Monday, April 11, 2011

Changing Stories

A good percentage of my work as a group process consultant entails helping a group get past some stuck dynamics. In these situations it's relatively common that there are stories about how one or more people in the group are essentially horns that only play one note.

That is, these people are identified with a certain position and the story in the group is that whenever this person contributes to the conversation it is solely to sound their one note (again and again). Mind you, that is not the story that these people have about themselves—while they probably will agree that they care deeply about the thing that everyone associates with them, their story will be that they also care about other things and the group distorts who they fully are.

While occasionally the position between taken by the individual is off the wall (insisting that all committees be staffed by seven-foot people with purple hair and a nose ring), most commonly the position (or the values underneath it) are perfectly legitimate, and that's what I'll be assuming for this essay. That is, the problem is not that the viewpoint is inappropriate, it's the obstinacy with which it's represented.

What's Going On?
This is almost always a systems issue, where everyone is playing a part. Typically, the person who is labeled as a one-trick pony contributes by coming across as a broken record. Worried that the thing they care so passionately about will not get its proper consideration, they insist on inserting the same comment (more or less) into any discussion where it might be remotely relevant.

While this may not literally be the only thing they add to group considerations, it might be the thing they do that's most noticeable (and irritating) and gradually two things happen: a) the rest of the group stops listening (they've heard it before); and b) the rest of the group develops a sense of despair that this person will ever manifest nuance in what they say or the ability to work constructively with alternate views.

Before long, this person gets pigeonholed and marginalized. People start thinking about how this person can be managed rather than how to include them in problem solving.

While the person may not even feel their position as strongly as they state it, they identify themselves as the champion of that viewpoint and a role they believe they must fill for the good of the group. In the extreme, this can take on the quality of a sacred trust, where their delivery comes across as messianic. While the person almost certainly is aware of the group's weariness at hearing yet another statement of their grooved admonition, they are curiously reinforced in their isolation, feeling it's their cross to bear. They are willing to pay the price of their isolation because they care that much about the values underlying their position (and the more people seem to resist hearing from them, the more doggedly they persist). In their eyes the group is constantly at risk of making a serious error in undervaluing the thing they care about, and their speaking up is meant to protect the group from that folly—even if the group doesn't fully grok how dangerously they're proceeding. They view themselves as misunderstood prophets.

Going the other way, the rest of the group—almost to a person—reports that they are fully aware of the one-issue person's viewpoint (you'd have to be deaf and blind to have missed it), yet are frustrated with this pattern for two reasons. First, the person does not seem to be able to digest that the rest the group has heard them (or they'd have ceased beating everyone other the head with their litany), and second, they do not seem to be able to bridge with differing viewpoints—they are perceived to be adamant about everyone coming to them. That is, they come off as non-collaborative, or uncooperative. As you might imagine, this is a particular sore point in cooperative groups (which is exclusively where I ply my craft).

When asked about this, the person will typically respond in one of two ways. Either they express fear that if they soften their language and become more malleable that this will encourage people to move further away from the position they care about so much (that is, it will be a tactical error), or they express surprise that they are viewed that way (it's not the story they have about themselves).

Most importantly, the rest of the group will tend to an analysis that the pigeonholed person is wholly responsibility for this dynamic. That is, the group will not see how they have actively contributed to this dynamic—how, in fact, they have placed this person in a box and won't let them out, all the while complaining about that person's unchanging behavior.

The Way Out
The good news is that if you recognize that you are in this pattern and have the will to discuss it, it can be reversed. Here's what I advise:

For the individual, they need to look for opportunities to make public comments that bridge to other people's statements that are not wholly in line with their cause
célèbre. While I'm not suggesting that this person do anything out of integrity or betray their core values, it will behoove them to demonstrate publicly that they can see beyond their own issue and can work collaboratively. The individual needs to let go of the story that no one else gets it about their concern and to trust the group will not run them over if they're not constantly sounding their clarion call. Even if they're suspicious that this might not be the case, they need to test the waters.

For the group, it needs to look for opportunities to honor out-of-the-box statements from the pigeonholed individual, recognizing the breadth and caring that represents. It needs to let go of the story that the individual will always and only offer the same old input, and listen for nuance. The rest of the group needs to build bridges to the isolated individual, inviting that person join in the collaborative effort to solve problems.

Stories are perhaps the oldest form of social interaction; they're oldest human method for transmitting culture and information. They simultaneously have the potential to reinforce and limit; or to inspire and edify. The story I have about stories is that they are powerful and can be wonderful, confusing, innocuous, destructive, or all of the above. In groups, they work best when people are intentional about which stories they encourage to flourish. They work best when the stories celebrate compassion and reinforce relationships, rather than isolation and judgment.

For by their tales shall ye know them.

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