I struggle for words at Easter. How can I speak? It’s about horrific pain…and incredible hope. An intense emotional, physical roller coaster that evades articulation, defies human language. It’s a place of stretched imagination, strained to its most bewildering, unfathomable limits.
And, today, I worked with a Christian organisation, Open Doors. I arrived during a vivid presentation about conflict in South Sudan. The images were harsh and hard and yet, in the midst of such suffering, they held strange glimmers of light, of hope. I just can’t make sense of it.
So I’m reminded of Christ who presences himself – Person of Jesus, God with us – and Easter’s stark reminder of the risk, the cost, of presence and contact. It’s an existential, spiritual challenge that feels so completely beyond me and yet, paradoxically, the deepest place that I find hope.
Are you an agent of hope - or of fear? It’s a stark choice. Faced with challenges that look and feel insurmountable, it’s easy to fall into fear. Some avoid fear by closing their eyes tightly, holding their breath, sticking their fingers in their ears and singing, ‘La la la’, hoping it will go away. Some try to avoid the situations, the relationships, the circumstances that evoke their fears. It sometimes works, but not often. Our fears have an annoying way of stalking and haunting us, tracking us down.
And so it is so often with those we lead, coach, train or facilitate in groups. What message do we model, communicate, inspire in others? I walked through fire last week. Well, on burning embers anyway. It was a charity fundraising event and I volunteered. In preparation beforehand, a trainer tested our fears in order to build resilience. We did all sorts of strange activities to overcome our inhibitions, culminating in breaking boards with bare hands and snapping an arrow end-on with my throat(!)
Weird stuff. But it worked. The Firewalk was easy after that. It’s the same as exposure therapy: a gradual exposure to things we fear most in order to overcome our anxiety by facing them head-on and by doing them, not just thinking about them. Have you heard of P = P – I? Performance = Potential – Interference, based on Tim Gallwey’s Inner Game. Interference can be external or internal. Internal includes our fears of failure, of rejection, of humiliation, of getting it wrong.
So I’m intrigued by how often e.g. God in the Bible says, ‘Don’t be afraid’. There’s a deep spiritual, existential dimension to this. Who or what do we place our trust in, our confidence in? What enables us to muster courage, to take a stance, in the face of our fears? There’s a psychological dimension to this too. How far do we take a breath, reveal our anxieties, take a risk, take courageous steps forward in the face of fear - to build the belief and hope in others that they can do the same?
What am I evoking? What’s my contribution to what I’m experiencing? These can be great questions for coaches, facilitators and leaders. How often have you sat in a meeting, for instance, and thought, ‘I am so bored.’ It’s one of those moments where you can feel so much energy being drained out of you, so much oxygen being sucked out of your lungs, that it almost hurts physically. You’re desperate to get out but can’t think of a polite and convincing enough excuse to exit the room.
Or maybe you’re in conversation with a colleague, with a coach or in a training workshop and thinking, ‘This is such a waste of time. I’m not getting what I need from this.’ Such experiences can create a sense of life, of work, of relationships, of outcomes happening to us. It’s as if we are passive recipients at the mercy of others’ actions and behaviour. It can leave us feeling helpless, powerless and hopeless. And I’m wondering…is there another way of framing and stance-taking in this?
So here goes: ‘What’s your contribution to what you’re experiencing?’ ‘What do you need to receive and give your best?’ I often pose these questions when working with leadership teams. At first, I see puzzled faces but, when the penny drops, the difference can be transformational. It’s about disrupting normal personal and cultural patterns of belief and behaviour. It’s about challenging and supporting proactivity, ownership and influence. It’s about choosing. It’s about waking up.
There’s a skill in learning to engage, negotiate, contract and lean into the experience like this - and it takes practice: ‘I would find this more purposeful and worthwhile if….’ ‘I would like to focus our attention on X…’ ‘How about we do it this way instead…then I could bring something useful to it?’ ‘If we could break for 10 minutes, I could come at this with so much more energy.’ Take the initiative: Seize it. Shape it. Make it happen. What’s your contribution to what you’re experiencing?
'What are you not noticing?’ What an odd question. How can I notice what I’m not noticing? It sounds, feels, like a paradox. I first heard this question during a Gestalt workshop posed by the legendary Malcolm Parlett. And then, next: ‘What are we not talking about?’ So now we’re supposed to talk about what we’re not talking about?! Weird. Mind-bending. An intriguing adventure.
I took part in a workshop with Tuku Mukherjee. He drew a black dot in the middle of a blank sheet of flipchart paper. What did we see? 'A black dot'. What did we not notice? The white background. Or you may have tried the selective attention test where you are invited to watch a basketball game and count the number of bounces or passes. How is it that we miss the gorilla walking by?
Such insights and ideas sparked the start of my own journey into not-noticing. What am I not noticing? It has profoundly influenced my leadership, OD and coaching practice. What are we noticing? What is captivating us, holding our attention? What have we become fixated by? And, What are we not noticing? Who or what is lying in the background, hidden in plain sight?
Our noticing is filtered by e.g. language, beliefs, values, assumptions, cultures, paradigms, interests, experiences, expectations and emotional states. Not-noticing enables us and our clients to focus, simplify and make sense of the world. Yet it can blind us to all kinds of insights, ideas and possibilities. Noticing not-noticing can be liberating and powerful. What are you not noticing?
Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant.