How Curiosity Can Make you Less Defensive

Defensiveness. We’ve all been guilty. Someone in our family says something that hurts us and we say something back to retaliate. A person at work makes a comment about us and we internally stiffen up. Someone in our church questions a decision we made as a leader and we react and defend our position. It’s easy to let defensiveness drain us and make a situation worse. Recently, however, I learned a helpful new tool that can help dampen defensiveness. It’s called curiosity.

In an interesting doctoral research project at the University of Rochester, NY, 142 students participated in a one day laboratory session. They were led to believe that a peer had rejected them and then they wrote for seven minutes. Each participant wrote under one of three conditions

  • Suppression: they were asked to suppress their feelings and write on neutral events of their day.
  • Expression: they were simply asked to express their thoughts and feelings.
  • Interest-taking (curiosity): they were asked to express their feelings and be curious about their feelings as they wrote.

Immediately after they wrote, the researcher measured their emotions, specifically anger, their positive feelings toward others (called prosocial affect), and how they internalized rejection. Next they listened to taped speeches from the peer who rejected them and from a neural person. Finally, they rated their like-ability and intelligence.

As you might expect, all three groups rated the rejecter negatively. And those in the suppression and expression group rated the neutral person negatively as well. However, the research yielded this surprise. Those in the interest-taking group rated the neutral person more positively.

What happened? Those in the first two groups displaced some of their hurt from the rejecter onto the neutral party. Those in the curiosity group did not. And at the end of the research session, the curious group reported less anger and less feelings of rejection and more positive feelings toward others (prosocial affect). Curiosity apparently dampens the fight-flight centers of our brain.

As a practical parallel, think of a guy who has a really bad day at work and, for no fault of their own, yells at his kids when he gets home. He’s displacing his anger onto them.

So what are some lessons we can learn from curiosity and its effects on defensiveness?

  1. When someone says something to us in anger, rejects us, confronts us, etc. and we feel tempted to defensively respond, take a curious posture.
  2. Rather than suppressing your feelings or thoughtlessly expressing them, stay curious.
  3. Ask yourself what might have prompted the person to do or say what he or she did (i.e., Did he have a bad day at work?). The situation might also lend itself to your asking the other person non-judgmental, open ended questions.
  4. Be curious about your own thoughts and emotions.
  5. Remind yourself that that the initial anxiety, fear, or worry that another’s behavior may trigger in you, will pass. Those emotions are not you, but passing mental and emotional events. Remind yourself that you don’t have to act on the feeling.
  6. Keep a curious mindset not only in these difficult situations, but also about the good around you (see Philippians 4.8).

Unfortunately, curiosity may have gotten a bad rap in the past (i.e., curiosity killed the cat). Yet, when we apply it to sticky situations ripe for defensiveness, it can serve us well.

The writer of Proverbs gives us wise counsel in this verse.

A gentle response defuses anger, but a sharp tongue kindles a temper-fire. (Prov 15.1, The Message)

What has helped you become less defensive?

Related posts:

Source: Weinstein, N. (2010) Interest-taking and carry-over effects of incidental rejection emotions. Doctoral dissertation, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY.

5 Lessons I Learned from ANGRY Emails

Most pastors and leaders count on email to communicate. We can’t make a call or schedule a meeting each time we need to tell a fellow staffer or leader something. I send scores of emails and receive upwards of 100 each day. I don’t know what I’d do without it. But sometimes email has not served me well. I’ve learned many lessons from angry emails, sometimes my very own.

Several years ago I began an email conversation with one of our pastors who lead our missions efforts at the church where I served at the time. We had begun serving overseas in Nicaragua and it had captured the hearts of many in the church. I’d been there four times and looked forward to many more trips, especially to train pastors in leadership.

We had just begun planning for one coming up and one of the first steps was to create a budget. A church member who serves as the lay leader of our mission team crafted a first draft budget which came out a bit too high. In my mind, it was a first step: get a draft budget first and then begin to adjust the cost to to fit within our available funds.

Well, the pastor in charge saw the budget (copied via email) and sent me an email that this surprised him. I assumed that serving the pastors surprised him. I sent a quick email back (in frustration) that I was surprised he was surprised because I had been clear about my desire to server the pastors. He then sent me an emotional email and after a couple more emails back and forth, we were ready to declare war on each other. We both thought, “What is wrong with this guy?”

The next day we talked by phone and realized that each of us had totally misunderstood each other. It was the proverbial Mars versus Venus issue. He assumed one thing and I assumed another. We were able to resolve what could have been a severe blow to our relationship in a short phone conversation.

