Since 1967, Dr. Susan Campbell has been a couple’s therapist, relationship coach, speaker, workshop leader, trainer of professional coaches, college professor, certified Radical Honesty trainer, and founding teacher of the Getting Real work. The Getting Real work is a body of communication and awareness practices that foster personal healing and social evolution. She has written eleven books on relationships, including several best-sellers.
She addresses the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with thoughts including:
- That “you can’t solve the problem at the level of problem was created”
- Examples of “relational technologies” that can address polarization
- That often, “it’s the most marginalized people who have the best perspective on the problem”
- That “people getting perspective on their filters is another way of getting above the level of the problem”
- That through “creative problem solving, energy gets released”
Connect with Susan Campbell
Hi, Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right?, a project of the Post Carbon Institute. Today’s guest is Susan Campbell. I met Susan in the late 1970s at an intentional community in Southern California, when she was writing a book called Earth Community, identifying a new trend that we used to call back then, back to the land or intentional communities. She has identified trends and been a leader ever since. Susan received her PhD in Clinical Psychology from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1967. Two years later, she went on to become a member of the school’s prestigious graduate faculty, where she founded their couple and family therapy graduate program in 1971. She has also received extensive postdoctoral training in couple and family therapy, group dynamics, organizational development, Gestalt therapy, NLP psychosynthesis, and Buddhist psychology. Since 1970, she’s been a couple therapist relationship coach, speaker, worship leader, trainer of professional coaches, college professor, certified Radical Honesty trainer and founding teacher of the Getting Real Work. The Getting Real Work is a body of communication and awareness practices that foster personal healing and social evolution. She has written eleven books, including Earth Community, other books on relationships, several bestsellers. Her groundbreaking book, The Couples Journey: Intimacy As A Path To Wholeness published in 1980, was the first popular book that introduced mainstream audiences to the idea of relationship as a spiritual practice. Her best known book besides this one, are Getting Real, Saying What’s Real, Truth in Dating, Beyond the Power Struggle, The Everything Great Sex Book, and Five-Minute Relationship Repair. And now Susan Campbell.
Welcome, Susan Campbell, to What Could Possibly Go Right?, a project of the Post Carbon Institute. I just want to say that you and I go way back. I think we’ve recognized each other this whole time in all our iterations as social healers, we have now an open sort of infected wound in our country. We call it polarization. But that may not be the diagnosis, it’s maybe the symptom. Both sides call the other fake news. At the same time, we have problems that have to be solved, and not the least of which is the background unraveling of the natural world. I believe you are also concerned in addressing through your tools, this split in our national psyche. Since the pandemic we’ve been caught up in immediate issues, and old traumas are surfacing. I’m fairly sure that you are seeing possibilities through these veils of confusion and immediacy, and I’m so glad you’re my guest. So I can pitch you our one question. In the midst of all that seems to be going awry, what do you see emerging that could possibly go right? Over to you, Susan.
Okay, what could possibly go right? Well, I’ve been a student of this phrase: You can’t solve the problem at the level the problem was created. How do you get above the level of the problem? I see so many movements and so many, I’ll call them, relational technologies that address this. Basically, it’s how to work with polarity. We’re now seeing polarization, which is the extreme result of not being able as humans at our current level of development, at the level of the problem that we’re speaking at, it’s us-and-them fingerpointing, projecting my unconscious parts on to you.
I mean, right in this moment, what just popped in was the religious righteousness of the people in the Middle East, and being very threatened by the lack of religious fervor in the US. Maybe that’s a polarity, like self orientation versus communal orientation. There’s so many polarities. But maybe you can’t solve the problem on the level of problem. But if you see above that, if you get to a higher vantage point…. I’ll name some of the technologies that I’m aware of in a minute, but just to give you an example, maybe there is a point to humanity being a little more balanced between material concerns and spiritual concerns. That’s one of the age old polarities; yin and yang. Everyone has heard of that. Self and other. So these polarities, that’s what I mean.
