Have you ever been involved in an organizing campaign or volunteer-run effort in which other people start getting on your nerves?

For example, maybe there’s a person who always shows up with a smile but whose lengthy emails are hard to follow and take the group off track as often as they help.

Or the one who works hard to keep folks on track during meetings but who has a slightly impatient undertone when the conversation takes too long.

Or the one who passionately pushes the group to take on bigger challenges, but who takes the smallest things personally.

At times, it can feel like you’re dealing more with people’s quirks than with the work itself.

What to do?

First things first, consider the idea that building community is part of the work.

As deeply committed people, we can fall into the trap of thinking that our co-conspirators’ quirks are getting in the way of the work we’re doing. We can tell ourselves that if our communication problems only went away, we’d get to the important stuff.

I invite you to catch yourself when you start going down that rabbit hole. Instead, ask yourself—What is the purpose of this work?

Of course, we want to win our campaigns and get good work done.

At the same time, I believe that any good organizing work is also about building what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called “the beloved community.” At the root of most of our problems is the fact that most of us are not taught how to work well together.

The way I see it, change-making work is about dancing in the both / and. Both fighting the good fight for what we’re passionate about and building the relationships that we and our society so desperately need.

Instead of thinking of dealing with quirky human beings as getting in the way of the work, I challenge you to think of building relationships as a necessary part of the work.

Be aware of the difference between pain and suffering.

Human beings are quirky. It can be annoying, frustrating, tiring, and downright painful to get an email at eleven at night that you don’t understand or that accuses you of something you don’t think you did or you have to address before accomplishing your goal.

AND.

The more you can accept the fact that— like yourself— the person who sent the email is a quirky human being who cares deeply, the easier it will address the situation with skill and compassion. The easier it will be to move through this little storm to a place of better understanding.

Pain and discomfort are inevitable in this life. Suffering—when we tell ourselves that something’s wrong with a situation, other people, or ourselves—is not.

Once you’ve moved beyond the story that there’s something wrong with this situation, you face an important decision of how to address the challenge.

Will you talk with the person you’re struggling with about what’ going on? Can you just accept their quirk and work around it? Is it something that will damage your relationship or the group if it’s not resolved? Is it something you think they can change? Is there a specific request you can make to them? Are you willing to be vulnerable and share how you feel and what you need?

If it’s something that you don’t think is hurting the group process, that you can learn to accept, and that they might have a hard time changing, you might decide to work around their challenging behavior.

Bear in mind that, it’s one thing to truly accept your co-conspirators’ quirks and not to let them bother you. It’s another to throw your hands in the air, saying nothing will change, and disengage from the work.

If you need to collaborate closely with the other person to get the job done or their actions have the potential of hurting group process, it’s probably worth it to have a conversation.

If you decide to have a conversation (and even if you don’t), two things can help.

First, take the time to appreciate the other person’s strengths and contributions.

Not everyone will give their time and energy to creating change in the world; the biggest problems in our world may be apathy and inertia. Make sure to give gratitude for what you specifically appreciate about the other person.

Second, without beating yourself up, be honest with yourself about how your quirks are showing up.

What are you doing that might be contributing to the situation? Where are your shortcomings rubbing up against theirs?

We’re all on this planet together to learn. When we have the self-awareness to recognize our challenge spots, we can become more effective, kinder, and all around better community members. And, we’re likely to enjoy the work more, too.

Far too often, would-be change-makers step away from important work because we’re frustrated with group dynamics. No one ever said that herding cats was fun. But when we accept that learning through those good old interpersonal challenges is half the battle, we’re much more likely to stay in the fight.

I wish you all the best as you navigate the sometimes-choppy waters of organizing life. We need you.

If you’re ready to cultivate the emotional capacity to lead, I invite you to learn more about leadership coaching or apply for a discovery session today. I’d love to find out about what you’re up to!

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