‘Live and let live’ sounds great until someone crosses the line or invades your borders. The man sitting next to me on the train this morning was an example, his feet spreading over into my foot space. I could feel myself tense up with irritation, ‘how could he be so annoying?’ In fact, I really dislike it when anyone crosses into my physical, psychological or emotional space uninvited. It’s not that I’m an intensely private person. It’s something about protecting my freedom and control. I get stressed when someone plays their music or TV too loud, when kids kick the football against my house wall, when someone tries to manipulate or force me to do something. It’s as if these things feel like infringements on my freedom, my choices, my sense of autonomy.
Khalil Gibran in The Prophet
emphasises the value of space as essential for healthy human relationships. Psychologically, it’s about relating independently from a secure base in order to avoid unhealthy co-dependence or confluence. We could compare it recognising the necessary value of spaces between words and musical notes, enabling us to hear the lyrics and melody. In a work environment it could be about enabling space for people to express their own values, their own creativity, to innovate. It could be about ensuring people have their own desk space or time in their diaries to think. It could be about checking that roles and responsibilities are clearly defined and delineated to avoid confusion. It could be about avoiding risks of micromanagement.
I’m reminded of a group dynamics workshop I co-facilitated with Brian Watts (www.karis.biz
). Brian invited participants to stand opposite each other at a distance then slowly to walk towards each other until they felt they wanted to stop. It was fascinating to notice patterns in behaviour, how people felt as they moved towards, where they chose to stop in order to safeguard space. Typically in that group, women would stop at a greater distance to men than men would to women. In fact, a man would often continue walking towards a woman even after she had stopped, causing her to instinctively step back. Men stopped at a greater distance from other men and women stood closer to other women than they stood to men, or men stood to men.
Personal space is also influenced by culture as well as gender and individual preference. Some cultures view such space as more important than others and people within cultures learn where to move, where to stop, where to place and uphold unspoken boundaries. It can create awkward tensions when people from different cultures navigate the spaces between them. My own spacial preferences reflect my personal disposition, my personality traits. The cultural dimension suggests that my ideas, experiences and feelings about space are socially constructed too. If I had grown up in a different cultural environment, I may well have learned to experience and negotiate space and boundaries very differently. Once conditioned, it’s hard to change.
I guess the real challenge lies in how to enter and navigate space in a world where people with different values and preferences coexist and continually interact with each other physically or virtually, occupying the same or adjacent spaces. Perhaps it’s about how to create and safeguard the space we need without isolating ourselves, infringing on others’ boundaries or overriding others’ needs. What are your experiences of space? What are the anxieties and pressures that cause us to avoid or squeeze out space? How can we create space for ourselves and others in our lives, relationships and organisations? What are the psycho-social and spiritual costs of inadequate space? How do we balance space with pace? How can we learn to breathe?
Christmas time. A special time to enjoy family, friends and festivities. For many of us, it’s a time off work, chance to relax, eat, drink and party. There is, however, a deeper meaning to the event, a meaning embedded in its very name: Christ-mas. For Christians, it represents a celebration of a unique and critical moment in history, the birth of Jesus Christ. This distant event has important implications for my work in leadership, OD, coaching and training.
The idea of God as a human child should shock, confuse and amaze us. After all, if God exists and if he really is everything the Bible says he is, e.g. all powerful, all knowing, an invisible being, it makes no sense to imagine all those qualities in a vulnerable, dependent, human baby. The arrival of Jesus, the transcendent become immanent, is a profoundly paradoxical event. Little wonder so many people today find it difficult to imagine, understand or believe.
I find it stimulating and humbling to reflect on this. It calls me to ask serious questions of myself, my life and my work. Whatever I’m doing, whatever role I’m playing, my work is essentially about people, developing people, releasing potential, building a better organisation, a better world. So I will share five short thoughts and meditations this Christmas kairos evokes for me. Please share your reflections and responses with me too. I’m keen to hear.
1. God as human. The appearance of God in human form (Gestalt) reminds me of the notion of contact in Gestalt psychology, a deep sense of presence and connection with people. It’s about intimacy, empathy, touch, being-with in the here and now. In my work, I sometimes become so focused on the task that I can lose touch with myself, with others, with God. Incarnation is about coming close. How can I develop and sustain a better quality of contact?
2. God as child. The Christ child reveals God at his most vulnerable, a willingness to take risks and to depend on others. It reminds me of notions of attachment in psychodynamic psychology. It sounds inconceivable to imagine God placing his life, his wellbeing, in human hands. Yet it challenges notions of arrogant, egotistical, macho leadership. It models humility, trust, a working with others to achieve a purpose. How can I become more humble and inclusive?
