Overcoming Bias in Practice

Aneesah Wilhelmstätter Lifestyle, Perspectives, The Art of Practice, Video 13 Comments

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hat do we do when experiences of bias arise within our practice, or even within our practice community? What is the best way to verify whether these biases are real in the first place, and overcome them when they are?

In this special episode of The Art of Practice Lisa and Corey talk to Aneesah Wilhelmstätter, our special guest (and new Integral Life Practice leader!), about her own perception of bias that she experienced in one of Lisa’s practice sessions. Because we are all in practice together, and because we are all essentially “teachers teaching teachers” at every step, we decided to have this conversation out in the open in hope that we could help role model some better, more authentic, more anti-fragile approaches to practice, enfoldment, and conflict resolution. What followed was a tremendously heartful conversation that strengthened our mutual commitment to bring more empathy and understanding to each other’s experience.

Transcript Excerpt

Corey: So today we’re going to be talking about overcoming bias in practice. I’m really going to be curious to see how this conversation unfolds, and really what makes this conversation a little bit different than some of the typical, let’s just say “green altitude” conversations about race and bias and things like that that we see all around us. I’m going to be really curious to see what comes up for us in this space here. And my job here is basically going to be just to sort of observe you guys and watch you guys enfold. I was joking to Lisa before the show that “you know it’s an integral conversation when there’s a white guy sitting in the middle of it.” So I want to presence that bias, and do my best to actually kind of stand back and just hold a space for you guys to have a wonderful conversation together and to enfold. So I’m really looking forward to see where this goes.

Lisa: Thanks, Corey. Why don’t I set the stage a little bit? So, I offer a series actually called “Ethical Power: Owning and Wielding Power for Good”, and this last week we had a session where I talked about privilege as power. And the interesting thing about this particular session is, we’ve talked about how our power from a variety of perspectives before, but this was the first time that I had gone deeper into privilege — and not just “white privilege”, but privilege of all sorts, privileges that we enjoy just because we are who we are. And in that session, I really challenged participants to examine the various types of privilege that they have, whether they are consciously accessing that privilege or not, and also to think through how they’re accessing and using that privilege, because the truth is that we do have that privilege, whether we choose to use it or not, and I think that there’s an opportunity for us to actually use it on behalf of a greater good. I also challenge participants to be in inquiry around this, and made a statement that we should all be doing better and being better.

So shortly after that session I received some strong feedback from Aneesah about how I could do better and be better! And I immediately reached out to her, because I wanted to know more. Because again, as a practice leader, I am in practice, and this is not a subject that I [usually] teach. It’s not a subject that I normally venture into. And yet, it’s important. I believe that we all have the courage to have these brave conversations, and I want to be better and do better. And so I invited Aneesah to have a dialogue with me in public, so that we could all learn from this. So Aneesah, I actually I want to kind of unpack some of the feedback that you gave me.

Aneesah: These things can happen by accident, right? I noticed several things in my experience were building, and then when something like that happens, I then read it in the framework of the assumptions that have been building. And if it seems to fit the picture, it validates the thoughts I was having. So that is something I also need to take into consideration, that when you are managing a lot of things, you’re taking in a lot of information that you need to process while you’re presenting the material in a certain way.

Lisa: So what I love about what you’re saying right now is that you’re actually highlighting the way that you interpreted some of the things that happened in that session, and your experience may not have been what I was intending. And yet it’s interesting to me, because that’s how we all operate all the time as human beings, right? What’s essentially happening anytime that we’re relating is that we are either making that connection where we both feel validated, heard, understood, or we are missing that connection for a variety of reasons. And sometimes for reasons that we think is one thing, and might be something else. And what I love is that you reached out, and you actually said something. Because this is, I think, one of the most important things that we can do as a practice community — when we see something that doesn’t feel right, that we actually, in an open way, we approach each other and say, “Hey, wait a second, something’s not right here.” And I have a lot of respect for the fact that you did that with me. And I want to thank you for that.

Aneesah: I would like to echo what you said, and I think it’s useful for all of us going forward is, “when you see something, say something.” I think it’s a nice mantra to have. And yes, you might not be right, but it’s not about being right. It’s about wanting clarity and understanding.

Corey: Yeah, that’s the integral move, I think — actually having enough curiosity to try to engage. Like, “Hey, this is an experience I had, I want to check this with you, because it’s entirely possible that I’m having this experience because I’m expecting bias. And therefore, when things kind of line up with my expectation, it feels like bias.” But it’s interesting how accusations of bias can sometimes come from expectations of bias. And when two people actually are able to demonstrate enough anti-fragility and enough maturity to actually communicate with each other, a lot of this just dissolves right away.

I really, really love the integral tone of this conversation. And Lisa, I love the fact that you suggested that we actually wrap an entire show around this, because I think what we’re trying to demonstrate and what we’re trying to role model for people is exactly that — this kind of antifragility, and this kind of empathy and compassion, and the ability to just simply listen to each other, hear each other’s experience, acknowledge and honor each other’s experience, and then create a new experience together that’ll be richer and deeper for everyone involved. This is something Ken has talked about — “teachers teaching teachers” — and I think that is such an important model for what we’re trying to do here on the Integral Life Practice platform.

Aneesah: Yeah, I think I felt enough of a sense of trust in spite of my experiences showing one thing, I still felt that there’s something else I’m also feeling, and there was nevertheless still a sense of safety and care and commitment. “We’re a group, we’re a community, and I want to stay in it. So let’s look at this, it’s talk about it.”

Lisa: I think that is the part that’s so important. It’s like, because we are all in practice, we have to be open to the feedback that each other has, without I think standing too firmly in our particular perspective.

I really think that a good internal practice is for us to be aware of our motivations before we speak, and also be aware of our motivations if we aren’t speaking. There’s a way that we can ask ourselves, “Is what I’m about to say contributing to the group experience? Or is what I’m about to say because I’m not getting one of my needs met, and maybe it’d be better to get my need met someplace else?”

Corey: So we’re asking people to do just a little bit of shadow work when they walk through the door. I think shadow work is the practice space that’s best to talk exactly about these issues — whenever we’re talking about any of these identity issues, any privilege issues, any bias issues. This is all an invitation for us to take a closer look at our own unconscious motivations and to bring it all to the surface, make it a little bit more conscious. Which is why I continue to think that things like concepts of “privilege” make for wonderful personal shadow work, they just kind of tend to be terrible in terms of social praxis.

We can even see the quality of this conversation — being able to look each other in the eye and, and, you know, have the conversation in real time, get real feedback from each other as we go — it’s completely different than if this conversation was taking place, for example, on the internet where it’s just completely accusatory or “you’re so biased, you’re so privileged,“ and it just goes back and forth. No good comes out of it whatsoever. And this is, “Well, let’s have this conversation within a container of practice itself, while also trying to think of ways to improve on that container, so that this maybe has less of a chance of happening in the future.” I think it’s a great place to have the conversation.

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Aneesah Wilhelmstätter

About Aneesah Bakker

Aneesah Wilhelmstätter (CSW) has therapeutic experience in mental health, oncology and surgical wards (Johannesburg General Hospital) - being the dedicated trainer for medical staff and volunteers in stress management, giving bad news and grieving. She has also worked as an in-house and independent trainer and workshop facilitator in the corporate world, at Boston City College (S.A), and for New Horizons computer training center.

Lisa Frost

About Lisa Frost

Lisa is an Integral Master Coach and facilitator and specializes in helping individuals traverse complex crises, change and major life transitions – both in professional and personal contexts. She helps individuals thrive in the midst of uncertainty and work through the aspects of self that hold us back from realizing the profound sense of fulfillment and joy that is available to all. She has deep personal practices of surrender and shadow work and enjoys hiking with her dogs in her spare time.

Corey deVos

About Corey deVos

Corey W. deVos is Editor-in-Chief of Integral Life, as well as Managing Editor of KenWilber.com. He has worked for Integral Institute/Integal Life since Spring of 2003, and has been a student of integral theory and practice since 1996. Corey is also a professional woodworker, and many of his artworks can be found in his VisionLogix art gallery.

