1 Big idea to think about

  • My capacity to understand another person begins with my capacity to understand myself.

2 ways you can apply this

  • Ask honest, open questions that are not meant to fix, save, correct, or advise. 
  • Listen with the intent to help the other person be heard and to hear themselves.

3 Questions to ask

  • When was the last time I felt truly heard and understood?
  • Who made me feel that way?
  • How did they make me feel that way and how can I help others feel that way?

Key Moments From The Show 

  • Who is Parker J. Palmer? (3:45)
  • The Circle of Trust process (9:40)
  • Using honest, open questions to understand each other (14:56)
  • A physician learns to hear himself (17:10)
  • The cost of not being heard (24:25)
  • Understanding ourselves and understanding others (25:48)
  • The role of deep listening in democracy (32:20)
  • Creating authentic “truth-telling” spaces (36:42)

Links and Resources You’ll Love from the Episode

Connect with Parker J. Palmer

Twitter | LinkedIn | YouTube | Facebook | Website

Greg McKeown (00:04):

Welcome. I’m your host, Greg McKeown. I’m the author of two New York Times bestsellers, Effortless and Essentialism. And I’m here with you to learn how people can understand each other, such a simple subject, but so important. So essential in today’s world. Have you ever had someone come to you with a dilemma, but when you start to share your advice, they resist your every suggestion? The relationship gets more strained. You leave feeling frustrated, and the other person has not been helped. Has that ever happened to you where you are confused about what to do, but when you open up, you immediately get advice and feel more alone and more confused than you were before? Well, today, I have invited one of my heroes, Parker Palmer, to share a story or two, some of the things he has learned over decades, and some actionable advice. By the end of this episode, you will be better able to help people unravel their own confusion and find the right way forward. Let’s get to it. Remember to teach the ideas in this podcast episode to someone else within the next 24 to 48 hours of listening. Parker Palmer. Welcome to the podcast.

Parker Palmer (01:47):

Thank you so much, Greg. I’m just delighted to be with you.

Greg McKeown (01:50):

The delight is seriously mine. I have been waiting many years. I don’t know why I’ve been waiting so long to reach out to you, to talk to you. To me, you are a person of unique wisdom, and the work you have done has just the power of relevancy to the subject of this podcast, to the work that I’m feeling called to, and to the challenges that listeners have everywhere. Now, for people who aren’t familiar with you or your work, could you just start us off with a reader’s digest version of your story?

Parker Palmer (02:24):

Sure. I can. Greg, I was born and raised in the Chicago area and went to a liberal arts college in Minnesota. From there, I spent a year in New York City working as a student at the union theological seminary, realized at the end of the year that that was not my right path. And so I went out to Berkeley in the 1960s to do a PhD in sociology. So, immediately, I think you can see from my sociological interests that your topic about understanding each other is very much in my wheelhouse. I finished that PhD during that era of radical social change and upheaval in 1969, having expected fully to go into the academy. But as we all know, that was an era in which the cities were burning. The racial crisis was on the front burner as it always is in this country.

And a great deal was happening that made me feel called not to the academy but to the streets of the city. So in 1969, I moved to Washington DC and became a community organizer working on racial justice, working to build a community against redlining and blockbusting and all of the racist strategies that this society has to keep us apart to really keep us from understanding each other. And after five years of that work, I decided to take a sabbatical. It was very grueling work, very demanding work. And, of course, it plunged me into a situation where understanding each other across divides became an absolutely critical component of what we are attempting to do. You can’t use the words, build community or work for racial justice without caring about understanding each other. So in 1974, I took a sabbatical for a year at an intentional Quaker community near Philadelphia called Pendle Hill, 80 people living a really radically egalitarian life.

Everybody making the same amount of money running a small adult education center, cooking and raising our food together, making decisions together, meeting every morning in silent meeting Quaker style, to try to discern what we could about our own ongoing callings. I found it so compelling that that one-year sabbatical stretched into 11 years of my life. And it was intensive for me in all of the strategies of nonviolent social change, which is really what I had wanted to hone after five really challenging years as a community organizer. So when I came out of that, I felt there is no institution that can accommodate my sense of calling, which had by that time become not only the calling of an activist, but the calling of a writer and a teacher, but in a larger classroom than any institution has to offer.

