I once took part in a 2-day experimental gestalt workshop which proved to be an absolutely intriguing experience. As soon as I arrived in the group of 12, we were invited to pair up with one other person and introduce ourselves. After 10 minutes, the facilitators invited us to reflect on and discuss how we chose the particular person we chose to pair with. What was it about him or her, ourselves, the environment, the context of the workshop? Did they look interesting, safe, familiar, attractive?
Each person was then invited to continue the conversation with the other, but this time to disclose something about themselves that felt more edgy, risky. Something they wouldn’t normally share with a stranger. After 10 minutes, we were asked to reflect on what just happened, how it felt, the focus and style of conversation and to discuss further: ‘What I notice we talked about is…’ It was fascinating to look at what kind of things we disclosed and how, rather than being locked into actual content.
After a further 10 minutes, we were asked to discuss what we didn’t talk about, and to take another risk. To reflect on the underlying issues, feelings, experiences, thoughts that emerged while we were talking but didn’t get articulated between us. ‘What I notice we didn’t talk about is…’ It felt strangely paradoxical, weird, scary, exciting. We became aware of all kinds of unspoken dynamics that lie beneath encounters, hidden out of sight like a subconscious dance that stays unacknowledged.
The potential for this kind of conversation is powerful in leadership and coaching. It takes courage and wisdom to self disclose in the right way, with the right person, in the right context and at the right time. It’s what some psychologists, therapists and coaches refer to as ‘use of self’ to progress a relationship with a colleague or client, to raise awareness of an issue or address an opportunity or challenge. I have found it useful in interviews, coaching and group facilitation, especially if things feel stuck.
So, imagine the conversation: ‘Something I’m aware of as I sit here with you is…’, ‘Something I’m aware that we’re not talking about is…’, ‘Something I would like you to know about me is…’, ‘Something I’m aware of at this point in the meeting is…’, ‘Something I’m conscious that we never seem to talk about is…’, ‘What is the issue at the heart of this matter that none of us are talking about..?’, ‘What I’ve noticed about this conversation is…’ ‘What have you noticed..?’, ‘What is happening now?’
I've often felt sceptical about 'body language' after hearing apparent experts superimpose spurious interpretations onto a person's physical posture and gestures. On a counselling course, for instance, a co-participant was challenged for defensiveness when she sat with her arms crossed. Apparently, she was simply feeling cold. A person's physical behaviour is influenced by a combination of personal, cultural and environmental factors. I do think therefore we should be careful when seeking to offer interpretations.
I was working with a Gestalt coach, as client, and commented that I felt anxious about approaching a forthcoming presentation to an executive team. Rather than suggesting we discuss this, the coach invited me to stand, role play walking into the team meeting and show him what feeling anxious might look like. As I enacted this scenario, he commented that I was holding my right hand across my chest, as if covering my heart. I was completely taken aback as I had no awareness of this until he mentioned it.
We then explored what ‘covering my heart’ might mean symbolically. I became aware that I characteristically presented to this particular team in highly detached, rational-analytical mode and never really expressed my heart, how passionate I felt about what I was presenting on, how much it mattered to me personally. The coach suggested role play the scenario with my right hand in a more open position, thereby ‘revealing my heart’, and moreover to rehearse speaking to the hearts rather than minds of the team.
The subsequent meeting with the executive team was very different to anything I had experienced previously. It felt like a more human than technical interaction, I received strong support for my proposal and felt supported personally too. The team was highly engaged and I left feeling confident and encouraged. The experience demonstrated powerfully to me that the body itself can convey valuable subconscious messages that lie outside of conscious awareness. So...body language? Pay attention, but do treat with care.
We don’t see things as they are, but rather as we are.’ (Anais Nin)
I’m fascinated by how we construct reality. We interpret experiences then filter and form our perceptions of future experiences based on those interpretations. This is meaning-making in action. It’s a social as well as personal process; our meanings are shaped by others as well as ourselves.
The challenge lies in distinguishing between subjective and objective reality. If I imagine my subjective constructs are a true and accurate perception of reality as is, a whole and definitive view of who I am, who you are and how things are, I risk closed-mindedness and all kinds of delusions.
This calls for openness, humility and an ongoing willingness to challenge my own beliefs and perspectives and to invite challenge from others. (At one level, this blog itself represents such an invitation; an open space to share and receive insights and ideas between people).
