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“In the early stages of a conflict, it is almost impossible to overinform.
As much information as possible is needed.
Providing information tends to minimize the need for people to create information for themselves through gossip and embellishments of what they have heard,” wrote Peter Steinke in Uproar: Calm Leadership in Anxious Times. Or, as I put it, “information reduces anxiety.”
Steinke offers eight actions that help in a crisis.
1. Do not underestimate the persistence of survival instincts.
“The will to survive is extremely strong. Brains are constructed to react to threat first, not contemplate it. In the presence of high tensions, expect behavior to be substandard for a while,” says Steinke. He reminds leaders to be patient and not make decisions out of their own anxiety and reactivity. The initial response to threat (perceived or real) plays out in the form of reactive behaviors like blaming, misinforming, taking defensive action, shouting impassioned rationales, unfounded rumors, exaggerating events and needs, and focusing on worst-case consequences. Leaders do well to recognize these are the “first stage” in crises and change; leaders need to help the system get past this stage in order to begin seeing progress.
2. Step back, take perspective, seek clarity.
The flood of misinformation, rumor, and exaggeration can cause confusion for the leader. In the midst of those the leader needs to self-regulate, step back, and seek perspective in order to gain clarity. Ask questions (“What’s really going on here?”). Discern the legitimacy of arguments made out of reactivity. Focus on facts to inform your decisions and actions. However, be prepared to experience that your clarity won’t always be comfortable for everyone. Facts will not sway people invested in their emotions and feelings. “Stay on course. Ultimately, people prefer to hear the truth rather than distortion,” says Steinke.
3. Observe behavior; don’t questions motives.
Since the first response to threat or change is reactivity–which is not rationale, it’s not helpful to question people’s motives. To help interpret “what is really going on here?” it is more helpful to observe people’s functioning and behavior. Reactivity has a narrow repertoire and their patterns—systemic and individual are predictable and easily recognized if the leader can remain calm and objective. Steinke provides one example, “For any conflict to continue and get out of control, a generator of anxiety and an amplifier are needed. They feed each other.”
4. Inform, over communicate, self-define
“In the early stages of a conflict, it is almost impossible to overinform,” according to Steinke. Information reduces anxiety, but in the midst of intense reactivity leaders need to discern how much information people can absorb. Share the right information at the right time, but not more. Perhaps the biggest challenge during a crisis is sharing bad news, the hard facts, the things people need to know but don’t want to hear. However, “By communicating forthrightly, leaders also treat members as mature adults who can handle whatever information is shared, not as children who need to be protected from bad news,” says Steinke.
5. Invest in working with the most mature persons in your system.
The immediate impulse in times of anxiety is to focus time and attention in easing the anxiety of most reactive. But people caught in reactivity don’t necessary want to listen to reason or to feel better. Leaders will do better to observe who in the system are functioning at a more mature level and move toward making them a resource to the system and the leaders. Steinke said, “To move beyond people’s survival instincts, leaders will be more successful when they work with the most mature, motivated people in the system. No one can pour insight into unmotivated people.”
6.Provide a purposeful outlet for anxious energy.
“An anxiety-infected system spreads anxiety in all directions. People increasingly become confused, angry, and disgusted, and they inch toward despair. The flow of anxiety needs to be contained, and nothing does this better than placing a structure over the anxiety-ridden field. When people sense that there will be an orderly process in place, they think things are not totally out of control. People yearn for clear and decisive action. When specific goals are followed, the people have confidence that the system has the means to get them out of the misery they have gotten into so they can move forward again. Good structure controls anxiety,” challenges Steinke. But, this can only happen after the leader has gained clarity and perspective on what direction and actions are best, rather than merely reacting to reactivity.
7. Change the narrative, re-frame the crisis.
Crises are opportunities, and as I like to say, “never waste a crisis.” Because a crisis breeds anxiety it’s easy to miss the opportunities inherent in a crisis. Once leaders can get calmer and centered and can discern the opportunity for change and progress a crisis can provide they need to share it with the system, Stainke suggests, “Instead of anxiously bemoaning what’s happening, leaders can frame the situation as an opportunity for growth. Through this painful encounter, the system will emerge stronger, and they will know better ways to live together.”
8. Triangle in a resource.”
When a conflict becomes polarized and so intense and emotional that those affected become entrenched in their bias it can help to triangle in an outside resource. Triangles help distribute anxiety and can help redirect communication. An outside party, a consultant or coach, can help dislodge the ensuing impasse and provide a more objective perspective. “The best solutions to insolvable problems are the approximate solutions, ones that prepare a system for new learning and a new beginning,” says Steinke.
See. Peter L. Steinke, Uproar: Calm Leadership in Anxious Times (Rowman and Littlefield, 2019).
The Leadership in Ministry program, part of the Pastoral Excellence Program of the Center for Lifelong Learning provides opportunities for leaders to navigate crises and conflicts in a peer-learning, coach facilitated experience.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.
His books on education include Academic Leadership: Practical Wisdom for Deans and Administartors, Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), and Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice Press).