Every time I asked a question Carol doubled down. Every time I proposed an alternate angle she aggressively dismissed it. When I tried to move the group discussion forward she loudly reasserted her core beliefs. When other women in the group asked questions or shared thoughts Carol shook her head disapprovingly.
I have facilitated hundreds of hours of groups with men, women, and teens experiencing family violence. Facilitating is unlike any other educational setting. It isn’t teaching, or lecturing, or therapy. At its best it is a profound time of connection around shared experience where the participants learn from each other, feel heard and seen, and leave with some new information that encourages them to think differently or consider a new perspective.
That last part is the hardest. Most of us have a hard time shifting our mindset or incorporating new information. Individuals in crisis however have the potential to be more open than most. I always have a deep appreciation for the people I’ve served who have come through deep pain and have the resilience and courage to consider the world in a new way.
Often times in a group-especially an adult group-there is at least one participant who is not only closed off to any discussion that may challenge their existing frame of reference but vocally antagonistic. The truth is that many participants will be feeling the tension of the new information to some degree. And that is okay-even desirable. That is where a skilled facilitator draws out the “why’s” behind the tension and guides dialogue that engages participants on a heart as well as head level.
But for those who are antagonistic such as Carol, their subconscious goal is to shut down dialogue. To protect the ideological framework that they have built. To quiet any voice that might weaken their internal rhetoric. That particular day I struggled for the entire 90 minute group to keep things productive.
In my experience, the degree to which a participant is resistant to new or challenging information is directly related to how much they have to lose or at least their perception of how much they have to lose. People don’t fear change. They fear loss. This is why perpetrator groups are especially challenging. Abusers have a lot to lose if they begin to consider information or narratives that contradict what has rationalized their behavior up to that point.
Carol had a lot to lose. The reason she had a lot to lose was evident from early in the group. Her religious identity, spiritual value, and eternal destiny were at stake. Her religious framework was too rigid to allow any shifts without threatening the entire structure. If she considered that God might not want her to be abused, her theology would crumble. If she considered that it might be okay to call the police on her husband, she might lose the blessing of God on her family for her submissive spirit. If she considered the nature of marriage as a covenant dependent on the fulfillment of mutual responsibilities, it would undermine everything from Adam and Eve on.
Carol could not risk losing the power that she believed she had with God.
Unfortunately, it’s not likely that Carol will be able to make any significant shifts until things become so bad that she begins to question herself or God or at least feel a lack of power with God.
Carol is not an outlier.
I spent nearly a decade at the helm of a nonprofit trying desperately alongside a wonderful group of people to negotiate change. I am currently in the middle of one of the largest corporate mergers in recent history. What have I learned? Almost everyone is afraid of change. Everyone is afraid of changing the status quo unless the status quo is so bad that there are no other options or they are deeply disillusioned. Even then, the fear doesn’t go away it is merely overwhelmed by the fear or pain or cost of not changing.
Even in awful situations most of us find some degree of equilibrium. Even if I have next to no power, I have the security of knowing exactly where I stand, and what my power is. We may have spent many years rationalizing a powerless situation by fabricating a false sense of power. If we are truly powerful in the existing state of affairs we are even more likely to fear change.
There are several questions that arise from this. How do you develop a mentality that embraces normal or natural change. How do you quiet fear enough to rationally assess change? How do you effectively lead others through change? How do you help someone who needs to make a change but is completely closed off? How do you build resilience into your life so that difficult changes don’t bury you?
The answers to all of these questions come down to identity. Knowing one’s self is the key to empowerment. There is great power in the ability to step outside of yourself and examine your past, your emotions, your decisions, your worldview, your beliefs, your personality, your desires, and your expectations. This is not a simple 1-2-3 formula but a lifelong journey of building existential power that no person or change can take away. It is about building the kind of self awareness that allows you to take responsibility for what you have power over, be confident enough to take action but humble enough to recognize that you may be wrong, safe enough to listen well and empathize even when you have nothing in common with the story you are hearing, and courageous enough to believe that your life is valuable enough to invest in a better future.
In an article soon, I’ll start unpacking what that looks like in concrete practical terms.