Awakin Calls » Kern Beare » Transcript

Kern Beare: Nonprofit leader, community builder, technologist


Oct 14, 2020: The Art of Difficult Conversations: An Overview and Workshop

Guest: Kern Beare

Host: Aryae Coopersmith
Moderator: Janessa Gans Wilder

Aryae: Welcome everyone. My name is Aryae, and I'm delighted to be hosting this Awakin Call featuring Kern Beare, with Janessa Gans Wilder as our moderator. Our topic is “The Art of Difficult Conversations: An Overview and Workshop.” This call will feature an introduction to Kern’s workshop, which he's been leading for diverse groups in many locations since 2017.

At this time of such intense polarization and division, people everywhere are finding the art of difficult conversations more relevant than ever. The four-hour workshop will be offered as a gift online next week. You can sign up at the sign-up page for this call. Later in the call, we’ll share the information about how to register.

We like to begin each of our gatherings with a moment of silence to anchor ourselves into the present moment of our shared space. So we'll start with that minute of silence.


Thank you. And welcome again to our Awakin Call with Kern Beare. Awakin Calls and dialogues are an offering of ServiceSpace, which is a global ecosystem run entirely by volunteers. ServiceSpace catalyzes and connects individuals and communities rooted in inner work and outer compassionate action. Over the past 20-plus years, this ecosystem has organically touched millions, drawn countless volunteers from around the globe, and grown into an array of online and offline offerings across hundreds of cities. Amplifying the voices of ordinary and extraordinary wisdom-keepers in our world has always been an integral part of ServiceSpace’s work and today's call is just one expression of that.

This is how our flow is going to work. In a moment, I'm going to introduce Janessa, our moderator, who will, in turn, introduce Kern Beare. Janessa will kick off and moderate the dialogue during the first hour, and we'll reserve the last 30 minutes or so of our 90-minute call for your comments and questions.

At any point during the call, if you'd like to add a reflection or question to our queue, you can do so via the livestream page under the “Ask a Question” section. So if you're watching livestream, you can scroll down, fill out the form, and ask your question. You can also email us at

And a reminder--technical issues happen and when we're talking on this kind of technology around the world, they often do. So if and when that happens, we ask for your patience and understanding in advance.

With that, I'd like to introduce our moderator, Janessa Gans Wilder. In these days of sheltering in place, Janessa identifies herself primarily as a mom and teacher of three young kids. She also happens to be the founder of a global grassroots peace-building organization, the Euphrates Institute. Their purpose is to inspire humanity to choose peace. They initiate and support communities of peace-builders around the world.

She founded Euphrates after 21 months serving in Iraq as a CIA officer from 2003 to 2005. ServiceSpace volunteers coined her move as going from the Central Intelligence Agency to the Compassion Intelligence Agency.

To all who know her and have worked with her, Janessa is an extraordinary leader who inspires everyone with her own kindness, love, and compassion. She says her mission in life is to see the other as a brother and to better understand our oneness with all life. So Janessa, over to you.

Janessa: Wow, thanks, Aryae. Thanks for the reminder too--the wrong CIA to the right CIA. I love it. And thanks for joining this conversation. I know that the three of us are going to get into it later and we've worked before. And so this is just such an amazing opportunity and such an amazing time to be in this conversation, with an election coming up and all sorts of difficult conversations to be had. So I want to introduce Kern, my dear friend Kern.

Kern is a former Silicon Valley communications professional with deep roots in the fields of interpersonal communication and conflict resolution. He leads nonprofit seminars and workshops like this one that we’ll do online next week on how to heal relationships and unleash our capacity for creative collaboration.

Kern’s work in this field began in the 1980s, at the height of the Cold War, when he received a two-year fellowship from the Beyond War Foundation, a fellowship that led to running educational programs on the obsolescence of war in the nuclear age and the imperative of learning to resolve conflict without violence.

As I'm reading this, we didn't use to think that was necessarily relevant as much for our country--this applies to other countries. But boy, it's just ringing in a new way.

In the 1990s, Beyond War became the foundation for global community, extending its mission to include social and environmental issues. He served on the board of the new organization and helped to develop an expanded offering of educational workshops. In the early 2000s, Kern co-founded Global Mind Shift, a nonprofit enterprise that offered facilitated online workshops on the essential skills we need to survive and thrive in today's interconnected and interdependent world.

In 2016, following the US presidential election, Kern launched the Difficult Conversations Project, an initiative to help address our national divide. The workshop--it's called “Difficult Conversations: The Art and Science of Working Together”--was launched in the summer of 2017 to help people gain those skills. Since then, he's led the workshop dozens of times--I know I've been at seven or eight of them myself--with people who span the nation's rich social, political, racial, and ethnic diversity. Encouraged by the response to the workshop, he's turned it into a book by the same title, and that you can get on Amazon, print, ebook, and also order it from your local bookstore.

Kern holds a BA in psychology from UCLA. He and his wife, Amy, have two grown sons, Joseph and Will, and live in Mountain View, California.

Hi, Kern.

Kern: Hi, Janessa. Great to be here, sorry you had to read all that. Could’ve shortened it.

Janessa: No, it's all so relevant and just resonating in these times in a new way. So, thinking of the election coming up in a few weeks, I want to go back to four years ago. And I want to start there. So I was with you on election night 2016. Kern was facilitating a retreat for a dozen or so of us--all people who worked with youth nonprofits. It was a beautiful Lake Tahoe setting, and we experienced this night together. And the next morning, you led the most incredible session for our group.

And I'll just say, some of us were in a lot of shock. There were tears. Talk about a difficult conversation, even that next morning--really grappling with what had happened, and in a way, modeling the conversations that maybe happened around the country at that time.

What I remember, though, is your amazing presence--you were so calm. You were holding space for a really rich processing of what happened, of the results and the outcome, and then what's next. And it was just an incredible way to not just react, but to understand what was going on. I know what I experienced was unforgettable. I want to hear what that night meant for you, and for you to go back, because it did launch this whole project and this whole across-the-nation tour. So yeah, what was coming up for you election night 2016?

Kern: Yeah, it was one of those transformative events for sure, for everybody that I know, one way or the other. And I think what stands out to me about that time was my--I was in shock. And I think I was in shock primarily because, you know, sometimes you have experiences in your life where reality isn't what you thought it was. It could be in a relationship. It could be a number of different ways. It could be in a job. Where you just feel like the rug got pulled out from under you. The ground you thought you were standing on actually was not really the ground.

