and all other religious traditions) according to their own worldviews and levels of development. As development unfolds, interpretations of faith move from being more restrictive, ego-centric and ethno-centric in view to orientations that more compassionate, open, and world-centric.”

I couldn’t agree with Dustin more, but the challenge for a facilitator working in the here and now of conversation, is that bringing forward a developmental lens is usually a form of education—one that people will often reject in the heat of the moment if they are ensconced in and advocating for their own viewpoint. It is hard to learn when you are feeling strongly and just trying to get your point across.

So my suggestion for facilitators is that if you were there in person, first, back up to the very beginning and making an integral move of getting agreement from the participants that the conversation has multiple perspectives with multiple claims to truth.

That is the number one, most important agreement that a facilitator can get when embarking into this kind of territory. It moves the conversation from its natural and weary binary argumentative course and instead, opens up a landscape in which multiple perspectives can inhabit and grow up next to each other. (As Dustin would point out, success with this will depend on the developmental level of participants.)

Another Integral move that can be incredibly helpful is making the distinction between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person perspectives. If you pay attention to the conversation, you’ll see that it is all happening in a third person discourse.  It is “about” liberals, “about” the unequal treatment of others, “about” religious doctrine and differences, “about” racism,” and this third person discourse is making demands on the participants without their knowing it.

Ben Affleck’s feeling states could be felt much more directly and honestly if he would speak from his first-hand experience about the pain of racism, and his commitment to refuse it.  And those feelings could be received and integrated by the others if he were able to speak to his own experience, using, as we like to say, “I statements,” instead of simply off-loading the difficult feeling states onto the perceived shortcomings of Sam Harris.

We have all done it; we all do it, especially when we feel strongly. But an Integral model suggests that strong feelings deserve their rightful place in the conversation. They are energizing, enlivening and often bring the human heart to bear in the discussion. However, it takes some practice and skill to know how to work with strong feeling states so they can do their powerful work. And for the most part, they don’t belong in the objective realm of 3rd person.

Rarely, in this conversation, do these participants consciously move to a first person perspective and use it’s power. And only once did I notice acknowledgement of the second person dimension. And yet, the conversation itself is a second person phenomenon. It is all about “us” talking these issues over.

The list of Integral interventions one could use in a discussion like this goes on: from clear intention and purpose, to good reflective listening, to well-placed questions, to momentary challenges to the status quo, and the fine art of making the distinctions that can weave multiple views into a complex, but beautiful tapestry of exchange.

With luck, you might be able to introduce a developmental view later in the conversation if it is done lightly and makes use of the distinctions already introduced into the discussion; in this case, by Sam Harris delineating the difference between jihadists, fundamentalists or Islamists, and conservatives. In other words, he has created a natural opening to bring in a developmental lens.

There are many other Integral skills that could help this conversation along. If you are interested in exploring how you might have navigated this type of challenging conversation as a facilitator, I invite you to join us next week for a live, online demonstration and discussion about facilitating challenging conversations.

Live Integral Facilitator Open Call with Diane Musho Hamilton
Facilitating Challenging Conversations: An Integral unpacking of the Maher/Harris/Affleck debate
Thursday, October 23, 2014
9:00 a.m. PT / 10:00 a.m. MT / 12:00 p.m. ET
Register for the call (at no charge) HERE

Diane Musho Hamilton
Co-Founder and Lead Teacher, Integral Facilitator®
Author, Everything is Workable, a Zen Approach to Conflict Resolution.

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11 thoughts on “The Integral Facilitator’s Nightmare (oops) Challenge”

    1. I think Sam Harris was thoughtful and clear-headed during the conversation.
      The problem for me was that he never acknowledged the legitimacy of Ben Affleck’s response.
      So we are still left with a binary result. I can see a path through to a much more interesting result that
      includes both perspectives.

  1. As I watched Ben Affleck get more and more tense, I was getting ready for the volcano to blow and I started get excited (and tense myself) wondering what would I do in this situation. Diane, I appreciate the ideas you have in the article and I look forward to the call next week.

  2. Charles Richards

    I believe you see here in the video the difference between a guy like Sam Harris who “talks” for a living and Ben Affleck who, despite being an actor, does not debate publicly on a regular basis. I am reminded of William F Buckley when he would debate other people who did not “talk” of a living. One of the tactic of the “professional debater” is to use his opponent’s emotional response to paint himself as a cad. I actually thought Ben Affleck did a very good job of restraining himself, of not falling in that trap.

    1. A significant difference, to be sure. And an important one is we still are prone to looking for a winner and a loser.
      If we are looking for depth and complexity, then speakers have to be supported in expressing themselves as fully as possible.

  3. The topic itself is at least for me too political to be a human discussion of a unified perspective that could bring about a real understanding that would go beyond who is wrong or right. Already there is a provision of a Liberal vs Democratic perspective and so this brings in a format of two sides of a conflict . I am not sure that debate is the same thing as discussion or even conversation. I am aware how the integral evolution of humanity needs to address the integral staging of sharing ideas. I am sure that Sam Harris would never resort to backing Ben Affleck into a corner with his Ben’s emotional reactions. I was so proud of his empathy for Ben by not doing this. Every man in the discussion had a level of real honesty about them and it was the purest and most real part of it all. The awkwardness of it was the way the event was structured so that each person was not given a safe space to present without interruption. This was a tragedy for the success of the program because I am sure that I am not the only one who felt compassion for every man there. No one was left with their wisdom presented with style or grace or much dignity. Too much of the codk fight left in this to be called a moment in human evolutionary progress. and compassionate understanding. I am an optimist and I think it is possible to do with and have an enlightened transformative experience.

  4. The best practice as an observer or listener is for us to feel into the truth of each perspective, including the validity of strong feelings. Thanks for your comment.

  5. It is not Sam Harris’ job to validate Ben Affleck’s position, as the ‘moderator’, it would be Bill Maher to do so, but that does not make for good television I suppose. I like all of the suggestions and comments from above, especially not having the time to go into an educational script about world views, spiral dynamics or memes while being a part of a heated discussion. I do like posing questions that can level major parts of the debate.
    How are radical sects of Islam any different than lets say, the KKK is to Christianity? They do not represent all Christians. Also, is the psychological climate of the Christian south in the 50s so terribly different than parts of the Middle East with Islam? Lynchings are very similar to beheadings!
    The difference is 60+ years and a ton of social media, not the religion..

    The comments (or questions) are probably more for a participant than a moderator but as a moderator, I would closely watch the thinly veiled rage of the unhealthy green meme being a ‘victim rescuer’ as seen in Ben Affleck’s position. I’m sure in most interactions, people completely agree with Ben due to his star status.
    The ‘healthy green’ seems to be Harris and the the ‘antagonist green’ being Bill Maher.
    The moderator in an integral mindset would seek to come to a greater understanding and wisdom from a discussion as opposed to ‘winning’ a debate, the key is to watch who is DYING to be right and let them feel heard so the show can move on.

  6. Raghu Challapilla

    Wonderful observation! Another example of two perspectives talking past each other is Noam Chomsky’s email conversation with Sam Harris (like below). Two great mind with a potential to benefit the world if they utilize the diversity of their mental frameworks collaboratively, but end up in a failed conversation. Multiple topics of conversation, defensiveness and confusion.

  7. Raghu Challapilla

    Folks like Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss have said that they think facilitator is an obstacle. Partly it’s not knowing the value of good facilitation and party it’s the lack of quality facilitation in such debates. This blog caught my attention and I would like to learn more about Integral Facilitation.

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