What’s the purpose of meeting?
Early on in my career, I used to stress over hospital visits. I didn’t mind going to the hospital. Growing up, I saw hospitals as helpful and caring places. My stress about making hospital visits had more to do with my role as clergy. I worried about encountering the unexpected and having to think on my feet; having to know what to say or do or what not to say or do.
To me, what is challenging about hospital visits is having to respond to the possibility of a highly anxious person and the challenge of regulating my own internal reactivity to an anxious situation. It is hard to think on my feet when I’m anxious.
To address my own level of anxiety, a few years ago, I started asking myself a couple of questions before I enter the hospital. “What is my purpose for this visit? What is my role? What is important to me about this visit?” These questions moved my brain towards thinking about the work that I am doing. This focus on what I believe about my vocational identity helped me be less reactive to the anxiety others were expressing during my visit. It allowed me to stay focused on being a thoughtful presence. What I discovered initially is that I lacked clear beliefs about my purpose in doing hospital visits.
What am I willing to do and not willing to do at a meeting?
Dr. Murray Bowen said, “The term emotional refers to the force that motivates the system and “relationship” to the ways it is expressed.” (Bowen, 158). Bowen’s genius was recognizing that we all to some degree react automatically to the behavior of others. It is within these interrelated reactions that a system of predictable responses is created. As a clergy person, who is potentially entering a highly anxious hospital room, I can easily slip into a reactive mode: having my functional level shift into a mode of underfuctioning or overfunctioning.
In the underfunctioning mode, there is the potential to not be responsible for self as a clergy person. Religious leaders can be a wonderful resource to those going through a life crisis. They can provide a perspective which brings opportunities for healing in different ways. There is research to suggest prayer, beliefs, and the presence of family member can make a significant impact on recovery. To underfunction is to miss out on these opportunities.
In the overfunctioning mode, there is the potential for taking too much responsibility for others. If not careful, leaders can take over and begin telling people what they need to do. Like underfunctioning, this is an anxious response to the situation that has more to do with how internally uncomfortable the congregational leader is to the presence of an anxious other.
These two responses to anxiety are not just driven by an individual’s internal reactivity; they are also elicited by others. Underfunctioning and overfunctioning are automatic responses to the perceived functioning of others. If one’s tendency is to overfunction, when they encounter a patient in a hospital room who is underfucntioning, they may automatically step in to help make decisions. This response is always seen as helping but it may take away an opportunity for the individual to step up and do better in the face of challenge. The basis for this type of response can be found by studying one’s position in their family of origin.
Being clear about what I am willing to do and not willing to do is really about being a more responsible leader. As a clergy person or congregational leader, what am I responsible for? It’s a good question no matter what meeting one is attending. Whether it’s a meeting of trustees or a meeting with a staff person, what is my responsibility in this meeting? Before I go into any meeting, whether it’s a hospital room or a finance meeting, I ask myself the question: what is my purpose for being here? What is important to me about this meeting?
Congregational leaders can feel the weight of responsibility for the institutions they lead. Instead of reacting to the needs of the institution in the moment, congregations do better when leaders are clear about their own capacity for leading and have taken the time to think about what responsible leadership looks like for self and for the needs of the organization.
Good meetings are the result of leaders who are focused on their own functioning.
Leaders are at their best when they are actively engaged in the life of the organization, when they are asking creative questions to address issues and problems that arise, when they are maintaining good emotional connect with members of the congregation, when they are not derailed by the irresponsible behavior of others, and when they are containing their own internal anxiety.
While a good leader monitors their own functioning, under enough stress this focus can be directed towards others. When leaders are at their worst, they often blaming others for the problem. Last year I wrote an article for the Family Systems Forum entitled “Stay Calm and Blame.” I described our tendency to blame others which has more to do with calming us down internally than it does with solving problems. Brené Brown has a cute clip on this subject. You can watch this short video by clicking here.
When leaders are at their best they see how their own responses, their own functioning, and their own reactivity is actually part of the problem and a product of the emotional process that is going on all around them. We behave the way we do because of our position in our family of origin. As we begin to explore the patterns of not only the families we grew up in but also the families of our parents and their parents, these patterns begin to light up.
When I’m coaching clergy and they share with me the struggles they are having in their congregations, I will inevitably ask them, “Where do you see this lighting up in your own family?” I’m amazed at how quickly they are able to respond to the question. And not just with their parents and their siblings, but they see it light up in the generations of their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and even great grandparents and so on. We are the product of a multigenerational transmission process. You can read more about this by clicking here.
In a meeting, good leaders work towards saying “I” while others are demanding “We”.
As a final note to this blog, I think it’s important to highlight that when anxiety goes up in a group, there is a shift in the emotional process towards “we.” This is what Dr. Murray Bowen described as the force towards togetherness. When the problems are perceived to be great and the challenges look impossible, congregational leaders may begin to demand that everyone be on the same page. There is an emotional drive to think, feel and act the same way.
This is often the case in stressful meetings. It’s easy for committees and teams to slip into a focus on “we.” It can be easy for some people to simply go along with others instead of disagreeing or going against an idea. There are perceived relational consequences to such actions and, for some, the automatic thing to do is to simply get in line with the thinking of others.
Good leaders, however, are able to separate out the thinking and reactivity of others from their own thinking and reactivity. They are able to disagree and hold a position even when others are demanding compliance. They are able to think differently about an issues without giving into the forces for togetherness. And they are able to do it without a permanent disruption of the relationship system. They can disagree without cutting off from others. They can present a different way of thinking without trying to convince others they are right. Cutting off or forcing beliefs on others represents an effort for togetherness and a move towards “we.”
The opportunities to work on differentiation of self are endless. Just because one's efforts to work on it in one situation doesn’t go well doesn’t mean the opportunity is over. It’s a process and, because it’s a process, the opportunities continue. As one works on differentiation, there is time to evaluate how the effort is going, reflect on the observations one is having, and continue to consider next steps. Having a coach as a thought partner to reflect on this process and to support the continued and important work of differentiation of self can be very useful.
In the next blog post I’ll focus on the positive impact a good leader can have on staying engaged in this process especially when it comes to meetings. Don’t forget, share your thinking below in the comment section.