by Lance Witt
Dishonesty creates dysfunction and terminal niceness can be terminal to the health of a ministry. Most of us who lead in ministry are just not very good at hard conversations. For the most part we are polite, sensitive, and hate conflict. We beat around the bush, tap dance around the conflict, and make nice.
A huge part of team health has to do with how well we interact and communicate with each other. It takes courage and consistency to create a culture of open, honest, candid communication.
In her book Fierce Conversations, Susan Scott says, “Our lives succeed or fail gradually, then suddenly, one conversation at a time. While no single conversation is guaranteed to change the trajectory of a career, a business, a marriage, or a life, any single conversation can. The conversation is the relationship.”
Let those words soak in. “The conversation is the relationship.” Unless we learn how to have more honest conversations, we will have shallow relationships. Unless we learn to talk about the hard and uncomfortable stuff, our sense of authentic community will be purely cosmetic.
To the casual onlooker, it can seem like a team gets along well and has healthy relationships. People are polite, kind, civil and respectful to each other. But private hallway conversations reveal a different reality. The conflict, tension, and strong opinions that are not welcome in the team meeting are welcome in the hallway. Everyone quickly figures out that in the team meeting you make nice and play it safe. Patrick Lencioni says teams who don’t engage conflict resort to veiled discussions and guarded comments.
At the first hint of conflict in a team meeting, many people will “turtle up”. When you pick up a turtle, what does it do? He sticks his head into his protective shell. The more you prod, poke, and beat on the shell, the deeper the turtle withdraws. It’s a defense mechanism. The turtle will not stick his head out again until he feels it’s safe to do so. The same is true for people.
As a team leader, I must begin to create a safe environment, infused with trust, where we talk about the hard stuff and where we engage conflict in a healthy way. When people take the risk of sticking their neck out and disagreeing with us, we must not shut them down. Nothing will cause people to “turtle up” quicker than the use of power, position, guilt or defensiveness.
A friend of mine was in a team meeting where there was palpable conflict in the room. Through intimidation the leader quickly shut down th conflict and the conversation. Everyone in the room “turtled up”. And, I guarantee you it will be a long time before they venture out of their shell again. So, from a leader’s standpoint, we must create a culture and environment that fosters openness and blesses honest feedback.
From a team member’s standpoint, once I sense there is a safe environment, I have the responsibility to show up and speak up. I must engage and not hold back. The team needs my input. I see things others don’t. My perspective and experience are unique.
Take a few moments to do some self-assessment by reflecting on the following questions.
- How many times have I held back in a meeting because I was afraid of what others would think?
- How often have I found myself saying things I don’t really believe?
- How often have I seen something that just isn’t right but didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to cause trouble?
- How often have I seen somebody about to make a bad decision and I said nothing?
- How many times have I sat silent while the big elephant in the room is ignored?
- How many times have I participated in gossip about a team member rather than having the hard, honest conversation with that team member?
- How many times have I tolerated inappropriate and hurtful behavior because I wasn’t willing to have the hard conversation?
These are hard and painful questions for me. I have spent enormous time and energy over the years making nice. Some of the biggest conflict and pain I have experienced in ministry (and caused others to experience) might have been avoided if I just would have shown up and spoke up.
Years ago a conflict came up with one of the people that served on my staff team. I had a growing concern about his decisions, his attitude, and his style of leadership. Priding myself on my diplomatic skills, I thought I could correct these issues without making this a big ordeal. I was wrong. Over the period of a couple of years, the situation continued to deteriorate until finally the decision was made to let him go. It was painful and messy. A few weeks later, his counselor did a follow-up meeting with us so that we could learn from this experience. He said, “Part of the problem was that you weren’t clear in your communication and the byproduct was that he never really heard you”. My unwillingness to confront the issues candidly ended up creating a lot of confusion and hurt. Even if I had been more forthright, I am not sure the situation could have been rescued, but he and his family deserved better communication.
Solomon said, “An honest answer is like a kiss of friendship” (Proverbs 24:26 NLT). It is not holding back or “turtling up” that is a kiss of friendship. It is an honest answer that says, I value you enough to tell you what I really think. It is an honest answer that says, I care about you too much to be silent. When I don’t show up and speak up, it is usually because I am thinking of me. I want my comments and non-comments to put me in the best light. But, if I really care about the team and the relationships, I will be honest. I will give my feedback and share my concerns.
There is a definite irony here. In trying not to upset people and make waves, just the opposite happens. In our attempt to avoid conflict, we actually end up creating conflict.
Lance Witt is the founder of Replenish Ministries, an organization devoted to ministering pastors to help them become healthy, holy, and humble. He also serves as the Pastor for Strategic Development at Thomas Road Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. replenish.net