An important element of work-life balance for me is my men's group. Every few weeks, we gather and talk about our lives, understanding ourselves better from the ability to share our life stories honestly in an atmosphere of complete acceptance.
I was taken recently by the suggestion that young men lack such an ability, or forums, to share. But the reality is that people of all ages lack such a venue, as they teeter, off kilter, through life. For the many men who lack intimacy skills and close, whole-life friendships – friendships in which they share all aspects of their being – this avenue can be particularly liberating.
The idea for men's groups was an outgrowth of women's consciousness-raising and sharing groups in the 1970s and 1980s, and has not had much pick-up. I have been in a few groups since the early 1980s, the current one for something between 15 and 20 years (none of us know more exactly than that).
In format, they may seem similar to Mastermind groups and similar coffee klatches that entrepreneurs form to share the burdens they face in business. A small number of people gather at regular intervals and unburden themselves in a spirit of confidentiality and high regard for the other members. But the focus for those other groups is primarily on work – how to be more successful in our careers, overcoming the obstacles that routinely rear up.
We talk in our group of work, but also of much more. Work and the rest of life – how to make the most of it, in all facets, and, of course, balance can emerge as a topic.
We usually start with a go-round, in which each man shares recent events and concerns. In some groups this was for a limited time, maybe two minutes, to suss out who needed special time that evening and what common concerns might be dealt with in a general discussion. The current group is a collection of loquacious story tellers and so we long ago gave up on such restraints. We just talk, in turn, about the past few weeks, always surprised at the interconnections in life that arise, as one man's story reminds the next-in-line of a commonality. Somebody watches the clock and it usually becomes quite clear when one or two men need an inordinate share of the time. If they are cautious, they are invited to take more time.
It is a unique situation to simply be able to talk to other people, openly, without a feeling that you have only 30 seconds before you try their patience. It is glorious to have their attention and support. Nobody is out to upstage you, to prove themselves superior. The others want to help, first by listening, and then perhaps by offering gentle advice.
In more than 15 years, I doubt we have spent more than 10 minutes in total talking about the hockey playoffs and other sports watched on TV. Indeed, I'm not quite sure whether some of the others are fans, watching on TV, or other than our Detroit Red Wing booster, who, if anybody they support. Put men together for talk and often that's the first, and prime, topic – pushing other topics and those not interested in sports aside. But there is much more commonality in men's lives than their favourite sports teams.
We do talk of our own athletic and other recreational pursuits. Two fellows are avid tennis players. Another is a golfer, in more tournaments than I can keep track of, as well as a runner and kayaker. One fellow gets up at a shockingly early hour to meditate, another is a walker, I'm heavy into Taoist Tai Chi, and two of us will cross country ski together in winter and talk of our cycling in summer.
But we talk of more than that: The ups and downs of our relationships; our kids and grandkids (and my recently born great grandchild); work pressures and triumphs; vacations; and sundry other aspects of life. As we age, medical issues play a more and more prominent role in discussions, as we interpret PSA scores, describe the agonies of prostate biopsies and comparatively blissful colonoscopies, as well as aneurisms, angiograms and stents, sleep apnea diagnoses, frozen shoulders, tennis elbows, and the longer healing cycle from injuries. Interestingly, when we formed, mostly in our forties, the discussion was often centred on the cancers female partners and one daughter was facing; these days, the women seem healthier, and it's our own medical fortunes that predominate.
We hang on every word. I'm always amazed at how when someone finishes and fails to complete a thread from the previous session or earlier, a question will arise. Did your son get his acceptance to that university? Did your daughter get that summer job? How did the sleepover of the grandkids work out? For talkers, we're also sharp listeners, because we care for each other.
We cover life, in all it's facets. On balance itself, there's encouragement from others when needed, and cautions when those are vital. Who knows about balance and stress better than those juggling it every day – men who also understand what motivates each other in the fullest sense, not just a career sense, and when it's acceptable to speed up and when to slow down?
"I learn so much from the experience of the others, making my own journey less lonely, and giving me points to talk about with experts," one of the fellows says. And by expressing ourselves fully – our whole selves – we operate on a larger canvas than the jock and career talk that too often can be what men share.
It's simple. It's effective. All it requires is the imagination and courage to round up some other men, and give it a try.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter