Wednesday, January 29, 2014

When it's not about you, but it involves you

Insightful and self-aware leaders get to the point of understanding that some things that go on in the system are not about them. In time, and with work, they may even be able to not take reactivity from others personally, even when they come in the form of a personal attack. The dilemma for the leader, however, is the reality that while it may not be "about me," the mere fact that the leader is in the position of leadership in the system means that at some level, and to some extent, the issue will involve him or her.  

Let's face it, when you are the leader and sit on that big chair, you automatically inherit and become part of numerous interlocking triangles in the system. Some are structural (leader-staff-trustees), and some may be systemic multigenerational triangles (founding pastor--deacons--issues around money, or, leader as IP--matriarchal family system--control/power issues). In other words, you take the job, and triangles come with it. At one point or another, you'll need to deal with these triangles. Whether they are "about you" or not, they will involve you just because of your position in the system.

For example, ministers are prone to getting triangled as a consequence of projection. Sometimes it is manifested through veiled or pointed comments about the sermon from members as they greet the minister at the door. These responses can range from a puzzling cold-shoulder in response to a friendly greeting to an abrupt scorching accusation that leaves one reeling from being blindsided.  My understanding of transference (and please remember that I'm no therapist) is that it is the unconscious "projection" of unwarranted (sometimes inappropriate, but not necessarily so) feelings from one person to another. The source of those feelings, according to Freud, was unresolved childhood issues that were repressed (Freud, "The Dynamics of Transference,"). But, from an emotional process perspective, any unresolved family of origin issue will do.

Therefore, leaders caught up in this kind of not-about-me transference triangle may be dealing with issues related to: (1) family-of-origin issues related to the family projection process, (2) a poor response to anxiety by triangling in the leader or therapist with a member of the family of origin, (3) a lack of differentiation on the part of the reactive party, and therefore, (4) dealing with a person who has an inability to deal with Self and boundaries (not knowing where they end and another person begins; not knowing what feelings are theirs and what feelings do not belong to another, not knowing which side of the triangle to take responsibility for). This situation may be a good example of a person functioning on the lower end of the scale of differentiation: an inability to separate fact from feeling. Whereas, a more mature person can think: "These feelings I'm experiencing are about me and my relationship with my father. Fact: my therapist (or minister) is not my father."

What are leaders to do when caught in the midst of reactivity that is "not about me" but still involves them, even if merely because they are conveniently sitting in the leadership chair? One first step is to become intentionally self-aware of one's internal experience. For example:

  • If you're caught by surprise and find yourself asking if what you are experiencing is misplaced reactivity, it probably is.
  • If you're experiencing anxiety when dealing with a client-patient-member that is not congruent with the situation, it may be transference
  • If the client-patient-member is engaged in criticism or seduction incongruent with the relationship, it may be transference
  • If you find yourself experiencing familiar feelings related to your family of origin while talking with the client-patient-member, it may be counter-transference
  • If the messages (content) of the client-patient-member has little to do with the facts, it may be he or she is engaging in transference.

  • Second, tap into thinking and feeling approaches that will help you function better, in non-reactive ways:
    • Stay in your own skin (monitor your own feelings; work on separating fact from feeling)

  • Work on taking responsibility for your own functioning (e.g., how YOU choose to respond) and not the other person's functioning, perception, or behavior.
  • Work the situation like an anxiety triangle and position yourself accordingly

  • Focus less on the experience of your feelings and take a curiosity-stance by asking yourself, "What is going on here in terms of emotional process?"
  •  Make a mental check on your genogram (family of origin) to see if you can discern a connection with the feelings of transference and/or counter-transference
  • When appropriate (after the storm) reconnect with the reactive party and focus the conversation on your genogram (family of origin) and on talking about family emotional process (triangles, etc.). This  may help de-focus or reduce transference because you'll help take the client-patient-member to where he or she needs to be looking in the first place. Remember that strictly speaking, transference is about unresolved family or origin issues. What better way to get at it, then, than to go to the genogram?
  •  Work hard at not accepting the other's feelings that are incongruent or inappropriate (One that I used to get all the time in pastoral counseling situations was people telling me, "You're hurting my feelings" or "You're making me feel bad." My response was always a deadpan, "I'm not responsible for your feelings." That usually got the conversation back on track).

    Mature leaders understand that a lot of the emotional process dynamics in the system "is not about me." Nevertheless, one burden of being in the leader position is the reality that much of the anxieties and reactivity in the flow of systemic emotional process will involve you in one form or another, to some extent. Functioning well, in place, when it's not about you, yet involves you, will often be the element that provides capacity for self-correction in the system.
  • Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Ministry (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan. Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center's blog for theological school deans.

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