Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Outbursts During Church Meetings

Dear Crucial Skills,

During monthly “Church Council” meetings, the norm has been for one or more outbursts to occur. More often than that not, the issue surrounds church finances or something our senior pastor has or has not done. As chairperson of the meeting, how can I best defuse volatile outbursts during meetings while still maintaining an atmosphere where church members feel safe to appropriately express concerns?


Dear Frustrated,

Whether at home, at work, or at a church meeting, sometimes we run into behaviors that we know are counterproductive. These behaviors, like “volatile outbursts,” cause the positive feelings in the room to dissipate and people to shut down. When they shut down, they don’t contribute their questions or ideas and, perhaps more importantly, their level of commitment and engagement decreases. So planning and taking action both suffer. Certainly those are outcomes that no team leader, chairperson, manager, colleague, parent, family member, etc., wants to have happen.

So, the problem is clear and unfortunately widespread. What are some solutions?

Here are some tips and skills that we learned and then shared in our book “Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behaviors.” Wow—even the title seems to promise some solutions! So here we go.

Step 1: Give the other person the benefit of the doubt. In training we encourage people not to jump to conclusions about others. We don’t know why they are acting the way they are. It’s easy to mentally categorize them as “insensitive,” “bullies,” or “the last living Neanderthal relics.” We ask, “How come they don’t get it? Can’t they see the problems they are causing?” The cure for labeling other people or for telling ourselves stories that allow us to dismiss them is to ask the humanizing question: “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent human being act like that?”

Could there be reasons that you don’t know? Often we tell ourselves that the other person is acting this way because he or she just doesn’t care about others’ feelings or is being selfish—interested only in his or her own agenda. This question helps us suspend our judgments, be more patient, and seek to understand or diagnose before we act. When we ask these kinds of questions, we don’t vilify the other person. We also don’t oversimplify. Maybe the person has stress at home, or has a constituency that is influencing him or her to “win, and accept nothing else,” or maybe, and this is pretty common, the person doesn’t have the interpersonal skills required when topics get emotional.

Step 2: Safely Describe the Gap. By “Describing the Gap” we mean describing the difference between what was expected and what was observed. You expected productive dialogue, but you instead witnessed emotional outbursts. You can make describing the gap safe by inviting the person to talk in a private setting. You can make it safe by showing in your attitude, your facial expressions, and your tone of voice that you are not frustrated or angry. You have not prejudged the person. Your intentions are to share what you’ve observed, seek to understand, and then to find a solution. It might sound like this, “In our church council meetings, we’d like a very positive climate that is candid and respectful. Last night, you raised your voice, called the decision ‘one of the most miserable in history,’ and then said, ‘Why can’t we do something smart once in a while.’ I believe that affected climate of the meeting and the involvement of the people there. Can we talk about this? I’d like to understand why you acted that way.”

Step 3: Diagnose. Now you pause and listen to diagnose the real cause behind this behavior. You’ll hear reasons why the person is acting the way he or she is acting. The reasons you hear will help you understand whether this person is being influence by motivation issues, ability barriers, or a combination of both. Here is a brief list of some of the possible responses with some annotation.

  • “Oh chill out, it’s not a big deal.” (Motivation)
  • “I know, but it’s so hard for me to control my temper around an issue I care so much about.” (Ability)
  • “Come on, that was just healthy debate.” (Motivation)
  • “John started it . . . did you see how he disregarded my data?” (Motivation)
  • “My leader told me to make sure I didn’t give an inch on this budget.” (Motivation)
  • “I know I have a problem. I’ve offended my spouse and my brother by yelling just this week. I don’t know what to do about it.” (Ability)

Step 4: Seek a solution. Without getting into the details of how to solve them (we have whole chapters devoted to this in “Crucial Confrontations”), let me suggest that you solve motivation and ability problems very differently. For motivation, you help the other person understand the consequences of the problem to self, to others, and to your organization. To solve ability problems, ask for ideas and jointly explore ability barriers.

Step 5: Get an agreement. This last bit of advice is surprisingly easy and often the core issue. Excellent performance begins with clear agreements. There are two points on this:

1) If you get a solution, determine specific steps—we teach who, does what, by when, and follow-up in the book.

2) Determine some ground rules. Often teams have clear goals on technical or business issues like due dates, budgets, and quality standards. They often don’t have agreements that are specific and clear around the more intangible aspects of working together—like cooperation, communication, initiative, or style.

I think getting an agreement about what appropriate behavior means in your church council would help the individuals involved. It might sound like this: “Each of us will be respectful and candid in our communications in the meeting. If we feel ourselves getting emotional, particularly if we get angry and raise our voices, we will pause and ask questions of the other person to get more perspective.” And so on.

Another agreement or ground rule that might help is this: “If someone loses his or her temper in the meeting, we will privately talk to the person to help coach.” These steps can help you deal with an issue that won’t go away unless it is honestly and safely addressed. This is, by the way, what a crucial confrontation is—a face-to-face accountability talk conducted with safety, respect, and candor.

Best wishes,
Al Switzler

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Accountability

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