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Two Key Tools in Bridge Building: Suspending Judgment and Asking Questions

Posted by frankieblackburn on April 13, 2009

This weekend, I visited some friends, one of whom has a long history as a social welfare policy leader and analyst. When I described the Neighbors Campaign and IMPACT’s partnership with Montgomery County’s Department of Health and Human Services, he immediately reflected on the inherent differences between the work of institutional social work and community organizing. His primary point was in recognizing the incredible maze of standards and points of accountability which govern those who run social service programs from a public agency framework, compared to the necessary freedom and organic nature of engaging residents at the grassroots level.

Mini-RetreatWe continue to encounter and embrace and work through these differences. This past week, we co-sponsored with HHS a four hour “relationship building retreat” for those of us involved in implementing the Gaithersburg Neighborhood Service Center. Later in the week, Uma Ahluwalia and I gathered the senior project managers and some of our key partners for the purpose of taking a deep breath, building stronger relationships and gaining greater understanding of some of our natural tension points, as the project emerges.

As I think about these sessions with our partners, I want to offer one specific reflection for those who are sometimes puzzled by IMPACT’s continual use of the term and practice of relationship building. I find that the key steps I need to take as I enter relationships with those who are different than me is to first, suspend judgment and then to ask clarifying questions….either about their personal story or the tension moment we just encountered together. As I practiced these two steps – time and time again this past week – I discovered that many of my initial judgments or assumptions were incorrect, that I could calm down in terms of advancing my position or interest that felt threatened and that there were so many things I did not know about the person or the situation at issue – things I might never have known or understood had I not taken these steps.


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