All too often, honest communication goes underground in congregations, preventing positive change. What congregational leader cannot relate to the following scenarios?

After spending two hours at an executive committee meeting at which the members rudely and loudly interrupt each other, the officers still haven’t decided what recommendations to put forth as part of the strategic planning process. The meeting ends without a decision, leaving many members feeling utterly frustrated. Afterward, there are conversations among some of the members in the parking lot.

The rabbi is discussing plans for the upcoming Sabbath service. The cantor suggests adding a new piece of music, but the rabbi quickly states that he does not think it is necessary and turns the conversation in another direction. The result? Bottled creativity, simmering hostility, and conversations that occur in the parking lot.

“Parking lot conversations” occur when the underlying fears, dreams, passions, and creativity of participants at meetings are unexpressed or repressed. These group dynamics, which social scientists refer to as “covert processes,” inevitably become destructive. Just as the bulk of an iceberg lies beneath the surface and powers the movement of the iceberg, so do these hidden processes—our uncommunicated beliefs, needs, values, and assumptions—power our own behaviors and become destructive forces in community.

Above the waterline are the overt dynamics of the “iceberg” of communication—our actions, verbal communications, things that are out in the open. In their article “Keys to Unlocking Covert Processes,” Robert Marshak and Judith Katz write that “what becomes overt or ‘on the table’ are those issues and topics that the individual, group, or organization defines as acceptable, proper, reasonable, and legitimate.”1 For example, budget concerns in congregational life often are a focus of attention and are out “on the table.” They are clearly legitimate and proper issues. However, at congregational budget meetings, money, power, and authority—rather than the mission and values of the congregation—often become the overriding concerns. Although members may complain to each other about this misplaced focus, rarely will they broach the subject publicly to the board as a whole. The complaint goes underground, where it cannot be addressed, and festers in the minds and hearts of those for whom it represents a significant problem.

In some cases, what appears to be an overt communication may be a smokescreen for a covert one. For example, a congregation brings in a scholar to preach and teach over a weekend. The membership is entranced by the experience. Afterward, e-mails lauding the speaker fly among the executive officers. The senior rabbi, who is included in these e-mails, is insulted. In this scenario, the officers are using these e-mails to talk around the real issue of what they feel is missing from their clergy. One can imagine that this concern is being talked about off-line (or in the parking lot). Meanwhile, the senior rabbi is avoiding the reality of the situation and wants to blame the officers for their insensitivity. As painful as it might be, he might view this as an opportunity for learning. What do his congregants want from him? What is he capable of doing? What is he willing to do? How might he think about responding?

Types of Covert Processes
Marshak and Katz state that covert processes are those “behaviors and beliefs that are not put out on the table for open iscussion”2 and therefore become concealed and inappropriate to discuss. They describe four types of covert processes: denied, repressed, unexpressed, and untapped.

Denied. A denied or “under the table” process is commonly known as the “elephant in the room.” Everyone knows what’s not being talked about, but no one wants to bring it up. For example, the president of the board truly is not a good fit for his position. His meetings are not effective, he doesn’t delegate, he focuses too much attention on details, and he micromanages board members, who end up feeling distrusted and unappreciated. People talk about him in the parking lot while he continues on, blithely unaware.

Repressed. Repressed or “unacceptable to see” processes relate to parts of ourselves we are unable to face. Each of us has a “shadow” side in which rejected aspects of our psyche are hidden from our consciousness. Despite our lack of awareness of these aspects of ourselves, the things relegated to the shadow significantly affect our behavior. Our deepest fears, such as being seen as incompetent, affect how we react to situations. And, because we are unable to accept certain traits as being part of ourselves, we often project these issues onto others. For example, a number of covert issues may have been at work in the scenario described earlier in which a rabbi quickly squashed a conversation about the need for a new prayer melody. Is the rabbi afraid “his” prayer service is not meeting needs and unable to face his deep fear of looking incompetent? Perhaps the rabbi feels the cantor is not well qualified and doesn’t understand the needs of the congregants. Is he too conflict-avoidant to deal with her? Or is the song leader having trouble dealing with the authority of the rabbi and continually trying to push her agenda?