And so that set me out on an independent career writing. I’m 83 now. I’ve published 10 books and founded a nonprofit called the center for courage and renewal, which for the past 25 years has been working with a kind of public code, I guess that represents a lot of what I learned as an organizer and through my experiences, living in community with other people and all of the complexities that come with that. And as you know, Greg, I’ve written about a variety of things, education, democracy, social change, leadership, spirituality, community, always wanting, you know, the freedom to explore where I felt led to explore and learning, as time went by that even in those years when I couldn’t make a living by writing, I made a living by traveling around the country and speaking to people, who’d read something and wanted to hear more. So universities, medical school professional associations, foundations, religious communities, and community organizations. It’s been a very rich, rich journey across a wide variety of institutions, but better than that, a very wide array of people. And I’m enormously grateful for that and just glad to share with folks and continue to learn for myself whatever it is we can figure out about this crucial, crucial subject of understanding each other.

Greg McKeown (07:26):

Here you are, you’ve spent a lifetime, not just trying to improve your own ability to do that, to upgrade your own ability, to hear, you know, that voice of conscience within you, but then also to be able to hear that interpersonal voice of conscience, something like that, where you can actually bridge these divides and connect with other people and really communicate heart to heart. And, and somehow beyond the symbols of words and language, but also have been instrumental in codifying that process and teaching it to other people. And I wonder as you think about all of that experience, is there a story that comes to mind that just captures or names, you know, what that has been like, what happens when people start to be able to hear each other more deeply and understand each other more deeply?

Parker Palmer (08:34):

Yes, there is. More than a few. So I’m going to try to pick one that seems representative of the larger scope of the work.

Greg McKeown (08:44):


Parker Palmer (08:45):

So a little bit of context. In the early nineties, I established a nonprofit called The Center for Courage and Renewal, and we now have maybe 400 facilitators in this country and around the globe teaching what we call the circle of trust process. As that name suggests, this isn’t aimed simply at individuals, but it’s aimed at individuals in the community. And for us, a circle of trust is typically 25 people, often from the same profession, but not always, sometimes people from many different walks of life, but in the professional world, we’ve worked intensely with physicians K through 12 teachers, college and professors, administrators, healthcare workers across a, a range, religious leaders, social change, activists, and so forth. The idea we often talk about these circles of trust, which are always facilitated and always more than a one-off, that is we do not just a day or a weekend, but we will do a series of weekends over a year or two years with the same cohort of folks so that they have a chance to deeply, not only into their own inner journeys but also into the experience of community at a level and a depth that, you know, very few people in America anyway, have ever experienced.

And the kind of, I guess, philosophical underpinning of this is pretty simple, and that is, each of us has a voice of truth within ourselves that we need to learn to pay attention to. If you think about education in this country, there’s not much emphasis on finding truth within yourself. There’s a lot of emphasis on finding it from expert opinion or textbooks or whatever, but to look within for that voice of truth that every person has seems to us critically important. There’s also a very important source of truth insight leading that lies between us. It’s relational truth based on relational trust. So we understand our circles of trust to be ways of being alone together or in solitude in community. And it’s an amazing and remarkable dance that we do where people have a chance to speak into the center of the circle, which we understand is a safe space made safe by a community, which agrees to a few basic operating principles.

One of which is no fixing, no saving, no advising, and no correcting each other as you were alluding to earlier. So often, when someone comes to me, you know, asking for help in figuring out a life issue, I’ll listen for a few minutes, and then I’ll start giving advice, or I’ll tell them how they ought to look at it, or I’ll suggest that this worked for me. I’m sure it will work for you. And that actually does make a person feel unheard, alienated, and there’s this great hunger, not only in the U.S. but around the world for people to feel seen and heard. It’s just one of the basic human needs that is rarely met. So in these circles of trust, we begin by saying, let us create a safe space where anyone can say anything they regard as true into the circle.

Or, and we, you know, we guide the discussion, we shape it around a text or a poem or a work of art, or some way of, you know, of carrying a river along rather than letting it just flood all the fields around it. So you can say anything you want into the center of that circle that you feel comes from deep inside you, but at the same time, as you have the safety of not being fixed, saved, corrected, or advised, you’re also listening to other people lay their truth alongside you. And a group like that starts to weave what I think of as a tapestry of truth where people are saying, huh, that’s interesting. The experience that person shared, I would’ve looked at a different way in my own life. What does that do anything to my journey? A little more deeply.

