Tuesday, February 03, 2004

This Sunday afternoon I attended the last session of Atid, the Masorti Judaism leadership / personal development course I've been on for the last year. We decided to end by going round and talking about what we'd each got from the programme before taking personal feedback from Cheryl, who runs it all.

I've no doubt the programme's been very postive for me. I started much more sceptical about Masorti and unclear about my direction. I end the course on the brink of finally leaving the country for a while to do something different, which is what I've longed for ever since the end of summer 2002. I know myself better and feel more confident about returning to find work that suits me. I'm more active in the Masorti community. A little scepticism is a good thing, but at a certain point you're going to benefit more from committing to play a fuller, fulfilling role in a community. And of course my friendships with the other people on the course - Debby, Zavy, Richard and Josie - are all stronger.

When it came to taking feedback from Cheryl I felt I got quite a hard time. She'd struggled to find things for almost all the others. Most of their improvement points were pretty mild. But she had little hesitation identifying something about me which can be offputting - little non-verbal signals I sometimes give off when someone's talking which come across as dismissive. In other words, I need to work on my body language.

I know criticism like this is a gift. We all have blind spots when it comes to ourselves and it's only by someone telling you that you can become aware of certain aspects of your behaviour. Still I found the comments quite hard to take. They made me feel like there was something wrong with me. Only by asking afterwards for specific examples to watch out for did I realise that these were things I can change ... When I'm listening to someone my brow perhaps furrows in the middle of their sentence. Or maybe I begin to shake my head ever so slightly. I know I do this sometimes. Inwardly, I'm not disagreeing with the other person - I'm only thinking hard about what they're saying. Cheryl pointed out that it's difficult to be fully present, listening, when you're already thinking hard. She's right. As it's important to me that I keep that contemplative side of my nature, I should probably try to wait until the other person is done before I really mull over or critique their words. It's about being more humble, more patient and more mindful.

Still, she wasn't done. After we'd all eaten a final meal together at a nearby restaurant, Cheryl reminded me I'd "work on myself". That she'd chosen to leave me with this admonition again made me feel inadequate. She must have sensed as much and as she tried to explain and I turned to listen she pointed out I should lift my features, not lower them as I was doing right then.

I realised all I was doing was giving her my concentration, my intense concentration. I'm aware that some people find my intensity difficult. Since I was a teenager, people have told me I can be very serious. So it really is hard to know whether this is something I should try to change or whether there are certain things I have to accept as inevitably and indelibly me. There's a Taoist idea, a commonplace in our Western culture too, that you should 'know yourself', and that it's by accepting your weaknesses that you can turn them into strengths.

Maybe the question to ask myself is, was it just concentration? Mixed up in that, isn't there an aspect of defensiveness? Maybe I'm frowning not just because I'm giving someone the honour of taking them seriously, but also because I'm on-guard, steeled against an idea or a point I'm scared I won't like. Maybe that's why I tend to turn inward to my thoughts before the other person's finished. Working on waiting and listening can help me to be a more open person.

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