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The Do’s and Don’t of Dealing with an Anxious Leader

Anxiety can form a tangled web of intense feelings and reactive behaviors in religious organizations where people often come seeking peace and refuge from the troubles of the world.

Anxious reactions tend to build on each other and can spiral out of control. What responses make things worse? What responses help to calm a tense situation?

Here are some do’s and don’ts for dealing with anxious leaders. These suggestions could prevent low level situations from escalating into big conflicts. They could help to ease some of the anxiety in complex situations and begin to untangle the web of feelings and reactions involved so that you and others can start the process of naming and focusing on the deeper issues.

Do
Become familiar with the typical signs of anxiety in systems using the mnemonic “If Shows Form”. Knowing the signs of systemic anxiety, gives you the keys to change.

Don’t
Get stressed and upset about the fact that anxiety is present. Even if the organization you belong to shows every symptom listed in last week’s article, it’s o.k. Now you know. Identifying problems and issues is a huge step on the road to change.

Do
Focus on what you personally can do. For example, I notice that I feel intense emotion every time the treasurer talks about next year’s budget. I can reflect on my response.

Is my response natural or is it out of proportion to what actually seems to be happening? What is it about the situation that triggers me to feel this way? When else do I feel this way? When have I felt this way in the past? Are there any similarities between these situations? What else am I feeling? What else might be taking place?

 
Don’t
Criticize or try to change others. This only makes things worse. It is so much easier to identify behaviors in other people that are causing problems, than those in ourselves, but it won’t make any difference unless the other people can recognize their negative contributions themselves. Being criticized raises anxiety and makes people defensive.

 
Do
Bring awareness to the situation by sharing the list of the characteristics of systemic anxiety and sharing that you personally engaged in this one or that one. Think together about the issues for this group.

 
Don’t
Blame and Point Fingers. Systems change only when individuals take responsibility and make shifts in their own attitudes and behaviors. That starts with you and me. The system might not change when you would like it to in the ways you hope for, but your personal contribution will make a positive difference in some way, even if it only reduces your blood pressure and allows you to let go of tension before you go home.

 
Do
Go through the Eleven Characteristics of Systemic Anxiety and work on changing the negative patterns you have fallen into. When someone comes to you and says, “Do you know what so-and-so just did?”, control your intense curiosity and discipline yourself to say something like, “No, but I don’t really want to hear about it. I think it would be better if you talk to him or her directly.” Help the other person build up courage or confidence to have a direct conversation, but don’t fall into the listening trap.

 
Do
Have faith that reducing your own anxiety and your own contribution to the situation will make a difference in the long run.

 
Do
Think about more do’s and don’ts that you have noticed. Add more do’s and don’ts in the comment section so others can benefit from your experience. Thanks!

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