How I perceive reality, what sense I make of it, what beliefs I form about it, what conclusions I draw don’t only shape my thinking. They also influence how I feel and how I behave, how I approach new situations and other people, what decisions I make about how to live my own life, how I influence other people.
‘The key determining factors in how we feel from moment to moment are the pictures we make in our imagination and the way we talk to ourselves in our head. We refer to these images and sounds as internal representations, and they are just that – representations of reality, not reality itself.
‘Your internal representations of reality are unique to you – your own personal way of perceiving the world. They are your own map of the world but, as with any map, they are incomplete and filled with generalisations, deletions and distortions.
‘This is the reason why two people can witness the exact same event and yet experience it completely differently. In the words of the father of modern linguistics, Count Alfred Korzybski, ‘the map is not the territory’. (Paul McKenna)
I feel challenged, released and inspired by this viewpoint as a Christian. I hold certain beliefs with deep conviction and yet if I superimpose my own constructs onto God, I risk creating an image of God, a fixed view of him, constrained by the limits of my own experience, interpretation and imagination.
It applies to my relationships with other people too. If I superimpose my own assumptions and perspectives, like a person holding a projector that projects images onto the other, I will never meet the other person for who they truly are or recognise and release them to be all they are and can be.
It’s an odd feeling to accidentally make eye contact with a stranger on a train. It presents a choice: quickly glance away or hold the look for a moment, perhaps smile.
Sometimes it feels like looking without specific focus, looking without really seeing. At other times it feels like sudden depth, straight into the person, the soul.
Such moments can feel startling, alarming, surprising, embarrassing, intimate, intimidating, evocative, seductive, assertive, challenging, moving.
The ability to smile, gaze, stare and close; to invite or to threaten, to show love or hate, to influence or to disengage, to build or break trust.
There's something about the eyes, and I’m really curious about it.
‘For millennia, humanity has turned to myth and religion to answer our most profound questions, but in this new TV series, professor X uses science to explain…’ A provocative advert for a new cosmology show. The presenter is a talented physicist and gifted communicator and it does make compelling viewing. The thing that struck me most however was the writer's unquestioning confidence in the ability of science per se (a) to explain ‘our most profound questions’ and (b) to supersede alternative explanations.
This claim begs all sorts of important questions. For example, what are the most profound questions in life and what are the limits of the explanatory power of science? By curious coincidence, on the same day as reading this magazine advert, I also read a paper on Gestalt therapy by the late Ernest Becker, international lecturer in psychology, sociology and anthropology. In it, he posed a stark challenge to psychological therapies based on existential questions they cannot hope or begin to address.
‘We have this existential dilemma in the back of everything we do: this terrible anxiety about who we are and what we’re doing on this planet, what it means to have our name and our face; we keep running to the mirror to look at that face – we don’t really know who the person is…so we run back and take a pill or a drink, or we read a book, or we make love or call our mother long-distance or something. We don’t know what we’re doing here, and this is a source of great anxiety for us.’
He goes on. ‘We don’t know how we came to be here. Where do babies some from? ‘Sperm and egg’ I can hear you say. But it’s not an answer at all. We don’t know where babies come from. You get married, you’re sitting at table having breakfast – there are two of you – and a year later there’s somebody else sitting there. They just came literally out of nowhere and they keep growing in your environment. If you’re honest with yourself, you don’t know where they came from. It’s a total mystery.’
I find Becker's challenge refreshing and inspiring, his refusal to allow the totality of reality and meaning in human experience to be reduced to that which can be measured empirically. He challenged the notion that psychological explanations alone can be sufficient to address pressing and persistent questions about human origin, identity, meaning and purpose. Cosmology too explains many interesting and valuable things about the universe, but these are essentially spiritual questions that lie outside its scope.
The ICF defines coaching as, ‘a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires the client to maximize their personal and professional potential.’ The ICA defines it as, ‘dialogue between a coach and a client with the aim of helping the client obtain a fulfilling life.’
I’m interested in these definitions because of how they focus primarily on coaching as relationship, process and goal.
The relational dimension is intrinsic since coaching is something that takes place between people, even if the nature, function, value and rules of engagement within the relationship vary between different coaching traditions.
