Category Archives: systems

Quick Review – Re-Centering: Culture & Knowledge in Conflict Resolution Practice

This month I’ve worked through the book Re-Centering: Culture and Knowledge in Conflict Resolution Practice by several editors and contributors.

This is a book written from an ethnic minority perspective on contemporary negotiation and mediation scholarship and practices. It’s a collection of 22 essays and papers covering a wide range of perspectives and cultural perspectives.

There’ are only a couple essays that I thought had marginal value, but by and large, this is an awesome resource for people working in a multi-ethnic context – especially related to theory and practice in dealing with conflict and reconciliation between cultures.

There are a few themes that stand out in this collection that are not often represented in a lot of the classic literature. One of these themes is that of power and neutrality. Majority culture driven practices often assume that neutrality is possible and approach conflict and mediation with a “blank slate” perspective.  This volume addressed that in multiple papers and from multiple angles and it really is helpful. There are some excellent perspectives.

Another theme is that of ethnic identity and how that impacts the arena of conflict and how the approach to a conflict can impact identity. Identity is a theme showing up more and more in the conflict and negotiation literature, though it’s more representative in peace and reconciliation literature. But here, those are woven together with a helpful cross-cultural perspective that illustrates why identity needs to be at the heart of any approach to conflict.

There are essays from a native Hawaiian, Chicano,  Latino, African-American and other perspectives that I thought were really insightful and add a lot of value.  There are some worldviews and elements to some essays I do not agree with and share, but the majority are quite insightful and powerful to read and reflect on.

If you do conflict work in multi-ethnic contexts or even broader cross-cultural contexts, I think this would be a much-needed resource to read for reflection and discussion.  It offers a framework for tensions between white leaders and structures and processes related to conflict and mediation and ethnic minority leaders who find themselves often further marginalized by the processes that others assume will help them.  I’ve already gone back to several of these essays/journal article style contributions to reflect more deeply on some of the themes.

 

Quick Review: Between the World and Me

Last week I finished Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  What a powerful book. I did this by audiobook, which was read by the author, and I think that made it even more powerful. The book is part autobiography and part letter to the author’s son, bringing a powerful personal touch to weighty topics.

The author documents his journey growing up African-American in Baltimore and the impact of systemic injustice and iniquity on him and others in his community. He provides the historical background to understand a more robust view of identity as it has been shaped over time. It’s a powerful read or listen even if it’s just out of a desire to understand more one’s experience in communities so shaped by power driven or overtly racist policies. But it’s much more than that.

One of the central metaphors that Coates builds his narrative around reflects a philosophical as well as poetic framing of how systemic injustice and racism impact identity. This metaphor is that of one becoming “disembodied,” where because of injustice or racism and the reality of one’s identity that he feels the shame of someone else having control of his body. That loss of autonomy, safety, and the self-worth that comes with security is an ever-present reminder of how power structures work against him.

This brings the reflection and discussion of racism from beyond abstract arguments or activism to the visceral truth that systemic injustice always has a fleshly impact. It touches the core of the marginalized identity because it is a fundamental reality that someone else can take control of their body and exercise power over them in a myriad of ways.  This way of experiencing and seeing the issues adds further heartbreak for the ways so many are shaped by injustice in deep ways to the core of their being.

Coates uses some new phrases besides the typical language. He refers to majority culture folks who find comfort in the current unjust systems as “people who think themselves white.” White is synonymous with offender or perpetrator.  He uses another word which forces one to wrestle – plunderer. He is using these words of those who find comfort in the benefits of injustice or in various ways perpetuates the system. He is not equating all white people with plunderers or racists. He uses “white” as not just an ethnic designation, but rather as an ideological tribe of sorts that through self-interest perpetuates contemporary injustice. It’s not a rejection of white people, but of an establishment that is benefitting from various forms of violence that continually keeps those outside down through the various forms and threats of disembodiment.

