The congregation I currently serve updated their emergency plan. A good emergency plan tells you exactly what to do so you don’t have to think about it. When you take a first aid or CPR course, you learn how to quickly respond to an emergency. You practice the response over and over until the action becomes automatic. Emergency plans and training are designed to help people react quickly and automatically to danger.
The brain has two primary ways of responding to the world around us. As the brain receives stimuli, it decides whether or not it requires a fast-acting response or a response that is thoughtful and reflective. But what happens when the brain perceives an emergency that isn’t really an emergency? The brain may determine that a fast-acting response is in order when a thoughtful, reflective response might have been more useful. What can be done to prevent this problem? How can the brain do a better job?
The thoughtful and reflective parts of the brain represent the intellectual system. The automatic and reactive parts of the brain represent the emotional system. It is possible for the intellectual system to override the emotional system. But the opposite is also true. The emotional system can hijack the intellectual system and take it for a ride. In that case, it can be difficult to tell whether one is thinking or reacting. Anyone who has worked on this effort, distinguishing the two systems, knows it to be true. The struggle is becoming aware of when one is thinking and when one is feeling, how to catch oneself responding automatically, and how to make strides in being more thoughtful. This effort is called differentiation of self.
Dr. Murray “Bowen’s observation [of the family] led him to propose that better differentiated individuals in a family display greater inner-direction, principle-based, and goal-directed behavior than their less differentiated relatives. They are more secure in their beliefs and principles, but not fixed in their thinking. They are able to hear and evaluate the opinions and perceptions of others and discard old beliefs for new ones. Better differentiated people appear to navigate through the family relationship system with greater freedom from constraining emotional reactivity. They can maintain and reflect their beliefs in behavior while remaining in contact with important others. Their lives appear to be more orderly than those of less well-differentiated people, and they can be productive while alone or in the context of relationships.” The Family Emotion System, page 23.
Good leaders counteract their natural tendency to behave automatically. Here is a list of some of the markers for this effort:
- Being open to receiving additional information that is outside one’s frame of reference.
- Not changing one’s position based on the opinions of others but by reflecting on one’s internal beliefs and values.
- Avoiding a crisis mindset.
- Remember that it’s not personal.
- Resisting the urge to blame others or self.
- Coordinated efforts with others to resolve a problem without defending, attacking or freezing.
- Keeping oneself organized even if others are disorganized.
- Resisting the urge of doing for others what they can do for themselves.
- Knowing how others in the relationship system think about the problem.
- Think systems.
These are characteristics of a leader who is engaging a higher level of differentiation. The next time you interview a pastor, a staff person, or a volunteer consider asking questions that address these areas.
All of us can work on developing our capacity to be a good thinker. Here are some helpful steps in continuing this journey towards differentiation.
- Find a coach. It’s difficult to see blind spots and to shift out of a reactive mindset into a thinking mindset.
- Create your own “Good Thinker” plan. Write out steps on “how to” override the automatic, emotional system.
- Discover your motivation. No one can do this work for us.
- Dr. Bowen introduced multigenerational research of one’s family as one way to work on differentiation. By studying the family, one can predict patterns and levels of differentiation across the generations. Again, a coach can help with this effort.
- Observe the world as it is, not how you want it to be.
- Take responsibility for your part of a problem.
- Create space for trial and error as you learn to be more of a self.
- Give yourself time to “see” the way the emotional process is at work.
This is not an exhaustive list to be rigidly followed, but an example of what it takes to be a better leader in an anxious world. This is a way to be less reactive and crisis orientated while becoming more disciplined and thoughtful as you engage others.