The impact of an unexpected collision can leave us dazed and reeling. A good friend was standing on a ski slope when suddenly, out of the blue, he felt himself flying through the air then laid on his back in intense pain and struggling to breathe. It turned out another skier had lost control and hit him at speed from behind. The impact could have killed him. Another friend was hit by a trike. He was riding his motorcycle and stopped at traffic lights. Unfortunately, the trike rider behind him didn’t see he had stopped and hit him hard. My friend lived but sustained serious head injuries.
I’ve lived through similar impacts and, 19 motorcycle accidents and 8 car crashes later, I have the aches and scars to prove it. There are parallels in psychological and emotional realms too, e.g. the impact of receiving unexpected and devastating news that can leave the whole world crashing down around us. Such experiences can leave us broken, disorientated and struggling to breathe. They may trigger fight-flight-freeze: we may scream, shout, kick, punch, run for cover or feel numb, paralysed. Our hope, life and existence can feel threatened. It takes time, rest and care to recover.
Yet there are also collisions of a very different kind. These are the serendipitous encounters, events and experiences that shift and reshape us positively. They alter radically our paradigms and beliefs and lift our eyes and hearts to a totally different plane. I remember when Jesus collided with me at age 21. The impact shook my life to its very core, transcending and transforming my deepest hopes and fears. I remember too so many ordinary-extraordinary people, places and experiences that have stimulated, disrupted, supported and challenged me. Collisions can be a life-giving gift.
So - I’m interested: what have been your worst and best collisions? How have they impacted and shaped you?
There’s an old Taoist story. It teaches that the answer to everything that goes apparently well or badly is maybe. ‘I got a new job. That’s great, isn’t it?’ Maybe. ‘I just crashed my car. That’s terrible, isn’t it?’ Maybe. The reason for maybe is that we don’t know the wider context or consequences of any encounter or event. We cannot predict all the ripple effects, some of which may continue down through the years or into completely different relationships or parts of the world. What we construe as a curse in the moment may turn out to be a blessing in disguise and vice versa. It’s complex.
Some of this is about framing and re-framing. We can view the same situation, the same moment, through different metaphorical lenses and see what different pictures emerge. Take, for instance, a change in any team in any organisation. The change will have pros and cons – and different pros and cons depending on which stakeholder perspective we or others view it from. It could touch on, say, wider roles, relationships and resources. Maybe depends on viewpoints and values: who is impacted and how, what it means psychologically and culturally and how it feels for them and others.
Maybe is also about time lags and time-frames. A change that creates pain now may result in positive benefits in the future or vice versa. An action we take here and now could trigger unintended consequences, a chain reaction down the line that we could never have imagined or anticipated. As such, maybe calls for openness, curiosity and humility. It calls us - and clients - to learn to approach 'knowing' and 'certainty' in tentative spirit, particularly in fluid (VUCA) environments. For me, it calls for prayer and patience too, to seek God’s insight and wisdom. What does maybe mean for you?
‘What are you willing to take responsibility for?’, ‘What are you willing to commit to?’, ‘What are you willing to do?’ These are important questions in leadership and coaching. After all, people may appear to agree or give passive assent to all kinds of things, especially if they believe that ‘Yes’ is the correct answer in that culture or context. It doesn’t necessarily mean they will do it or, perhaps, that they will do it e.g. in the spirit or timeframe or to the standard hoped for. Half-hearted efforts are sometimes worse than not-do, especially if they result in poor quality or dangerous short cuts.
Our willing-ness touches on deep beliefs, values, intention and motivation. If I am willing to do something, assuming I am able to do it too, it points towards a choice, a decision, an action, a behaviour. It’s the energy behind movement, the driving force that makes something tangible happen. We can often sense the ‘will’ emotionally and physically, a mysterious inner dynamic that propels us forward. It’s like shifting a car into gear, releasing the clutch, feeling that pull. Without the will, the best thoughts and ideas may stay in-principle and never become outworked in practice.