There’s so much here and the whole thing is a skillful and beautiful expression of deep pain and righteous anger. My summary is wholly inadequate. I would have loved more spiritual reflection or engagement. It’s hard to read things like this when there doesn’t seem to be hope or meaning anchored in a larger worldview. But that’s not where the author is coming from and in the meantime, he does convey some form of hope, albeit alongside a strong dose of reality without sugar coating what it means to journey in this world on the other side of institutional power.

I recommend it as a powerful journey into the depths of just how dark the impacts of systemic injustice are in the U.S. from a history of racism and racist policies.  This isn’t my story, but these are stories that need to be heard.  There are parts that are hard to here as one who has lived a more privileged existence in the U.S. from an ethnic standpoint, but it’s important to look, feel, and reflect on how I live and the broader communities and society that I am a part of.

 

Quick Review: Crucial Accountability

After reading Crucial Conversations a couple months ago I wanted to also read Vital Smarts’ Crucial Accountability: Tools for Resolving Violated Expectations, Broken Commitments, and Bad Behavior. It used to be called Crucial Confrontations, but the name change was probably a good thing.  I’m supervising a lot more people and coaching some others on supervising and have been looking for more tools on how to establish supervising relationships characterized by development and accountability.

There’s some overlap with crucial conversations, but there was sufficient new content that was really helpful. However, there are so many small pieces or elements of this book that a review is tough.  A lot of the book functions like a flow chart to supervising – which is really practical from a reference standpoint.  The book covers a lot of ground – from personal storytelling and identity to conversational dynamics to supporting structures and mechanisms.

There is also a lot of added content borrowed from the Vital Smarts book Influencers when discussing how to coach people for change. There are some aspects of non-directive coaching, but given supervision and accountability dynamics – not all coaching will be able to be non-directive. But the book offers a lot of suggestions and ideas to help address these conversations. It discusses basic conflicts as well as ongoing patterns that merit intentional engagement.

One of the more helpful components is the authors’ identification of common ways leaders take alternative paths to hard conversations or holding others accountable. There’s an in-depth section exploring the ways leaders bypass accountability for safety and security or certainty. It also covers elements such as passivity, blaming, manipulation, passive-aggressive, and other common approaches used by leaders to avoid having the hard conversation.

This is a good one for the toolbox of the leader – every leader needs a clear philosophy and system for how to supervise others and hold people accountable in ways that empower and hold up grace and truth instead of the alternatives such as control, manipulation, avoidance, condescension, and fear-based strategies.  This book can help you evaluate your approach and generate a lot of ideas for a fresh vision for your leadership moving forward.

The vital smarts website has a great companion pdf download as well that can walk through the more collaborative problem-solving dimensions of a crucial accountability discussion.

 

Quick Review: Braving the Wilderness

It’s been a month or two since I read Brene Brown’s Braving the Wilderness. I’ve delayed writing something up on it because I’ve had mixed feelings about it. It’s both the book of hers I’ve liked least, but it’s also the most intriguing related to some of my areas of research and study.

A lot of the book is similar to her other works – shame, worthiness, and vulnerability. I recently reviewed Rising Strong and there’s some overlap. It’s good stuff and there’s several stories and anecdotes from other books. However, there’s also a lot that is new and there is a different emphasis on this book. This focus, as I would describe it, is the connection between identity and belonging in a reactionary and tribalistic society.

What I liked was that at the core of this book, it really is a tackling of identity between individuality and community. Essentially, Brown is unpacking what family systems theorists call self-differentiation, the grounded identity that is both connected and separate even in the midst of an anxious and reactive society.  I kept thinking of one of my favorite authors, Edwin Friedman and his book Failure of Nerve as I read this. If you want to take a look see my post linking to a couple summaries here and also here.  It is one of my top 5 books of all time and has profoundly impacted my views on leadership and leadership formation.

Anyway – back to the wilderness. Braving the Wilderness is really a metaphor for self-differentiation. It’s living in between the polar extremes of reactivity and anxiety. Friedman calls one extreme emotional fusion. Christian psychologist PaulTripp calls this immersion. Harvard negotiation expert Daniel Shapiro calls this defaulting to affiliation.  It’s the surrendering of individual identity to the group out of fear of rejection, judgment, or shame. It’s compromising the integrity of personhood to belong – belonging becomes being part of a tribe.

Friedman calls the other extreme cutting off. Tripp calls it isolation. Shapiro calls it defaulting to autonomy for the sake of identity.  It’s surrendering community and relationship to preserve personhood. It’s to some degree distancing from those that provide a threat or challenge to be able to feel secure again in one’s self.

Brown is unpacking these dynamics. I think initially I was irritated because it felt like it was being unpacked as new data or phenomena, but these concepts have been out there getting discussed in a lot of places. But I like that she connected shame and vulnerability what can lead people towards surrendering their identity for either reactive extreme. People feeling anxiety and shame tend to seek security and certainty and if they cannot stand on their own and hold their ground for their higher values and their integrity – the emotional forces of society will bounce them around.  Thus Brown is directly addressing in this book how to foster civility and empathy in a society that is looking to dehumanize others and where everyone is trying to strengthen their tribe at the expense of the other.

Worthiness is at the heart of Brown’s books – that people who feel and act worthy and like the belong, actually believe that they belong.  The elephant in the room is the question, “Where does that worthiness come from?” I do not believe Brown offers an answer for this, but to describe that we need to do our best to be civil and understanding and do our part to help extend hospitality across difference.   Added to this though, Brown also discusses a lot about curiosity and civility as key to fostering civil discourse and belonging across difference.

Brown is advocating for people to connect as humans, fighting the tendency of people to dehumanize for the sake of certainty and tribal belonging. As I read this, it’s a perfect apologetic for the Christian worldview as the image of God, loving your neighbor, and the call to grace and truth are core foundational pieces. It’s a shame that Christians tend to be just as tribal, if not more, than others. It’s a sign that the gospel has not taken root. But Brown is pointing to a question that is theological in nature. Can we achieve our own worthiness? Or do we have to receive it from someone else?  Can we get it from other people or does it have to come from a higher authority?

So there’ s a lot that I like and it’s the most I’ve thought about any of her books so it’s a sign that it maybe it ranks higher than I initially thought. But there are things that are hard. I understand why some reviews complain about her being too political, but I didn’t think it was that bad – but an example of tribalism in the reviews.  There’s also a stronger tone of anger and “screw you, I gotta keep it real” to this book that wasn’t as evident in her other books.  On one level – I get it – I think Brown has to have some of that edge to play the role she is playing.

However, I’ve seen too many applications of her work where people are rejecting shame and community accountability to defend their positions (an ironic example of what Brown is speaking against). People can find justification through some of the concepts to defend their personal choices.  Not all shame is bad – when people reject the voice of community completely to “keep it real” they then run the risk of cutting off and getting lost in a myopic view of life. This connects to a series I did many moons ago called “Prophets vs. Posers.”

All in all – it’s a good book and I’m still thinking about a lot of it. But it is a clear reminder that there are deep solutions to questions of shame and belonging and vulnerability. Will people humble themselves to really find those solutions outside of themselves and receive the dignity, belonging, security, and love that can anchor one firmly in that identity so they can freely love and serve others across difference?  This is the Christian life.  Now more than ever, followers of Christ need to embody this self-differentiation in Christ so they can brave the wilderness where is increasingly anxious, hostile, reactionary, and tribal.

So I recommend it, but I recommend Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve even more.

Quick Review: Negotiating the Non-Negotiable

The best of the negotiation books I’ve read this year has been Daniel Shapiro’s Negotiating the Non-Negotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts. Shapiro heads the Harvard International Negotiation Program and was also the primary author of the book Beyond Reason, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago.

