Perhaps I am approaching this prompt a bit differently than most of the group because I have spent the last five and a half years building the relationships necessary for determining two of the three key questions Felipe outlines in his prompt. Are they a leader? What decision making power do they have? I have a pretty clear sense of this for most of the organizations we hope to work with in this co-op model.
The middle question–What institutional needs do they have?–is not always as easy to answer, even for the people I’m meeting with regularly. I find churches and nonprofits are often trying to solve a short term problem when a longer-term, or maybe bigger fix is a bigger/better solution. It can be hardest to convince a volunteer, because that’s the role of most of the folks we relate to around these questions, that a more involved solution is going to be less of a hassle in the long run for them. So building a relationship and trust and having a lot of patience has been key for us as we work at bookkeeping and will be key to having success with expanding into the co-op.
Reading through the questions provided for the prompt, I find I really struggle to respond positively to the questions posed. I worked in sales for 10 years so I certainly understand the potential value of showing vulnerability and interest in the other person as a way of building a relationship. In peer-to-peer relationships, the idea of vulnerability feels more comfortable. But I realize that as a youngish woman who is generally relating to old, white men on finance committees or property committees, vulnerability often means something different to me. It can often set up a dynamic where my authority, already in question because I’m a woman, is further diminished.
What does vulnerability mean to PRC’s CPA who has more than 25 years of experience when she is being lectured by a 80 year-old man, who only doubts her ability ultimately because she is a woman. What does it mean for our accountant who has to exert her authority with a man who questions her decisions without reason other than she’s young?
Vulnerability can mean many things, but for many of us, calibrating it so that it allows for relationship building without the diminishment of self or authority can be tricky. I felt like I needed to name the response I had when reading the prompt. None of this is to say that we shouldn’t be friendly or authentic or acknowledge what we don’t know, but there are challenges for many of us in knowing how to balance all of this, I think.
My general approach to building relationships is to ask genuine questions and listen as fully as I can to the other person’s response. Often I have an idea how I want to work at a problem, but many times talking with someone pushes me to reconfigure that solution into something new. And after listening to their thoughts, frustrations, and ideas, I’ll run my adapted idea by them for their thoughts and suggestions. I find that this approach often allows for by in from that person from the beginning and helps them feel like they’re part of the team.
I am being open and potentially vulnerable through this approach, but I’ve often found that it’s a better way for me to establish a peer-to-peer relationship that in the long run allows for more collaboration. If we can find a way to work together through offering ideas and solving problems together, we build a level of trust that creates good boundaries and respect. I don’t think I’m answering this question as you hoped, but I felt like I needed to be honest about what kept tripping me up as I worked at my response.
RS: First, thanks to everyone for your responses. I appreciate many of you sharing your own experiences with this. I learned a lot from your comments. Thank you.
I think it’s important to say that my vulnerability is often assumed. Older men often see me as a daughter or granddaughter first and a professional as a distant second. Perhaps this is an experience different that what other people know, but it’s my regular frame of reference.
Felipe, it would be helpful for me to know if many of the churches you’ve worked with through CPA are fairly large with a staff person dedicated to facilities or large capital expenses. If that’s the case, then it’s very different from many of the churches I work with here in Lancaster. Many are worshiping 20-50 people on a Sunday. They’re tending an enormous building and they’ve given much of their time and money to something that they believe is failing quickly.
I’m deeply empathetic to this and understand that a leadership role in a congregation was once a honor but now often feels like a burden. I understand that a lot of the emotional flailing that I encounter is the result of fear, embarrassment, and uncertainty. I know that standing still and letting the slow drip of failure happen can be less scary than taking a major step in a new direction, even if that step could save them a lot of psychic energy.
I’m OK with all of that–I have enormous amounts of patience. But I also need to draw lines in terms of my time and the level of service we provide. We can’t offer these services if we can’t make them somewhat efficient. It’s not a good idea for me to go many, many rounds with a volunteer who refuses to work within our system. I also need to protect my employees. It’s more often that I need to set boundaries and back them up when they insist on professionalism. I can’t lose an employee because a volunteer at a church is asking her, without realizing it, to violate professional standards or excellence.
It’s a balancing act. And I think it’s important for us to discuss that, too.