This is the notion behind John Whitmore’s W (Will) in GROW and David Clutterbuck’s 4th I (Intention) in 4xIs in coaching. If we stop simply at, ‘What actions will you take?’, we risk a person drawing up an action list, a list of actions-in-principle. The ideas generated here may stay at head level and not touch the spirit or galvanise the soul. ‘What matters most to you in this?’ and, ‘What would make this worthwhile for you?’ tap into values and emotions. Moving from there to, ‘So - in relation to that, what are you willing to take responsibility for?’ creates traction, momentum and commitment.
There’s something about chronic illness or injury that is hard to cope with, not only for ourselves but for others too. In my experience, people often want to say, ‘Get well soon’ rather than, ‘How can I stand with you when there is no prospect of recovery in sight?’ Over time it starts to feel awkward. Every time someone asks, ‘How are you?’ with look of sincere hope of improvement in their eyes, it feels harder to say, ‘No change (and no realistic prospect of change).’ Their face drops and, after a while, they stop asking. We feel a relief of sorts not to be asked and yet, at the same time, increasingly alone.
We live in an age where we expect everything to be fixed…and fixed quickly. As technology speeds up communication, service and delivery, we become socially conditioned to a culture of the instant. We become increasingly intolerant of waiting. We want immediate responses, immediate results. It’s all about now, narrowing the time gap between action and response. In project management, it’s as if we want to eliminate lag altogether, impatient that one coat of paint must dry first before we can apply a second coat. If push comes to shove, we’ll trade quality for speed. Just do it. Now.
At heart – if it had a heart, it’s a culture of reductionism that seeks to accelerate maturation without trusting a process of slow change or an experience of being. It ignores the value of the present moment, the potential deep richness of the space between the now and the not yet. It discounts an eternal perspective and purpose, the larger frame that places everything now in context. It’s a leader who drives change without allowing people time to take their own journey. It’s a coach who presses clients to set goals before they’re ready to take that step. So, now: pause, reflect - and breathe..?
Who or what is important to you? Who or what do you value most? I’ve heard it said that we can know who or what we value in practice, which sometimes differs from who or what we value in principle, simply by looking at our diaries and bank account statements to see who and what we spend our actual time with and money on. It’s a crude measure but can be revealing – especially as we can be prone as people and groups to deceive ourselves by believing what we want to believe.
In Britain, we often value e.g. individuality, effort and achievement. You could think of this as affirming: standing on our own two feet, trying hard and reaching stretching goals that are perceived as worthwhile by UK culture and the wider nation-community. I’ve heard some people say that, as British, we are only impressed by a person, team or country that manages to achieve something better than we believe we could have achieved ourselves. ‘I could have done that’ is a subtle put-down.
Against this backdrop, I was challenged and inspired last week by a girl from a very different culture who discovered that a fellow student had been excluded from taking part in a drama production team because she had some difficulties with her speaking. This girl instinctively showed empathy and compassion, valued the person, reached out, drew her in and modelled social inclusivity rather than simple task achievement. I wondered what I would have done. She reminded me of Jesus.
Why is this so significant? Our values reveal and shape something profoundly important about who we are in the world. They influence our stance, focus, decisions and boundaries. I’ve often found that working with values as a leader, OD, coach or trainer has had a transformational impact on people, teams and organisations. There’s something about, ‘What really matters to you in this?’ that can feel so much deeper than, ‘What are your goals?’ So – who or what matters most to you?
This impressed me. This woman has been deaf since birth and lip-reads. Struck by how naturally she speaks and with apparent ease in conversation, I'm curious and ask if she can hear anything of her own voice. She replies, ‘No - nothing’. Even more intrigued, I ask, ‘So…how do you know what volume you are speaking at?’ ‘Trial and error’, she replies. ‘I started to speak when I was a child. If someone leaned back as if trying to move away from me, I realised I was speaking too loudly. If they leaned forward as if straining to hear me, I knew I was speaking too quietly. Simple.’ And brilliant.
