Dealing with Group Disrupters?

Last night at an anniversary party, I fell into a long conversation with another woman about how to respond to a person in our community who disrupts every group she is in.  She often interrupts others, voices criticism of almost every other idea expressed, tends to come in late and leave early at meetings, takes initiative in the name of the group (sometimes in controversial ways) without first consulting with the whole group, and charges ahead with her ideas even when others disagree — and does so in the public eye, which can easily assume she’s acting with the group’s consent. She doesn’t seem open to criticism, though perhaps we’ve not all tried hard enough; she values freedom of speech and outspokenness (especially among women), and perceives the former as in grave danger in our country right now.  Instead, the people who aren’t comfortable with conflict, or who find navigating her presence not worth the effort, tend to leave the group.  As the woman I was talking with last night put it:  “It’s easy for people to say:  if it’s going to be like this, I’ll go and fill my cup elsewhere.”

It is easy to long for the harmonious image of the early Christian community we find in Acts 4:32:  “The community of believers was of one mind and one heart.  None of them claimed anything as their own; rather, everything was held in common.”  So perhaps we should be grateful that there was so much conflict in so many early Christian churches, despite this image.  We can see signs of conflict all over Paul’s letters to various churches, some of whom wanted to do away with all notion of living by a law (in freedom in Christ), and others wanting to require all Gentiles to become Orthodox Jews before they could be accepted as Christians.  Paul’s voice urges this or that direction, but we lack a fuller account of how the controversies were resolved (if at all) in these early churches.

There are many occasions when it’s easy for an Oblate to long for something like the Rule of Benedict in the communities of which we ourselves are a part.  Churches and other organizations do often have rules of discipline, or try to articulate their vision for group decision-making processes.  But organizations that avoid authoritarian structures can end up very befuddled about how to deal with a disruptive person like the one I’ve described above.

I feel aware of the temptations involved in trying to confront or expel someone from a group.  The danger of scapegoating.  The danger of abandoning someone without the context of a caring friendship (I’m not sure if anyone feels like a close friend to this particular woman).   The dangers that can be involved in seeing patterns of mental illness that we can label:  borderline; bipoloar.

My conversation partner last night and I agreed that it’s easier (if still very difficult) to deal with conflicts in a work place or a family–where simply not showing up is harder to do.  It’s harder when the group is a voluntary one, with less comprehensive ties on one’s commitments.  It’s easier to walk away than figure out how to deal with the dominant disruptive voices.

Any wisdom from others, based on your own experience?

4 thoughts on “Dealing with Group Disrupters?

  1. Ahhh face-time with disrupters has rubbed my fur backwards and been a burr under my saddle many times over the past ….. 30 years or so; They keep life interesting, for sure – although it may not be a pleasant interesting, it is interesting none-the-less.

    I’ve had to make myself look at them from a different angle to get through the encounter and not get swamped into the high emotion quagmire. I picture it as -> keeping on the opposite side of the fence from the bears in the pit at the zoo. I still like going to the zoo…still like watching the bears….. I just don’t want to be with them in the pit.

    This is not a easy thing to do and I still slide backwards a bit when a “expert” or new breed appears every now and then…. They do usually provide a lesson, although sometimes a little painful, no? But I suppose this doesn’t really apply to a situation
    were they show up on a regular basis, sorry about momentarily wandering off the subject.

    Family reunions; when I started going to them it seemed there were a couple of complainers in the large crowd; complaints ran the gamut … location, food, decorations,
    activities…. Listening to the litany got old quickly and didn’t do good things for the feelings of the few people who did put a lot of effort into pulling it together; Solution:
    instead of asking for a volunteer to be in charge of the next one …. We decided the people in charge of the next one …would be the complainers from the previous one.
    ( nothing but compliments after that! )

    Would it be possible to make a project out of one of the areas of complaint… and put ( you know who ) as the lead person? …. Maybe reading aloud as a group… the Prayer of St Francis as a opener at the next meeting would have a calming effect?

    I remember reading a quote ( possibly Goethe )….” Those that are the most vocal about Freedom of speech…. Are often the ones who tend ( or intend?) to abuse it!”

    Words of wisdom from several centuries ago…. I’d say: it still applies, sad but true.

    The conversion of St Paul: Early on he was filled with energy and zeal… persecuting Christians; His conversion did not turn a couch potato into a energetic person since he in fact did have the energy to begin with; His conversion simply re-directed his energy
    from persecuting Christians…. to converting people into them! Converting disrupters into constructive group members is probably possible…. Although a tough job, no doubt.
    Wish I had a proven recipe to give you for it… calmness and love and listening ( as difficult as that may be) would be the basic ingredients; may take time to ferment – like a good wine – but would be worth the effort. I have some “war stories” I’ve experienced over the years… but for now, maybe this is plenty…

    ( still watching the bears up the river from Rock Island)
    Dennis H


  2. Please do share some of your “war stories!” I much appreciated your vivid metaphors and reflections. On one of your suggestions: the person in question did indeed take leadership of a few projects, and acted in the name of the group without consultation in the process.

    Yes, observing others–and observing ourselves–and understanding our interactions as human beings at many levels is something I’ve begun to notice myself doing lately, too. I too have noticed that when we attend to the dynamics or patterns of conversation beneath the level of explicit content, we (I included) can fall into complaints and judgments and expressions of likes and dislikes. We can also attend more readily to some people than to others, drawn by affinity, or by assumed familiarity and comfort.

    In the situation I described, the person in question is disruptive enough that the group could indeed disintegrate. But lately she’s pulled back and not attended anything, and not followed through on some of the projects she enacted without the group’s full consent. At some point, her sense of allies (folks who share her perspectives) has shrunk, I sense.

    But, do share your learnings. I think it’s always easier to deal with a disruptive member in our groups in the abstract than in the concrete. (It’s easy too to want to avoid confrontation in the name of a humility that recognizes all of us are imperfect contributers to group efforts . . .)


  3. Barb (Root) Moga '82

    I’ve experienced the disruptive influences of group members. I am usually of the opinion that those complainers and instigators are suffering from a sense of being an “outsider” who feel they are not being heard or seen within the group. Take time to reflect on what is behind the behavior; how can you bring these persons up to the surface and make them feel the belonging and community? You may be amazed at how quickly the “outsider” mentality can be reversed and what all you can learn from these people. You cannot change the person, but you can change the person’s outlook.


  4. Thanks–your approach sounds wise. I’ll think about it for a while in this situation, and try approaching another encounter with your words in mind. My experience thus far is that this particular person posts a plan–on a group website–announcing a new event that she has decided it’s important to do even after one or more meetings were spent weighing her ideas and deciding to go in another direction. She’ll want to revisit repeatedly a decision that the group had concluded was closed. I can wonder if she needs somehow to feel the energy of being oppositional, or if she is simply convinced that her approach is always right, and so will work on her own initiative to announce that she and a subgroup of supporters will do what she believes is the right thing to do. If only it were clearer when her actions aren’t supported by the organization whose publicity resources she single-handedly mobilizes towards these ends, without others’ permission or consultation . . . If you’ve any strategies for helping one who feels an outsider belong, without simply capitulating to all of her or his ideas (in a context of her/his repeatedly running and acting on those ideas even after much discussion that favors another approach), please share them. But I’ll ponder what you’ve shared.


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