Friday, January 14, 2011

The Unintended Effect of Working with Affect

I was in a meeting at home the other day and one of the topics on the agenda was a proposal I'd circulated a few days ahead of time about how to use a chunk of money that came my way unexpectedly. It was the first time we'd talked about it as a group and there were some critical reactions among members about my proposal—both about what I wanted to do with the money, and about my having stated my preferences before the group could discuss it together.

While how to make the best use of windfall money is an interesting topic, that's not what I want to write about today. Instead, I want to describe the confusion we experienced when I tried to establish that I'd heard what people were upset about.

In sequence, three members told me about the negative reaction they had to my proposal. After each spoke, I was asked to tell that person what I'd heard—active listening. When I did, I tried to deliver my reflective statement with the affect that I thought best matched the feelings that that person had reported. While this is something I do regularly as a professional facilitator (and have a lot of success with), it didn't go very well at home. Let me walk through the confusion...

o Part of the problem is that all three speakers were being careful about how they expressed themselves, and I was being less careful in trying to connect with their hurt feelings. Thus, they were getting back something more strongly worded and forceful than they'd stated. So there was a question about whether I was overreacting, or correctly reading what they had been soft-pedaling.

It's easy to understand how people learn to be cautious about opening the throttle when expressing upset. Most people don't handle critical feedback well, and it only gets more volatile when the expression comes in a raw package. If something doesn't work well, you learn (eventually) to do it differently. Thus, all three people who were giving me feedback had developed a style that was well-modulated, careful, and deliberate when expressing irritation—especially remembered irritation (as opposed to fulminating upset, which is much harder to contain).

In turn, they were naturally uneasy when hearing it reflected back to them with the kid gloves removed. I wasn't trying to be provocative; I was trying to be accurate. I was trying to recalibrate their distress knowing that they were deliberately toning it down. It's tricky business.

o While that was confusing all by itself, it was worse than that. All three people at first thought that my expression of affect was an indication of my upset, rather than my attempt to mirror theirs. Partly this was due to my having stated things more baldly than they had, and part of it is that most people are not used to active listening as an aerobic activity.

In fact, most people are conflict avoiders, and prefer to keep a lid on how they express upset, for fear, as I mentioned above, that fully expressing it will inspire a spirited defense that may quickly spiral out of control. So they were trying to do two things at once that were not blending together easily: a) matching my words with their words to see if I got the concepts right; and b) inferring my mood from my energy—rather than checking to see how well my energy was an approximation of what they were feeling. It got pretty confusing.

Fortunately, we had an outside facilitator helping us run the meeting and she was able to see the confusion before it got too far out of control. People were surprised when she pointed out that I was not expressing my feelings; that I was only trying to include the emotions
of others (as I'd understood them) in my reflective statements.

o The water was further muddied by the fact that I did have some upset feelings about how people were reacting to my proposal, but I was delaying sharing those until the others felt heard. What a swirl! Though there is nervousness that going into feelings that deeply might cause irreparable relationship damage, I'm more concerned with the damage that will ensue if we don't go there.

The case for caution is built around the notion that the trauma of receiving unedited critical feelings can cause a relationship rift so serious that it can never be repaired. It is based on the idea that the receiver may not be able to accept that someone else is that upset with them, or that the giver may be judged too scary to be close to if they are capable of that level of upset. Either way, it's safer to moderate what you share.

The case for full disclosure is based on the idea that when you hold back you don't move on; that unexpressed upset will tend to fester rather than heal; and that withheld distress is associated with distortion that will undercut problem solving. To be sure, sometimes people are successful in working through upset unilaterally, and it isn't always necessary to express it to the person whose words or actions triggered it. However, what happens when you're not successful?

On the whole, I'm persuaded that it works much better for people to learn that conflict is a normal part of human interactions and that the measure of a group's maturity is not based on how much conflict they experience; it's how well they work with it when it emerges.

This depends on encouraging people to fully express what their experiencing, and then the group holding compassionately both the giver and the receiver. While this is not necessarily easy to do, it's possible, and the rewards are large. In my experience, once non-trivial upset enters the equation, real problem solving cannot begin until all the relevant distress has been brought to light.

While my community is not necessarily good at finding the light switch, I'm pleased that we're at least regularly groping for it.

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