There’s a lot of sort of silent communication going on. And when it comes to direct communication between people, we teach the use of honest open questions. Now it sounds easy, but it isn’t because most of us are very skilled at asking questions that are really little speeches in disguise. My favorite example is, have you thought about seeing a therapist is not an honest, open question. But if I ask, if you tell me an issue in your life and I ask, has anything like this ever happened to you before? I have no way of knowing what the right answer is to that. And it gives you a chance, an honest open question gives you a chance, to reflect back on your own journey and find something that might shed light on the current moment. So if something like that has happened to you before, do you recall anything you learned at that time that might help be helpful in the present moment?

The honest open questions can just go on and on once you get the hang of them and they involve what I think of as a really important skill, which is learning to hear each other into speech, hear each other into deeper and deeper speech that doesn’t happen when we feel that we’re in a conversation where we either have to prove a point or prove ourselves, right? That becomes kind of, at a subtle level, adversarial. It’s like, no, wait, let me explain myself more fully. But with an honest, open question, I’m given a chance to reach deeper in myself for what the response might be. And all of that in our circles of trust is sort of contexted in a respect for silence so that the air doesn’t have to constantly be filled with Q and A, you know, speech, speech, speech, but there’s this rhythm.

And that takes me to the story I wanted to tell. So maybe 10 years ago, I’m facilitating a circle of 25 physicians. All of whom are, as you well know, hard-pressed in the healthcare organizations they work for. We’re actually in a session where we are considering the topic of death and how we hold the experience of death, the reality of death, because daily healthcare professionals are asked to do that, but rarely are they given a chance to explore it, which is cruel really. Unimaginably heavy. So we’re exploring this, this fundamental issue in life and in their work. And after a moment of silence of reflection on something somebody just said, a physician speaks up, and he says, “You know, I work in a healthcare system that has me on the edge of violating my Hippocratic oath two or three times a week.”

And in normal conversation, someone would jump on that and they would say, “Oh, it happens to me too.” Or, “Well, here’s what we did to fix that up.” But in the circle of trust, people allow silence to fall so that folks can hear what’s just been said. And more important, the speaker can hear what he’s just said. I have this notion that one of the most fundamental concepts in our society is that just because we’ve said something, we understand what it means. And that’s often not the case. So this fellow had 30, 45 seconds of silence to absorb what he had just said, that he’s on the edge of violating his oath two or three times a week. And then he speaks again. He says, “You know, that’s the first time I’ve ever said that to a group of professional peers.” Everybody’s silent again because people are sitting there recognizing that’s, this is just something we don’t talk about.

We don’t, we may complain about the rules, but we don’t make that honest statement of the soul that I’m in danger because I’m constantly on the edge of violating my oath. And incidentally, so are my patients. Another period of silence, and this physician speaks for a third time. He said, “The truth is that’s the first time I’ve ever said that to myself.” Now at that moment, Greg, I felt like I was witnessing the fruits of a lot of time, effort, and energy put into crafting these circle of trust vehicles to help people go deeper in themselves and with each other about some of the most fundamental issues in life. He had had a chance to speak his own truth, not just in his closet or scream it, you know, out in the wilderness. Or, just say it to a therapist, but to a group of peers.

And I thought this guy is now on the cusp of a real dilemma. What does he do with what he has just heard from deep inside himself? Does he try to get the toothpaste back in the tube? You can’t do that. It came from within him. Will he go home and try to do something with this truth that he has now enunciated so clearly and powerfully? And that’s what he did. He went home over a period of the next six months, having realized in this circle that other physicians often felt the same way. He gathered some trusted friends and docs in his hospital, and together they petitioned the administration successfully to create a penalty-free zone for the reporting of medical errors. Which of course brings the whole system closer to the Hippocratic Oath because medical errors, which generally go tucked away, hidden away, not talked about, are responsible for the very high rate of iatrogenic illness in hospital deaths, probably six or seventh leading cause of death in the United States. And so they built on this guy’s moment of self-revelation, which could, could have only happened in the kind of safe space community of solitudes being alone together that I’ve described. And it manifested in concrete and meaningful, effective organizational change. So I treasure that story as an example of what can happen when we not only hold ourselves differently in terms of truth-telling but we are held differently in terms of truth-telling by a group of people, a circle of trust.

