Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Rings of Emotional Connection

You take a ring, and then another ring, and then another ring, and then you've got three rings… Ballantine.

I'm in New York City visiting friends between weekend consulting gigs, and that means I'm near the birthplace of Ballantine Ale (Newark NJ in 1840). I enjoyed a bottle Monday night while watching my beloved San Francisco Giants cake walk passed the St Louis Cardinals 9-0 to get their ticket punched to the World Series.

Have you ever noticed how insidious beer jingles are? Even though I had not thought about the one I opened today's blog with in more than a decade, it popped into my head as soon as I saw that bottle in a bodega before the game. While the tautology of the lyrics lacks profundity, the tune is catchy and it obviously stuck in my mind—which I guess was the point.

While I have no idea why Ballantine chose the symbol of three rings for its brand of malted beverages, it's apropos for a group dynamic I witnessed recently and am choosing to explore in today's essay.

To set the stage, I'll lay out three rings of association with a community:

The First Ring
There is an inner ring of people who are the ones most connected in the group. They are the ones (mostly) who come to meetings and are most actively involved in community life.

The Second Ring
There is also an outer ring of less involved folks who rarely come to meetings, yet nonetheless enjoy the amenities and economic advantages of the community.

The Third Ring
This segment is comprised of the disaffected who used to live in the community yet have left under strained terms. While there isn't necessarily open hostility, the population of this group is not encouraged by the First Ring to hang around.

As someone who works with many groups, it's not hard to use this basic overlay to describe the rings of association that exist in almost any group that's been around for a while. [Note: while I could also identify other rings of association, these three are enough for the point I want to make in this monograph.]

In the specific dynamic that I witnessed being discussed, the First Ring had worked hard to find a graceful way to move a particular individual (whom I'll call Rosie) from the Second Ring to the Third, yet, after that was accomplished there were a number of members of the Second Ring who were encouraging Rosie—their friend—to spend time at the community, the frequency of which was irritating to members of the First Ring.

In particular, there was a First Ring member (whom I'll call Jesse) who felt unsafe around Rosie—due to a long standing pattern of her disregarding community agreements, which was the basis for asking her to leave—to the point that the community didn't feel like home to Jesse if Rosie was present. Jesse was in considerable distress and came to a community meeting to get help working through those hard feelings. (Of note here is that the meeting was open to all community members; while Second Ring members didn't attend the meeting, they were invited.)

1. Jesse was smart to ask for help. While it may seem surprising, most people who are struggling with a group dynamic don't come to the group and ask for help. They are much more likely to brood, gossip, take unilaterally action, or demand group sanction against the offending person.

2. While Jesse had some thoughts about getting support for establishing firmer limits around Rosie visiting the community, the main request was for help handling the distress.

3. Those attending the meeting did a fairly good job of staying away from what exactly Rosie had or hadn't done as a member of the Third Ring, and kept the focus on what choices Jesse had in getting to a better place. What impressed me most about this examination was how well everyone seemed to understand the primacy of working emotionally before considering actions steps.

4. Because the group had already been down the road of trying to engage constructively with Rosie (attempted when she was still a member of the Second Ring) and grown frustrated when repeated efforts to get different behavior from her failed, it made sense to me that the group held little hope in the efficacy of further emotional work with Rosie.

5. The most interesting part of the conversation had to do with the Second Ring. While the primary focus had been on a First Ring member's response to the behavior of a Third Ring member, largely omitted from the examination was what it meant that Second Ring members were actively inviting Rosie to be at the community. While that ring unquestionably had the right to do so, it wasn't apparent to me that the Second Ring was taking into account the impact that Rosie's presence was likely to have on the First Ring.

6. While it made sense to me that the First Ring rejected the impulse to ban Rosie from visiting the community as a strategy to address Jesse's discomfort (because of the potential for that action being interpreted as war mongering), I was surprised that the First Ring didn't think to offer the same consideration to the Second Ring that it was offering Jesse: namely, engaging with them in a good faith effort to better understand: a) what having Rosie visiting the community meant to them in a positive way; and b) sharing with them the strain that put the First Ring under. (There is a large difference between banning Rosie from visiting and asking the Second Ring to take into account First Ring sensibilities when thinking about inviting Rosie over.)

On the one hand, the group did well to work accurately and sensitively with Jesse emotionally. Why not offer the same approach with the Second Ring? My impression was that the group was working more to manage the Second Ring (avoiding the possibility of incensing it through imposing tighter limits on Dale's visiting) than to build relationship with it, and that seemed off to me. 

If the commitment is to solve problems relationally—which approach I wholeheartedly support—then that's the prime directive. While the Second Ring may not respond as hoped, isn't it better to have failed following your beliefs, than to take your chances playing Ring Around the Rosie?     

No comments: