When it’s time to check in at church meetings, I cringe. Every time I’m put into such a position of such forced intimacy, I feel as though I’m being asked to rip off a piece of skin and feed it to the group. Contrary to Joys and Sorrows, where only those willing share, everyone is expected to share something at the check-ins.
The idea that the check-in ritual is valuable at all meetings has taken on the force of dogma. In an article “Check-In, Check-Out” in The Systems Thinker, May 1994, Fred Kofman articulates the popular view of check-ins: “The basic meeting ‘check-in’ gives each participant a turn to briefly share what is happening in ‘their world’—what they are thinking, feeling, and wanting at that moment— [and] have it acknowledged by the group, which allows them to ‘set it aside,’ so that they can be more fully present at the current meeting and not distracted by everything else.”
Let’s examine the assumptions. Do they always apply? Kofman states checking in “. . . gives each participant a turn to share . . . ” which assumes each participant is eager to tell the others “what is happening in their world.” This first questionable assumption implies that psychologically healthy people want to share their feelings even in business meetings. As I see it, fellow committee members aren’t strangers or enemies, but they’re not therapists or intimate friends, either. They’re friendly acquaintances, not people to whom you would reveal you’re on the verge of a breakup. Besides, checking in encourages oversharing. “If it’s about me, it must be interesting.” What’s happened to discretion, healthy boundaries, privacy? It embarrasses me to go on a tour of someone’s colon.
“Have it acknowledged by the group” is the second questionable assumption. Is a group murmur an acknowledgment? I often wonder if group members are focusing on the speakers or figuring out what they’re planning to share? And will the group share what I say with the rest of the congregation? It’s claimed there is confidentiality in church meetings, but to be safe I only say things in groups that I don’t mind the whole congregation knowing.
Kofman’s third premise is the hydraulic theory of emotion, the concept that emotions expressed are emotions dissipated, implied in the phrase, “which allows them to ‘set it aside.’” Psychologist and author Martin Seligman explains in Authentic Happiness, “Freud and all his descendants. . . [see] . . .emotions as forces inside a system closed by an impermeable membrane, like a balloon. If you do not allow yourself to express an emotion, it will squeeze its way out at some other point, usually as an undesirable symptom.”
Contrary to the hydraulic theory of emotion, research on anger and depression (cited by Seligman) has shown expressing a feeling reinforces the feeling. Going over an issue over and over again digs a rut in the mind. In dog training, we don’t let the dog rehearse behaviors we don’t like before we train an alternate behavior. We keep food off the coffee table until we have trained the dog to reliably “leave it.” As well as to do business, maybe people come to a meeting in order to distract themselves from something they’re ruminating on. Having to dredge it up for the group defeats that purpose.
“So that they can be fully present at the meeting.” Get real. People have just reminded themselves of what was bothering them, thus making it even harder to be “not distracted,” otherwise known as paying attention. Whether or not I mention my mother’s death, I’m not going to forget she just died.
Another supposed benefit of check-ins is learning to listen with empathy. However, people have no time to tell their full story. How can the group be truly empathetic to a fragment? Suggestions about policies can be a lot more controversial, therefore more challenging to hear, than feelings. Why couldn’t we practice listening by attending to other people’s ideas about the business of the meeting? At least talking about the meeting’s business could get something done, which is why we dragged ourselves out to the meeting in the first place.
Sometimes I do have something on my mind, something I don’t want to talk about. I cope with the pressure to share by dredging up something innocuous such as the morning’s pleasant walk with my dog, but lying about what’s really on my mind makes me uncomfortable. Moreover, trivial news defeats the purpose of check-ins, making the whole exercise a waste of time.
But wait, I just learned I have the Ebola virus, may I share?