Tag Archives: Lee Mun Wah

Group process from a diversity lens: The car repair

By Lee Mun Wah April 24, 2014

This vignette and those to follow in the coming months are actual situations that have occurred in my diversity workshops. They will include my thoughts/rationale and the interventions I used, as well as questions for the facilitator, group/dyad exercises and a summary that helps to place the event in a larger societal context. All the vignettes are adapted from my diversity training manual, The Art of Mindful Facilitation. In each article, I will also include an example of the presenting workshop issue related to the vignette — in this month’s case, the issue of shame.

This is an interactive process, so I ask that readers follow the steps below in their suggested order to better serve the purpose of these articles.

1) Watch this short video clip:



2) Return to this article and read the description of the vignette.

3) Answer the “practice process questions” following the description of the vignette.

4) Before reading further, write your own intervention.

5) After writing your intervention, read the remainder of the article, which includes my thoughts, the intervention I used and a summary.

6) Optional: Read the corresponding workshop issue(s) from The Art of Mindful Facilitation.

For an introduction to this series, read “Group process from a diversity lens” in the April issue of Counseling Today.


I asked a small group of about eight people if any of them had personal stories about racism that they had kept secret. A young African American woman, Jennifer, raised her hand. She shared how she went to an auto repair shop with one of her female co-workers, Leslie (who was also participating in the diversity workshop), because her car needed repairs. When they got there, the head of the shop talked only to Leslie, who was white, about the car. Jennifer felt very hurt car_repairby the white male mechanic ignoring her, as well as by Leslie not saying anything to object. Jennifer said, “So many times I feel like I don’t count, or as if I’m just the dumb black girl … and I just feel powerless sometimes.”

An older African American woman, Linda, and another older African American man, Thomas, yelled at Jennifer for not being assertive enough. Linda said, “Don’t let white men or any man talk to you like that! Every black woman has to show up for herself. … Is she (referring to Leslie) paying the car note? Why didn’t you ask him that? … Step forward, sister, and you run your own business. … You think she (again referring to Leslie) cares about you?”

Leslie protested under her breath, “I do care about Jennifer! … I was just trying to be nice.”

Looking down and afraid, Jennifer said, “I know, and she was just trying to be helpful. I didn’t think the person (the mechanic) was doing it on purpose. It was just …”

Jennifer faltered, appearing as if she were going to break down. The silence in the room was deafening.

Practice process questions for the facilitator

1) What came up for you in reading this vignette?

2) What are some of the key words or phrases to focus on?

3) Why do you think the mechanic ignored Jennifer?

4) Why do you think Leslie didn’t say anything to the mechanic?

5) What did Jennifer need from Leslie? Why?

6) What is familiar about this scenario?

7) Why do you think Linda and Thomas were so angry with Jennifer?

8) What does Jennifer need in this situation? Why?

9) Who would you work with first? Why?

10) How would you work with the rest of the group?

11) What is not being said here?

12) What is difficult about this scenario? Why?

At this point, I suggest you write your own intervention before reading the remainder of this article.

My thoughts

This was not going to be an easy situation because of all the folks involved and the many emotions being expressed. Yet signs were everywhere that beginning with Linda was the obvious choice, though not the easiest. I often share with my trainers that when we are afraid, we need to go to the “eye of the storm” because that often is where everyone is focused. It is the elephant in the middle of room that can’t be ignored or avoided.

When I looked at Jennifer, I realized that she needed to express her anger and get back her own voice. However, because of the way Jennifer looked down, seemingly in shame, she was not in any shape to go deeper with Linda. I hesitated to work with Jennifer first because her demeanor showed me she was going further and further into herself.

If I worked with Leslie first, I would be duplicating what had happened at the repair shop — choosing the white person over the person of color. I didn’t choose Thomas for a similar reason — it would have represented another man taking over the conversation and possessing the power to choose and define the issue.

Intuitively, I sensed there was a link to be made between Linda and Jennifer. Perhaps a younger Linda was being reflected in the present-day Jennifer. It was the intensity of Linda’s response to Jennifer that told me something was still unfinished in her life. Perhaps Linda was still speaking to that anguish and loss in herself as well.

The task at hand was how to help Linda express that vulnerability in front of the group and with Jennifer. It would require slowly establishing a trusting relationship with both Linda and Jennifer, one that took into account their past histories and pain. I realized that I had a couple of important advantages, however. I am a person of color, and I am familiar with Jennifer’s experience. At the same time, I was close to Linda’s age. It was my hope that these factors might help me in bridging a relationship with Linda.

