Our behavior, in response to anxiety, is predictable.
I first became aware of this several years ago while attending an annual meeting of our conference. I found the presentations lacking, the substance of the conference uninteresting, and the general demeanor of those attending depressing. To put it simply, it was not enjoyable. But attendance was mandatory.
I always saw other participants as the problem. If those in charge could organize a better conference or provide better leadership the meeting would be much more enjoyable. It took time for me to realize enjoying the conference was not the purpose. The gathering had a specific purpose and I could have either a positive or negative impact on it. I eventually discovered that my reactivity to the conference was just as problematic as what I perceived to be the problem with other people.
Initially, in order to cope with my negative experience, I began to replicate the behavior of others who I looked up to at the time. They would hangout outside of the main room and talk to anyone who walked by. They would complain about how things were being run or about other people’s bad behavior. It never occurred to them, or to me at the time, their lack of participation in the meeting was contributing to the problem. What was occurring in the hallways had just as much of an impact on the conference as anything substantive happening on the main floor.
To be fair, these annual meetings were highly anxious. Whether the subject matter was about race, gender identity, sexual orientation, money, or any number of anxiety producing topics, it didn’t take much for the intensity to go up in the room.
The funny thing about it, I got real good and predicting who would be present, who would be in the hallways, who would check in and then leave, and who was going to speak, when, and about what. All of these responses are based on the way we react to tension.
The parking lot meeting is an indicator of the level of anxiety.
Sometimes called the meeting after the meeting, congregational leaders know all too well the reality of parking lot meetings. You’ve already met for several hours with a committee, dealing with a difficult issue, only to watch a small group of people huddle outside in the parking lot after the meeting adjourns.
Anxiety is what drives individuals to gather together in a parking lot to debrief a meeting. It is the driving force behind how we respond to others. When we experience anxiety we sometimes find comfort in being together with others. We can also find comfort in keeping our distance. There are a number of variables involved with how we react to anxiety. Most notably is the level of anxiety in the relationship system, the level of maturity of those around us (how they respond to the anxiety), and our own level of maturity (our responsiveness to the anxiety) which comes from a multigenerational process which includes the maturity level of our parents and grandparents.
One’s level of maturity has to do with the ability to separate out feelings from thinking. Dr. Murray Bowen called it "differentiation of self". Click here to read more about his ideas of differentiation. Parking lot meetings result from the challenge individuals face (when anxiety goes up) of separating out feelings from thinking at an internal level. At an external level, it is the challenge of separating out where the self ends and another person begins. When feelings (in response to anxiety) are driving responses, it is a guarantee that meetings will be less productive and more frustrating. With some effort, over time, it’s fairly easy to watch the emotional process. If someone is trying to control the direction of a meeting, often with a great deal of intensity behind their speaking, you can observe the emotional process at work. They may also be those who refuse to participate, remain silent, and avoid the meeting. Their response is also about emotional process. Even if someone is articulating an idea, if it is accompanied by an attempt to control the thinking, feelings and actions of others it has more to do with emotional process than the substance of the conversation. So, the parking lot meeting is really an emotional process in which individuals are trying to manage their own level of anxiety. For some reason it just feels good to huddle and blame others for one’s own feelings of discomfort.
A theme and variation of the parking lot meeting is when a congregational member wants to speak privately with you after the meeting. They may be uncomfortable about the decision that was made, suspicious of the intention of others, or critical of how others are behaving. Like a pressure cooker, anxiety builds up in meetings and those who pick it up and take responsibility for it look for ways to release it. In a way, parking lot meetings, meetings after the meetings, or private conversations with the pastor are really efforts to pass along anxiety. How does one do a better job of leading without participating in efforts to control or distance from anxious others?
The only person you can change is you.
What is remarkable about Bowen Theory is the influence it can have on others in the relationship system when one is working on their reactivity to anxiety. While one’s effort is always on being more responsible for one’s own behavior, there are benefits to the congregation. But it only happens when a leader is focused on leading self.
It is really about directing on one’s own feelings, thinking and behavior and less on directing the feeling, thinking and behavior of others. In previous blogposts I’ve outlined the process for doing this work through what Bowen called differentiation of self. And while one can work on defining a self in a congregation while in attendance at meetings, Bowen believed the family was the most effective means by which one could develop more of a self. He encouraged people to work on understanding the multigenerational process which can be enhanced through the utilization of a Bowen trained coach.
Here are a few ways of thinking about this effort in the congregation:
- A leader refuses to blame others for their own uncomfortableness and takes responsibility for the ways they are reacting to others.
- A leader pays attention to the emotional process of a meeting and not just the content.
- A leader pays attention to and learns to identify their own automatic responses to anxiety.
- A leader makes an effort to regulate their automatic responses to others.
- A leader makes an effort to see their automatic responses in the context of their relationships with parents and siblings, their parent’s parents and siblings, and their parent’s parent’s parents and siblings. Again, a good coach can be helpful here.
- A leader cultivates a mindset of curiosity and discovery. Good leaders are inquisitive into the who, what, where and when of any situation. They avoid asking the “why” questions because those questions come from more anxious thinking.
- A leader learns to predict the responses of others.
- A leader sees the part they play in the problem. Often referred to as self-awareness, it is about seeing how one’s behavior impacts others. What are other people in the meeting up against when dealing with you?
- A leader is flexible and adapts to what they are learning from this process. They take steps to respond to others in a less reactive and more thoughtful way by being more of a self.
- A leader spends time developing their beliefs and core principles which reflect one’s own best thinking about what is important.
- A leader takes action based on beliefs and core principles, anticipates anxious responses and is prepared for them.
- A leader continues to repeat this process.
As a result, a leader develops the capacity to be a better resource to others, is viewed as a good thinker and thought-partner in anxious times, has a greater degree of flexibility and adaptability to challenge, is less consumed by the immediacy of the moment, is able to see the big picture and long term implications, and is confident their ability to solve problems is bigger then the problems they face.
Next week I’ll focus on the practical ways to run a meeting based on these ideas.