Notable Replies

  1. What a fascinating and insightful session. So much learning in there for those open to hearing it. Such bravery from Lisa and Aneesah. To open yourselves in such a way, to risk being accused of washing your dirty linen in public, yet going full throttle in public. Thank you.
    Verily this was “teachers teaching teachers”. Awesome plaudits to you all.
    And it was clearly so much more than “from the neck up”, as these sessions so easily can be.
    So, if all of this is true, what did I learn and what am going to put into practice?
    Confirmation that evolution is beautiful but not always pretty. Lisa and Aneesah owned and acknowledged their mistakes. Maybe I was beginning to be a bit embarrassed for them. Where was this going to go? To me, if a practice is going to be at the edge and help us grow, it has to be messy. If my buttons aren’t being pressed I might as well be sat watching adverts on tv. The grace with which Aneesah and Lisa held the space as each of them went on their internal voyages of discovery is worth watching on its own. I very much got the feeling that each was only able to do this because of the support of the other: If you are willing to look deep into your dark shadow and share it with me, the least I can do is hold this space in grace so you feel safe to do your work.
    My life is about how I am right and letting everyone know this. I have fought tooth and nail to avoid opening myself to my privileges and biases. Let me say that when I first saw and heard Aneesah, I was flooded immediately with judgments and biases against her. Wow, was I rooting for Lisa to put her right! Have you ever tried to moderate one of these sessions? Do you know how difficult it is? You just can’t pander to everyone’s whims, get real!!
    But this is real good Integral stuff. Rather, it was for me to get real, Aneesah and Lisa were already way ahead of me there.
    This was not judgment and defence, this was gentle enquiry. The subject matter itself was enough to be real, gritty, challenging, hurtful, the process had to be something powerful to allow these two wonderful teachers to go exploring safely. Gentle enquiry, gentle reflection, yep, I was wrong I apologise. Gentle enquiry, gentle reflection I can see how our practice could be improved here… And so safe.
    I will be taking this into my day to day life as a practice
    And of course, the content. I learnt a lot about unconscious bias and privilege and how it plays out in these practice sessions (and therefore life). But that’s probably another post.

  2. Aneesah, Hi! Thank you for your feedback on my feedback. I do think this conversation about communication that invites us to delve deeply into areas that cut right to the core of our being is timely, certainly it is for me. I am grateful for the teachers offering their wisdom in ILP, I have found my life enriched by my engagement with you.
    I am thinking that it may be of interest as to how my "Gentle enquiry…Gentle reflection " may have arisen. The words came to me spontaneously as I typed the post and they seemed appropriate. So a little reflection was needed as to what the fertile ground was that gave rise to those thoughts.
    I am, by trade, a family solicitor and mediator. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I have represented members of families throughout the spiral, even those who are looking at how to bring an Integral (though they didn’t use that word) approach to the re-creation of their family following relationship breakdown. At the other end of the spiral I regularly deal with cases where one parent is clearly a risk to their children, yet they have no insight into the risk they pose. In brief, in challenging times, they prioritise their needs above their children’s. For example where a child will ask of one parent why they don’t get to see more of them, that parent replies “it’s because your mummy/daddy won’t let me”. They justify their reply on the basis that it is “the truth” and they shouldn’t lie to their children.
    It would be very easy for me to rip into that parent in cross-examination about their lack of child focussed behaviour and the upset their remarks have caused to the children and the other parent. Whilst it may make my client happy to see their former partner squirm in the witness box, I can’t see that it helps their children. Having been made to suffer in the witness box, there is a danger that the parent doubles down on their behaviour or simply walks out of their children’s lives.
    So my aim is, at the outset, to to put them as much at their ease as possible given that they are in a courtroom. Parents are heroes to their children, especially younger children. This is always an area to tap in to get some positive vibes going.
    (It is perhaps appropriate to add in here that the vast majority of parents behave in the way that they do because they believe it is the right thing for them to do. I have rarely come across a parent who has deliberately set out to harm a child to meet their own needs. My experience in this area is with parents who abuse illicit substances and are functioning around Beige).
    So, gentle enquiry: I can see that you were wanting to do some good for your children in this situation, what was that good that you were wanting to do? Invitation to gentle reflection: I’m wondering whether that might have caused this (problem.)… what do you think? Opportunity for gentle reflection as there is no judgment, just enquiry. And it gets useful information for the judge to help inform their decision.
    Finally, I imagine the children to be at the back of the court watching their mum and dad. They don’t want to see their heroes trashed. It may well be that the parent hasn’t yet made the changes they need to make to be safe around their children but by dealing with the court hearing in this way, it at least keeps the door open to the necessary changes.
    So, thank you Aneesah, for helping me deepen my awareness of my practice.

