Figuring out the right relational approach

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.

7 thoughts on “Figuring out the right relational approach”

  1. Hi Kate – I love this thoughtful post, and your willingness to challenge the precepts of the prompt! Your listen-first strategy sounds super effective. How do you model the type of transparency you hope the person you’re speaking with demonstrates? What parts of your background, or your dreams for the project, do you share in your conversations? Have you ever found yourself going deeper into your own fears or dreams to invite others to do the same?

    I get what you’re saying about pace what you share based on the topic and who you’re speaking with and what you feel comfortable sharing. Certainly vulnerability means something different to each person.

    I’m wondering if there’s an upside to sharing select personal histories in a way that feels a little daring, a little vulnerable, the demonstrates your confidence and self-awareness that might have upsides you haven’t seen yet. Paradoxically, it may even deeper your gravitas with these older white men in positions of authority in Lancaster.

    Brene Brown made a career of her study of vulnerability as a leadership practice.

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  2. Hi Kate! Your post really resonates with me in many ways, including through the following concept you describe:
    “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.”
    I intuit what you describe here completely – meaning, I know this feeling so well and never thought to put words to it! In reading your post, as an external reader, it was so natural for me to ask: “What are other ways that Kate can exert her authority in the face of the assumptions and biases of her audience?” Yet, when I asked myself the same question applied to my historical/typical work environment (predominantly white, male, older than me), I didn’t have a response. I couldn’t think of any, other than my existing MO, which has been to keep harmony, avoid conflict, and find ways to express myself through the style the audience is used to, while communicating the same message/content that is true and authentic to me. I have found that in doing this I tend to cultivate “a reputation,” but one that has actually felt more like tokenism than objection to my ideas/proposals. I’m figuring this out myself – I don’t have good answers, but wanted to let you know I sense a real strength in your vulnerability, especially in how you are trying to be inclusive and obtaining buy in upfront.

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  3. Kate,
    I really appreciate your post and the challenge you identify around what it means to be vulnerable when dealing with the white patriarchy. It is so true that when we are working with individuals or institutions that hold all the power, it is a very different animal than when we are being vulnerable with friends and colleagues. In trying to think more deeply about your post and grappling with the coaching we are getting around the value of being vulnerable, I wonder if it could be potentially be more nuanced. Is there any value in letting some of the older men know that you don’t feel like they take you seriously? And see if it’s possible to discuss where that comes from for them? Be ready with specific examples of your interpretation of your interaction with them. Or maybe is it possible to describe to one of them the challenges you face as a woman in a male-dominated field and whether they have any advice as to how you might navigate those waters? We know that men like to help solve problems … and maybe this feels too much like feeding into their hand. I don’t know. I’m just thinking aloud here. Obviously, to go this route you are going to need to be in a very generous mood!
    I very much relate to your comment about the challenge of asking volunteers to do something that seems like more work upfront and the fact that nonprofits often choose to take a shorter route to solve a problem, because the longer route, while ultimately more effective requires a level of effort they don’t feel they can expend. My sense, (although I’m not far enough down the CPA road to know this for sure) is that one of the beauties of CPA is that it delivers efficiencies for its members. It actually saves them considerable time in both the short and long-term. Evidently that isn’t your experience of it. Are you seeing ways to streamline some of the CPA processes so there is less resistance about it feeling like a lot of work to the church volunteers?
    Great to be on this journey with you. Thank you for your honest and thought-provoking post.

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  4. YES. I’m all for pushing the boundaries of the prompt. You don’t need to apologize for that in any way. The nuance and gendered dynamic you bring to this conversation is REALLY important. That “diminishment of self or authority” that can be a thin line away from vulnerability for us, is real. It’s important to speak. Interestingly, I think in this post you both displayed vulnerability by breaking the rules/speaking your discomfort, AND you did it in a way that gives you authority. You spoke from a strong self, from your own experiences. And, judging by all the positive feedback you received from it so far, it’s super relatable. It works.

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  5. Kate,

    Do you envision the co-op members being the organizations you currently serve by offering bookkeeping services? If so, do you already have access to some of the data we are looking to collect?

    As a Latina who looks very young, I can relate to your experience. I, too, have to balance which aspects I can be vulnerable, without feeling that I’m giving up my authority or voice. I’ll be honest, there are spaces where I am never vulnerable because I know that a sign of weakness is perceived as incompetence. There are some spaces where I simply can’t afford to be perceived as incompetent. Have you identified any trends or patterns of when you feel the need to keep your guard up? Do you feel that you can build trust while keeping your guard up? Can you collaborate when there is little trust?

    Thank you for being vulnerable here.

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  6. Hi, Kate, mostly I just want to express empathy. I worked an an organizer for an interfaith peace group years ago and it meant working with many much older white men who saw me as weak or irrelevant because of my gender. It was infuriating. I am wondering if maybe sometimes you feel unseen or even powerless?

    And I’m wondering if this could be like an invisibility cloak? Like it’s your superpower and when you’re invisible, you’re making things happen (good things, of course!) and people don’t even realize it because you’ve gotten so good at it, they think your ideas are their ideas? Hehehe… I encourage you to play with your ideas with that cloak as your protection and, if need be, your weapon. When you’re invisible, you probably see a lot of things that others can’t, like their need to matter and belong, or their need for power in their world… And maybe, through that seeing of yours, you’ll move them along, even just a little bit, sharing what you know in ways that quietly address those needs and moving everyone along together…

    (…And if you need to hurl curse words occasionally, I have two friends in Lancaster, a lesbian couple who love to curse and laugh and dance and lend support. I’d be glad to put you in touch with them for moral support (and some really good cuss words – in English and Spanish!)

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  7. Kate – thank you. This is a real gift you are giving me here by being honest & taking a risk with your reaction to the prompt. I feel like you’ve helped me see a big blind spot on gender differences that I hadn’t thought to take into account in this kind of way.
    You’ve named and articulated an important nuance that has clearly deeply resonated with others as well. thank you.
    As you think about building CPA with your PRC members — where do you think the hard part will be?

    Your approach to these relational conversations — listening well, proposing a path forward, getting their buy-in — feels very effective and exactly right.
    What’s the hardest part of getting folks to say, “yes” and sign the contract?
    What’s the story these folks are telling themselves when they decide not to work with you?

    What’s the narrative inside the head of the 80-year-old white man demographic that often holds decision-making power in these smaller churches?

    You named part of it — I’m wondering if you might flesh out more of their world view and see if there are different areas of their beliefs / narratives they tell themselves about how the world works — that you can be more aware of / tap into / know to avoid.

    Another question — is there a more interesting demographic of property owners in Lancaster / the surrounding area that you have more interest in building relationships with?

    Or with this opportunity PRC has to start building CPA in PA — might this be an opportunity to initiate new relationships where you don’t have to put up with old BS and can build with other talented younger folks that more quickly recognize your leadership?

    Thank you!

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