I just want to define some terms here. Polarities are things like that; they’re just built into the human evolutionary fabric, it seems. And when I say evolution, I mean, these are the lessons on the hero’s journey that we’re all traversing. So one of them is, how to work with polarity so that it doesn’t lead to extreme polarization, because at extreme polarization, you’re not listening to each other, you’re not seeing the value in both. Getting above the level of the problem starts with some kind of, Oh, maybe there’s value in both? So let me just name some of the technologies that I’m aware of, and then maybe we can come back to the more philosophical, how consciousness needs to evolve in order to solve the world’s problems today. A positive spin on the problems of today is it’s forcing us to get above the level of the problem. This is one of those evolutionary drivers that Barbara Marx Hubbard used to talk about. I’ve got so much here, because for 50 years, I’ve been a conflict resolution specialist.
I know you’re looking for emerging trends, but this is still an emerging trend. The subculture that I’ve always been part of, are sort of the learning and development and growth and conscious evolution subculture. Some of these things are still emerging trends, because people in my world, they’re more the professors. The professors are the scouts. I’ve been a college professor, I understand the difference between the ivory tower and the real world. So us professors, even though I’m no longer, that’s not my primary identity anymore, US professors have the luxury of looking at society as a whole and saying, what’s needed here? Back in the 60s, we talked about things like decentralization and real democracy; what are the skills for real democracy. Let me just talk about some of the actual techniques that, in some ways, have been tested over the last 50 years. I don’t think they’ve quite become mainstream yet, but they can still show promise. So there’s a lot of large group relational technologies, ways to manage diversity in a large group. The ones that I’m familiar with, these are group designs now, is fishbowl design. One of the things that I was involved in a lot in the 60s was the fishbowl design where blacks and whites, I used to call them black-white encounter groups, but they were basically blacks and whites coming together to share what it’s like to be me with regard to the question of race.
So we’re talking about the fishbowl…
Let’s say, the blacks are in the center, and the whites are in the outer circle. The idea is to share from the heart with your people, just with each other. You’re not sharing with the whites outside with what’s your life been like, with respect to systemic oppression, or family experiences, what we were taught, just all the traumas, basically, people would share. Then the outer circle would mirror back empathetic comments or questions. Then the whites would talk about their own traumatic experiences with regard to race, whatever those may be, including systemic kinds of issues. Because back in those days, a lot of the whites were feeling very, very guilty about being white, and so forth. So there’s that technology. I used to do that with men and women too. The women would get in the center, and the men would be on the outside. It’s the idea of being with your own people, but you’re witnessed by somebody else, and then the other people are with their own people and being witnessed. What this does, it helps to develop a witness consciousness, because we step back and we debrief the whole thing as one collective. And we see, Oh, some of these same systemic oppressions affect both races, for example. Same with men and women. So there’s the need to be able to just step back and observe. That’s the key skill, I think, that’s coming forth now.
I’ll just say because I’ve been a couples’ relationship coach for so long, the idea in couples work is helping the couple see their mutual reactive cycle. The more she questions, the more he hides. But the more he hides, the more she questions. So helping a couple observe their process, observe, Gee, every fight looks like the same fight here, doesn’t it? Again, they get above the level of, “Hey, you need to change so I can feel better”, power struggle thinking, and they get to the, “Wait, we collectively have a problem.” That’s the same technique used in win-win negotiation. This is a classic phrase from negotiation, the type that they teach at the Harvard School and so forth, the more enlightened forms of negotiation are: It’s not the other person that’s the problem. It’s your difference that’s the problem. Again, when people start seeing things from one eye, it’s almost like the third eye, and they start seeing things, they are working together toward a creative solution. And it’s always like this. There’s so many real life examples of how once you drop your “you got to change”, a lot of creative problem solving energy gets released.#
Let me just say something else. I used to work with schools a lot and be an organizational consultant and one of the big things with teachers, we have let’s call it the conservatives and the progressives, but I call them the fast changers and the slow changers. Not to make anybody wrong in this but when you’ve got a group of people, you almost always have some kind of polarity and polarization emerges. Those of us who’ve done a lot of group work, we just see this over and over. So much of the time, the polarity that emerges are like the new teachers in a school, Oh, we want to try all the new techniques and bring creativity into the classroom. And then the older, usually age-wise people more close to retirement, would be more the slow changers. Oh, that’s just another fad. We’ve seen that so many times. No, don’t buy that. Let’s just stay the course, do what we’re doing. That’s that’s all we need. And of course, this mimics the political polarization between the red states and blue states right now. How do people then get in the optimum size groups, like the groups that I used to do for teachers, because that was one school, and then I go to another school. And then sometimes I work with the whole school system. But that’s a scale of working with people where there’s face to face interaction, you’re a human being to me because I’m hearing how you have gone through “I’m a fast changer, you’re a slow changer”. And you have been burned by being sent to all these programs, and then there’s a new program and it doesn’t really seem to do any good. Really listening to the life experience of one another. It’s human contact. It’s so powerful.
