How unconscious family systems influence decision making

Reflection 20-5-12
 I was away last weekend with a group of people. We met for a dinner of fish and white sauce, with vegetables on Friday night. As we gathered for our first session together on Saturday morning, the leader asked ‘How is everyone, did you sleep well?’. No one spoke because we had been gathered from all over the country, and hardly knew each other. Then one person spoke up. They said. ‘I think a lot of us did not sleep very well at all, because of the fish.’ Silence. Shock horror. What a way to begin a weekend away: with food poisoning. Then came the trickle. ‘Well actually, I slept very well’ ‘So did I’. ‘and me’. The leader asked ‘Was anyone else ill?’ No one!

I was astounded. Never before have I seen such a quick ‘finding out’ of someone who has used a common habit of speech in order to shore up their view. This is worth thinking about some more.

We all do it. (See I’ve just done it!). When there is a view to be put nothing is as scary as being the only one with the view. Many of us do not have the strength to say ‘Well I think’. Instead we (as this person did) resort the some means of giving the impression that ‘It is not ‘just me’, but that I am supported by a whole host of unseen supporters. On that Saturday morning, without knowing the truth, someone who had an upset stomach over night said ‘Many of us did not sleep well because of the fish.’ And was found out!

This can happen in less severe ways too. A person will come up to me and say ‘Well ‘some people’ have been talking to me and they think that you are ‘x’ and ‘y’ and to ‘we’ think that you should do ‘A, b and C.’ These ‘some people’ are not available for conversation. But the opinion of the conversation partner is bolstered by quoting them. So the unconscious effect of the manner of speech is to give more weight to one person’s opinion. Do you remember Richard Nixon’s ‘Silent Majority’?

This happens too when one person expresses an unpopular opinion that a leader wishes to quash. Here is the scene: The known minority-view person ‘A’ says ‘Well I think that we should do such and such.’ The leader disagrees and so says dismissively ‘Well, that’s just your opinion’. What remains unsaid is ‘…and I know the opinions of the majority, they will support me, and their opinions are not the same as yours, so shut up!’

In the 1970’s there was a significant ‘Group Work’ movement. I did a lot of it. In those groups we were schooled to say ‘I think’ and ‘I feel’. It was against the ethos of those groups to try to increase the significance of one’s own view by saying ‘Well, lots of us think’ and so on. But this kind of norm for behaviour is not wide spread.

I think that the most frightening thing that can befall a person in both of these in this scenarios is being ‘the only person who thinks something.’

What underlies this form of speech is our evolutionary past. We grew up in family groups or tribes. To be excluded form the ‘family’ meant death. Human beings need to know that they will not be excluded. Difference of view is one cause for such exclusion.

At the bottom of the the so called ‘democratic’ system of making decisions where every one is expected to have an opinion, and to express it, lies a family structure. In a family some people’s opinion carries more weight than others. Some people are unpopular and never listened to. Some people defer to others when they are present, while exercise their power when they are not. And on it goes. The unconsciously held need to belong produces the ‘We all think’ statements that will prevent someone from being ‘left out in the cold’ or ‘being hung out to dry’.

As a priest who works with groups a lot I am also subject to and sensitive to such dynamics (And I was about to add for safety ‘as much as anybody else!) Working with the chaplaincy council as our chief communal decision making body means both my having an agenda for change (as I was invited her to implement) and bringing others along with me.

What I have found helpful right from the beginning is the sharing of my thoughts with others. During the ‘formal visit’ I could not sleep one night. I tossed and turned thinking ‘What will I do with this situation or that situation?” The next morning I got up and wrote a list of the issues on the computer. I presented this list to the selection group. They seemed to agree that this was indeed the list of issues that needed addressing. I decided to come. That list has been our working paper for rhe past year.

Later, I could not hold in all the thoughts that were whirring inside me so I started one chaplain’s report with ‘This is by way of a crie de coeur’ The issues were outlined and we have since formulated an agenda and made some decisions which will be implemented slowly over time.

In the meetings I am aware that I do not like to be alone either. I do not want to force my opinion on others, at the expense of being labelled a despot or someone who ‘does not listen’ (That epithet is also a good way of not expressing your own view.) In the meetings I try to make sure that everyone who has a view expresses it so that if we say ‘agreed’ we do not leave ourselves open to the accusation ‘But I did not have my say’ or such like.

In English speaking countries we have a tradition of ‘exchange of views, voting, majority rules’. In a family system, we operate more like the Swiss: we try to draw out everyone’s views so that we can build a consensus. This is not the same as ‘I will go along with the majority.’ Then one person’s view is subject to those with bigger voices. Each person needs to be encouraged to express their view.

If this system can be made to work, then we can encourage some good dynamics in this Chaplaincy. We can encourage shy people to speak up. We can trust each other because we know that each person is speaking for themselves. We can avoid too much politics because of the trust that has been built up. We can make progress because we have employed ‘due process’ at each step of the way.

The unconscious system of the family has it’s down side and as you saw at the beginning, can bring us undone in a spectacular fashion. It’s worst effects can also be ameliorated by taking some steps to establish the ‘rules of engagement’.


About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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