There are some interesting parallels to this approach in fields such as Gestalt coaching and OD action research. It’s about trying something new – an experiment, if you like – and being open to, sensitive to, the experience, the response. This type of feedback loop can enable us to learn, grow, innovate and improve. It takes courage to take a step into not-yet-knowing; attentive observation skills to notice what happens; critical reflective research skills to make sound, meaningful sense of it and, last but not least, personal and professional judgement to make good decisions and act on them.
So, what does this point towards as leaders, OD, coaches and trainers? I believe it’s about recruiting, releasing and rewarding people who seize the initiative: responsible risk-takers willing to try something new, more likely to seek forgiveness than permission. It’s also about creating healthy relational and cultural conditions where positive qualities – e.g. wonder, curiosity and inquiry – thrive and are supported. It’s about experimenting and learning without fear of blame or failure. ‘There is no such thing as a failed experiment, only experiments with unexpected outcomes.’ (Fuller).
With tongue firmly in cheek, my brother argued half-convincingly this weekend that UK football teams could increase their success by improving their efficiency. Take, for instance, the goal keeper who is active - and thereby productive - for only around 15% of the average game. Similarly, other players are only in contact with the ball or the opposing team for relatively short periods of time. ‘It would be far more efficient to reduce team sizes from, say, 11 to 6 players – or to engage the players in additional activities whilst on the pitch to fill their non-productive time.’ Now there’s an idea.
It reminded me of a conversation I had with an ex-Director of a large international bank. The bank had been successful for a time but then unexpectedly slid into crisis. I asked him what, on reflection, had led to its demise. He answered without hesitation: ‘Efficiency’. When I inquired further, he responded: ‘We reduced staff levels to reduce costs and increase profit. As consequence, Directors could delegate less and became busier. The busier they became, the less time they had to step back, view landscapes and horizons, spot emerging opportunities and risks...and the rest is history.’
There are, of course, some very compelling reasons to improve our efficiency. Take, for instance, developments in aerodynamic and engine design that make cars and aeroplanes more economical and less polluting. The problems arise when we unquestioningly associate more-efficient with more-effective. What can appear to be a great solution when viewed through an efficiency lens can prove detrimental (if not catastrophic) when viewed through a whole system, effectiveness lens. So, as leader, coach or OD, how do you address this challenge with people, teams and organisations?
I took part in a fascinating workshop this week on systemic coaching and constellations led by Sarah Rozenthuler and Edward Rowland. Part-way through, I went for a quick comfort break and smiled when I saw this sign on the wall: ‘Please refrain from spitting chewing gum in the urinals. It blocks the system.’ What a great metaphor! A simple action in one part of a system can have inadvertent and far-reaching impacts on other parts of the system – or even on the system as a whole.
This reminded me of an incident 3 years ago when I snapped my left knee in a cycling accident. It was a serious injury that left me immobilised for 3 months. As I started learning to walk again, I felt sharp pains and heard crunching sounds in my right knee. Feeling surprised and alarmed by this, I spoke with a physiotherapist who explained that I was, in effect, overcompensating for the injury in my left knee by avoiding putting weight on it – and thereby placing extra strain on my other knee.
Here’s the point. The solution to the symptoms I was experiencing in the right knee lay not in the right knee per se but in how I dealt with the left knee. Imagine now that the issue is not a knee but is an issue at work. As leaders, OD or coaches, how often do we locate an issue or a problem in a person or team, thereby attempting to address or solve it there without paying attention to factors elsewhere in the system, often out of sight, that could be creating, exacerbating or sustaining it?
Edwin Nevis, a Gestalt organisational consultant, comments that we often see and feel aspects of the macro system reflected and revealed in the micro – and vice versa too. A simple inquiry can be illuminating here, e.g. ‘Who else?’ or ‘What else?’ It draws us to step back, to be curious, to shift our focus, to consider who or what may be influencing what and how. So: what do you look for, what are you (not) noticing, what are you experiencing and how do you make sense of it?
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?
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.