So there is that question in this highly polarized country of ours today. How do we get the right scale for having these conversations? But there’s lots of wonderful movements like these. Empathy circles is one. But again, those are small groups. There’s the Braver Angels; again, small groups. Back in the day, when NTL Institute was a successful happening operation, and they were mainly group and organizational systems change kinds of things, they would do a lot of things for whole communities. I remember going into the community of Dover, New Hampshire, that was one of our clients. A whole community with all the different stakeholders. And there are large group designs, one of them’s called Future Search, originated by Marv Weisbord, and I’ve co-led these things with him, and all the different stakeholders and you have these giant rooms, but it is possible. Oh, you have the school and the welfare department and the local businesses all are represented, and they’re all pretty much looking at the same question about what does our community need to thrive? Or some common question, but each person has a different answer and polarity happens. But there’s a listening field, that does create human connection.
Let me just say something more about the importance of human connection. Oh, and by the way, just when I say human connection, there’s this whole authentic relating movement worldwide. Have you heard of authentic relating? It’s very much about tuning into the other person’s world. There’s a movement called circling and authentic relating, but these are two technologies that kind of grow from the NTL model that I was talking about before. NTL used to be called National Training Laboratories and they published a lot of books about large group designs. There’s lots of literature out there about these these models. In fact, I’ve got a book that I wrote back in the 60s that has some of those large group designs in them. Just coming back… I was talking about human connection? Oh, the tea groups that I used to do during the 60s and 70s for businesses -and tea groups are basically, you sit in a room with 12 other people, pretty much from 9am to 9pm, you have breaks and you do meals and some recreational things together. But basically, you’re just sitting in a room, you could say self-disclosing about what’s true for you, what’s painful for you, and what we’d had in those days, the polarity that would emerge was the hawks and the doves, with respect to the Vietnam War. I remember it, because this was a business audience, and it wasn’t coming from just growth junkies, these were really managers and your company sent you and paid for you. So they weren’t exactly the most growth oriented people. But it seems like everybody just wants to be heard and attended to. So when people could feel the attention of the group, and if the attention wasn’t there, that was an opportunity to do trigger work, which I probably mentioned because that’s my latest way of getting above the level of the problem, is noticing your own triggers and getting some perspective on on the polarities within the self.
So in the tea groups, if there was triggering going on, we would work with your inner, what are you projecting onto that other person? If that person works for a company who makes bombs, that was one of the issues that would come up, how can you work for that company? The way I just said it, maybe was the way they would start out asking it, but as we noticed, Okay, what’s the edge there? Because that’s what my job as the facilitator is, what’s the edge there? How can you work for that company? Feel into your own feelings about that, and once you kind of have done some of that inner work, you realize you’ve got some kind of a fear there of the other. You’ve made that person the other. So we watch for intonations, phrases that indicate that I am making you the other, and then when I go deeper into myself, I realize that some core fear that I’ve carried around for a long time.
I am chockablock right now with questions.
Can we just pause for a second? I’ve just got all these ways that people have dealt with this.
