Meeting and Mismeeting: Facilitating Transformational Communities/Conversations


When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, 
God is the electricity that surges between them. 
~~Martin Buber

The kingdom of God is among (within) you.
--Luke 17:21

Human being
may I not
forget you
in all
this talk
of God.
~~Alice Walker

In his book, Fragments, Martin Buber tells of a childhood experience that informed his journey toward I-Thou and what he described as genuine meeting.  When Buber was a child, his mother disappeared.  For years no one knew where she had gone, including his father.  Years later, theydiscovered she had run away to Russia with another man and raised a new family there.

With his mother’s leaving, Buber lived with his grandparents, who always tried to keep the hope of his mother’s return alive. . . One day while standing on the balcony at his grandparent’s house with a girl who lived next door, in whose care he had been entrusted, the following encounter occurred.  

"Here I stood. . .with a girl several years older, the daughter of a neighbor, . . . We both leaned on the railing.  I cannot remember that I spoke of my mother to my older comrade.  But I hear still how the big girl said to me:  “No, she will never come back.”  I know that I remained silent, but also that I cherished no doubt the truth of the spoken words.  It remained fixed in me; from year to year it cleaved ever more to my heart, but after more than ten years I had begun to perceive it as something that concerned not only me, but all men (people).  Later I made up the word mismeeting or misencounter—to designate the failure of a real meeting between people.   . . . I suspect that all that I have learned about the genuine meeting in the course of my life had its first origin in that hour on the balcony." (pp: 22-23)

This formative experience on the balcony at his grandparents’ house informed Buber’s journey into a life of meeting over and against mismeetings. Buber comments, “All actual life is encounter” or “All real living is meeting.”  Our souls long for communion; we yearn for genuine meeting with self, other(s) and God.  

The significance of genuine meetings is that through such encounters deep, lasting influence happens. Deep calls to deep. Genuine meetings/encounters are formational, not simply informational. In emotional systems language, they happen at the level of emotional process, and in theological language, at the level of the soul.

Pointing toward the importance of genuine meeting, Buber quotes Jesus saying, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I shall be there.” (Matthew 18:20) Later, Buber turned it around.  Instead of the name coming first, then the presence, he put the presence of God first.  He writes, “For where two or three are truly together, they are together in the name of God.”  In other words, the way we encounter each other in facilitated communities, in administrative council or vestry meetings, in worship and one-on-one encounters reflect our relationship to God.  We cannot compartmentalize our encounters.  Our theology is demonstrated through our relational interactions, whether in communities of practice, in the church or out of it, in heated gatherings of the collective community or personal, one-on-one encounters.  Meeting is the encounter with Other through others, and paradoxically the encounter with other(s) through Other. Both encounters impact our meeting with Self, God and one another.  When communion and genuine encounter happen, God is there.  Martin Buber writes, “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between (among) them.”

As a leaders/facilitators image Buber’s concepts of meeting and mismeeting as offering insight into our intention for leading and facilitating conversations.  For me, it invites questions such as:

•    As we lead/facilitate, how do we invite space for genuine meeting or encounter to occur and deep influence to happen? 
•    How do we help the groups of people we lead/facilitate move from mismeetings to genuine encounters? 
•    What does a courageous conversation look like that enhances the possibility of real meeting or genuine encounter?  
•    How would the image of opening and sustaining space for real meeting impact the way we think about leadership and facilitating conversations?  
•    How would creating a space for genuine encounter look? What do you imagine is necessary and helpful to such a possibility?  
•    How would imagining the focus as creating a space for genuine encounter impact the way we lead and are led?  

There are no magic wands, simple checklists or guarantees for genuine encounters to occur but there are things leaders/facilitators can be and do to help space be more conducive to real meeting.  One assumption for me is that our deepest place of influence is not behavior, but our way of being. 

To be clear, not all gatherings are going to be deep meetings of the soul.  Some are task oriented, dealing with technical issues demanding quick responses, while other gatherings invite the deeper conversations addressing broader adaptive issues at a systemic level.  Regardless of the content crying for our attention, we can honor and respect the dignity of others in an I-Thou way as we engage them and ourselves in honest, deep conversation.  

Meeting and mismeeting are not only about how we conduct ourselves, but first and foremost, our way of being, the way of our hearts/souls toward others and Self, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, others and God, which begin with our own inner work, our spiritual and soul practices.

Practically speaking, not everyone will get “it,” and none of us will get it all the time.  This is a journey. Inviting the transformation of the soul, both individually and collectively, is more like a garden we cultivate than a structure we build. There will be people who get the words but miss the music. By creating and sustaining space for genuine meeting to occur, we make possible the experience for those who are ready to do so, which impacts the entire system.  Everyone does not have to get “it” to impact a community.  The experience by some influences the entire system.

According to Buber, genuine meeting requires unconditional trust, a willingness to be vulnerable.  Meeting or real encounter involves accepting the other as a unique person, as a co-equal, as a person of equal value created in the image of God; it involves mutuality.  It involves affirming others, addressing and responding to them even in and through tense times; genuine meeting involves, in Buber’s language, confirming the other(s), even while withstanding; it involves calm, non-anxious, I-Thou presence.  In the young Buber’s case, it was not his family trying to ease his pain by using “caring” dishonesty that led to real meeting, but the young daughter of a neighbor whose hard, honest words to him, “No, she will never come back,” opened his way to experience deep encounter or genuine meeting.  In other words, this is not warm and fuzzy. It takes intentionality, consciousness and courage to live from this I-Thou place—to facilitate from this place.  It is not always soft behavior.  Sometimes it calls for hard behavior or speaking the truth in love.  When it is done from an I-Thou way of being, it has a different impact.  It is not shame-based, but grace-filled, even when making tough stands.  I believe that what Buber is presenting is close to the values we in our facilitation of communities of practice espouse as a model not only for facilitation conversation, but also is wisdom for the larger community and leadership.  

