‘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?
I had strange dreams about mirrors and reflections last night and woke early in the darkness. I lay there for a while, semi-conscious, daydreaming about the brightness of the moon and how it reflects the light of the sun. I prayed silently, instinctively, ‘Just as the moon reflects the light of the sun, may my life reflect the light of God’. Then I woke up.
I do think there’s something profound about mirrors and reflection as psychological, cultural and spiritual phenomena. The recent fantasy film, Snow White and the Huntsman created a vivid portrayal of a tormented queen returning repeatedly to seek reassurance in the mirror of legend: ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?’
The queen’s sense of self, security and value were based on the response from the mirror. It’s as if she didn’t really know who she was, how she was, without reference to its external perspective. According to psychodynamic and social psychological theories, our sense of self is affected by the responses we evoke and encounter in others.
Take, for instance, a young child who gazes into its mother’s face. If it sees consistent expressions of warmth, attentiveness, affection and happiness, it may well develop the sense that ‘I am loved’ and, thereby, ‘I am loveable.’ If on the other hand the child consistently sees looks of disapproval, it may develop a negative sense of self.
Psychodynamic theorists (e.g. Winnicott) call this process ‘mirroring’.Just as a person knows what they look like by glancing in a mirror, a child sees something of itself, learns something about itself, its relationships and its place in the world, by observing what is mirrored in the face of others. It’s a process that continues throughout our lives.
This phenomenon has deep existential implications. Corinne Taylor in her paper, You are the fairest of them all, comments on what may happen if a mother lacks connection with the child and fails to offer mirroring: ‘Perhaps a mother with a rigid face gives the baby the sense of never having being at all.’* Its very existence may feel negated.
Richard Rohr in his book, The Naked Now draws spiritual parallels, inviting us to consider what we see in God’s face, his gaze, as we gaze at him in prayer. It’s as if God is the ultimate, absolute parent figure in whose face we are able to gain a true sense of who we actually are. A distorted image of God will create a distorted image of self.
Projection is a related psychological process whereby we project aspects of ourselves (often aspects we feel uncomfortable with) onto other people or even onto God. I may be aware of and focus on characteristics of others that I’m not aware of or deny in myself, even though others may recognise them as typical of me.
If I grow in awareness of my projections, I can grow in awareness of myself by noticing what I notice in others. It’s another form of mirroring. As a leader and coach, I can draw important lessons too: what do others see in my face; do my responses help others develop a truer and more-loved sense of self; do I reflect the light of God?
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.
‘Could you be more direct?’ I took part in a 2-day workshop recently, a Gestalt approach to conflict, challenge and confrontation in groups. There were 12 in the group, mostly therapists of one kind or another, and we started by introducing ourselves in 2s. ‘This is my life’ in 5 minutes. Next, after each had spoken, we commented on what we had noticed. ‘We’re the same in that…’ and ‘We’re different in that…’ It drew our attention to what we notice in first encounters and how we tend to deal with sameness and difference in groups.
There’s something about sameness that can provide a sense of comfort, of security, of being part of something bigger than ourselves. When we feel insecure, we may seek out points of sameness in order to build rapport, establish connection and thereby reduce our anxiety. Safety in numbers. In this context, difference can feel distancing, even threatening. If we continue to focus on sameness, an awareness of group identity emerges, a feeling of belonging, a sense of differentiation between the ‘us’ and the ‘not us’.
This is an important principle in group and inter-group dynamics. The inclusive dynamic that creates a sense of group within a group is the same dynamic that can exclude others. If we focus exclusively on sameness within our group and on difference between our own group and other perceived groups, we create boundaries between us. If difference emerges within our group, we may ignore or resist it because it doesn’t fit the group norm, the norm we have subscribed to in order to feel secure. This can lead to collusion and group think.
A way to break through unhelpful group and inter-group barriers is to acknowledge what the group provides for us, its functional value at a social psychological level, and yet also to draw our attention to the differences between us within the group and the similarities between us (or at least some of us) and those (or at least some of those) in other groups. This has the effect of raising fresh awareness, reconfiguring group identities, enabling us to see different patterns of sameness and difference and thereby fresh possibilities.
A later activity in this workshop was to practice immediacy. We split into two groups. One group sat in a circle in the middle of the room, the others around the outside observing those in the inside circle. The inside group was invited and encouraged to practise speaking very honestly, clearly and directly with one another. The conversation started.‘I would like to facilitate the group.’ ‘I’m happy for you to facilitate.’ ‘I feel anxious.’ ‘What do you feel anxious about?’ ‘I feel anxious in case those on the outside judge my performance.’
