If learning a new skill like healthy self-disclosure is like attempting a challenging recipe, then I have burned a lot of food. A key lesson in telling my story during the past 30 years is recognizing when it is more effective to share the facts or use a metaphor to communicate what I know. In portraying the church as an organization that that either slowly or quickly deteriorated, I reference the story of the two frogs and the pots of water. The first frog, dropped into a pot of hot water, recognized the danger and immediately jumped out. The second frog, not so lucky, was introduced into a pot of cold water; the pot was then slowly heated until the frog’s brain, unable to discern the danger, was cooked to death. A universal lesson from the Peoples Temple experience – not just mine, but practically everyone involved – is that we can rationalize dysfunctional behavior and remain too long in a dangerous environment. The story of the two frogs illustrates the importance of recovering from being “instinct-injured.”
After telling my story and watching it boomerang and end weaken or end key relationships, I have developed a support system of healthy people where I can “try out” new behaviors and received valuable feedback.
I have worked since 1999 as a workplace mediator and ombudsperson in which I facilitate conflict resolution, often giving voice to the “pink elephant in the room,” so that a more level playing field between disputing parties can be achieved and, sometimes, amends can be made. The pink elephant can include a white male having little comprehension at how a woman of color could perceive his tone as condescending when he thought he was being matter-of-fact. I have hosted a public workshop entitled “How to Have a Crucial Conversation,” which suggests the skills for discussing difficult issues so that relationships are strengthened. If learning about self-disclosure has been like trial and error for each of us, I bet our batches of burned food – as well as our success stories – all bear some resemblance. A large employer withdrew a written job offer but, six months later, another employer who had heard about my story, offered me employment.
(Andy Silver is a former member of Peoples Temple, and is now a divorce and federal mediator in Charlotte, North Carolina. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He may be reached at email@example.com.)