Understanding how people arrive at different beliefs

Have you ever wondered how someone in a similar life station can experience the world or believe so differently from you?

Or have you ever been in a conversation that seemed benign until the other party exploded, leaving you to think, “Well that escalated quickly.”

An organizational psychologist named Chris Argyris developed a model called the ladder of inference that might be helpful for understanding what’s happening in scenarios like these.

Basically, each of us filters the world around us in a different way. We select among observable data, often without thinking much about it. We add meaning to that slice of data according to our personal experiences or cultural background. Those assigned meanings lead us to make assumptions, and we then make conclusions accordingly. As conclusions pile up over time, they solidify into beliefs. We act based on those beliefs.

The ladder of inference explains how even in a congregation that averages 100 in attendance – or in a discussion between two people – the parties can end up having very divergent perspectives. It can also help us learn to explore situations through others’ eyes. How might differences at each rung of the ladder lead to ranges of beliefs and actions? Where are potential points at which further discussion might result in understanding and collaboration?

The ladder of inference could be a useful tool for committees or teams that are having trouble coming to agreement. Start at the bottom and work your way up. What are each person’s observations? What data do they choose to work with? Keep going up. Note where there are divergences. Hearing from one another is the starting point for real collaboration.

The power of well-timed humor

I was done. I had spent four days presenting, networking, and wearing only moderately comfortable shoes at General Assembly. I was grateful and better for the interactions, but I was also ready to crawl into a hole and hibernate. The problem was, I had an 8:50 pm flight (delayed a half hour, naturally) and then an hour drive home once I landed. So I was grumpy when I boarded the plane.

Thank goodness I was booked on Southwest. At the start of my trip, I was glad because this meant I had a non-stop flight to the smaller and closer airport, plus I could check a bag for free. (A luxury these days!) At the end of my trip, flying Southwest meant that the crew was free of the staidness of other airlines. The safety demonstration, then, included reminders about not using your neighbor as a flotation device, putting on your own oxygen mask and then turning to your seatmate to decide “if it’s worth it,” and using the emergency exits and slides in case the captain decided to go shark fishing. The lead flight attendant used funny voices and a few dance moves to share other pertinent information. And when we landed, he informed us that the local temperature was 37 degrees. (At 11:00 pm, it was 90.)

I’m sure I wasn’t the only cranky person at boarding time. Yet, when we disembarked (late) into the muggy night, almost everyone I saw was smiling. This borderline-miracle seemed instructive. The flight attendant’s humor:

Caught my attention. Confession: I never listen to the safety information. It’s always the same. But I turned off my headphones because I didn’t want to miss any of the standup act.

Lifted my spirits. I was worried about driving home at my fatigue level, and I dreaded my human alarm waking me up early the next morning, as much as I couldn’t wait to see him. I felt more awake and refreshed for the journey after a few laughs.

Made me want to engage with others. As a raging introvert, I avoid conversations on planes by listening to podcasts and trying to nap. But my improved mood made me open to looking at internet memes with the stranger sitting next to me.

Was contagious. Laughter – like yawning – often is.

When in our work could a bit of well-timed humor do wonders for the atmosphere and productivity? Maybe a committee meeting when everyone is zoned out. Or a congregational gathering where those present are discussing unavoidable (and expensive) repairs to the building. Or even a funeral. (That’s probably not the best venue to work on your Jim Gaffigan “Hot Pockets” voice, but some self-deprecation might do.)

Good-natured humor humanizes and connects. Tuck it into your toolkit for a time when you need to shrink the dimensions of your meeting space.

Photo by Braydon Anderson on Unsplash.

Yellow flag words

Yellow: it’s the color of caution. (That is, unless you live in Alabama, where it apparently signals blow every other car’s doors off trying to make it through this traffic light.) Yellow flag words, then, are verbal indicators of the need to probe for deeper meanings before moving further into conversation. If we don’t clarify these words or phrases, we can make mental leaps that quickly morph into misunderstandings. Consider:

“I can’t get that report to you by Friday.” This statement might seem clear on its face, but it could actually have several meanings, such as:

  • I want to get the report to you, but I don’t have the time.
  • I want to get the report to you, but I don’t know how to write it.
  • I want to get the report to you, but I don’t know how to submit it.
  • I don’t want to get the report to you.

If you’re the person counting on this report, imagine your response to each of these interpretations. Three of them are about barriers. A bit more discussion might reveal that you and the other person both value the work, and then you can brainstorm about ways to remove or maneuver around the obstacles. The fourth reply, however, would likely make your blood boil. The relational impact and the possible solutions vary widely based on which response the other person actually intends.

Some other examples of yellow flag words or phrases include:

  • “I’m not ready to take that step.” (What does ready look like for you?)
  • “I don’t feel supported in my decision.” (What kind of support are you counting on?)
  • When the time comes, I’ll know what to do.” (When will that be?)

When there’s ambiguity around the meaning of words, ask an open-ended question. You’ll find out what your conversation partner does and does not mean, and you might also prompt some new awareness in that person around the power of her verbiage.

An ounce of curiosity is much less costly than an assumption that escalates into unhealthy conflict.

Photo by Goh Rhy Yan on Unsplash.

Dealing with contrarians

Contrarian 1: “I’m not so sure that starting this new ministry is a good idea. It will take a lot of financial and people resources that we don’t have to spare, and we can’t be sure that it will move us forward. Can you give examples of other churches that have tried this and had success?” 

Contrarian 2: “This new ministry isn’t needed. What we’re doing now is perfectly fine. Even if we did try something new, this particular idea is doomed to fail. I’m only thinking of the church when I say I can’t support this initiative.” 

If you’ve spent any time in congregational ministry, you’ve dealt with these two contrarians. Both of them can be very frustrating, especially when it seems so clear to you that change is needed and that there’s a solid plan for said change. There’s an important distinction between these two contrarians, though, and being able to identify and manage it could mean the difference between the congregation getting behind the change or staying mired in complacency.

The first contrarian is a skeptic, a logical thinker. Skeptics are cautious. They can help refine ideas. They can be brought on board to new initiatives with more facts. Skeptics might slow down processes, but their need for details can help churches guard against trying to do all the things. And once skeptics are convinced of a plan’s merit, they can become big cheerleaders and hard workers.

The second contrarian is what John Kotter calls a NoNo. NoNos don’t want change and will never support new ideas. In fact, a NoNo will actively work – loudly or behind the scenes – to undermine any change. When NoNos ask for more details, they are looking for selective facts to support their positions, not information to help them process the proposal. Many a NoNo has killed small-scale changes and ministry action plans coming out of a visioning process.

Last week I wrote about the importance of true urgency, and one of Kotter’s tactics for creating urgency is dealing with NoNos. Kotter says that NoNos will let the air out of congregational urgency if you spend time and energy try to convince them to get behind the coming change. On the other hand, they will gain power if you simply ignore them. Here, then, are some constructive ways to deal with NoNos:

Pray. Pray for the NoNo, for the situation, for discernment, and for your relationship and interactions with the NoNo.

Distract them. Identify their talents and recruit them to ministries (far away from the one they’re trying to kill) in which they can put their skills to good use and feel positive about their contributions.

Use positive peer pressure. Find someone who is a big proponent for the new ministry idea and is respected by the NoNo. Assign this person the task of neutralizing the NoNo’s negativity anytime the NoNo voices it. If this person can use humor gracefully, great! If not, the person can gently remind the NoNo – and more importantly, others who are listening – why the change-in-progress is important for mission fulfillment.

Remove them from leadership. This is really tough to do with volunteers and should only be attempted if the two tactics above don’t work. Sit down with the NoNo and at least one other congregational leader. (You might also want to give your judicatory leader a heads-up in advance.) Express that since all the voices have been heard and all the options have been explored, and the congregation has subsequently decided to move forward with the initiative, it’s essential that lay leaders be focused on how to implement it most effectively. If the NoNo is not willing to be solution-focused, you would be happy to help the NoNo find a different way to use gifts and skills in service to God.

It just takes one NoNo, even one working diligently at the fringes, to bring innovation to a grinding halt and make your vocational life miserable. Don’t let a NoNo keep you and your congregation from living toward God’s vision for your ministry.

Creative Commons image “Arrows” by librarianishish is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Safe for whom?

In several of the communities that I value, there are intense discussions happening about the nature of safe space. Whose sense of safety are we protecting? It’s an important question, one that is rooted in the reality of privilege. All of us are socially located at the intersection of our gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and other factors. Those of us with more privilege are accustomed to others deferring to our safety. I have been wrestling a lot lately with the nature of my privilege as a white, straight, cisgender, Christian, middle class person and the ways my obliviousness to that privilege has harmed others. I want to do better. I must do better. I am grateful for courageous voices that are calling me out, even if the new awareness they spark makes me uncomfortable. After all, what change was ever catalyzed by comfort?

The interactions that are urging me to examine both my innermost self and her outward manifestations are complicated. Listening and speaking can both be shut down quickly, hence the discussions about what makes space safe, and for whom. So what are some of the conversational skills that can help us hang in with one another in the midst of these tough, revealing conversations? Here are some of the thoughts I’ve had from my location as an ever-learning, trying-but-still-stumbling person of privilege:

Clarifying rather than (or at least before) advocating. Most of us speak to be understood before seeking to understand. Reversing that order – asking before telling – can stop a lot of arguments before they start.

Challenging rather than shaming. When we share our own perspectives, what is our goal? Is it to inform, to help our conversation partner grow (challenging), or to make him/her feel bad about her/his status or opinion (shaming)? Information and challenge can strengthen relationships. Shame rarely does that.

Defaulting to belief rather than doubt. Assume that the person saying something hard to hear is telling the truth.

