Setting the Stage for Acceptance
Melissa Clark Vickers
Marietta, Georgia USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 28 No. 3, May-June 1993, pp. 42-43
Have you ever walked into a meeting of an organization you were curious about and decided whether or not to come back next time based on what happened during the first ten minutes? First impressions of a person or an organization can make or break a potential relationship. Perhaps nowhere is this more true than at a La Leche League meeting!
So what makes the difference between the meeting that makes newcomers want to return and the meeting that drives them away? In a word, acceptance.
Picture the following scenario: A new mother has heard about LLL as a place to meet other nursing mothers. She is not quite comfortable in her new role as a mother and while breastfeeding is going okay, she has doubts and questions typical of a mother learning to nurse. As she walks in the door she notices other mothers busily engaged in conversations. Toddlers run around the room, some mothers (the Leaders) arrange chairs. She sits down and looks around a bit before nervously focusing her attention on her newborn. She notices one mother getting ready to nurse a large toddler, she overhears mothers making negative comments about bottle feeding, three other mothers are discussing their home births.
The Leader calls the meeting to order and launches into the topic of the day, which happens to be weaning. Many of the mothers join in and announce proudly that they would never think of initiating weaning, and that they found nursing their two-, three-, and four-year-olds to be rewarding. The new mother thinks about her tender nipples, her lack of sleep, and the seemingly constant nursing sessions. She sits back, crosses her arms, and leaves as soon as the meeting adjourns.
It isn't too difficult to figure out that this mother is not likely to return next month! So the question becomes what could have been done to make this mother feel accepted, comfortable, or interested enough to return?
In the scenario above, many things were happening that contributed to this mother's poor impression of LLL. Leaders have control over some of these things and no control over others. We can only hope to lessen the impact.
The First Impression
With a little planning and effort. Leaders can make the newcomer feel welcome from the moment she walks in the door. It helps to have a sign outside the meeting location to assure the newcomer that she is in the right place.
Another strategy for creating a good first impression is to assign one or more Leaders, Leader Applicants, or reliable LLL mothers to be greeter(s). Greeters can serve a number of useful purposes. First having a greeter is a wonderful way of welcoming a new mother. The greeter lets her know where to sit, where the library and refreshments are, etc. Second, the greeter may be able to find out the mother's main purpose for being at the meeting, whether she has a specific problem, is there to make new friends, or just needs someone to tell her she is doing a great job! The greeter can pass along this information to the Leader in charge of the meeting so the Leader has a better opportunity to address the needs of the new mother. Third, by getting to know the greeter a bit before the meeting, the new mother may be more likely to open up to others. The greeter may be able to introduce the new mother to another mother in a similar situation for mutual support. Also, having a designated greeter can mean that the first person the new mother talks to is representative of what LLL is all about.
This is the time the Leader has the best chance for exerting indirect control over things that help create the first impression of LLL. She can make sure that co- Leaders, Leader Applicants, and /or Group workers are interspersed with new mothers. This is a great way to help Leader Applicants and potential Applicants to begin to make the transition from one who is there mostly to receive support to one who is there to give support.
A Leader's opening statement is the first official opportunity she has to set the stage for acceptance. It should be well planned ahead of time to make sure everything that needs to be said is actually said. It is a good opportunity to relate a brief history of LLL, its mission and purpose. as well as to explain the nature of the series meetings. Housekeeping issues can be addressed as well (any restrictions, location of snacks and toilet facilities, a plea to watch out for the needs of their own children, etc.).
The rest of the opening statement should be concerned with creating that aura of acceptance we strive for. Each Group will have a different opening statement. For example, if there is more than one Leader in your Group, all the Leaders should be introduced so that mothers with questions know whom to speak with to get the most accurate information. This is also the time to let mothers know that they are free to take what they can use and leave the rest as they see fit. This is especially important for a Group with a lot of toddlers, who will inevitably want to nurse in the middle of the meetings. You'll need to assure mothers that nursing is a personal relationship between a mother and her baby and that only she knows what is best for her situation. Not only does a statement like this let new mothers know that it is okay to disagree with what she hears, it also lets her know that LLL members are a diverse group!
Another suggestion that can help put new mothers at ease is the use of an icebreaker question in conjunction with an introduction of mothers and children. The use of humor in an icebreaker can create laughter which is one of the best ways to make people feel comfortable!
It can be very helpful to ripen the discussion by asking if anybody has a particular concern. By doing this, you run the risk of not having time to do what you had planned, but from the standpoint of the mother who came for a specific reason, this makes a powerful statement: we are here help mothers. Some questions may require a lot of time and may only pertain to one particular mother. In this case it is reasonable to briefly respond to the mother and then offer to talk to her after the meeting adjourns. Some questions will be of a nature that affects many mothers at the meeting for which the experienced mothers can offer help and support. These are the questions that may justify throwing out the meeting plan. Projecting acceptance may require a lot of flexibility!
Perhaps the one thing that Leaders have no control over is what other mothers say. Statements that go completely against LLL philosophy, or take the philosophy to an extreme, make many mothers uncomfortable. These statements require every ounce of our leading ability to respond in a way that will promote acceptance. It is important that we acknowledge the speaker's experience but at the same time make LLL philosophy clear, "Mary, it sounds as though that worked really well for you. Let me tell you what THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING has to say about that. . . . " It also helps to remind mothers that they need to make the decisions that are right for them.
One Last Chance
As the meeting begins to draw to a close, the Leader has one last chance to make that first impression a positive one. This can be an open invitation to stay around after the meeting and get to know other members, or perhaps even another restating of LLL's mission. After adjourning the meeting, it can be helpful for the Leaders to seek out those newcomers and make sure they received the help they needed and to invite them to return next month.
Acceptance is simply a matter of making everyone feel comfortable and a valued part of the Group. This doesn't mean asking them to conform, but instead reminding ourselves that we help mothers by saying things like "many mothers have found...." New viewpoints add new Group members which help us to continue to help new mothers learn the art of breastfeeding.