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Interview with a change-maker: Tanya Geisler on the wisdom of the tribe

Sunday, August 12, 2012 by Marianne Elliott

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When I was living in the Gaza Strip I had a friend whose parents were, as was traditional in their community, helping her find a husband. They would select young men who they thought would be a good match for their daughter, and invite them over to the house for tea.

My friend would take a look at these men, as they sat waiting on the couch, through a screen door. If she liked the look of him, she’d go in for tea and a chat. Some guys, and I always felt bad for them, never even got that far. When her suitor left, she’d talk it over with her mother, maybe one of her aunts. They’d listen to her, explain why they had thought he might be a good match for her, and help her decide whether she wanted to she him again.

During the two years I spent in Gaza, she was introduced to at least a dozen men this way. None of them got past the first few meetings. So her parents continued to look, calling on the wisdom and contacts of the wider family as she – one after the other – rejected their suggestions.

I remember envying her a little. By then I’d already had one failed marriage, followed by a series of relationships that left me confused and doubtful of my ability to make good choices for myself. I remember going home to New Zealand and telling my father’s sisters that I was done with choosing my own boyfriends, I wanted them to take over.

They pointed out that they were having enough trouble choosing for themselves – one of my aunts was in the middle of a divorce herself at the time – so the idea didn’t go far. But I wasn’t kidding. I was confused, and stuck, and I wanted to call on the wisdom of my elders.

Having lived in several countries and cultures where collective wisdom is valued – and sought out – more than it tends to be in the West, I’ve always been interested in effective processes for drawing on the knowledge and insights of the group. And effective is the key word in that sentence. Research has shown that some of the most common group decision-making (and idea-generating) processes used in the West are ineffective. So what would work?

One interesting possibility is the work of Tanya Geisler, creator of the Board of Your Life process and my change-maker interview today.

Marianne:

Tanya, what really interests and excites me about ‘Board of Your Life‘ is that I sense it is tapping into an ancient wisdom, the wisdom of the tribe. One of the things I’ve learned living in countries where the collective has retained a much stronger and more central place in people’s sense of identity and in their daily lives is that we really can’t – and don’t need to – do it alone. Whether ‘it’ is raising our children, setting up a business, making a big life decision. I think there is a lot of wisdom in traditions where the family elders play an active role in helping the young folk choose their life partners, for example.

Do you see connections between ‘Board of Your Life‘ and these cultural traditions of collective wisdom? Tell me a bit about that?

Tanya:

Yes. I ABSOLUTELY see and feel this connection. The first time I ever “did” a Board of Your Life session, I looked around the room, and I was struck by the overwhelming sensation that I was coming home. It felt like: yes, we are HARD WIRED to support each other in this powerful way. And I could tell that was what everyone else was experiencing too.

In my bones and in my core, it actually pains me to feel someone else in a place of not knowing their own power, beauty, worth, value. And I am well aware that I am not alone.


Click to watch Tanya talk about what she’s learned from Board of Your Life about our deep need for community.

My friend Fabeku Fatumise helped me to see the ancient link that was the source of the resonance that I experience with Board of Your Life. In his words:

Indigenous cultures know the importance of discovering each person’s individual medicine + mirroring that back to them. And when someone gets misaligned with themselves (and their medicine and their work and their community and… and… and…) the aforementioned indigenous-people-of-much-smartness know how important it is to remind that person of their medicine.

So the tribe rallies around, reflecting back to them what they’re made of. And that member gets lined back up with self and medicine again. An integral member of the tribe.

This is of course true for our modern culture. Intuitively, we know that the health of a whole system relies on the sum of its parts being healthy. We cannot have people functioning at 60 per cent of their capacity if we are to succeed on the whole.

The paradox is that while we can know this to be true on a cellular level, our more individualistic upbringing has us believe that we are in competition with each other: for the business, for the mate, for the project, for the life. That there is only so much space and we need to fight for it.