Mismeeting involves qualities such as dismissing others through labeling or misrepresentation; thinking of ourselves as better than the other person(s), entitled or privileged or more in tune with God; it involves culturally inducing stereotypes and judging others.  Also, mismeeting involves miscommunication with other(s) and self—distorting, misunderstanding, not listening and not being present to other(s).  It involves mistrust and blaming.  High anxiety creates greater possibilities for mismeetings and misencounters.  

As we live in a continuum between I-Thou and I-It, we live between meeting and mismeeting. Real meeting, which is what we are seeking for deep influence, happens when “deep calls to deep,” between and among people; when we are present with each other.   When this presence happens, a third other emerges. Buber writes, “. . .  The I-Thou relation to God and the I-Thou relationship to one’s fellow human being are at bottom related to each other.”

With this background information, How do we cultivate a culture or invite/create a space in our groups, so that real meeting occurs, whether in our congregations, committee meetings or individual conversations, etc.?  How do we invite genuine meeting? 

Below are two maps that imagine and invite genuine meetings in different contexts. They are not checklists. Their intention is to point toward the attitudes and practices that invite space for genuine meetings.  Also, these maps cannot take place without our doing the inner work necessary to create and hold space for the I-Thou encounter.  I am reminded that the space around us is only as open as is the space within us. 

Practice #1:
A) Ask the group, “How will we conduct ourselves in this meeting or project if we are in an I-It or resistant way?  (Responses might include, “We would be angry, defensive and possibly manipulative, pushing our agendas, not honoring agency,” or they might offer other descriptions of I-It/reactive behaviors.  Discuss and allow them to identify those behaviors and ways of being/ways of the heart and soul.)

B) Then ask, “How will we conduct ourselves and be if we are in an I-Thou or responsive way toward each other?”  (They might say, “We would try to help each other; we would be responsive to each other and focus on listening, understanding and moving forward,” or they might use other descriptions of I-Thou ways of being and doing together.  Discuss and allow them to identify those behaviors and ways of being/ways of the heart and soul.)

C) The leader might offer something like, “I want to invite us to conduct this meeting in an I-Thou way.  If we find ourselves moving out of that place, let’s call it to our attention and take a few moments to breath, calm ourselves and move back to the I-Thou way.  Is this agreeable to everyone?  Is there anything else we need to add or discuss before we continue?”  

Even if people do not understand the exact meaning of I-Thou and I-It, or are not well read in Martin Buber’s descriptions of I-Thou, people seem to get it intuitively; they seem to understand the direction it is pointing.  Although simple, this type introduction can help create a space and invite conversations that offer positive encounters.

Practice #2:  
The following offers some principles that help guide the conversation with those participants with whom you are walking alongside in your facilitation/leadership.  This model is to be adapted to your context.  Its purpose is to invite you into a conversation as you work toward creating an I-Thou space and way, a space of genuine encounter.
My assumptions about accountability are: 

•    The deepest and healthiest form of accountability is self-accountability. 
•    Accountability in any organization, church or other, never exceeds the level of accountability at the top.

1.    Come with the attitude to help the other(s).  How can I help you (we help each other) succeed in our given ministry in our given context?  What is life giving, where are you being called, and how can I help you in fulfilling that holy nudging? 

2.    Ask honest, open questions. (See footnote below)

3.    Be present and listen with compassion and curiosity.  According to Paul Tillich, “The first duty of love is to listen.”  By listening, we are fully present and connect with the other.  We are listening to hear not just the words, but at a deeper level, what the other is really saying and the music.  We are listening to encounter the Thou between and among us—the electric current of the divine. I recall these words:

How deeply
I know,
how quickly
I forget—

Through the
simple act of
I can belong
to everything
and everything
belongs and
is part of me.

To have an attitude of “curiosity and compassion” is important because it involves asking open, honest questions that invite others and self to those aha moments of self-discovery, learning, formation and growth. Compassion coupled with curiosity suggests that the intention of the questions are to invite the individual and group to learn and grow while the facilitator remains the guide on the side.

4.    If you make a mistake as a facilitator/leader, model honest ownership; do not blame others, but apologize, model honest acceptance of responsibility, even when your ego is giving you 100 justifying narratives.  Own your own shortfalls or stumbles.  In other words, be human and be vulnerable.  By offering your genuine shortcomings or mistakes, space is created for others to be open about their frailties and stumbles as well.  Authentic vulnerability is incarnational.

6.    What do they and you see as the invitation in your current context? There is always an opportunity to learn and grow for others, self and the congregation. How do I ask this question from an I-Thou place--Asking this question helps invite others and oneself to consider those possibilities and opportunities, especially in painful situations and contexts where anxiety is high. 

7.    As facilitators/leaders, we often work in and with the “in-between” space. The following poem, “Extremes are easy,” points toward this space in which we do much of our work and the possibilities that dwell therein.  

Extremes are easy. . .

Where one ends,
the other begins.

Extremes are easy. It’s
the middle that’s the puzzle. Midsummer—
the middle way,
shades of gray,
no absolutes,
only choices.

in the note between notes,
in the pause between pauses,
in the silent space between two waves,
in the breath between breaths,
lies the virgin soil of fertile possibilities.

(by w. craig gilliam, original 2015; revised, 2017)

You are invited to give thought to this way of approaching facilitation and courageous conversations where Deep Calls to Deep.  How do you cultivate space that invites opportunities for genuine encounters, where learning deepens, lives are influenced and individuals and communities are transformed?

Agree or disagree, you are invited into the conversation!