Here are some lessons I learned plus a few more about using email.

  1. Never send a first draft email you’ve written in anger. Set it aside and re-write it, several times, removing emotion laden language.
  2. If an email exchange begins to escalate in tone, stop and call or meet the person.
  3. Realize that the human mind will usually assume the worst-cast scenario when an email is misread.
  4. UNLESS YOU WANT YOUR EMAIL TO SHOUT, DON’T USE ALL CAPS OR USE !!!!!!!!
  5. Keep emails short. Think about it. When you get an email that goes off the page, are you inclined to read it?

What suggestions would you offer about minimizing emotions in emails?

Related posts:

5 Brain Benefits from Creating Routines

I’m reading a great book called Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. In one chapter on ‘flow’ he describes the routine Michael Phelps has practiced before every race. For years he has kept the same routine… from the same time he shows up before a race… to the same number of warmup laps he swims… to the same time he removes the infamous ear buds from his ears. His routines have contributed to both his Olympic golds and his world records. Routines not only benefit Olympic athletes, but can benefit us as well. Consider these 5 brain benefits to creating routines.

  1. Routines help minimize uncertainty.
    • Our brains don’t like uncertainty. Uncertainty engages the fight-flight-freeze-appease part of our brains (the amygdala) which can stifle clear thinking. Routines, however, help give you a greater sense of control which creates certainty, what the brain loves.
  2. Routines make space for clearer thinking.
    • In the front part of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex, executive functions like planning, abstract thinking, social intuition, and emotional control occur. However, that part of our brain tires easily. The more we use it, the more it tires which can affect our ability to think clearly, make wise decisions, and relate to others well. However, when we create routines and habits, the brain stores those routines in our habit centers (basal ganglia). As a result, routines free up working space in our pre-frontal cortex so that we can think and concentrate better on new tasks and relationships.
  3. Routines can reduce the drain on our daily energy.
    • Ego depletion refers to the concept that we all possess a limited pool of mental resources available for self-control and willpower. And it gets used up during the day. If we spend that resource on activities that could be routinized, we waste energy that we otherwise could dedicate to more important tasks and relationships. Routines help conserve our energy for what’s most important.
  4. Routines help us focus and maintain attention.
    • The ability to pay attention to what’s important is a key to successful living, leading, and learning. When we are scattered (Where did I leave those keys?) attention gets diluted. Routines, however, can help you direct your attention where you truly need to direct it.
  5. Routines help quiet the tyranny of the urgent

    •  The tyranny of the urgent beckons us to worry about insignificant issues that seem important at the moment. The term rumination describes the mental process of rehearsing something that happened in the past or something that might happen in the future. The tyranny of the urgent breeds such rumination. McKeown writes that routines helps us focus on the life’s essentials rather than spending precious time trying to prioritize everything. Years ago Charles Hummel wrote a classic booklet Tyranny of the Urgent! If you’ve not read it, I strongly recommend it. It’s a real gem.

So, building routines into your life offers many practical benefits.

How have routines helped you?

Related posts:

Who Should Serve on Your Leadership Team? 4 Traps to Avoid

An exceptional book on teams by Ryan T. Hartwig and Warren Bird is Teams that Thrive: Five Disciplines of Collaborative Church LeadershipI highly recommend it! I asked those guys (who are really smart dudes, especially in the area of church leadership) to write a guest post. Their post below offers wise insight on avoiding traps when deciding who should serve on your leadership team.

Determining who should be on your team – and who shouldn’t be – can become a challenge, especially when many different people are vying for a spot at the table. Plus, many pastors understandably want to do whatever they can to please as many of those people as possible (as Charles Stone writes about in People-Pleasing Pastors). But establishing a small yet powerful team made up of the right people – and not the wrong people – is essential to your team’s success.

To help you make the bold, sometimes difficult decisions necessary to take your team to the next level, your leadership team doesn’t need to – and in many cases shouldn’t – be:

1. Merely the lead pastor’s or executive pastor’s direct reports.

While it’s common practice to identify the senior leadership team by drawing a circle around the top two or three layers of the organizational chart, doing so is neither necessary or advisable. Sitting at a particular place in the organizational hierarchy does not automatically qualify someone for senior team membership. For instance, the senior team at one large church we studied does not include the CFO, communications director or worship pastor, even though each of them report directly to the executive pastor. Though each of them brings outstanding individual skill and commitment to their roles, the leadership team was designed to be as small as possible, and so their positions on it were not guaranteed. As you determine your team’s membership, you don’t have to be a slave to your organizational chart.