The intervention I used

I asked Linda what was familiar about what had happened to Jennifer. Linda talked about how she had struggled against racism in college and said that nobody had been there to help her, so she had been forced to learn how to be strong on her own. I then asked her what she thought she needed years ago. She said she wished someone had been there for her.

“What do you think Jennifer needs?” I asked.

Linda smiled. “Perhaps what I needed,” she said.

With that, Jennifer started crying. I told Linda to go over to Jennifer. “I think she needs you right now,” I said. They cried in each other’s arms.

So, you see, Linda wasn’t really yelling at Jennifer. She was yelling at all those folks back in college and the isolation she had felt in her life as a young black student in a mostly white environment. Jennifer’s experience brought Linda back to that place — the point of her departure where she started protecting herself and vowed never to let herself be that vulnerable again with whites.

In working with Jennifer, I encouraged her friend and co-worker Leslie to ask Jennifer what was familiar about what had happened at the repair shop. This empowered Jennifer and gave her a chance to deepen her relationship with Leslie — a relationship in which their ethnic differences and privileges had never been broached. This also provided Jennifer with an opportunity to be heard and understood as a woman of color. I also asked Jennifer to tell Leslie what she had needed from her when the situation with the mechanic occurred.

Group/dyad debrief

1) Who did you identify with in this situation?

2) Why do you think Jennifer didn’t react to Leslie at the car repair?

3) What was familiar about this incident?

4) What did you learn from this exchange?

Summary: The summary provides a way to create closure by identifying a larger societal context to what happened and also to share what is needed. It is also a time to acknowledge those who have shared. The facilitator presents this summary to the whole group.

“Sometimes what we hate in others is a reflection of what we hate in ourselves. We need to avoid shaming that part of ourselves that we see in others, while remembering to acknowledge those hurt and unfinished places within us.

“As you can see today, at any given moment we can get a second chance in life to give to others what we didn’t get. Just as parents get to give their children what they didn’t get, Linda got to go back into that place in her life that was unfinished. Only this time, by helping Jennifer, she was able to help and heal herself too.

“It is so easy here to take sides in situations like these. The real work is to support everyone to be heard and acknowledged.

“It’s also important when someone tells us their story of being hurt and victimized to remember to listen and ask questions in support of them, rather than distancing them with our judgments and blaming.”

Workshop issues

The presenting workshop issues in this vignette are shame and blame (pages 39 and 26, respectively, in The Art of Mindful Facilitation manual). It is very useful to include these issues and their interventions in your sessions. The following description of shame gives an example of the content and format of the workshop issues from the manual.

The definition of shame is a painful emotion caused by a strong sense of embarrassment, guilt, disgrace or unworthiness. The difference between shame and guilt is that often the individual feels like he or she is a shameful person, whereas an individual who feels guilty often feels it is because of a specific act or situation.

People who feel shame often look down or avert their eyes when talking about their experiences. Have them look up, not only to “face” those around them, but also to be seen, accepted and possibly forgiven.

Shame often “freezes” someone to the past and makes the person feel powerless. The work is to have that person relate what happened and how it affects him or her today. This gives the person’s shame a face and present-tense reality.

Suggested interventions 

1) When the person is finished sharing, have the group notice the impact of what happened to her or him. Allow plenty of time for silence and reflection.

2) When the person is finished talking, have the group members repeat back what they have heard.

3) Ask the group members if they have ever felt ashamed and didn’t want anyone to know about it. If they are willing, have them share their personal stories.

4) Have the group share how they feel about what they have heard and how they now feel about this person. In the cycle of shame, a main cause is the feeling of unworthiness. By having group members share how they feel about this person in a positive way, they offer acceptance and healing. By having the participant look up at the group, the cycle of personal shaming and isolation begins to be broken.

Group summary

We all have something of which we are ashamed or not proud. To go on with our lives, we need to take responsibility, forgive ourselves and others, and then try again.




Lee Mun Wah is a Chinese American documentary filmmaker, author, educator, community therapist and diversity trainer. For more information, including a link to his services and trainings, visit the StirFry Seminars & Consulting website at stirfryseminars.com.


Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org


Group process from a diversity lens

By Lee Mun Wah April 1, 2014

FacesAt the 2012 American Counseling Association Conference & Expo in San Francisco, Lee Mun Wah presented an education session titled “Let’s Get Real About Racism: Cultural Competency for Counselors.” The session was described this way: “Through guided questions, we will examine some of the fears and stereotypes that prevent us from having truly open, authentic conversations. We will explore what people of color can’t say and whites are afraid to ask, effectively and compassionately hearing the answers to these questions and developing ways to expand the conversation through curiosity, reflection and action. We will discover new ways to communicate, exploring what opens us up and what closes us down and, finally, looking at … ways to become culturally competent. You will learn effective cross-cultural communication and listening techniques and facilitation skills to adapt to a variety of diverse environments.”

Intrigued by the topic but unable to cover the session, Counseling Today invited Mun Wah to share his insights with a wider audience of ACA members by writing an article for the magazine. He offered a counterproposal: a series of vignettes focused on finding ways to create a sense of community within groups, particularly for those from diverse cultures. In addition, he offered to provide video clips from one of his training films that tie into the articles (the video that complements each article will be available on the CT Online website at ct.counseling.org).



My emotional marker

My life’s work over the past 25 years has been as a diversity trainer, community therapist and filmmaker. I have facilitated workshops and trainings in corporations, universities, government agencies, churches and social agencies for thousands of groups throughout this country and around the world. My work is predicated on my own experience of what it’s like to be a person of color in this country.

On Jan. 31, 1985, my mother was murdered by a young black man in an apparent robbery. The residue of that moment permeates almost every aspect of my work and my relationships. Whenever I think of events in my life, everything is categorized as either before her death or after. It has become an emotional marker for when my entire life took a dramatic turn into a life I could never have imagined or necessarily wanted.

When I returned to work after my mother’s death, the secretary in the principal’s office told me that the man (Anthony) who killed my mother had attended our school 15 years prior. He had been transferred to another school because he was caught gambling in the bathroom. He begged to stay at the school, but in those days the counselors didn’t know how to work with young black boys. So, they simply transferred him — passing him on so someone else might deal with him. And so, much like in the movie Crash, years later his life came crashing into our family’s, and all our lives were never the same again. I have often wondered how my life, my mother’s life and Anthony’s life might have changed if only someone had put an arm around Anthony and taken the time to truly get to know him, to truly care about him.

In retrospect, if my mother had not been murdered, I would never have become a diversity trainer. And so, I thank my mother for having given up her life so that I could find mine. And I thank Anthony for reminding us all that every child counts and has a story to share in his or her struggle to be happy and whole.

Still Asian

From the outset, much of my collegial training as a journalist, educator, counselor and filmmaker was from a Western perspective. As a consequence, who I was as a Chinese American man raised in the flatlands of Oakland, Calif., often seemed inappropriate and inadequate. I was never asked by any of my European American professors or supervisors how I would respond from an Asian perspective. In addition, I discovered that none of my ancestral or historical teachings and stories seemed useful or relevant to any of the case studies we read about or dealt with in the classroom or counseling sessions. In short, I was raised to become a surrogate white professional in every aspect of the word. However, there was always a drawback. No matter how many degrees I acquired or how many years of experience I accumulated, underneath, to my white colleagues, I was still an Asian man, with all the positive and negative stereotypes and assumptions that follow that particular identification.

In 1985, I started the first Asian men’s group to deal with issues of anger, racism and leadership. (I had no idea that years later, the American Psychological Association would honor me as a counseling pioneer in the field of diversity.) Unfortunately, after all these years, it is still the only Asian men’s group I am aware of dealing with these particular issues.

For more than 10 years, I facilitated two groups: an Asian men’s group and a multicultural men’s group. Each group met once a week for three hours, 50 weeks a year. In the process, I learned my trade from personal practice, not just from a book. I honed my skills using my Asian and Buddhist learning, and over time developed a technique I call “mindful facilitation.” By the end of 10 years, I knew this new way of facilitating was not only practical but also improved the emotional and social self-worth of all the participants in my groups. Together, we created a phenomenal sense of community, trust and safety to be ourselves in a white-dominated society.

Mindful facilitation

For the next several months, I will be offering a series of articles in Counseling Today that contain training vignettes from my book, The Art of Mindful Facilitation. The articles will not only give light to what is missing in the counseling profession, but will also explore alternative and culturally responsive counseling and facilitation techniques and perspectives.