You’re speaking from the heyday of the sense of possibility that these technologies were coming forth, because we had a sense that it was possible, that there was space in society that there was enough cohesion, there was enough baseline cohesion, there was a ground of being that we could speak into, that would want to grow in the presence of really respectful listening. I’ve been involved in the art of hosting, I started the conversation cafes. I come from that belief. And yet, and I don’t mean to turn the screws on us, I feel that there are right now as we’re in this sea of confusion, that there are sprouts of authoritarianism; like, I want to resolve this conflict, not by listening to the other, but by gathering with the people who think like I do. I think people are trying to resolve the conflict, and there is no facilitator of these conversations, and so the conflict is getting resolved by withdrawing from one another. It’s almost like we’re in a failing relationship, if you will, in this country. I had a relationship that I did one of the first Do It Yourself divorces and I was trained to say to the judge, we have irreconcilable differences that have led to the irremediable breakdown of our marriage. So I just want to focus on this right now, that there are tools that you and I and many people have carried, and they’re amazing and they work when people are willing to let them work. We’re at a scale where the people in the room are this whole country, and we’re actually ripping apart rural, urban, coastal, central, red blue. There are representatives of this. You could say Bernie and Trump, if you will. So where do you see now in this moment, emergent social healing, that is producing the kinds of results or promise, that has a promise of producing the results that you’re talking about, that we were able to do in the 60s and 70s, and even 80s?
Well, there was a gradual awareness of system dynamics being again, we were preaching that in the 60s and 70s, to systems thinking. But, just in terms of the race conversation, for example, people used to say, I’m not prejudiced, some of my best friends are black or stuff like that. Now the conversation has been elevated quite a bit to awareness of systemic racism, and that some problems are being seen much more systemically. I’m trying to think if there’s any leaders that I know. See, leaders need to be shepherds for the whole. And in terms of rhetoric, Obama was pretty good at that, at least in terms of his rhetoric. He was inspiring that kind of consciousness. Yes, that was quite a few years ago now, but he’s the closest. And many imperfections there, because it was just the rhetoric, and we didn’t bring it down to the whole democratic institutions. So honestly, I don’t see any emerging leaders who really have…
What about the women in the Nordic countries? Jacinda Ardern? And I mean, if we get outside the bounds of the United States, do you see this happening? Do you see leaders who are basically holding space for the country to resolve their differences?
You know, I want to. I would like to say that there’s individuals who are embodying these principles, but I think the principles are alive and well and are still in the collective, the principles of getting how to get above the level of the problem. Who’s embodying that at this point? I don’t know.
Can I try some people out? Reverend Barber? The Poor People’s Campaign? Leaders in the Black church. It’s almost feels like youth. The one thing you cited was fundamentally it’s Black Lives Matter, it’s the people of color having grown while maybe white people have not, but they have grown in their analysis. And basically, indigenous people as well. There’s some beautiful people. I interviewed Julian Brave Noisecat and I interviewed Lyla June Johnston. There are people who are bringing forward – and Sherri Mitchell – who are bringing forward teachings from indigenous peoples not to reify them, not to say that they had perfect societies at all, not to say that they didn’t make mistakes.
I don’t mean to reverse the interview, but I’m just sort of suggesting that the one thing you cited was that we are beginning to be a country even with all the reactivity that is grappling with a racist past. And not liking it, maybe the language, infuriates and inflames people, maybe we’re triggered every which way from Sunday, but the conversation is happening, and I think it’s being brought forward by people of color. We had Reverend Yearwood on of the Hip Hop Caucus on the podcast, and he brought that forward, he brought forth for the blindness of the environmental movement, that it didn’t form common cause with the social justice movement, and we’d lost easily a decade. Then whether it’s Friday’s for the Future or the Sunrise Movement, and the youth, some of them have quite a demanding hard edge because they’re the butt of this. However, I think they’re solutionaries. Not solutionaries, like the solutionary caucus in the Congress. It’s like we look to the government to lead us and I don’t think they’re leading. I think it’s the communities of color, that are actually doing the healing work.
We’ve always kind of known that it’s the most marginalized people who have the best perspective on the problem. The people of color and the women. I mean, that’s kind of always been ever since I’ve been an adult, the way it is, and we can’t depend on the centralized authorities, the elected officials because they have too much vested interest in the existing order.
