Calling has long-standing roots in theistic spiritual traditions, often associated with being ‘called by God’ to a certain way of life or to a specific course of action. Existential psychologists have commented on how sometimes it feels like a situation is calling for its own response from us. In both cases, the source of the calling is attributed to someone or something beyond us. It’s a phenomenon that can feel like an evocative pull, tugging at something deep within us.
I’ve experienced this many times since becoming a Christian, a strange intuition that feels beyond me, prompting or leading me in a certain direction. Sometimes it seems very clear or inspiring, at others it’s more of a vague notion, a restlessness that compels me to move or change. I’ve often experienced it in coaching relationships too, an almost irresistible impulse to speak or act that feels like revelation, an energising compulsion from the situation itself.
It’s not magic, something I can make happen, something I can manufacture for myself. It’s sometimes unexpected, sometimes challenging and sometimes involves scary risk-taking. It’s not definitive either, something I can measure, test or prove in a lab. This can make the experience of calling feel mysterious, sometimes spiritual, a step in faith in response to a curious, invisible stimulus. It’s as if something ‘out there’ connects with something ‘in here’, setting up a dynamic resonance.
So how to apply this in leadership and coaching? How to listen for and discern calling in the midst of so many other tasks and preoccupations that clamour for our attention? How to weigh up calling in order to act wisely? In my experience, there is no simple formula. It’s mostly about learning to be still, to live with awareness, to tune into my intuition, to be sensitive to prompts from the situation itself, to experiment and see what happens, to be open to God in prayer.
I wish I could say I always follow this call. Sometimes I'm sceptical, sometimes I pull back for fear of embarrassment or failure. Nevertheless, I've seen and felt amazing things happen when I do listen and act. I would love to hear from others on this topic of calling. When have you felt called? What was the situation? What did the experience of calling feel like? What did you attribute the calling to? How did you act in response? What happened as a result?
A good friend in the police service once commented how he would arrive at work each day, put on his uniform and spend the rest of the day ‘impersonating a police officer’. He had a clear idea in mind of how a police officer would typically speak and behave and so consciously acted it out. It was like playing a role in a theatre with the uniform acting as both costume and psychological prop. A young girl working as a prostitute on the streets of Bangkok told me how she always used a pseudonym when working with clients. This name kept her real identity hidden and provided her with an alternative persona. By doing this, she was able psychologically to disassociate and protect her ‘true inner self’ from the separate persona that was engaging in sexual acts with strangers. A priest spoke of the pressures he felt to live a public life under constant moral scrutiny. By wearing a dog collar, he identified with a faith, a role and a calling that demanded high levels of personal integrity. Over the years, he struggled and found ways to live a more integrated and authentic life commenting that, ‘the real question is not how to be a priest but how to be oneself who is a priest.’
The first example here is of a person who found ways to fulfil a role by copying the behaviours of role models within that specific professional culture. The second is a person who learned to survive by deliberately separating herself psychologically from her persona-in-role. The third is a person who sought to find ways to live out a role by becoming more truly himself within that role. I’ve worked with numerous leaders who have experienced similar challenges. How to live and cope with one’s own expectations of leader and leadership as well as those imposed by the organisation or culture, not to mention the actual or imagined expectations of the board, peers and staff. It can feel stressful, daunting, isolating, debilitating and anxiety-provoking. It can result in burnout. Sometimes it’s a case of ‘impostor syndrome’ where a person believes he or she has been appointed to a role under some assumed false pretext or mistake. In such a situation, the person may put on a brave face and live in continual fear of being found out. ‘Sooner or later, they will discover that I’m not as good or capable as they think I am.’ It’s a form of exaggerated negative self-evaluation.
