When was the last time you paid detailed attention to how you walked across a room at home to open the door? When was the last time you had one of those car journeys where, when you arrived at your destination, you couldn’t remember anything of the journey? The ability of the human body and mind to run on auto-pilot is quite amazing. It enables us to fulfil familiar tasks with minimal conscious effort and attention, thereby allowing us to focus on other things we want or need to.
That’s the upside. And it’s a very useful upside for day-to-day life and work. The downside is that, in some situations, doing what we do because that’s what we do can cause us to miss important factors, significant variables and valuable learning opportunities. This is where reflective practice comes in. It’s what is says on the proverbial tin: reflection before, during and after action. Easier said than done, you may say. True: so here are some tips from experience that I’ve found useful.
Tip 1: Pause. If you don’t stop to think from time to time, you may not stop to think at all. Tip 2: Plan. Choose key moments for critical reflection, e.g. at the start of a project – ‘What are we here to do?’; mid-way through – ‘How are we doing?’; afterwards – ‘What are we learning?’ Tip 3: Provoke. Seek out stimulating literature; work with contrasting cultures; invite people to test your assumptions. Tip 4: Practise. Reflective practice takes…erm…practice. Pause, reflect act. Act pause reflect.
‘Being in the question is wondering what things mean instead of assuming you already know…It involves treating your first thought as a hypothesis rather than as a statement of truth…It means being willing to learn something new about a situation. The first step is to consider the possibility that the situation may not be as it seems.’
(Latting & Ramsey, 2009)
I was encouraged to glance at this book, Reframing Change, recently after having posted a blog on a similar theme. I love the idea of ‘being in the question’. Posing a question is the act of projecting an inquiry outwards. By contrast, being in the question is about our own presence, attitude and stance – a spirit of humility, openness and curiosity – and a willingness to invite challenge.
It’s so different to proposing a solution. At times, we jump to answers too quickly, draw conclusions too rashly and potentially miss a deeper meaning, a greater significance that could change our thinking, our lives, our organisations, our world. This is a high cost of our do-it-now, instant, everything-in-the-moment, high speed culture. We lose the ability to reflect and to…....wait.
Perhaps being in the question is one reason why e.g. Jesus and Socrates had such a profound impact. Perhaps it is why coaching and therapy can be so transformative. Perhaps it is why rediscovering not-knowing is a theme in so many books on leadership and change today. Two questions: How far are you ‘being in the question’? How are you enabling others to be so too?
‘The reason I’m overweight is because I’m heavier than I should be.’ ‘The reason it’s pitch dark in here is because there is no light on.’ ‘The reason my laptop isn’t working is because it’s broken.’ What’s wrong with these statements? On the face of it, they have a ring of truth about them, a sense of plausibility. However, they’re all illustrations of circular reasoning or, if you like, of stating two things that are essentially descriptions of the same phenomenon - yet asserting a causal relationship between them. In each case, it’s as if one thing is sufficient to explain the other.
There are at least 3 problems with this kind of reasoning. Firstly, it is erroneous thinking, a distortion of truth. Secondly, we can use it as a rationalisation to ourselves and to others for issues we don’t want to face, want to avoid or are unwilling to take responsibility for. ‘I do this…or I can’t do that…because…’ Thirdly, it can trap us in its own logic – or at least in its apparent logic. If there’s a reason why I am doing or not doing X, a feasible explanation for what is causing me to do it or not do it, it can appear to lay beyond my ability to change. It’s as if I have no options or alternatives.
Now apply this insight to organisational life: ‘The reason we have low levels of engagement at the moment is that staff are unmotivated and uncommitted.’ ‘Our profits are higher than usual because we made better net financial gains this time than in previous quarters.’ ‘X is underperforming because he’s not doing his job well.’ Jim Collins talks about facing the brutal facts. As leaders, OD and coaches, we can look out for examples of circles in our own language and that of others. We can hold up a proverbial mirror, raise awareness and be willing to face, challenge and reframe it.
And remember: if you don’t agree with me on this point, it’s because you disagree.
I worked with a high school in London recently that practises a philosophy of positive reinforcement. In reviewing student and staff performance and achievement, it poses two simple questions: What went well? (WWW) and Even better if? (EBI). It feels very different to conversations about strengths and weaknesses or successes and failures. It focuses people’s attention on what we/they want to affirm, celebrate and build on; what we/they want to see more of, more of the time; what we/they want to move towards rather than move away from. It is appreciative and solutions-focused.
Today, I met with a group of talented aspiring leaders at a national UK charity. They are half way through a leadership development programme with Eagle Training and we were interested to review progress and next steps. I introduced WWW and EBI as a framework. After WWW, I added a provocative WPYPT (What Part have You Played in This?) and, after EBI, WYWTRF (What are You Willing to Take Responsibility For?). This challenged and shifted the conversation from evaluating the programme ‘out there’ to raising awareness and exercising personal leadership ‘in here’.
