Closing Contact with the Third Rail of Distress
Almost all people living in intentional community—as well as those aspiring to—value good communication. After all, the heart of community is relationship and that’s pretty hard to develop and sustain with weak communication.
That said, all conditions under which communication is attempted are not equal. Some are way more challenging than others. In particular, one of the hardest is when one or more people are experiencing serious distress. In fact, the higher the voltage, the more uncertain and potentially explosive the connection becomes—to the point where it’s questionable whether even to attempt it because:
a) Relationship damage may seem a more likely outcome than enhancement (sometimes people express distress in damaging ways).
b) The possibility of constructive exchange may seem too remote.
c) The environment in which the engagement occurs may be too uncomfortable or toxic for the people not in distress to be able to function.
d) There is no clarity about what will be constructive.
e) There is no confidence in anyone present possessing the skills needed to be constructive, even if there’s agreement about how to go about it.
However, despite all these reasons to be cautious, reaching out and communicating with people in distress is also when it can do the most good—in terms of helping the person through the distress, helping the group shift back from turbulent to laminar flow, and strengthening relationships through deeper understanding.
So how do you handle it?
I believe that once a person identifies with being in serious distress, the group’s prime directive is to make sure that that person doesn’t feel isolated, and the way to accomplish that is to establish an authentic connection with their experience—essentially, that means being able to demonstrate to the upset person’s satisfaction three things:
1. What’s the trigger?
What happened (or didn’t happen) that resulted in the reaction? Sometimes it’s an action, sometimes it’s a statement; sometimes it’s a sequence of things that becomes the trigger. Sometimes it erupts out of nowhere and sometimes it’s been building for years. Rather than guess, you need to ask.
2. What’s the energy?
It turns out that getting the energy right is often more important than getting the story right. That is, in order for the upset person to feel heard, it’s important that the person reaching out gets into a similar energetic zone—raising their energy if the person is angry, and dropping down for people who are afraid. Smoke curling out the ears needs to approached very differently than tears rolling down the cheeks.
Sometimes people make the mistake of trying to be an island of calm when reaching out to people in distress (on the theory that matching energy risks further stimulating the overstimulated), but my experience has been the reverse—that upset is far more likely to be sustained when met by mismatched energy. (“If you truly understood what I’m going through you wouldn’t be so goddamn calm!”)
3. Why does it matter?
The final piece of my triage trio is making a connection to why this matters to the person in reaction. In what way did this touch a core interest or concern? Understanding context can often be a key element in feeling fully held. This is especially helpful when the listener can establish how the concern is reasonable and tied to something valued in the group.
Note that none of the above is about taking sides; it’s simply about hearing accurately and establishing connection without ducking hard feelings or assigning blame. Done well, information should now be freely flowing again.
• • •
Now let’s spin the above another way. Instead of focusing on someone in distress, think of someone who comes across as stubborn and locked into their position; someone who’s perceived as holding the group up by not working productively with the input of others. They’re seen as insisting on their right to be heard, yet it doesn’t appear that they’re living up to their responsibility to work respectfully with the views of others.
How do you handle that?
My advice, amazingly enough, is to proceed in the same way as with people in distress (outlined above). In general, someone balks at reaching out to others not because they’re an asshole, but because they don’t yet feel that they’ve been reached out to. Thus, the request to balance rights and responsibilities lands hollowly for the stubborn person because they don’t have the sense that their rights have (yet) been honored.
It is not enough to simply assert that you have heard the person, you need to be able to show them through reflective listening. Better yet, feel into their beleaguered position (as an outlier for being stubborn) and establish a connection to why their position matters to them.
Then see if they unclench and are better able to reach out to others and find middle ground. In my experience deep hearing is incredibly effective as a topical balm on raw feelings and as an analgesic for stiff dynamics.
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