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February, 2012
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The Elephant Antidote: How to talk about difficult issues in congregational life

by Dr. Chris Gambill

I wrote recently about how most congregations probably have at least one “elephant”—a salient issue that no one dares to talk about—in their sanctuary. Elephants remain ensconced because a prevailing myth that “talking about it makes things worse” protects them. Talking about a thing does not typically make it worse. It does make us feel worse because we are often conflict-avoidant. Nevertheless, talking about an elephant is often the only way to begin the eviction process. The question is, how?

The key is having a constructive conversation. Unfortunately, there are lots of ways to approach a conversation that are unhelpful and possibly disastrous. The failures of most approaches have one thing in common: they lack sufficient planning and structure. A common strategy used to attempt discussion of a difficult issue is to call a big meeting and ask, “what do you think?” This free-for-all format empowers the extraverts, the emotionally distraught, and those with an axe to grind. The lack of structure means that some of the most thoughtful people may never get a word in edgewise.

Creating structure for a conversation means paying attention to some basic principles. Establish ground rules. Every challenging conversation needs to begin by establishing mutually acceptable ground rules to govern the conversation. This helps create a safe space to talk. One key ground rule is determining what will be confidential and what that means. Confidentiality should also include things like asking participants not to quote one another, and agreeing not to tell other group members’ stories without permission. Other helpful ground rules include things like not interrupting; allowing others to talk before speaking again; and restating other’s positions (to their satisfaction) before rebutting them.

Pre-empt bad behavior. I have found that it helpful to take time at the beginning of a challenging conversation to identify behaviors the group does not want to occur. This usually has the effect of reducing the occurrence of those behaviors. It is critical to do this before the unwanted behavior occurs. It is much easier to prevent bad behavior than to stop it once it gets started.

Take personality seriously. Many attempts to talk about issues in a large group setting fail because leaders do not take the role of personality seriously.  Unstructured conversations in a large group disempower introverted group members. Introverts typically need more time to think before speaking out. The more strongly introverted just will not speak out in front of a large group. Creating a conversational structure that includes small group interaction and discussion is one way to provide a more comfortable, conducive space for introverts to express their thoughts. Providing breaks in the conversation for prayer, meditation and thinking can also help make a conversation more productive and comfortable to a broad range of people. It can also raise the quality of the conversation!

Take emotions seriously. A common mistake groups make in trying to have a challenging conversation is they skip past emotions and try to go directly to logical arguments. The problem is that human beings are both emotional and rational creatures. In a challenging conversation, the participants’ emotional state often inhibits rational thought. For an emotionally charged issue, some provision needs to be made for individuals to identify what they are feeling and to better align their emotional state with the conversation that needs to take place. This can be as simple as taking the time to name “What I am feeling” in a small group context or using a guided meditation to help participants center and calm themselves.

Prevent noisy dissonance. In the midst of a difficult conversation where lots of “heat” is generated, one of the casualties—despite the amount of words that are flowing—is real communication. This is because the attempted communication becomes too “noisy” and dissonant. Noisy communication looks like this: A thought or idea gets expressed by someone and within a microsecond of when they stop talking (or even before) someone throws out a verbal counterpunch to refute the idea. The back-and-forth banter then escalates and soon no one is actually listening to anyone else. Everyone is simply reloading their canon to fire off the next shot against their opponent. This can be prevented with a predetermined structure and a facilitator that allows one idea to be fully explored before examining opposing ones.

Getting rid of an elephant infestation is usually not quick or easy. But, like many things in congregational life, the most effective step is usually having a good (constructive) conversation. If it needs pointing out, this kind of thoughtful conversation is also very Biblical. The Book of Acts depicts the early church as often being overrun by elephants. Their solution was to do what God’s people ought to know how to do best—talk their way through to a solution that is not only a “win” for the group, but is pleasing to God and the larger community. If they could do it, so can we. A sanctuary’s no place for an elephant.

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