September 13, 2010
Where do we draw the line between "appropriate" and "inappropriate" in mixed-gender small groups?
Last week I offered women a chance to Stand and Speak regarding their experiences in small groups. And we have had some great responses and interesting disclosures.
One comment that caught my eye came from Jill, who said:
I haven't been in a coed group in a long while, but in the past I've frequently found that men in leadership of said groups don't quite know what to do with single women in the group. I'm no shy wallflower, and I think sometimes they've felt somehow threatened. I think male leaders find single women very different somehow from married ones. Maybe the married ones are accustomed to deferring to their husbands.
Well Jill, I can tell you that you have nailed the feelings of at least one male small-group leader. To say I "don't quite know what to do with" the women in the small groups I have led is right on—and it's not just the single women that get me confused and/or gun-shy.
To put it badly, I am often am uncertain where the line is between appropriate and inappropriate behavior regarding women and men in a group. And that means I usually act overly reserved just to make sure that I don't unintentionally do anything weird—which often makes me feel like I am not fulfilling my role as a group leader who wants to care about and support the members of my group.
These are the kinds of issues I am talking about:
- Eye contact. When I facilitate a discussion, I like to demonstrate active listening my maintaining eye contact and showing positive body language to whomever is speaking. But it often feels weird to be staring into a woman's eyes for long periods of time.
- Physical contact. Some people are huggers, and I understand that. I am not a hugger. That being the case, I often feel awkward when a woman hugs other members of the group upon coming through the front door, but I stay back instead of "coming in for my turn." Am I being offensive in doing so?
- Hospitality issues. My wife and I pride ourselves on being good hosts, which means I am always on the lookout for someone who needs a drink or something to eat. I will give up my chair for a woman that doesn't have one. I will open doors for women. I try to welcome everyone into our home and take their coats if they have one. But I often wonder, Can these gestures be misconstrued as flirting?
- Emotional support. Like most men, I react when I see a "damsel in distress." I have an instinctual desire to comfort or encourage a woman who is having a hard time. Obviously, I understand that it's not a good idea for me to put my arm around a woman and try to soothe her or anything—my wife is wonderful at recognizing those moments and offering comfort when necessary. But am I within appropriate boundaries to verbally encourage a woman? To pray for a woman? To have a one-on-one conversation where I am listening to her trouble and offering support/advice?
This has become a longer post than I intended, but I would still like to ask for your help on these issues, and on others that you can think of regarding men leading women within a small group. Wehre are the boundaries? How do we know what is appropriate?
In other words -- help!
posted by Sam O'Neal on September 13, 2010 1:52 PM