‘You get what you tolerate.’ (Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations)
We were sitting by a window on an icy winter day. I was working with Bryan Emden, my coach at the time and a skilled psychotherapist. Part-way through the conversation, I felt a cold shiver and asked Bryan if he would mind if we moved to a different table. He looked back at me with cool, penetrating gaze then spoke. ‘It has been cold here for some time. I wonder: how uncomfortable do things need to get for you before you take action…and does that reflect a wider pattern in your life and work?’
I was a bit taken aback because I had always prided myself on a decisive-activist mantra, ‘(almost) any decision is better than no decision’. Nevertheless, on reflection I could remember certain hard situations in which I had not acted early enough. I had feared that to do so could have made things even worse. We could call this an avoidance strategy, a defence against anxiety based on a fear of negative consequences. In CBT terms, I had catastrophised, predicted the worst possible outcomes.
At those times, the anxiety had sometimes increased to such a degree that it had triggered a fight-flight-freeze response within me. The fight option meant I risked becoming aggressive, the flight option becoming passive and, as a result, I simply – froze. One way I have learned to tackle this is to acknowledge the emotion and to challenge how sound the prediction is. It sometimes means doing the thing we fear most, to see what new opportunities it creates. To notice how we survive it.
It’s about resilience and, at work, it’s often about relationships. Claire Pedrick offers a stark challenge on this front: ‘What’s the conversation you need to have that you’re not having?’ Guy Rothwell advocates a willingness to listen openly and also to have the courage, the authenticity, to speak up. Rick James proposes exercising courage with humility, to grasp the proverbial nettle, to have the difficult conversation and yet to address the person with open hand, not clenched fist.
How do you handle challenging conversations?
‘I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.’ ‘I guess I should warn you, if I turn out to be particularly clear, you’ve probably misunderstood what I said.’ (Alan Greenspan)
You may have had that experience of communicating something you thought was perfectly clear, only to discover that the other person got the completely wrong end of the proverbial stick. How is that possible? Was it something in what you said or, perhaps, how you said it that influenced how the message was received, distorted or misunderstood? Whatever the cause, when it does happen, you can both feel bemused, confused or frustrated – and the consequences can be difficult, damaging or dangerous.
I want to suggest this occurs mainly as a result of mismatched beliefs, values, assumptions and emotions in four critical areas: language, culture, context and relationship. There are, of course, situations in which a person may wilfully misinterpret what you said or simply choose to ignore you. However, I’m thinking more here about when it happens inadvertently and out of awareness. It’s something about what influences (a) what we infer and (b) how we interpret, when we communicate – so that we can improve it.
The language question means the same words can mean different things to different people, even in the same language group. The culture question means the assumptions I make appear obvious or self-evident in the groups or teams I belong to. The context question means I interpret what you say based on my own perspective and understanding of the situation. The relationship question means I filter what you say based on what I perceive and feel about the nature, dynamics and quality of our relationship.
So – this where a spirit of inquiry can help: Check what the other has heard and understood. Notice the language they use. Be curious about their cultural and contextual perspectives. Sense how they are feeling. Build trust.
‘I have a dream.’ (Martin Luther King)
We were leading a strategy development process at an international NGO and wanted to envision ourselves and each other rather than to paint bleak pictures of burning platforms, a future to avoid or a present to escape. This was instead about inspiring wonder, hope and aspiration. ‘Imagine if…’ We invited people to paint, depict and enact future scenarios – the futures that our beneficiaries, supporters and we ourselves dreamed of. It was about imagining, hoping, reaching, aiming high.
There are parallels with the ‘dream phase’ of Appreciative Inquiry. This is where we invite people to imagine a different, brighter future: what they would like things (e.g. relationships, ways of working, success stories) to be more like, more of the time. There are also parallels with posing a ‘miracle question’ in solutions-focused coaching or therapy. This is where we invite a person to imagine vividly that a desired future state has already been reached or achieved. To experience it as if it really is.