In a similar vein, I worked with a group of Christian leaders and managers this week who are keen to develop coaching skills in order to enhance their relationships and conversations. We explored coaching as increasing a person or team’s resource-fullness rather than simply solving problems or applying techniques. It brought clarity of intention and enabled participants to shift their focus from coaching as ‘doing to’ or ‘doing for’ to ‘doing with’: building the capacity of others by developing their ability to exercise initiative, take ownership , think through and do things for themselves.
In my experience, this philosophy and approach, building on positives and, at the same time, challenging and supporting personal leadership and growth can be motivating, engaging and transforming for people, teams and organisations. It calls leaders, coaches, OD and trainers to reflect carefully on their beliefs, values, intentions and approach. It also calls us to reflect and act on what culture we model and reinforce through our attitudes, behaviours and decisions. In terms of your own practice to date, WWW and WPYPT and, as you move forward, EBI and WYWTRF?
'The notion of choice lies at the epicentre of human experience.’ (Popova on Frankl)
The idea of choice, the ability to choose freely, lies at the heart of personal leadership. It can be profoundly liberating and empowering and, at the same time, carries with it genuine responsibility and accountability. It means that a person is an agent of his or her own experience, not merely a passive recipient. If I can choose, it means I have options. I can change things. I’m not fixed.
Take, for instance, ‘I have to go to this meeting’ or, ‘I have to complete this report by Friday.’ This language reflects and influences a person’s psychological framing of a situation and emotional response to it. ‘I have to...’ suggests the person’s decisions and actions are being driven entirely by forces external to them. It’s as if there is only one course of action available – and no choice.
Morgan says, ‘People have a knack for getting trapped in webs of their own creation.’ So try instead with active voice, ‘I’m going to choose to go to this meeting’ or, ‘I will choose to complete this report by Friday.’ It can feel like a shift in ownership, an injection of energy. Choices have consequences - yet the action, the feeling, of choosing can move a person or team from passivity to proactivity.
In my experience, to raise awareness and stimulate personal leadership and choice, leaders, coaches, OD professionals and trainers can hold up mirrors and pose questions such as: ‘What words are you speaking to yourself?’, ‘What assumptions are you making?’, ‘Who or what is constraining you?’, ‘What are you willing to take responsibility for?’, ‘What are you willing to choose?’
‘Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.’ – Albert Einstein
I saw a blog by Tony Clark on Heart of the Art this morning and found it so inspiring that I thought I'd share an extract here:
Take a minute to scan your surroundings. Are you in a familiar place or somewhere new? Stop reading this, and just look around you.
Pick out an object, maybe something you hadn’t noticed before, and focus your attention on it. If you really focus, it’ll get brighter and more “real” than it was when it was just an unnoticed piece of the background noise of your life.
Now, try to view your surroundings from the point of the object. Some people can do this with no effort, and for others, it takes some concentration.
Depending on how adept you are at focusing your concentration, you may notice a slight shift in your perception – a weird jump in realty, where you are suddenly viewing the world from a different perspective.
What do you think..?
I watched at 9 miles as people jogged past looking hopeful, energetic and smiling. Further into the run, the picture looked quite different. Many looked tired, struggling to push onto the end. This was the Milton Keynes marathon this weekend. At 19 miles, I saw a small girl standing beside the track shouting and clapping at everyone who came past: ‘Well done! You’re doing brilliantly! Keep going!’ Pained faces turned to smiles. People who were walking, limping, mustered the strength to start running again. It was amazing to observe. The power of a child. The gift of encouragement.
It brought tears to my eyes. I wasn’t running but it energised me too. Previously, I had been waiting for a friend, Adrian, to run past so that I could encourage him, catch a photo. Now I found myself clapping, cheering, shouting words of encouragement to everyone. To strangers. To people I have never seen and will never see again. The girl’s effect was infectious. Magical. I decided to stay until the end, to clap and cheer, to project belief and hope into tired minds and bodies. It felt like such a privilege. Exhausted runners breathed, ‘thank you’, gave a thumbs up and offered a weak smile.
This girl struck me as such an incredible life symbol. How to inject belief, hope, encouragement into people’s lives , especially people who feel at the end of themselves, of their situations, at a loss how to survive - never mind to succeed. I’m reminded of Paul’s words in the New Testament: ‘Let’s keep going in the race marked out for us, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus – especially since there are people surrounding us and cheering us on.’ (my paraphrase). God, help us recognise the profound impact a simple word of encouragement can make: it could save a life, a dream, a deepest hope.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.