Totally. So with those prompts, and I don’t mean to put words in your mouth or perceptions, do you when you look at that sphere of the marginalized people, the women, people of color, indigenous peoples, people in other maybe social democracies? I don’t know people who are not in countries that are tending toward authoritarianism? Do you see movements that are embodying those fishbowls if you will, the deep listening?
The authentic relating movement is worldwide. And it is a sophisticated around systems thinking, but it is not really designed for large systems change. It’s really more culture change. That’s been my area of witnessing, is the whole thing about what prompts culture change, so I don’t have specific knowledge of movements or or individuals.
I’m gonna throw you another one. So, if I ruled the world every day would be the first day of spring. So yeah, just wave a magic wand, Susan. If you could convene the conversation that you believe would produce the healing, what sorts of things would you include in that? How would you see that?
Okay, so let’s say we could convene a family meeting of the family of humans in the US. Let’s picture that. What do you do in a family meeting? Each person gets to say, What’s it feel like for you to be in this family? What’s the good news? What needs get met here and what needs don’t get met here? And everybody gets to be heard by everybody else somehow. There is a facilitator who works with the family to help, works with the collective to help people express. And then the facilitator is rotated. So sometimes the 12 year old kid gets to be the facilitator. If you can just think of this as a family meeting. Sometimes the grandmother gets to be the facilitator. Rotating the facilitator function helps each person begin to take on the mantle of: Wait a minute. This is a whole collection of very diverse viewpoints. I can’t dominate here. My job really is to create a conversation and a decision process that serves the whole. The leaders job is to serve the good of the whole, but people don’t get that knowledge internalized unless they’ve had the experience of trying to be a facilitator and trying to herd all these cats. And that’s something that rotating facilitator thing is something that a lot of businesses today do. A lot of corporations actually do that to try to help people develop their leadership jobs. But back to how I would structure this.
So then there’d be some polarities that would emerge. I would ask, okay, let’s say a polarity that emerges, is let’s pick one, like the COVID thing. Let’s pick that. Everybody who thinks that, hey, whether you get the vaccine or not is not just a personal issue, it is also a public health issue. So we have to think of it in a more complex way than just individual freedom. Okay, everybody who believes that you go over to that corner, and everybody who believes that personal freedoms are the ultimate value in this country, nobody can get in the way of me making decisions, especially around something as important as health, you guys go over to the other side? This is a design I’ve used in different polarities. What’s the vulnerability? You can talk about what how you all agree, and stuff like that. I’ll have them do some kind of bonding thing, like, what do you like? And what do you respect about yourself, because you’re over there? And what do you like and respect, because you’re over there? So we do a little group bonding, but then each group considers what’s the vulnerability of holding this position? What have I suffered? And I did these COVID culture wars conversations, and some of the things that people would say; I’ve suffered, somebody asked me why I don’t want to get the vaccine, but then they just cut me off before I even have a chance to tell them. So people talk about different vulnerabilities or their vulnerabilities mostly have to do with feeling judged or discounted by the other side, and they have a tale to tell. They have a little mini story, and they share that. So people telling their individual stories of what has been a vulnerability. Again, the willingness to share at that level, first, you’re sharing it in your little subgroup with the people you like, but then I would facilitate people talking about it in the large group. You just sort of stand there and tell your story, if we had a room big enough for the whole US. This could be scaled down into smaller subgroups, and so forth. Almost any chunk of 20 people is going to have some people on one side and some people on on the other side. It just seems to work that way. I’m not sure exactly why.
