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Even Nuns Get Violent in Meetings—Here’s How to Keep the Peace With Your Colleagues

Nuns wait on Copacabana beach for Pope Francis' arrival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Nuns wait on Copacabana beach for Pope Francis' arrival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Luca Zennaro/AP

As many of us have completed our first full week of work in 2014, I’ve been thinking about what it will take to bring about the peace so deeply hoped for in the messages on the holiday cards now strewn across my mantel. While it may not be the entire solution, I’d like to propose a start: eliminating violence from our meetings.

Thirty years ago, I became a Catholic sister as one way to live out my desire to make the world a peaceful place. Almost immediately, I ran into heartbreak. At age 30, I thought I had at last found “my tribe”—people with whom I could work to establish justice and nonviolence, writ large. That was until I started attending meetings.

In meeting after meeting, I would watch, awe-struck, as some sisters’ attitudes, language, and behaviors were some of the most hurtful, disruptive, and destructive I had experienced to date. I witnessed people being rude, dismissive, cutting people off, using sarcasm as a weapon, or exploding in anger. The same was true for meetings of other nonprofit groups I thought I wanted to join as a volunteer.

What, I thought, had gone wrong? How could good people with a passion for making the world more peaceful have so much trouble creating it themselves? Today, whenever I share my story with the nonprofit professionals I teach and train, they offer a knowing smile as if to say, “Been there, done that.”

Ironically, other sisters taught me to see the behaviors I witnessed as inappropriate. In the 1970s, those sisters, with a good deal of foresight, had voted to design and fund a more holistic program for new members during our first year. One of the first sisters I ever met encouraged me to participate by saying, “Pat, even if you don’t stay, come and do that year. It will be the best thing you ever did for yourself.” She was right.

Yes, we learned about styles of prayer, Christian scripture, and the history of our founders, but we also attended workshops and courses on interpersonal communication skills, anger management, and group dynamics. In other words, the sisters committed substantial financial resources to help their newer members learn how to live in harmony with one another. They invested in me to help create a future consistent with their core values of freedom, education, charity, and justice. And it worked.

I came out of that yearlong experience knowing the value of the gift I had been given. I continue to see its value in the openness, sincerity, and depth of dialogue that happens at meetings with my contemporaries. I feel its value in the confidence and skill I have to lead meetings in which staff feel comfortable speaking freely and respectfully about our feelings, needs, values, and ideas while working through our differences. I also came out of that year with a firm conviction that everyone deserves that gift. I came away wondering why we, as a society, don’t invest more in the personal growth and interpersonal skills of our children and adults.

Violence in meetings abounds. According to one nonprofit HR professional I know, the following behaviors are frequently observed in violent or mistrustful meetings, meaning, unfortunately, most:

  • People cling to positions, refuse to listen or lack listening skills, and attack the questioner.
  • They defend turf and opinion and blame others when there’s a difference in perspective.
  • They refuse to spend time on purpose, rooting out causes, or seeking multiple perspectives on larger questions like, “How did we get here?” and “Why is this happening?”
  • They prioritize expertise and knowledge over inquiry and discovery. They retreat, remain quiet, and refrain from sharing a point of view to preserve/save face.

Of course, not just nonprofits suffer meeting violence. A friend with experience in the corporate sector had no shortage of stories of team leaders who screamed at coworkers in meetings.

Corporations reportedly are losing millions due to employee violence. The Society for Human Resource Management cites evidence for a workers’ compensation cost of $590 million during 2009 for nonfatal occupational injury due to “assaults and violent acts.” According to the Centre for Conflict Resolution International the impact of conflict in the workplace includes stress, frustration, and anxiety; loss of sleep; strained relationships; grievances and litigation; presenteeism (working while sick); employee turnover; loss of productivity; increased client complaints; absenteeism; sabotage; disability claims; sick leave; and sometimes even injury and accidents too.

I shudder to think how much of the funds donated to nonprofits by corporations, private foundations, and the government is wasted because their staff cannot get along.

Personal injury and suffering, loss of time, productivity, and money are all serious concerns, but so is the loss of ideas that can move us beyond a current impasse to new solutions. I ask you to weigh all of these costs against what it would take to train employees to deal with conflict well. We could better solve the world’s problems if we could more constructively have the conversations we need to work through them.

In recent decades, we have learned a tremendous amount about the marvels of our human brain, its design, and functioning. As the psychologist David Richo writes inHow to Be An Adult in Relationships, “all the love in the world will not bring us happiness or make a relationship work. That requires skill, and this skill is quite attainable.”  That skill starts with awareness—an attentiveness in the present moment that allows me to listen respectfully and non-judgmentally to my own and others’ feelings, needs, words, and behaviors. Out of that awareness comes the ability respond appropriately, rather than react in a way that might be instinctual or habitual.

At this time of year, we are more prone to resolve, once again, to focus on the external—to exercise our bodies rather than to commit to exercising our brains. I would argue that if we are to have any hope for peace in a wider context, we all must make a commitment to fund and seek out resources that will help us do more inner work, both prior to and during the meetings we will soon attend.

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