Friday, 14 October 2011

Balancing our perceptions of others

My daughter has just left home to go to university - so she hasn't left for good but it's still been a bit strange.  I don't lead many services, one or two a year.  Last Sunday it was my turn again.  I was restless trying to find a theme, and as I said at the service, I kept circumnavigating the elephant in the room.  Once I recognised this I led the service on change, loss (including loss of role), comfort and healing.  We have had a quite a few bereavements between us over the past three years and we are still dealing with these as individuals and as a community, so I tried to tie this all together.

I used a lot of recorded music - when I am low or thoughtful I turn to music.  I thought that I might cry but I didn't - I think it had been very therapeutic preparing the service.  At the end I thanked them for bearing with my self-indulgence.  However the response that I got was fantastic - many had been through the same and gave me a big hug reassuring me that it would be fine.  I had an interesting exchange with someone who was struggling to find a role.  A previous service that I led last year on families brought a flood of revelations and confidences.

In our own communities we often recognise each others' struggles with life.  We want to reach out but sometimes don't know how. The telling of our own stories can reveal our own vulnerabilities.  This may encourage others to feel sympathy and perhaps empathy.  It may also touch some some nerves and enable a greater sharing of the self.  The more we get to know each other the more we can strengthen our network of relationships.  

This article in the Guardian is about how the general public seem to be viewing Amanda Knox, who has just been found innocent on appeal of Meredith Kurcher's death.  It talks about what one psychologist. Emily Pronin, has called, 'the illusion of asymmetric insight'.  This is essentially about when we communicate with others - our experience of them is their outward appearance and what they say, whilst our experience of ourselves is our own minds.  Which the article says leads to a situation where we think, 'I am infinitely subtle, complex and never quite what I seem; you are predictable and straightforward, an open book'. 

This certainly rang true for me.  How often I have been surprised as I have learnt more and more about people.  Surprisingly we find that they are as complex and interesting as we ourselves are!  To get more symmetry into our relationships we need to know each other better, spending time to get into those complexities of thought and personality.  Being together in open, honest and respectful community is one way to move towards balancing our perceptions of others and of ourselves.

Friday, 7 October 2011


My last post on my Governance4 Unitarians blog was about conflict of interests and mentioned decision-making.  I have decided to put this post here rather than on my Governance blog because I think that how we make decisions can help or hinder the development of our spiritual communities.  Last week I watched  a TV programme about the Calendar Girls as it is the 10th anniversary of their calendar being produced.  It was a major success and afterwards they had two different offers to make a film of how they'd come to make the calendar - the group was split as to which offer to go with.  They voted and the majority carried it which caused a split in the group, which caused much upset and sadness.

I have come across these examples before.  There's a disagreement and someone says, 'Let's vote!' and the majority carries it.  This can lead to a very sour taste in the mouth for the minority.  So is there anything inherently wrong with this approach or have we all just got to grow up a bit?  My personal view is that we have to ask what we are trying to achieve.  There are of course times when a decision needs making and it needs making quickly but there are times when a decision can take years to make.  The decision is important but so is the process.

The important thing to know is how decisions will be made and who needs to be involved.  Any trustee board needs to consider who can make which decisions.  More often than not powers are delegated either to a person or a sub-group of the main group in particular when simple decisions are needed - for example someone contacts you and wants to rent a room.  It is best to have a policy which says who can rent rooms and what the charges are together with a rental agreement and an understanding of what the building's insurance will and will not cover.

But when fundamental decisions need to be made there has to be some thought about how this will be done.  And who will make it - should we open up decision-making to our whole community and not just the board of trustees?  For example, we have been having discussions for several years on how to improve the access to our top floor where we have meals after services and social events which some people cannot get to.  We cannot have these downstairs as we have fixed pews and very poor kitchen and toilet arrangements.  The need to make some kind of decision has become more pressing as some of our community have developed significant mobility issues.

At the end of September we decided to look at re-configuring downstairs which would include removing the pews.  This is a major decision and has been made by everyone as we have explored the possibility of making upstairs accessible and failed to come up with an answer.  It has also been reinforced by a couple of occasions when people have been excluded from what we have done.  This is just the first stage of changing downstairs.  We have no plans yet and much more to discuss.  Whilst we have no written policy we knew that any kind of vote in the early stages of this debate would have split us, probably irrevocably.

Our purpose was to find ways as a community to solve the issues which brought about a real commitment from the whole community.  Against this we have had people who have been excluded from some of what we do.  Whichever way we had done things we would be hurting some people. This is an uncomfortable place to be in for a community which seeks to promote compassion and I am not sure that there is any way to avoid some hurt.  It comes down to a judgement about how to minimise the hurt.

Whatever faces us as communities we would do well to discuss how we make decisions before we make them.  A majority decision vote is one way of doing it but you have to agree to that beforehand.  As communities we need wisdom as well as compassion to make the best decisions that we can at the time.  Perhaps we then need to reflect on how we decided and whether we should do things differently in the future.