I have a friend who grew up in a world very different from mine. She was surrounded by adults who did not take notice of her, and neglected her needs for the most part. As she grew, she began receiving attention, but not the kind that she needed or wanted. The early years of her life left deep gashes and today she still works hard to heal them the right way. Slowly, my friend has cracked the door of her life open, allowing me to peer in from time to time. It is a sacred thing to be invited in to someone’s story, especially when that story is rife with fear and shame.
I encouraged my friend to join me in a small group setting, she reluctantly agreed and we found ourselves in a living room full of people we were meeting for the first time. In a matter of minutes, we were asked ‘getting to know you’ questions like, what was your childhood like? I could feel my friend tense up beside me. She was able to answer without really saying much of anything, but the host followed up with, what was your favorite childhood memory? Suddenly I started to panic as I went through my file of memories she had shared, and my friend had nothing. Welcome to the group!
I have led small groups for many years, and consider myself to be empathetic, but honestly until that moment I had not considered the spotlight I have put on so many people in a group setting, in an effort to break the ice. Just because I have a ready answer for these kinds of questions, does not mean that everyone in the room does. To put it another way, just because I had a great childhood/college experience/marriage/career/parenting adventure, etc doesn’t mean that everyone else in the room has. I was mortified at my own ignorance, because I have known this for years but have not acted like it.
So how do we get to know one another, and begin the process of opening up without alienating the very people we are trying to invest in? Obviously I’m no expert, but in thinking about this I have made some decisions about how I will attempt connection: I will respect the people in the room AND their stories by assuming there is much to learn. I will ask myself what the goal of the question is before I put it out there. And I will try to always give people an out.
Respecting people and their stories means that I will not assume I know them, based on what has been told by someone else. I will honor what is shared and let that be enough. In deciding on questions to ask, I don’t want to be mining for similarities, instead I need to invite opportunities for people to show their diversity in positive ways. As far as giving an out, instead of having one specific question, I can modify it to be a past or present question, or one about dreams or visions for the future, or simply a list of several questions to choose from. This should remove pressure to come up with a digestible answer that everyone can tolerate.
I don’t know if this is written for anyone else, it seems so elemental, but given the fact that we often find ourselves in small group settings, I felt like this was an important epiphany to share. Let’s all be gentle with each other, ready to learn what the other is willing to teach.