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The Next Faithful Step

Avoidance and Grief

Scott Cormode, Fuller Seminary

Adaptive work is painful. We know that. And everyone wants to avoid pain. So the thing that most defeats adaptive work is avoidance behavior. But that does not really help us yet. We need to know why adaptive work is painful. If we can answer that, then perhaps we can begin to figure out how to create an environment that enables people to make adaptive change even though it is painful.

Our next step builds on another key insight from Ronald Heifetz. “People don’t resist change,” he has said, “They resist loss.” Adaptive change is painful because people lose something; it costs them something. When we discussed Mark 8, we recognized what it cost the disciples something to recognize Jesus’ way of defining the Messiah. It was going to cost them thrones. James and John (or their mother) pictured Jesus coming into his kingdom and hoped to be seated on his right and left hand. They really thought there would be thrones. And when Jesus said he would suffer and die and rise, they had to recognize that they had it all wrong. It was going to cost them something to adopt Jesus’ perspective.

“People don’t resist change; they resist loss.” And all loss requires a grief process. We can easily picture when a loved one dies that a person will have to grieve. It will take them a period of time to come to grips with the loss. But I believe that any significant loss requires a grief process. And that is true for people going through adaptive change.

Anyone who has spent time counseling people in grief is probably familiar with the work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. She has written about the five stages of grief. We teach seminary students the stages of grief so that they know what to expect as they counsel people and so they have at their fingertips some strategies for helping people at each stage. I would argue that people facing adaptive change often have to go through these stages of grief. Furthermore, I think that understanding these stages will help Christian leaders know what to expect and how to help people who face the loss that comes from adaptive change.

I encourage leaders to memorize the stages of grief so that they don’t have to look them up in the midst of leading. The stages of grief are:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger/Blame
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

When people feel the pressure to change, many respond with denial. They pretend that there is no need to change. They do this either by saying that there is no cause to change (e.g. cigarettes don’t cause cancer) or by saying that the pressure to change does not apply to them (e.g. I don’t smoke enough to get cancer). Of all the things I teach, I have the least trouble convincing people of the power of denial. You probably don’t have to look long and hard for examples of denial. You probably just have to look back on your own life. There are likely times when you desperately tried to pretend that you did not have to deal with some issue—even though everyone around you was trying to get you to pay attention. Or you can look at your favorite congregation. You can probably list places where the church is avoiding hard questions. It is the immediate and reflexive reaction to pain. We pull away and avoid the thing that hurts us. And there is good reason for that. That’s why few children touch a hot stove a second time. We all know how powerful denial is.

There are many ways to rouse someone from their denial (we will talk specifically about some of those ways in the next piece). But, say for a minute that you have been successful. You have helped a person pay attention to their need for change. If this were a technical problem, then just transferring the knowledge might be enough. Now that they know they need to change, they will change. But in adaptive change, rousing someone past denial is just the beginning. But let’s say you did it. You got someone to recognize that they cannot pretend the problem does not exist. What is your reward?

Your reward for successfully waking a person from their denial is anger and blame—often directed right at you. This is why it is so important to understand the stages of grief. It can keep you from taking it personally when someone is angry at you while you are trying to help them. Let me give a couple of examples.

Heifetz tells the story of a community outside Tacoma, Washington. We’ll call it the Tacoma Case. This was the copper smelting plant that was spewing arsenic into the atmosphere. For the longest time (indeed, decades) the people of Ruston (the small town where the plant was located) pretended that there was no problem. They could not see the arsenic. And they could point to generations of children who seemed no less healthy than other children. But the EPA had definitive data saying that the plant was poisoning their community. So the first thing they did was shock the community out of its denial. They closed the plant. And how did people respond? Very few people appeared grateful that the government was protecting its citizens. Instead, one former mayor (and third-generation plant worker) said, “The government [is] trying to take our children’s livelihood away.” He was angry and he blamed the government for the problem. And notice how he framed his anger—he was still avoiding the problem. In his mind, the problem was not that the plant was spitting poison into the sky. No, the problem was that the government was taking away jobs. In retrospect, everyone agrees the government did exactly the right—and they were blamed for it.