I’ve experienced similar pressures myself, especially 6-12 months into a new job. During the first 6 months, I tell myself it’s OK not to know everything because I’m new. There comes a point at which, however, I risk placing expectations on myself that I should now know more than I do. It’s a type of personal anxiety (fear of failure) combined with social anxiety (fear of being negatively evaluated). One coping strategy is to wear a metaphorical mask like a stage actor. The problem is that it’s the same phenomenon the word ‘hypocrite’ points towards: literally, one who pretends to be what he or she is not. It lacks reality and authenticity, takes considerable energy to sustain and can lead to stress and exhaustion. It prevents the person being and contributing their best, as they really are. There are spiritual parallels in Christian theology where people are both challenged and encouraged to ‘move into the light’ or to ‘live in the truth’ where everything is exposed for what it really is. It’s as if we need to find a space, a relationship, where we can see clearly and be totally honest, real and accepted in order to build out from that place. It’s about learning honesty, integrity and peace.
It’s like the equation: ‘trust = risk + support’. A person is more likely to open up, to be real (which can feel risky) if, when he or she takes such a step, they experience genuine acceptance and support. It reduces anxiety, helps the person think more clearly and creatively, fuels their energy and motivation, enables them to hear critical feedback and builds trust for the future. Various coaching and therapeutic schools draw on similar principles, e.g. providing unconditional positive regard (e.g. person-centred); enabling a person to question and test their beliefs and assumptions in order to get a better sense of what is real (e.g. cognitive behavioural); experimenting with new behaviours to discover new experiences and ways of being and doing (e.g. gestalt). In my coaching work with a leader, I may encourage him or her to explore and grow using a range of approaches, e.g. draw graphic images, select objects/symbols or strike physical poses that depict (a) their idea of the leader they believe the organisation or others expect them to be and (b) the leader they believe they are or aspire to be, then explore the commonalities and differences. Alternatively, I may encourage the person to experiment wearing different types of clothing, to practice holding themselves in a variety of postures, to speak in different volumes or tones of voice to explore which they feel most comfortable with, to find a physical expression that best enables them to be who they are.
I may encourage the person to brainstorm what they believe others expect of them, believe about them as a leader and to test those assumptions openly with others. I may encourage the person to vividly imagine themselves as e.g. a humble, confident, capable leader and to role play it focusing on real scenarios, reflecting on thoughts, feelings, behaviours and responses as we do it together. I may provide the person with toy figures and invite him or her to create a configuration of their current key relationships (e.g. leadership team), then ask them to move the figures into different configurations to reflect on how that feels and what insights emerge. I may also invite them to reflect on past life or work experiences that have felt very similar (e.g. family, previous teams). I may encourage the person to step back and consider what their own experience might point towards culturally or systemically. If, for instance, the leader feels unsafe to be honest, what light does that shed on, for example, what is considered acceptable and unacceptable culturally within that environment and what can the leader do practically and realistically to influence positive change.
I would be interested to hear of others’ experiences in this area and how you have worked through them. Have you experienced ‘impostor syndrome’? Have you struggled to reconcile who you are with the role you find yourself playing? Have you coached, mentored or trained others working through similar personal or professional challenges? If so, I would love to hear from you.
Gareth Morgan in Images of Organisation (1986) commented, ‘People have a knack for getting trapped in webs of their own creation’. It’s as if we can create ways of seeing the world personally and between us that become fixed and prevent us seeing alternatives. According to social construct theory, we never really see the world for what it is, but rather as how we learn to perceive and make sense of it. This means that we attribute meaning to people, objects and situations, rather than perceive them objectively.
Personal and social construct psychology are interested in how people, groups, organisations and societies create their own ‘reality’. The language, images, metaphors and stories we use both reveal and reinforce how we see, experience and respond to the world. So, for instance, if we talk about a team, an organisation, an organisational structure etc, it may be to us as if those abstract entities actually exist in their own right, rather than simply as a way of thinking about and organising our psychosocial perceptions and experience.
Depending on what images, beliefs, values and assumptions we hold about such ‘constructs’, we can find ourselves holding fixed views that blind us to alternative ideas and options. Social construct coaching is not about unearthing ‘the truth’ but exploring alternative constructs. Social construct coaching aims to help a person or group to surface, examine and challenge the constructs they have inherited and created and to experiment with creating alternative constructs to see what they may reveal, release and enable. Sample techniques:
*Invite the coachee or group to depict a real work scenario, e.g. by drawing on paper, using objects (e.g. toys) or configuring people in a room to see what picture (or ‘construct’) emerges.