Greg McKeown (21:20):

So much in that story. I want to first go back to something that you said early on. You said it’s rare that it’s ever experienced. And that really caught my attention because as I’ve been thinking about this over what is probably now maybe 25 years, my observation is that this need to be deeply heard, deeply seen to have that space, to be able to express, and then not be interrupted and to open up again and to go layer after layer. It’s like, I now think it is not rarely met. It is almost literally never met. And I could sense, even in that small phrase, your lifetime of experience with this, but I wonder if you could speak to that, which is it? Is it rarely? Is it almost never? Talk to me about that.

Parker Palmer (22:25):

Well, I’ll tell you this. After 25 years of doing circles of trust with thousands of people, when they have an experience of the sort I’ve just described, which happens in almost every retreat, and it happens for more than one person, I have always asked people when was the last time, something like that happened to you. And almost always, the answer is I’ve never had an experience like that in my life. And when we’ve talked about this, you can pretty easily identify a whole lot of other kinds of conversations and gatherings, whether it’s one on one or larger numbers, that don’t come anywhere near the experience that you and I are talking about here of truly being seen, truly being heard. And again, I wanna say most fundamental of all, having a chance to see and hear yourself because you are held in this kind of charismatic experience where you’re looking at yourself and listening to yourself from different angles. And something new starts to happen, not only within us but between us in the relationship and the relational trust. That is so key to everything. So I guess my answer would be not, not hardly ever.

Greg McKeown (23:57):

Yes. Let’s just stay with that for a second. What, from your point of view, is the cost of that to the individual, to families, to businesses, to society, like what is the cost of having this deep need routinely continually, perpetually not met?

Parker Palmer (24:24):

Well, I can give you a nutshell on that pretty quickly. It’s humongous; the cost is to individuals and to institutions. It’s humongous. In the following sense, Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” And we’ve got millions and millions of people walking around with unexamined lives because there aren’t any opportunities to examine them in the way we’re talking about. And when I got old enough, I’m 83 now, but I think it was when I was 70, I figured I’m old enough to amend Socrates. So I came up with Palmer’s first amendment to Socrates as dictum, which goes like this. If you choose to live an unexamined life, please do not take a job that involves other people.

Greg McKeown (25:15):

I like it

Parker Palmer (25:18):

Because as we were touching on earlier, Greg, my capacity to understand another person begins with my capacity to understand myself. If I haven’t worked away at that inward journey of self-understanding of the examined life, whatever you call, how in heaven’s name can I possibly discern anything deep and, and human being can’t even do it for myself?

Greg McKeown (25:49):

There’s a lot of places I want to go with that. The conversation we’re already building here, but the place that has energy, I would say in you, is this relationship between understanding self and understanding each other. And I think what I really hear in you is not that they’re just interrelated, but I think what I hear from you is that you cannot understand yourself without somehow creating space between people to communicate and be heard. Like one way to think about understanding self versus understanding other people is there’s two separate processes. I go into the closet myself. I come out understanding me. I am a new person, and now I can communicate with other people, you know, very separate. Another is really overlapping ven diagram.

Parker Palmer (26:48):


Greg McKeown (26:49):

And that’s the version you are saying you’ve experienced. That’s what you’ve learned from these thousands of people. These endless circle of trust experiences is that it cannot happen. That people will understand themselves without being in this kind of exchange with others. Am I overstating the point?

Parker Palmer (27:07):

Not at all, Greg. And I appreciate you putting a fine point to it exactly the way you did. There’s this great fallacy regarding understanding ourselves. That’s something we can do all by ourselves. And we can’t. We are for one very, very simple reason. You and I talk, out of experience, about an inner voice of conscience or an inner voice of truth or an inner voice of guidance. But we have a lot of inner voices. We have voices of greed. We have voices of fear. We have voices of anger. We have voices of jealousy alongside these voices that you and I would applaud. People have, I mean, I have a very hard time discerning which voice I’m listening to. It may be determined in part by the headline I read this morning that has made me raging angry about this or that.

