Balancing Six Paradoxical Tensions

In his book, The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer outlines six paradoxical tensions that  enable powerful dialogue and learning. Palmer says the space must:

  1. Be bounded and open.
  2. Be hospitable and “charged”.
  3. Invite the voice of the individual and the voice of the group.
  4. Honour “little stories” of the participants, and the “big stories” of history and society.
  5. Support solitude and community.
  6. Welcome silence and speech.

The challenge for any facilitator is how to create an environment that holds these opposing energies. Here are some ways I have found to honour these paradoxes:

Establish and use groundrules.
Clarify roles and review agenda.
Practice “emerging design”. Treat agendas like accordions.
Pay attention to light, space, smell and comfort.
Make sure each person feels expected and welcome.
Create and remain in “creative tension”.
Do not rescue, protect or try to relieve.
Invite the voice of the individual
Invite the voice of the group
Respect the value of a single comment.
Support people who stand alone.
Search for themes.
Honour the language of the group.
Honour little stories
page1image39448Honour big stories
Start with the personal connection and help enrich/enlarge the stories.
Identify stories that have meaning for all.
Support Solitude
Support community
Hold no prisoners.
Acknowledge that thinking is participating.
Acknowledge comings and goings.
Acknowledge shared interests and concerns.
Welcome Silence
Welcome Speech
Allow the pregnant pause.


Encourage those who have not spoken.
Be patient with those who are not succinct and/or have contrary views.


Of course, balancing these tensions is not easy, and things can go wrong.  When that happens,

  • Be aware of your emotions and reactions to the situation.
  • Acknowledge things are not going well. The capacity to demonstrate vulnerability is key to creating the conditions for dialogue and learning.
  • Ask the group what we should do to get back on track. (Don’t fake it because you won’t make it.)
  • Call a timeout so the pattern is interrupted, people can reflect and replenish, and there is a chance for a fresh start.
Best of luck in balancing the tensions.
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