Every committee has at least one of them. We know who they are. They say “no” to everything.
They are the roadblockers.
In a church I previously served, his name is Phil. Phil is a good man. He loves the church. He has been there longer than I have been alive. And, he predictably has a reason we should not move forward on every action that pushes the church toward growth and health. It does not matter if it is a decision about changing the color of the carpet in the sanctuary, hiring a new custodial company to clean the church or revising the church bylaws. Phil will come up with a reason it is not a good idea.
We all have them. They find their way onto our committees, our governing bodies and our institutions. The truly lucky leaders have more than one roadblocker. Knowing who the roadblockers are and how they typically voice their challenges offers leaders an opportunity to prepare responses in advance.
Naming and strategizing responses to potential roadblocks takes away some of their power and enables the leader to focus energy on other more important things, rather than having to think of (polite and Christlike) responses on the spot.
Leaders regularly spend the time and energy to construct prioritized meeting agendas. We work for years to convince the right people to serve on the right committees so they are their most productive and creative. We put in the time and effort to slowly nudge the church toward being brighter and more effective reflections of God’s reign. Some of us even practice the words and phrases we will use in meetings to ensure we are conveying the precise tone and emphasis in all the right places, furthering our cause for change.
We do a lot of work preparing for the logistics of meetings, and yet, very often we neglect to practice for something we know is going to happen: roadblocks. Design thinking offers two key mindsets that enable leaders to carefully navigate roadblocks and continue pushing a conversation forward. These mindsets are no strangers to Christian leaders. In fact, they are in our wheelhouse: empathy and reframing.
Most church and Christian institutional leaders know their committees well, individually and collectively. We take the time to cultivate relationships with and among them. We make pastoral visits and get to know their families. We know their stories of faith and their leadership gifts. We foster opportunities for the boards and committees to get to know each other in new and creative ways. Sometimes this looks like having doughnuts delivered to a meeting as the last agenda item is being discussed, thus encouraging folks to linger and enjoy the sweets, or sending them a group email inviting personal responses rooted in revealing something new about each person. The more leaders know about their committee members’ current and past struggles, including corporate challenges in a church or institution’s past, the more effectively they can practice empathy.
Effective leaders cultivate and practice empathy, especially with their potential roadblockers.
In loving our people and leading in empathetic ways, we know that the pain or joy of one is the pain or joy of the community. We know there is no “committee hat” they put on while leaving behind other hats for roles they play. People come with their own baggage, hopes, dreams and agendas. In preparation for committee meetings, leaders can imagine the feelings each agenda item will surface for each person, not just to craft a response to their potential roadblock, but to genuinely walk in their shoes and see the meeting through their eyes. Empathy is a key practice in meeting preparation, execution and follow-up.
Practicing empathy in preparation for a meeting enables a leader to foresee where those presenting roadblocks might be rooting their angst. Consequently, they can construct pastoral responses keeping the conversation on track and meeting the presenting (and deeper issue-related) needs of others.
Empathy can also be a useful tool in helping committees reframe challenges when roadblocks arise.
Adam Morgan and Mark Barden offer a helpful technique in “A Beautiful Constraint.” They suggest an exercise that helps change the conversation — a meaningful and immediately achievable goal — rather than changing the committee or institution, which can take years, if not generations.
To change the nature of a conversation, Morgan and Barden suggest leaders try making the words “We can’t because …” off-limits. Instead, challenge roadblockers opposing an idea to say, “We can if …” and offer a possible solution. One leader I know posted a sign in a conference room: “This is a CAN-IF zone. Can’t because need not enter.”
Let us not miss the irony that this technique is roadblocking the roadblockers, for the good of the church, of course.
This reframing practice transforms conversations. It changes the way we see challenges and respond to roadblocks. In a meeting about leadership development opportunities for Sunday school teachers, we might hear, “We can’t afford to invest more money into training because the budget is already overstretched.” This statement focuses on scarcity.
A can-if approach might be, “We can provide leadership development for Sunday school teachers if we collaborate with the development opportunities offered through other churches in our denomination,” or, “We can provide leadership development if we secure other income sources to support it.” Both offer possible solutions, productively move the discussion forward and refer to an abundance of alternatives.
The authors of “A Beautiful Constraint” unpack why a can-if statement can be so powerful in moving a conversation forward:
It keeps the conversation on the right question. Language stays focused on how something might be done rather than whether or not it is possible. Roadblockers love to take a meeting agenda off-track.
It keeps the oxygen of optimism continually in the process. Processes full of curiosity, inquisitiveness and positive momentum will retain the attention and dedication of the team. The negativity of roadblocks can sour the rest of a meeting, no matter how great the remaining agenda items are.
It forces everyone involved in the conversation to take responsibility for finding answers, rather than identifying barriers. When challenges or roadblocks are identified, they are immediately paired with possible solutions, maintaining the flow of conversation. Roadblockers tend to enjoy shirking responsibility. This keeps everyone accountable.
The story it tells us about ourselves is that we are people who look for solutions, rather than a group of people who find problems and obstacles. This reaffirms that we are people of faith, hope, possibilities and new beginnings — people who are not paralyzed by the past. Anyone can point out what could go wrong, but what if things go right?
It is a method that maintains a mindset. If the first can-if possibility does not bring about resolution, the process will continue to generate others. Eventually you can wear a roadblocker down. Can-if possibilities are endless, especially if we believe all things are possible with God!
Practicing reframing through an exercise like using can-if language can help any committee, team, church or organization move a conversation forward, instead of remaining stuck in roadblocks asserting that something cannot be done.
One of our key tasks of Christian leadership is to cast a vision of a compelling future, one that bears witness to God’s reign in brave and bold ways. Roadblocks are inevitable. Occasionally they can be helpful, prompting us to slow down and reconsider significant aspects of an argument we may have missed or see things differently in light of new information. Often, however, roadblocks arise out of fear of change and the unknown. Roadblockers revel in the status quo. Practicing empathy can help leaders figure out why and offer pastoral care and appropriate responses.
Another one of our key tasks as Christian leaders is reminding our communities that we know how the story ends. Our story begins and ends with God. Our role in God’s bigger story is to be faithful in bearing witness to God’s reign.
We can do this if we remember we serve a God who feels with us, loves us and desires to be in relationship with us in our journeys, roadblocks and all.
VICTORIA ATKINSON WHITE is the managing director of grants at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School.