This is normal. When a leader makes it so that people have to face their problems, the common response is to blame the leader. In fact, doctors report that patients often become angry at the doctor when the doctor finds a medical problem like cancer. The doctor did not cause the cancer. But it is normal for people to want to shoot the messengerbecause if the messenger disappeared then the people could go back to denying the problem.

This presents an interesting and difficult moment for the leader. A leader cannot take it personally when someone blames her for something she did not do. Let me repeat that because it is crucial. If you want to guarantee that your people never grow into adaptive change, all you have to do is take it personally when they become angry at you. And what is more, your life experience bears this out. Think of a teenager asked by his father to sweep the garage when the teen would rather be watching basketball (not that I was ever that teenager, mind you; this is a hypothetical example). The first thing the teen does is to try to stall, to ignore, to do anything he can to pretend that he really does not have to do it. Then, when that does not work, he knows that the best defense is a good offense. So he starts an argument. He makes it inconvenient for his father to make him do something he does not want to do. And he hopes that the father gets sidetracked by arguing about who is in charge—with the argument taking place in the TV room while the game keeps playing in the background. We have all tried that. Now let me give another example. Say you were sitting with a teenager whose mother has just died. The teenage boy is hurt and angry and scared. And somehow he starts to think that it all would have been better if you the pastor had come earlier to pray for her. The boy gets angrier and angrier with you. In your mind, you know that his anger is not about you. You don’t take it personally. You don’t meet his anger with your own anger by saying, “How dare you blame me for your mother’s death?” You would not do it because you know that he is using you as a scapegoat—a repository, a place to put his anger until he can deal with it in a more healthy way. In fact, you know his anger is not really anger. It is fear and loss masquerading as anger. And if he feels angry at anyone, it is his mother who has died. But he can’t very well express that. So he focuses on you. The key point here is that you don’t take that personally. You understand that it is not about you. You understand that your job is to hang in there with him no matter how angry he needs to be.  Why? You do that because you know that it is the best way to help him through to the other side. And you know that his getting to the other side is far more important than any wounding your pride might temporarily feel. You remember that it is not about you. It’s about the one who is grieving. 

In the same way, you have to remember when you are helping people through adaptive change that it is not about you. Your job is to help them through their pain to the other side. Heifetz put it this way. Leaders become “repositories for our worries and aspirations, holding them, if they can in exchange for the powers we give them.” The role of the leader is to hold people’s fears and parcel them back to the people at a rate they can stand. Think of a repository as a vessel, a bowl, or a cup. We accept people’s anger, their blame, their worries, and their fears. And we hold them and save them. And then we take them out when the people are ready to work on them.

The EPA accepted the blame and the anger. They did not become defensive. That would have side-tracked them. Instead, they stayed focused on the task at hand, which was to help the community deal with the life-threatening problem looming in their skies. In the same way, I have to remember that I am helping people deal with big and difficult issues. I don’t have time to get side-tracked by personal slights. (And when I do feel personally slighted, I remember something. They are usually mad at me because it is too scary to be mad at God. I am God’s representative. And there are lots of times when God does something wonderful in someone’s life and I get the accolades, even though I did nothing to deserve them. In the same way, I remind myself, I sometimes take heat because people are angry at God. So I do what God does. I hang in there with them and keep inviting them to deeper relationship. Read the Psalms of Lament. God can handle people’s anger. He gives us the language to express it in those psalms. And if God can handle their anger, so can I.)

