13: Leading in Anxious Times, Calm Leadership in Conflict

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ENC Leadership Podcast

How can we become a calm leader—and stay that way—when conflict is present in our lives?

1:30 – Calm leadership in conflict

  • “Systems thinking gives us a different way to think about the conflict that erupts from time to time in every organization, including churches. Through that lens, we can see conflict as an expression of the emotional process of the organization, a way that chronic anxiety shows up and spreads through the group.” – Jim Herrington, The Leader’s Journey
  • Conflict is not the surface issue, but a manifestation of the chronic anxiety in the system. This is discussed in detail in Episode 8.
  • So is it an issue-based conflict or conflict that erupts as part of the anxiety in the system? Check if there are patterns. Is it a consistent pattern of conflict? That usually means there’s more to the conflict on the surface. Is there an emotional cutting off? 

5:36 – Three ways we can respond: Right thinking

1. Right thinking

  • Identifying the conflict
  • Remember: conflict is not personal. You’re not being attacked because of who you are as a person, but because of where you are standing with regard to the conflict.
  • It’s not about the issue on the surface.
  • “The disagreement is not the problem; the intensity of emotion that accompanies the disagreement and the anxiously reactive behavior that ensues is the problem.” – Jim Herrington, The Leader’s Journey
  • Very often, the issue is not the one on the surface.
  • You don’t need to put out every trace of conflict.
  • There are usually more than two sides in the conflict.
  • There is usually always a third option.
  • “Once a leader introduces the possibilities beyond the polarized sides, the nature of the conflict changes. This requires the leader to tolerate complexity, avoid dualistic reasoning, and eschew right or wrong solutions.” – Jim Herrington, The Leader’s Journey
  • One possible third option? Do nothing. If there’s nothing to do, do nothing.

13:05 – Three ways we can respond: Right posture

2. Right posture

  • “Maintain a posture of neutrality.” – Jim Herrington, The Leader’s Journey
  • Very often, we take neutrality as apathy, but that’s not what we mean here.
  • Honor the complexity of the conflict.
  • “If the leader can maintain a position of calm neutrality in the face of conflict, new patterns can emerge and people can find their way to a more peaceful place. Neutrality means that we are ‘able to stay interested in and emotionally connected with both sides of a triangle without taking sides.’” – Jim Herrington, The Leader’s Journey
  • “Remaining neutral doesn’t mean that we don’t have our own opinions and even our own strong convictions. It means that we are managing our own emotional reactivity and helping the group to think differently about their conflict.” – Jim Herrington, The Leader’s Journey
  • It doesn’t mean that you don’t care about the issues at hand, it means that you will not join in the activity of the most anxious and the most reactive in the group. This doesn’t prevent us from showing compassion. 
  • This posture helps people think. Unless we help people think, it will be tough to solve the problem.
  • In helping people think to solve the problem, we need to resist a couple of things. The first is resisting the urge to spiritualize the conflict. 
  • “This means that we will have to resist the temptation to spiritualize the process. In churches, conflict is often seen as a sign that someone is sinful or out of God’s will. The church then focuses on ‘helping’ that person to repent and return to the fold. This rarely solves the problem in the long run.” – Jim Herrington, The Leader’s Journey
  • The problem with spiritualizing immediately is you nullify the other person’s perspective. 
  • The second is resist the urge to show empathy at the expense of them taking responsibility.
  • “If you are being sympathetic, feeling guilty, assuming responsibility, getting angry with someone, or getting frustrated in hearing someone’s story, then you are in a triangle. Having any of these feelings means you are not being neutral. You are not helpful. You are part of the problem. Most of these feelings occur when we are in a polarized situation. Feelings change when we change our position in the system [by differentiating a self].” – Jim Herrington, The Leader’s Journey

25:55 – How can empathy become problematic?

1. When the leader imbibes the anxiety and becomes indistinguishable.

2. When the victim is perpetually a victim. 

  • “On the one hand, there can be no question that the notion of feeling for others, caring for others, identifying with others, being responsive to others, and perhaps even sharing their pain exquisitely or excruciatingly is heartfelt, humanitarian, highly spiritual, and an essential component in a leader’s response repertoire. But it has rarely been my experience that being sensitive to others will enable those ‘others’ to be more self-aware, that being more “understanding” of others causes them to mature, or that appreciating the plight of others will make them more responsible for their being, their condition, or their destiny.” – Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve
  • Empathy is important, but it can’t be our one and only move.

3. When the victim can weaponize their empathy and shield themselves from taking responsibility, because there isn’t enough empathy.

  • “People who can’t control themselves control the people around them.”- Dr. David Schnarch
  • “People who cannot control their emotions will try to control other people’s behavior.”

32:45 – Three ways we can respond: Right steps

1. Building the immunity of the system

  • We’re going to fight. The question is, what do we do when we fight?

2. Increase your threshold of pain.

  • High tolerance for pain so we can stay there together, honoring the complexity of the conflict and the individuality of each person, while maintaining our relational connections.
  • “Not only do we get caught in the quicksand of our own feelings and our desire for comfort, but as ministry leaders we are often highly attuned to the pain of others and genuinely feel for them.” – Jim Herrington, The Leader’s Journey
  • “A caveat is in order. A leader does not acquire the capacity to lead calmly and thoughtfully in a moment. Rather, such an ability is the result of doing the kind of inner work we have been describing. A crisis does not create such leaders; it reveals them. If the ability to manage our emotional reactivity is not already present when the crisis arrives, it is too late to develop it.” – Jim Herrington, The Leader’s Journey

3. You can’t be impatient.

  • You can’t be impatient with your society, your team, and yourself.

Questions to reflect on:

1. Is there a consistent pattern of conflict in my life? What is the anxious root of that conflict and how is God leading me to respond to it?

2. Using the definition of “neutrality” provided in The Leader’s Journey, how can I maintain this kind of posture in my own life?

3. What other “tools” is God giving me to use to respond to anxiety, in addition to empathy?

4. Of the three right steps, which step is most actionable in my life right now?

The ENC Leadership Podcast is hosted by Joseph Bonifacio.

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