Penny: This is between you and me. You can't tell Leonard any of this.
Sheldon: You're asking me to keep a secret?
Sheldon: Well, I am sorry, but you would have had to have expressed that desire before revealing the secret, so that I could choose whether I wanted to accept the covenant of secret-keeping. You can't impose a secret on an ex-post-facto basis.
Sheldon: Secret-keeping is a complicated endeavor. One has to be concerned not only about what one says, but about facial expressions, autonomic reflexes. When I try to deceive, I myself have more nervous tics than a Lyme disease research facility.
Sheldon: It's a joke. It relies on the homonymic relationship between "tick", the blood-sucking arachnid, and "tic", the involuntary muscular contraction. I made it up myself.
Indeed, confidentiality is a complicated endeavor. And while we may not display outward ticks like Sheldon, we all know the feeling of being stuck between two people over confidentiality. His comments are funny because they are true.
The problem of being stuck
There had been a significant amount of conflict in the congregation prior to my arrival as their new pastor. In the months leading up to start date, I started receiving emails and phone calls from one of the leaders. They would share with me all of the problems as they saw it and tell me who was responsible for the problems. Others began to follow suit and before long I realized I was being told how to view the problem and the people before I had set foot in the building. I had no interest in taking sides. So, I would need to find a way to ground myself. It turns out that having a theoretical understanding of relationship systems was useful.
The concept of the triangle
Dr. Murray Bowen’s concept of the triangle describes the moment to moment interactions that take place in a relationship system. It is based on the assumption that a two-person relationship is not stable enough to address rising levels of tension. So, for example, in a congregation when tension develops between two people, it is not uncommon for one of them to reach out to a third person, like a clergy person. As they reach out to the third person, they try to convince the clergy person to see things from their perspective. Instead of the tension being resolved between the original twosome, it has now spread to a third person. If the clergy person is unable to contain the tension they are faced with, they, in turn, may reach out to another person and share their own tension about what has been shared with them about the original twosome. This pattern continues as interlocking triangles are created. You can read more about triangles and Dr. Murray Bowen’s concept by clicking here.
Most clergy are unaware of the interlocking triangles that surround them on a day to day, moment to moment basis. When people come to a congregational leader to voice a concern, the conversation can quickly shift away from the concern to talking about other people. This is a triangle. If one focuses on the content of the conversation, they will miss the movement of the triangle, and miss out on opportunities to address the underlying emotional process. If one can look past the content of the conversation and pay attention to the movement of the triangle, then it is possible to gain greater knowledge on how the relationship system works.
My confidentiality policy
My confidentiality policy is different than the one Dr. Copper proposed. Using the concept of triangles, and with the help of a coach, I developed my own policy on confidentiality. The confidentiality policy I adopted went something like this:
"If the information you are sharing is about someone else and their behavior, then I am free to share with that person anything you say to me about them. If, on the other hand, the information you are sharing is about your effort to try and do a better job relating to that someone else, then I'm willing to keep the conversation confidential. "
My effort in developing this policy was to be more of a self and not simply go along with the emotional process. It was my attempt to be more responsible for my part in the triangle and to keep the problem where it belonged – where it started with the original two people. It wasn’t so much a technique as a way to engage my thinking.
I implemented the policy in three steps. The first step was to share it with the entire congregation during the announcement time in worship each week for the first month. The second step was to write it up for the newsletter. Finally, and this was the most important step, whenever someone started a conversation with, "I need to talk to you about something or someone," I shared the policy with them: “I just want you to know that if you are going to talk about someone else, I’m free to choose whether to talk with them about whatever you tell me. If you want to talk about you and your efforts, then I’m willing to keep it confidential.”
I found the policy to be effective in calming down the overall anxiety of the congregation. More importantly it was useful in calming down my own anxiety by engaging a clearly articulated belief. In most cases, I watched individuals who might have been inclined to blame others shift towards a more thoughtful reflection about their own reactivity to people they found challenging. Overall, I saw a significant decline in blaming behavior.
One of the dilemmas clergy face is what to do with leaders who behave in ways that are counterproductive. As a result of sticking to the policy of shifting the conversation away from talking about other people, eventually some leaders decided not to renew their term at the end of the year. In fact, I never had a confrontational conversation where someone would just stop talking to me. Most people welcomed the opportunity to think about the problem from a broader perspective. Some individuals even made significant strides. They took responsibility for their part of the problem and, as a result, had better relationships with others in the church.
For my own part, I was not prepared for how anxious the policy would initially make me feel. Placing myself on the outside of every triangle in the congregation was very difficult. I was worried people would stopped “letting me in” on the problems going on in the church. I worried about being in the dark about problems in the congregation. My greatest fear, a mutiny in the congregation, could get the best of me from time to time. On my better days I would think about how my own anxious tendencies to over function could perpetuated the problem. I discovered that I too had a part to play in the problem.
An unexpected outcome was the freedom I experienced to relate well to everyone in the church. The effort to stay connected to the problems, while at the same time working to be less caught up in the reactivity of others who were anxious, gave me space to have a good relationship with everyone, including those I found the most challenging to work with. It was a form of grace. It gave me the freedom to lead.
Changes to the policy over time
Over time I did modify the policy. As I gained more confidence in my ability to articulate the policy, I no longer felt the need to reference it. It eventually become a part of my everyday conversations. If someone talked to me about someone else, I focused less on the other person and got curious about how the person talking to me was thinking about the problem. I had no interest in blaming others or talking about bad behavior.
I was also surprised to discover how well this policy worked in my own family. When family members attempt to get me on board with their way of seeing a problem (which could involve talking badly about someone else) I could talk about how I saw the problem differently. I stopped blaming others and tried to work on my own position in the triangles. It has been interesting to watch others embrace the effort and take it up for themselves. Working on this in my own family has given me the greatest level of confidence in working on it in the congregation.
Initially, the policy was extremely useful in helping me create enough distance in the relationship system to see the emotional process. What I discovered over time, which I attribute to the original policy, was something more usefully. When I was confronted with someone who was blaming or gossiping about someone else, I begin to think about the person I was talking to. Specifically, what about my relationship with them was important to me? I tried to move my thinking away from the person being blamed and back to the person who was talking to me. The conversation might turn to things we have in common. Or to others projects we are working on together. Or I might share something that was important to me that I’d been thinking about and ask for their thoughts. It has been a long term effort to move my own thinking out of an emotional and reactive response to one that is more thoughtful and principle based.
The more a leader and congregation can develop thoughtful policies about confidentiality, the better prepared they are to address relationship problems that are always operational. However, having a policy is not enough. Leaders need a better understanding of the emotional process that is the foundation of all relationships systems and then be willing to act take action steps based on this understanding and their beliefs.