It’s always fun when you find yourself in a room full of people, of differing ages, nationalities, world views and personalities, whose lives have been moulded by a vast spectrum of experiences. (I say fun, fully aware that ten years ago I would have considered it a terrifying prospect). Yet even the unifying factor – our presence on this counselling course, in an out of hours classroom illuminated by school lighting – is not, it turns out, so unifying after all, for each person has their own reason for being here. For many, it’s a possible career path; for others, a useful skill in their current work; and for some, coming out of life-directing experiences, it’s almost a form of therapy as they consider using what they’ve been through to help others in the same situations.
It strikes me, even during the first activity as we introduce our neighbour to the class, that people are simultaneously very different and very much the same. For all our differences and what these say about us (our jobs, educational backgrounds, family situations, our ‘class’ – if that’s still a word we can use, where we live, even the transport we used to get here), we’re all just people with years that have formed us, hopes that motivate us, fears that challenge us, activities that occupy us, social networks that encourage us, and generally just stuff we can chat about.
Dragging our plastic college chairs into small huddles, we discuss the concept of ‘confidentiality’ and set class ‘ground rules’. Initially, this seems like one of those time-filling exercises, an activity for activity’s sake, yet as conversation kicks off, I am reminded that not everyone’s perspectives are as aligned with mine as I assume they must be. (I keep learning this lesson yet it surprises me every time). Given that not everyone is the same as me, talking about these things actually seems to make sense now. Unanimously and instinctively, confidentiality is prized. I suppose we all know that the vulnerability and honesty needed for learning, require an environment of trust. Yet, as someone who has previously buckled a bit under the weight of confidentiality, I find myself needing to clarify who to go to if it gets too heavy.
It turns out, unsurprisingly, that each group has come up with pretty much the same ideas. At one level, the words we’re batting around feel quite clichéd: ‘non-judgmental’, ‘tolerant’, ‘understanding’, ‘accepting’, ‘respectful’. Yet at a deeper level, the sentiments they’re communicating make sense because we all need to commit to something unifying if this course is going to work. As our microcosmic class fast-tracks a process that our society has gone through over the years, in my mind I’m also pondering the place for honest conversation, for disagreement, for conviction of truth, all underpinned by a concern for the Other.
Back into even smaller small groups, we’re into the ‘Hopes/Expectations’ section, discussing ‘listening skills’. How well do I listen? Well, I often end up doing it, so I can’t be all that bad at it, but in my less gracious moments I struggle and I’m all too aware of my limits. That’s why I’m here. I want to learn to really hear people, to ask insightful questions, to help people make connections and move forward, to not bulldoze in to try to ‘fix things’, and to help others find release from the burden they carry without being crushed by it myself.
We’re asked what it is about helping others that appeals to us, assuming, that is, that we get some kind of buzz out of seeing those around us flourish. I’m impressed by the compassionately gritty determination of a young classmate who can’t have had it easy yet who’s discovered that the things life has thrown at her now give her credibility to walk alongside others. As I listen to her speak, I’m aware that in the course of my work I listen to people who have faced hugely traumatic experiences of displacement, loss and cultural transition that are way out of my league, in spite of the empathy I’ve gleaned over the years. For all the skills we’re seeking to develop, I’m wondering to what extent we can really help someone who’s in a place that we’ve never been in, and I’m sensing glimmers of insight into the need to step across into the worlds of others if we ever hope to make a difference.
As the session comes to an end, course booklets are handed out and chairs are dragged back into a big sort of circle. We go round saying our names one more time and – without too much thought – a word to describe how we’re feeling. “Excited”. “Sleepy”. “Hopeful”. “Interested”. “Hungry”. “Thinking” (that’s me). “Optimistic”. “Tired”. Corporately, we seem to sum up life.