And so for me it was, I thought I knew the state of the country. I felt that we were still kind of that center right, is usually, I think, how the United States is described as a culture, and then all of a sudden the ground tilted. It tilted.

So that was what my shock was--almost less about who we elected and more about me personally being disconnected. And certainly thinking about the who and what that meant, and why. And then I remember getting up, as I shared this with you yesterday. I remember getting up early in the morning, and it was a beautiful home that we were in, and we had that beautiful view of Lake Tahoe, and the sun was coming up. And I just had a really beautiful meditation that for me was centering. And I think, in terms of the next morning, I think sometimes we're just graced by presence that we haven't necessarily earned. I think for me that was a moment of grace--to be able to be present. At the same time, one thing I talk about in my workshop--and I get there late in the workshop and it probably should be its own workshop altogether--but the power of surrender and acceptance.

And thinking about that led me on a little trail of thought, which is we need to have faith in ourselves, that as human beings we are capable of taking in the full reality of the situation, even if it's a painful situation for you. That we have faith in ourselves to be able to take it in and faith in our ability to respond. And I think that's what the meditation did for me. It's like I moved from shock and resistance to acceptance of the outcome.

And it's not that you're accepting and therefore you become passive or anything like that. It just simply means that you're responding now from a different place. And you're responding from presence. And so I think that's a skill we need right now. I think it's a skill we need to develop right now. And in a way, it's ultimately what the workshop is about, is how do we really take in the reality of the situation, and how do we, blessed by that ability to really take it in, trust in our own intuitive, creative, wise powers of response?

Janessa: So in a way, instead of disconnecting even further, you are instead connecting with it--facing it, connecting with it, not running away but connecting. And so that event launched you on this across-the-country tour that somehow you roped your son into. What inspired you, that that was the next right action for you to take?

Kern: So, right after the election, I just knew I had to be doing something different than what I was doing. And I didn't really know what it was. The only thing I could think of was, I need to get out it. Because I felt trapped in my bubble, I wanted to break my bubble, and you know the name for this whole project was Pop the Bubble. So the only way I could think of to really get outside of my bubble was to go on this road trip across the country, which I was very fortunate to be able to do with my younger son.

But it felt very irrational to me because I didn't know who I was going to talk to. I didn't even know what I was going to talk about. I had no idea. And you were one of the first people I reached out to, saying, “Can you help me?” Because your organization was spread across the country. “Can you help me set up some conversations?” Other people helped me do it, too.

But right up to the moment I left, I felt like it was irrational. And I remember I was reading a book by Charles Eisenstein, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, which is a beautiful book. Something he said in that book, that if the rational is not working, we probably need to go to the irrational. It just gave me faith that sometimes the irrational is the way to go. Anyway that gave me the courage, faith, to go ahead and launch into that. And it was an incredible trip for a number of different reasons, but that trip has really convinced me that our fundamental problem is broken relationships.

We have fallen out of relationship with each other. And that was really confirmed by the conversations that we had. Sometimes I would ask people, and this is usually a question for more liberal people, “What role did you have in this outcome?” And usually the liberal people were sort of shocked, like, “What do you mean, what role did I have?”

But when they thought about it more deeply, they realized that they had fallen into complacency and they had lost contact with the rest of the country for whom so much of the system--American culture, values, institutions--how many of them are not being served by those things. So that was really quite an incredible insight, and I heard that several different times. Anyway, I became convinced that was the problem, and I had the experience also of conversations throughout that trip actually bridging and making a difference. And so I thought, “Conversation’s important.”

And then I learned that broadly speaking, I think, people want to converse. But if you were more conservative, you were afraid of being vilified and therefore you were not particularly interested if you were invited into a conversation. And if you were more on the liberal side, you wanted to talk, but you were afraid that you actually would not be able to maintain emotional equanimity, that you would actually get angry and frustrated, and you would cause more harm than good. So I wanted to create a workshop initially that would help liberals maintain their center, maintain their presence, so they could be creative in the conversation. And then as I began doing the workshop, I realized that people across the board were responding to it. It didn't matter whether you were liberal or conservative. I would say ethnically, racially, gender, age--I've done it with all kinds of groups. And as I've said, the response has really been incredibly positive regardless. So that has really been greatly encouraging.

Janessa: I love that question that you asked those who tended to be on the liberal side, “What is your role in this?” Because it just, right there, is such an invitation that oh, we all have a role to play in this democracy. We all have a role to play in, of course, our individual conversations, but in the broader--it's like those individual conversations contribute to this broader conversation that we each have to be engaged in, but yet it's hard, it's difficult. What are the emotions that come up, the pain that might come up, the fears? And then what you just said, that there are those concerns and those difficulties on both sides.

So you were practicing difficult conversations on the road, and I love how you said in Tahoe, even having that presence beforehand helped you facilitate that difficult conversation for us. I know sometimes you describe the workshop as being, how do we be the people that we need to be in order to have the conversations we need to have? So then it's not even so much about the conversation. It's back to, wow, how do each of us show up and have the skills and be equipped to even engage in these conversations?

So let's talk a little bit about the structure of the workshop and how you've structured it. What's your methodology going in to start to break open this topic that is so scary and yet so important for all of us?

Kern: Right, right. Well, because you brought up that, how do we be the people we need to be to have the conversations we need to have, one thing I'd like to quickly start with is a couple of assumptions that I have when I go into the workshop. One of the assumptions is that I think a lot of us feel like the outcome of a difficult conversation either depends a lot on the other person, or at the very least, is equal between the two, right?

And when I talk about, how do we become the people we need to be to have the conversations we need to have, it's to recognize that actually we as individuals in the conversation have tremendous agency in that conversation, regardless of the other person.

Regardless of the other person, there's a lot we can do to ensure a positive outcome. A while ago I read about Martin Luther King and his three Cs--creativity, compassion, and courage--and when we are present, we have those three things working for us. If we are to actually be able to be present and actually be able to manifest those three things, we need to think differently. And we need to be different. And I think one of the things that we need to do is give people a different kind of experience.

And the heart of the experience is one of acceptance; that's the heart of the experience that I feel that this workshop is trying to create--where we can see the value of giving people the experience of acceptance and love, of not falling into what is more typical, which is judgment and condemnation and rejection.

