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Monday, February 24, 2014

Moving the Process

I have the periodic opportunity to coach students studying mediation and negotiation.  I always learn more than I teach.  It happened again on Saturday.

The students were role-playing an eldercare mediation.  The mediators were nudging the parties toward some possible agreements, but the process had bogged down.  The participants were "stuck."  Conversation trailed off.  They looked at each other with furrowed brows.  The mediators stole a couple of furtive glances at me, the coach.

"I want one of you mediators to get up, go to the white board, and start making a list," I said.  One of the mediators complied, and the conversation started to pick up.  In a few moments participants were generating options.  The parties had turned toward one another in their chairs.  The actor who was trying to be the more difficult of the parties began to make acknowledgments and consider options that had been off the table ten minutes before.

What had happened?  Somebody moved.

It is easier to move something that is already moving than it is to start something that is stuck. If mental and emotional processes are stuck, we can still move our bodies.  And once we get off our behinds, our guts and our brains tend to follow.  

For many of us, for example, conversation flows more freely when we are walking.  Brainstorming and option-generating processes work more quickly when the participants get up and move around.  This is one of the many values, for example, of asking group members to put their ideas on sticky notes and then to put the sticky notes on a wall.  

I have facilitated meetings on difficult topics.  When we have come to an impasse, I have sometimes asked participants to get up and sit in a different seat.  There is often some grumbling that goes with this activity.  I have learned to stay focused and not to take that personally.  Once people move and been re-seated, I review the conversation so far and invite folks to move on.  The physical change of location can often facilitate a change in perspective and level of cooperation.

So much the better if participants exchange some sort of safe touch during the move.  I have tried this a few times in some really tight conversations.  I have asked participants to get up, shake hands with three other participants and then to take new seats.  This facilitates movement and increases connection. The results can be startling.  

This is why greeting rituals are important at the beginning of a worship service.  Asking people to get up, move about and touch each other (safely) will improve the emotional tone of the service.  Such rituals make people more receptive to input and more generous in their giving.

I have reflected on this in preaching as well.  What is the mixed message we preachers send when we advocate for personal or corporate change while standing in a fixed spot?  What is the mixed message we preachers send while suggesting greater connection between people while standing in a spotlight and separated from our congregation by a pulpit, a rail, steps and a veritable moat of interpersonal distance?  

It is important for the method to match the message whether we speaking to a congregation or facilitating a meeting or guiding a mediation.

These tactics are rooted in some understanding of social neurology.  Much of this happens at a pre-conscious level and can seem by turns either mysterious or mythical.  In fact, we can use these insights to help each other make deeper connections and arrive at better solutions to our common problems.

It is all so moving.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Shame is not Loud Embarrassment

Neuroscientifically inclined psychologists who study emotions can help us to identify the real responses of those around us.  We can do that by becoming familiar with the tiny changes in facial expression in the milliseconds of unguarded reaction that precede our conscious and (often) constructed reactions to events.  We can learn a great deal, for example, from a person's startle response.  This can indicate the ongoing level of anxiety which that person experiences.

In fact, the startle response, the embarrassment affect, and the smile rate are microscopic indicators that we use unconsciously to quickly determine whether we will trust someone or not in an interaction and/or in a relationship.

The above description is painted in broad strokes and raises as many questions as it answers.  In his book, Born to be Good, Dacher Keltner helps us distinguish between the smile and the laugh.  Keltner notes that the smile is like "social chocolate."  It impacts the reward centers in our brains.  A smile opens others to relationships with us.  The smile can deepen bonds and repair breaches in relationships. Authentic smiles build human connection and community millisecond by millisecond (and faked smiles are a direct route to mistrust).

Keltner notes that laughter is different.  Charles Darwin theorized that laughter is smiling through loudspeakers.  He thought, as do we, that laughter is the loud version of our bared teeth and raised eyebrows.  Research doesn't bear that out.  In fact, laughter is pitched to the key of fun and play.  It differs significantly from smiling in both purpose and effect.

