I was grinding away on the treadmill at the gym recently when I noticed something interesting on the other side of the room. Peering through the punching bags hanging from the ceiling, I saw a 20-something year-old personal trainer, who had the build of an Olympic weightlifter, helping a 70-something year-old grandmotherly-looking lady at the dumbbell station. A cynical thought hit me – “I wonder if he can work with her effectively?” And my internal reaction to my own question was something like “Yeah…probably, but….” The more I thought about this, the more I was reminded of similar situations and challenges that helping professionals – administrators, counselors, teachers, coaches, and more – are faced with often, if not daily. For example, can a single, 25-year old, female counselor or therapist with no children of their own, and fresh out of grad school provide effective support for a struggling mom of four? It is probably no surprise to any of you that many such parents would think not. How about this one? Can a 45 year old, white, male volleyball coach provide effective training for a 17 year old, African-American female? How about this one. Can a 30 year old, able-bodied, female high school principal effectively supervise a 23 year old art teacher who uses a wheelchair? Oh, how we could go on and on, couldn’t we?! In each case, I think a reasonable answer probably begins similarly to my response to that unlikely pair I was watching at the gym – “Yeah…probably, but ….” Let’s consider the “Yeah…probably” part first.
Helping professionals do not need to be perfectly matched to their students’ clients; or colleagues’ gender, socio-economic background, sexual identity, race/ethnicity, ability, or any other characteristic or combination of characteristics in order to effectively provide support or supervision. Why not? Well first of all, leaders can consider these discrepancies as opportunities to connect by expressing their authentic curiosity about another person’s lived experiences. This curiosity and others’ disclosure has the potential to provide opportunity for valuable empathy, insight, catharsis, and affirmation, enhancing their connection which sets a foundation and strong stage for mutual success. Plus, just like the Olympic weightlifter at my gym likely has a wealth of knowledge in human performance, exercise, motivation, and kinesiology; we/helping professionals have extensive training in our fields of work. Those specializations equip us to provide support for the people we work with, regardless of the differences. That at least partly addresses the “Yeah…probably” part of the reaction. What about the “but…”? But…it is critically important that the Olympic weightlifter not assume that the grandmother can lift the same amount of weight that he can, that she can perform the same number of reps, that her body will recover from a workout the same as his, that she is or will be motivated the same way that either he is, or even in the same way that most 70ish year-old grandmotherly-looking ladies are motivated. Similarly, helping professionals would be wise not to assume that students of a different gender are motivated to perform academically the same as they were when they were young, or that teachers from a different culture derive support from their school community the same as they once did, or any other assumption based on personal experience or generalizations picked up along the way through life. Assumptions too often lead us to places of disconnect and misunderstanding.
On the other hand, consider setting your default to thinking about diversity as potential for strengths and resiliency. Expressing curiosity, asking about and looking for strengths – both internal and external, identifying things you have in common, authentic compassion, and due diligence researching diverse characteristics help to prevent helping professionals from making assumptions which can cause harm. These tactics also make it far more likely that helping professionals are building relationships which will foster connection and success.
As you work with those you are called to serve, teach and support, I want to encourage you to be mindful of two things. First, do everything you can to discover what you have in common with the people you serve and who you serve with, perhaps especially with those who appear much different than you on the outside. Secondly, look for opportunities to authentically and respectfully share your curiosity with others, prompting and allowing them to share with you their culture, their distinctive qualities, and their unique lived experiences.
Attending to diversity doesn’t come naturally for many of us, perhaps kind of like working out at the gym can feel uncomfortable the first few days you go. But similarly, the more you do it, the more comfortable it gets…and the benefits, eventually, make the efforts worthwhile. Lastly and just to be clear, this isn’t about being “woke” ,or for better or worse, some other post-modern ideology. This absolutely is about being kind, and being effective at helping those we are called to serve and support.