These days are full of turmoil and fast-moving social and political issues that quickly escalate into “identity disputes.” In the words of my good friend and colleague Doug Thompson of the Consensus Building Institute: “We are all stressed up with nowhere to go.”
With good reason.
If you are a pessimist, you are intensely focused on the negatives of what lies ahead for us. If you are an optimist, you think, “The cup is always more than half full and even if it has a few dabs of arsenic in it there are opportunities.” We at GUILD Consulting are amongst the latter.
We are also realists and pragmatists. Grappling with larger and smaller problems, we go to lots of meetings and many of us are called on to design, moderate, facilitate, or manage them. Some of them, especially ones that deal with contentious issues, get people’s blood up.
Imagine any or all of the following:
• The state has called an informational meeting for next Wednesday to talk about a new vaccination campaign to combat an outbreak of Zika virus. People are scared.
• Neighbors have gathered to talk about the potholes, inadequate lighting, and cars racing down streets where their kids play. People are mad.
• At work, the senior manager in your division has just announced that that company has been bought out and merged and budget and staff consolidations are coming soon. People are fearful.
Each of these will usually be attended by a variety of personality types: introverts, extroverts, deductive reasoners, inductive thinkers, people with technical minds, people doing politics, and people who just want to listen. Almost always there is someone who will talk too long, try to hijack the meeting, or want to beef with someone they don’t like or trust.
The old and new literature on facilitation and meeting management is rich with what trainers call managing “Difficult people.” Sometimes they are categorized as “Sherman Tanks,” “Exploders,” “Snipers,” “Complainers,” “Clams,” or “Know-it-alls.” Much of the advice for dealing with them is repetitious and comes down to a few platitudes. Fashion a safe setting where people can speak their minds, create ground rules, encourage everyone to speak up.
There’s another and better form of analysis. It doesn’t assume these are immutably flawed personalities. Rather, it says all of us have moments in public places when we at our worst.
In the 1950s, Dr. Eric Berne, originally trained in psychoanalysis, wanted a theory which would be understood and available to everyone to help reduce unnecessary friction in family, work, and community systems where people had no choice but to interact. He called it Transactional Analysis or TA. Part of his work was built around three role patterns that play out over and over again privately and publicly when we are struggling with complex issues: parent, child, and adult.
We see all three sides in meetings on snarky subjects.
In simplified form, what Berne was getting at was this. In our child roles, we tend to be self-centered, experience strong emotions, and are not always sociable. We get talked down to and don’t like it. We argue, rebel, and push back. As parents, we try to socialize children. We issue directives, admonishments, and lessons. “Don’t run with scissors.” “Always chew with your mouth closed.” “Play nice in the sandbox.” And as adults, we become more cognitive, careful, and thoughtful. We become capable of deliberation, give-and-take dialogue, and problem-solving.
Our new challenge is to find new ways to bridge the gap from “ready to rumble” to “open to discussion” and from “I’m mad as hell” to “Let’s talk about the issue.” In effect, to help people become “adults” when they are at those meetings that evoke fear or anger.
Our Partners at GUILD Consulting will be happy to talk to you about dealing with difficult subject matters. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (808) 729-5850.