What an Interesting Question! : John Borstel and Liz Lerman on the Critical Response Process

(Editor’s note: Another reflective post from our 2014 Summer Institute Communications Work/Study, India Harville, on her experience of the Institute and the inquiry that remains alive after the dust has settled. You can read previous reflections on the Institute here and here. Stay tuned for even more reflections to come! –Amanda Newman)

Leading a group of 40 people from very different walks of life with very different backgrounds with dance through a 10 day workshop focused on using the arts to address racial equity can be challenging.  Many of us had opinions about how the Summer Institute was progressing after the first few days–I know I did!  So when John Borstel and Liz Lerman joined us to explain the Critical Response Process (CRP) to us and allowed us to practice it, it was incredibly powerful for me.

The Critical Response Process is a way to give and receive highly productive feedback on any number of things someone creates–a cake, a piece of art, a particular action or statement, etc. It includes four basic steps:

  1. Statements of meaning – what was powerful, evocative, or meaningful to the responders about what was shared?
  2. The “maker” of the thing being assessed asks a question or questions that they are most interested in directing the conversation towards.
  3. The responders ask neutral questions – even if they have an opinion, they find a way to shape it into a neutral question.
  4. The responders give permissioned opinions.

John led us through an exploration of the Dance Exchange space where we got to share criticisms about the Dance Exchange studio.  He wanted us to feel the change in the energy of the room when we unleashed our opinions.  It really did make the room feel heavy and stifled.

Then we practiced trying to shift our opinion to a neutral question.  For example instead of saying, “Who decided this was a good look for the ceiling?” (which is a question but clearly implies a dislike of the ceiling), we tried questions like “Why did you chose the materials you chose for the ceiling?” This is no easy task for the questioner!  But it does make a space for the maker to feel really comfortable answering the question without feeling defensive.  Also, I noticed that neutral questions lend themselves to deep discovery in a way that opinion-based questions seldom do because people are willing to share so much more information if they do not feel personally attacked.

Photo by Jessica Hale

In a guest appearance later in the week, Liz Lerman helped us continue our exploration of the CRP. She discussed the ways in which our opinions tend to reflect our personal biases and offered CRP strategies for offering feedback without imposing our biases on the artist.  Immediately, these strategies helped me sit differently with my critique of the workshop and helped me to question the role of my biases in how I was looking at things.  It was so useful to be reminded that I could be just as self-reflective as I was externally reflective.

The energy in the Summer Institute seemed to shift from a frenzy of opinions on how the Institute should be different, to reflecting on why we felt that way in the first place.  It felt like a collective breath and a directional shift in the Institute to me.

Liz went on to share that when she receives critiques, even unsolicited and difficult critiques in the form of opinions, she responds by thinking to herself or saying out loud “What an interesting question!”  She mentioned an example of being in Japan and having a man yelling at her that her influence was unwelcomed and unwanted.  Her ability to hear that as a neutral question even though it clearly was not presented that way opened up the space for a very rich dialogue to take place.

Liz asked us to think about how we could apply the CRP in our own work at home, and I am interested in a couple of ideas and areas of inquiry.

  1. How might the critical response process be applied to a social construct like “race”?  Could we use the process to try to get to our neutral questions?  Who could stand in as the “maker” for the sake of the process? Is it necessary to have the maker represented? Would doing the CRP prove useful?
  2. Are there times in racial justice work (or in other arenas as well) where neutral questions do not serve? For example, if people of color have critique of how racism is being recreated in a group dynamic – does it serve to come from neutral or does having a positionality (and/or an opinion) serve?  Do they each serve at different times?  How do we know which one is important when?
  3. What are the cultural assumptions inside of the CRP?  Does the rigor of the process have the capacity to transcend those assumptions?  Does it need to?

John Borstel and Liz Lerman gave such an amazing overview on the CRP, and I am still having new insights on its implications and applications.


About India Harville

India Harville is a dancer/dance instructor, somatic practitioner, diversity educator, mediator and activist dedicated to facilitating people in personal and collective healing and transformation.

India has been committed to social justice and community organizing for over fifteen years. She has helped create diversity centers, diversity education curricula, and has taught workshops and graduate course on diversity.

Her eclectic resource bag draws from Dancing Freedom, NIA, Process Work, Theater for Change, Nonviolent Communication, Generative Somatics, and Rosen Method Bodywork.

India likes to incorporate drama therapy exercises, movement, dance, voice/singing, breathing and centering practices into her workshops as she is committed to encouraging her participants to be deeply present.

She holds a BA in health psychology from New College of Florida and a MA in Integrative Medicine from the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS).

India lives in Berkeley California where she manages a mixed ability fitness studio, teaches dance classes, and runs a healing arts collective for people of color healing from internalized racism called The Movement.