Janessa: You mean acceptance of the other person and not wanting to change them. Wow, okay, acceptance and love.

Kern: It's coming at the conversation from a radically different goal than we typically come into a difficult conversation with. So I just wanted to set that up as a context for why the principles of the workshop, which I’ll dive into, are so important.

So in terms of how the workshop is structured, the very first thing that we talk about is the science of difficult conversations. What makes difficult conversations difficult? And one thing that we know is difficult conversations--I'm sure a lot of people who are listening to this know this--but difficult conversations tend to activate our survival drive: we fight, flee, or freeze.

Fighting is usually manifested as we argue over facts and opinions, figures, etc. We flee by just saying “I want to avoid the conversation altogether.” Or we freeze, where someone says something that is outrageous and we aren't able to manifest any kind of response at all.

The neuroscience behind this is really interesting because when we get into that fight, flight, freeze mode, literally a neurological disconnect happens in our brain between our lower brain—the limbic system and the brainstem--and the upper brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex, so that when we get in fight, flee, and freeze, we lose the capacities that we think of that most make us human. The capacities of the prefrontal cortex, particularly the medial prefrontal cortex, are what enable us to have compassion, empathy, self-knowing awareness, and moral reasoning. And there are other ones too. So just think about that: when you're triggered, you've lost all the capacities you need in order to be able to be present and creative and compassionate in that moment. So that is not where we want to be.

So then we dive into, well, what's going on? Why exactly are we in that mode of fight-flee-freeze survival drive? What really is the heart of it?

And so again, in the neuroscience, one thing that we know is that threats to our ideas and beliefs, as far as our brain is concerned, look like threats to our physical well-being--that we have actually conflated our ideas, the survival of our psychological self, with the survival of our physical self. So we're launched into that.

Janessa: Can you say it's like confusing the kid wearing a tiger Halloween costume and an actual tiger? An attack on our opinion is the same as, we think, on our physical safety?

Kern: Right, right, right. That's right. That's exactly right.

Janessa: That’s what we react out of, but we're not physically in danger.

Kern: Right, we're not. Sometimes, people will bring up that sometimes in a conversation, maybe there is a physical threat, in which case you want to respond appropriately to that. I mean, if there's an imminent--and that's the thing about our survival drive: our survival drive is really designed for immediate short-term threats to our survival.

But so many of our threats are not immediate; they’re longer term. So we need a different set of survival strategies. And so when I talk about it, fight, flight, freeze are great strategies for not getting eaten, and that's why they evolved, right? They evolved very early in evolution to keep us from getting eaten. And then that adapts to any sort of situation where there's an immediate short-term threat to survival. They're fine.

But in the world of today, where the threats are long term, where we need to be able to collaborate to address them, we need a different set of survival strategies. So that's what we go into in the workshop, is an alternate set of survival strategies that are designed to help us mitigate or override our survival drive, our fight-flee-freeze survival drive impulse when it's inappropriate. So that's what these strategies are about: how to actually relearn what is now necessary for survival. So in the deep past, fight, flee, and freeze were the key. Today they are not the key; the conditions that will ensure our survival have changed.

Janessa: Is that because it's an interconnected, interdependent world now? Is that part of why we need a new set of skills?

Kern: Absolutely, absolutely. It's exactly why. Because when you think about our problems, there's no way individuals can solve it, there’s no way even small groups can solve it, there's no way nations can solve it, or just a nation, right? Global warming is a perfect example. It takes global cooperation. The threat of nuclear war requires global cooperation. Looking at our economic system and the impact it's having on the planet, how to really fix that, requires global cooperation.

So all of our phrases now have “global” in them: global warming, global terror, global economy.

Janessa: Global pandemic.

Kern: Global pandemic. So if we're not thinking globally right now, then we're not paying attention, for sure. So what are the survival strategies we need to operate in this environment?

Really, it comes down to, it's what we know. But at the individual level, the shift is from hate to love, from rejection to acceptance, from alienation to connection. That is the shift that has to happen. It has to happen, and it only happens individual by individual by individual. That's how it happens. And in our circles, wherever our circles are, we have tremendous influence whether any interaction results in good will or ill will. Good will or ill will.

It's just another way of talking about it: love, hate, good will, ill will. So what are the skills we need to ensure that all of our interactions--we don't even need to go looking for them; we're in them all the time--what are the skills we need to ensure all our interactions generate good will rather than ill will?

Then we start to develop faith in that process, and then we'll be more likely now to want to expand that at larger and larger levels, or more expanded levels. So I'm sort of jumping ahead of myself, but I'll stop there.

Janessa: Well, I do want to get to the different parts of the workshop, but what you're saying is also bringing up for me, like, oh, well, if I think I'm going into a difficult conversation thinking it's about pro-red versus pro-blue or pro-life versus pro-choice, or all those things, what you're saying is that it's actually about something deeper. It's about connection. It's about the relationship. So can you go into that a little bit more--about maybe what we think the difficult conversation is really about is not what it's really about?

Kern: Yeah. So when I talk about these new strategies I call them new survival strategies. So the first one is “prioritize the relationship over being right.” So right away that can cause you some questions. What do you mean? Why would you do that? We tend to be very much attached to our rightness?

But fundamentally, if we think about it, we know the quality of the relationship determines the quality of the conversation. And we try to have difficult conversations with people we don't know very well, and that's a recipe for failure right there. The relationship needs the resiliency in order to handle the difficult conversation. So we have to start with relationship. You have to build the relationship to have the conversation.

So to prioritize the relationship over being right--if I'm so wrapped up in my rightness, I think of it like, am I wearing a straitjacket of rightness that prohibits me from actually being able to take in the other person, to be able to see creative ways that I can actually engage that person, creative ways to build trust, creative ways to build good will, so that I'm laying the groundwork for my perspective now to actually be heard and received in the best kind of environment? So this is why a relationship is primary and why building connections with people is the starting point for, I think, building the world that we really want to build. What is the quality of our relationships?

Janessa: Can I ask something along those lines? Because you think about the faceless “other” that it's easy to demonize, it's easy to dehumanize, and and I know this is part of the workshop, where you are paired with someone, and it may be someone completely opposite of you. And there's this new story or a new relationship that emerges that has an impact on the conversation. So I want to ask about that, but also about something that maybe some of us are dealing with. You know, after the last election, I think it was something like 40% of families, or people, had a close family member who they no longer spoke to and had irreparable damage because of the election.

