Healthy Differentiation Promotes Closer Ties

I happened upon notes today from Ronald W. Richardson’s Creating a Healthier Church: Family Systems Theory, Leadership, and Congregational Life. While I’m no longer involved in church leadership, the book provided some reflections on differentiation that merit discussion.

Each one of us experiences two primal forces: the need for togetherness and the need for individuality. We’re biologically wired to live in community. We need one another for fellowship, to survive physically and emotionally, and to ensure the perpetuation of our species. But we also relish our ability to act and think for ourselves. (Many view “rugged individualism” as a defining American trait!) So how do we balance these forces in our own thoughts and actions? And how do we navigate difference within community while still maintaining harmonious coexistence?


Individuals promote the balance of forces by striving for a state of healthy differentiation. Internally, they have the capacity to distinguish objective facts from subjective interpretations and emotions. This clarity gives them the ability to:

  • Perceive accurately what’s happening in any given situation; they don’t make mountains out of mole hills or create threats that aren’t there
  • Think clearly and wisely about available courses of action and the consequences of each
  • Identify and express their opinions and beliefs without the need for acceptance, understanding, affirmation, praise, or agreement to feel OK
  • Act flexibility in evolving situations, taking into account their own reactivity and the actions of others
  • Live their values and commitments in integrity

Differentiation empowers them to be in charge of themselves in the moment even when their history, emotions, and/or compatriots might otherwise motivate behaviors that are misaligned with who they really are. They know what they stand for and how they want to act in the world. They have clarity around their emotional junk and take responsibility for it. And they’re clear on the emotional baggage that lands outside their purview.

Why is differentiation so important? Because sometimes the togetherness force can be expressed as a call for everyone in a group to think, feel, and behave in the same way. The community may have difficulty tolerating and working through difference. It may view dissension as disloyal. It may put pressure on everyone to fill expected roles. In unhealthy systems, closeness gets conflated with sameness.

By contrast, healthy communities tolerate difference and conflict, treating them as normal and expected parts of being human. High differentiation in a group setting inhibits behavior acted out of the anxiety or tension of the moment. It slows things down. It allows time for reflection and dialog. It enables people to be more available and attuned to one another.

Differentiation helps people develop a sense of connection, intimacy, and mutual understanding without loss of self. Togetherness becomes a state of attraction and genuine interest rather than an attempt to satiate neediness. They can enjoy forthright communication, openness to ideas when facing challenges, and a higher level of cooperation in effecting resolution. And each takes responsibility for his or her own participation in the process.

Richardson asserts that differentiation is THE basic requirement for effective leadership. It calls leaders to define an emotionally separate self within relationship while still being deeply connected to others. It proceeds in love with full respect for the others’ individuality and desire to live in communion.

We’re accustomed to leaders being “take charge” individuals. But Richardson argues that one of their main jobs is to be a less anxious presence in emotionally charged circumstances. To do so, they must be:

  • Aware of their own levels of reactivity
  • Able to contain their own emotional reactions
  • Separate feelings and interpretations from facts
  • Act on the basis of their principled beliefs for the benefit of all
  • Stay calm and focused without getting caught up in others’ reactivity

An effective leader helps the group become more objective and rational. He or she creates the space for the group’s accumulated wisdom and experience to rise to the challenge and discern a way forward.

Effective leadership tactics: Be calm and soft-spoken. Ask questions and show interest to foster curiously. Listen attentively, restating others’ perspectives to ensure you’ve understood them. Be open to (and respectful of) differences of opinion. Look for common ground on which to build. Don’t let discomfort force a rush to judgment or quick solution.