By Published On: June 19, 20220 Comments

Perhaps the greatest challenge for any one-especially church leaders-is to practice healthy relationships.

Unfortunately, healthy relationships appear to be quite rare. Indeed, the legacy of the Fall is that there are no healthy relationships at all among us humans.

Since so many unhealthy relationship styles exist, it is important that those who wish to remain relatively healthy (and sane?) adopt certain principles which will enable them to remain well-differentiated from the various emotional processes which can often threaten one’s security and well being.

The Well-Differentiated Self

Bowen, Kerr and others have written of the necessity for self-differentiation. Marks of the well-differentiated leader include.

  • Principle-oriented and goal-directed;
  • Inner-directed;
  • Always sure of his or her beliefs and convictions;
  • Not dogmatic or fixed in his/her thinking;
  • Capable of hearing and evaluating the viewpoints of others;
  • Able to discard old beliefs in favor of new;
  • Can listen without reacting;
  • Can communicate without antagonizing others;
  • Is secure within him/her self;
  • Functioning is not affected by praise or criticism;
  • Can respect the identity of others without becoming critical or emotionally involved in trying to change others;
  • Able to assume responsibility for self and to avoid over-responsibility for others;
  • Aware of his/her dependence on others while also being free to enjoy relationships;
  • He/she does not have a “need” for others which impairs healthy functioning;
  • Others do not feel “used”;
  • Not prone to engage in polarized debates;
  • Realistic in the assessment of self and others;
  • Not preoccupied with his/her place in hierarchy;
  • Has healthy self-expectations;
  • Able to adapt to most stresses without developing symptoms.

(Paraphrased from Bowen/Kerr. Family Evaluation: An Approach Based on Bowen Theory. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, p. 93.)

Certainly the list above can seem overwhelming! Even more overwhelming is trying to increase one’s own level of differentiation. So, given that self-differentiation is so important for healthy leadership-and healthy living-the question is, “How can I become better self-differentiated?”

Keys To Differentiation

One of the keys to being differentiated is to utilize and apply principles which assist greater differentiation. Some of these principles are found in the literature of Alcoholics Anonymous. “One day at a time” and The Serenity Prayer are but two examples.

Contemporary popular literature such as “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” also point to some principles by which to avoid unnecessary anxiety which might threaten the well-differentiated self. Ministry Health article #101 “The Beagle Principle” is but another effective key which, when utilized with others, may help to maintain healthy levels of differentiation.

But those strategies which are most simple and easy to remember are often those easiest to apply. Perhaps the most simple of these is “Fischer’s Rule.”

Introducing “Fischer’s Rule”

Fischer’s Rule is simple and easy to remember. It has just two parts.

1) “Ninety percent of how others respond to you is not you;” and

2) “Ninety percent of how you respond to others is you.”

Fischer’s Rule: Part One

“Ninety percent of how others respond to you is not you.”

Perhaps one of the most critical aspects of this observation is that you really don’t control others. You are not the center of everyone’s life, let alone the emotive center.

Individuals who do not recognize this principle are marked by a number of responses and attitudes. These include comments such as.

  • “Why can’t they ever listen to me?”
  • “Why can’t I ever make them happy?”
  • “What did I do to make them mad?”
  • “What can I do to make them like me?”
  • “If only I could do something well enough to make them like me!”
  • “I’ve done so much for them. How could they betray me?!”

Common to all these responses is a strong element of anger. Such anger is, on the surface, directed against others. However, the reality is that the anger is directed to one’s self. The anger is also directed to the frustration of powerlessness over others. Last, but certainly not least, this anger is also directed against one’s own denial of self-imperfection. The more perfect-and perfectionistic-one is, the lesser their capacity to put the ninety percent where it belongs: in the other’s court.

Those who have not yet placed others’ ninety percent where it really needs to be experience some predictable responses. These include reactive behaviors, outbursts of rage, cynicism, jealousy, antagonism, and/or indifference. Though the symptoms may be easily recognized, the cause is often much harder to recognize and treat.

Fischer’s Rule: Part Two

“Ninety percent of how you respond to others is you.”

The first half of Fischer’s Rule deals with others’ response. Unlike the first half which helps one to recognize they don’t have to take themselves so seriously, the second half is more painful. Why? Because it deals with one’s own responses.

Though ninety percent of how others respond to you is not you, ninety percent of how you respond to others is. Your ninety percent, if it is to be healthy, must be subjected to constant, rigorous, disciplined introspection. Having a healthy ninety percent is an essential basis for being able to discern and apply the first half of Fischer’s principle and to properly decide between what is and isn’t you.