3. God as love. In becoming human, God enters human experience. Jesus’ loving, empathetic way of relating to people reminds me of notions of relationship, positive regard and authenticity in humanistic and person-centred psychology. He balances ‘grace’ with ‘truth’ in a way that I find very difficult. He demonstrates altruistic self-sacrifice, critical friendship and tough love. How can I be better and more consistent at putting others’ best interests first?
4. God as truth. The arrival of God in human history in such a dramatic, physical way challenges previous notions of God and of humanity. God challenges all presuppositions, cultural perspectives and traditions. This reminds me of addressing limiting beliefs in cognitive psychology, fixed Gestalts in Gestalt psychology and personal-social constructs in social constructionism. How can I work with others to explore and create fresh possibilities, fresh paradigms?
5. God as saviour. The Bible depicts Jesus Christ entering the world to save a humanity that is lost. This notion of lost-ness reminds me of ‘angst’ in existential and psychodynamic psychology, a deep feeling of alienation from oneself and others and from any sense of ultimate meaning and purpose. It’s as if Jesus resolves our alienation from God and the world to bring new hope. How can I ensure my work brings fresh meaning and hope to others?
I wish you a merry Christmas and a very happy new year!
Critical reflexivity…hmm…what’s that? Sounds complicated. I was re-reading one of my favourite books, An Invitation to Social Construction (2009) by Kenneth Gergen this morning which introduces this concept with the following explanation:
‘Critical reflectivity is the attempt to place one’s premises into question, to suspend the ‘obvious’, to listen to alternative framings of reality and to grapple with the comparative outcomes of multiple standpoints…this means an unrelenting concern with the blinding potential of the ‘taken for granted’…we must be prepared to doubt everything we have accepted as real, true, right, necessary or essential’.
I find this interesting, stimulating and exciting. It’s about journeying into not-knowing, entertaining the possibility that there could be very different ways of perceiving, framing and experiencing issues or phenomena. It’s about a radical openness to fresh possibilities, new horizons, hitherto unimaginable ideas. It’s a recognition that all assumptions and preconceptions about reality could be limiting or flawed.
I’ve found this critical reflexivity principle invaluable in my coaching and OD practice. How often people and organisations get stuck, trapped, by fixed ways of seeing and approaching things. The same cultural influences that provide stability can blind us to alternative possibilities. The gift of the coach or consultant is to loosen the ground, release energy and insight, create fresh options for being and action.
It certainly resonates with my reading of the gospels. Jesus Christ had a way of confronting the worldviews, traditions and apparent ‘common sense’ outlook of those he encountered in such a way that often evoked confusion, anger or frustration. It’s as if he could perceive things others couldn’t see. He had a way of reframing things that it left people feeling disorientated. He operated in a very different paradigm.
This is one point at which spirituality meets philosophy and psychology. I too get easily trapped in my own constructs so I pray to God to open my eyes, to reveal new insights and unrecognised opportunities. Jesus’ words speak to me with renewed impact. He came ‘to proclaim freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, to set captives free.’ It’s about fresh awareness, deep liberation and a renewed life.
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.
Who or what has most influenced your OD thinking and practice? What maxims or principles do you bear in mind as you approach organisational issues from an OD perspective? Someone asked me this question recently and I crystallised my response into seven statements, drawing on background influences including Morgan, Schein, Bolman & Deal, Gergen and Burr:
*Organisations do not exist but people do.
*Every action is an intervention.
*Actions have symbolic as well as rational meaning.
*What’s important is not what happens but what it means.
*The same event has different meanings for different people.
*People get trapped in their own psychological and cultural constructs.
*What passes for rationality is often irrationality in disguise.
These statements, taken as a whole, create a metaphorical lens through which I often view, analyse or interpret a situation or experience. They help me to consider an underlying question, ‘What is really going on here?’ before attempting to work with a client or organisation to devise a way forward. What maxims or principles do you use to guide your practice?
‘My car is red.’ ‘Big deal,’ you may say, ‘my car is blue, green or silver.’ On the face of it, ‘my car is red’ simply sounds like a point for information, principally about the colour of the car. But is that really all it conveys? The relationship between language, culture and personal constructs is complex and profound. ‘My car is red’ conveys all kind of hidden personal and cultural messages.
‘My’ relates to ‘I’. It says something about how I see myself in relation to others, my ‘self’ as separate and distinct from others. It’s a culturally-constructed ‘I’. ‘My’ says something about possession. I consider the car in some way ‘belongs’ to me. This notion of possession, of belonging, is a cultural construct. It’s about the relationship between ‘me’ and ‘other’.