And so I'm just curious, these are people where there is a relationship. You know the person, they’re in your family. And yet why is that so fraught with triggers, when we know the people and when there's a priority to maintain the relationship? Why is it sometimes even more difficult to have those difficult conversations?

Kern: Well, one thing is we tend to have higher expectations of those people. And I also think that perhaps we don't know them as well as we think we do. I mean, just if you take what I think of as the gymnasium of marriage, and getting into arguments and maybe you've been married five years, 10 years, 15 years. You discover things about your partner and their past and their deeper selves through the difficult conversation if you stand back and you ask deeper questions. You set aside whatever the issue is and you try to get at questions of what's really going on right now. What is it about us that is being triggered?

It's always so hard to talk about a six-hour workshop in the short time frame, but for example, one thing that we know is that our experiences shape our sense of self. Our experiences literally shape our brain. If you've had a particularly repetitive experience, a traumatic experience, if you grew up in a particular religion and the messages of the religion are ingrained, ingrained, ingrained, for example, or the culture or the family culture, whatever it might be, it actually literally shapes the neural pathways in our brain, which then determines how we see and interact with the world.

And then one thing we know, too, is that when we have an experience later in life, the tendency is to quickly run through your mind: Have I ever experienced this before? And if I have and if there's a traumatic memory or an emotional memory associated with it, that will come up, come back, and it will rise up again. And it's usually unconscious. The story I always tell is that I grew up in a family where my parents were very critical; particularly my mother was very critical. And it was very hurtful. I was always getting blamed for things I didn't do. And then sometimes if my wife would accuse me of doing something I didn't do, I couldn't just say, “Oh, no, I didn't do it.” I got upset. “What do you mean? What are you talking about? Why would you accuse me?” I was running it through that old experience.

So right there, she doesn't necessarily know that I have that old pattern. Now we've been married almost 40 years, but let's say we've been married 10 years, and she's only now just discovering I have this pattern, and I don't even necessarily know I have the pattern. So once I discover it, then I can share it with her and now she has more compassion and empathy for me so she doesn't react so strongly to my reaction. And then also I make a connection and I can understand that that's misplaced--that emotion belongs to a different time, different place. It's really not appropriate here. And just making that connection often sort of attenuates the whole situation.

So all of that is to say that with people who we are very close to and married to, or there are children--nevertheless, there's a lot going on in there that they may not know. So how could we know it? So we need to deepen that relationship. We need to get to know ourselves better and we need to get to know each other better.

Janessa: No matter what, even if it's someone we think we know a lot, even if it's someone we don't know at all but we have an image of who the other is, what you're saying is that there is a constant invitation and an imperative, almost, in these days, to engage in that conversation. And that there are default--I'm rephrasing for my benefit--default mechanisms that make that hard to do, but what we can do is tap into a new set of skills and strategies to engage in ways that are actually more harmonious, more collaborative, and with a better outcome. Maybe not a changed mind, but a better outcome.

Kern: Totally. Totally. We want to be free. We want to be responsive. We don't want to be consumed with negative energy and hostility and alienation. None of us want those things. So to develop that ability to register when it's going on in us, why it's going on in us, and to be able to transform it is just another way of talking about the skills that we really need if we want to work together. You know, there's that saying, if you truly know yourself, you know everybody. And so learning to really know ourselves and becoming attuned to the ways that we're functioning in ways that are counter to our own well-being and to know that we all have the capacity to be present, to be responsible, to be loving, to be creative, to be wise--I think that is our birthright, those things, as human beings.

And the people we most admire, I think, demonstrate those qualities. So we know it's possible for the human being. I think we need to know it’s possible for all of us. But it does really require a radical shift in how we understand who we are as human beings and to always be willing to deepen our own self knowledge. I think of it always as strengthening the ground that we stand on, strengthening our identity, and I think disruptions--this is going to be probably the world's worst call ever, I'm moving around so much--but fear is what keeps us out of difficult conversations. So what are we really afraid of? So okay, so we're afraid that, you know, it looks like a lion to us, but what we're really afraid of is that it's going to disrupt my understanding of myself. It's going to put me into this arena of uncertainty, of perhaps confusion. I don't know what's going to happen. We might find out that we are not who we thought we were. And we might have to take in some new information about ourselves. How do we learn to embrace that situation rather than walk away from it?

How do we learn to get excited about the prospect of, “You know what? My sense of myself isn't complete. I'm going to engage in a difficult conversation that's actually going to help me understand more deeply who I am as a human being”? Because we are the same, right? People are people. And if knowing myself is how I get to know you, then that's just another way of saying we are one, we are one human species, and in a way, the people who we disagree with, who we feel are the most polar opposite of us, have the most to teach us about who we really are. Because those probably are aspects of ourselves that we simply haven't wanted to look at, haven't wanted to accept.

Bottom line--if you look at any problem right now, the root of it is ignorance. Fear. Arrogance. Limited perspective. Those are so human. We are all ignorant, at some level; we all know fear; we've all experienced arrogance. We've all experienced lack of perspective. So to be rejecting each other on that basis is to reject ourselves. You don't want to be in a place where you're rejecting yourself. You want to be in a place of accepting yourself. How do we really embrace our full humanity? And if we become those people who are dedicated to embracing our full humanity, we will be incredibly powerful agents of change. So that is what the workshop is trying to address.

So the first one was “Prioritize the relationship over being right.”

The second one is “See beyond your story.” See the limits of your own experiences and be willing to open up and look at what you've been taught not to look at.

And then the last one is “Transform resistance into response,” because resistance is just an early warning signal that we're about to fight, flee, or freeze. And by resistance, I mean that defensiveness that pops up: “I don't like what you're doing. I don't like what you're saying. You shouldn't be doing that.” That is an uncreative state. That's when we want to say, “Okay, what do I need to do to be totally accepting of this situation?” And that's when you get into the concepts of surrender, detachment, which are very, very powerful, powerful steps to take. They are not passive steps.

Ever so quickly--what they are, they are steps that break patterns. They are steps that disrupt the patterns that we have all fallen into because of our culture. And when you disrupt a pattern, you create a new opportunity for creative engagement.

Aryae: So this is really a wonderful dialogue between the two of you. Thank you so much. And I also want to thank the viewers who've already submitted some questions. We've got some pretty interesting questions starting to get queued up for you, Kern.

