We didn’t know each other when we met in her office, Jan and I. We had been put in contact through a mutual friend and this encounter was a bit exploratory. Our friend had said we would probably ‘get along’ but you know how it is when other people say that – sometimes they are right, and sometime you wonder ‘what were they thinking?’ You just never know about those kinds of ‘arranged connections’. I entered the encounter anxious.
Reminds me, I must confess, of kids coming into care – an arranged meeting with a stranger, hopes that the two will click, wishes for a positive relationship and future, a desire that the two people might, somehow, make it work. And the anxiety we experience as we reach out to engage with them.
Jan and I were, how shall I put it? Hesitant? Tentative? And maybe neither of those. Because, truth be known, in retrospect it’s hard to say how we were with each other. I’m sure you understand what I mean. Two people thrown together because of the intervention of a third – the cautious inquiry of exploration in whatever manner is familiar for each, the inevitable evaluation of other according to whatever criteria one is using, the reflections along the way about ‘how we are doing’. Getting to know one another.
Like when that kid first steps up to the threshold.
Our first meeting in Jan’s office was short and
involved a number of other people so the opportunities to engage were
limited. But I was spending the weekend at their home, and so we had a
lot more time to investigate the possibilities of relationship – kind of
like a pre-placement visit; a time to get to know one another, to see if
there can be a connection, to check out if we ‘click’, to discover if
there is any reason to take this brief engagement further into
Now, the thing is, before I go further I feel that I have to mention this, even though you are all going to go ‘so what?’ as soon as I do, but Jan is a woman and I am a man, and that brings different dynamics into play. The most important thing being that as a man and a woman, we both relate to the world, and the people in it, in different ways. Males, the research tells us, are more concerned with action and outcome. Females are more focused on connections and relatedness. If you doubt this, go look up the writings of Carol Gilligan or Deborah Tannen. They articulate this difference better than I could.
“So what?” you might rightly ask.
“So this,” I might respond.
Engagement and connection are not the same thing. Engagement refers to being involved with the other ‘doing something’; playing, talking, interacting. Connection, on the other hand, involves, as the Circle of Courage folks like to say, the experience that the person you are engaging with is not a threat, accompanied by a willingness to ‘let the other in’. It is these kinds of connections which lead over time to the experience of relational connectedness between individuals. From small seeds grow great trees.
Engaging is easy. But if we are going to ‘connect’, so as to have those brief moments of relationship development and enrichment which we all seek, then we might each have to adjust somewhat our way of interacting, of discourse and, at least for some moments, our way of ‘being in the world’. Otherwise we will be as ships that pass in the night, acknowledging of, but unconnected with, the other.
So, how did our ‘meeting’ go? Well, a little like what follows although lived memory is never the same as the real experience of what happened.
Like when we work with kids, eh? They tell us a story of ‘what happened’ and, while it may not be exactly accurate, it is the best story they can tell because, over time, it is the best memory they have – well, it is the only memory they have, isn’t it? They tell us their lived memory, which involves their memory of an event and how that memory has been altered with time. I guess that’s why it is called memory, rather than ‘statement of fact’.
But back to us.
Jan said “Let’s do this”. And so she led us walking through the streets of a town I had only heard about before this day.
I said, “Tell me about how you grew up”. And so we shared stories of our childhood.
Doing and relating. Action and interaction.
Each of us reaching out to the other, creating opportunities for connection.
And at other times, it went like this:
I said, “Let’s do this?”
Jan said, “Tell me about who . . .”
Each of us shifting back and forth in our ways of engaging.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying this was an ‘intentional strategy’ we employed to connect with the other. Quite the contrary. It was natural and flowed as easily as the stream in their back yard. It’s just the way it was, at least as far as my memory can reconstruct it. But like I said, memories aren’t ‘statements of fact’.
Once, while Jan puttered in the kitchen, I hung out with her and we shared stories that revealed what we believed in and valued or things we learned growing up. And sometimes, in those risk-taking moments so important to relationship development, we told each other about the person from whom we learned these things or about significant moments in our lives, noticing the similarities of experience; like when we shared our adventures in being with kids, and some of the struggles we had confronted in trying to be helpful.
That’s going to be important here in a minute. Things that don’t seem important in the moment often are, a few minutes later. Like with kids – that’s why we attend to every moment, isn’t it?
Jan and I sometimes stood close together as we talked, with nothing between us; no barriers to prevent the occasional informal reaching out to touch the other on the arm or shoulder. At other times we spoke across the distance between us; the ‘move in, move out’ of relationship development.
But here is the important point, I think:
We varied our ways of ‘being in the world’ in such a manner that we each found with the other a pathway to engagement and momentary connectedness.
And what’s better than that?
We forget sometimes when we work with kids that boys and girls engage in the world in different ways. We tend to reach out to them as if they were all the same as us and a lot of the time that works well, especially when we are of the same gender. But it is our responsibility as care givers to adjust to the way the child interacts in the world, whatever form that might take. ‘Meeting them where they are at’, Mark Krueger might say. ‘Connecting across cultures’ Leon Fulcher might say.
‘Getting to connection’ we might all say.
That’s really the goal in new relationships, I think; going through the process of engagement, adapting our selves to others so that, in the end, we reach the place of connection.
We don’t, of course, expect children to adjust like this. Their way of being in the world is all that they know at the moment. It has likely served them well up to this point. They are relationship wary, needing to protect themselves and so, at first, they will continue to be with us the way they have been with other adults in their lives. It is their way of getting their needs met after all. And why should they modify their way of being in order to connect with us. That’s our job, not theirs. Their job is, quite simply, to look after themselves.
And so, in the early stages of that newly developing relationship, we plug along, seeking ‘the way’ to connect with this child. Because it is only then, when we and the children we are trying to help reach the point of connection, that we might become ‘an adult I can trust’ and therefore create the possibility, as Fritz Redl might have said, to become ‘a friend of influence’.
I left the weekend feeling connected; like I belonged in this new relationship. Next time we met, I felt the same. Connected in the moment, connected over time.