One of the things I loved reading this book is that it reflects other streams of relationship theory that I’ve been pursuing for years, especially the application of family systems theory to leadership. Shapiro never refers directly to family systems theory, but does consistently discuss identity and relationships in ways that reflect the concept of self-differentiation as a foundational character foundation of mature and healthy relationships. In fact, themes like anxiety, cutting off, emotional fusion, and self-differentiation are all over this book.

Shapiro’s book focuses on identity-driven conflict – conflict that because of its deep connection to how people see themselves and what is most important to them. He doesn’t like using the language of identity-driven conflict because he sees all conflict impacting and flowing out of identity. But this book fundamentally is a roadmap of navigating deep-rooted conflict that tends to lead towards entrenchment.

Shapiro has some very helpful sections on emotions in negotiation, taboos – those things considered sacred and untouchable in every context, and some of the helpful components of integrative bargaining (i.e. the win-win bargaining). But one of the really interesting aspects of the book is that it’s not just about negotiation in the integrative bargaining kind of way – there’s a large section focused specifically on reconciling relationships. He explores apologies and forgiveness in a way that is quite helpful when considering the overall context of high conflict negotiation. There’s just really solid stuff throughout the book and this will be a go-to resource for me.

An additional note is that one of the awesome things about this book is the 75 pages or so of endnotes that discuss additional research and clarify smaller ideas or concepts. It’s a gold mine. I can’t remember a book where I spent an hour or two just reading endnotes because they were so interesting and helpful. Several of them have led me to other resources that will be super helpful for my research right now on negotiation.

From a leadership or relationship standpoint – highly recommend this one!

 

Quick Review: The Myth of Equality

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been able to go through Ken Wytsma’s The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege and want to pass on highest recommendation if you are in the Northern American context.

Last year I read Wytsma’s book Pursuing Justice and it was a good complement to this book. But The Myth of Equality is a needed book that seeks to lay out theological, historical, sociological context for both historical racism as well as contemporary racism in its various forms. I won’t give a comprehensive summary but will hit the highlights.

First, he did good Biblical and theological work, building on some of his work in Pursuing Justice. It informs the reader, especially if there’s not much Biblical or theological background, on the spiritual backdrop of the discussion.  He’s working to give the average lay church member, especially white lay church member, a context for the discussion outside of attacks and emotions. Most important to this is the question of who God is and what does God care about.

Second, he does a great job unpacking a “history of racism” that is very insightful and informative in terms of political and social develops several hundred years ago.  However, the unpacking and analysis of racism in the U.S. including slavery and then through the various post-Civil War legislation and government efforts through the 20th century is downright piercing. Even for someone who has read or studied much of what was covered in other places, to go through this history is deeply disturbing and generates a flood of emotions. But the reader is brought into the sacred space of just how much suffering has been driven by the systematic oppression and marginalization of ethnic minority groups in the U.S.

My heart started pumping midway through in an excited way because Wytsma goes into Walter Brueggeman’s work in The Prophetic Imagination to discuss the dynamics of power, leadership, change, and theology.  This book was one of the fundamental influences on me in terms of how I view leadership overall and the church’s role in the world.  To get a chapter about the “royal consciousness” was a delight. However, to do a deep analysis today on themes of racism and privilege through that lens continues to be sobering.

One of my big takeaways related to the discussion on privilege was a section where he discussed “creation stories” as a metaphor for each person’s story. Many are “birthed” into stories where they only know possibilities and freedom. Others are birthed into stories that have origins in shame, invisibility, closed doors, and a host of other atrocities. While it’s true that God can redeem every story, this was a helpful new window into understanding how people come at these discussions from very different lenses and perspectives. It’s simply very hard to connect and form relationships of equality and dignity without an awareness into how these starting points in a society impact identity.

