Over the course of many years of work developing trauma response programs, clinical work with refugees and veterans, running conflict resolution programs, designing workshops to deal with racism and ethnic reconciliation the theory and methods of the Unity Project evolved. In 2000, I was asked by the Women Waging Peace Program of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University to facilitate a week long dialogue between women from different ethnic and religious groups from Bosnia. The hope was to create some sort of momentum for these women, to help them find a way to build a bridge of understanding.
A wonderful transformation occurred within that group over the course of the week we shared. It led to the creation by these brave women of an organization called, “Strength in Diversity” in Bosnia. It’s purpose was to promote inter-religious/inter-ethnic understanding there.
The events of that week crystalized the nature of the stages of transformation that a group can go through when they are truly united. Here was a group whose members had every reason to hate each other. Instead, what they found in each other surprised all of us and led to a very important initiative none of us could have imagined when we started. That story is the founding story of the methods of the Unity Project. It encapsulates what has now become abbreviated in the “Five Stages of the Bowl” of the Unity Project. It’s a very moving story. You can read about it in this book:
These 5 stages embody what the best research and years of field experience demonstrate to be the key strengths needed to be able to make positive resilient decisions and to live harmoniously in the world. The stages involve both personal as well as group strengths that make it more likely that a resilient choice will be made. As an easy way to remember, the stages are related as steps in making a bowl.
First Stage of the Bowl: “Form the Bowl”
We often pay little attention to the quality of the group’s interactions when we start to work with others. But, this puts great limits on the progress of the group. If the individuals in a group do not feel safe, that is, if they are not sure if they will be respected, their attention will be directed to do all they can to protect themselves instead of being open to learning.
You’ve no doubt seen kids be inattentive or distracted, joking excessively, resisting participation or undermining the progress of the group. Also, you have seen people, kids especially, form clichés or in-groups within which they feel safe and exclude and denigrate those outside the group. Or, they may find ways to isolate themselves for their own protection. In this kind of environment, learning is much more difficult as energy is being expended on protection and not on exploring new ways to be and new knowledge.
When we “Form the Bowl” (check out the video) we are creating an atmosphere of respect for the dignity of the group’s participants. As the “Bowl” is formed, a sense of unity evolves that protects the dignity of each member. This allows for defenses to loosen up as members feel safe to explore new ways of being. We call building unity in the group the stage in which we “Form the Bowl.”
Years of experience have shown that if, from the start, the group can build a sense of unity based on the unique strengths of each member, then the natural creativity and productivity of the group cannot be stopped. It just pours out. People blossom as new and unsuspected personal and group strengths emerge. Without taking action to form the bowl of unity, the group spends its time repeating defensive ways of being. Little growth and learning happen. That is why special attention needs to be paid up front to building the sense of unity in the group. It is the “bowl” of unity that “holds” all the creative and productive activity. The stronger the “bowl,” the better it can hold this creativity and productivity and the better it can bring out individual and group strengths. The weaker the “bowl,” the weaker is the creativity and productivity. New strengths do not emerge. In fact, people act in stereotypic ways, enslaved by habits of thinking, habits of feeling and habits of behavior. Forming the Bowl is the first step to allow for a new kind of freedom to emerge in the group. Freedom from habitual ways of being that stem from a reluctance to be your true self for fear of ridicule or exclusion.
The essential first step to “Form the Bowl” is to build a safe and trusting environment. What needs to be safe? All of the things that make up the best qualities of a person. That means the best parts of every aspect of a person: their physical safety, their emotional safety, their intellectual, social, cultural, financial, political and spiritual safety, etc. all need to be safeguarded. The sum of all of the best parts of a person equals their dignity. So, we mean protecting each person’s dignity when we say conditions need to be safe. Then, we need to trust that things will stay safe in the group. That means each person’s actions add to or take away from the total pool of trust in the group. Therefore, our emphasis is on each person focusing on being worthy of trust, being trustworthy so the group can grow. In that way, the total pool of trust in the group gets bigger, defenses diminish and creative new ways of being can be explored.
We find that Forming the Bowl is best done by first eliciting and experiencing the unique strengths of each member of the group as they pursue a common purpose. Action through service and art is at the core of discovery of these new strengths. These newly discovered strengths are then refined in the Transformation Exercises.
Each person possesses their own unique form of dignity, their own unique strengths. There is surprising new capacity and power in the group when these diverse strengths are brought out and harmonized to a common goal. Our purpose in the Unity Project is to bring out these best qualities for the betterment of ourselves and others. Forming the Bowl is the essential first step to create the environment to do that. The next four Stages of the Bowl build on this essential foundation of unity based on dignity. The end results are to create rich capacity to make positive ethical decisions, reflect without bias on the world, deal with complexity without becoming overwhelmed or oversimplifying, problem solve with fairness and clarity, work cooperatively and creatively in a group in order to better the world.
When we form the bowl, we find that motivation, creativity and hope increase.
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Here’s the link for the next Stage of the Bowl: “Glaze the Bowl.” Let me know if you want the password to continue with the proprietary content.