2. A democratic representation of all church constituencies.

Leadership teams are not mini-democracies. Every special interest group in your church does not need a seat—or direct representation—at the senior leadership team table. A “representative” approach means people tend to lobby and protect their constituency rather than fight for what’s best for the church as a whole. Also, because they are representatives, they tend to encourage even more representation, and therefore a larger number on the team, making it cumbersome and ineffective.

Instead, it is important that the members of your leadership team—or at least one member of your leadership team—can think strategically and broadly enough to be able to generally understand the important interests of your church’s various constituencies and consider them in the team’s discussions. Special-interest pleading is a fatal practice of leadership teams.

3. People you include largely to make them feel special.

A senior leadership team is no place to assuage a staff person who has been passed over for a promotion or whose role has been recently downsized. Nor even is it the group to offer an automatic seat solely because someone is a long-standing volunteer or long-term staff member. While placing (or keeping) that person on the leadership team might soften someone’s potential ego blow, you can be sure it will be a huge hit to your team’s productivity and overall health. Don’t fall to this temptation. At the same time, use extreme caution when using a seat on the leadership team as an enticement to lure a new staff member.

4. The “team” that was here when you got here.

Just because you inherited a team doesn’t mean you should keep that team. You may realize that the current members of the team don’t possess the needed “stuff” to lead the church to new levels. Or perhaps history indicates a particular position has always sat on the team but doesn’t contribute much. In these cases, make a move, and do it soon (and graciously). Too many leaders take too long deal with team members who sap the life out of the team; by doing so, they simply prolong the inevitable. In essence, the only reason a person should be on the leadership team is to bring a critical talent, perspective or skill to the group that enables the team to accomplish its unique purpose.

For more about how to determine your team’s optimal membership and a host of other tips to help your team thrive, see Teams That Thrive: Five Disciplines of Collaborative Church Leadership.

———–

Excerpted with permission from chapter 8 of Teams That Thrive: Five Disciplines of Collaborative Church Leadership by Ryan T. Hartwig and Warren Bird, InterVarsity Press, 2015. Visit www.TeamsThatThriveBook.com for the book itself, exercises, and other tools to help your team.

Related posts:

Are you a Generous Person? 10 Indicators you are

Through examples and commands, the Scriptures challenge His followers to strive for abundant generosity. In 2 Corinthians 8 Paul describes an amazing example from a very poor church (the church in Macedonia) that exemplified lavish generosity through an offering they took up for an even more destitute church than they (the church at Jerusalem). As you read these 10 qualities of a generous person, ask yourself how well your life embodies each.

First, some backstory. The Apostle Paul wrote this letter to the church in Corinth, a relatively wealthy church. A year prior they had committed to collecting an offering for the poor church in Jerusalem. But, for whatever reasons they had not completed it. Paul address this issue in 2 Cor. 8 by using the generosity of the Macedonian church in hopes that they (the church in Corinth) would complete the offering. I believe this chapter points to these 10 qualities.

Generous people…

  1. Give out of a joyful heart. Paul describes the Macedonian church as overflowing with joy.
  2. Don’t tie generosity to their financial status. Famine and a heavy handed government worked against the Christians in Macedonia. They were destitute themselves, but didn’t let that limit their generosity.
  3. Willing give. This church didn’t have to be coerced. They initiated giving.
  4. Consider giving a privilege rather than a duty. 
  5. Look for ways to give. They didn’t focus on their bad economic situation. Instead, they looked for how they could help others in spite of it.
  6. Have experienced a work of deep grace. Grace is a theme found throughout the 2 Corinthians. They truly understood what Jesus did for them and their lives evidenced that understanding.
  7. Welcome challenging giving opportunities. Paul wrote in verse 8 that giving  can actually “test the sincerity” of our love. They weren’t afraid to step out in faith with this challenging opportunity.
  8. Match their intentions to reality. Unlike the Corinthian church that intended to give but didn’t, the Macedonian church decided to give and actually did.
  9. Expect wise stewardship of their gifts. In verse 20 Paul says he took pains to make sure that how they administered their gifts looked right not only in the eyes of God but also in the eyes of the givers as well.
  10. Enthusiastically give. One of the Christians Paul sent with this message was described as being zealous. I believe Paul mentioned this quality to point to their need to be enthusiastic about their promise to give.

Amy Carmichael, a missionary to India in the late 1800’s and 1900’s served for 55 years without a furlough and spent the final two decades of her life bedridden. She captures the essence of true generosity with this quote.

You can give without loving, but you can’t love without giving. 

How would you describe your generosity?

Related posts: