I’ve been traveling around the past days talking to various communities about issues in Pagan leadership. This is a question that comes up rather a lot in Pagan (and other) groups. How do I deal with an annoying or disruptive group member? There’s a heck of a lot of context to consider how to address someone who’s weird, annoying, disruptive, too talkative, too quiet. But, here are some suggestions I have offered for this particular context.
For the purposes of this blog post, I’m working with a question posed on a Facebook group about a group member who is described as: A consistent member who attends but does not interact in any way, makes no effort to be part of the conversation in discussion nights. At crafting nights, the person would just sit at the table, create nothing, speak to no one, and bring no materials, and then stay beyond the point when all the others had left. The person has never articulated a single thing about their personal paths and beliefs.
Group size: Usually about 10 people, which makes behavior like this stand out fairly significant.
Time length: This has been going on for over a year.
Attempts to intervene: Group leader and several others have made many attempts to work with this person and get to know them.
Issue: Group members are starting to complain. They are concerned about this person’s disruptive energy; they feel uncomfortable.
Leader Issue: The leader has identified as someone who dislikes being in charge, also who dislikes confrontation.
Community Issue: The leader addressed their fear that, the last time they had a one-one-one with someone from a Pagan group about an issue, that person then turned around and told other people untruths about that discussion and gossiped a lot.
So…how do you deal with this person?
I have found that there are people like this in just about any Pagan group. It has served me well to get a basic understanding of psychology, including personality types (introvert, extrovert) as well as an understanding of things like the autism spectrum, bipolar, the major personality disorders, etc. However, I should make clear–I’m not a psychologist, I’m not a therapist. I’m not qualified to make any kind of a diagnosis. I’ve just learned, as a leader, to understand people and how they work.
In fact, when I work with people who are a little odd like this, I might find that they are either just really shy, introverted, or have social anxiety. I might find they have been diagnosed with Aspergers, or they might have a personality-altering brain injury, for instance. It’s important to know what’s going on. Sometimes, you can ask the question of the person. Sometimes, you have to go with what you can observe about their behavior.
As a leader, I have to know, is their behavior intentional? Probably not, most of the time. Is it behavior they are completely unaware of? And if so, is it a behavior they can change?
Whether or not the person referenced above has been formally diagnosed as such, the way their behavior is outlined reads a bit like Aspergers, or a personality-altering brain injury. I should be clear again–I do not have the qualifications to make a diagnosis. However, as a group leader, it’s still my job to figure out what’s actually going on with someone to figure out if there’s a way that I can help them be a part of the group. Or, if they are acting in a disruptive or harmful way, it might be time to ask them to leave the group.
Sometimes, people are above my pay grade, and my responsibility is ultimately to the larger group.
In some groups, we have access to actual Pagan clergy with pastoral counseling training that may be able to do more with people who are being disruptive. In other groups, we don’t have those resources.
Asking Someone to Leave
And, it is absolutely appropriate to ask someone to leave. It is not appropriate to start hosting private events and “forgetting” to invite someone. If you want someone to stop attending, you need to go ahead and have the tough conversation with that person and ask them to not attend. The only exceptions to this is if the person is actually being physically aggressive; once a line’s been crossed, you absolutely shouldn’t need to put yourself in danger. There are other very rare circumstances where you might find you are working with someone who literally does not understand that they are being asked to not return to a group. That’s pretty rare. In any other instance, you should have the conversation with the person.
Having a One-On-One Conversation
The conversation that I sometimes have with people involves me sitting with them one on one, and saying, in as neutral a tone of voice as I can, “Here are the actions I see you taking,” ie, their physical actions. Sitting at the table, not engaging, not speaking, etc. “Here is the impact that has on me and on the group.” People feel uncomfortable, etc. “Is this the impact you want to have?”
Depending on their answer, you have a range of options. If they don’t care and get belligerent, then it’s time to ask them to leave. If they want to work to shift their behavior, then I’m willing to give them a basic “three strikes” after that.
Again–there’s a big difference between someone who’s kind of “ghosting,” like the person mentioned at the beginning, where they aren’t really there/engaged, vs. someone who is being actively creepy, or saying inappropriate things.
If you read the book Nonviolent Communication, and better yet, also attend some NVC classes or practice groups, there are a lot of great communication tools that will help with conversations like this.
Group Size, Group Dynamics, Group Intentions
It also vastly depends upon the intention of the group activity and the size of the group. There’s a facilitation/group dynamics rule of thumb; it takes a group of 5-6 people to keep a conversation going without massive effort on the part of a facilitator, to have enough “group energy” to keep it going.
However, in a group that size, one person who is completely disengaged becomes a lodestone. It’s very obvious, very visible, very disruptive. Ultimately, it can lead to group members who don’t want to return, and it absolutely leads to group leader burnout.
Drawing Out Introverts and Long-Processors
One of my jobs, as a facilitator, is to make space for the introverts to feel safe enough to speak, to have time enough to speak. Extroverts and fast-processors will jump in on a discussion topic and dominate conversation.
Introverts and long-processors will hang back and be quiet. So after the extroverts have had their say, I will sometimes ask, “Is there anything else you’d like to share?”
And then I hold the silence for at least five seconds. Now–that’s not long, but in a group, that’s an excruciatingly long silence by our cultural standards. But that’s how long it takes for an introvert/long-processor to consider actually joining the discussion. I rarely mind making space for quiet people and introverts to be a part of things.
Loneliness and Healing
It’s worth posting this article about the science of loneliness. Some of the weird behaviors described above may not necessarily be Aspergers; they could just be the physiological responses to being lonely.
The science explains a number of social things that are somewhat intuitive about how a lonely person’s experience of loneliness actually impacts their behavior, health, and genetics. I think that this also potentially brings up some crucial issues for why, in Pagan community, we seem to have a higher-than-average quotient of people who are weird–ie, who act in a socially different or aberrant way, and in a way that does not support building healthy and sustainable communities.
It’s a longer article, and the last 1/3 of the article has some amazing information worth reading. For me what was most insightful is that, by experiencing love/comfort/connection, many of the genetic aberrations vanish and the behaviors/health improves.
I’m someone who’s identified as lonely for a lot of my life. Most of the time, after a lot of personal work, I’m comfortable with “alone.” But lonely is probably my greatest fear. Loneliness is hard. It doesn’t strike me much these days, but when it does, it’s one of the fastest ways to spiral me into a depression.
Loneliness can change our behavior. Sometimes, someone just needs to feel they are connected, loved, wanted, in order to heal. Some issues are deeper and not as easy to heal.
Community Members with Aspergers
People who are disruptive is a bit more of a challenge. One example is a guy I know who is diagnosed with Aspergers. He once attended a dream circle I facilitated, there were 10-15 people. We were going around one by one and sharing our dreams.
One woman had just shared a dream with intense/disturbing sexual content regarding an outfit she was made to wear. He said, “Well, I’d like to see you in that.” Waaaay inappropriate. Totally shattered the safety of the group. However, I dealt with him the way some of my mentors suggested. They had pointed out that the direct frontal approach was best.
No uncomfortable shifting, no subtle looks. Someone with Aspergers is not going to “get” subtlety.
So I said, “____, that was really inappropriate and I’d like for you to apologize.” He did, and then I worked to re-establish group safety.
However, I wouldn’t allow him to attend any kind of intense interpersonal workshop of mine. He’s welcome at my public rituals; with 40-60 people, he can just kind of stand off to the side where he’s comfortable doing so and engage in the ritual from a distance, which is his preference, and not disrupt anything. I know he gets something out of the rituals, and I’m glad he’s able to be there. He can come to a public discussion. But it’s not appropriate for him to be in something more interpersonal/intense.
People who go on Inappropriate Tangents
Similarly, the last time I taught a ritual arts intensive weekend in Chicago, I had one woman attend who was completely disruptive the entire time. Whenever we’d have a discussion about ritual technique, she’d start talking about her family. She had absolutely no sense of what was appropriate to discuss. So if she were to try and attend any of my intensive workshops again, the answer would be no. Public ritual? Sure. But if she goes on a big tangent, it’s then my responsibility to cut her off, and if she does that again in something I host, it’s also unfortunately my responsibility to have a conversation with her about what she’s doing, and possibly ask her to not come to activities.
Are either of these people “bad?” Nope, but, there’s a line, and where that line is depends on what work you are doing, and what type of group you are trying to build.
As a facilitator, I’ve had to learn the graceful art of cutting someone off who’s going on a tangent, or who is taking too big a chunk of time from the rest of the group. It’s a tricky skill to master, but crucial for anyone leading workshops, rituals, meetings, or public events.
Counseling and Therapy: Above my Pay Grade
Some leaders are great at working with the folks who have serious challenges. I’m not really among them. I can make some space for them, but ultimately, my job is to make space for a healthy group that wants to do more intense personal transformation kinds of work. And, after I’ve worked with someone for a bit, I sometimes have to determine that they are beyond my pay grade. Maybe if I was actually a professional minister with training in counseling. Or a therapist. Maybe then I could do a better job helping them. But that isn’t my calling.
It’s almost easier in some ways when someone is being more aggressively disruptive, or inappropriately hitting on people. Those folks it’s a little easier to ask to leave. After I’ve brought up with them their behavior, given them a chance to change it, and they haven’t, that’s behavior that’s clearly not ok in the group.
How Disruptive People Break up Groups
The truth is, eventually, someone who is really weird/annoying/disruptive will make people feel uncomfortable enough that they’ll stop attending.
There was a woman in St. Louis who broke up 3 separate groups just by being uncomfortably weird. It turns out that she likely has untreated Schizophrenia; her mother and brother both have that diagnosis, and it does run in families. Her behavior was consistent with some of the red flags for Schizophrenia. There was a women’s group she was a part of; so many women got annoyed with her behavior that one by one they stopped coming. So they did the, “We’re not meeting any more,” thing, except they re-formed their group without her in secret.
That’s pretty passive aggressive, and while I understand why they did it, I would call that a “leadership fail.”
The same woman was attending a monthly class at a local Pagan bookstore; one by one, the class attendees stopped coming. It had been a thriving class, until it was just the 2 facilitators and this woman. They finally stopped running the class.
Striking a Balance
I try to strike a balance between, working with the odd duck in the group to make space for them, help them to feel safe, and, sensing when it’s time to ask them to leave. Gods know, I used to be that person. I used to be the quiet person in the corner who had a hard time speaking up. Sometimes it takes one-on-one work to help someone feel safe enough to open up, and it can take months.
And yeah, then there’s the time when someone is just being too disruptive to the group to where the group itself is at risk. And, my commitment is to the larger group. I do a lot of work to make space for people who need a little extra help, but there’s only so much I can do.
How to Have the Conversation?
In almost any situation, I would recommend making the effort to sit and talk with the person one-on-one. However–in this case, for the person that was described in the case above, I think that writing them an email might be an appropriate solution to broaching the topic. I say this because I’ve had some success with doing things that way when a one-on-one would almost feel more confrontational to them. Sending an email gives them a chance to have their own emotional reaction in private.
95% of the time, it’s best to do one-on-one in-person. However, given the personality flags listed above, I think that there’s a good chance this person might respond better to an online communication. Forcing them to engage in-person, and specifically verbally, could actually have the opposite effect that most people are going for when they do this.
Usually in-person is better because there is less chance for what they are saying to be misinterpreted–we all know how easy it is for someone to get bent out of shape on FB or on an email list–but, some folks who have behaviors like what is described may just not be able to engage in-person. Someone who has that much difficulty with verbal processing (ie, talking to people) might do better with a visual/verbal communication, ie, an email or chat.
I suggest being direct, clear, and firm. Listing out their “physical reality” behaviors. Ie, that they sit at the table and bring no craft supplies, that they do not speak. Vs. “mythic reality” which assigns an emotion/intention to them; that they are a psychic vampire, draining energy, etc.
I have an article about a number of topics, but I address working through a communication tool called the Four Levels of Reality toward the end of the article that might be useful for working with challenging situations. Most people jump to mythic reality, which isn’t always as accurate as we like to think.
This is a challenging, thorny issue with few right answers. The only thing you can do is stand in your integrity and do your best. Try to be fair, try to be educated, try to do the right thing. When you screw it up, try to do better. Get training in Nonviolent communication, read books on psychology and group dynamics. If you can, get training in pastoral counseling. But as that’s not something many of us volunteering to lead Pagan discussion groups are going to have money for, sometimes the best you can do is to try to be fair.
An additional resource is the book “Antagonists in the Church.” While it’s written from a Christian perspective, it’s a resource many Pagans have utilized to work with challenging people in their groups.