The Facts About Reactivity in Conflict
September 28, 2015—Pastoral leaders often get caught off guard by reactivity. That’s no surprise given that it often feels like a dose of intense raw emotion. That kind of energy goes right to the amygdala (that almond shaped organ in the brain that processes emotions) triggering reactivity on the part of the recipient that results in a “fight or flight” impulse. A sudden assault of intense reactivity can turn off our brain, leaving us with an inability to tap into the resource of cognition—thinking through the problem.
An important skill, therefore, is to learn to recognize it for what it is. The ability to distinguish between reactivity and passion, for example, can help us know how to respond to a person in the grips of emoting anxiety. In those moments it can be helpful to remember four basic characteristics of reactivity:
- It is not rational
- It is fueled by a sense of threat from and acute anxiety
- It is a common response of the non-differentiated
- It is usually displaced.
Reactivity is not rational. Since it is a non-thinking state of being leaders appreciate that trying to “reason” with a reactive person is a waste of time. Setting a calm emotional tone through self-regulation is a more helpful strategy that trying to compose an eloquent argument.
Reactivity is the product of a sense of threat and acute anxiety. Acute anxiety is intense but situational and momentary. Effective leaders appreciate that a reactive response during a time of acute anxiety is episodic and has a short lifespan. Therefore, sometimes just getting past the moment in a non-reactive posture often facilitates better functioning for all.
Reactivity is the result of a lack of differentiation. Differentiation is not a state of being, it is, rather, a way of functioning in the moment. Reactivity is a sure sign that someone is not functioning in a self-differentiated manner. Therefore, a leader who can avoid feeding off of it and function in a self-differentiated manner in-the-moment becomes a resource to the system, if not merely to the person in the grips of reactivity.
Reactivity typically is misdirected at the wrong object. Because leaders occupy the position of greatest responsibility in the system they often are the focus of misdirected and misplaced reactivity. Leaders who have the capacity to know that “This is not about me” can avoid taking it personally or making the expressions, messages, and behaviors of reactivity a personal issue.
Effective leaders learn to recognize reactivity for what it is, and work on managing their own as well.
Opportunities at The Center for Lifelong Learning to learn more about conflict and leadership:
- The Leadership in Ministry Workshops
- Colloquy for Mid-Career Clergy
- Other courses at The Center for Lifelong Learning
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning and Director of Online Education at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. 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 and Don Reagan.