Politics, polarization, and the Coronavirus

In his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt covers a range of themes about which liberals and conservatives disagree. One is the care/harm theme in which the two polarities differently attribute definitions and causes of hurt and assign the responsibilities of society toward those who are vulnerable. In another, the polarities take varying stances toward people with power.

Our relationships toward these two themes are running beneath the surface of many COVID-19 conversations. Who is to blame for the spread of the virus? Who is supposed to do what about it? How well are our leaders serving us in this crisis? Who is the boss of me and my comings and goings as recommendations for ever more stringent social distancing guidelines are urged?

Right now these questions are only helpful insofar as they reduce the spread of disease. Beyond that, they are ingredients for introducing even more anxiety into a system that is already highly reactive. Still, the questions aren’t going away.

For leaders, then, the need to self-differentiate is more important (and difficult) than ever. If we can be with our people rather than react to to them, we’ll model ways to manage self and begin to infuse the system with more stability.

What does self-differentiating in a pandemic mean? Here are some thoughts:

Listen deeply to others. When people feel heard, seen, and valued, the tension in a conversation drops.

Stay curious. Seek to understand, whether or not you agree.

Don’t try to change minds. Be clear about what you believe, but prioritize the relationship over the position.

Neither under- nor overfunction. This helps distribute responsibility throughout the system, evening out the emotions.

Balance thinking and feeling. You need both, but too much of one or the other will make it hard to keep connected with people.

Stay present with people. If you can be grounded where you are, there is always the potential for care and respect.

Take care of yourself. Self-differentiation is hard work. Shore up your support system as needed.

Your leadership matters. While others panic, blame, or scoff, your self-management is helping make it possible for those in your care not just to cope, but to assign meaning to this unprecedented experience.

Photo by cloudvisual.co.uk on Unsplash.

Understanding conflict

There is more than one way to assess the dynamics at play in conflict. We have the intrapersonal elements: what is going on within each person? Internal struggles are sometimes good fodder for conversation with a therapist or counselor, a professional who helps individuals understand how their current reactions are shaped by past experiences. Once that awareness emerges, healing becomes possible.

In conflict there are also the interpersonal aspects: what is happening among people? I don’t know of an approach that offers more insight into relationships than family systems theory, which explains how different emotional units interact in healthy and unhealthy ways.

To be certain, the intra- and interpersonal overlap when conflict threatens to boil over, and a basic grasp of both is essential to pastoral care at multiple layers. But I think an additional filter is helpful when we’re dealing with issues at the congregational level. Otherwise we can quickly get into the weeds, analyzing who is where in the system or what each person’s triggers are, so that it’s hard to zoom back out to the big picture. Meetings grind to a halt and initiatives die because we’re so focused on managing problems at the micro level.

In my mind, then, congregations live on an x-y axis. Individuals are points on the plane. Family systems theory orients us along the horizontal axis, helping us see how one person relates to the next. The vertical axis can in turn offer us a deeper though perhaps simpler way in to focusing what’s going on by taking us from symptoms at the surface to underlying issues.

At the outset we deal with logic. What are the arguments the involved parties are making? What are the counterpoints? If conflict is not resolved through reason, through adding up pros and cons and taking the most apparently advantageous path, then something else is going on.

The next level down to probe, then, is emotion. Who is feeling what and why? How might those feelings need tending? Whose heart or relationship needs mending?

If conflict remains after working with logic and feelings, then there is a struggle for power, whether or not it’s acknowledged as such. Who has control in certain situations? How did they get it, and how do they maintain it? What would it look like to give some of it up, and who would benefit? What would it take to convince the powerholders to cede some of their stake?

This approach, adapted from Sarah Drummond’s book Dynamic Discernment, provides a more streamlined on-the-spot assessment and offers a way to think about what it would take truly to get conversations and plans moving in a helpful direction. So the next time you’re blindsided in a conversation or banging your head on the conference table during a stalled-out meeting, travel the vertical axis of reason-emotion-power, taking care as you have breadth to tend to the pastoral care needs of individuals and emotional units.

Photo by Cristian Palmer on Unsplash.

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.