This is important and here are some reasons why. If we focus our attention only on problems, deficits or undesirable states, it can evoke anxiety, drain energy and close-down creative thinking. I say ‘only’ because there are some situations (e.g. aspects of accountancy/IT/audit) where identifying problems/errors and fixing them can be very important. Some people also get a buzz, a real sense of achievement, from searching for, sniffing out or hunting down problems and sorting them out.
If, however, we focus entirely on problems, red-ratings or what is missing or broken, psychologically and culturally-speaking there is a risk that they grow out of proportion, that we become unhelpfully fixated on them and that we lose a broader perspective – thereby undermining vision, awareness and morale. If, conversely, we invite people to dream and tap into the power of positive imagination, it can inspire fresh hope, open new horizons, release creative energy and surface great ideas.
So – when was the last time you spent time dreaming..?
'We can be heroes.' (David Bowie)
I’ve known and worked alongside so many heroes that I can hardly begin to list them all. These aren’t famous celebrities, basking in wealth and media limelight. They’re ordinary people who have chosen to live extraordinary lives. I say chosen because they could all have done something different, something more ‘normal’, yet chose – and still choose – to take the road-less-travelled. It’s always a choice, even if it doesn’t always feel like a choice.
There’s Rudi. He’s a social worker in Germany who has committed his life and career to work relentlessly to prevent the social and political conditions that led to the rise of the Nazis. He looks on the rise of the AfD with alarm. And there’s Jasmin. She’s poor and lives among the poorest in the Philippines. She gives every spare peso and moment of her time – with scary degrees of self-sacrifice – to bring love and hope to the most vulnerable people.
Then there’s Sue. She was on the last plane out of Saigon to rescue mixed-race children at the end of the Vietnam war. The plane was riddled with bullets. She and the children lay terrified on the floor as the aircraft fled the runway. She rarely speaks about it now. And there’s Mike. He works with street gangs and drug addicts in the UK, putting his own welfare at risk because he sees potential in people where others only see broken, messed-up lives.
All of these people are ‘followers of Jesus’. They challenge and inspire me and serve as a continual reminder that every moment represents a decision, a choice to live a self-centred life or to serve a higher cause – whether that be God, humanity or nature-environment. I find it easy to get distracted, to slip into pragmatism, expediency, convenience or comfort. Yet I want to live a well-lived life. Who are your heroes and how do they inspire you?
It often happens in leadership, training and coaching conversations. ‘So – what will you do?’, or ‘What’s your next step?’ The person responds with, ‘I’ll do X’ or, ‘I plan to do Y’ and we both leave feeling satisfied we’ve reached a conclusion. Yet we check in a month later and, guess what: nothing has happened. It’s a bit like those New Years’ resolutions that are great in principle but vaporise in practice. What’s going on here? Is the answer here to press for detailed goals and action plans?
We could. We could also probe more deeply at the decision-action phase. Here are some samples of probing questions: ‘Given everything else on your plate at the moment, what is it going to take in practice to move this up your priority list?’, ‘Compared to everything else you could pour your time and energy into at the moment, what is going to make this most worthwhile for you/others?’ or ‘Who or what is likely to prevent you doing this in practice – and what can/will you do about that?’
We could think of these as contextual questions or dependencies. They feature as the reality-check in 'GROW' and 'SMART'. Questions with more of a psychological orientation could include, e.g. ‘How much energy do you have for this?’ or, ‘How much do you really want this?’ or ‘On a scale of 1-10 how likely are you really to do this?’ We tend to use them, if at all, during the exploration phases of a conversation yet don’t often circle back at the end. It’s as if we take signs of decision at face value.
So, next time you reach the decision-action phase of a conversation, try a quick pause before you and the client stand up, shake hands and leave the room. Look – again – before you leap. If a person seems hesitant or lacks energy, go back to goals, aspirations, hopes and fears. How convinced is the person by their chosen route forward? How inspired do they feel to take the next step? Are there any relational, cultural, contextual or resource-linked realities that need revisiting first?