Using “I” rather than “you.” “I” statements (“I feel angry when…” as opposed to “you make me angry”) are basic communication skills, yet we rarely use them. Starting a sentence with “you” tends to put hearers on defense. “I” signals I’m about to talk from my experience.

Avoiding exceptionalism. Don’t leap to self-defense when someone calls out privilege. Instead, take a moment to consider whether s/he might be right.

Striving for unity rather than uniformity. We will never all agree. That is ok. But we can look for shared values and purpose to rally around. And in doing so, we will better get to know one another, our histories, and our points of view.

What would you push back on, delete from, or add to this list?

Creative Commons image “listen (069/365)” by Tim Pierce is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Benefits of coaching: dealing with conflict

I sighed deeply, knowing a difficult conversation with a parent was in my near future. A children’s worship leader – one with extraordinary patience and skill in managing rambunctious behavior – had just expressed her concerns about a second grader’s ongoing disruptive and defiant actions during Godly Play.

I needed – I really wanted – to work with the parent on making children’s worship a sacred space for all of the kids, including her son. But I had experienced this mom as not very solution-focused on several occasions. So I tapped my go-to resource: I called my coach.

My coach asked me questions that surfaced my hoped-for outcomes. Her queries prepared me to ask the mother for a meeting in a non-threatening way, have the right people in the room for the conversation itself, voice the interests shared by all involved, name the point at which we’d made as much headway as we were going to, and communicate the results to those who needed to be in the loop. It was a hard meeting, but it went as well as it could because of all that pre-work.

Conflict is inevitable in ministry. And while the word “conflict” may strike terror in many hearts, conflict is actually value-neutral. It is simply a difference of opinion. Conflict done well can build trust and buy-in. Bungled conflict can lead to…well, we all have our horror stories.

I have found coaching invaluable when I’ve stared down the confusion, vulnerability, and fear that come with conflict, and I believe it can help you too. Specifically, a coach can help you:

  • define the conflict and see its potential value
  • separate conflicting ideas from the people who hold them
  • explore the dynamics of the situation and sort out your role (if any)
  • take a step back and see the issue or pastoral care need behind the issue
  • pinpoint what you don’t yet know but need to find out about the conflict
  • prompt you to name and assess options for taking action
  • strategize specific conversations
  • think about resources and partners available to you
  • empower you to say or do difficult but necessary things
  • build in some accountability for following through with your action plan

If you recognize value in these conversation points for your own ministry, let’s talk.

Creative Commons image “Putting The Puzzle Together” by Ken Teegardin is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.


(Re)Building trust

It’s tough to get traction for forward movement when there’s no trust in people or process. Instead of focusing on what’s ahead, you’re busy looking over your shoulder to make sure there’s no one with a knife within stabbing distance.

So, unless a compromised relationship is abusive – in which case wariness if not complete separation is called for – it’s generally worth the effort to try to rebuild trust. Here are some thoughts on how to go about it:

If your trust has been broken:

  • Listen to yourself. Your limbic system has kicked in for a reason. Maybe the situation is harmless and a word or deed triggered some old trauma. Or maybe the red flags are waving to protect you from present danger.
  • Be kind to yourself. You do not deserve to have your trust violated.
  • Take a deep breath. It sounds so simple, but a deep, cleansing breath can interrupt a limbic loop. (Limbic loops keep us locked in survival mode, keeping us from learning more about our situation or finding a creative solution.)
  • Ask for perspective. Talk with people whose counsel you value. Ask them to help you understand the situation more broadly and discern how to move forward.
  • Be honest. When you’re feeling more brave – or can fake it! – tell the trust violator about the impact of her/his choices. The response will let you know what the immediate possibilities are for saving the relationship.

If you have broken someone else’s trust:

  • Own up to the breach. Acknowledge – first to yourself and then to others – that you have messed up, and ask for forgiveness. Otherwise the process of rebuilding trust stops before it starts.
  • Exchange stories. Share a bit about the reasons behind what you said or did, not to make excuses, but to pave the way for understanding. Invite the person whose trust you compromised to tell about how your words or actions have affected him/her.
  • Change the rules. Decide together what needs to change in your relationship for there to be trust again.
  • Overcommunicate. Make extra effort to be transparent. Nothing undermines rebuilding trust like guessing games.
  • Give space. The person(s) who feel violated may not be ready to jump back in to relationship. Pressure will only slow down the process.
  • Ask for feedback. Check in with the other person about how you’re doing and how s/he is feeling. What course corrections still need to be made?
  • Be worthy of trust. Enough said.

(Note that I did not include prayer in the steps above because conversation with God – whatever that looks like for you – should be woven throughout the process.)

Rebuilding trust, at its root, requires vulnerability on both sides. The violator must be willing to admit fault and make changes, and the violatee must be willing to try again in a relationship that has brought pain. There is no cheap grace. Be brave, be patient, and be assured that the Holy Spirit will go with you.

Creative Commons image “take my hand” by Jasleen Kaur is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.