It has been great to work with charities, human rights and international NGOs for over 25 years. Yet I keep seeing the same 4 x Cs impeding and undermining well-being, development, sustainability and hope. These are: culture, conflict, corruption and climate. In the face of complex global, systemic issues and dynamics and what can look like insurmountable odds, we can feel like Sisyphus of Greek mythology, endlessly pushing a heavy boulder uphill only to have it endlessly roll down again.
Take a culture that denies girls and women access to education, thereby limiting its own potential and capacity for the future. Or a violent conflict that wipes out years of progress, reducing people’s homes, livelihoods and infrastructure to ruins. Or insidious corruption that stifles human rights and drains away precious resources to line the pockets of the rich and powerful. Or dramatic changes in climate that render whole populations vulnerable to drought, flooding, poverty or displacement.
I wish I could point my finger at the anonymous, proverbial ‘they’ or ‘them’ who are responsible for all this. I’m tempted to blame politicians, media, religions, banks, multinationals, oil companies, rich, poor, uneducated, apathetic, self-interested, everyone…but myself. Yet, if I’m honest, I see imprints of similar dynamics at work within me too. It’s what Francis Spufford (in his vivid, graphic paraphrase for the Christian notion of sin) calls bluntly: the universal human propensity to f*** things up.
So - what advice could we offer Sisyphus today? What can we learn as leaders, coaches, trainers and OD? 1. Recognise that who we are and what we do is part of what is: we are part of the problem and part of the solution too. 2. Step back from immediate issues and concerns to view things systemically and prayerfully: who or what is causing and sustaining what, why and how? 3. Be humble, collaborative and courageous: who else's insights, talents and resources could we draw on to achieve meaningful change?
I took part in a workshop last week that focused on social media, work and leadership. One of the questions that Zoe Amar, the trainer, posed was, ‘What’s your personal brand?’ It was in relation to being clear and authentic about, say, who we are, what makes us distinctive, what others value about us, what we have to offer etc. I quickly thought about my own Twitter, LinkedIn and website profiles. How clear and consistent am I in how I portray myself, what is true about me and what matters to me, bearing in mind the different audiences and purposes for those profiles?
The phrase ‘psychological coach’ sprang to mind. ‘I’m a psychological coach’. I also do mentoring, training, facilitation, consultancy, writing and even some teaching yet, somehow, ‘psychological coach’ felt the clearest and most grounding. Perhaps it’s something about how I see myself, what I enjoy, what expertise I hold, where I feel my calling lays, where clients say I add value, how I see and approach what I do. The psychological part signifies a type, a focus, a style, an orientation to my work; the coaching part signifies developing and releasing hope and potential in others.
What this means in practice is that I tend to view and approach leadership, mentoring, training, facilitation, consultancy etc. through a psychological lens. I instinctively look at what enhances or inhibits people, teams, groups and organisations from psychological, relational, cultural and systemic perspectives. I draw on insights and practices from fields as diverse as social constructionism, Gestalt/field theory and cognitive behavioural psychology. I enable people, teams, groups and organisations to grow in insight and ability to create, achieve and sustain their transformation.
So – ‘I’m a psychological coach’. Inspired by my Christian faith and informed by my studies and experience, it’s at the heart of who I am in the world, my work, what I do and how I do it. What’s your personal brand?
What marks out professionals from practitioners, the best from the good? It’s a great question. One thing I would suggest is critical reflective practice (CRP). It’s a semi-structured way of learning in and through experience, often with support and challenge from peers, a coach or a non-managerial supervisor. It takes willingness and commitment, an on-going desire to learn, develop and improve. I want to suggest a four-stage CRP process (based on Kolb): experience; reflect; make sense; decide.
It will call us to pause, reflect and act; to be curious and test our assumptions, to expose our sometimes uncomfortable feelings and – for me – to pray for discernment and wisdom. Here are some sample questions. Firstly, experience: What happened? What was/am I aware of? Where was/is my attention? What was/am I feeling? What was/is the impact? Secondly, reflect: What was my intention? What beliefs or values were at play? What didn’t I notice? What assumptions was/am I making? What other options were/are available?
Thirdly, make sense: What are the bigger-picture issues (e.g. politics/principles)? What wider team or organisational issues does it reveal? What is the generic issue (e.g. conflict)? What theory or research could I draw on to inform my thinking and practice? What hypotheses am I making? Finally, decide: What have I learned through this? What do I need to do the same or differently in future? How I will I prepare next time? Do any wider issues need to be addressed? What will my next step be?
The third stage, ‘make sense’ distinguishes critical reflective practice from simple reflection on practice. It draws the experience and learning of others including academics and peers into the frame. It’s also the area that many professionals neglect because of time constraints – or because they are not sure how to do it. Simple ideas: journals, books, networks, conferences and LinkedIn groups. How good are you at critical reflective practice? What do you do to develop and sustain it?
‘People look for HD photos whereas what’s really possible is dots on a page.’