So I just want to remind everyone, if you would like to add your reflection or your question, if you're viewing on the livestream page, just scroll down to “Ask a Question” and type in your question or else you can email us at Maybe we'll queue up in about 5 or 10 minutes and start taking some of the questions that are coming in.

Janessa: Awesome. Thanks, Aryae. Kern, just on wanting the fullness of the picture and then some of the concepts you just talked about, surrender and resistance, some of those can sound--and this is a spiritually minded community--some of those can sound spiritually minded, connecting to something, the bigger self. And so I just wanted, for context, to tell people about how I brought you to our community for several workshops. So I live in a small town in northern California, a very, very right, conservative community.

And so when I first experienced your workshop, my first thought was, “We need this here.” Where doesn't need a workshop that helps people learn how to have these difficult conversations? And there's so many issues in any community, but our community is just the right size where you're aware of all the issues, you're part of those difficult conversations, and it's not someone else's responsibility--you're all responsible. You see the homeless folks on the street. Everyone is having to pitch in, but it's hard to do that if you can't have the conversation. So I wanted to get the workshop. So I just reached out to the community foundation here in town, I reached out to the Chamber of Commerce.

And my thought was, how do we get the most diverse group of the movers and shakers of this community in the room? And everyone's like, “Well, you know, but this group is fighting that group, and, oh my gosh, really? We don't even know the workshop.” And I'm like, “I trust Kern. I know it's going to be great.” So I just worked with leaders in the community, because I knew I couldn't get them in the room, but I knew they could get them in the room.

So I reached out to a couple people, and then they were the ones who recruited almost the entire city council, the chief of police, the sheriff, the Native American community, a mega-church in town that is huge but vilified. I mean, we just got the most amazingly diverse group of people--all political leanings, heads of the Democratic Party, Republican Party--in the room. And people were somewhat terrified. It was like, “Wow, how's this going to go?”

Part of the excitement of that workshop was because it was so diverse, because it wasn't a group of like-minded people. In the room was that richness and diversity. And it was amazing. There are so many stories, and maybe you want to touch on a couple of them, Kern, but I just want to bring out that this workshop, if you're thinking about taking it, if you're thinking about even facilitating it, Kern is willing to come anywhere to give it. And it's just so powerful to bring folks together in a room and to see what happens, to just be open to coming into the room--that was the big thing. Just come and then the magic happens.

So I don't know if you want to tell a story or two that emerged out of that experience, and then the subsequent workshops. We just wanted more and more and more when the community saw how rich this was and wanted to learn more from it.

Kern: Yeah. They were all very, very impactful experiences, each one. It’s the value of bringing diverse people together and then presenting information, I think, in ways that really honor people. There was no imposition. It's just an offering of information and ways of thinking that people can take or leave, but the invitation was “Try it on for this workshop, and then if it's useful it's useful.” To honor people's autonomy is really important.

But I think mostly what I'd love to do is get to the questions, if that's all right with you. If there are some, I think that'd be great.

Aryae: Yeah, there's an interesting group of questions here. So I'll just start off with a few. We'll get to as many as we can.

Here is Nilesh Tali, from Roanoke, Texas. He says, “Based on what you're saying, if I do a thought experiment, I'm having a conversation with a climate change denier. He gives me a bunch of data or opinions about why climate change is a hoax. I listen and surrender and accept what the person thinks--the way they believe is what they believe. Now, what? How does that go toward beginning to heal the planet?”

Kern: Great, great. So first of all, just to back up, because I've thought a lot about climate change and climate change deniers, and one thing that has been helpful to me is to not see that reaction as an outlier reaction, that there's all sorts of things that we deny. One of the examples that I give is if I go to the beach, I see lots of people lying out in the sun, even though we know getting a suntan is really bad for you. It can lead to skin cancer.

Okay, we know alcohol is harmful. So we still drink, right? A lot of people smoke cigarettes, even though we know it's still harmful. So denying reality is a very, very human thing. So what that does is it puts me in a different relationship with that person: rather than feeling like we are on opposite sides of an issue, we are on the same side of a shared human dynamic. Now what does that do for me? If I'm really interested in being a positive influence in that person's life, the climate change denier’s life, then what I'm going to do over time is I'm going to build a relationship with that person because I care about that person.

So I'm going to find out what other interests they have. I'm going to find out where we have common ground. And then as I build a relationship and the relationship begins to develop some resilience, we're going to start to have a very different conversation about climate change. Why would I listen to you if I don't think you have my interests at heart? Why would I listen to you if I don't think you respect me? Why would I listen to you if you just think I'm an idiot? All of which will be communicated if you haven't really understood where you bond at the level of common humanity.

So the purpose is to open up new avenues of engagement, and there are lots of examples of people who have done that. In the workshop, I usually play that video of Megan Phelps-Roper. If you haven't seen it: “I grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Here's why I left.” Very powerful story. I mean, Westboro Baptist Church is homophobic, it’s anti-Semitic, it's very harmful. It's toxic, it's hateful. She grew up in that environment. She believed in it. People engaged her and over a period of years led her to actually leaving the church, and now she's out doing a lot of good talking about the whole experience and helping other people do the same.

So if we love the person, we’ll take that action. Maybe you’ll say, “Well, you know what, this isn't a relationship I'm going to be in, but bless you. You're human like I'm human, and I'm going to put my time in elsewhere.” It’s really up to you.

Aryae: Yeah. So it sounds like you're saying--I mean, it's a very consistent message: get to the level of common humanity.

Kern: Yes, and then decide. Decide,what you want to do with this person. How much initiative do you want to take? You may not want to take any more. And that is fine; you've got other things to do. You've got other priorities. But you leave the relationship on as positive a tone as possible so that that person does not feel negative towards you, negative towards the interaction. You want him to feel positive towards you, positive towards the interaction. So how you end that conversation is very, very important. Even if you decide you're going to walk away, you end it with gratitude, you end it with respect, and when you accomplish that, do what it is you feel the need to do.

Aryae: Thank you. Okay. Wow, there was so many coming in here, so I'm sorting through them. Okay, here is one from Amy in Charlotte, North Carolina. Amy says, “How can we convince others when they are in a state of defense, in neurological disconnection? That they are in a state that doesn't best serve them. After all, this has been their comfort zone and survival skill for so long.”

