Church Skills: Differentiation

The first helpful thing to do when facing conflict in a community that you love is differentiate.

What the heck does that mean? Well, it’s a lovely clinical term that describes the ability to separate your thinking and feelings from the emotions of the system that’s in conflict. In other words, it’s knowing where the system ends and you begin. I often call it “getting unhooked.” In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to react without thinking. It’s easy to get caught up in argument, defending the people and viewpoints that you most identify with.

The more complicated things get around you, the more effort it takes to resist being pulled into the vortex of anxiety and emotion. At times like this, it’s important to step back (at least figuratively) and remember who you are, what you believe, what you’ve personally experienced, and what you know about the system.

For instance, you may know that the person everyone is upset with made the decision at the heart of the conflict only after careful consideration.  But in the midst of  the intense emotion of the moment, it’s easy to get swept up in feelings of “Yeah, why didn’t he/she think of that?” or “Maybe s/he was trying to pull the wool over our eyes.”  It’s so easy to turn a person into a target–a caricature drawn with the broad strokes of anxiety–and begin to ascribe unflattering intentions to what we don’t understand. If people get stuck in this “us and them” stance, it’s far to easy to begin to treat others as “enemies” and far more difficult to come to a place of reconciliation.

Differentiation is the personal practice of stepping back and trying to gain perspective.  It may be possible a little later to help others differentiate too. (Reading the mission statement or congregational covenant can be a good tool for this, but not quite yet.)  Remember, rushing in to fix or calm the situation is still being “hooked” by it.  There are things you can do to help the conflict deescalate and move toward healthy reconciliation, but not until after you’ve managed to differentiate.

One great “unhooking” tool is the “I” statement. Take a deep breath and try to complete a few sentences that begin, “I feel…” or “I know…” or “I believe…” or “I have seen…” or “I care about…”  If you sit next to me in a heated meeting, you may see me scribbling my own “I” statements in the margins of the agenda.  I find that I can do a much better job at fighting off defensiveness and reactivity when I begin each sentence with “I.” It’s not a perfect system. A smart person can twist a sentence that starts with “I” into something aimed at someone else. But it’s a start.

Which reminds me–differentiation is not a one-time deal. It’s something you have to do again and again. Remember, the “hotter” the emotional climate the trickier those hooks can be. It’s easy to get caught. Luckily, there’s always another chance to differentiate. There’s always another chance to decide to step back and remember who you are.


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