*Encourage the coachee or group to reflect on what has emerged, e.g. who or what have they included and why, how have they positioned themselves in relation to others and why etc.
*Challenge the coachee or group’s assumptions, e.g. who or what is missing, what evidence is there to support any assumptions, what evidence could point towards contrary conclusions?
*Urge the coachee or group to consider how people from diverse situations might perceive or approach the scenario, e.g. from different genders, cultures, ages, jobs, positions in hierarchy.
*Support the coachee or group to experiment with radical alternatives, e.g. draw the diagram upside down, swap roles and places, play with opposite words, images and metaphors.
Person and social construct coaching can enable changes in perception, resulting options and personal-cultural behaviour. The most exciting examples result in a fundamental paradigm shift, a total reconstruction of how an individual or group perceives, shapes and responds to the world.
Coaching is often characterised as two people sitting down together, engaged in conversation, with one person helping the other to think things through. I ran a short workshop today that introduced insights and practises from Gestalt psychology and coaching characterised by a more experimental, experiential approach. Gestalt is a field of psychology that focuses on awareness in the here and now. Insight can emerge through pausing for a moment to notice what we are thinking, feeling or experiencing in our bodies. Gestalt views thoughts, feelings and somatic experience as interconnected.
We reflect this analogical experience in our language. For example, I may feel tightness in my throat when I approach a situation where I struggle to have a ‘voice’. I feel ‘gutted’ (accompanied by a stomach ache) or find this situation a ‘pain in the neck’ (accompanied by tension in my neck). Our minds filter our thoughts and feelings, partly to enable us to focus (rather than being aware of everything going on within and around us, all at the same time, which would be overwhelming) and partly if those thoughts and feelings are unacceptable to ourselves or others, or cause discomfort.
What we experience in our bodies is unfiltered by the mind. Sometimes, what we experience in our bodies is analogous to what we are experiencing psychologically. Paying attention to what we are experiencing physically can raise unacknowledged or suppressed beliefs or issues into awareness. In Gestalt coaching, the coach may help the client explore issues or experiences by physical experimentation. This typically means doing something, rather than simply talking about it. As with all experimentation, there is an element of let’s try this and see what happens. Examples:
*Rather than telling me what you want to achieve, show me what you want to achieve by acting out what it would look and feel like if you were successful.
*Rather than explaining to me what you would you like to say to a person, say it to me directly as if I were that person, or enact a conversation playing both
*Rather than tell me what obstacles you anticipate facing, create physical obstacles in the room that represent the obstacles, then experiment with tackling or moving them.
*Rather than describe the relationships between stakeholders, try using figures or objects to represent the people and experiment with placing yourself within the system too.
*Rather than outlining your key priorities as a list, draw them in proportion size-wise and try changing their relative sizes to see what new insights emerge.
The coach’s role is to help the client design a suitable experiment, stay attentive and observe what happens for the client in the here and now as they do it. Some coaches feed back their observations to the client, some encourage the client to reflect on their own observations. When a client acts out a posture or scenario, the coach may mirror the client’s posture or movement, inviting the client to notice what he or she sees and feels when the coach does it. Finally, the coach helps the client make sense of any insights that emerge and how to apply them to the client’s context.
I took part in an ‘immunity to change’ coaching psychology workshop this week. Based on work by Kegan and others, we looked at how and why personal and organisational change can be so difficult to achieve and sustain. The notion of immunity is taken from the physiological system where the immune system serves to protect and preserve. The psychological parallel could be regarded as an anxiety management system, designed to protect us from feelings of insecurity and threat.
The psychological immune system provides relief from anxiety. It enables us to function in the world, to maintain a degree of psychological health. The problem is that we can become locked in defended patterns of belief and behaviour, often out of conscious awareness, that prevent us facing fresh challenges and growing in resilience by surfacing, confronting and working through our deepest fears. It’s as if we become subject to our beliefs and assumptions, rather than choosing them.