Kern: Right, that's a great question. So when you know someone is in their survival drive right now, so they are fearful. Just as a real quick visual: there's a neuroscientist, Dr. Dan Siegel, he's a psychiatrist and people may know about him. He’s written lots of books on the brain, and he has this thing called the hand model of the brain, where the palm is the brainstem, the thumb is the midbrain, the fingers are the neocortex. [forming a fist, with fingers folded over thumb] And when we get upset, he says, we flip our lid. [fingers stand up straight, revealing thumb and palm] The brain disconnects, and we lose the capacity of the neocortex. That’s just a really brief hand model of the brain.

So when we know someone is like this [fingers flipped up], what we want to do is we want to help them reconnect. We want to help them calm down and reintegrate their brain so that they can be present. [fingers fold over the thumb] And so you do that by creating a safe environment. You do it over time by building trust. You do it over time by building good will, so that I don't need to fear you. I feel like you have my best interests at heart.

Relationship building takes time. It just does, it just takes time. So if you care about the person, take the time to build the kind of relationship where you build trust. It's a paradox. I mean, ultimately, you have to not care if they change or not, and you have to not make the relationship contingent upon them changing.

There was another example; people might be aware of it. Derek Black grew up in a white nationalist family. He was sort of the star child of the white nationalist movement, and he went to a liberal arts school in Florida. He got outed; people found out who he was. Most of the school shunned him. A few decided to engage him and became friends with him. And one of the things that the friends said, looking back on the whole experience, is that they were friends with Derek before he had ever changed. Derek, of course, ends up leaving the white nationalist movement. It's a wonderful story and the subject of a book.

This is why it's radical. It’s radical to say, “I'm going to love you no matter what. You don't have to change.” That’s such a tremendous act of faith, but it is the power of love. You will just change lives. Maybe not immediately, but over the long term, if you treat people with love and respect. And love can look powerful. Love isn't just, “Oh, you're everything, you're sweet, I don't want anything to change.” I mean, you can give pretty good feedback to somebody with a loving heart, but you better be sure it's coming from a loving place. Otherwise, people pick up the negative energy. So I just want to be clear, I'm not advocating passivity. I'm advocating true creativity.

Aryae: True creativity. You mean if I say, “You're wrong, but I love you and I want you to change,” that's not gonna work, huh? [laughter]

Now here's an interesting comment. It's rather long and I wish we were set up so we could actually take people’s live voice, but I think this is interesting. I’d like to see how you respond, Kern. This is from Rebecca.

Rebecca says, “Hello Kern and guests. Thank you for this webinar. We cannot talk about difficult conversations and ignore the brutal murder of George Floyd, an innocent black person murdered recently, and Black Lives Matter, and what that is about. This demonic behavior of murdering innocent black people, oppressing and discriminating against them, has been going on for 400-plus years from white people specifically toward black people. If people say they

are spiritual, I imagine that you would agree that if people’s spiritual awareness does not come from social and societal awareness but comes from a refusal to acknowledge the atrocities in the world and other people's pain and suffering, then that makes them disrespectful, dismissive, asleep, and unethical. You and your guests are white. Nothing wrong with that. But I'm curious to know how you have had difficult conversations with your family, friends, and colleagues specifically about white people's racism toward black people. How are you encouraging yourself and others, if not familiar with black history or if you are to familiarize yourselves again, research black community groups, racial equity groups, so you can find out how to support black people.” There's more, but that's basically the essence of her message. How do you respond to that?

Kern: Well, you know, we are, as a society, beginning, I feel, to wake up to the fact that we have created our own system of apartheid in this culture. I mean, it's geared for white people to be successful in just every single domain. We have been in denial and we have not embraced the dark side of this country from the very beginning, and the atrocities on Native Americans, the atrocities on, at the time, African Americans, blacks. We have a tremendous amount to atone for.

And honestly, I think if I were to say who my audience is really--while I believe and I've seen that it has been of value to everybody, it really is for white people, because we need to own up to our shadow as individuals and as a nation, what we have done, and the horror. Can we take in the full horror of what we've done, and our complicity through passivity of just not wanting to look at it? You know, that incredible--I think it's in North Carolina--the display that's been created that illustrates the number of lynchings that have occurred.

So how I respond to that is just, I mean, we need to listen. We need to listen. Now as an individual, when I think of something like George Floyd and the other innocent people who have been abused and killed who are black--what is my relationship to that? Where is my agency in that environment? And my agency is in relationship building and in building trust and in building good will. As a society, we need to take immediate action to address the problem. We need to be better at who is a police officer. But long term, the problem is still fear and ignorance.

So what are the conditions in which we get a white officer who somehow feels it's okay to put his knee on the neck of another human being? What are the conditions that create that? We need to understand those conditions, and we need to start addressing those conditions. And that's a long-term strategy, so we white people need to look at our history. We need to figure out what atonement looks like. We need to address the immediate problems and we need to look at what it is about this culture that has so skewed the human spirit that they can put their knee on the neck of another human being and kill him.

So that's my response.

Aryae: Wow. Thank you, Kern. That's really powerful, and that’s something for all of us to think about--for all of us in your white audience to think about.

I'm going to ask a couple more questions and then maybe swing back to you, Janessa, to see if you have any further reflections at this point, before we go on to others. But here's one. This is not a question. It's a comment. “So powerful, what you say. I apply some of these concepts in my marriage counseling practice. However, you have taught me new ones to incorporate in myself and my practice. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom.”

Okay, so here's one from Ewa, based in England. “I like what you say about valuing the relationship more than being right. But what if the relationship is very loose and people don't know each other that well. Some women in my group found those who were unsure about transgender women appalling and don't want to open up space for discussion and help others educate on this subject. They say that women should already have educated themselves. Sorry, there might not be enough context to address this question, but currently trying to open up space so we can try to understand our fears and possible prejudice and where they are coming from. Thank you.”

Kern: So I am actually not sure--can you can you extract what the question is? I didn't get it.

Aryae: I guess there are issues of transgender people in this group and some people on both sides are judgmental of each other, and they're trying to understand, how do we talk about this issue?

Kern: I'm not sure, is the person asking the question wondering how do I create a group where this conversation can happen?


Aryae, did you just freeze? I think you froze.

Janessa: Yeah, it looks like he did. It sounded like, what is a tool that they could use to talk about it amongst themselves? Because there's tension within the group. There's difficulty talking about this issue. Is there something you would recommend as to how to get into that conversation?