Happy New Year!
‘Where has 2017 gone?’ ‘I lost all track of time.’
I find it curious how a subjective sense of time vs an objective measure of time can be and feel so incredibly different. Some hours, days and weeks seem to pass incredibly quickly. Others go on as if they will last forever. Our sense of perspective on time changes over time. For example, when I was a young child, World War 2 seemed like it happened hundreds of years ago. As I get older, paradoxically it seems closer.
It’s as if how we perceive the time-distance is relative to how long we have been alive. The longer I live, the shorter the time-gap seems and feels to me. I’m intrigued by how some distant events in my own life feel as they happened just yesterday whereas some more recent events feel like they happened eons ago. I think it’s somehow related to how we experience those events emotionally, e.g. ‘Time flies when you’re enjoying yourself.’
Our perspective on time seems also connected to how far experiences from the past still affect us now or, perhaps, how far they resonate with what we are experiencing now, as if they set up a psychodynamic reverberation effect. Some say, ‘Time is a great healer’, as if the passage of times creates distance between us and the emotional impact of an event so that it no longer carries the same depth or intensity of feeling. It’s sometimes true.
There is chronos time (sequential moments) and kairos time (pivotal moments). The New Year marks a point in time, a shift in seasons, a transition from- and thereby -to. For some, it marks a psycho-symbolic ending, a closing of a metaphorical door on whatever has gone before. For others, it holds a fresh hope to re-set our lives – a lot like the promise held out in the gospel. As the clock chimes midnight into 2018, what will the new year mean for you?
Image of the invisible God.
In the beginning was the Word, the early word, the first word, mysterious voice talking behind the back of the universe, back before its beginning. The I am who I am word, the with-God word, the was-God word. A voice that called us into being across the reaches of infinity. The without-whom-nothing word, an unheard-of word behind words. World-making word. Speaking the language behind language.
Body of the untouchable God.
When babies try to tell us what they want by pointing, babbling, playing, copying, making us feel good by learning our names, playing out endless games of things appearing and disappearing, they hide behind their hands. Then take their hands away and, there they are. Bit by bit they show themselves. But were these also God’s desires? To recognise, to name and know. To communicate. To play some cosmic language game with us. God’s word play. To show and tell and communicate, to communicate.
Weakness of the all-powerful God.
The word became flesh. And the word became, wordless, flesh. A baby with no words. And the voice of the Maker became a hungry voice, a cry for food, a cry for milk. The voice that made gravity cried out for fear of falling. The voice that made women, cries for a woman’s breast, and screams with disappointment when it is denied.
Crying of the invulnerable God.
There are no words yet, only the cry of flesh. No way of telling, only the depth of need. If only this is God, this word-made-flesh, made flesh that looks, and feels, and acts like flesh, then now God is a small thing, is a baby, is a baby that can be dropped or hurt or left unfed left unchanged, left wet and smelly or be child abused. If this is God with no words, and if this wordless God is God, then God is flesh like our flesh, bones like our bones, needs to be taught…to speak.
The word became flesh and dwelt among us.
[Late Late Service 4, God in the Flesh, Glasgow, 1994]
The best of intentions. How often we do things with good motives and yet, in spite of that, our actions have unintended consequences. It’s often because we haven’t known or understood the wider implications of what, where, when, how or with-for whom we do something. We may, for instance, offer support to a specific person, team or group…only to discover that a different person, team or group perceives that intervention as partisan, favourit-ist or creating unfair advantage.
Here’s an extreme. A friend was delivering aid to a poverty-stricken village in Sudan when he was stopped at gunpoint by militia from a neighbouring village. He was forced to the ground with rifle barrel pressed hard against the back of his head whilst the group relieved him of the vehicle and relief supplies. It turns out the group and its community were envious and resentful that they were being effectively ignored whilst supplies were being provided to a different village.
