Individual encounter as the focus of community building

By Karl-Martin Dietz, November 2017

Community building based in the individuality requires a conscious interest in the other, understanding and reciprocal trust. How can these conditions be created?

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

Some teachers and parents in a Waldorf school sit down together to tell one another why they are working in this school and why they send their child there. One says: “I want to realise Rudolf Steiner’s education.” Another one: “I want the children to be able to cope with life.” Others chime in: “I want to bring the children up to be free human beings.” – “I want to protect them from the stress of our civilisation.” – “I want to further the creativity of the young people with my work.” And one colleague says when it was his turn: “As you know, I came here because I was looking for a job.”

A whole lot of different answers.

Discovering commonalities

Instead of a lengthy debate until a “consensus” was achieved, the individual statements were investigated further with supplementary questions: “What did you mean by that?” – “What underlies your statement?” Gradually a common concern emerged from all the different motifs. It turned out that “realising Steiner’s education” and “making the children capable of coping with life” formulated the same concern. “Educating the children to be free human beings” and “protecting them from the stress of our civilisation” had their origin in the same motif. “Supporting creativity” was also contained in all the other statements.

The person who had said (what everyone knew): “I was looking for a job”, was asked what his experience of the job meanwhile was. The gist of his answer was: “I had of course investigated what the Waldorf school is. But over time I noticed that it is not primarily a collection of likeable measures (main lessons, no holding pupils back a year, a lot of art …). I had a key experience today in our meeting.” What he had good-naturedly tolerated so far had now become something to which he was committed.

Everyone had started from their own perspective but all had gradually discovered a common horizon. Through this experience they felt affirmed and strengthened in their commitment to the school. They had experienced what it meant to show an unreserved interest in the thoughts of the other person and not just to measure them by one’s own views. What had been presented as a statement by each individual person was transformed into a question which opened up further development.

A communal force gradually came about through which it was possible to understand and accept the positions and individual characteristics of the others. The common element arose from the expanded horizon of the individual. It was far more than the “overlap” of each person’s ideas. Some even spoke about important impulses which they took away with them.

A crucial factor from the beginning was to avoid all distancing thinking in terms of groups (“parents”, “teachers”, etc.). A first requirement of dialogical collaboration is to perceive the other person as an individual and not as a “representative” of a group. A second requirement: to have an interest in them out of the will to understand them on their own terms. This simultaneously extends our own horizon. If I only ever consider what is familiar, how, then, am I supposed to become familiar with new things?

Dimensions of individual encounter

In order to understand what happens in such an encounter, we can differentiate between four dimensions of individual encounter.

Interest

If no one shows an interest in the other person, there cannot be any encounter worth mentioning. But whether I am interested in the other person or not is, however, my own deliberate decision. Why have I shown an interest in another person? Perhaps because I like them or because I hoped to gain some benefit from collaborating with them? If like or benefit are the focus, then my interest is not directed at the other person but in reality at myself. But I can also turn myself round inwardly and want to perceive the other person for their own sake and thus break through the resistance of my own lack of interest.

That requires an inner effort because such resistance is firmly rooted in cognitive models, past experiences, emotional blocks and previously shaped avenues of intent. I first of all have to be aware of all these things within myself as disruptive factors in the encounter! Developing an interest in the other person is all the more difficult (but also all the more rewarding) the less I like them.

A first step in this direction could be that I develop an interest in how they think, feel and act. This question is particularly relevant when I find their statements to be questionable. Instead of asserting my own “correct” view, I might ask: did I in fact understand them properly? Or do I hear something that they did not mean at all? Do I perhaps hear something that I project towards them, possibly because of preconceptions? Do I hear only my own echo and not the other person at all? Am I able to listen properly at all?

The necessity of a culture of interest becomes clearly visible here. It counters the predominant indifference and its devastating consequences – in extreme form of fear, contempt, bullying or hate.

If I cannot face the other person without preconceptions, the conversation may well take on neurotic characteristics. The listener then places each word the other says in their own system of ideas without taking account of the context. The listener hears what they want to hear while ignoring what the other might have meant. How many misunderstandings arise because the thinking, feeling and action of the other person was not really taken seriously but was mixed up with our own thinking!

Understanding

This reveals the next dimension of encounter: I turn my interest on the other person not just as if from outside, but try to put myself in their place and see the world through their eyes. This perspective is a fundamental part of social life. The other person feels that they are taken seriously and I become aware of aspects in what is happening that I have so far overlooked. They stimulate self-knowledge in me.

In contrast to the first dimension of encounter – interest – understanding is not just about the question what the other is thinking but also why they do so. The important thing here is to understand the other person from their own perspective.

Trust

We normally determine the nature of the other from their past. (How did they grow up? What did they learn?) Their future remains blanked out. But instead of seeking to understand the other person only in how they have become, I could additionally ask whether intentions and worries project into their current state. Are there certain intentions for the future which influence – consciously or otherwise – their current behaviour, inner unrest or a basic critical attitude?

If I see the big fat caterpillar on the leaf of the stinging nettle as nothing other than a caterpillar, the situation presents itself quite differently to me than if I see it as a future peacock butterfly!

Do we manage to understand the other person as a “human being in development”? How can we support one another in our development? We can, for example, recognise their strengths instead of focusing on their weaknesses. This at the same time awakens the will to develop in the other. Of course everyone has to go their own way. But we can encourage one another; for example in attempting to produce common questions instead of constantly keeping one another in check with opposing assertions. That also creates mutual trust.

Human dignity

The more I learn to see the world through the eyes of the other, and in the other the developing human being, the more comprehensively I can gain an insight into the human individuality. It really shows itself when I discover each individual as the bearer of their uniqueness. Individual encounter no longer ends up in definable results but in mysteries: the challenge of individuality; the mystery of the developing human being; or the riddle of  the encounter embedded in destiny.

Interest, the desire to understand, trust and appreciation of the other are then not consecutive steps in the encounter from person to person, but together they also sound as a chord and thus become the basis of community.

Sliding into the opposite

The individual encounter requires that we conduct ourselves at a qualitatively high level. Otherwise it can quickly slide into its opposite. The path from I to We goes via You. But what would a We without a You look like? We call such a situation totalitarian. Here the focus is not the individual but the collective (the group), here I do not want to understand the other but put my mark on them; I do not want to support the development of the human being but channel it in a specified direction. And I do not respect the other as an independent spiritual being but try to instrumentalise them for my own purposes.

“The Party is always right” and “You are nothing, the people are everything” – these words symbolise the way that totalitarianism expresses “We without You” in the twentieth century. There is much to indicate that today, too, this could happen again at any time. Much that is deployed as “corporate identity” or “personal development” possesses similar traits?

But I can also slip in the other direction, to the I without the You, into subjectivity. In such a situation I relate everything to myself, make my own standards the foundation of the world; do not support the abilities of the other but put my finger on their limitations and flaws. Instead of respecting the other person as a spiritual being, I demand of my surroundings that it musters understanding for my actions.

Thus the widespread culture of reciprocal disinterest, lack of compassion or, indeed, cynicism arises as a counter movement to individual encounter. The extent to which individual encounter works in the balance between the two aberrations – that is completely up to me and you.

To conclude, let us summarise and illustrate (see graphic) once more what this is about.

This text is an shortened and revised version of the opening lecture at the German Federal Parent Council conference on 17 February 2017 in Überlingen.

About the author: Dr. Karl-Martin Dietz founded the Friedrich von Hardenberg Institute for Cultural Studies in Heidelberg in 1978 together with Dr. Thomas Kracht. www.hardenberginstitut.de 

Follow