Those with a healthy ninety percent perspective will have many of the following attitudes:

1) I am not dependent on others to define my self-worth, my competency or my value. This is determined only by God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

2) When others reject me, that is largely rooted in their ninety percent, not mine.

3) Those who live by perfectionism will die by it. By accepting imperfection, I must strive toward the one who has perfect control, God.

4) Life is not a still life “snapshot.” Instead, it’s an ever-changing movie which has disappointments and losses as well as gains and successes. Thus, I will always be in a state of growth and change.

5) Growth does not always mean addition. Growth often requires subtracting, re-evaluating and redirecting my life as God directs.

6) No matter where God leads, He’ll always be there. And God is all I really need.

7) Some of the most important truths of life are found in the acceptance of paradox. When I accept the principles which paradox teaches, I gain a healthy emotional and spiritual insight for living. These paradoxes are often scriptural. They include.

  1. a) My strength is my weakness. That’s OK because my weakness is also my strength.
  2. b) That which brings the greatest pain brings the greatest growth;
  3. c) It is in loss that I find gain;
  4. d) In order to take care of life more seriously don’t take it so seriously;
  5. e) It’s only when I can “let go and let God” that I am really in control;

8) I can trust God. No matter what He does, what it costs, or how much it hurts me, it’s “OK”.

9) Unlike God, I am not indispensable. Others can survive without me.

10) I am a child of God. The Kingdom of God is within me. Thus, even though I love and enjoy relationships and affirmation, the only affirmation I really need is that which God has placed deep in my soul. No one-NO ONE-can take this away from me.

11) No one can take away God’s plan for me. The many experiences of loss and gain are simply one of God’s ways of pointing us to His plan for us. Those experiences which have the greatest impact in our lives are often those which are either unplanned or out of our control.

12) My unhealthy efforts to help others may just be a form of denial to keep me from seeing my own emptiness and changing my ten percent.

Two Questions: #1

Perhaps one might ask, “What comes first-the recognition that ninety percent is not you ? Or the recognition that ninety percent  is you?”

Though the experience may vary from individual to individual, unless one has done their work on their own ninety percent and truly assimilated observations such as the twelve listed above, they will not be able to maintain the appropriate ninety percent stance toward others.

Indeed, to the extent one doubts the above principles is the degree to which they will tend

1) to diminish the respective ninety percents specified in Fischer’s Rule; and

2) toward lower levels of differentiation.

Two Questions: #2

One might also ask, “What’s more important-the recognition that ninety percent is not you? Or the recognition of the ninety percent that is you?” The answer to both is simple, “They are both supremely important.” Both insights work together. Take one away and they both will fall.

Applications Of Fischer’s Rule

Those who first hear of Fischer’s Rule often recognize its applicability almost instantly.

  •  Counselors use this ninety percent principle frequently. They know that when individuals come in for therapy or assistance that it’s not the counselor who will “cure” or “fix” them. They must do it themselves. Counselors simply provide the necessary ten percent to incite, make and maintain important connections required for therapy.
  • Parents often discover this principle when they realize that no matter how you bring up the child, they will still respond from their own desires, not necessarily from their parents’ urging.
  •  Teachers know that though they are accountable for excellence in teaching and mentoring, that each student has his or her own capacities for learning.
  • Leaders recognize that they can only motivate one who, in their basic emotional make-up, is already tended toward motivation. Thus, leaders recognize that though training and motivation is important, it’s even more important to have individuals who are trainable and motivate-able.

Certainly the applications are virtually limitless.

Jesus and Fischer’s Rule

Pastors and other ministry professionals would do well to recognize that much of what happens in ministry really isn’t them. Like every other human being who ever walked this earth, they may guarantee outputs but they cannot guarantee results.

Depending on one’s view of Jesus, He was either a failure who ended up dying in desperation as an unsuspecting scapegoat for the Jews at the hands of the Romans or He was the most remarkable leader who ever lived. Certainly the Christian perspective must deny the former and affirm the latter.

But what made Jesus effective? In the context of self-differentiation, it was that He understood that Fischer’s Rule was operative in all of His doings, life, relationships and ministry. Thus, He recognized, as Fischer’s Rule indicates, that even those most desirous of following Him could-and did-turn away and reject Him.

Further investigation of Jesus’ ministry demonstrates how the basic principles in Fischer’s Rule explain how individuals responded to everything Jesus did with hatred or love, rejection or acceptance, betrayal or the total commitment of their lives to Him.and everything in between.

The greatest demonstration of the principles of Fischer’s Rule, however, may be found in Jesus’ passion. His betrayal, arrest, unfair trial and unjust death were not the result of his own doing. It was the responses of those who joined with the events leading to His death-their response-which caused Him to die.