Unexpressed. Marshak and Katz refer to unexpressed processes as “too good to be true” processes because, oftentimes, we are too embarrassed to talk about our innermost dreams and desires, to admit our ambitions, or to express our spiritual needs too openly. We keep them hidden out of fear that others may not take us seriously.

Untapped. These are “unacceptable to imagine” processes—ideas that our assumptions and mindsets do not allow us to entertain. For instance, women’s participation and leadership in congregational life were limited in previous years because of assumptions and beliefs about women’s abilities and roles. As time goes on, however, things enter our awareness that were impossible to consider before.

Where Covert Processes Will Have an Impact
Covert processes are constantly at work in our daily lives. In congregational life, key areas to watch for evidence of their presence are in the congregation’s tasks, work processes, and relationships.

Tasks. An important question to ask to determine whether there are covert processes affecting a congregation’s tasks is whether the goals and the work activities are fulfilling the true purpose of the congregation. If not, covert processes are likely at work. For example, in one congregation the rabbi loved the idea of creating new programs in the hope that more people would come to the synagogue. His staff was already overwhelmed with their existing responsibilities and felt that more programming was not really addressing the attendance issue, but no one said anything. This is an example of how a breakdown in communication can lead to a lack of clear goals and target outcomes, with squandering of resources as the unfortunate result.

Processes. In regard to the processes being used to accomplish the congregation’s work, congregants should consider the following questions: How is the work getting accomplished? How are decisions reached? Is the work well coordinated? Are there timetables? Are people showing accountability for their actions? Are the leaders leading? For instance, in a congregation that had established a clear goal to develop an innovative prayer book, the clergy submitted material to the lead editor well past the deadlines that had been set. They then expected the editor to return the compiled and edited prayer book to them for a final review, despite the fact that the project was already behind schedule. The editor, now aggravated and at his wits’ end, won
dered how he was going to deliver the final draft to the publisher on time. In this example, the clergy’s failure to meet established deadlines has created a difficult situation for the editor. What unspoken belief was behind the clergy’s disrespect for these deadlines? And what is it that keeps the editor from communicating his displeasure at having his deadlines and those of the publisher ignored?

Relationships. The tendency of most people is to avoid conflict until a point is reached where the heat of bottled anger, disappointment, or other emotion rises to an explosive pitch. Distrust and low morale result from unconfronted issues, so congregations would be wise to periodically examine how the church’s leaders, congregants, clergy, and professionals manage relationships during the process of fulfilling the congregation’s mission. Is there a mechanism to discuss disagreements in an open way? If not, establishing such a process is crucial to the congregation’s healthy functioning.

In sacred communities, it is imperative that we become more adept at noticing where these covert processes occur and addressing them. Our religious expressions should not be relegated to prayer services. The spiritual nature of congregational life challenges us to act in ways that expand predictable human behaviors. It is a call to broaden our human skills to become more conscious of our intentions, feelings, and behaviors. It is a call to understand the impact that we can have for positive growth and creativity through the process of compassionate truth-telling.

On a simple level, compassionate truth-telling means entering into a dialogue in which respect and compassion are the norm in order to surface the real issues and let the truth be heard. Talking truth is hard, risky business for all. So how do we do it?

Principles of Compassionate Truth-Telling
The three key principles of compassionate truth-telling are reflection, creating an environment that values and supports the process, and clarifying what you want to accomplish.

Reflection. Compassionate truth-telling requires an understanding of oneself and one’s motivations, as well as courage. Becoming skilled at it means furthering one’s self-awareness and capacity for monitoring one’s own covert processes.

Daniel Goleman, in Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence, describes his research on the impact that proficiency in emotional intelligence can have on achieving excellent outcomes for organizations.3 Two of the four domains of emotional intelligence—self-awareness and self-management—focus on intrapersonal skills. A key competency in this arena is the ability to read one’s own emotions and recognize their impact. A key competency in self-management is transparency: displaying honesty and integrity.

To boost self-awareness and self-management, one needs to take the time to reflect: What are my intentions? What are my fears and needs? What do I want and how are my actions getting in my own way? Journaling is often a tool that helps people take stock of their actions.

Try this exercise: Reflect on a situation that occurred today. Note your thoughts, your feelings, and your actions at that time. What did you say and do? Why? What did you not say? Why did you stay quiet? Was there a risk involved for yourself? For the other person? What risks would you be willing to take next time? Use your reactions as a source of learning about yourself.

It is also important to recognize that your shadow side is beyond your awareness. Enlist a confidant to give you feedback about your strengths, your limits, and the impact you have on others. Doing this kind of work is very difficult, but it is also life-expanding for yourself and those around you.

Talking truth compassionately begins with an honest assessment of one’s needs, motivations, and fears. As we become compassionate about our own weaknesses and fears, we can become more compassionate of others and more empathic, a key competency in the domain of social awareness, the third arena of emotional intelligence.

The fourth domain of emotional intelligence is relationship management. Key competencies in this arena include the skills of change catalyst and conflict management. Effective organizations realize that conflicts are the source of creativity and that change is a mechanism for growth and new directions. Compassionate truth-telling, done well, can open up a world of new possibilities and deeper relationships.

Environment. More often than not, the norms of our organizations are those that push conflicts underground, creating unproductive and often dysfunctional climates. People are afraid to state what is on their minds. Creating new norms to allow honest conversations to occur feels risky. Yet, if leaders introduce this initiative and model a new kind of behavior, people will be more willing to take the chance and new energies will be released.

At staff and board meetings, create a list of principles or values for developing a climate of respect and openness. (Examples are included in the box on page 17.) Doing this as a group task engenders trust and the desire to adhere to the guidelines. Additionally, at every meeting, establish a norm where 20 minutes is set aside for reflection toward the end. Ask questions like: Are there issues that we need to bring up before they go too far underground or out into the parking lot? Did this meeting work for everyone? Or not? What could have made it more effective?

Times for compassionate truth-telling can be set aside at team meetings, board and staff retreats, and at clergy/lay reviews. One rabbi has set aside a monthly meeting with selected lay volunteers where the participants give feedback to each other, building accountability as well as expanding the climate for healthy leadership.

A critical competency in the domain of relationship management is conflict management—the ability to resolve disagreements. Surfacing the “elephants” in a congregation requires courage and support. Is there a small group of people who could form a circle of compassionate truth-tellers as the beginning core? Learning how to dialogue—using curiosity and suspension of judgment as underlying principles—is a skill one can learn. Human beings jump to conclusions very quickly, making assessments based on our own limited perceptions. Entering into a dialogue process to practice compassionate truth-telling means setting aside a special time to think not only about solving a problem but thinking about how we are thinking about solving the problem. Becoming reflective, listening closely, talking truth slowly, and surfacing assumptions in an environment where the guidelines are clear forges a new dimension to human relationships. Sometimes it is also helpful to use an outside facilitator to gain the insights of an objective observer and to maintain the boundaries for a safe environment.

Clarification. Vision drives the desire to take risky steps, to act courageously. One of the early steps in the initial stages of compassionate truth-telling is clarifying the end goal. What outcomes can we seek together? Are they short-term issues with an easily solvable action plan? For example, if clergy or board leadership requires training to bolster meeting management skills or supervisory abilities, talk honestly about what is needed and why.

However, systemic challenges underlie much of congregational life. Many congregations end up pointing the finger of blame at the clergy or the board leadership when events go wrong. Budget woes or poor attendance at education classes are not solvable in a quick fix. Seeking the hidden dynamics at play and sharing these deeper concerns with the congregation can galvanize the membership to arrive at viable solutions. Compassionate truth-telling on this scale can often mobilize congregants to stretch beyond compl
acency to work together for the benefit of each other. What are the community’s goals? What are the leadership goals? Are they in alignment?

Uncovering covert processes is ultimately about building sacred community. What do we want to achieve? What outcomes should we establish together as human beings created in the image of God? This is not about power plays, vindictiveness, or revenge.

Compassionate truth-telling is about expanding the capacity of human beings to bring authentic behavior to congregational life in a compassionate way. It is in those moments when genuine understanding is born, when creativity is unleashed, when new possibilities emerge, and when “the divine spark of compassion” flows between human beings. Understanding how one has contributed to the problems and how one can contribute to the solutions expands the range of human and spiritual development.

1. Robert Marshak and Judith Katz, “Keys to Unlocking Covert Processes,” OD Practitioner (Vol. 33, No. 2, 2001): 6.
2. Idem.
3. Daniel Goleman, Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002), 35.