It continued. ‘If I lose interest, I will check out.’ ‘What will checking out look like, what will we see?’ ‘I will gaze out of the window’.‘What do you want us to do if we see you gazing out of the window?’ ‘Call it.’ ‘I don’t know what you are thinking or feeling and I want to know.’ ‘Why is that so important to you?’ ‘Because I don’t feel a connection with you, I feel distant from you.’ Our task was to focus on what was happening within and between us here and now and to articulate it openly and courageously, even if it risked evoking conflict.
Asking, ‘What is happening here and now?’ is such a powerful question. It draws attention of a group away from a topic, issue or abstraction into the immediate moment. ‘I’m thinking…’, ‘I’m feeling…’. The impact in the workshop group felt both profound and electric. To ask, ‘What is going on for me now?’ is a great way of establishing contact with myself. To articulate what I am thinking and feeling in a group or to hear others do the same invites others to be open too and, thereby, builds the quality of relational contact within the group.
This can prove tricky cross-culturally, especially where it could be considered inappropriate, disrespectful or even offensive to speak out in a group. In other situations, it may simply feel too risky to acknowledge openly what I’m thinking or feeling. The challenge in this workshop was to experiment with being more open, less constrained, than we would normally behave. ‘If I asked you on a scale of 10 how honest and up-front you are in groups, what would you say? What would really happen if you were to ratchet it up a notch?’
There’s something comforting about being part of a group, fitting in, belonging. It enables me to relax, feel rooted, feel part of something bigger than myself, feel accepted by others. It helps me to feel safe, secure, loved. I sometimes choose which groups to identify with, e.g. those who share similar passions, interests or values to my own. At other times, I find myself part of groups by default, e.g. those who share my nationality or culture.
There’s a fascinating principle in social psychology that describes how we learn scripts and roles throughout life. Scripts are how people behave in different situations, roles are the parts we learn to play in those situations. How I ‘should’ behave at work, in a restaurant, whist driving on public roads etc. are all governed by social conventions or schemata, that is, implicit or explicit rules or codes of conduct that determine what is acceptable in each context.
It’s easy to see how such norms arise and why they are perpetuated. At one level, playing out scripts enables social predictability, harmony and cohesion. It’s one of the reasons why encountering or moving between cultures with different norms and rules can feel so uncomfortable. At another level, groups often have a self-reinforcing influence. We develop patterns of thinking and behaviour that are repeated and become subconscious and normative.
These are some of the reasons why challenging group thinking and behaviour can be so problematic. On the one hand, we and others may have a vested interest in sustaining group culture because of a psychological need to belong. On the other hand, group norms can become so entrenched that questioning them can feel bemusing, annoying, disruptive or subversive. Established groups have inherent potential for self-preservation and self-defence.
Against this backdrop, I’m intrigued by Paul’s comment in the New Testament which says (my paraphrase): ‘(a) Don’t be shaped from without by how things work (literally, schemata) in the world around you but, instead, (b) be radically changed literally, metamorph) from within by a renewing of your mind.’ I’m struck by parallels with contemporary insights from (a) social psychology and (b) cognitive behavioural psychology.
It acknowledges how people are shaped by culture. It’s an unavoidable social psychological principle. From our earliest experiences of social interaction, e.g. within a family, friendship, school, club, community or organisation, our thinking and behaviour are shaped by shared language, experiences, values and norms. At the same time, it challenges us to ‘wake up’, to become aware, to break out of hypnotic prevailing influences.
For Paul, this is more than a purely cognitive exercise. It’s a spiritual transformation that will result in a profound shift of insight, perspective, values and behaviour. It’s something that God desires to do in, through and between us. It's a transformation that will set us free to see the world through fresh eyes, to reevaluate social norms and to act with autonomy. It will provoke resistance but it's also the way to authentic life.
Management literature is filled with guidance and case studies on how to change organisational culture. Some view culture as an overarching descriptor of ‘how we do things round here’. Others view it as a shared underlying belief system that influences behaviour and practice.
I think there’s some truth in both these viewpoints. They point to the shared nature of culture, that is, it includes the individual yet extends beyond towards a group: its values and ways of acting. It’s this shared dimension that differentiates culture from individual thinking or behaving.
Yet it still feels like something is missing. Culture is a felt experience. Observing culture, studying it, analysing it, isn’t the same as directly experiencing it. It’s something about what it feels like, what it means personally, existentially to be part of something bigger than myself.
And yet it isn’t just something I feel. It’s about a mood, a shared experience, something we within the culture feel, together. It’s an intangible phenomenon, a group dynamic, that feels tangible. It guides us, moves us, motivates us in subconscious ways that feel natural and mysterious.
This is one of the reasons why culture change programmes are so problematic. If culture was simply about thinking or behaviour, it would be possible to devise methods that motivate and enable change in these areas. In some situations, that may well be all that is needed.
In transformational change, however, we must pay attention to deep rooted existential issues, psychodynamic and social psychological phenomena, cultural climate and experience. It’s about working-with, certainly not doing-to, and that demands humility, wisdom and patience.