At Urban Seed, we practice community development. This is about all people, no matter what they have experienced in life, finding their inner spark, their essential giftedness, their liberation in the face of oppression and their thing that they will contribute to this world. We want people to rise up as leaders, to take hold of their lives and take ownership of their communities.
***None of this is possible without first seeking mutuality in our relationships.***
Now, there are some relationships that are inherently non-mutual. Like a parent and child, for example. Or a teacher and student, or a psychologist and client. In all of these relationships, there no real equality of ‘give and take’. Rather, one party does the bulk of the guiding, teaching, caring or counselling. The other party receives.
These particular kinds of unequal relationships – and the power differential that goes within – are entirely appropriate. This is because they are bound by a specific context and purpose. A parent guides, teaches and cares for their child because that is what the child needs at that time; a teacher teaches because the student needs teaching; a psychologist offers counsel because the client has some problems to sought out. There is also a temporary aspect to these relationships: the child will one day grow into a mature adult, at which time she can have a mutual, adult relationship with her parent; a student will stop being a student and may in fact become a peer; a client will also cease going to see the psychologist and will hopefully have come to a place of greater psychological wholeness.
It becomes a problem when these non-mutual relationships seep out from their contexts and purposes. This is surprisingly easy to happen, and is because there are some fantastic benefits that come with non-mutual relationships. The more powerful party (i.e. the teacher, carer, counsellor type) may benefit from the relationship by:
- gaining a sense of purpose;
- having a sense of power; or
- getting to focus on the other person’s problems, and thus not having to focus on their own.
(The last point is my personal favourite, and a reason why I often like to keep relationships non-mutual.)
The less powerful party also usually derives some benefits, such as:
- having someone else do things for them;
- getting to blame the other person when things go wrong; or
- getting lots of attention.
(Personally, I really like getting attention!)
In fact, it is the benefits inherent in non-mutual relationships that make them so difficult to give up. However we can get into hot water when the less powerful party comes to rely to heavily on the more powerful party, and then the more powerful party comes to rely on the positive feelings that come with being powerful. The whole thing breeds a very unhealthy dependency, which is a real inhibitor to healing, hope and justice.
At Urban Seed, we have an interesting problem. The issue is that as community development practitioners many of the roles we play find their frameworks in the context of non-mutual relationships. We assist people to develop skills, we encourage people as they grow in confidence, we support people as they give back to their community, we counsel people as they work through difficult issues. These are the kind of verbs we might find in the vocabulary of a teacher, support worker, parent or psychologist.
However. We are not welfare providers, and while the tasks that we find ourselves doing may often be done in the context of parent/child, counsellor/client, teacher/student type relationships, our aim is in fact towards mutuality. The aim is a difficult one, because we immediately start on the back foot. We are type-cast, by virtue of the position we are given (staff, resident, middle-class ‘together’ type) into the role of the more powerful party.
What we must do, then, is actively subvert this bestowed non-mutuality, to shift the relationship to one of mutuality. Here are some thoughts on how this might happen.
(1) Take a reality check.
We may have an ideal of mutuality, but what is the actual nature of this particular relationship? When I undress it of all of its idealised theology, is this, in fact, a mutual relationship? Signs that it may not be mutual include:
one person being the primary advice-giver to the other
one person habitually deferring to the other
one person doing most of the caring of the other
other staff/residents/volunteers talking about a person in a way that suggests that this person is to be helped/cared for
I should probably point out that we can guide, counsel or care for another, whilst the relationship remains mutual. The question is whether the other person also guides, counsels or cares for me. Mutual relationships are about ‘give and take’, and a sign of a non-mutual relationship is that the giving or taking is skewed to one side.
If you realise that a particular relationship is non-mutual, don’t panic. It’s ok to have non-mutual relationships – as long as you are actively working towards mutuality.
(2) Acknowledge how you are benefitting from this non-mutual relationship.
Does it give you a sense of fulfilment?
Does it mean you have a job?
Does it feel good to have influence?
Certain professions prescribe non-mutual relationships as best practice. For example, when I studied pastoral care, I learnt to relate to people in a way that was all about their needs and not mine. By focussing only on them I was being a ‘good pastor’, and getting a personal kick at feeling like I had excelled. In fact, I needed to shift outside of that paradigm.
(3) Acknowledge how the other person might be benefitting from the non-mutuality.
Good to acknowledge (see above) – although it’s best to focus on ourselves, not others, when breaking down unhealthy dynamics.
(4) Seek mutuality, not independence. Ask, “What gift does this person have for me?”
I am reminded of the time I worked in disability support, and there was this woman, ‘Patricia’, who used to order her carers to do all these tasks that she was perfectly capable of doing herself. This was no good, because she was rapidly losing the ability to do things herself. One morning I put my foot down and refused to butter Patricia’s toast. I said, “You are able to do this yourself, so you should.” This was the beginning of a terrible standoff, about who could refuse to butter toast the longest. I was trying to empower Patricia by getting her to regain some independence. What she experienced was nothing close to empowerment – she saw me as trying to take away what little power she had (to refuse to butter toast, if she so wished, and to order her carers about). Forcing someone to act independently can in fact reinforce power differentials.
I wonder what would have happened if I’d approached this situation differently, by asking not, “What can I get Patricia to do for herself?” but rather, “I wonder what Patricia might be able to do for me?” This feels like an odd question to ask of a client, and this is because it undercuts the assumptions that underlie a carer/client relationship. I am recasting Patricia not as a needy person with dependency issues, but as an important person with something valuable to offer – so valuable, in fact, that I need it for my own wholeness.
This is the heart of mutuality: broken people giving to each other out of their giftedness. Who of us is really independent, anyway? All we have is our wounds and our gifts.
(5) Recognise and show our own vulnerability.
Even if we see another’s gift, we won’t understand its worth unless we recognise our own need to receive it. To do that, we need to be aware of our own neediness, vulnerability and imperfection – and be prepared to let it show.
One of my most memorable moments at Urban Seed is my attempt to coordinate a mail out. I had asked a few Credo Café attendees to help out. This was quite fortunate, because not long into the process my mail merge became decidedly un-merged, such that the names on the envelopes no longer displayed any resemblance to the names on the letters. I had a melt down, and I am pleased to say that it was the two Credo Café helpers who sorted the mess out. These were peopled I had often ‘helped’ on other occasions, and it was a lovely turning of the tables, to have them carry me through my crisis. It only happened because my imperfection was forced to be very, very apparent.
So we need to be willing to ask for help from the people we are ‘supposed’ to be helping. This could be anything from, “Hey I can’t do up my bag on my own – would you give me a hand?” or “I’m struggling with anxiety at the moment: can I talk to you about that?”
The other thing we can do is stop being awesome for a while. Do something in pubic that you’re a bit crap at – singing out of tune, making funny-looking art, displaying some terrible acting skills. Tearing down the guise of perfection gives others the chance to give. Personally, I am committed to mediocre guitar-playing.
Warning: doing these things may make you feel incompetent and unprofessional. But guess what? We are all incompetent, and none of us, deep down inside, is ‘professional’. It is just as well that our imperfection is the road to our wholeness.
In words of Leonard Cohen: “There’s a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in”.