Years ago now, I was serving on the ministerial staff of a large congregation. I was finding myself struggling, because my supervisor regularly avoided making important decisions. Sometimes, too, he would tell one group of people one thing; and others, the opposite. These groups, in turn, tended to approach a colleague and me to help them resolve the issue. Needless to say, I was becoming increasingly frustrated putting out the fires that arose. My anxiety was rising too, as I also sought to avoid angering my supervisor by raising these issues.
Over lunch one day, I described this situation to a good friend, who also happened to be a psychologist. He offered me some tapes from lectures he had recently heard by Edwin Friedman. In his humorous way (You’ll have to listen to the tapes to hear his anecdote!), Friedman advised a man in a similar situation NOT to solve such problems for people, and NOT to confront the supervisor directly. Rather his advice was simply to keep the supervisor informed of the concerns, saying something like, “I don’t know what you will want to do about this, but I thought you should know that….” The point, Friedman emphasized, was to avoid being triangled into the situation. Rather than taking on anxiety, the intent should be to leave the responsibility (and therefore, the anxiety) with the appropriate person – in this case, the supervisor.
At another lunch, I told my friend that Friedman’s advice was very helpful, but I was concerned that, when I didn’t step in to help solve the problems, the supervisor’s inaction or mixed messages would hurt some people. Wouldn’t it be ok to help, I suggested, since I was aware of what was going on in terms of triangling? My friend just smiled and suggested that I had missed the point. For me to continue helping out would also mean that I would be taking away the responsibility of the people to deal with their concerns directly. I would be shielding them when I should be encouraging them to stand up for themselves.
As you might guess, I have not always found this approach comfortable. When I declined to handle their problems for them, some folks became upset with me. That created its own level of anxiety. I also didn’t always recognize in time that I had slid into old patterns of helping out. Over time, though, as I became more adept at following Friedman’s advice, my work at the church became less frustrating, and my own sense of self began to increase. As I said at the beginning, this scenario took place years ago, but often enough I still find myself needing to relearn Friedman’s counsel. In other words, I often still need to remind myself about the importance of “getting out of the middle.”