Monday, August 31, 2009

Passivity Versus Neutrality

This afternoon I was facilitating a conflict between two people and there were three other group members present for the examination. For the 90 minutes that I worked with them, almost all of the talking was done by the two antagonists and me. Unlike a normal business meeting, where you want to hear from everyone, during a clearing I had no problem with the non-belligerents being almost silent. Toward the end, I asked each of the three if they had any questions or comments about what had transpired. One of them thought for a moment and observed, "We all have to learn to control our egos; nobody benefits from conflict and interpersonal strife. Everyone here means well, and we have to learn how to accept our differences without being so triggered."

The more I thought about what's behind that statement, the more I had a problem with it, and that's why I'm focusing this blog entry on the differences between Passivity and Neutrality.

For the most part, when people are in the presence of conflict and strong emotions, if they don't have a dog in the fight they generally attempt to be as quiet and unobtrusive as possible—in the hope that they will not draw attention from the belligerents. Mostly people fear the expression of upset and anger because it's so often associated with people getting hurt. If that's your experience, it makes perfect sense why you'd want to blend in with the furniture when others are going at it. While few people intend to generate collateral damage, nobody wants to be collateral damage.

I think what underlies this position is the notion that people are prone to say and do things under the influence of strong feelings that they'll later regret. If you accept that strong feelings are dangerous, it can make sense to attempt to conquer them (or at least contain them). Viewed from this perspective, the expression of strong feelings represents a loss of control. When they erupt, the person with this philosophy may have compassion for those emoting, but they will politely refuse to engage with protagonists emotionally; they'll keep trying to pull the conversation back into the rational plane. Often this translates into the choice to zone out of the conversation, waiting patiently for the fireworks to end. This is Passivity.

While the passive person is not contributing to the problem, neither are they contributing to the solution. I don't think this is good enough.

Without denying the volatility or dangerous possibilities of strong feelings, a passive approach (the attempt to calm rage by denying it oxygen) has several liabilities.

Problems with Passivity
1. It tends to reinforce the upset person's sense of isolation. This undercuts relationships, and tends to pathologize people who express strong feelings (they are labeled immature, or less evolved).

2. It fails to recognize emotions as a source of information and insight into the issues at hand. (Hint: not everyone "knows" things principally through their brain.)

3. It makes it virtually impossible to harness the energy in strong feelings to generate enthusiasm for problem solving (providing you can successfully navigate the tension that surfaces at the outset).

4. It leads to suppression of strong feelings (who wants to be labeled immature?), which then leak out elsewhere (often in the form of an overreaction), making the clean-up that much harder.

I have a different idea about how to view strong feelings. Instead of seeing them as dangerous, I see them as indicators that folks are working close to the bone, by which I mean close to their core values, close to their core damage, or both. While I'm not blind to the possibility that bad things can happen in those moments, good things can happen as well.

Advantages of Active Neutrality
o When worked constructively, conflict can build relationships. In addition to better handling the presenting issue, there's potential for healing and gaining a deeper understanding of one another that will pay dividends in future discussions. This is the flip side of the relationship destruction that can ensue from angry, accusatory salvos where people are left scarred (as well as scared).

o If the group can learn to not freak out because one or two members are freaking out, then it will greatly reduce distortion about what's happening, and significantly enhance the chances that information will be accurately exchanged. In particular, there's a tremendous amount of distortion that occurs in groups because people are so afraid that a particular statement might trigger conflict that they decide to sugar coat in an indirect generalization (which leads to the debilitating dynamic of the group struggling to ferret out the kernel of meaning in a field of cotton candy). Or worse, they choose to not speak at all (at which point the group gets to participate in another energy-draining game: What's the Meaning of Silence?).

o Well understood feelings and intuitions about a topic (as opposed to thoughts) can provide valuable insights into how best to balance factors when problem solving. When feelings are always translated into rational statements, it's easy to misinterpret potency or the depth of concern.

o Unaddressed strong feelings run the risk of losing the active participation of the upset person in problem solving (they're so absorbed in stewing that they miss or seriously distort what others are saying). In fact, when it's really bad, one person's upset tends to distract those around them from what others are saying as well, and the disruption mushrooms.

Seen from this perspective, it makes sense to get active in the presence of strong feelings, mainly so that you can realize these benefits. The key to this is understanding that being active does not necessarily mean taking sides. You can be active and still be Neutral. In particular, you can be active about safeguarding relationships, and helping to remind protagonists of their commitment to being constructive with their criticism and open to hearing feedback. The group's commitments to one another ought to be about authenticity and being constructive; not about being nice or nonreactive.

It's Alimentary, my dear Watson
Shit happens. If you automatically equate the expression of strong feelings with immaturity, it will lead to a cultural norm where strong feelings are suppressed (which, in turn, will probably be accompanied by a lack of skill in managing volatile moments, which will tend to validate why you don't allow the group to go there). This can lead to emotional constipation, and will not tend to enhance the free flow of ideas or energy.

Going the other way, neither am I advocating for emotional diarrhea. In a mature group, members use discernment about what feelings are sufficiently potent and relevant to bring forward, and they work at developing the skill to express themselves cleanly ("I'm angry with you for leaving the car windows open yesterday before the rainstorm" as opposed to "You asshole; the car seats are getting ruined because you're always leaving the windows open; were you born in a barn?")

One of the most potent understandings I gleaned from the Vipassana retreat I did last winter (see my blog series of Jan 8-15, 2009) was that Buddhist non-attachment does not translate into being passionless. Eschewing the addiction to attractions and aversions is not the same as suppressing feelings. The Buddha admonished us to notice everything, while holding onto as little as possible. This includes shit.

For my money, groups need active Neutrality from members to perform at a high level. That is, when you aren't a stakeholder on a topic, step up to the plate to safeguard the quality of the examination, helping to build bridges between people with different viewpoints. As a neutral party, your suggestions will have a greater chance of landing well. Take advantage of that; don't just sit there passively and look at your feet.

1 comment:

Don Katz said...

Well said.