What was Jesus’ response? He recognized that He did not incite this murderous band who crucified Him. He also recognized that it was they did the actions they did because of their own nature and inclinations.

Why? Because they could not overcome their own inabilities to overcome anxiety, guilt and shame.

An Exception to Fischer’s Rule?

Of course, Jesus provides for us the one exception to Fischer’s Rule. Why? Because Jesus, as God, was perfectly differentiated. In His case, 100% of how they responded to Him was them! He had done no wrong. For this reason, He was able to bear death, even death on the cross. Why? Because He knew that 90% (or, in His case, 100%) of how He responded was Him…following His Father’s perfect will.

What this demonstrates is that Fischer’s Rule has more than just earthly application. Its application is also intensely spiritual. Those of the prophetic tradition of Scripture all eventually possessed a level of self-differentiation necessary to fulfill their ministries. The secret of their resilience was not only an ever-growing confident trust in God in every circumstance, but the successful, effective and habitual practice of “Fischer’s Rule.”

The Five Thousand

Perhaps one of the most notable applications of Fischer’s Rule can be found in the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Relative to the crowd’s sudden abandonment of Jesus,

  • Whose fault was it that five thousand people rejected Jesus? Certainly not Jesus’!
  • What more could He have done than to provide a miracle and feed them? Nothing.
  • What guilt should Jesus have had since they turned away from Him? None. Absolutely none!

Relative to the fact that the inner twelve remained,

  • Why did the disciples remain? Because they were not swayed by the crowds.
  • How could the disciples remain strong? Because they had the inner conviction that Jesus had the words of life.
  • How could Jesus remained focused and unbroken even after this deep, bitterly disappointing failure? Because He realized it was not His failure, but theirs.
  • From where did Jesus get His strength? From recognizing that no matter what happens, nothing happened outside the watchful eye of God who even knows when sparrows fall.

Fischer’s Rule: A Key To Resilience

The above examples help illustrate how Fischer’s Rule offers one of the simplest formulas for healthy self-differentiation. When individuals understand who really “owns” the ninety percents indicated in Fischer’s Rule, another benefit emerges: resilience.

Certainly it is not a new insight that self-differentiation and resilience are related. It is true that those who are resilient in life are often those who are more self-differentiated. It is also true that those who are more self-differentiated are more resilient. Bowen and Kerr note,

“The higher the level of differentiation of people in a family or other social group, the more they can cooperate, look out for one another’s welfare, and stay in adequate contact during stressful and as well as calm periods. The lower the level of differentiation, the more likely the family, when stressed, will regress to selfish, aggressive, and avoidance behaviors; cohesiveness, altruism, and cooperativeness will break down.”

(Bowen/Kerr. Family Evaluation: An Approach Based on Bowen Theory. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, p. 93.)


But one must also recognize the most important key to resilience: Being absolutely certainly of the presence, power and plan of God for our lives in every single circumstance.

Admittedly, that’s the hard part. Perhaps that’s why Bowen and Kerr claim that even the most healthily differentiated human can never be 100% differentiated and most individuals are probably fall far below 100% (cf. Bowen/Kerr, Family Evaluation, pp. 97ff).

The Scriptures record how the disciples wrestled with self-differentiation. James and John fought over the seats of honor at Jesus’ side in the Kingdom. Peter cut off Malchus’ ear because of his inability to differentiate and respond as Jesus did. Most remarkably, it was Judas’ inability to differentiate which, from the perspective of emotional process, led to his spiritual downfall for all eternity. These and other examples demonstrate how lack of self-differentiation results in a loss of resilience.and vice versa.

Perhaps if they had understood that “Ninety percent of how others respond to them is not them” and “Ninety percent of how you respond to others is you” they may not have let down themselves.and their Lord.”

Wouldn’t it be a good thing if Christians everywhere, at every level, understood self-differentiation and applied Fischer’s Rule to their lives? Imagine for a moment.

  •  How much different would your ministry be?
  •  How much stronger would your leaders be?
  •  How much more resilient to anxiety would your congregation be so that they could not only discover God’s vision for them but also stay the course of that vision?
  • How would even congregational antagonists  become more supportive if they could release their heap of confused, compounded and confounded anxieties resulting from their own lack of self-differentiation?
  •  How much more people would be able to let the Gospel of Jesus Christ transform their lives and trust God’s leading?
  • How many people would find the basis for healthy relationships and less anxious functioning in every single area of their lives?

Fischer’s Rule: A Cure All?

Is Fischer’s Rule a panacea for all anxiety? Certainly not! But it can be a helpful and memorable tool. Introduce and frequently repeat this formula to yourself and others. Then watch the power of God work in them-and you-to become more healthily differentiated and focused on His Great Commission calling for you.

Thomas F. Fischer

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