Thursday, May 6, 2010

When the Anxieties of Others Frame Entire Conversations

A lay leader in a church was feeling nervous about a congregational meeting in which she had a special role. Some congregational meetings are ho-hum, but this congregational meeting was about something important, and the "what if" scenarios were beginning to loom. "Where is my non-anxious presence when I need it," she asked rhetorically (probably in some other words, but memory doesn't usually serve me).

We've all been there, haven't we? Scenarios playing out in our heads as our worries grow, and meanwhile, we know we are the ones who will set the tone, create the frame, or steady the ride.  Worse still is when the meeting involves something that feels personal: decisions we've made or helped to make, programs we've created or helped to create, situations in the community over which we perhaps have some but certainly not all control but nonetheless by which the congregation is partly measuring our "success," or people or programs about which we deeply care.

In this case, I said to this religious leader what I tell myself when the going gets rough, "Non-anxious presence can simply be a behavior.  It's normal to have anxiety.  The key is to do what one might do with their thoughts in meditation: watch your anxiety and all your emotions as if you are watching a river.  Let them be.  And let them flow as they will.  They can exist, but what non-anxious presence is, is not submerging yourself."

A mantra might sound something like this:  "I am not my anxieties.  I am not my fears.  I am not this situation.  I am not my ego.  Those things are passing.  God [or love, or...] is with me."

But here is the tricky thing...

Sometimes the river we wade into is not our own.  It can be so subtle and so unexpected.  One moment I might be in an everyday committee meeting talking about an everyday thing, and the next minute someone brings up something about which they are anxious and I haven't fully considered before.  I enter into the conversation without investing in the anxiety, trying to be open to new information and insights, and slowly my feet begin to slip down hill.  I might not take on their anxiety (since I am practicing my non-anxious presence regularly), but I let it frame the conversation for me.

Trouble is, once I am in the water, I am trying to make sure my own feet stay steady and I keep my own head above the water.  I lose my presence of mind for the person to whom this river belongs. 

I have noticed that we leaders often value our own mental agility, our ability to respond to new information and to be flexible and creative enough in our thinking to stay out of ruts.  Indeed, this is a wonderful characteristic that can be essential to our effective leadership, but it also can get us into trouble.

While at times our ability to "try out" varying perspectives is what allows us to do things such as integrate disparate information, solicit unique voices, or seek creative solutions to complex challenges, we must also be able to recognize when we have accepted a perspective and taken it on as our own.  Are there underlying assumptions about a situation that we have accepted wholesale?

Some signs to look for:
  • Unpredictable Responses: Are we finding ourselves deviating from a value or previous position?  This isn't a bad thing (often it is good), but if we are deviating, an important question to ask is whether we can identify our reasons for the deviation.
  • Immediate Solutions: Are we finding ourselves throwing out solutions to the issues?  Many of us are not "process people" and prefer to offer solutions rather than explore perspectives, but sometimes by doing the former too quickly, we accept one particular perspective in order to move to quick resolution.  It may be that the perspective we've adopted in our rush is the anxious one.
  • Speaking Up: Are we mostly speaking or are we mostly listening?  Once we start speaking, unless we are asking questions, it is usually true that we have at least narrowed down our perspectives to a few possibilities.  What are the perspectives we've taken on as "plausible," and what assumptions are behind these perspectives?
When we recognize the above signs, it may be time to take a step back and look at the frame for our conversations.  It may be that we've moved to the stage of having a useful frame, or it may be that we have either prematurely adopted a frame or even more likely that we have been using the anxious frame for our conversations.

If a premature or anxious frame has been applied, we have a number of options to help us get our feet back on land (sorry to do my usual mixed metaphor thing) before continuing our contribution to the conversation.  Some examples include:
  • "This is an important issue, and I don't want us to shortchange the conversation in the time we have this evening.  Can we put this on our agenda for our next meeting instead of continuing with this tonight?"
  • "I wonder what other possibilities exist?"
  • "I wonder if we need to test some theories here?"
  • "I'm listening.  I think I'll need some more time to process this, but I appreciate everyone's contributions."
  • "I hear you.  Can we talk more about this sometime?  I'd like to carve out some more time for this."
  • "I think this issue deserves some serious study."
What are some of your techniques for stepping back from a frame for a bit or buying time to get your feet on land?

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