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Handling an Emotionally Charged Meeting

Laura Cunningham
Orange County, CA, USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 30 No. 2, March-April 1994, p. 24

"What started out as an upbeat, information-filled meeting suddenly turned into disaster," sighed the Leader to her District Advisor. "We were holding Meeting 2 and had just begun to talk about birth preparations; two pregnant mothers were there, and they were very interested in finding out about other mothers' experiences and how to get breastfeeding off to a good start. Just then, a newcomer to our Group began telling all about her terrible birth experience. It seemed that everything had gone wrong for her. To make matters worse, the baby had some medical problems that may have been birth related. The more this mother talked, the more she worked herself up and soon she was crying, overcome with the grief of seeming to have failed at something that was important to her. We all sympathized with her and wanted to support her, but she cast a pall over the entire meeting, and the two pregnant mothers were really shaken. The next day the same mother called me to apologize for getting so emotional. She realized that her comments had upset some of the other mothers. What do you think I could have done better?"

When such a difficult moment happens during a meeting, we can all lose our poise and let the discussion get out of control. We can't mentally prepare for every situation we might encounter, but there are some key guidelines we can keep in mind to help us when the difficult moment arises.

In this example, the mother has chosen to talk about events and emotions that go way beyond the scope of a typical La Leche League meeting. Her revelations are difficult for the Group because she seems to need much more help in dealing with her anger and grief than a Leader or the Group can provide. In addition, her experiences arouse strong anxiety and sadness in the other mothers that the Leader is unlikely to be able to relieve. Such an experience may even discourage mothers from attending future meetings.

On the other hand, when someone bares her soul, as this mother did, we feel her pain and truly want to help. The first response to such a difficult moment, then, is to show that you have heard and understood the mother. Using reflective listening techniques, the Leader will communicate acceptance by restating the mother's feelings: "I can see this has been a very painful experience for you. And I think all of us support you in your efforts to give your baby the very best through breastfeeding."

Sometimes when a mother feels she has been heard and affirmed, she will not need to pursue the topic further. However, the mother in this anecdote may not be so easily dissuaded. In that case, the Leader needs to decide whether to allow the mother to continue to talk about this experience. Stop and assess the Group members present. Are there just a few mothers present, all of whom you know well and who are confident, affirmative women? In that case, the Leader may decide that letting this mother vent her emotions will not cause undue anxiety or prevent anyone else from having her needs met. But in most cases, and especially when newcomers or pregnant mothers are present, the Leader would need to return the discussion to more neutral ground before things get out of hand. Here are some things the Leader could do:

1. Postpone discussing the situation--"I wish we had more time to hear about your experiences. When we break for refreshments, we may be able to brainstorm about some resources that could help you." Then present a discussion question unrelated to this mother's situation.

2. Give information--"There's a book in our library that offers help for mothers whose birth experiences are disappointing, and I have seen listings in the newspaper for support groups related to that. After the meeting I can show you what I mean."

3. Share how you feel about the situation--"I'm concerned that what you are telling us is beyond the scope of La Leche League. I feel it would be unfair to the Group not to address our topic about how to get breastfeeding off to a good start."

The Leader can combine one of these statements with a nonverbal demonstration of her concern and caring such as touching the mother's arm or putting an arm around her. And she could make it a point to affirm the positive things about the mother and her baby: "Your baby is really positioned well." "You seem to really be able to comfort your baby well." "Your dedication to breastfeeding is really admirable."

Armed with reflective listening skills and a few simple strategies to guide the discussion back on track, the Leader can overcome the difficult moment and reach her Number one goal--to help mothers successfully breastfeed.

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