Kern: Great. Well, one thing that I do in the workshop is I ask people to reflect on their life story. And I give them some time to do that, and then break them into pairs to share it with another person, to share their life story with another person. And it's always a very, very powerful experience. And I think if you had a group and you wanted to create an environment where you could have that kind of conversation, I would recommend that as a group, you share your life stories together, because one thing that you learn when you listen to a life story--people come together who think they're very different, and yet, when you share your stories, you realize how much you have in common.

Not just the kinds of experiences you’ve had that are more specific--sometimes there's a lot of overlap there--but also just shared experiences of joy, shared experiences of suffering, shared experiences of love that reinforce that common humanity bond. Because our disagreement, or the issues that are arising that have to do with gender right now--in a sense, it's such a small part of who we are as human beings, and for some reason, it's a hot button.

So we need to connect with our fuller humanity, the full dimension of us as human beings. And the story of our gender journey is part of that fuller experience as a human being. So trust that people will be able to to relate to it and have compassion for it and be able to have a shared sense of support around it if you are able to connect at that deeper level. So I hope that's helpful. But that is a really powerful way to begin: it's sharing your life story with each other.

Aryae: I'm sorry everyone. My internet connection went down. I'm working on it. I assume, Janessa, you're carrying on. Thanks.

Janessa: Yeah. Kern, just on that, I've seen so many examples in your workshop of the most unlikely of pairings where people are going in dreading this: “Oh my gosh. This person is the other. We have nothing in common.” And where they've been in tears by the end, and just connected on such a deeper level that the issues just don't even become relevant anymore. There's just such a deeper bond.

This is kind of back to the family question I brought up in our earlier conversation, but Brenda asks, “I'm generally seen as a pretty reasonable person and often end up mediating conflicts with others around me. Of course, it's much easier with people I don't see all the time. However, I struggle with a relative who is a constant in my life. She often picks a topic and keeps talking until everyone else in the family agrees with her. She has a loud personality, so it's very difficult to respond appropriately to her. I'm usually patient but it gets tested with her at almost every conversation. She moves between aggressive and passive aggressive if you don't agree with her. How would you advise that I handle this situation?”

Kern: Well, I should first clarify, I am not a therapist, so I can just pull from my own experience. It's not going to be a satisfying answer, I'm sure, but getting yourself into a place where you don't want them to change. Just don't change. If we are getting irritated at somebody, why are we getting irritated? Because one thing we know is that somebody's behavior might really be offensive to one person and the other person doesn't care. So there's nothing particularly universal about anybody's behavior, because we react to each other differently. So there's some reason why we are reacting to this person. Now, if it were me and someone was really dominating the conversation, I would start to reflect on where do I dominate the conversation? In what circumstances do I try to get people to think the way I think?

I mean, if we can get ourselves into the place of really understanding and acceptance, then when we say, “You know what? You need to stop.” Or “You need to take a pause. Why don’t you go for a walk?” or “I'll take you for a walk. Let's go to a movie.” I don't know. I mean, what you initiate will come from such a different place that it will be less likely to trigger.

And maybe this is just a thorn in your side in your life and learn to love it. Just learn to love the thorn in your life. Like I said, probably not very helpful, and I'm sure people who are more experienced in counseling would be more helpful. Absent of really understanding the specifics of the situation, it's hard to know what to say.

Janessa: Hi, Aryae, I'll turn it back over to you in a second. I've heard you say, Kern, with family, how important it is to love them as they are in that relationship. And so I love that. I'm also thinking about Megan Phelps-Roper and the Westboro Baptist Church, which you showed during the workshop, and this relates to the climate change denier question earlier. Phelps-Roper’s final point is to make the argument. And so often when I'm in those difficult conversations, especially with the family member I'm thinking of, I think I'm being a good listener, but really, I'm just shutting down and fleeing because I'm so scared to engage. And I think, wow, if I were actually bringing presence and acceptance to this, could I listen and have the courage to make the argument? What does that look like? Out of humility and out of not wanting to change, but to make the argument. She says that's important, but it's so hard. That is something, though, that we shouldn't shy away from.

Kern: No. Can I jump in? I'm so glad you brought that up because if you have the skills of extracting yourself from a difficult conversation, then you can jump into them and you can go ahead and create a little conflict and you can create a little bit of hurt feelings, because you really want the relationship and you really want things to work out. But you need to be able to know when you need to back up. You need to know how to repair the relationship afterwards.

I had two experiences with two different bosses. Earlier in my career, I really, really hated my boss. He annoyed me to no end. I wanted him to get fired. He was never going to get fired because he was the CEO’s best friend. And one day I just blew up at him. I just said all the reasons why I didn't like him, and why I didn't like working for him. And he turned around and he just blew up at me and all the reasons why I was such a pain in the butt for him. And in that case, at the end of it, I just looked at him and I said, “Thank you.” And that just sort of caught him off guard. And then he looked at me and he said, “Thank you.” And we were best friends from then on: just airing it worked.

Now I did the same thing again with a different boss and it set my career back two years. So you need to know, where is it possible? Have you established the kind of relationship that you need in order to have that sort of conversation? Do you have the skills of extracting yourself and repairing?

And these are all reasons why it's so important to be centered and present and not bring all your stuff into the situation, because then you actually activate your intuition. You get a better sense of the energy in the room. You operate from a different place. Anyway, I just wanted to mention that.

Janessa: Thank you, Kern. Aryae, before you jump in again, can I ask one more question, from Bridget? Okay. We still have 10 minutes. So Bridget asks, and I wanted to bring up this moment anyway, because it was so powerful and just relates to the earlier George Floyd question.

So Bridget asks, “In your facilitator practice, how do you respond to and guide groups through significantly triggering moments, particularly those that relate to racism or physical violence within the context of our political polarization?” And I'm thinking about the moment in one of your workshops up here, when someone who was half black, half Native American brought up a such a deep and painful thing about, you know, “We can't even get to the conversation. Like, all we do is surrender and acceptance, and even getting to the conversation would be a miracle.” And what it did to the room, which was just silent, and then, you know, do we move on? It just opened up this whole--talk about a trigger. So anyway, you can bring that up. That's what Bridget’s question makes me think of, and just how that moment had an impact on all of us. But, Kern, I'll let you answer that in the way you want to.

Kern: Well, great, but read it to me one more time.