There is a process dimension too, typically an interactive process between a coach and one or more clients where models, skills and techniques are deployed. This is coaching at its most explicit, the dimension that can be observed, learned and practiced.
Most coaching has goals too, whether these be explicit from the outset or implied and emergent. The goals point towards intentionality, focus, boundaries and outcomes that can be at some level monitored and evaluated.
What’s missing for me is the notion of belief. Coaching assumes certain implicit beliefs about the coach, the coachee, the context and what words like ‘personal’, ‘professional’, ‘potential’, ‘helping’, ‘fulfilling’ and 'life' imply.
This is the arena, the open turbulent space, the swirling ground, where questions raised by fields such as spirituality, theology, philosophy, economics, sociology and politics reside and collide to create meaning.
Against this backdrop, coaching itself can be seen as both socially constructed and as a process of social construction. It typically assumes and pursues certain beliefs about identity, value and purpose that are open to challenge.
These assumptions becomes evident when trying to introduce coaching into, for example, a cultural framework where core shared beliefs concerning, say, individuality and autonomy contrast with those of one's own culture.
I have encountered this experience during coaching and action learning sessions in countries where very different beliefs and cultural values around, say, authority, social legitimacy, conversational protocols and saving face apply.
When, therefore, people approach me keen to learning coaching skills and techniques, I try to explore underlying beliefs first. Why is this important to you? Why a coaching approach? What issues could it raise in your coaching environment? What change are you hoping to see?
Coaching that flows from personal awareness, ethical authenticity and clear intention is more likely to result in profound human and contextual transformation than approaches based on tips, skills and techniques alone.
It's weird how I can sometimes feel suddenly and inexplicably anxious at work. At a cognitive level, I know I have experience and insights that can add value. At emotional and physiological levels, however, I can nevertheless feel that nagging, nervous grip. I want to explore this because I don’t want to fall into avoidance patterns or allow the anxiety to adversely affect my performance.
So I speak with a coach who invites me to think back to a time when I first felt that feeling. My mind drifts back immediately to when I was a child. I took a test known as the 11+. The results of the test would determine whether I would go to a school that I really dreamed of, or to a school that I absolutely dreaded. To fail would have disastrous consequences, or so it felt at the time.
I found the test easy and left the room feeling confident and relieved. When I received the results, however, unbelievably I had failed. The head teacher was so surprised by this result that he challenged the local authority to explain. Apparently, I had inadvertently missed the back page and left it blank. I missed the one thing that turned out to be vital, and I hadn’t even realised it.
And so a question and a conclusion emerged and embedded themselves in my subconscious mind and live with me today. What if I approach a situation confidently now, only to discover that I have missed something critical? What if I inadvertently miss the back page again? The thought is accompanied by the childhood belief that to fail = catastrophe, and the resulting feeling, anxiety.
The coach offers a solution. To vividly imagine myself back in that experience as a child, but this time knowing what I know now as an adult, how things actually turned out. 1 year later, I took the 12+ and passed and finally realised my dream. Failure resulted in disappointment, but it wasn’t the end of the story. The back page was written, and I have the sense it's still being written now.
I smiled today when a colleague invited me to explain appreciative inquiry (AI), ‘because it sounds like an optimistic approach to problem solving’.
The wonderful paradox lay in the framing of the question itself. AI is an outlook manifested in an approach that challenges conventional problem-solving. It frames issues and experiences not in terms of problems to be solved but opportunities to be grasped. It draws the attention away from problems and deficits towards positive attributes and potential.
Unlike rational analytical problem-solving, AI evokes and draws on the power of positive and vivid imagination. It aims to create a compelling vision that stimulates motivation and drives people energetically forward. It reframes situations by encouraging people to think in fresh ways, to notice the unnoticed, to experience and celebrate the joy of success.
Imagine looking back on a project. Use your imagination to put yourself back into a phase when things went really well. What happened? What did people say or do that made the difference? How did it feel at the time? What do you want to repeat or build on when you approach a new project? What positive platform has the outcome of that project created for the future?
Even those most challenging aspects can be open to reframing. When we felt frustrated, what underlying positive desire did the frustration point towards? What did it reveal about our hopes, dreams, values, aspirations, even if they felt thwarted? In light of that experience, what has it revealed that we want to be more like, more of the time?