One of the key aspects of mindful facilitation is noticing the intent and impact of our communications within the group process. Very early on in my education, I started observing how many times my white counselors missed what was happening in a multicultural group setting (particularly when it came to diversity issues) or, if they did see what was happening, opted to move on to the next person or topic. My sense is that their impetus to “move on” was often prompted by their fear of not knowing what to say or do. This limitation of experience and perspective is why I created The Art of Mindful Facilitation — to fill in the gaps of my “Western” therapeutic and educational training that avoided issues of diversity and cultural differences, particularly from relational, social, political and emotional perspectives.

So many of our Western models are not from a multicultural perspective but from a monocultural perspective that is often EuroAmerican, male, white, Christian, heterosexual, English speaking and middle or upper class. That is why this North American culture often confuses “celebrating our differences” with actually relating to or making use of our differences. In reality, I think we are not multicultural but rather multi-holidayed. We know almost nothing about the spirituality of most cultures and the people themselves. This loss to people of color, sexual minorities, women and so on is often exacted in terms of their emotional, social and professional self-esteem, relevance and safety. The goal of mindful facilitation is to give a voice to their journey and a face to their invisibility. To acknowledge that racism and sexism aren’t just what we see, hear or do, but also what we don’t see, don’t hear and don’t do.

Curiosity and compassion

So, how can we create a sense of community and safety when it comes to diversity issues? One essential ingredient is listening from a place of curiosity and compassion. In The Art of Mindful Facilitation, I provide more than 50 inquiries and statements that are helpful in creating a safe container when working with individuals and groups on diversity issues. What follows is a sampling of six inquiries and statements that I often use.

“What I heard you say was …” One of the fastest ways to de-escalate a conflict is to accurately reflect back what is being said. Though this may seem very elementary, it becomes more difficult when you’re being screamed at in a group or personally being challenged. It takes years of practice to be fully present and available when one is in the “eye of the storm.”

“Tell me more what you meant by …” I often call this the ideal first date statement. It exemplifies a curiosity about what has just been shared and offers an invitation to go deeper.

“What angered you about what happened?” Often anger is one of the emotions that is most feared in workplaces, groups and relationships. Someone once said that to tame a wild bull is to give it a wider field. Interesting, isn’t it? Most of the time we are taught that anger needs to be contained or sent down to human resources or the dean’s office. I think one of the major reasons we’re afraid of anger is that we’ve seldom had the opportunity to witness it being fully expressed, mediated and resolved.

But anger is more than just having the freedom to express it — it is also about being believed and understood. That is why when someone has expressed his or her anger, it is important to have folks repeat back what they have heard, to share whether they understood what the anger was all about and to move toward asking questions instead of being adversarial and/or defensive.

“What hurt you about what happened?” It is my belief that to get to the hurt, we must first be willing to hear the anger. As a therapist, I do not believe that anger is the primary emotion in most cases, but rather hurt. When our hurt is not acknowledged or validated, it becomes anger. So, the key here is acknowledging and validating the hurt.

“What’s familiar about what happened? How did that affect you, and how does it affect you today?” This is the “past tense” question and one that is often left out when discussing diversity issues. Yet it is one of the most important questions to ask because it can explain the intensity of the person’s anger and hurt. There are very few instances in which a victim of discrimination is validated and acknowledged by the perpetrator, therefore leaving a great many unfinished experiences and relationships.

“What do you need or want?” We often go to this question if we want to leave out all of the above. It is convenient and very male because it is a solution-oriented question, usually not implying an emotional need or desire. What I often find useful here is asking if they “believe” the other person will actually deliver or change if they do share what they need or want.

These and other listening and inquiry techniques and exercises that I will share in the coming months will help readers (potential group facilitators) to effectively utilize the accompanying vignettes. The vignettes themselves will reproduce actual situations that occurred in my workshops. The vignettes will include my thoughts/therapeutic rationale and the actual interventions I used, questions for the facilitator, group/dyad process questions and a link to its respective location in “The Art of Mindful Facilitation Training Film” (beginning with the May article, these clips will be available on the CT Online website at ct.counseling.org).

My hope is that these monthly diversity vignettes will demonstrate how mindful facilitation can widen not only the therapeutic lens, but our cultural lens as well. By noticing the cultural aspects of a communication and/or relationship and learning how to be culturally responsive, we deepen the conversation and the personal connection of all those involved.


Next month: The car repair


Lee Mun Wah is a Chinese American documentary filmmaker, author, educator, community therapist and diversity trainer. For more information, including a link to services and trainings, visit the StirFry Seminars & Consulting website at stirfryseminars.com.


Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org