Janessa: “How do you respond to and guide groups through significantly triggering moments, particularly those that relate to racism or physical violence within the context of our political polarization?”

Kern: Okay, well, so importantly, even though there have been situations where it has come up, my workshops are not there to actually facilitate that kind of dynamic. There's no particular hot topic that we talked about. The focus of the workshop is to build self awareness so that we bring our most conscious selves into any conversation. That is the purpose, and so it's usually an exception when something happens like what Janessa was just talking about, where we were doing the workshop and talking about prioritizing relationship over being right and that was a trigger for people from the Native American community, because they just felt like, “Oh, you're just asking me to more or less just become passive again and become victim and just not being listened to.”

And honestly, what happened in that situation was they spoke and I didn't know what to do. And I started to continue with the workshop and the woman in front of me, who was a minister, said, “Wait, I'm sorry, I don't think we can continue.” And she was absolutely right. So then I turned to the group and asked what we should do. We put it back into the hands of the Native American who had spoken, and what was his suggestion of what we should do. And he actually didn't know. And then a woman who was part of the same Native American community did have a suggestion and shared.

What it ended up doing was simply creating the space that they were asking for, which was to be heard. And it was very beautiful. And I think it moved everybody. And then we just created a circle, and we all stood around the circle just honoring each other and honoring them and really being present with their pain and their story. And then the minister woman gave a prayer. This was at your Euphrates event, so the people there were all very grounded people, and so the group became the healing environment for that. It was just organic and dynamic and just trying to respond in the moment in a way that is honoring people. But it really taught me the value of the group and the wisdom in the group. As a facilitator, when do I surrender and when do I say I don't know what to do? Who knows what to do?

I think that’s really important for all of us, to be able to say, “I don't know. Help.” And help arises. It was really a beautiful moment. But I think that's the only time in all the workshops I've done where something like that has occurred. So that’s my experience.

Aryae: Beautiful. Yeah, I had the privilege of being there and experiencing the power of that transformation.

I think that since we're getting toward the end of our time, and looking through the questions, I think that the questions and answers that have been covered so far pretty much represent the kinds of things that have been on people's minds.

I had a question that I want to ask you, and then let's get into the details of how people sign up for the workshops--that makes sense, Janessa?

Janessa: Yeah.

Aryae: So my question: this is something we had talked about when the three of us talked earlier, and that is, you talk about being prepared, Kern, to have these conversations--to be psychologically, spiritually prepared. And it made me think about this ServiceSpace community, about how many people here practice meditation and practice the vipassana meditation as a daily practice. And I'm curious. If I'm engaged in the practice of observing my thoughts, observing my feelings, observing myself, how do I bring that meditation into a conversation? What can you say about that maybe, beyond what you might have already said?

Kern: Well, I love this quote, “In the moment of action, we will be who we are.” So in the moment of action, you're just going to be living out of your story as your story exists right now and with the current state of awareness right now. And in my experience, then, I get into it and then I find myself--if things aren't going well, maybe I'm getting defensive, maybe I've gotten hurt, maybe something has made me angry. And when that happens, I need to pause the conversation and I need to figure out what's going on in me so that I can bring a different, more aware self into the conversation. And then maybe there'll be another trigger, and then I need to go back and I need to figure that out.

Or maybe I do it in the conversation itself. And that's a beautiful thing to do, just to be vulnerable. Just to say, “You know what? I am hurt right now.” And then, what's that about? What's the hurt about? And then maybe you can get to it together, which is a lovely, very bonding thing. Being vulnerable with each other is so powerful. I remember this Brené Brown quote: “Vulnerability is what we most want from others but are least likely to give ourselves.” And it's true: we’re so defended and so afraid of each other sometimes. So that would be how I would respond to that.

Aryae: Thank you. I'm going to see if I can do a screen share here. Can you see my screen there of Yeah. So I wanted to say that anyone who was on this call who wants to sign up for next week's workshop, you can go to this invite page that you used to get on this call, and when you scroll down, you'll see that it's a four-hour virtual workshop and you can click on that. It'll give you a page to sign up, and then you'll get further response about participating in the workshop.

And this will be starting at 9:00 am Pacific Daylight Time next week on October 21. Janessa, anything further to say about that?

Kern: Can I say something real quick? Four hours sounds like a long time. It goes very, very fast, and there are breaks.

Aryae: Okay.

Janessa: And I was just going to say, Kern, that for you, the format, especially online, since you're not in the room together--you've liked the smaller groups, but if there's a lot of interest, then hopefully we can hold more workshops and not just the one, so don't be shy about registering and we'll try to sort it out on this end.

Aryae: Okay. So we're getting close to the end. Typically, we ask our guests one final question, Kern, and that is: how can we in the greater ServiceSpace community support you, your work that you're doing?

Kern: Well, I appreciate that. I guess spreading the word. So as you know, I do the workshop for free, and I would like to be doing it as often as I can. I share all my material. Anybody can take it, anybody who would like to learn how to facilitate it or to take parts of the workshop and use it in your own work. The idea is to spread the heart of the workshop as broadly as possible. If I were to be real specific, I would love to have some sort of in to the Obama Foundation, because they work with youth, and I think this would be an awesome program. I would love to raise the visibility of it so that more people know about it. So I got very specific and then I was also very general. So that's how you can help.

Aryae: Thank you. Janessa, any final thoughts before our closing moment of silence?

Janessa: I was glad we had this discussion before the workshop, because then next week, we can really get into it, and this is more of the why and the relevance today. So I’m just very grateful, Kern, that you took the time with us today.

Kern: And I'm very grateful. Thank you both so much. And I know Preeta’s in the background and has been instrumental in helping do all of this--a lot of the back end work. And so, thank you. It's a real gift.

Aryae: So thank you, Kern. Thank you, Janessa. Thank you, Preeta. And thanks to all of you on this call. It's good to know that we have this kind of community giving us all strength. So as is customary on these calls, let's take a closing moment of silence for one more moment to hold the space together.

About Awakin Calls

Awakin Call is a weekly global series of deep conversations with inspiring changemakers. It is an all-volunteer offering and is completely free, without any ads or solicitation. Read more ...


Subscribe To Newsletter

To stay updated about guest announcements, fresh content, and other inspiring tidbits, subscribe below and we'll send you a weekly email.


Archived Conversations

Or search by date or through tags like:

Contact Us

If you have any questions, feel free to drop us a note.


  • img
  • img