Emotional Intelligence for Ministry Collaboration
By Jess Mason
I sometimes find collaborative work agitating. My temperament enjoys the satisfaction of extended focus, of flowing through tasks in solitude.
But I also find collaboration exciting and hopeful. As a results-focused person, I have to face facts—healthy collaboration yields better outcomes. For me, collaboration means taking part in a greater story, rather than being the hero of a small one.
I don’t mean to imply that all work needs to be done in groups. Focused, solo work has value. In fact, without the depth of individual thought, groupthink can yield outcomes that are driven by personality dynamics instead of shared insight.
But extended solo work can sometimes give a false sense of progress. As well-meaning leaders, we can unknowingly hinder our own goals if we’re not in conversation with other players in the larger system in which we’re working.
Collaboration Requires New Skills
David Stroh reminds us that good systems thinkers engage in "continuous communication" with partners. Communication with partners is usually full of unpredictable challenges, so it can feel surprisingly messy and slow. But the fruits of that communication can yield multiplied benefits.
Connecting well with partners also requires our willingness to be humble. In shared learning, we open ourselves up to ways we’ve been blind—where our efforts might have been ineffective, or even counterproductive. Healthy collaborators foster a gracious environment and celebrate shared learning—from failure and success alike.
Not surprisingly, healthy collaboration requires more emotional effort and social skill than solo work. Fortunately, these skills can be learned. I’d like to share what I’m learning at EGC. Here I explore six social skills relevant to any ministry collaboration.
6 Social Skills for Healthy Ministry Collaboration
1. Prepare to be more gracious than you think you’ll need to be.
At times partners may seem inconsiderate or disrespectful. Assume first that they’re well-intentioned, but unaware, and share your concerns accordingly. Similarly, whenever partners appear hostile, assume first that they are afraid or feeling insecure, and respond with solidarity.
Prepare yourself mentally to be ready to respond to human needs as they surface. While you may capture participant ideas on shared spaces, you may also want to have a private space, paper or electronic, for noting the dynamics you observe, so you can plan to respond when the moment is right.
When someone sounds insistent or repetitive even after their thoughts are captured, use brief, affirming statements, such as “I hear that”. When emotions get more intense, you can say , “I can tell this is important to you”, and reflect back what you’re hearing them say.
You don’t need to co-opt the entire meeting every time someone expresses an emotion. But making people feel seen, heard, and empowered within the purpose of the meeting is, in fact, the main purpose of meetings.
When significant issues arise that are beyond the scope of the meeting, make shared plans to follow up at another time.
2. Communicate to learn together, not to perform.
Don’t wonder whether you’re still in a learning phase together—you are. Instead, ask yourself what kind of learning is important now. As David Stroh said, “Learning is a better stance than knowing.”
You may be engaged in learning about the wider system and collaborators’ current efforts. You may have advanced to what strategies are having positive impact, or about the unintended negative consequences of past efforts. Throughout your work you’ll keep learning the quirks of various collaborators and organizations you are working with—what tends to activate vs. shut down certain people in your network.
Don’t be surprised—there’s always more to learn from your partners, and others can expect to continue to learn from you. Mentally prepare yourself before partner meetings with the attitude of a learner.
3. Prepare FOR listening well.
We build trust when others feel heard; we build motivation when people feel empowered. Logistically prepare, both to hear people, and to foster doable actions.
Prepare logistical tools to capture insights, value diverse voices, and display agreed-upon points for action.
If you are not an auditory learner, plan to jot down notes so you can listen well. If you’re the planner for a group time, some version of a mutually visible workspace like a board, a giant post-it (or their electronic analogues) with a designated note-taker is key. If you’re the note taker, try to capture the essence of what you’re hearing, and discipline yourself not to “correct” it in that moment. Follow meetings up with a "What We Learned Together” communication.
A concrete plan for quality listening can transform chaotic time-wasting into sensible empowerment.
4. Practice strategies to calm down.
Interpersonal communication can be powerful, subtle, and complex. If we rush it or force it, we may miss what’s really being shared. If we charge forward in an unchecked adrenaline mode, we may even foster pathological communication by triggering fight, flight, or freeze behavior in others or ourselves.
Some strategies to calm down in shared learning settings include:
Slow down your words and body.
Take several long, deep breaths, until you feel a tension release in your body.
Lower the volume or tone of your voice to invite calm in others.
If you feel yourself in knee-jerk reaction mode, pause to make a note.
If you find yourself ruminating on past events, take a moment to focus your mind and senses back in the present moment. Notice the sounds, smells, sights, and sensations in the present moment.
Acknowledge strong emotions respectfully and appropriately, according to the culture.
Ask for a group break with a tone of respect for group well-being.
Thank the group for their time and courage, acknowledging they are taking part in difficult but worthy work.
Reset your shared goal for the day. Tensions can run high under time pressure. If the group agrees to adjust their expectations, you can finish together with a sense of empowerment.
5. Accept that people wear different hats.
Collaborators are not interchangeable—we each bring a different temperament, set of skills, and scope of concern. See if you recognize any of the following characters in your community:
She brings information but doesn’t suggest action; he does the reverse.
He’s a systems thinker and big vision strategist. She holds the group accountable to brass tacks for realistic action in realtime.
He’s a relational bridge builder, who keeps the entire collaboration sustainable, but doesn't give concrete input.
She processes information quickly, and may sometimes jump ahead to conclusions; he processes what he’s learning over time and comes back with solid buy-in.
He contributes by asking thoughtful questions, she by suggesting solutions.
She’s primarily thinking of the needs of stakeholders in the community, while he’s focused on the needs of the team in the room.
These two people can put on whatever hat you ask them to, for the purpose of the meeting.
Not everyone needs to weigh in on every part of the conversation. Certainly if there are objections, those need to be heard. But don’t feel the need to get everyone to the same level of understanding and buy-in at every turn. If there are no objections, feel free to move forward as a group.
6. Set achievable expectations for what success looks like.
Prepare the group for this “messier” vision of what healthy consensus on a diverse team looks like. At the beginning of partner meetings, verbally set everyone free from any unhelpful expectations you think they might bring.
Make it a practice to retrain the team’s source of satisfaction. Instead of hoping for everything to go swimmingly, invite people to notice solid, forward momentum amidst real challenges.
With shared expectations, together you’ll be able to recognize and celebrate successful collaboration when it’s happening.
observe a healthy collaboration in action.
Take any opportunity you have to be a participant-observer in a healthy collaboration environment. During and after the experience, make note of how key partners contributed to healthy collaboration.
Disclaimer: We all go astray at times—we all have bad days. So as you observe, don’t focus on judging “troublemakers”. Instead, focus on how healthy collaborators respond to bring the group forward together.
If you have the opportunity for professional development conversation, discuss what you’re learning with your coach or mentor.
FEEL FREE TO Connect with me with questions or comments!
Jess Mason is a former licensed minister and spiritual director. She is currently a ministry innovation strategist in Applied Research & Consulting at EGC, and the chair of Christian Formation at a church in Jamaica Plain. Her passion is to see God’s goodness revealed to and through Christian leaders and pillars in the Boston area.