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The Next Faithful Step

Constructing a Holding Environment

Scott Cormode, Fuller Seminary

Up to this point, we have learned from Ronald Heifetz about the difference between a technical problem and an adaptive challenge. And we know that we cannot use technical means to pursue adaptive ends; that would be like a doctor trying to quit smoking for her patient. Furthermore, we have learned that people don’t resist change; they resist loss. And that means that anyone going through adaptive change will experience the grief process that anyone experiences as they go through loss. The mandate for a leader who is helping a community through adaptive change, then, is to hang in there with them while they work their way in adaptive change. But what we have learned feels a bit vague. We know what won’t work (deciding for someone else or simply telling them what to do—I’m picturing how absurd it would be to command someone to grieve, “Grieve, now, do it. Come on, grieve faster.”) and we know that we have to hang in there with people. But what exactly are we supposed to do? We should construct a holding environment.

Whenever you find yourself leading adaptive change, you must construct a holding environment. A holding environment is a psychological space that is both safe and uncomfortable. Picture the stereotypic dad running alongside the kid learning to ride a bike. The kid is safe in that the dad is there to catch her if she falls. But the kid is uncomfortable because she is the one doing the work—the balancing, the pedaling, the steering. She is the one learning the new behavior. So long as Dad is holding onto the bike, it is not a holding environment because he’s doing the work. But if he is only there with his outstretched arms not quite touching her, then it’s a holding environment.

Let’s define the concept some more. Specifically, a holding environment is uncomfortable enough that a person cannot avoid the problem, but safe enough that the person can experiment with a new way of being. 

Heifetz talks about two ways that people avoid doing adaptive work. They don’t do adaptive work when they don’t feel the problem strongly enough. And they don’t do adaptive work when they feel the problem too strongly—i.e. when they feel crushed by the weight of the problem. Think about the kid on the bike. As long as Daddy is holding on, then the kid does not have to learn to balance and steer. She can avoid the hard work and just enjoy pedaling. While Daddy is holding on, it may feel like she’s riding a bicycle. But she’s not. Only when he lets go and she has to do the balancing, only then is she learning to ride. And what happens when Daddy first lets go? She gets scared and she yells for him to grab on again. Think of kids you have known in that moment (perhaps even you, yourself). Some kids embrace the moment and learn quickly. And that’s great. But remember the question that really animates us is, “How do you help someone change who desperately needs to change, but desperately does not want to change?” The kid that embraces the challenge is not the one who desperately does not want to change. But there are two other ways kids react. Some kids shout for Dad and keep pedaling. And as Dad runs alongside encouraging them, the kids are learning to ride—whether they want to or not. Those kids are in the holding environment—it’s safe enough because Dad is there that they can try a new way of being and its uncomfortable enough because Dad is not holding on that they have to keep trying. But there is another way that a kid might react. One of my children had a hard time learning. When I would let go, she would stop pedaling. That is the kid who felt the need to change so much that she panicked. I had to keep hanging in there with her. I would hold on for a long time and then let go for a moment and then I’d grad ahold again. Then I’d let go a little longer and then grab on again. Then I’d let go even longer. And so on. I had to keep it safe enough that she would keep pedaling, even if her first attempts lasted just a second or two. The holding environment is uncomfortable enough that the person cannot ignore the need to change, but it is safe enough to try a new way of being.

Notice the temptation for the father in this example. He has to be willing to make his child face her fears. It’s tempting in that moment to grab onto the bike and never let the kid feel uncomfortable. But if you do, you guarantee she never learns to ride a bike. The same thing happens for leaders. People will say to the leader, “We will do whatever you tell us, just don’t make us face our fears.” Heifetz calls this “flight to authority.” It is like the child saying, “I promise I will work really hard to learn to ride this bike. I’ll ride for two hours today. But you have to promise never to let go of me.” Well, it’s obvious that can’t work. The child will never learn. But we leaders are faced with this problem all the time. Think of Rev. Baik in the Korean congregation. The church faced an adaptive challenge. It absolutely had to move because it was too large for its building; and it absolutely could not move because it had to respect the memories of the martyrs. Faced with such a difficult moment, the congregation could easily have said to Rev. Baik, “You decide, we will do whatever you tell us.” But he could not take that deal. Why? First, because the people would not have been able to keep their end of the bargain. If he had decided to move, it would have split the church. But, second, because the choice was not his to make. The whole congregation was going to have to adapt to the new situation. And he could not decide for them any more than the doctor could decide that the patient was going to quit smoking. Flight to authority cannot work—no matter how tempting it is to shield people from their loss.

