I’m getting ready to fly to the midwest to do a workshop and book event in my hometown. In honor of the occasion, I’ll share a few words on “third space” in the teaching, training, coaching and mentoring relationship. (You can read more in chapter 6 of my book,
Getting Messy: A Guide to Taking Risks and Opening the Imagination.)
Third Space is one of the things that I find most captivating about teaching, or any other situation where a group of people come together for an intentional purpose. The philosopher Hannah Arendt called this space “an in-between,” theologians define it as a “Divine Third,” and Martin Buber called it “Thou.” When we form a relationship with something that we care about, that thing is no longer an “It.” There is a depth that is present, a sense of mystery. We are in relation with something that is “other” and it’s clear that we don’t have all the answers, we can’t figure this out ahead of time. All we can do is put whatever we have to say out there, see what comes back, and use feedback to alter course. Working with other people in this way is a deeply creative process. (And this concept doesn’t just apply to teaching or mentoring, it applies to any meaningful relationship in your life.)
To honor the wisdom that is available in this third space we need to focus on creating space when we teach, train, coach or mentor. This is often hard to do because it’s counter-intuitive. When we are in a situation of teaching or leading others, it’s common to presume that our job is to “fill” the space with our agenda, information, and so on. But to honor the deeper wisdom that is present in the group or between individuals, we must focus on creating and holding a larger space. The agenda is always secondary in importance to that space.
Here are some other ideas (in no particular order) for inviting third space. They seem quite simple, and I think perhaps that’s the point…
1) Create a space for yourself to be inspired. Teaching is a creative process and in order to access third space, you need to be in your own creative flow. Go somewhere where you feel expansive, somewhere you can look out on a vista—climb a mountain, hike along ocean cliffs, and so on. Stay until you feel your heart open and can breathe this expansiveness back with you. In order to inspire others, you have to stay inspired yourself. It’s a process—you may lose it for awhile, it may shift, it may be buried under your fear, and if you’ve taught something several times, you may have to work a little harder to find it. But in order to touch others, you need to be present with what it is that moves your own heart.
2) Be more interested in what the people in your group have to say than in what you have to say. Even if you’re teaching something heavily content-oriented, like how to read CT scans in a Radiology department, your students have questions, concerns, and points of interest. These questions, concerns, and points of interest are important. What you have to say is not so important. Take yourself and your own opinions, thoughts, and beliefs out of the group. If you have something you really want them to know, hand it out as written material for them to read. Your job is to facilitate what wants to happen, which doesn’t have anything to do with you personally. In order to get to third space, you need to drop not only your ego, but all of your ideas, expectations and attitudes, and teach from a place of emptiness. The English philosopher Douglas Harding calls it being “headless.” Check out his website at www.headless.org. A friend of mine believes that if you can’t do your work when you’re headless, then it’s not your real work.
3) Have a sturdy structure that gives each person equal time to share. This may seem obvious, but I believe great teachers are really sensitive about this issue and some people are more sensitive than others. There are people in your group who are shy and need encouragement and if you structure the group in such a way that they have space to share, it’s amazing how frequently they will offer the situation something brilliant, something that shifts the entire group in a deeper, richer direction. Of course, don’t push people to share if they don’t want to. Rather, have a structure that naturally gives each person equal time. It’s not true that the people who appear to have the “loudest” process need the most space inside the group. There’s a fascinating article that Jo Freeman wrote back in the 1970s titled “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” Freeman describes in detail how in groups that don’t have proper structure, the people who are more dominant (more educated, more assertive, more well-spoken, more extraverted, and so on…) will move in to “take up” the group space. Don’t let this happen. You will definitely transform the group process if you just follow this simple principle. Alan Briskin gives a great example in his book, The Power of Collective Wisdom. In his example, it is 1966 and Cesar Chavez is holding a large community meeting with the goal of figuring out a way to reach the workers at a farm labor camp where his fledgling United Farm Workers have been barred from entering. The meeting was almost over when an old woman in the back of the room finally stands and timidly says that she knows she is “not qualified” to speak, but she has a little idea to share. This woman’s idea was what they had been waiting for.
Teaching is a great paradox. We’ve been trained to think that it’s about “leading” others, or filling up people’s heads with what we know. A friend and I often joke about how it often seems like we haven’t done anything at all. He’ll say to me, “Sometimes after a particularly amazing group, they’ll thank each other, but not me.” John Heider wrote this about group facilitators in his book The Tao of Leadership: “…their leadership did not rest on technique or theatrics, but on silence and on their ability to pay attention…They were considerate. They did no injury. They were courteous and quiet, like guests.” To reach third space, we need to remember we are guests in this experience, along with our students. What an honor.