August 21, 2013

Addressing Conflict is Sometimes Necessary

English: Lots of frustration spikes experienced
English: Lots of frustration spikes experienced (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
You live in a town without an active atheist group. It is isolating, and you crave the opportunity to interact with others around whom you can disclose your views on religion without fear of repercussion. There are no atheist conventions held near where you live, and you cannot afford to travel to them. Besides, you'd rather cultivate meaningful relationships with others living in your town than listen to a handful of pompous bloggers give the same talks you've already watched on YouTube. You head over to Meetup.com, pay their fee to start a new group in your town, and hope for the best.

It turns out you were not the only one interested in hanging out with other atheists. Your new group takes off right away. Five members turns to 10, and you have 15 regularly attending members before interest seems to level off a bit. A few more attend sporadically, but you are quite content to have a stable core group of 15. Your efforts were more successful than you thought they could be, and you have met some great people.

There's just one problem. There is a middle-aged guy (I will call him Jim) in your group who is rather off-putting. He's loud, obnoxiously dominates every conversation, and can be quite condescending of anyone who does not share his views. He has strong political opinions and seems to interject them into every discussion without regard to their relevance. Based on the eye-rolls, sighs, and other observable signs, it is becoming clear to you that the other members in your group don't care for Jim one bit. While you appreciate his passion for the things he cares about, you are becoming frustrated with him too.

After a recent meeting, you are approached by two women in the group. You can tell they are a bit nervous. They apologetically explain that they are not sure they are going to continue coming to events because of Jim. They say that they find it exhausting to spend time with him and that they have grown tired of what they perceive as his efforts to dominate the group. They really appreciate everything you've done for the group and hate to leave, but they aren't sure how much more of Jim they can take.

During this conversation, a man from the group who came back to pick up something he left behind walks over, listens for a bit, and then volunteers, "I know exactly what you mean. Jim seems to want something very different out of this group than everybody else." That's it! It isn't that Jim is necessarily a bad guy (although his abrasive personality is certainly off-putting), but his vision for the group seems to be at odds with everybody else's, including yours. His priorities are different, and he wants to turn the group into something other than what the members want it to be. The women agree and seem relieved to hear from someone else. The man adds that he's heard from a few others in the group who are even more frustrated with Jim.

You start to think through your options. You could just ignore the problem and hope somebody else will do something. As tempting as that is, you recognize that ignoring it will almost certainly result in the loss of valued members. Besides, tensions are already high enough that there is a real danger that they will boil over and lead to open conflict. Jim does not seem to have the insight to pick up on the social cues that people are getting frustrated with him. A public confrontation would not be pretty. You also know enough to realize that ignoring the problem will probably cause some of the frustration and resentment members are now feeling toward Jim to shift to you. Ignoring it seems like a poor choice.

As unpleasant as it is, you realize that you probably need to sit down with Jim and have a talk about how his vision for the group seems to be quite different from what most want. You were the one who started this group, and you feel a certain responsibility to it. While you do not regard yourself as the group's leader, you do consider the group to be a home of sorts, a home in which you have invested and are not keen on losing. You recognize that conflict occurring beneath the surface can do at least as much damage as that which is openly acknowledged.

***

If you were in such a situation, would you recognize that ignoring the problem and hoping it would go away on its own would not be a particularly good option? I think you would. As unpleasant it would be to have to address such a situation, I suspect you would agree that it would probably be necessary to do so.

I am encouraged to see growing numbers of people in the secular movement beginning to acknowledge that we may be looking at an analogous situation in our "great rift." Some in our midst seem to have very different priorities and hope to turn the movement into something quite different from what most of us seem to want from the secular movement. Our situation is certainly more complicated than the one I have described above, but I think the comparison holds in at least one sense: it might be time to speak out about the sort of secular movement we want. This isn't about picking sides so much as it is communicating our priorities.

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