I met with an insightful strategy consultant last week who used this ingenious metaphor. We live in an era where leaders face increasing complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty. This can evoke anxiety, risk-aversion and paralysis in decision-making. Against this backdrop, it’s tempting to attempt to increase our certainty by gathering and analysing exhaustive (sometimes exhausting!) reams of data, information and evidence. It’s as if we may want and need to see a high definition photo where every detail is present and crystal clear before feeling confident enough to take a step forward.
I do get it. There are good reasons for basing decisions on research and evidence, especially in high-risk environments where to do otherwise could be reckless at best and dangerous at worst. Or if we miss great opportunities because we hadn’t looked well enough before leaping…or failing to leap. But what if such situations are the exception rather than the norm? What if ‘sufficient’ evidence is unavailable, or if it would take more time or other resources to gain it than we can afford, or if conditions are so complex and fluid that today’s truth fades quickly into tomorrow’s jaded history?
Picture this alternative. A blank sheet on which we place dots. We can place them wherever we want. The dots represent what we do know, what we have a gut feel for, what we could reasonably find out – if needed. We can add, remove or move dots as things progress. We can experiment with reconfiguring the dots into different, creative, shapes and patterns. We can play with colouring the space between the dots, around the dots, to see what picture, what possibilities, what passions emerge. I love this idea of the dots. Of joining the dots. Of steps in faith. Of creating future.
‘When I was a young girl, I slipped and fell down a deep well. I was only saved because my father happened to pass by and noticed my flip flops had floated to the surface.’ As I listened to her story, I felt transfixed…and terrified. This Filipina has survived so many life-threatening experiences that it blows any cats-with-9-lives stories I’ve heard into the proverbial weeds. As she recounts various tales from her life of growing up in the jungle on a remote island mountainside, I feel by contrast like I’ve lived in a sheltered cocoon, free from a freedom that creates so much adventure and danger.
I flash back now to a conversation with a German social worker about how it is today that so many people in so many prosperous, stable, Western societies engage in so many extreme sports. It’s as if people do something dramatic and place themselves deliberately at risk in order to feel alive. I once spoke with a female base jumper who said with a huge grin on her face, ‘It’s even better than sex!’ I have to confess that I struggle to imagine that but…hey, I also struggle to imagine throwing myself head-first off a building suspended only by an elongated elastic band. Each to their own.
The social worker hypothesised that our societies have become so sanitised, protective, health-and-safety conscious and risk-averse that at some deep psychological level we can feel dead. In an era where even the once-unconquerable Everest now appears trampled and tamed, have we lost the thrill of surviving, of overcoming-against-all-odds, of achieving beyond what we ever dreamed possible? Contemporary Western people and societies often feel listless, bored and frustrated and lack resilience, purpose and hope. Can we co-create healthy risks that enliven and not endanger?
I haven’t always been good at doing the sensible thing. Take, for instance, the time when I left my job and studies in industry after 5 years of hard work, 3 months before my finals. I had recently become a Christian and believed Jesus was leading me into a new volunteer role in community development instead. My family and friends thought I had gone crazy. What on earth was I thinking of? They urged me to do the sensible thing, not to be so reckless with my life. I could understand what they were saying. Nevertheless, I resigned and never looked back. Not even for a moment.
That was one of the best decisions of my life. It changed the course of everything for me. I also wasn’t sensible, apparently, when I decided to give all my possessions away, to live out of a rucksack in an attempt to identify with the world’s poorest people. I wasn’t sensible when I worked in some unstable and dangerous places in the world in my work with charities, human rights and NGOs. I wasn’t sensible when I applied to do a master’s degree when I didn’t have any of the pre-requisite qualifications. I prayed, negotiated, worked hard and completed it with a distinction grade.
I wasn’t sensible when, more recently, I crashed my bike on a charity ride and snapped my knee sideways, leaving me seriously debilitated. I was told to be mindful, to accept my new reality and not to fight against it. I refused and I dragged myself forward step by painful step. I can now walk. I have managed to cycle and swim further than I had ever done before. I have learned that ‘sensible’ is a construct, a preference, a cultural outlook, a state of mind, a stance in the world. It appears self-evident, rational, reasonable and safe. Yet how far are we willing to take a risk - a leap of faith?
My brother handed it to me proudly with a smile on his face. The case looked more tatty than when I had seen it last and the shoulder strap had snapped, hanging down to the floor. As I unbuckled the case and lifted it out carefully – almost reverently – I could see he had looked after it well. It was an old Webley Vulcan .177, an air rifle I had bought when I was just 13 years old. It was my treasured possession for many years when I did target shooting. As the case slid to the floor and I caressed the wood and metal in my hands, I felt an adrenaline rush as vivid flashbacks rushed through my mind.
I was 15 when someone tried to burgle the house at midnight. My parents were away on holiday and I was inside – alone. I could hear someone outside trying to break through the back door. I slid out of bed, grabbed the rifle, loaded it, opened the window, called out a warning (trying to avoid my voice shaking) and fired a shot at a metal bin in the garden. The loud bang reverberated in the dead of night and it startled me as much as them. They fell silent. I closed the window, held my breath and, after a few moments, heard them scrambling over the garage roof to escape into the night.
