This is part of an ongoing series where I explore and share my story and experiences with masculinity. These will be a mixture of sharing stories and frameworks, with the intention of transparency and clarity.
As I began to venture into Men’s Work, I was met with both intense appreciation from women and personal confusion from within myself. I didn’t know what it meant to “be a man”, and I still don’t think I have it figured out.
What I had is a skillset and passion for facilitating, familiarity with psychological and archetypal frameworks, and a desire to apply those skills in service of what I saw to be difficult and important conversations.
When I started out, my wife, who has a passion for women’s fertility and womb work, was curious about how they were going and clearly had an idea of what she thought they ought to look like.
She asked, understandably, “Do you use the space to talk about your feelings?” I remember hearing the question and responding, “That sounds more like a women’s circle than a men’s circle”. She was somewhat speechless, but she knew there was truth to the underlying idea:
Men’s work, by its nature, has to be very different from women’s work.
It’s not that we shy away from emotions. It’s not about them though.
The intention of the men’s circles I did, over the course of roughly 6 months, was to provide a space for us to have difficult conversations, to mess up, hold each other accountable, and not be afraid that we will be canceled or crucified when we make mistakes.
From my viewpoint, we avoid having really challenging conversations, and we need low-risk environments to have them in.
We talked about masculinity, feminism, men's rights movements, potential, responsibility, sexuality, money, pornography, and more. Some weeks no one showed up, some weeks the space was filled with an abundance of masculine energy.
In contrast with the typical new age sharing circle, these were sharper, edgier, and sometimes required you to be assertive in order to be heard. It pushed - and sometimes crossed - my limits as a facilitator. Managing the vision and intention with what came alive within the conversation was a constant balancing act.
Two circles stand out from this time.
“Masculinity is Not Toxic”
This one was a full house. We had 10 guys in a small room, and we were discussing a video featuring Dr. Jordan Peterson, with the title, “Masculinity is Not Toxic”. We had 90 minutes to dig in, we had a timer for the group shares, and I had to enforce many of the rules I introduced. The opening shares were intended to be personal life reflections and not responded to. One man pushed this boundary, and I enforced the rule. He never came back.
When it came to the open dialogue, things escalated. Men were talking over each other, not hearing each other, and projecting their own stuff onto pretty much everything the other men said. When the conversation was going, it rarely stayed about the topic at hand without me having to reframe and reset the context of the conversation.
It was a lesson in capacity, clarity, and direction. I left wondering if that was useful for anyone, if we got anywhere in the conversation, and if I had what it took to facilitate men’s work.
I kept at it though. I enforced a cap of 8 men, and I required a $10 donation for coming. This was the beginning of the end. It seems that enforcing rules and asking for compensation meant that attendance would suffer.
The Problem of Potential
The other circle that stood out was a moving and impactful conversation for everyone involved, although there were just 4 of us. I introduced the idea of responsibility and asked a simple open-ended question to open the dialogue.
“What are you responsible for?”
One man responded that he is responsible for his children, one man his work and relationships, and the last man shared something that surprised me: he felt a sense of responsibility for actualizing his purpose and living up to his potential. This one really intrigued me, and I could feel the aliveness light up the room.
I leaned in and offered some direction for the conversation.
“Are you responsible for actualizing your potential?”
This one took a journey. One man shared his story with the word “potential”. His dad always talked about his potential, but it never felt like it was something he cared about, so the word “potential” became tainted, even triggering. He only ever heard about his potential when his dad thought he wasn't living up to it.
The other men explored the prompt a bit and we seemed to arrive at some consensus, that, yes, actualizing our potential is part of our responsibility as men.
I shared a quote from the pioneering developmental psychologist, Abraham Maslow, “What a man can be, he must be”.
This was far enough for most of us, but we had time left and we were already somewhere really deep. I wanted to see how deep we could go.
(Side Note: To me, this is why a skilled facilitator and enforced rules are so useful. If you place and enforce barriers to the conversation, it has no choice but to go deeper, and not sideways. Staying in the depth and seeing how deep it can go is why I love facilitating)
“To what extent is it our responsibility to hold other men accountable to their potential?”
Here is where the continuity fell apart, but we did seem to agree on a couple of things. First, we can hold other men accountable to the extent their actions impact us. If we are in business together or some other strategic partnership, we are responsible for making sure the other man is doing what he needs to be doing, in multiple aspects of life.
We couldn’t quite find the line there. We agreed that, if the other man is not open to that, it is right and justified to end the partnership or look for a way to reduce the impact.
After, I asked the men what they would take from the conversation. Even though none of them could quite put their finger on it, each of them shared something like, “I feel different having been a participant in this conversation.”
What I Learned
One thing that became clear very quickly is how different men's circles are from any other kind of circle I had been a part of. In mixed circles, there is often an absence of leadership, surrendering to an interpersonal process and prioritizing everyone getting a chance to be seen and heard. Men's circles have direction and a goal in mind. This is about more than sharing. This is about getting somewhere.
I became acutely aware of masculine power dynamics at play in groups. If there is a leadership vacuum in a men's circle, someone will try to assume the alpha role. Men can't help but jockey for position amongst each other and test the capacity of the leader to lead.
Someone has to be in charge.
The more obvious it is who is in charge, the more everyone can relax.