Kelly Durbin, Austin, Texas, USA
Last week a new Leader was accredited, one whom I mentored through her application. After she officially became a Leader, I wanted to share a top Leader tip of some kind—a wise insight about the key to effectively supporting mothers throughout the normal course of breastfeeding. I considered many things. I thought about knowledge and understanding of breastfeeding, and more broadly parenting through breastfeeding. I considered active listening and then communication skills as the keys to supporting the breastfeeding relationship. But all of those seemed to just miss what I was hoping to tell her. As I searched for the answer, I realized that I had been thinking about it from the Leader perspective. I needed to consider it from the nursing parent’s point of view.
When I shifted gears and remembered what it was like to be seeking breastfeeding help and support, the answer became crystal clear. In my opinion, the key to being an effective breastfeeding support volunteer is the ability to establish a genuine connection with another individual. Realizing this, I was instantly reminded of a meeting I once had with a new doctor.
My previous doctor had left the practice and when I scheduled another appointment, it was with a new doctor, a brand-new doctor (someone who had just completed her medical training). I was excited to meet with someone who had so recently been in school, because perhaps she had new ways of thinking about my issues, new solutions to old problems. At our first and only meeting, she entered the room, briefly looked up from my medical record and began our discussion by asking if anything had recently changed in my health care routine. She may have been feeling nervous or rushed that day but in her haste, she failed to even introduce herself. There was no attempt to know me beyond what she could read in the medical chart, no effort to establish a human connection. She seemed more like a busy server at a restaurant coming to take my order. It was a brief meeting and I gained nothing at all except the realization that I had to find another doctor who was more personable, less robotic. The tragedy of this true story is that it was entirely possible that she was a very skilled doctor who could have been the right fit for me at that time, but I never gave her the chance because she did not connect with me.
Connecting with others seems so basic. Could this really be the key to effective breastfeeding support? In my experience, genuine connection is an important first step that facilitates everything else that takes place during human interactions. But this is not always easy or intuitive and comes more naturally to some than others. For some of us it takes time and effort to develop skills that form the basis of sincere connection. Like breastfeeding itself, it takes practice to become fluent in the language of authentic connection.
Some of the most basic connecting skills are the same factors one might utilize when interviewing for a job—smile, greet people with a friendly introduction, make eye contact if it is culturally appropriate, use a genuine tone of voice and demonstrate excellent language skills. But leading a breastfeeding group and making connections takes a little more effort because mothers are often frustrated, emotional, or experiencing feelings of doubt or even isolation. In other words, it can be an emotionally charged atmosphere that may require some finesse in establishing genuine connections with mothers while at the same time creating a safe space for everyone to speak freely.
When I first became a Leader I knew that I was still learning the details of infant feeding, lactation and mothering through breastfeeding (there is always more to learn!), but I was surprised to recognize that I needed to truly grow and enhance my people skills. Instantly I recognized that the Leaders who had been providing breastfeeding support for years were a great resource. I tried to incorporate the connection skills they so fluidly demonstrated into my own skill set. I never thought to organize these ideas on paper until I needed something wise to pass on to my new co-Leader. In a brief effort to explain what I have witnessed over the years, here are some of my observations.
Years ago, I discovered from another Leader the value of learning names and using someone’s name to address them. A wonderful Leader I met in Oregon, USA made notes to refer to when a mother introduced herself, her baby and the reason why they sought out support (Nicole, baby Lily, 5 months, biting) and she would be sure to always address each person by name. Using names shows a measure of respect and provides a welcoming connection. It is also a good way to show that someone is valued and accepted in the community. Conversely, not using or remembering names may be interpreted as unwelcoming or even disrespectful.
Be fully present
Another extremely valuable tool for connecting with others is being fully present for them in conversations; listening with intent to hear them, not planning a rapid response. Being fully present involves active listening, observing body language, showing that you are engaged, and responding appropriately. You can show that you are engaged by facing the speaker, even slightly leaning forward to show interest. You can adjust your facial expression or nod in acknowledgement of their experience. Reflecting back what you heard or asking a few questions for deeper clarification can help show your genuine interest.
Many of the Leaders I have worked with over the years have demonstrated to me the importance of validation. People feel welcome in a community when others in the group share similar understandings. I met a Leader in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA who was very astute at validating a person’s feelings of frustration, failure, loneliness or isolation. She genuinely acknowledged their struggles and hardship. She often mentioned that many of the mothers present in the meeting had at one time or another had similar frustrations. Occasionally she shared a simple story from her own experience or a comment that showed that she understood their experience. Examples of validation involve language that shows that you hear, you understand, you recognize and you accept another person’s emotions. It is important to validate another person’s feelings before rushing to try to solve a situation or explain options. If a mother struggling to get sleep attended our Group with the goal of finding a better way to manage night-time nursing, my co-Leader would first validate the mother’s experience before she offered any suggestions. She might say, “Wow, Bridgit, I can see that you are at your limit. You sound discouraged, frustrated and tired because you’re not getting enough quality sleep.” After that validation, my co-Leader would ask a few questions, offer her some hope, and give several tips for managing night nursing. To be most effective, the validation must come first.
Affirm strengths and positives
Finally, I met a Leader in Phoenix, Arizona, USA who easily gained the trust and respect of co-Leaders and mothers alike. For a time, I wondered what it was about her interpersonal skills and communication skills that opened the door for trust. After all, she was generally quiet and somewhat reserved but had the most caring way about her. I observed her interactions with parents and saw that she always made a point of affirming strengths and positives in the mother’s experience and in her story. My co-Leader truly believed that the parents she supported were the experts on their own babies and she always pointed out that they knew their babies better than anyone. My co-Leader helped mothers develop their own self-trust by recognizing that they were already doing many things to help and support the breastfeeding relationship. In an encounter with a mother who was overwhelmed by infant feeding, I heard my co-Leader say, “See the way you re-positioned her just now? This is a much better position for the baby. You are good at recognizing how to help her and meeting her needs!” After observing her interactions, I began trying to affirm the strengths that I saw in people with regard to their breastfeeding skills. Instead of thinking about someone’s lack of knowledge or experience with infants or breastfeeding, I find that I am thinking about what they do know, how they are establishing themselves as an expert on their own infant, and how their strengths can grow into self-trust and confidence as a parent.
Write to me!
There are probably many other elements that play a role in being an effective Leader; these are just my observations and opinions. Perhaps your ideas and opinions are different. I would love to hear what you believe is the key to effective leadership or the strengths or new techniques you have learned from co-Leaders. Do write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. By being open to establishing new ways of genuinely connecting and engaging with others we can all take our interpersonal skills to a new level of authenticity.
Image Source: United States Breastfeeding Committee
Kelly Durbin has been a Leader for about ten years in the United States with experience leading meetings in five different states across the country. She, her husband and their two daughters now live in Austin, Texas, USA.