I personally liked Wytsma’s approach to the language.  I think there is more to write on terms like privilege and white supremacy and other core terms of the modern discussion. I think Wytsma handled them well without resorting to a single story approach.  My struggles with these words over the years have primarily involved a pragmatic struggle with how hard it is to explain them to people prior to being able to have a meaningful conversation when there are so many landmines of meaning and interpretation around them that escalate emotion in often unhelpful ways. But Wytsma I think does a really good job explaining how these terms fit in the contemporary discussion and why they are appropriate even though there are all sorts of semantic and meaning issues connected to them in the journey of common understanding.

This is an important book for the church because more and more in the church want to be a part of a different story, but so many do not know the history and the reality that is often hidden from them if they’ve not leaned into cross-cultural relationships and issues of social injustice.

This is a 2017 book so it might be new to you, but I’d encourage you to go through it with some people you do life with.

 

Merry Disturbing Christmas!

Nine years ago I wrote a post entitled Herod & Jerusalem based on some reflection on Matthew 2:1-4. I came back across that passage this Christmas season and wanted to offer some new and refined possible responses to the question, “Why was Herod and all of Jerusalem troubled when hearing about Jesus?”  Here’s the text:

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.“ When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.

This version uses the phrase “troubled,” but others use “disturbed” to describe the emotional response by Herod the Great and all of Jerusalem.  Have you ever thought of what all of Jerusalem means?  Does that mean every single person? Does it mean the rich? The religious? The powerful? The educated?  Or does it mean all? I don’t know definitively what all means here as there was no internet or newspaper service, but I would assume it includes at least the rich and powerful who had a vested interest in the politics and leadership of the day. AKA – the rich, powerful, religious, and educated.

And what does it mean that they were troubled or disturbed? Weren’t the Jews waiting in expectation for a Messiah, a deliverer, a King that would restore them to glory?  Why were these Jewish leaders disturbed rather than curious or hopeful?  And what does that matter for us today?  Here are some of my theories….

Here are some of my theories….

1.  Maybe the news of a newborn prophesied King of the Jews disturbed the elite because they feared the disruption of the social order.  The leaders of Jerusalem had established some measure of stability through Herod’s relationship with Caeser Augustus and the fear of Roman intervention. And in any system, there those who benefit from a political administration and those who may not. Maybe all of Jerusalem means those who found a pretty good life under Herod were more worried about losing their status in the face of local rebellion or Roman retaliation than about Biblical prophecies? Word of a new and promised king would mean a challenge to the political order of the day with potential vast ramifications for those with status in that order.

2.  Maybe Herod and all of Jerusalem were more disturbed than hopeful because they could not see God’s way of providing for His people.  Maybe, as people often do, they fell into patterns of belief and thought that God’s promised King would only come through “Kingly” lineage as viewed through the lens of the day. Of course, Jesus does have Kingship in his bloodlines as Matthew’s genealogy attests, but so did a lot of other people. Maybe people were blinded by their own elitism and expectations about where great leaders come from? Maybe the new King should be born a King and the thought that a baby born in Bethlehem could be a King was ridiculous. As such, this child again becomes a threat to the political and social order because he could not possibly be from the right stock.

3.  Maybe the educated and religious elite stopped expecting the Messiah because they liked their religious system they had developed and the control and status they gained from enforcing it? Maybe the news of a newborn Messianic King was disturbing because they were focused on policy rather the story of Israel? Maybe they feared the loss of their tight religious system if Rome got involved in a power struggle?

4.  But maybe there’s a deeper level of disruption involved? While Herod was disturbed no doubt because of the threat to his power and position, maybe all of Jerusalem was disturbed with him because the presence of two Kings brings the question of allegiance to the forefront. The news that a promised “King of the Jews” has come from outside the current royal line means a challenge to current authority. And for all those “around,” it means there will be a day of reckoning, a time to choose.  Who will they give their allegiance too?  In such a time, everyone has to choose. It’s only a matter of time.

Maybe it’s some parts of all of the above. Comfort, status, control, and safety seem to be factors for why all of Jerusalem began to get disturbed and anxious. But at the core, I believe all of this gets at the anxiety of allegiance. When allegiance is secure, these other things are not disturbing even in the face of risk and danger.