We yearn for community even as our actions belie that fact.

Board of Your Life is a safe and purposeful way to come back home. To the place of deep support and care. The way we were meant to be. At our core and at our best.

Marianne:

The contemporary equivalent, for many of us, are the conversations we have with our girlfriends about raising our children, running our business, choosing (or getting along with) our life partners. I know I’ve relied on those conversations many times. And yet they sometimes risk of reinforcing my own prejudices, or leading to a kind of ‘group think’ where the views of the most assertive person become the prevailing view.

How is Board of Your Life different from these less formal conversations?

Tanya:

In those crisis-driven conversations with our friends, we are typically looking for one of two things: a safe place to process and vent OR to receive advice. Sometimes we want both.

Board of Your Life is definitely not about venting, in fact, it mostly occurs post-vent. The person has been in this place of “what’s next”, “I’m stuck”, “I’m not sure what I really want now” for some time and is owning that and desiring to move into action.

It’s important to also know that the person who invites the program in rarely participates in the actual session, but rather observes the group discussion and absorbs as she is able. She will have done a significant amount of self-discovery work in advance of the session that helps her to process what is going on.

Another distinction is that it’s not about receiving advice from the Advisory Board members, as much as it is about receiving differing perspectives about what might be possible for this person, as prescribed by how she’s been showing up in her life.  That group of friends we meet for those soul sessions are gold, AND can be somewhat homogeneous. Board of Your Life is instead about gathering a heterogeneous cross-section of this person’s life because we want to see gather a broad spectrum of perspectives about her.

What’s been consistent? What’s been disparate? What’s contradictory about this person?

The person who’s know her for 20 years will have different stories from the person who reported to her professionally for the past year, but not necessarily more/less valuable. Just different.

Gorgeous + useful stuff.

And finally, the massive distinction from the evening with the friends is that Board of Your Life is a facilitated experience. The facilitator is holding focus and keeping the conversation away from group think.

Marianne:

As well as drawing on traditional approaches to tribal wisdom, I see ‘Board of Your Life’ as an expression of the insights of contemporary behavioural science into group process, leadership, decision-making, the process of change and influence – all subjects that fascinate me.

Can you talk more about these underpinnings of ‘Board of Your Life’?

Tanya:

You’re raising gorgeous concepts that mean different things to different people. Here’s what’s rising to the top for me.

1) One of the most remarkable aspects of the program is the ill-kept secret that the Advisory Board members themselves walk away changed from the experience. They showed up in service of that one person and in the process, start asking themselves the same questions that they considered on behalf of their friend: when am I in flow? Where do I get off-balance? How am I showing up in the world?

2) The fear of change is precisely what keeps most people away from stepping into the program: what if I find out something about myself that I must change? Sometimes a person needs to dig deep to find the strength to take that first step; other times she feels like she’s simply had enough of “not good enough” and the motivation comes easier. Taking the fist step and agreeing to do the program is truly where the magic starts to happen.

3) Accountability: you are more inclined to make the changes because people have invested their time in you. This is powerful and this is another place of fear.

4) I love that you brought in “leadership”. Quakers have for centuries used Clearness Committees to help one who is poised to step into a leadership role within the community. There are ways in which Board of Your Life parallels this tradition to help someone step into the leadership role that is their destiny.

5) Board of Your Life also shares parallels with 360-degree reviews favoured by corporations. A pervasive critique of that structure, however, is the way in which the agenda for that individual is perceived to be held by the corporation itself, diluting the value of the exercise. There are also too many variables, so I’m told.

Tanya Geisler is a certified business and life coach who simply cannot and will not shake her indomitable belief that if everyone knew and lived their values, they’d hold the key to shining in their life, in their work and in their life’s work. (Now, wouldn’t THAT make for a far more joyous world?) A catalyst, not a therapist, she wrote The Joy Pages, created Board of Your Life, and speaks with great passion on all things joy, meaning and purpose.

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