Author: Geoph Kozeny
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #135
“How many of my thoughts and feelings is it good to share, and how much can I or should I keep to myself?”
This important question applies whether you’re living in a community, working with a team, or being involved with family, friends, or lovers. A useful way to look at it is to ask yourself: “How critical is this information to the health, well-being, and growth of this relationship—and how do my personal fears, beliefs, and habits get in the way of sharing important things that bring up awkward feelings for me and them?”
In my youth (in the notoriously “polite” Midwest) I was taught that all conversations about potentially uncomfortable topics were to be avoided—at all costs. I don’t remember formal lessons where those words were actually said, but occasionally they were uttered as folksy afterthoughts by friends who had just witnessed some clumsy or heated exchange. More often the person who was feeling uncomfortable would remark “We don’t talk about that here,” and I could infer the lesson by observing their closed or contorted body language and the discomfort or defensiveness in their voice. I saw nothing written down that said “This, and this, and this are on the list of things we don’t talk about.” The ban was, essentially, on anything that caused anybody in the room to feel uncomfortable—which made it virtually impossible to address certain substantive issues which, if resolved, might well have improved life for all parties affected.
At the same time, the prevailing culture seemed to have little problem with people gossiping about others behind their backs. A few people I knew denounced the practice as being uncompassionate and destructive, but such thoughtful souls were pretty rare. Mostly the gossip went on unabated, and critical comments became an issue only if the person being talked about was present and felt uncomfortable hearing the remarks. That norm seemed to me to be anticooperative, essentially undermining any ongoing sense of teamwork and mutual trust. It seemed unethical and alienating to say something negative about a person unless you were willing to say it to their face.
Eventually I came to realize that talking about someone in their absence could be either positive or negative, and the positive always had to do with gaining clarity on a situation and trying to come up with a strategy for giving constructive feedback in a way that would likely help improve the situation. Thus, any time someone starts talking about an absent third party, the most supportive role a listener can play is to serve as a sounding board and to help focus the process on being constructive. To that end, it’s valuable if both the talker and the listener have a commitment to clarifying the issues, and then finding a supportive and sensitive way to get back to the person whose actions prompted the discussion, and initiate a constructive dialogue.
Although such awareness and intention are valuable skills in all social aspects of one’s life, it’s especially useful to look at how community norms foster and support the development and practice of those skills. For example, at an FIC meeting in 2000, we held an in-depth examination of the organization’s values regarding diversity and inclusiveness. As a result, the FIC made an organizational commitment to “deep dialogue” and crafted a statement that included this affirmation of intent:
We strive to promote an organizational culture that builds relationships and understanding among all board members and project implementers (“imps”) when discussing Fellowship issues. In this way we hope to build an organization that functions with an ever-present atmosphere of respect and openness.
When differences of opinion arise, we expect our board members and imps to be willing to engage in dialog in a good faith attempt to deepen understanding of each other’s ideas and feelings as they relate to FIC values and actions. At the same time, we recognize that no one process or style of dialog will work for all occasions, and we support the parties involved in finding a process that works for them. In addition, we will create and maintain a support system to help resolve interpersonal tensions within the Fellowship.
Acknowledging that living up to such an ideal might, at times, require significant commitment of time and resources, the Fellowship has subsequently taken some steps towards implementation. Related issues most often crop up in group discussions and staff interactions that involve differences in opinions, work styles, or communication skills. When such issues surface in meetings, FIC relies heavily on participants’ generally high level of awareness about group dynamics and a shared commitment to the ideals outlined above. However, having talented meeting facilitators and skilled Ministry Committee members (who follow up outside the sessions with folks who have been visibly distressed) are also critically important assets. While having those intentions and resources doesn’t automatically resolve all the stresses and frustrations, it at least provides a handle for working with the energies, making some headway on the issues and fostering a sense of community.
If an awkward conversation does happen, then afterwards there’s the challenge of deciding what, exactly, to include in the meeting minutes, and how to most accurately and sensitively portray the specifics. While it’s important to include details, concerns, and background information on what went into making a decision, it’s often not useful to publicly document someone’s distress. The strategy that’s been settled on—which has helped somewhat but which still needs fine tuning—is to 1) scan the roughly edited minutes for potentially sensitive material; 2) rework those as necessary for clarity, sensitivity, and completeness; 3) run that draft by anyone mentioned in that context to get their perspective; and 4) integrate their feedback before distributing the final minutes to the wider FIC membership.
Staff members doing personnel work also end up fielding sensitive feedback when an imp’s performance or behavior is seen as ineffective or noncooperative, and those staff members have delicate issues to consider that are similar to those of the listener described above. How to handle feedback given in confidence? When to check in with the person being evaluated, what information to share, and how to frame it? How to handle that information in minutes and notes, and how much of that should be made available to the wider organization? What’s the most effective way to gather information, clear up misunderstandings, give constructive feedback, mediate differences, set new goals, provide support, evaluate progress, and generally get the team in synch and things flowing smoothly? A lot of wisdom and care need to go into handling that sort of responsibility.
Working with these concerns is as much of an art as a science, and there’s no one formula that will work in every instance. What’s important is that 1) the players are open to feedback, 2) the channels of communication are kept open, 3) there’s a mutual commitment to working things out, and 4) the community supports the process with energy and resources. It takes teamwork and cooperative values to build a new culture.