Invisible furniture

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I recently heard a story about a woman who was asked by her boss to work over Christmas.  His justification was: “We all want to be at home with our kids, and you don’t have any.”

Most of us have heard such comments, which in some ways are logical and rational.  But what the boss didn’t appreciate is that the woman had only recently had a miscarriage.  For the second time.  And been told she could probably never have children.

Whether this story is true or not, I don’t know.  But that’s not the point.  We can often make simple comments that have a massive unforeseen effect on the person we’re talking to.  We don’t set out to hurt them, but we don’t know where their bruises are.

It’s rather like blundering into their living room, bumping into a coffee table and knocking over a drink.  We never intended to do that, but the mess takes a lot of clearing up and may cause longer-term damage.

Only when we do it with people’s feelings, we can’t see the coffee table, because it’s inside them, in their soul.  I call this invisible furniture.  We don’t even know it’s there, but when we bump into it we cause havoc.  I have done this myself – on one occasion a co-worker went completely crazy at me for no apparent reason.  Only later did I found out that I’d inadvertently touched on a very painful experience in her past which I knew nothing about.

There’s nothing we can do about other people’s invisible furniture.  For the very reason we don’t know it’s there.  But we can assume it’s there.  So I make sure I never ask a married person with no children what plans he or she has for a family.  It’s none of my business and I have no idea how painful that issue is for them.  The same goes for asking a single person “When are you going to get married?”  Just don’t go there!

But we can be aware that when people’s reaction to something we’ve said is extreme, we might have knocked over an invisible mug of coffee.  Be quick to forgive what seems like an overreaction, ready to recognise our offence, and quick to apologise for any offence.

It also helps those of us who have invisible furniture inside us (and who doesn’t?) to be aware of how easily we can be upset, and take preventive action.  If we are aware of our invisible furniture, we could try to move it out of other people’s way by having some counselling.  Or we could, when relationships are sufficiently trusting, let people know that it’s there – “That’s a difficult area for me, can we change the subject?”

And we can minimise the significance of the furniture by thinking through mature ways of responding which don’t punish a person for bumping into it.  For example, for many years when I was asked about my family, I would reply grumpily “I haven’t got one” and then blame the person for their insensitivity.  After much reflection I now reply “I don’t have many relatives but I do have a lot of great friends I think of as family.”  It’s much more positive for me, and for them.

And it makes sure I don’t get any coffee stains on my invisible carpet.

Overhelpful?

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Being helpful is a notable Christian trait, though something we often carry to excess.  Even more so for mission workers.  We care, and we hope to change things.  We see people hurting and our compassion drives us to improve things for them.  We want to solve problems.  We want to make things better.  We need to see healing.  It’s a trap we can easily fall into.  One of the hardest things for compassionate people to do is sit and watch someone struggle with pain, confusion and need.

Yet as we learn the skills involved in counselling, mentoring, coaching and pastoral care, we discover that we are not there to solve the problem.  We are there to encourage, assist and if necessary equip our client to solve their own problems.  Doing it for them disempowers them, and does not help them develop resilience and problem-solving skills to use the next time they face a challenge.  At worst, it can deprive them of an opportunity to be driven to rely solely on God for their comfort and sustenance in the midst of their difficulties.

So we learn to sit on our hands, bridle our tongues, and let people do it for themselves.  It is in fact much kinder and more helpful for us to do this, because people grow as they tackle the challenges they face.  And though the problems may not go away, they might find the consolation of God in the middle of them.

We all know that Job’s friends are a good example of what not to do.  They offered advice, criticism, theology and rebuke, all to no avail.  Their words made no difference to Job, and in the end God criticised them for their approach.  But what we often overlook is the small bit of information at the end of chapter 2 – they just came and sat with him for 7 day! (Job 2:11-13).  They grieved with him, they cried with him, but said nothing.  Sometimes our presence is more helpful than our words.  The traditional English response to crisis of putting the kettle on may in fact be far more effective than our many words of wisdom and helpful actions.  Often people don’t need help, they just need company on their journey.  Companionship and company are a good place to start.  Who can you offer those to this week?

Counselling skills for pastoral care

trainingMuch of the pastoral skills development of the Syzygy team over the years has sprung from a commitment to training, and we’d like to alert you to one specific resource which can help anyone develop their listening skills effectively and acquire a basic understanding of some psychological models which will help us understand the behaviours and attitudes of people we are called to help as part of our ministry.

Most people will know St John’s, Nottingham for its role in preparing people for the Anglican priesthood, but in addition to the full-time residential training, they provide other courses aimed at developing the wider Christian community.  One which we found most helpful is Counselling Skills for Pastoral CareIt is a very accessible course, open to people from all walks of life, which is taught in a relaxed and friendly manner by qualified counsellors.  No academic qualification is necessary and there is no need to have previous counselling experience.  While the course can be taken as a stand-alone module, it also forms part of a broader Certificate in Christian Studies.

Stjohn'sStarting and finishing with residential schools at St John’s delightful campus on the outskirts of Nottingham, the rest of the study is conveniently home-based.  Course materials are provided and students work through them at their own pace, submitting a short assignment each week, reflecting on what they have learned, their own experience of the week’s topic, and how they have applied their new-found skills.  The whole course takes only 7 months from start to finish, making it an ideal means of ongoing professional development between the short introductory courses which are readily available from a number of providers, and the two-year diploma courses which require a great commitment of time and funding.  A tutor is available for advice by email, and students can also work together as a cohort to encourage each other.

StJohn'sThrough Counselling Skills for Pastoral Care, students not only develop their listening skills but also grow in their own self-awareness and understanding, helping them to move on both in their professional life and their walk with God.  Syzygy thoroughly recommends this course which will be useful for anyone in a caring role as a pastor, listener, personnel officer or member care provider.

For more information, see the St John’s Nottingham website.