I did a coaching demonstration in front of a group of experienced mentors this weekend. In feedback afterwards, one person asked how I managed to (a) engage enough with the person to ensure they felt heard and understood and yet (b) remain disengaged enough to avoid being drawn too far into their situation with them. Another participant posed a similar question: how do I empathise and convey empathy to a person whilst holding a retaining a healthy and useful degree of detachment?
These are great and important questions for leaders, coaches and facilitators. Earlier in my career, I was working as an internal OD consultant and one of my client groups said they thought it would be helpful if I could know more about their work and become more embedded with them. I felt a bit concerned at hearing this (‘Are they saying I don’t understand them and, therefore, I’m not able to add enough value?') so spoke with my supervisor. He responded wisely: ‘Don’t play into that game.’
He was right. I order to add optimal value in that situation, I needed to understand and feel just enough of the client’s situation and experience to give them confidence that I was with them and, at the same time, to remain sufficiently detached to be able to bring fresh insight, perspective and challenge. The risk of being ‘embedded’ is that we become too immersed in the same institutional influences, agendas, cultural dynamics and personal circumstances that the client already is and feels stuck in.
So how to engage yet disengage? How to hold that creative tension without snapping in one direction or the other? Here are some ideas: 1. Be clear about your role in that situation – what it is you are there to be and do. 2. Pay attention to what you see, hear and feel when you are with the client, team or organisation – key headlines, themes, metaphors, intuitions and emotions. 3. Offer your insights as process observations - ‘What I’m noticing is…X…what I’m aware of is…Y’ How about you?
‘I don’t know’ is a leadership act that invites others in. (Karakusevic)
It all depends on the voice. I can say, ‘I don’t know’ with heavy heart and sloped shoulders, a voice of resignation, a paralysed feeling. A sense of no way forward. This may be a voice that I speak to myself, to others, when I encounter unfamiliar territory, new experiences, fresh challenges. It can leave me feeling stuck, lost, hopeless. I’ve heard this voice whisper in my own head from time to time and I’ve felt its debilitating effects.
I’m learning that I can use a different voice too: ‘I don’t know - but I’m really curious to find out. Let’s start something and see what happens!’ This voice comes from a free place, a spirit of playful inquiry, a willingness to experiment. It’s a voice that releases me, invites others to contribute, draws people in. It’s an approach to co-creative leadership that liberates and empowers. It’s at the heart of coaching: the power of not-knowing to release knowing in others.
This approach to living and leading can build optimism and agility in organisations where things are ambiguous and uncertain. No surprise, therefore, to see 2 new books in 2015: ‘Not knowing’ (D’Souza & Renner) and ‘Nonsense – The Power of Not Knowing’ (Holmes). Not-knowing frees us from the pressure to know and allows us to explore new ideas, new horizons, new paradigms. It enables us to embrace the future with open minds and hearts.
So I’m noticing resonances between current thinking, my Christian spirituality (e.g. ‘Cloud of Unknowing’) and what I’m discovering through experimental fields (e.g. Gestalt). And I’m very curious to hear from others who live, work and play in this not-knowing space too. How do you create and sustain a not-knowing mindset? How have you applied it to your leadership or coaching practice? What benefits of not-knowing have you found to be true?
Language can be a blunt instrument at times. I was in Germany struggling to hold a conversation with a social worker. I have limited German and she has limited English. After a few minutes, she looked thoughtful and said something along the lines of: ‘Isn’t it strange that language, which is meant to facilitate communication, can be such a barrier to communication?’ It’s as if we were so focusing so hard on finding the right words, understanding each others’ words, that we lost sight of each other as people and failed to notice what our intuition was telling us.
Again in Germany, I was invited to sit in and observe a counselling session between another social worker and a client. I could only understand around 30% of what was spoken so tried to focus, instead, on what was happening behind the words. After half an hour or so, the social worker turned and invited me to speak to the client – to share anything I noticed that may be important and valuable for her, no matter how tentative. I said what I had sensed and wondered, intuitively. They fed back afterwards: they were astonished by how much I had discerned.
Such experiences have had a profound impact on my coaching practice. I sometimes encourage trainee coaches to imagine that, while the client is speaking, the sound is turned off completely like muting the volume on a TV set. ‘Now – what do you notice as the client speaks?’ ‘If you were an independent third party observing this interaction between you and the client, what would you notice?’ ‘What are you sensing now as the client speaks?’ This helps the coach to stay in the here-and-now moment, with the client, and to avoid getting lost in the client’s story.
I unexpectedly found my eyes 'sweating' as I first saw my Twitter feed this morning. First shock. Deep breaths. Then disbelief. Then numbness. Then fighting back tears. Stepping onto the train in a daze. Lost for words. David Bowie is dead.
