Leading Change: 4 Ways To Attack Problems Instead Of People

by Carey Nieuwhof

As a leader, you dream of a better future. Maybe it involves reaching new families, changing your current ministry programs, launching a new idea, or leading a complete transformation of your ministry. Whatever that dream looks like, it necessarily involves change. But the hard reality is that if you attempt to change almost anything, you will encounter resistance.

Leading change without losing it

When that happens, especially when someone attacks your ideas (or you personally), it’s hard not to get defensive, or even not to counter-attack. However, that’s not particularly helpful if you are trying to navigate change, especially in a Christian context as a Christian leader. So how do you affirm people while attacking the problem?

Praying about it honestly is a necessary foundation. But there are also some other tactics that can help save the moment and the momentum you’ve built when it comes to leading change.

Four ways to avoid attacking people

1. Believe the best. There may be some people who are out to harm you, but most people aren’t. They are sincerely doing what they believe is best for the future. Their vision just conflicts with yours and that of your team.

If you have a habit of taking non-personal things personally (as I do), it can be easy to impute bad motives where none exists. If someone is threatening the vision I’m advancing, it may seem as if he or she is somehow against me. However, the more I’m able to believe the best about other people—especially people who disagree with me—the better leader (and person) I become. It allows me to separate the person from the problem and attack the problem, not the person.

So I’ve learned to think that someone who has a different understanding of the future is really imagining what they believe to be a better future. When I do that, not only do I not take things as personally, I’m able to better see and address the issues. It also reminds me that I might be wrong, and that helps me keep a more humble attitude.

Plus, we share the same Savior, same faith, and ultimately, the same heaven. So why wouldn’t I treat people respectfully, regardless of how they treat me? Jesus said something about blessing your enemies. You will never look back with regret if you remain generous and kind to people who are not kind to you. And one of the best ways I know of to ensure you do that systematically is to begin by assuming the best of others, not the worst.

2. Empathize with your opponents. Showing empathy is a practice you can adopt when you open your mouth. It’s natural not to want to show empathy toward those who disagree with us. In fact, we may want to dismiss them, discount them, counter them, or even belittle them (on bad days). Don’t. Instead, show empathy toward them. Instead of beginning a conversation by stating your differences, why not begin by emphasizing what you both agree on and trying to understand why your “opponent” is upset? For example, instead of saying:

Josh, you and I completely disagree and I’m not sure there’s anything we can do about it. I just can’t see it your way and you can’t see it my way.

why not say something like this:

Josh, I’m grateful we share a commitment to Christ as our Lord. And I’m thankful for what you’re doing to help us advance our mission. I sense you’re upset with the direction we’re heading in. I just want you to know I understand that, and I hope we can discuss our differences.

Do you hear the difference? I think if you or I were on the other side of the changes in an organization, we’d want a leader to approach us with the second attitude, not the first.

When you show empathy, you help people understand that they were heard. And that’s huge. Sometimes that’s all people want. In some ways, this is like the dynamic between many husbands and their wives. It took me about a decade and a half of marriage to figure out that when my wife, Toni, shared her struggles with me, she didn’t want me to solve them. For 15 years it floored me that she resisted my wildly brilliant solutions. Then one day it dawned on me: she just wanted me to listen. She was looking for empathy. I now listen intently and say things like “I get that” and “That’s too bad” and at the end of the discussion, she actually feels better. I still feel puzzled, but I promise you it works.

If you can empathize with people who oppose you, you will de-escalate the relational tension. In fact, you’ll discover that after being heard, some (not all) opponents will change their minds and even support the proposal at hand. That’s the power of empathy.

3. Wait a day. No matter how mature we become, we all have emotional reactions to things. Think about your instinctive reaction when the guy with a fish symbol on the tailgate of his truck cuts you off in rush hour traffic. The instinct might never go away this side of heaven, but that doesn’t excuse us from acting on those instincts. I’ve always thought of it this way: I’m not responsible for what I feel, but I am responsible for what I say and do.

Which is why I’ve found it helpful not to act on my emotions when in the midst of conflict. I’m going to feel things in conversations and when I read correspondence. But I don’t have to tell everyone what I’m feeling, and I don’t need to react emotionally. The longer I wait when responding to something that frustrates or angers me, the better I do in responding maturely.

So I follow the “24-hour rule.” It goes like this: if I read or hear something that upsets me emotionally, I promise myself not to respond to it for at least 24 hours. It works with emails, voice mail, and direct messages. It even works to a certain extent in meetings and conversations. (While you may need to continue a conversation or finish the meeting, you don’t have to respond to the matter that provoked you most. You can wait until the next day to follow up on the most emotional issue.) I usually find that by the next day, I no longer want to say some of the things I wanted to say when I first read what they wrote or picked up the voicemail.

Waiting a day doesn’t mean you won’t be upset anymore—it just means you’ll be rational.

4. Reply relationally. Face it: people can get nasty behind a keyboard. We type things we would never say in person and send the message before sober second thought sets in. We’ve all been on the receiving end of those kinds of blasts. So what do you do after you’ve calmed down, or even waited a day?

Here’s a strategy that can really help. Reply relationally. Make sure your response is more relationally direct than their complaint was. If you get a letter (do people still send letters?), an email, or a direct message, pick up the phone and call them. If you get a voice mail, call and ask to meet them for coffee.

When you do so, you will surprise them and disarm them. They may not have been sure you even read the message and may be surprised you didn’t just hit delete. But what’s equally surprising is that you didn’t follow suit. You didn’t just sit behind your keyboard and blast back. You engaged them. When you do so with empathy, believing the best of them, you’ll find that most of the time the conflict de-escalates. Sometimes it even disappears. Even if it doesn’t, you have the peace of mind knowing that you handled things in the best way you could.

The high road is the best road

The high road is the hard road, but it’s also the best road. There are many reasons for this, but here’s one we can almost all relate to. At some point, you’ll be in the supermarket and you’ll encounter the person who wrote you a nasty note or crashed your congregational meeting. How you conducted yourself when you were in the midst of the battle will determine whether you meet that person with a smile, endure a really awkward moment, or even pretend you didn’t see them and move to the next aisle. You might not end up vacationing together in the future, but that’s not the point. The point is you will have conducted yourself with integrity and in a way that others will see as admirable. And you will have attacked a problem, not a person. The kingdom could use much more of that.

Want more?

To see a video clip on this topic, go to LeadingChangeWithoutLosingIt.com and click on “Quick Tip: Attacking Problems, Not People.” To find out more about the book Leading Change Without Losing It, as well as related resources, go to OrangeBooks.com. You can pick up a copy of Leading Change Without Losing It at Orange, Apple, or Amazon.

This is an excerpt from the book Leading Change Without Losing It, by Carey Nieuwhof. Carey is the lead pastor of Connexus Community Church, north of Toronto. Prior to starting Connexus in 2007, he served for 12 years in a mainline church, transitioning three small congregations into a single, rapidly growing congregation. Carey and his wife, Toni, live near Barrie, Ontario and have two sons, Jordan and Sam. He blogs at www.careynieuwhof.com.

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