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Facilitator gets verbally attacked in prison forum

The story is part of a case study written by Max Schupbach:

Opening Situation: We are with a mixture of inmates, some correction officers, and ourselves, the three facilitators. As we opened, one of the inmates challenged me right away, as the lead facilitator:

Inmate’s challenge: ‘I know they have flown you guys in from the USA, because they (the prison administration) are afraid of a prison riot, and because we are all so fed up with what is happening in here. Now you are supposed to prevent that, right? Well, it won’t work, buddy!’

Max’s response: I instinctively tried to de-escalate and respond truthfully that this was not the case, and that we had no prior knowledge of any unrest.

Inmate: ‘Oh yeah,’ he answers, ‘either they didn’t allow you to tell us, or youwould be too much of a coward to admit it if you were allowed.’

Analysis: This is a direct confrontation and escalation, which can no longer be avoided, since my offer for de-escalation was not accepted. I must admit it was a little scary.

Max’s response: ‘You are scary. You must be used to bullying and challenging everyone in this place and getting away with it. I say no to that. I love the strength and pride that I sense behind your words - it’s awesome to experience that in these surroundings, and see how your spirit soars in the midst of all the troubles - but I hate how this comes out as an attack against me. I will insist on us meeting as equals respecting each other, no matter what you do, because I know you are looking for that also. Why else would you show so much strength?’ We silently stared at each other for a long moment, our eyes locked into each other. He then broke out in a grin, and said, ‘You’re alright.’ Everyone breathed out!

Analysis and comments: One interpretation of this interaction was that the credibility of the facilitator and the respect for the inmate both seem to have found a place, such that no one was forced to back down. It felt like being in an initiation ritual and a test for how authentic a relationship can be within this particular setting. Central to this was the authenticity of the facilitator’s feelings, such as admitting fear or owning making mistakes. Such honesty and authenticity supported the move towards a sustainable solution.

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