And now I’m listening to that voice of anger, which always behind it has a voice of fear. And if I go into my closet and that’s what I feel, and that’s what I come out with, the results will not be tasty. But if I’m able to find another person or persons, or ultimately something like a circle of trust, and it doesn’t take 25 people to make a circle of trust, I have that experience with, you know, one or two or three good friends who understand these kind of basic ground rules about keeping safe space between us, who don’t quickly jump to the conclusion that they understand me. Exactly. And now they’re going to give me good advice on what to do because that’s just not true. That is not possible. That’s like the friend who’s just suffered a terrible loss in his or her life.

And you say, I know exactly how you feel, and that friend wants to run screaming into the woods because no, you don’t know exactly. So if we start with the assumption that there’s a paradox involved in understanding ourselves, and it’s the paradox of solitude and community simultaneously overlapped in a Venn diagram. And then we do some thinking about what are the ground rules within that space that will keep the space safe for vulnerable expressions of truth. As that doctor in my story indicated, it’s very vulnerable for a doc to say in front of other docs, I’m skating on the thin edge of unprofessional behavior, violating my oath several times a week. That’s risky stuff. And in our culture, unfortunately, when we approach risk, we back off because hardly ever, if ever, are the ground rules for safety established. We are in surfacey conversations.

 We are in adversarial conversations. You know, we are in informational conversations. Sometimes we are in legitimate intellectual debate conversations. All of that is good and worthy, and we need all of it, but we are never, or rarely, in conversations that involve a safe space for vulnerable expression, where I’m not trying to prove anything to you. I’m not trying to sell anything to you. I’m trying to understand myself. And you’re giving me the grace of not trying to save me or fix me and of asking me honest, open questions to hear me into deeper speech. Slowly, slowly, I can then begin to discern the difference between the voice of anger and the voice of life, giving creativity in me. And that’s what every collective enterprise in this world needs. I’ve done retreats, circle of trust retreats for politicians, for members of the U.S. Congress. And they’ve always said, you know, we can’t get anywhere near this, on the floor of the house or the Senate, but we need to do more of this in our own lives to help us keep our eye on our own north stars. So, yeah, I think this is a really important piece of what social invention we need to invent more spaces where it feels safe to express vulnerable truth.

Greg McKeown (31:52):

I was reflecting just in the last week. There’s a hotel not far from an event that I did, and it was called The Talking Stick Hotel, you know, from the Native American practice of, you can only speak if you are holding the stick. And so there’s some order to the conversation. And I mean, I think it is an example of what you are saying about solitude in community, about a way to be able to manage that. And, and I remember that Stephen Covey once said that he believed, I don’t know, that there’s any evidence. I don’t know why he believed that they had taught this to the founding fathers. And what I believe is that the United States as a country not, would not exist, but could not exist if those original members had not found some way to be able to understand each other.

And of course, it looked like the things you’ve just said; sometimes, it was informational. Sometimes it was intellectual debates. Sometimes it was adversarial, of course. I mean, I’m not trying to look at it through rose-tinted glasses, but somehow it also went beyond that to be able to create something that was different and better than, you know, each of them, maybe individually would’ve expected. And it’s hopeful to hear of the meetings that you’ve had with politicians. I see it as a material risk to the democracy itself if people cannot learn how to understand each other beyond the surface and the polarization. Am I exaggerating the concern? What’s your view?

Parker Palmer (33:37):

I don’t think you’re exaggerating it at all. I think it’s a very serious concern, just as you phrased it. I mean, the whole premise of the American operation is we, the people, right? We can talk about the mix of the democratic structures within the Republic. All of that is interesting. All of that is important, worth understanding, but when push comes to shove, it’s we, the people, who are supposed to be running this show, and I think it’s fair to say at the moment that in no meaningful way do we, the people exist in the United States of America. And I’m not romantic either as an old community organizer. I certainly have no illusions about, wouldn’t it be nice if everybody got along? Everybody won’t get along, but we have fallen far right now from the sort of minimal expectation that we will take time and put energy into listening deeply to one another without reverting instantly to, “No, you’re wrong. And here’s what’s right.” Or worse still, “You’re evil, and here’s what’s good and true.”