So once people are all human beings to each other, that’s the next step. You’re building leadership capacity by rotating the facilitator, that looking at the whole. You’re building human connection, then how do you create some kind of united perception? What do we need? And that generally requires in order to really influence another person, you have to build some kind of relationship with them. To do that with a large group takes a person who has arrived at that level of, not black and white thinking, but it’s our difference that’s the problem. But that begins to emerge is, Whoa, we like each other, we respect each other, we’ve seen the pain that this difference causes both sides. So we’ve got all that now. How important is it to get a resolution? And what does it actually feel like to not have a resolution with somebody that you’ve not bonded with? Go back to a married couple as an example. What does that feel like? I hate it when we have fights like this. You know, couples can say that with great sincerity without at all having resolved their difference. They’re still at odds. But they hate having this difference. I know from facilitating some of these groups, that one of the core pains, when people get to the level in the family meeting that I’ve gotten us to, it is so painful to feel like we are watching different movies here. We’re listening to different newscasters. We’re buying into different cultural memes. But gee, I can see that you’re not that different from me. Being able to agree that that in itself is a shared pain, not being able to bridge that gap, that takes a lot of pre work in terms of breaking down stereotypes and stuff like that.
So, in my COVID culture wars thing, what I do is help people get really interested in curious about their perceptual filters, like their childhood wounds, their actual experiences, with the medical profession and with pharmaceutical drugs in the past, for example. Number of filters, personality style, the subgroup that you identify with, whether it’s progressive, liberal, conservative, so forth, patriot. So people getting perspective on their filters is another way of getting above the level of the problem. And that’s an educational part of the design, most of it’s interactive and personal and sharing. But then there’s a little education where you go, Okay, what’s your filter around your childhood trauma, for example?
And so, I think you saw a video where I worked with a guy who felt that government overreach was the problem in terms of the vaccine. I don’t want anybody controlling me. And when he did some inner work and inquired into his childhood wounds around that, it happened that he had very controlling parents, and so he was working that issue. Now, not everybody in this family meeting is going to be interested in personal growth at that level. But it is an emerging trend. There’s a huge trend of mindfulness education, my work on trigger work, social emotional learning, the wisdom of trauma. So there’s really a lot more willingness to be curious about childhood. And that’s just one filter. I’m not saying that’s the whole solution. But if you understand your filters, and you know how to work with the warring factions within yourself, that’s really what I call trigger work. It’s working with the inner polarities. So that would have to be a little part of this family meeting that I’m describing.
Wow, Susan, this is great. I try to keep my interviews such that somebody could take a run and listen to the whole thing. But this is so stimulating. For example, social healing, healing the collective. As you say, there are many efforts and I would bet, I see the ones that are in the more sort of what we used to call New Age. I don’t even know what it’s called anymore, but consciousness. I see the ones that are in my tribe, but I’ll bet anything this is happening in the churches, where we just have to learn to not hate. We just have to learn to not hate, because Christ didn’t hate, so we need to not hate. Muhammad taught us not to hate. Buddhism teaches us to rise above. So I wonder if one of the things that’s emerging is out of the pain of watching our society rip apart, as people are watching their families rip apart, is that people are trying to find ways to do exactly the kind of work you’re saying. I think there are, it’s not necessarily political, I was just thinking what you’re talking about Van Jones. He has done quite a few listening initiatives, respectful. He tried to work with, I forget the politician’s name, somebody who was like, clearly on the right. He tries to do this. I think about my friend, John DeGraaf, who I also have interviewed, who he’s constantly doing initiatives on consumerism and time, where he shows the suffering of both sides. He shows that, and he’s working on beauty now. So I wonder if it is this dimension of our, like the experiments where you see the kids grappling with sharing versus selfishness, and you watch. I wonder if there’s something inbred, that we’re social creatures, that is getting pulled on everywhere, and so it’s not a trend per se, it’s not in any one thing per se. It’s in an impulse that naturally arises in human beings in the presence of this breaking apart. And that is what could be possibly going right? So anyway, if you have any final reflection for a minute or two, and then we’ll wrap up.
The impulse to connect seems to be in humans, and there seems to be pain when you’re trying to connect with somebody who sees the world so differently than yourself. And the biggest example of this in our culture is family members, or at a different political, different place on the political spectrum or on the to get vaccinated or not split.
Yeah, we’re recording this right before Thanksgiving 2021. And we will see if we can have small group conversations away collectively around a national holiday, in which forgiveness and gratitude are the keynote. So thank you so much, Susan.
Great to talk to you today, Vicki.