Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash

Over the last two weeks I participated in several community retreats. At all of these gatherings the discussion circles with the full group took longer than they had been planned for and at the end of it people were still hungry to continue talking. People had a lot they wanted to say.

At first I felt exhausted by the people who would dominate the collective space, by speaking often and in long, winding monologues. It reminded me of the underlying, unspoken power dynamics, because the people who speak a lot tend to be men, often white men.

But then I realized that beyond the structural inequality (which is real) there is something else worthwhile paying attention to: I sense that so often in community circles, the contributions are less about deepening the conversation and more about being acknowledged. People just want to be heard and seen.

I have started paying attention to my own desire to speak up at gatherings and often it has less to do with advancing the topic at hand. Instead, I feel an urge to express myself. Below that is a worry that I might be invisible, irrelevant, forgotten about, glanced over, misunderstood and under-appreciated if I don’t speak up. How do I know I matter in this group if people don’t know I exist? How can I exist when people don’t see me?

What if this need to be seen and heard is at the very core of what a community is supposed to do?

For me there is a direct line between feeling seen, and feeling connected. If I don’t feel acknowledged (and to some extent: understood) for who I am, I will feel disconnected, alone. As therapist Michael Schreiner writes on his blog: “Most of us are desperate to be understood, to have that sense of isolation shattered by finding people in our lives who really get us on an intimate level. The unconscious fear that seems to always be lurking in the background is that if we aren’t understood it will be as if we never existed.”

Yet most of us don’t have many spaces beyond our intimate relationships where we feel heard and seen. We don’t have many physical circles we get to express ourselves. And yet we all have soooooo much to say and so much to make sense of. There is of course social media, in theory a digital space where we can constantly express ourselves. But do we actually feel seen when we post something on Facebook?

All of these observations make me wonder: maybe the human need to be seen and heard isn’t just a side effect of community, but actually one of the core functions a community can play? And how can we design spaces to provide more opportunities to feel seen? Curious to hear your perspectives!

Thank you to Jessica von Farkas to inspire me on this topic!