Tributes pour in from across the world to a man, an artist, who touched so many people’s lives. From my earliest teens until now, so many life memories are etched with his music, his imagery, his artistry. Words, often veiled in mystery, expressing hopes, fears, dreams – life.
I didn’t know Bowie personally. Yet for those who loved his gift to the world, his astonishing talent, he became woven intimately into the fabric of our lives. His death is a sharp tearing of the fabric, a feeling that something of our own lives has died with him.
So public and personal grief touch here, hand in hand. This evening, this day, we mourn the loss of an extraordinary man. I know: tomorrow the news and our lives will move onto different stories. Yet, in our hearts, something - somehow - will have changed.
Look before you leap!
Conventional wisdom advises caution over spontaneous action. Think then do. It enables us to make considered decisions. It minimises risks. To do otherwise sounds foolish, reckless. And there are, of course, many situations in which this advice, this approach, rings true. Who, for instance, would embark on a radical venture without first preparing, looking at the pros and cons, counting the cost? Thinking before acting helps us to feel safer, more responsible. It’s about learning-before, weighing up options and implications then deciding a way forward.
Just do it!
Woah - by contrast, this sounds jarring, jolting. Act then reflect. Hold your breath and take a leap of faith. Do it and see what happens. Scary - but look…eyes blinking in bright light…this is where transformational power can really exert itself in coaching. Instead of, ‘How might it be if…?’, do it. Instead of, ‘I’m stuck in my thinking about this…’, stand up and show what ‘being stuck’ or ‘unstuck’ looks and feels like physically. Play, experiment. Notice what happens: insights and ideas for the next step forward, here and now. One step at a time. Trust the process.
I once trained with Mark Sutherland, a supervisor and psychotherapist, who shared the image of a client as someone floating out at sea on a raft. Whereas some coaches may swim out to rescue the client, to pull the raft back to safer shores so to speak, Mark saw his role by contrast as simply joining the person on the raft: ‘Two people…wondering together.’ For many years now, I’ve found that image incredibly attractive and releasing.
A good friend and colleague, Ian Henderson (Eagle Training), uses a similar principle when drawing on NLP to evoke curiosity in a training group. He may open an event by telling an evocative story at the outset, without introduction or explanation, then stop the story at a critical juncture and shift focus to the formal agenda. It leaves the group surprised, confused and curious…and it’s that state of curiosity that draws the group into deep learning.
A very similar principle attracts me to Gestalt, a coaching approach that involves active, physical experimentation with a client or group. The key to the experiment is to follow your intuition, support the client’s intuition, go with the flow, be playful and creative, let go of control. It means trusting the moment, the dynamic between you, and seeing what happens. I’m continually amazed by what surfaces into awareness and what changes take place.
So picture the coach, the leader, the facilitator or trainer as someone whose role is to evoke curiosity, to enable the client, the team colleague, the group, to wonder. It is a child-like quality that can lead to all kinds of exciting adventures and discoveries. It entails suspending what we know, the pressure to know, and surfacing the power, the gift of not-knowing, allowing the unexpected to emerge – and noticing the newness that is revealed.
Awareness is the key to insight and to change. But how easily we seem able to deceive ourselves. This New Year, I tell myself an imaginary story. It’s so convincing that I actually believe it to be true. I feel sure that I cycled frequently throughout December 2015. I remember the rides vividly and they merge into a filmstrip that depicts almost continuous cycling last month. And, yet, somehow the weigh scales in the bathroom tell me a different story.
So, I’m curious. I wonder if I really cycled as frequently and as far as I’m telling myself I did. I check the sports tracking app and discover that I only went out on the bike half a dozen times for a total of around 8 hours. Not exactly ‘continuous’. The revelation leaves me puzzled and intrigued. It’s as if I noticed when I did cycle…and didn’t notice when I didn’t…then subconsciously extrapolated the did-cycle experiences to create a self-convincing scenario.
What we’re talking about here is a sort of dissonance, a contradiction between my perceived reality and my actual experience. And this is fruitful territory for coaches and therapists too. How to work with clients and groups to enable them to explore beliefs, values, constructs, realities and experiences, especially where there are tensions or potential for distortions, in order to create space for new awareness, meaning, choices and actions.
A cognitive behavioural approach can be particularly effective here. The coach helps the client to identify limiting beliefs and to examine them, as if holding objects up to the light to see how far the client’s ideas about them correlate with reality. This calls for a willingness and ability to wonder even for a moment, to suspend what we believe we know to be true and to be test alternatives. The result can be a revelation – and a great opportunity for change.
Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant.