Difficult Behavior

How congregations handle “difficult behavior” — behavior which makes the community uncomfortable (for some people), or behavior which hurts people, or behavior which distracts the community from its vision and mission — tells us a lot about the ideals-in-practice of the congregation.

Identifying specific people as “difficult people” is labeling in a way that is not helpful; calling the behavior “difficult” or “unacceptable” is within the right of a community.  All communities, to function well, need to have what one writer calls “semi-permeable boundaries.”  Just as cancer cells are cells which effectively invade and defeat the boundaries of neighboring cells, so certain behaviors will tend to challenge the boundaries of individuals and the community.

What kind of behavior are we talking about?  Major examples would include sexual abuse, physical violence, disrupting activities with a loud voice, theft, etc.  Less obvious: talking so much that others don’t have an opportunity to do so, physical touching that isn’t welcome, teasing that intimidates or harasses, using abusive language towards others (in the room or not), consistently failing to live up to commitments in ways that make task accomplishment difficult for others, threatening one’s financial contributions to the Society as a way to gain one’s own way, etc.  Even more challenging to deal with: behavior that violates group norms — because it may be a legitimate challenge of group norms that aren’t working for some of the group.

In Ethical Culture, we have a foundational commitment to acting to elicit the best from every person.  That means we take responsibility for our own actions, even when someone is displaying what we call “difficult behavior,” and seek to act in ways that honor the worth of that other person, and seek to behave, ourselves, in ways that elicit better behavior from that person.

One mistake often made in Ethical Societies (and other congregations) is to think that we are being “good” by tolerating behavior that some find hurtful, without doing anything.  Another is just shutting out those who don’t (yet) know how to operate within the group’s norms and ideals.  Our “Supreme Ethical Principle” about bringing out the best tells us that our own behavior, making a genuine and informed attempt to bring out “the best” in that other, is in service not only to the Society and to that other person, but to ourselves, as we grow and transform through such encounters.

But there are limits to what a Society is able to tolerate and accept, if the behavior continues.  Members also have a responsibility to each other to make our Societies places of learning and growth — and sometimes, “difficult behavior” is severe enough and unchanging, and we may have to make some hard choices about how to handle such situations.

One additional caution: the reality is that probably every one of us displays what someone else considers “difficult behavior” at some point.  Trying to have a conflict-free and perfectly calm Ethical Society is not only not possible, given human diversity, but is probably not a good idea — it would eliminate so many learning experiences.  (It would be like overprotecting our children so that they do not learn themselves how to handle difficult situations.)  But … relying only on individuals to handle “difficult behavior” one on one can send the message that the behavior is acceptable.

There’s no doubt that these are tricky balancing situations for Ethical Societies or any community.

This section includes resources intended to be helpful in thinking through such situations, and deciding what actions to take, both the first time such behavior is experienced as “difficult,” and if the behavior continues and the Society loses hope in the person changing their behavior.

In this section, you’ll find material on responding to difficult behavior, as well as materials on how to assess community health.

Also see resources on conflict.