We have to approach this whole situation in a different way. In one of the pieces of writing I did about democracy back in 2011 or so proposed that we stopped talking about the politics of rage and start talking about the politics of the broken-hearted because I felt that a lot of the surface manifestation of rage was about all of the heartbreak over losses that people were experiencing. The most obvious of which is the loss of economic stability. You know, the loss of reasonably easy access to middle-class status for lots and lots of Americans. As any doc knows, you can’t just treat the symptoms. You have to treat the underlying disease, and it seemed to me that an underlying disease in our body politic was the heartbreak at the heart of so much American experience. And, of course, since that time, it has just multiplied its manifested itself in some really, really dangerous ways. And we have yet to crack the code about how to penetrate through all of that. Well, you know, how to get through the hurricane that’s ripping us apart.

Greg McKeown (36:11):

Well, and I, I think, I mean, there’s a couple of thoughts I have here. The phrase safe spaces, which you’ve used multiple times, and I wonder whether that phrase as to some extent, becomes used as a counterfeit for what you are describing, right? Because the way you are describing it is a place to communicate.

Parker Palmer (36:34):


Greg McKeown (36:35):

To be heard, not a place where you’re not allowed to say certain things, which is, I think how a caricature of it sometimes exists. And not that you have to change this for my sake, but, but I wonder if there’s a different term that actually names what you are describing that distinguishes it from this other caricature. It’s almost like a truth space or, I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s a better phrase, but that’s the one that comes to mind because it’s all about actually hearing what could be hard to hear. What you’d normally jump in with an opinion about and all these other reactions and defensiveness habits that we have in communication, you are saying, oh, it’s exactly the opposite of that. This is a place so you, everyone, can talk.

Parker Palmer (37:26):

No, again, you’re right on as far as I’m concerned, Greg. You know, I think this is one of the unfortunate products of the state of academic discourse these days. That the safe space has been defined as a space where we will guarantee you that you won’t hear anything upsetting or trauma-inducing or painful or hurtful in any shape, form or fashion. My personal opinion is I understand trauma. I work with people who have experienced trauma. But in higher education, I think a rule like that shuts down the whole challenge of exposing all of us to stuff that we haven’t thought about before, or haven’t heard before, or that challenges are taken for granted assumptions. That’s what education is supposed to be about. So in our kind of safe space, and I would be fine with the phrase, truth-telling space or something like that.

In our kind of safe space, we don’t guarantee that you won’t hear anything upsetting or challenging. What we guarantee is that you will be at complete liberty to express that which is most vulnerable in you without fear of critique or put down or marginalization, but with a promise that you will be listened to and heard into deeper and deeper speech. And here’s the thing that interests me, Greg, people have been, you know, over the years have been, have kinda wondered about that rule. Is that really the experience I’m going to have? Because I’ve been conned a lot of time, you know, but it’s safe to speak here. And then they chop my head off. We do this in a way. And we take the year and a half or two years to train facilitators because this is tricky work.

 And I’ve always said, look, we’re putting out a promissory note that this space will be safe for your soul. And that is a sacred responsibility. And we have to know exactly what we’re doing in order to deliver on that promissory note. So, you know, we train facilitators to hold the space in a way. And that comes as close as humanly possible to guaranteeing the kind of safety of vulnerable expression that I’m talking about. And by the end of the first evening, people are saying; I get this. And I understand that I have a role in helping keep the space safe, and this it’s amazing, and it’s absolutely refreshing. And it doesn’t take a lot of fancy tricks to get there. It’s pretty simple stuff. Invite people to tell life stories, learn to listen to those stories respectfully, ask honest, open questions to help them tell more of that life story if they wish, etcetera, etcetera. I wrote a book about this called A Hidden Wholeness. So folks who are interested in more detail will find it there, but I like your distinction a lot.

Greg McKeown (40:40):

Let’s take a pause on this conversation here. There is so much wisdom that will continue for part two on Thursday. So for everybody listening out there, thank you really for listening. Extend your experience by signing up for the 1-minute Wednesday newsletter. And if you have found value in this episode with Parker Palmer, please write a review on Apple Podcasts. First, five people to write a review of this episode will receive a signed copy of the New York Times. Bestseller, Effortless. Just send a photo of your review with your name and address to info@gregmckeown.com. Also, remember to subscribe to this podcast right now so that you can receive the next episode. They come out every Tuesday and Thursday. So I’ll see you next time for more wisdom from Parker Palmer as this conversation continues.