Blame and anger is, however, only a stage. And if I hang in there with people, they often move to the next stage—which is Bargaining. This is, perhaps, the part of Kubler-Ross that has gained the most attention. You know how it goes. We spend our time imagining deals we would make. “If I promise to be good, will you get me out of this?” But it is more than that. Bargaining statements can often be phrased, “If only….” If only I promise to cut down to half a pack a day, can I keep smoking? If only we cut arsenic emissions, can we keep the plant open? If only the pastor had arrived sooner, my mother would not have died. If only Jesus had arrived sooner, Lazarus would not have died. We enter a temporary magical world where we pretend that there is a way to make things better, to make things go back to the way they once were. (And remember, the heart of an adaptive challenge is that things will never be the same again; things cannot go back to normal. I can’t quit smoking and then start up again and pretend I’ve dealt with the problem.)

Bargaining behavior is extremely common—and often happens when we don’t expect it. Think of the congregation that has a generational divide between older members and younger members. They are fighting over music and the music minister gets caught in the middle. Would it surprise you if I told you that that church is on its third music minister in four years? They are engaging in bargaining behavior. If only we got a new music minister, perhaps s/he can bridge the generational divide. It is too painful to deal with the divide directly, so we look for technical problems (like finding a new music minister) and we pretend that solving that easier problem will suffice.

I see it all the time. And I have come to welcome bargaining behavior (it is a lot more pleasant than anger/blame) because it is a next-step on the way to acceptance. I know how to work with someone engaged in bargaining behavior. I just take the bargain seriously and name it for what it is. “So you think that if we hire a new music minister,” I say to them, “that we will no longer have a generational divide?” I try to get the people to discover for themselves that the music question is a symptom, but it is not the problem. It takes a while. But I find that it is easy to hang in with someone doing bargaining because I know that bargaining won’t ever really satisfy them.

And the reason I keep hanging in with them is that I know what is coming. I have compassion for them. I know that ultimately bargaining won’t work and that eventually they move on to the next stage, what Kubler-Ross calls depression. This is not usually clinical depression in a psychological sense. But they are depressed by this one issue. And for good reason. Remember why they are going through these stages of grief. They are grieving because they have to face some change and they know that that change is going to cost them something. And these grieving behaviors are designed to fend off the pain that will inevitably come when they acknowledge that change is necessary. They experience depression when they finally realize that the loss is permanent—when they acknowledge that they cannot ignore the problem, they cannot scapegoat the problem onto someone else, and they cannot bargain the problem away. And my job in such a moment is, once again, to hang in there with them (don’t worry, in the next piece we will describe exactly what you are doing when you are hanging in there with them). I keep supporting them because they are almost ready.

For the final stage is acceptance. Eventually, if we are successful, a person or a people recognizes that they have to deal with the problem. But we should say that this whole process can be tricky. We have presented these stages in such a way that they appear linear—as if once you have passed through denial on a situation, you never revert to that point again. It’s not so easy. When something happens that causes someone to feel the depth of a problem in a new way, they often jump back to denial or blame. It is a defense mechanism. Just like that teenage boy who was overwhelmed by his mother’s death might revert back to denial or anger around his mother’s birthday, so people are often overwhelmed by the magnitude of a change they have to make and revert back. All you can do in that moment is to hang in there with them and help them build up the emotional courage to face the problem again.

So we have five stages to grief. When I present these ideas to people who are interested in change, they often tell me that it seems too complicated or too difficult. They say that there has to be an easier way. But I recognize that for what it is. It’s bargaining behavior. If only there were an easier way to help people change, then I would not have to learn this new and painfully difficult way to lead. It’s true. If there were another way, you would not have to learn this one. If there were a way to treat adaptive challenges as technical problems, then you would not have to accept people’s anger and sit with them in their pain. But there is no other way.

So let’s go back to where we started. Anytime you want to help people adopt new beliefs, embody new values, and engage in a new way of doing something that they have always done their own way—anytime you want to see people transformed—you are doing adaptive work. And we know that adaptive change is painful. People don’t resist change they resist loss. And people who experience loss go through a grief process. So if you want to help people be transformed, you have to learn to help them through their grief so that they can deal with the painful reality that the change demands.

How do help them through that grief? You create what is called a holding environment. And that is the subject of our next section.