In the workshop, we worked through a 4-step process known as creating an X-ray or immunity map. Draw 4 columns on a sheet of paper. In the first column, write down the ‘one big thing’ about yourself that, if you could change and achieve it, would make a significant positive difference in your life and work. You may want to take feedback from others too. For example, what do key colleagues believe would make the biggest positive difference to your performance at work?
In the second column, write down what you do (or, conversely, don’t do) that works against you fulfilling that goal. In other words, how do you actually behave in practice that’s different to the ‘one big thing’ that you want to characterise your behaviour in the future? Try to be very specific. ‘I do X’ or ‘I avoid doing Y’ rather than describing feelings or states of mind. You may want to ask others for feedback too on what they observe you doing or not doing, e.g. in the workplace.
In the third column, start first by vividly imagining yourself behaving in real situations in the opposite way to how you described yourself behaving in the second column. Try focusing on those behaviours and situations that could feel most scary, threatening or dangerous. Allow yourself to really feel the feelings, to feel the deep discomfort, anxiety or pain that such behaviours and situations evoke for you. You may find this best to do with a coach who can provide appropriate support.
In the fourth column, reflect and write down the core beliefs and deep assumptions you are carrying that lead to the feelings you are experiencing. These are often assumptions drawn from childhood experiences, e.g. ‘I must do everything perfectly if I am to be loved and accepted by others.’ Such assumptions are often unspoken, subconscious beliefs that guide our thinking, feeling and behaviour. Again, it can be useful to work with a coach to help you tease out such beliefs.
This 4-step process is designed to surface underlying beliefs and assumptions that have such a powerful influence that they hold our current behaviours in place. They are the subconscious anchors that can hold us back from changing. By surfacing and ‘objectifying’ our beliefs, we have opportunity to weigh them up, examine and challenge their validity. How true are they? What evidence supports them? How well do they serve us? What alternatives could be more realistic and releasing?
We closed this activity by setting up four chairs in the room, each representing one stage of the process. The person acting as ‘client’ would sit in one seat at a time while the coach coached them through that stage of the process. On completing one stage, the client would move to the next seat. We also experimented with physicality too, inviting the client to act out their goal at the first stage and their feelings at the third stage. The impact was dynamic, vivid and visual.
According to the theory underpinning this approach, change efforts fail if they address profound issues at a surface, technical or behavioural level without attending to underlying psychological dynamics too. Deeply held beliefs and assumptions act like an elastic band, pulling the person back to where they started once the pressure to change is released. If the person or group is enabled to explore their personal and wider cultural beliefs, genuine transformation becomes possible.
I was once invited by a coaching supervisor to depict a live piece of work with a client. I focused on a forthcoming assignment in Asia and drew a diagram representing the different people involved, the relationships between them and the explicit and implicit agendas. I drew a solid line between myself and the key client representing ‘strategy’ (explicit agenda) and a dotted line representing my underlying expertise in ‘psychological dynamics’ (implicit agenda).
She challenged me to re-draw my dotted line as a solid line, to do it and not simply to imagine how I might feel if I was to do it. This proved to be a profound and pivotal moment for me in grasping Gestalt. As I picked up the pen and drew the line, I felt a sudden, powerful and unexpected surge of confidence arise within me. It convinced me to approach the contract with the client in more confident, proactive mode and to raise my implicit value to the explicit level.
In a later coaching session, I worked with a client who explained she felt stressed working with a particular colleague on a board of trustees. I noticed how physically animated she was as she spoke and so I suggested we might explore the issue using a physical experiment, drawing on Gestalt. She was keen to try it out so I invited her to recreate the board room where we were, to sit me where her colleague sits and to brief me on how he behaves.
She left the room, re-entered and immediately stiffened and looked tense. I reflected this back, along with how tense I now felt as she approached me in role. In order to create and evoke a contrasting experience, I invited her to practice physical loosening before entering the room. She discovered a dance-like movement that helped her relax, increased her confidence and provided an alternative entry style. The difference and impact was transformational.