It points beyond my personal beliefs, my personal constructs, to a wider cultural context, how the relationship between people and objects is perceived and organised in my cultural environment. It has political and economic implications, touches on issues of rights and legality, shared implicit values, rules and behaviours that the culture I live within accepts and endorses.
‘Car’. At a literal level, I picture the car and I see an object that has a particular function, a mode of transport. As I explore my ‘car’ phenomenologically, I realise it evokes feelings of comfort, convenience, freedom, enjoyment for me. Culturally, it also represents something about relative wealth, social status, mobility. It's an object and a personal-cultural symbol.
If I had never seen or heard of 'car' before, or any such vehicle, and encountered one out of context, I could only guess what it is, what it is designed for. I would have no idea how to operate it, what its capabilities are, what significance it carries in my actual cultural environment. In other words, the whole idea of 'car', what it means, is culturally constructed.
‘Is red’. This attributes properties to the car, as if ‘redness’ is inherent to the car, an actual colour of the car. It’s about the car, it’s not about me. It’s a metaphysical view, how I believe things are in the world. To be more accurate, I could say, I experience the car as ‘red’, where ‘red’ is the colour I experience in the brain when I see the car in white light. Is the car still red when it’s dark?
But ‘red’ is a social construct too. We use red to denote a colour, a label that distinguishes one colour, or a group of similar colours that fall broadly into ‘red’ within my culture, from other colours. I don’t simply see and categorise colours at a personal level, I live within a culture that distinguishes between and organises colour categories in very specific ways.
I inherit the language I use, language that creates its own ways of framing and categorising. I also inherit my own cultural environment and history. My thinking and experience is profoundly influenced by these inheritances. At the same time, I have my own unique experience of the world. How I act in the world shapes language and culture too, it’s a mutually-influencing process.
So, ‘my car is red’. Simple to say, profoundly revealing when unpacked. It says something about me, how I perceive and experience the world and myself in the world, and also something about the beliefs, constructs, values and practices of my wider cultural environment. Revealing such assumptions, opening ourselves to re-examination, can be a radical route to transformation.
‘How old are you?’ Seems like a question with an obvious answer, at first glance. It depends on what you mean. I could say, for instance, ’50’ which says something, measured in chronological years. It’s not quite that straightforward, however, because (a) 50 only stems back to the date of my physical birth, (b) it is only an approximate age and (c) it only indicates my physical age.
Strange as it may sound, notions of age are actually socially constructed. In some other cultures, a person’s birthday is based on date of conception, not on date of birth, according to which reckoning I am now 51, not 50. In other words, the answer to the question of how old I am isn’t fixed but actually depends on the cultural context within which the question is framed.
And 50 is only an approximation. I could add a certain number of months, weeks, hours, minutes and seconds to make it more precise but that still creates another difficulty. Firstly, it depends on at which specific moment in time I was technically ‘born’ as distinct from ‘not born’ and how accurate we want to make the measurement. This gets quite challenging mathematically.
The reason is that measuring time is a bit like measuring space, or distance. It’s difficult to get a precise reading because it assumes two clearly defined points, whether in time or space, and fixed units of measurement to measure the difference between them. Each unit, no matter how small, can be subdivided into smaller units which, when measuring time, weirdly makes age infinite.
Now if that’s not hard enough to get our heads around, I will try to explain what I mean. We break down years into months, months into weeks, weeks into days, days into hours, hours into minutes, minutes into seconds etc. The fact is, however, that no matter how hard we try to measure my age, we could make it more accurate still by subdividing the units...indefinitely.
If that all sounds a bit pedantic, I want to raise another issue concerning age. Why do we use physical duration as the sole or primary determinant’? After all, this paradigm or emphasis is itself socially constructed. We could conceive, for instance, a culture within which physical age isn’t regarded as at all significant, but where other features or characteristics are.
In such an imagined culture, I could answer the question along the lines of, for instance, ‘I am 20 countries old’ (using number of places I’ve visited as the unit of measurement) or, ‘I am two children old’ (using number of offspring) or, ‘I am 15 places old’ (using number of places where I have lived) etc. The unit of measurement, although appearing self-evident, is culturally determined.
So what does all this point to? That reality isn’t always as fixed or straightforward as we naturally assume it to be, that there are multiple different ways of constructing the same experience or phenomenon, that our focus and way of seeing the world is shaped largely by culture, that exploring alternatives can free up fresh and exciting possibilities for thought, feeling and action.