October 20, 2003

Spirit and Place

Unexpectedly, a young couple arrives with their large dog in tow. While he regales in the ritual tossing of the ball, I quietly lament this intrusion about the quiet private space I had so carefully selected. Yet by slightly repositioning myself a mere 15 feet, the newly arrived guests disappear completely from my line of sight and my view of Mount Timpenagos is once again exclusive.

Earlier this month, I enjoyed a rejuvenating writer’s retreat at the Sundance Resort in Sundance, Utah. Since Sundance is a name almost inextricably associated with the film festival of the same name, it is worth noting that the resort came first and that it plays only a nominal role in the festival. A year-round venue renowned for its skiing and hiking, Sundance also is a nurturing space for the hundreds of writers, musicians, and artists who visit each year.

It provides a most unique sense of spirit and place. Small cottages and condos are nestled discreetly into the woods and are enveloped by babbling brooks and majestic trees. You are surrounded by all the resources of community, yet can remain as invisible as you like. Even in the most public of spaces, small pockets of space have been carved out for those seeking solitude or privacy. One does not have to venture far to either be alone or with others, and the proximity of both support spontaneity and individual needs.

This experience has reminded me of the paradox of space Parker Palmer describes in The Courage to Teach. He notes that for classrooms to be effective spaces for learning they must bounded and open, as well as hospitable and charged. In addition, the space should: invite the voice of the individual and the voice of the group; honor the “little” stories of the participants and the “big” stories of the disciplines and tradition; support solitude and surround it with the resources of community; and welcome both silence and speech.

Embracing paradox is uncomfortable for many individuals and perhaps that accounts for why I doubt many learning environments fulfill the framework Palmer articulates. While Palmer speaks of classroom learning, the criteria he outlines seems equally valuable for any learning environment, including the workspace itself. Beyond just considering the physical elements of a particular environment, it is also worth considering whether or not the organizational culture and group norms support the opposites contained in Palmer’s paradox.

Given the amount of noise in our lives on a daily basis, it strikes me that organizations could really add value to their employees’ (and members’) lives by creating spaces that support solitude while surrounding it with accessible community. When people need to disconnect and just think, where do they go in your office? Is that space conducive to the introspection and analysis people are seeking? Do our education and training efforts include enough opportunities for both introverted and extroverted learners, and do we ensure adequate time for reflection and application of the concepts and tools being discussed?

Our ranks consist no doubt of many voices with many needs and preferences, some of which remain unspoken or unacknowledged. Simple gestures on our part can go a long way toward ensuring they are heard.