So, what do you do when faced with a flight to authority? You do the same thing that I did with my daughter. In Heifetz’s phrase, you “fail people’s expectations at a rate they can stand.” If my daughter told me she would practice for two hours if I promised not to let go, I would have said to her, “Let’s just keep at it.” And then I would run alongside her, holding on as if I had agreed to the bargain. But then, ever so slowly and carefully, I would let go for a moment and then grab it back—and so on and so on. In other words, I would keep her focused back on the task.

So what have we learned so far about a holding environment? We know it is uncomfortable enough that a person cannot avoid the problem and safe enough that they can try a new way of being. But how do we adjust the environment? How do we turn up the heat so that it becomes more uncomfortable and turn down the heat so that it feels safer?

The best way to turn up the heat is to make people, in Heifetz’s phrase, feel “the pinch of reality.” Reality is painful because the person really does need to change. The pinch of reality refers to the negative consequences that come from not changing. If you don’t quit smoking, you really will die. A model for how to do this is Rev. Baik. Even though he turned down the heat (i.e. made it more safe and less uncomfortable) by declaring that the board must reach consensus, he turned up the heat by making the board feel the pinch of reality. He collected stories about people who circled the neighborhood looking for parking and then gave up. And he brought those stories to the board. Perhaps he pointed at the congregation’s commitment to evangelism and asked how the church can claim to represent Jesus and turn away people who want to worship Jesus. He used specific stories and specific data to keep the board from ignoring the problem.
The goal with making people feel the pinch of reality is for the person to “discover” for themselves their need to change. The elders of Rev. Baik’s church needed to discover for themselves that the church absolutely had to move. They had to discover that to avoid the problem was the same as turning people away. Rev. Baik could not discover that for them. Every month when the board met, he could put new stories before them. But they had to discover the problem. Each elder had to decide for himself that the congregation could not ignore the problem.

But there is a bit of a dangerous moment that comes with this discovery. I have seen pastors turn victory into defeat with the ways that they mishandled that moment of discovery. You will find yourself preaching and teaching and talking for months trying to get people to adopt some problem as their own. And then finally someone will come to you on the church patio and say, “Pastor, I have made a discovery. I think the church should be doing something about XYZ.” And then the person will describe exactly what you’ve been saying for months, using exactly the language you’ve been using for months, and that person will have no idea you ever said it. The person might even be angry at you because “the church should be doing something about this.” Don’t become defensive. Everything in you will want to say, “Are you kidding me? I’ve been saying that for months.” And if you do, you’ll ruin everything. You will make that person feel embarrassed and defensive at just the moment when she is ready to take a new step. Here’s what I say instead (and, yes, I’ve memorized this little phrase because I cannot trust that my instincts will handle the moment very well). I say, “I’m so glad to hear that. It turns out that some other folks in the congregation have had the same idea. Perhaps I can put you in touch with them and we can work on this together.”  I will admit, however, that this is easier said than done. Just last week, I mishandled such a moment. I was working with an organization as a consultant. For months I had told them that they needed to start keeping data because they were making decisions based on anecdotes rather than facts. The treasurer was blocking this move. Last week, she told me that she had been thinking about how the church needed to keep better financial data and she complained that I had not trained her properly. I should have said, “I’m glad to hear that. I think we can work on that together.” That’s not what I said, I’m afraid. We have to be careful how we handle that moment of discovery.

We turn up the heat by helping people feel the pinch of reality so that they can discover the problem for themselves. How, then, do we turn down the heat? Heifetz points out that one way to make people safer is to focus for a brief time on technical problems. So, for example, the Dad could spend time focusing the kid on how to pedal, all the while holding on to the bike. Then the child builds back the confidence to keep pedaling. Or, Rev. Baik could have the board take about how to re-stripe the existing parking lot so more cars would fit. Re-striping the parking lot will not solve the big problem, but it will buy time and build up the board’s hopefulness about the problem. There is another important reminder about turning down the heat.

The goal of turning down the heat is to make the environment safe enough that people can experiment. So it is important that the leader provide coverage so that the experimenting does not take place in public. Think of the child on the bike. It’s hard enough to practice something difficult. But what if Dad had called all the neighbors into the street in order to cheer for the child while she learned to ride? It would, I am afraid, have the opposite effect of what he intended. Instead of making it feel more safe (because of the support), it would feel less safe because there would be a higher cost of embarrassment if the child fell down or started crying. Yet, we in the church often put our new experiments front and center as a way to honor them. What we don’t realize is that we are making far more likely that they will fail. Find some out of the way place to experiment. Don’t bring in a new worship band at the Sunday morning service; let them practice in a midweek gathering or an evening service. We will say more about this in the next few articles. But for now, remember that it is hard to experiment with a new way of being when you are the center of attention.