Or here’s a less extreme example. I spoke with an emotional intelligence (EI) specialist this week about using psychological mentoring, coaching and tools to raise awareness and insight, with a risk that some clients may use it in weaponised form to manipulate colleagues or customers. It points to a real need to pay attention to wider systemic, cultural, ethical, political and longer-term considerations when seeking to do the right thing – a principle known as ‘primum non nocere’.
If you’re a leader, coach, OD or trainer, here are some questions for critical reflection: When have you acted in good faith to resolve one issue, only to discover that your interventions have inadvertently incentivised, precipitated or exacerbated another? How do you manage the tension of never fully knowing or understanding the potential implications of everything – and yet still taking meaningful stances, decisions and actions? What is your best advice on ‘do no harm’?
I had a friend once, Jack, who was deaf and had tunnel vision – literally. He was able to see people and things directly in front of him but had no peripheral vision at all. If I wanted to gain his attention, I had to stand directly in front of him to sign. As I approached, I had to be careful not to take him by surprise, as if suddenly appearing out of nowhere. It was a tough lived-experience for Jack and made navigating the world and relationships very challenging. I admire his courage in how he handled it.
In common use, we apply the phrase ‘tunnel vision’ metaphorically to represent a person or group’s psychological state. It tends to be characterised by limited focus or perspective, lack of awareness of the bigger picture and unwillingness to consider alternative points of view. As such, we normally associate tunnel vision negatively with narrow-mindedness, a condition to be avoided or challenged. We need to think more openly, broadly or laterally if we are to be effective…or so we assume.
Yet there are other dimensions to tunnel vision. Think of blinkers or blinders that enable a horse to focus on straight ahead by excluding a wider view and, thereby, to avoid it becoming distracted or alarmed by things around it. Think of choosing to focus intently and single-mindedly on a vision or piece of work in order to fulfil it, complete it to a certain standard or achieve it within a given timeframe. There are times and situations where tunnel vision serves us well to achieve our goals.
There are aesthetic dimensions too. I walked along a train platform this week and noticed a beautiful snowscape through a porthole window. I was struck by how the window framed the view in such a way that it drew my attention to things I had never noticed before. It was as if I saw them simultaneously out-of context and in-new context, like how we see special qualities in a person, how he or she now stands out from a crowd, when we fall in love.
So...as we approach 2018, is there light at the end of your tunnel?
I worked with a leadership team recently where we experimented with reframing statements from problems-focus to solutions-focus to see what would happen if we did. The team had been grappling with difficult issues for some time which had led some to the near-resigned conclusion that there was little hope of change. I wondered whether part of the challenge and resulting mood lay in the psychological-linguistic framing of the issues rather than, necessarily, in the issues themselves.
I was curious and invited the team to be curious too about how the issues were being perceived, construed and articulated within the team – a kind of team self-talk, if you like. If someone said, ‘X will not work because of Y’, we experimented with reframing the statement as a question instead, e.g. ‘Given Y, what would it take for X to work?’ It shifted the conversation from a definitive, closed end to an open, curious, exploration of new possibilities and ideas. It created fresh energy too.
I’ve worked with some clients where a person may comment that, for instance, ‘X is a good idea in principle but it would never work here.’ It’s often a response from someone who has worked a long time in the same place, has been around the proverbial block a few times or is starting to feel a bit jaded. I try to tune into the mood, acknowledge the underlying feeling and then reframe it: ‘OK, so what would work here?’ or, perhaps, ‘If X is a good idea, what would it take for it to work here?’
In my experience, solutions-focus works best when done in an open (e.g. prayerful) spirit, eliciting values (what matters to you – to motivate), creative visioning (what do you/we hope for – to inspire), appreciative inquiry (what’s working well – to build on) and affirming strengths (what are you/we good at – to draw on). Positive appraisal of the present with optimistic aspiration for the future lead well into: ‘So, what would need to happen for that to happen?’ and, ‘The next step?'
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.