Thinking forward to the future. Use your imagination to picture a really exciting and positive outcome. What would be happening? What kind of looks would people have on their faces? What would they be saying? How would you and they be feeling? ‘Imagine...’ The idea is to generate a vision that’s so compelling that people will have the energy to overcome any obstacles on route.
The trick is in not to use AI to avoid, deny or gloss over problems, setbacks and difficulties. It doesn’t intend to build a naive idealism. Where people have experienced or anticipate trauma, frustrations etc and where real problems and blockages have emerged, acknowledge these things honestly and sensitively before moving to explore potential up-sides and a way forward.
I felt stimulated reading a note from Babelfish today, ‘The Value of Vulnerability’.
In the 1930s, the Nobel prize winner Lord Rutherford introduced a rule in his team that when they met, they could only ever share about what they were ignorant or confused about. They could only share how their projects weren’t going to plan. This prevented them focusing only on positives or feeling pressure to display and prove their knowledge and expertise to one-another.
One of the Rutherford’s team members, Reg Revans, later became the founder of ‘action learning’ – the art of posing and receiving questions that resonates with Socrates: ‘wisdom begins in wonder’, ‘I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance’. In Revan’s view, knowledge and expert skills provide cleverness but it is only through questions and reflection that wisdom emerges.
The thing that appeals to me is the humility and openness it implies. It’s a trait in some leaders to aspire to the hero, the know-all, the better-than-the-other, the expert who needs no help or advice. It leads to blinkered perspectives, defensive posturing, relational isolation, devaluing of others. Against that backdrop, choosing vulnerability feels deeply counterintuitive.
I read another stimulating idea, this time on MindTools, called, ‘Reverse Brainstorming’. It has a similar counterintuitive feel to it. It’s a fun approach that enables movement in thinking and practice using a creative lateral thinking technique. So, for example, instead of asking ‘how do I solve or prevent this problem?’, it proposes asking ‘what could I do to cause the problem?’
Instead of asking, ‘how could I achieve the desired results’, ‘what could I do practically to undermine the results?’ It reminds me of ‘Negative Brainstorming’, an approach to surfacing problems with an idea or proposal (and thereby provide opportunity to address them) by proactively encouraging participants to think of and articulate every reason they can why it won’t work.
The theme is a willingness to share openly and actively encourage questions and critique as a way of being, of leading, of learning, of moving forward. It demands courage to make oneself vulnerable and draws out the best in others by welcoming and valuing even the most critical voices. It requires a deep sense of inner security - and rests more on belief than competence.
Being invited to speak at a conference has a way of sharpening the mind. Perhaps it’s something about organising my thoughts in such a way that I can articulate them clearly. Perhaps it’s also something about dealing with an underlying anxiety. ‘Have I really thought this through enough before I try to present it to others? Will I be exposed as inadequate in my own field?’
I need to prepare myself, not just the speech. It’s about how I deal with my emotional needs, what images I hold in mind as I approach the conference, how I approach the event with openness rather than defensiveness. These notions of focusing, of organising, of being aware of underlying human drivers and dynamics, are at the heart of organisation development (OD).
I tend to think of OD as a field of research and practice, specifically embedded in a professional function or discipline. This locates OD perspective, expertise, practice in a person, a role, a structure. And I now question this perspective. If OD is a human perspective and process, it’s really what happens in conversations, decisions, behaviours etc. between people.
This challenges how I articulate OD in my own thinking and my own organisation. OD is something we do, not just something I do. It’s about the multiple images, stories and experiences we share, create, construct together on a day to day basis. It’s about actions and inter-actions that merge together and shape, challenge, reinforce how we think, feel and act together.
This perspective influences how I approach the conference. It’s not about bringing definitive answers, solutions. It’s about contributing my best ideas, understanding and questions as part of a broader conversation that we all contribute to. It’s about an on-going process of learning. It’s about trying to be honest and authentic, inviting critique as an opportunity for fresh insight.
It also influences how I approach my work. Do I position myself as exclusive expert? Do I know what my own distinctive contribution is and can be? Do I notice, value and welcome the contributions to OD from other players on the field, e.g. HR colleagues, leaders, staff? Do I discern and celebrate the hand of God as I see what he is doing and achieving in, through and between us?
Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant.