This was an interesting day.
We did the usual check in, round up, I’m bored of describing it all now, blah…
Then we talked about differences. All the real and perceived differences that might make a client feel uncomfortable about talking to a counsellor. People make assumptions about differences and those assumptions involve prejudice. Including prejudice about prejudice.
We were invited to form pairs and to look at what might make difficulties. I sat with L and we decided that we didn’t have a problem with each other at least not one that could be identified and that wasn’t helpful. Then she started saying “the only thing that it could be is that you’re a parent and I’m not and some parents…” and I interrupted and said “are smugly superior because they have children, you don’t and couldn’t possibly imagine what it’s like”. We agreed that we both disliked such prejudice. So there was a perfectly reasonable assumption made that there was a prejudice which didn’t actually exist.
So this made me think, what are my prejudices, the real ones that would block me from listening properly. I would like to think that the obvious ones wouldn’t, that I wouldn’t be blocked by race, gender, class, age, life experience etc. I would find it difficult dealing with someone who is severely prejudiced, whether it’s racist, sexist, homophobic, or simply hates everyone not like them. And Daily Mail readers and quite frankly, several other newspapers.
I do try hard to not pre-assess people before I get to know them. I think I know from my own experiences that some of us find it harder to make a good initial impression, often through nerves, and it’s therefore not fair. Plus, assumptions are often wrong and it’s easier to not make them in the first place than it is to change our mind after. I’d like to think I’m good at getting to know people on their own terms rather than being prejudiced . But it’s also necessary to be aware that I may be wrong.
This followed us through to our triads. I was with D and V. I’ve chatted and worked with D before and liked her. V was more of an unknown quantity. D talked about her son. I talked about exercise and having done my back in which morphed into talking about children and the changes in outings and exercise over time as their ages change and the need to take them out for a run diminishes. V then talked about work to me. She said afterwards that not being a parent, she sensed the way D and I shared similar experiences with children and was worried that we wouldn’t understand what she was sharing. But we had both had similar experiences and even if we hadn’t, I got her situation and the undertones of what she wasn’t saying. I also liked her more because I knew her a little better.
So for me the lesson of the day was a reminder to dismiss assumptions and prejudices and to get to know people for who they are and not the real or perceived labels that may be attached. This includes the instinctive first impressions we form on meeting people. At the same time however it’s necessary to remember that other people will not necessarily return the favour and may make assumptions about yourself that you will have to disabuse them of.
One other thing happened that really shocked me and highlighted differing awareness of differences.
When we were listing differences on the blackboard after having discussed them in small groups I followed up someone’s listing of gender with sexual orientation. I didn’t think anything of it until the leader asked me what I meant by that. I didn’t think she was asking me to clarify for the sake of it. When I said that gender was male, female or other she blanked on the other and said that things had changed since she’ d undergone her training. I described orientation as who you fancy, thinking that mentioning LGBT let alone LGBTIQ would only complicate things further. A friend pointed out afterwards that I should have said that there was the gender you considered yourself to be and the one that your body was, and that they weren’t necessarily the same thing.
In all fairness the rest of the group all looked blank at this brief discussion, not just her, and I wondered whether my awareness of these issues which have always existed even if rarely discussed was so rare. The responses from friends to this clearly shows that I surround myself with friends who are tolerant, accepting and very aware of people’s differences. I didn’t think we were that special.