All of Jerusalem seemed to be feeling the anxiety of allegiance, even if they couldn’t put a name to it.  And unless we have addressed our own allegiance once and for all, we should be disturbed by Christmas as well.  But is so, is your anxiety because you fear losing power, status, comfort, or control?

This is what makes the incarnation amazing – the promised King came with no earthly power, status, comfort, and with total vulnerability. The foolish things of the world have shamed the wise.

 

Quick Review: Pursuing Justice

One of the books with the most impact on me this year was Ken Wytsma’s Pursuing Justice: The Call to Live & Die for Bigger ThingsI read it in the summer, but I re-read it over the past couple of weeks. Wytsma founded Kilns college and started The Justice Conference. I’ve started going through the last couple conferences via what is on the internet and vimeo.

This book is a primer on God’s heart for justice and offers a corrective to both social gospel as well as gnostic, all that matters is the afterlife,  approaches to the gospel. There’s a strong Biblical foundation offered for what the Scriptures really say about justice and where many of us have gone off to one extreme or the other.

There’s a few chapters I loved.  There is a chapter focused on advent, the incarnation, that was exceptional regarding the call to incarnate into people’s lives and realities as fundamental to Christian life and ministry. Given that I re-read it prior to Christmas this year, my second reading of this chapter was even more meaningful. Maybe the chapter I appreciated the most though was the chapter entitled “Empathy” that connects are hard-wired human ability to feel what other people feel and experience as a key to God’s heart for justice. Without empathy, there is no justice.  There is a paradigm offered in this chapter regarding empathy and “the other” which may come in handy in my PhD research.

Wytsma covers a lot of ground. In addition to the above, he tackles briefly the gospel and politics, the history of the evangelical phobia of “social justice,” and the range of response to justice such as apathy. This book is a great introduction to thinking Biblically about justice and it’s a convicting one that all believers would benefit from.

One of my big takeaways, while not a new conviction, is a deeper commitment that Christian ministry along with its methodology reflects what the Scriptures really teach about the gospel and justice. That’s neither the social gospel or the spiritual escapism often present in evangelicalism today. When word and deed go together, it’s a powerful thing and I’m thankful for those who are helping lead the church towards a more integrated and restorative vision of what it means to be the Church.

I will come back to this book because it also cites really great sources and work from many historical and contemporary justice practitioners. While I’ve read a decent amount regarding justice, there was much that was new to me in terms of stories and anecdotes, but the resources referenced were just as much of a blessing.

 

Quick Review: The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive

I love Patrick Lencioni and I love his books, wisdom, and style of communicating. He does a great job communicating some complex things in simple modes. The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive is a book I’ve been wanting to get to and I’ve seen summaries of it, but only recently was able to get to.

This book is the intro book more or less to his overall model of organizational health that he unpacks more completely in more recent books. But this provides a good overview.

I’ve been involved in a lot of organizational health and change work lately so this was a helpful resource for me to do some assessment of what I and my team are doing well and where we need to be more intentional with the big picture in mind.

You can get some of the resources free online related to this book and the model included at Lencioni’s site here.

The book demonstrates through fable and a model 4 disciples for executive leaders for the sake of organizational health.

  1.  Build and maintain a Cohesive Leadership Team
  2. Create Organizational Clarity
  3. Over-Communicate Clarity
  4. Reinforce Clarity Through Human Systems

#1 is unpacked further in his well-known book,  Five Dysfunctions of a Team, but I’ve been in a perfect space to reflect on all four of these.  It’s been both affirming for some of what we’ve been able to do and also encouraging me to persevere in some of these areas for further clarity.

But the biggest value for me was Lencioni unpacking more specifically what each of these things involve.  Everyone believes clarity and communication is in important, but Lencioni provides a bit more detail that can help someone get a handle on where to focus their attention.