I wonder if this applies to a distinction that Keltner doesn't seem to address--the difference between embarrassment and shame.  He notes that embarrassment is another form of social glue.  When we are conscious (even subconsciously) of a possible relationship breach or conflict, we may become embarrassed.  The embarrassment response is a sort of vulnerability and submission display that invites forgiveness and care-taking.  Therefore, Keltner notes, it brings people closer together in situations which could have driven them further apart.

What about shame?  I am not sure, but I think that Keltner and his tribe may see shame as embarrassment through loudspeakers.  That, however, is certainly not my experience.  Nor does the research on shame bear this out.  June Tangney, Brene Brown, and others have described shame as an experience that reaches to the core of our identity and self-worth.  

I may be embarrassed by something I have done, such as passing gas in the elevator just before you get on.  If I am found out, I may giggle and apologize and then move on.  Embarrassment is a repair strategy for something I have done.  Embarrassment is a crimson-faced apology.

Shame is about who I believe I am.  And shame is the deeply held fear that I will be abandoned due to my defects.  If I believe somehow that I am flawed, defective, dirty and unworthy, then I will experience my actions as reflecting that belief.  And here is the problem.  I believe that for many of us, embarrassment and shame look quite similar on the outside.  But they are radically different on the inside.

So I know that I need a couple of personal disciplines when I am in a group.  On the one hand, I have to talk myself down from shame regularly.  With a few deep breaths and a conscious reminder to myself, I can remember that my mistakes look like mistakes to other people, even when to me they look like dark and dirty failings and flaws.  A bit of on-the-run perspective taking can help me to turn down the temperature on my shame experiences.

On the other hand, I am acutely aware that others may not have that skill or awareness.  So what looks like embarrassment to me from the outside is likely to be experienced as shame on the inside.  This is why I am at great pains to shield people from potentially embarrassing situations.  I am unwilling to expose people, if I can help it, to experiences of public embarrassment because of the shaming potential.

Why?  I'd like to think I'm compassionate and empathetic.  I also know that shamed people will either withdraw from the interaction or strike out in anger.  Neither response will move our relationships forward.

Just as smiles and laughter arise from different domains, so (I believe) do embarrassment and shame. We do well to treat shame as a separate reality.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Love on a Two-Way Street

"There is no safe investment.  To love at all is to be vulnerable.  Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken.  If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal.  Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.  But in that casket--safe, dark, motionless, airless--it will change.  It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least the risk of tragedy, is damnation.  The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell."  C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, page 121.
What a wonderful day, this festival of romantic love!  In the age of social media, we can see hundreds of expressions of such love.  I am so privileged and overjoyed to be the subject and recipient myself of such beautiful expressions of love from my spouse.  Even though such spontaneity is not my strong suit, I love being on the receiving end of such feelings.  And I hope that I reciprocate even a small part of the love I receive.

I am reminded that this devotion is one trip on a two-way street.  As Lewis notes, genuine love is always risky.  And he does not mean the risk of disappointment or abandonment.  Genuine love requires that we suffer with one another in our pain as often as we embrace one another in our pleasure. This is the full, mature understanding of love.  This is the real beauty of love.

Lewis gave this series of talks not long after his civil marriage to Joy Davidman.  He had been a lifelong bachelor, wrapping his heart carefully round with studies of medieval literature and defenses of Christian orthodoxy.  The marriage was ostensibly a way for Davidman to remain legally in Great Britain with her sons.  But clearly Jack and Joy came to something more than a civil agreement.

By 1960 Joy was dead from bone cancer.  Jack Lewis wrote his wrenching bereavement story in A Grief Observed.  For the full effect, one should read The Four Loves and this work back to back.  I have found no greater testimony to the joy and tragedy of human love.

We can protect ourselves from the pain.  We can become so hardhearted that we allow no one in.  And then we will cease to live.  The love and the hurt travel the same road in and out of our hearts.  And that is as it should be.  It is our mortality which brings a particular sweetness and urgency to our loving.  It is our limits that make love such a wonderful transcendence of ourselves and our selfishness.

Lewis wrote his book as a meditation on the statement that God is love.  We who follow Jesus know that today is an opportunity to reflect further on that statement.  And today is a chance to celebrate how God's love in Christ flows through us to our beloved.  It is a privilege to be a pathway for God's love to my beloved.

I love you so much, my darling Brenda.  And I thank our Lord every day for you.

Practice, Practice, Practice!

So we live in a culture where failures and flaws are airbrushed out of the pictures.  We learn over and over that failure is not an option and that flaws are unacceptable.  So we have moved from the culture of guilt (the one in which, for example, Martin Luther lived and wrote) to the culture of shame.  We are not concerned about doing bad things.  We are certain that we are just bad people.

What are some practical responses, especially as we shape and form our children and grandchildren? We can rehearse with them.  Mental rehearsals can fire the same brain areas as the real actions.  So let's help our young people rehearse their responses to failure and flaws.

I'm not suggesting that we rehearse failing.  Life will create those opportunities.  We don't need to seek them out.  In fact, mental practice of success is a wonderful tool for preparing to succeed.  That's true in sports, in the arts, in relationships, and in the sciences.  But how will we help our young people through those times when it doesn't quite work out?  We can rehearse their responses.

We all have these conversations with young people.  "I'm afraid that I'm going to screw up big time and look like an idiot," they tell us.  Young folks probably use different language, but we prehistoric types get the point. First, we can help young people imagine what a successful speech or math test or free throw will look like.  They can practice that over and over in their minds as well as with their bodies.

Then we can think about what will happen if they miss the mark.  And we can help them shape that imagination in a realistic way.  Will the world really end if you fail?  Probably not.  Imagine going to school the next day.  Some people may make fun of you.  Others will give you credit for trying.  Your real friends will support you.  And life as you know it will continue.  So practice smiling along with the teasing.  Practice saying thank you to the people who give you credit for trying.  Practice relying on the friends who will support you.  And then practice moving on to the next challenge or opportunity in your life.  

Imagine it several times.  Things will get better.

This is re-tooling of our self-talk after a mistake.  We perfectionists go into a real internal tailspin after any mistake.  The shame and embarrassment are massive and debilitating.  We want to hide or to fix it or to pretend that nothing happened.  We prevaricate or procrastinate.  And all the while we tell ourselves how terrible we are.  Practicing a different kind of self-talk is the way out of that personal hole.

If failure is unthinkable, then we have no permission to rehearse our responses.  If we don't practice this stuff in our heads, then when it happens for real we will be defenseless.

Worse yet, we will abandon our young people to the pain of rumination.  Rumination is mental rehearsal after the fact.  It is the cascade of regrets over what I could have, would have, should have done in the situation.  Rumination can become a negative feedback loop, plunging a person into deeper and deeper cycles of self-recrimination.  And that process then sets us up for further shame when we fail the next time.  We say to ourselves, "See, I told you that you are really useless, worthless and incompetent!"

We can give young people permission to be imperfect.  That's a large cultural task that begins at home. But then we need to equip them with the tools of resilience in the face of failures and flaws.  Mental rehearsal is one of the best of those tools.

How can we get to the place where failure is tolerable rather than fatal, an opportunity rather than an obstacle?  Practice, practice, practice!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Teen Stress and Our Response

Today the American Psychological Association published their annual "Stress in America" survey. 

This year's edition notes that teens now experience stress at levels that often exceed those levels reported by adults.  Both teens and adults report these levels as being higher than they believe to be healthy.
"For teens, the most commonly reported sources of stress are school (83 percent), getting into a good college or deciding what to do after high school (69 percent), and financial concerns for their family (65 percent)...The most commonly reported stress management techniques among teens are listening to music (67 percent), playing video games (46 percent), going online (43 percent), spending time with family or friends (43 percent), and exercising or walking (37 percent)...Many teens report lying awake at night (35 percent), overeating or eating unhealthy foods (26 percent), and skipping meals (23 percent) due to stress in the past month."
Teen also report higher levels of anxiety and anger, fatigue and fear.  And teens--like their adult models--tend to skip the things that would most readily alleviate stress: rest, exercise, and relationships.

It is clear that this information offers some insight into rising levels of teenage despair, violence and suicide.  I believe that "Generation Stress" is paying the full price for the disconnect between our culture's perfectionist aspirations and the realities of imperfect and frail human existence.  No matter how hard they work, how much they study, how beautiful they are and how much they own, our young people fear that they will fail to be perfect in the end.

Of course, they are correct.

Our culture of official optimism is killing our young people.  What they need is authentic hope.  Jurgen Moltmann wrote about the theology of hope following the German defeat in World War II.  Moltmann quickly had to write an additional book because even in postwar Germany, official optimism quickly displaced realistic hope.  In his book Bound and Free, Douglas John Hall gives this description.
"What he had to do now, Moltmann said, was to demonstrate, for those who had ears to hear, that the only way Christians can dare to speak about hope is by standing not on bridges over the autobahn, but beneath the cross, waiting in the darkness of Golgotha for the light that shines in the darkness.  Otherwise, the gospel becomes nothing more than a stained-glass adaptation of the trendy technocratic utopianism of the consumer society--bourgeois transcendence with a thin patina of sentimental theism." (page 60).
Will the church in this time have something real to say to young people dying in the midst of "trendy technocratic utopianism"?  That is the challenge for the church of our time.  Can we speak words of real grace and mercy and love to a generation driven by perfectionism and sentenced by that impossible standard to inevitable failure?

If we wish to respond, then we who are the parents and grandparents must push back at that perfectionism, that official optimism, and walk with our children toward real hope. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Laser Attacks and Loving the Neighbor

Empathy requires the capacity to imagine the outcomes of one's actions and the impact of those actions on others.  It also requires the capacity to imagine the outcomes of one's actions and the ways that others experience those outcomes.  It is possible to have one capacity and not the other, as Simon Baron-Cohen notes in The Science of Evil.

Let's take a story from the day's news.  Pilots report an increase in the number of laser attacks they experience while operating the planes on which we all fly.  You can read the article at  These attacks can disorient pilots and have the potential to damage their eyes.  As the article notes, such attacks have not yet produced a crash, but it is only a matter of time.

On the one hand, it seems clear that the attackers can imagine the outcomes of their actions to some extent.  Without that imagination, it seems that they would get no reward from the behavior.  The attackers know that they some measure of power and control as they use their laser lights.  On the other hand, they may not have the capacity to imagine the mayhem and injury which may result.

That is the best construction for these actions.  Some people have under-developed or damaged empathic capacities.  Some people may well be unable to to imagine the impacts of their actions on others.

The more likely and more sinister construction for these actions is that the offenders are quite capable of imagining the impacts of their actions on others.  And they don't care.  This is a failure to imagine the ways that others experience the laser attacks.  This is the other dimension of empathy--the narcissistic or psychopathic dimension of empathic failure.  

It is one thing to know that a person lacks the imagination to connect a laser attack to a potential plane crash.  It is quite another thing to know that a person can imagine the potential crash.  It is quite another thing to know that a person can see that crash and enjoys the fear and anxiety that such a potential creates.

We all know people who don't have the self-awareness and imaginative capacity to take the experience of others into account.  We are usually able to make allowances for the various levels of "mindblindness" from which we and/or others suffer.  What is frightening is the ways in which people may read clearly the potential impacts of their actions and conclude that the experiences of others simply don't matter.

As I work with troubled young people, I see both kinds of imaginative failures.  I see young people who have great difficulty envisioning the impacts of their criminal behavior.  And then I see young people who are quite adept at such imagining and who enjoy the resulting terror.

As parents, educators, pastors, and other concerned folks, we can work diligently with young folks to develop their empathic imaginations.  I include this as part of my philosophy of Sunday School and confirmation instruction.  We spend time practicing  the skills necessary to identify with the hurts and hopes of others.  We begin by imagining the minds and hearts of people like us and people we know.  We move on to imagine the minds and hearts, the hurts and hopes of people unlike us--people who are the stranger, the enemy, the Other.

In this way, we seek to expand the capacity of our community to see the Other as the Neighbor.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Four Emotional Leadership Domains

I am re-reading Primal Leadership after spending some time thinking about the role of empathy in the various areas of my life and work.  You can find the most recent edition at Amazon in hard copy and electronic editions.

Goleman, Boyatzis and McKee build on Goleman's work in emotional intelligence and expand that to leadership.  While the conversation and example are directed to for-profit businesses, the insights are directly applicable to life in the church and other nonprofits.

The authors describe four domains of emotional intelligence and competencies related to those domains:

  • self-awareness
  • self-management
  • social awareness, and
  • relationship management.
Those domains are listed in order of importance and order of process.  The authors strongly suggest that self-awareness is the key to this kingdom of emotional intelligence.  The other domains are rooted in and flow out of this sort of mindfulness.  If I am not aware of my own internal state, then I cannot manage that state.  If I cannot get enough distance from myself to observe my own experience, then I am not likely to be able to imagine the internal states of others.  And if I cannot build that empathic bridge, I will have a difficult time managing my relationships--especially in times of stress and conflict.

"In short," write the authors of Primal Leadership, "self-awareness facilitates both empathy and self-management, and these two, in combination, allow effective relationship management.  EI leadership, then, builds up from a foundation of self-management." (page 30)

The reason I returned to this book is because I have been thinking about the vital importance of empathy in my pastoral work, in my leadership roles, in my mediation practice and in my work as a parent educator.  Simon Baron Cohen describes empathy as the most important resource on the planet.  I do not believe he overstates the case.

I wonder how these four leadership competencies are addressed in the formation and training of parish pastors.  In my own experience, there was some (relatively unintentional) integration of these matters in my basic unit of Clinical Pastoral Education.  There was little additional attention paid to them.  I wonder how these are integrated into the screening dimension of the candidacy process.  Pastoral leadership with limited competencies in these areas can be ineffective and sometimes destructive.

What say you, colleague pastors?  How do  these competencies work out in your experiences of leadership and ministry?

Monday, February 10, 2014

Leaders are Always Teaching Whether We Mean to or Not

Back on the air...the wire...the line...oh, whatever.

Here is a useful link for those of us who lead high-relationship organizations (like churches).  It is called, "Two Psychological Theories All Leaders Should Know."

The two theories are 1) observational learning theory, and 2) social contagion theory.  Observational learning theory is rooted in the work on social learning by Albert Bandura and colleagues.  One of the elements of this theory that strikes me is a description of "factors that increase the likelihood that a behavior will be imitated."  

Some of those factors are internal to us.  For example, we are more likely to imitate a behavior if we have been rewarded in the past for imitating that behavior.  For example, a lay member of the congregation watches others read the Bible lessons at worship.  The member takes a risk and serves as a reader for the first time at worship.  Other members are supportive and complimentary.  The novice reader immediately signs up to do it again.  Of course, the reverse is also likely true.  Negative comments will almost guarantee that there will be no repeat performance.

We will tend to imitate the behavior of others when we don't think we know what we're doing.  Visitors come to a church service for the first time.  They are uncertain about how to do things at that church.  So they intently observe the "regulars" to get cues on how to behave.  If the observations of the visitors are not quite accurate, the results can be embarrassing.  I have noted some pretty novel methods, for example, of taking communion when the new folks don't quite see how it was done by the regulars.

I am most interested in the factors that depend on someone in leadership.  People will be more likely to imitate someone we perceive as warm and nurturing.  A leader who smiles (genuinely) will have more imitators. People will repeat behaviors when they see that others are rewarded for similar behaviors.  People will imitate those they see as in positions of authority and/or trust.  People will imitate people who appears like them in terms of age, gender and interests.  People will imitate people whom they admire, and/or perceive to be of higher status.

It should be obvious what this means for pastors and other worship leaders.  I am often surprised, however, by how little of this understanding is actually reflected in pastoral leadership practice.  For example, it is easy for us worship-leader types to be so engrossed in last minute details before worship that we barely notice the people who are coming to participate.  Our distraction and frustration may even be reflected on our faces as we begin the service.

And then we are puzzled as to why our congregants have negative affects as they sit in our worship centers.  They are simply imitating what they see.  They have engaged in observational learning.

This is a simple and powerful tool.  As leaders, we can shape the culture of our organizations in profound ways at a pre-conscious level.  Of course, that requires that we are intensely conscious of the lessons we are sharing with our own behavior.