Why am I sharing this? As leaders, OD, coaches and trainers, we may focus on practical, thinking and feeling aspects of change and lose sight of the impacts of physicality, of environment, of doing-it. It is when I touched and held the rifle that I felt it, that my imagination was triggered. It’s often when we visit a place, meet a real person, do a thing, try something new (rather than think about, reflect on, imagine it, ‘as if’) that startling awareness, insight and ideas rise to the surface. We discover intuitively and viscerally – and it can propel us forward. If we touch something, it touches us.
An organisation I work with is moving office this weekend. I spoke with one person today who commented that he feels sad to leave the building. When I invited him to elaborate, he explained that he has worked with the organisation for 15 years. He has seen and experienced lots of changes and yet this, somehow, feels like the end of an era in the organisation’s life and in his life too. The change from one building to another feels like an important physical and psychological transition.
There’s an idea in developmental psychology that, from an early age, during times of change we can attach meaning to objects that provide a sense of comfort and security (see, for instance, ‘More Than Just Teddy Bears’: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-guest-room/201407/more-just-teddy-bears). We could think of this as a bit like a person who clings onto a piece of drift wood when lost at sea. The wood can keep the person afloat and reduce the feeling of (total) isolation.
If the piece of wood is from the broken ship, it can provide a sense of psychological connection with what-was before. Holding onto the wood can provide a psychological sense of safety. It isn’t just me vs endless, boundary-less water. I am with this object, the log, and the log is with me. The log, by keeping me afloat, can provide me with a psychological sense of hope that I will get through this. In this sense, the log can take on a psychological significance for me that lays far beyond the log itself.
If we apply this insight during change in people’s and organisations’ lives, we can look out for things – whether, say, objects or routines – that people or groups now imbue with special significance. It could be, for instance, a photo or plant on the desk, a habitual conversation at coffee break, whatever people need to provide (enough) sense of security as they move forward. To offer support in the midst of this, avoid the temptation to label as ‘resistance’ and ask simply, ‘What do you need?’
I took part in an intensive Teaching English as a Foreign Language workshop at the weekend. It forms part of a longer course that leads to a TEFL qualification. The tutor, John Nelson, was inspiring and experienced as a teacher and offered great insights, ideas and challenge in a spirit of support. I noticed how valuable it felt to have a tutor, a mentor, a leader with us on our learning journey.
John wasn’t simply a detached expert who stood and pointed us in the right direction. He was committed to ensuring that we were able to grow and succeed in our work. He engaged with us – tuned into where we were, what mattered to us, what we could already do well, what we were struggling with or could improve – and helped moved us forward towards where we wanted to be.
At one point, John role-modelled a teaching session by enabling us to use basic greetings in an alien foreign language from scratch. At another, he gave us very specific feedback. I discovered that I can explain complex concepts simply…and that I can improve my teaching by engaging participants creatively in conversation around a topic first. I have grown in awareness, ability and confidence.
So what are some lessons here for leaders, trainers, facilitators, mentors and coaches? The points that stand out for me are: (a) intention – a commitment to helping others to grow; (b) relationship – working with others as people, not as objects to be done to; (c) expertise – crafting and using what we have to move others forward and (d) freedom – a willingness to experiment, laugh and play!
What sense do you make of categorical, definitive statements? For example, ‘This book is excellent.’ ‘That person is annoying.’ Could it be that such truth claims say more about the person making them, perhaps also about the beliefs and values of the cultural worlds they inhabit, than who or what they are referring to? In coaching, what could they reveal about embedded, hidden and often subconscious assumptions, perspectives, constructs, needs, hopes, fears and expectations?
I had a difficult conversation tonight. Some close neighbours have 2 dogs that they leave outside barking and a son that kicks his football against the wall, fence and bins. The noise, the persistent intrusive disturbance, drives me crazy. I tried to tackle it in polite conversation but it ended badly. The neighbour was angry and frustrated with me and slammed the door with a loud bang as the conversation came to an abrupt end. I walked away feeling shaken, disappointed and stressed.
It is easy to imagine the kind of statements we could now be making about each other inwardly and, perhaps, outwardly in conversation with others. ‘That bloke is so inconsiderate!’ ‘That guy is so over-sensitive.’ It’s as if the statements we project convey objective, incontrovertible truths about the other, statements of what-is rather than statements of subjective opinion, of cultural possibility and, at a deeper level, of veiled revelations of how we are feeling and the pain and hurt of unmet need.
I worked with one leader, Richard Marshall, who took this principle very seriously. Every time I or another made a definitive statement, he would challenge us to personalise it. So, for example, ‘This meeting is a waste of time’ would be reframed as something like, ‘I feel frustrated in this meeting and would prefer to do X’. The effect was transformational. It surfaced underlying values and needs and made them explicit. So, is my neighbour unreasonable? I don’t know. I just need peace and quiet.
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.