Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Valentine to the Less Demonstrably Distressed

Yesterday was the first day of Sandhill's annual retreat. Today is Valentine's Day. With a little creative inspiration (and a cup of strong coffee) I've hit upon an idea about how to combine these two in today's blog.

Valentine's Day, aside from what Hallmark would have us believe, is not so much about smarm as about agape. As children, we were encouraged to reach out to every kid in our class and send them a valentine—whether we felt like it or not—and especially to the shy kids, who otherwise get few clear indications of being seen or cared about. I want to write today about reaching out to the mildly upset or bothered, who tend to get lost in the high drama of fulminating conflict.

We opened the Sandhill retreat focusing on tensions: how we understood that chaotic moment, what we had agreement to attempt when tensions manifested, and what we might otherwise do when there is no one in the group capable to doing what we said we wanted—which is all the more likely to happen in a group as small as ours (which will soon to be seven adults after Joe & Trish move here in early June).

Like many groups, there are a couple of people in my community who are not reticent to express strong feelings in the group (I'm not saying this always goes well; I'm only saying there are a couple of people regularly willing to express upset in plenaries—and I'm one of them); there are a greater number of members who are not comfortable doing this. Without putting a value judgment on where a person is located on the willingness-to-express-strong-feelings-in-group spectrum, it's nonetheless important to understand people's tendencies and to have an idea about how to work constructively with what you have.

One of the most valuable pieces that came out of yesterday's conversation was hearing from Apple and Emily, both of whom are newer members and reported a tendency to feel overwhelmed in the presence of erupting conflict between others. They both said that upset in others sometimes triggers reactions in them, yet they didn't feel comfortable with having group attention directed toward what was going on for them, because: a) their upset was nothing compared with what was going on for the main protagonists; and b) by the time that the main dynamic had been hashed out, they were typically too exhausted and/or confused to want to engage in additional emotional work focused on their experience. It was just too much.

What excited me about hearing these women's stories was that I could see how to fit this into my understanding of when It's necessary to address distress. The key is not to focus on the amplitude of the emotional bow wave; it's to focus on the severity of the distortion that accompanies it—by which I mean the degree to which they're not able to hear or track accurately what others are saying. In the case of Apple & Emily, they may not be experiencing high distress, but if it's enough to seriously distract them from the conversation (perhaps because they're wondering whether or not to say anything about what they're going through, or why all the attention goes to the drama queens like me), then it tends to be more expensive to ignore the distress than to deal with it.

Of course, describing this phenomenon is not the same as getting everyone on board with actually doing something about it. Even if the group is on the lookout for this subtler version of what Yoda might style "a disturbance in the Force," there is a limit to how long a group can stay in that tender and authentic zone where conflict needs to be worked. A group might reasonably need a break even when it knows that additional clearing might be useful and appropriate.

In such situations, it tends to be that the quieter, less demonstrative folks are the ones who are put on hold, while the squeaky wheels get the grease. What can be done? The first step is recognizing that this might be in play, so you know to look for it. Second, you can create options for coping. If the less obviously upset decline the invitation of group attention, you might nonetheless call for a break. During the hiatus, folks might fluff their own aura (perhaps through stretching, splashing water on their face, or screaming into a pillow) or take advantage of the time to have a one-on-one download with you or someone else, the better to name that tune (the one that's stuck on play/repeat in their head) and be able to return from the break with their ability to focus adequately restored.

It's important, I think, that a commitment to working actively with distress does not translate into relinquishing control of plenaries to those who find it easiest to express distress. There needs to be a balance, and mature groups will learn how to offer succor to those who suffer more quietly, as well as to the loud and the proud.

1 comment:

Quentin said...

From my experience something may be outranking spirituality in the discussion: time in the group, number of relatives in the group, money spooking in the background, other things. Spirituality is easy to overshadow.