  3. Is it really possible to overcome bias, or just recognize that it will always be there to some degree?

    Or do I need to work harder to overcome my bias in the previous sentence?

    To me it seems to be part of “Cleaning Up”, like shadow work - It’s a job that is never done and when we think it’s done, that’s when it’s doing its darkest works.

  4. A few more thoughts.
    There is a saying: You can please some of the people all the time, you can please all of the people some of the time but you can’t please all of the people all of the time. I think this is how it works with Bias in Practice. If so, then I thought it is worthwhile delving a little deeper.
    I wondered whether perspective is a state of mind that helps us navigate the world. This state has its good content and not so good content which runs from prejudice to bias to neutral to open perspective. (Which is why Greens have so much difficulty with it, if they have to see them all as equal) Prejudice at the far end is a carefully thought out and deeply held perspective (achieved consciously or unconsciously) that prioritises the holder of the perspective in a manner that is immoral for the holder of the view and unethical in its effect upon the holder’s relationships with others and society as a whole. The line moves to bias which is a perspective that is less entrenched in the holder. Whilst still immoral and unethical it is less egregious than prejudice. And the holder of the view may well be more open to considering that there are more useful perspectives to hold. Neutral is what it says. We then move on to open perspective which is a carefully considered deeply held perspective that consciously seeks to be moral and ethical, and is used to promote the holder’s beneficial involvement with their relationships and society.
    We can then talk about embodiment of the perspectives. I can see the role for anti-fragility here. I seem to see work in 1st Tier as a bit like a body builder. We choose our perspective that we are comfortable with and then make it as strong as we can to resist all attacks. It then takes a considerable amount of force to break it, if we are to move into a higher level of development. Similarly a bodybuilder will take a look at their body and choose how to sculpt the muscles to create the outline (perspective) they are seeking to achieve. At Tier 2 it is more anti-fragile. We are looking at our perspectives with a view to using them as best we might to develop our view of reality. We welcome the slings and arrows that come our way as we need them to effect development. Similarly a ballet dancer will work - put stresses and strains - on their body so that the muscles become more and more able to effect the dance (perspective) that the dancer is seeking to achieve.
    This led me to the thought as to whether a bias can work/exist on its own. Muscles work together in a group. It is difficult, if not impossible, to isolate one muscle and work on that muscle alone. There are always other muscles working around it and supporting it, whilst the bodybuilder concentrates their efforts on the one muscle. Dancers are well aware that to get their fine and delicate movements, they use a bunch of muscles working in tension with and against each other. An example. I have a bias against working with South Asian women who can’t speak English. (I’m conscious of this. I also have an overriding wish to help ethnic minorities whilst they have involvement in the legal sphere during their family breakdown and so take appropriate steps to manage my practice so that my bias, so far as I can possibly can, does not affect my work). That bias has not come into existence on its own, there are a bunch of other biases supporting it: why should I have to work with people who can’t be bothered to learn my language, why should I work with a woman who accepts a culture where they are subservient to the man, so why work with a woman who has brought the issues on herself, the skills I bring to this work would make me significantly more money if I worked with privileged white males, so why am I wasting my time here? The list goes on and on. The point I’m making, I think, is that there may be little value in picking out a bias and working with it, if you’re not looking at and working with all the other biases that are working to support it and keep it in place.
    And to answer raybennett’s thought: If the above is correct, then it is a lifelong task, we just change the level that we are working at. We move from prejudice to open perspective, which perspective opens us to wonderful new vista to dance in.

  5. Aneesah,
    I pondered what you said over a few days and what keeps coming back to me is “sabre tooth tigers”.
    Without real sabre tooth tigers to threaten us, many people in modern society are constantly looking for them and have a psychological need to invent them.
    Where I am at is wondering if all sabre tooth tigers are imaginary? I can’t yet mentally cross that bridge. For me it sounds more theoretical than practical or reality. I can see 99.99% of sabre tooth tigers are probably not really sabre tooth tigers at all, but I’m stuck on the 1%.
    For me there is a gap between realizing this and applying it. Part of not being able to apply it is that I still believe there are a few real sabre tooth tigers out there ready to pounce on me at any moment. Or would-be sabre tooth tigers that I just find annoying but do no real harm. Then another part of it is some aspects of me want sabre tooth tigers to be out there.

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