Picture this. Early morning. Hotel. Looking forward to a good cup of tea - for which read lots of good cups of tea. I mean, I had slept (for which read I hadn’t slept) on a hotel bed that night and was feeling sleepy, in real need of a caffeine fix. So the waitress offers me a small pot of tea. You know, one of those things that’s so small that it barely fills one cup. Politely, I ask for a large pot instead.
The waitress appears. Large pot of tea. I feel a sense of excitement. Excellent. She leaves the pot on the table and I lift it to pour. Oh…feels unexpectedly light. :/ Weird. Lift the lid and look inside. Tiny amount of hot water, enough to fill one cup, with 4 tea bags floating in it. Strong as treacle. So I call her back. Ask her to fill the pot to the top with hot water. Wait again in hopeful anticipation.
Waitress reappears with the large pot in hand. Puts it on the table and walks away. It’s heavy this time. Yes. Excitement. Lift the lid just to check. Pot full of clear, hot water, no tea bags. Aaargh. Call the waitress back. ‘Could I have 3 tea bags please?’ Waitress looks bemused, that make-your-mind-up look. Comes back with 3 tea bags. Tries to take the pot away. I grab it with both hands…
What was going on here? Peter Cotterell, comms guru, calls this being in different ‘presuppositional pools’. I had an idea in mind, what I wanted, and assumed the waitress would get that without my explaining it. She, on the other hand, had a very different idea of what I meant. We were in very different pools without even realising it. So, what was your best-worst communication gaff?
Two years ago, I came off a mountain bike – badly(!) - during a UK Sport Relief charity ride. I demonstrated perfectly how not to fall, how not to land and, as a consequence, snapped my left leg sideways at the knee and ruptured two ligaments. During the next twelve months of leg splints, crutches and intensive physiotherapy, specialists told me I would never be able to walk up and down stairs again, never be able to swim again, never be able to ride off road again.
It was a shocking, painful and numbing experience. I kept playing over in my mind what had happened, what I could have done differently, what this could all mean for my life, how it could impact on my family and work. I felt angry with myself for making such a simple, stupid mistake, frustrated that I could no longer do activities I loved. And I realised I faced a choice. I could give in to the experience, accept my ‘fate’, or take what action I could to re-shape the future.
Two years on, after months of (at times) agonising physio, dragging myself up stairs by hand rails etc, I managed to reach the top of a mountain without leg splints. Two years on, having learned to use a pull buoy float and hand paddles, I managed to swim 80 lengths with arms only. Two years on, with leg braced and lots of deep breaths, I managed to complete a 22 mile off road bike challenge. It has shed revealing light onto my attitude to risk. A reminder to hold onto hope.
I thank God, family, friends, colleagues, professionals, neighbours - and even total strangers - who have supported me. It has influenced my thinking as a leader, coach and OD practitioner: how to support, challenge and increase the resource-fullness of people, teams and organisations. It has strengthened my conviction that we and others are often capable of far more than we know or believe. It has reinforced my faith that God stands with us in the midst of trials.
‘Who does what?’ Someone asked this during a coactive appraisal workshop I was running with Sue Powell last week. Their focus was on roles, responsibilities and systems: ‘Who invites feedback from others?’ ‘Who fills in the form?’ ‘Who follows up any agreed actions afterwards?’ A different set of questions can reframe the conversation entirely: ‘What are we here to do?’ ‘What is the purpose of the appraisal?’ ‘How shall we do this?’ ‘What approach will achieve it best?’
The latter conversation invites the appraisee into the process as an active participant, not as a passive recipient. In fact, it invites all parties into a potentially transformational cultural conversation, not simply a discussion about performance or even development. ‘What is important to us that we (insert various stakeholders here) are trying to achieve?’ It touches on existential beliefs, purpose and values as much as pragmatic goals, actions and other such considerations.
‘What’s your passion?’ ‘How might you/we know what difference your contribution is making?’ ‘What will need to happen for that to happen?’ ‘What are we ready, willing and able to agree on – here and now?’ ‘What responsibility are you willing to take to move this forward?’ ‘What will you need?’ It can turn an oft bureaucratic process into an energising, supportive and challenging conversation where personal, team and organisational aspirations are harmonised and synergised.
In my experience, no system, no matter how well designed or how simple or sophisticated its forms are, can achieve this change. Essential ingredients include: vision and values that resonate with deeper spiritual/existential/social values; leadership and culture that welcome and affirm personal and distributed leadership; relationships that nurture diversity, mutuality and trust. ‘Who does what?’: a good question. ‘What are we here to do?’ ‘How shall we do this?’: great questions!
‘That was hard work. Exhausting. How to keep thinking of good questions…and then even more good questions??’ I hear this time and again from coaches and from leaders who are keen to develop a coaching style. The pressure is on to create a magical experience, find a ground-breaking solution, that leaves the other person feeling totally dazzled and impressed. Or at least that they found it useful enough to warrant paying you a fee - if you’re coach or trainer in private practice(!)
But what is really going on here? Whose conversation is it? Who is responsible for any outcome that is achieved? Is it really all down to the leader, coach or trainer to make something happen? What part does the client play in enhancing their own performance and development? In my experience, these are really important questions to think though, discuss and contract around with the client. It clarifies and manages mutual expectations and forms a healthy, effective relationship.
A key principle is to build the client’s capacity to make best use of the resources, the opportunities, that are available to them through me and, by extension, in other situations. This often entails supporting and challenging them to develop their personal leadership: that is, their ownership, proactivity, resourcefulness and influence over their own learning and growth. This could involve, say, working to develop a curious, assertive stance in place of a more defended, passive one.
So, in practice, irrespective of the person’s presenting issue, we will spend time negotiating and contracting explicitly around, e.g. ‘What are we here to do?’, ‘What do you want to be different?’, ‘How shall we do this?’ and ‘What are you willing to take responsibility for?’ This reinforces what we do as a coactive process in which the client, rather than coach, takes a lead role. And, critically, it ensures that we focus our attention and approach on what the client will find most useful.
What do you see? What sense do you make of it? What does it mean? I met with a social worker friend in Germany last week. He shared this idea: Imagine sitting in a dark room. You take a torch, shine it across your hand and cast a shadow onto the wall in front of you. The shadow creates a shape that we recognise as a ‘snake’. Its overall shape resonates with previous images of snakes we have seen and, hence, we superimpose that meaning, that interpretation, onto it.
An interesting thing here is that the snake is not a snake or a hand, nor is it a light or a torch. In fact, the snake shares very few properties at all with the hand or the torch that created it. If we tried to infer a hand or a torch from the snake without previously being aware of the way in which hands can be formed to create snake-like shapes when used with a torch, it would be almost impossible. The snake is a consequence of a hand, a torch, an experience and an interpretation.
Now imagine working with a client or team member who describes the consequence of a situation at work. In doing so, they paint a picture of something, maybe someone, much like casting an image of a snake onto a wall. If we focus our attention on the image as if it holds its own intrinsic meaning, or if we assume its meaning to be the same as that of the personal and contextual conditions that created it, we could miss significant factors that carry their own separate meaning.
So, we can pose questions. What is the person seeing, as if projected onto a wall? What meaning are they superimposing onto it? What beliefs, values or assumptions are influencing their interpretations? If the client is the hand, what are they doing to shape the shadow they are seeing? What stance are they taking – or could they take? What contextual factors (e.g. organisational culture, team expectations) are creating the image, like a torch? Who or what is the light?
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.