Thursday, November 16, 2017

One More Kick at the Can

Confrontation is not easy. Not for most people at least, which is a good thing: people who lick their chops at the thought of a good set-to are the last people who should be confronting anyone.

My job involves the occasional confrontation. Happily, not often; maybe three times in the fifteen years I’ve been supervising. In our office, the kitchen is the best place to chew someone out when you absolutely have to. It’s open and accessible so that nothing is done behind closed doors, but far enough from the troops that nobody hears what you’re saying — unless you intend them to.

At least that’s the way I choose to do it. I’ve never liked the practice of running to upper management when I have issues with the behavior of employees who report to me. Not at first, anyway.

That’s a principle I get from Matthew’s gospel. The Lord Jesus is of course describing a completely different situation — I don’t have “brothers” at the office to “win” in precisely the sense he is talking about. But the way the Lord instructs his disciples to deal with a sinning brother is useful and can be broadly and effectively applied. If I had to sum it up, I’d say he tells them to start small and ramp it up slowly. That way the situation only gets as bad as the sinner insists on making it.

Escalating Too Fast

Jordan Peterson talks about the problems with going nuclear when confronting someone about behavior you’d like to see changed:
“You’re having an argument … and you say, ‘You’re a stupid person, and you’ve always been a stupid person, and as far as I can tell — as far into the future as I can see — you’re going to remain a stupid person.’

So what are they supposed to do? What are they going to do when you say that? They’re going to cry — like, if you mean it. They’re going to get angry if you mean it. And they don’t like you very much.

And why is that? Well, it’s like … you haven’t left the person anywhere to go. You’ve gone right to the top of their hierarchy and said, ‘Everything about you is wrong; and worse than that, all the mechanisms that we could use to correct it won’t work.’ Those are fighting words. So don’t do that unless you want to have a fight.”
Been there, done that, and it doesn’t end well. So I try not to do it anymore.

Getting Granular

I don’t know that Peterson’s advice is based on the Lord’s words in Matthew; I rather doubt it. But I think it’s consistent with the laudable goal of resolving problems rather than making them worse:
“So then you might say, ‘Well, what would you do instead?’ And the answer is deliver the least amount of information you possibly can … you’ve got to specify the routine that you want transformed at the highest possible level of resolution, and you want to recommend the minimal necessary change that will satisfy you.”
Sounds prudent to me. Attack the problem rather than the person, and try to keep it in perspective. Thing is, we always seem to go to one extreme or the other: either turn up the volume to eleven right at the outset, or avoid the problem entirely.

And I suspect more of us are avoiders than natural confronters.

Impediments to Straight Talk

A variety of things can make confrontation tough sledding. A sense of one’s own shortcomings and historical failings will certainly do it. But there are plenty of others.

In one instance I was dealing with an out-and-proud gay man who had announced that previous attempts to curtail his abuses were “orientation-based discrimination” and would result in a trip to Human Resources. Not fun. Happily the facts were inarguable: he’d cheated significantly on his timesheet, he’d done it in front of me, and he knew it. Playing the gay card wasn’t going to work for him, and he didn’t even try it. I informed him politely that I had unilaterally amended his timesheet and any further liberties with numbers would result in a trip down the hall to see our manager. We never had another problem.

Another time, the guy I was correcting had been very friendly and the temptation to let his behavior slide on the basis of accumulated goodwill was significant. But other people were being affected, and something had to be done. It was awkward, but it worked.

The third was a well-intentioned but aggressive woman who had started giving direction to her own shift lead and everyone else she worked with. In retrospect that one might have been better with a witness lurking distantly …

In short, all confrontations come with risks, which tends to explain why we prefer to avoid them.

Elders and Confrontations

Why bring this up here? Well, yesterday’s post from Immanuel Can encouraging men to consider the work of an elder made me think about the confrontational aspect of leadership. It’s there, and it’s hard to avoid. So let me take one more kick at the can on the subject of elders.

Being able to confront others is not precisely a qualification for leadership, but it is a critical part of the job. Paul tells Titus of the elder that:
“He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.”
The qualification, if there is one here, is holding firm to the word of God. But it’s not enough to know what you believe and be able to declare it when asked, or even to teach it regularly. Sometimes it is necessary to “rebuke those who contradict it”.

Not Quarrelsome But Kind

That doesn’t mean elders should be aggressive about going after troublemakers. The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind, as Paul tells Timothy. And again, to Timothy, “not quarrelsome”. That’s pretty clear. Good church leaders are never spoiling for a fight or taking pleasure at the prospect of telling someone off.

But whether they are violating sound doctrine in word or deed, men and women in the church who “contradict” sorely need dealing with. That, or else the Body of Christ at the local level will suffer injury. Paul does not recommend letting such things slide. The job needs to get done somehow, and done both firmly and clearly. A line needs to be drawn without equivocation even if the change expected is only the “minimal necessary”, and even if that line is drawn in fear, trembling, awkwardness and much discomfort.

Probably better if it is — there’ll be more prayer involved.

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