I attended an unusual event over the weekend. Nic Askew, the educator and filmmaker I had the pleasure of working with on my The Space We Need video (below), invited me to a gathering of about 30 people.

I felt privileged.

Nic is a brilliant and unique artist. His mind and profound comments always catch me a little off guard — and that’s refreshing. I enjoy the jolt to my rutted thinking — even if my reaction sometimes resembles a deer in the headlights.

He’s filmed such noted people as Seth Godin and Mike Dooley as well as murderers and high-profile musicians. If you are not familiar with his work check him out here, nicaskew.com.

An intriguing facet of Nic’s method and artistry is his ability to get to the essence of his human subject. He doesn’t lead his guests or encourage them to tell their life story but somehow their humanity surfaces in a way that resonates with poignant clarity. He calls this process his inner view method. Perfect.

We love the inner view, yes?

When we don’t have expectations

The purpose of the gathering last weekend was not spelled out. There was no real structure for the event but we all left with a new perspective and appreciation for human witnessing.

I sat in front of the camera again but only for a few minutes and I didn’t talk at all. The rest of the group just looked at my black and white image on a big TV screen. Others did the same non-verbal sitting, but a couple of women sat for longer in front of the camera while sharing personal thoughts.

The camera and focus made everyone seem beautiful in an organic way. Everyone’s eyes gleamed. All the imperfect features: wrinkles, stray hairs, uneven teeth, seemed strikingly natural and attractive.

None of us needed anything from the lens’ subjects. We just noticed them.

No response?

After a turn in front of the camera, each person quietly returned to their seat without any comments or discussion.

There was no comforting, validating or high-fiving anyone about their time in front of the camera. Just witnessing without expectation or judgment.

I recalled my therapist saying that in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings everyone goes around sharing their stories but no one commiserates or empathizes with the speaker while they are speaking or when they are done. It simply becomes the next person’s turn. They don’t even offer a tissue if someone gets upset and cries during their turn. The Kleenex box is in the middle of the room and if needed, the individual gets up and gets one for him or herself.

In my writing group, which I have been a part of for nine years, we also do a lot of intimate sharing without an over-abundance of validating or comforting. There is definitely verbal empathizing and the occasional hand squeeze or hug, but overall we keep it to listening and witnessing.

Giving power not comfort

My writing group is my safest and most trusted environment. I feel the most accepted and empowered in that group.

As a coach, I often feel the need to advise, comfort and validate my clients. To be honest, I do sometimes, but perhaps allowing them to share with me without any judging or expectations is the most valuable service I offer. When I don’t rescue them. I let them find their own power.

Being that present with someone is like water to a dying flower. It’s like love. I know. I’ve felt it myself.

Time magic

One interesting side note about the experience of witnessing, is the way it makes time melt. The three-hour session with Nic Askew flew by. I’ve been in a state of flow before and this definitely felt like flow, but it was astonishing how quickly the time went by. A similar feeling occurs at my writing group meetings. Wild!

Have you had the pleasure of being witnessed without judgment? Have you witnessed someone else? What did that kind of paying attention feel like? 

If you want to help Nic Askew with his latest project, Soul of America, click here to donate.

I did!