It was dark, at night, in heavy traffic. I could only just make out the shocking scene in front of me. I flipped up my visor and there, in the headlights, I saw a man beating another man badly. Without thinking, I pulled up on my motorcycle and quickly ran over to the assailant, arms outstretched and said, ‘Are you OK?’ He looked at me, puzzled, got back in his car and drove away. The other man, face covered in blood, thanked me…’You just saved my life.’
I felt puzzled too. I was astonished that I had approached the attacker with compassion and yet also noticed how it had diffused rather than inflamed the situation. DeBono calls this ‘lateral thinking’ – to do the counter-intuitive as a way of creating shift. It felt to me like God’s surprising wisdom. It was an important learning moment for me too. What can our actions inadvertently evoke in others? How far do we actually create what we experience?
Then I’m in Germany. I had been an anti-Nazi activist since I was 15 and here I was in the midst of a Christian social work project that aimed to influence neo-Nazi youth by reaching out to them. It ran against everything I felt and believed. Surely – we must oppose these people vehemently rather than open our arms to them?! And yet, over time, I learned important things about their psychology. Attacking would have stiffened their resolve and reinforced their beliefs.
Now to 9-11. Appalling scenes on TV and people crying out for revenge. I remember my first words: ‘We need to think very carefully before we respond. What reaction is Al Qaeda trying to provoke and what will that achieve for them?’ It was a complex situation and a controversial stance and yet, years later, the Middle East is in flames, Islamist extremism is spreading, the West lives in fear of terror and refugees are pouring across borders at unprecedented levels.
I think Gestalt psychology can offer critical insight here. Figure and ground: figure is what holds our attention, ground is the backdrop that provides the context yet lays out of awareness. So here we are in the EU with problems of rising nationalism. The far right parties hold our attention, provide a focus for our fear and scorn, yet the conditions that fuel their support, that drive people towards them, lay unexamined, out of consciousness, out of the spotlight.
Like a magician that tricks by misdirection, we can find our attention drawn to the person, the issue that lays immediately in front of our eyes and miss the vital background. It’s so tempting to go for it. We can feel justified in our actions, feel better about ourselves, yet how often do we compound the issue by what we do? How far are we creating the monsters that keep us awake at night? How can we spot the sleight of hand that deceives us so convincingly?
I met with a group of leaders last week whose roles include mentoring, supervision and pastoral support. The focus of our time together was how to learn and use a coaching approach to enhance the work they do with people and groups. In the midst of conversation, some said they would be interested to hear more about reflective practice and how to do it using coaching skills.
Time was short so I hastily scribbled a reflective practice cycle on a flipchart. It draws on work by Argyris, Schon and Honey & Mumford. I explained that there are at least two ways we can think about this. Classical educationalists often start from a focus on theory, core principles etc. (and, in this group’s case, theology) and then move on to look at how to apply the theory to practice.
By contrast, reflective practice often starts from observation of an experience (or experiment), then moves on to reflection on that experience, then to consider how it resonates with, challenges or informs a hypothesis or theory. This implies critical thinking and by extension, aims to guide future practice. In this sense, it shares common principles with related fields such as action research.
And so how to apply a coaching approach…
1. Contracting: What are we here to do? How shall we do this? 2. Observation: What happened? What were you aware of? 3. Awareness: How did you feel? What assumptions were you making? 4. Sense-making: What surprised or confused you? How does it fit (or not) with what you know/believe? 5. Learning: ‘What have you discovered in this? 6. Action: And so..? What next?
Someone just called me, ‘Nixit’. It made me smile. :) I had posted this piece (below) on Facebook as a direct and deliberate challenge to bitter vitriol, negative stereotyping and harsh demonising on social media of people who voted ‘Leave’ in the UK-EU referendum last week.
I feel a bit nervous because, with frayed tempers running high this weekend, it’s very hard to speak and be heard. I can say, however, that everyone I know who voted ‘Remain’ did so with sincere beliefs and honourable intentions. I hope some will feel able to hear me. I hope I will hear too.
I voted Leave.
‘Leave voters are inward-looking.’
OK. I’ve been to France, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Austria, Italy, Albania, Yugoslavia, Czech Republic, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, West Bank, Uganda, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore, Australia, Canada, United States. You?
‘Leave voters are ignorant and uneducated.’
OK. I have a first degree with honours, a postgraduate diploma with distinction, a masters degree with distinction. I’m a fellow of a UK professional Institute, have had over 100 articles published in journals and have spoken at various UK and international conferences. You?
‘Leave voters are selfish.’
OK. I’m not Mother Teresa. However, I’ve worked my entire adult life with charities and international NGOs in countries including UK, Germany, Albania, Lebanon, West Bank, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore, Australia, Canada, United States. I’ve been a lifelong supporter of numerous organisations including Amnesty International and Greenpeace. You?
‘Leave voters are right wing, xenophobic racists.’
OK. I’ve been a lifelong leftist, worked in political/human rights for Latino people in El Salvador/Central America, worked in a Palestinian hospital for Muslim children with disabilities, worked in anti-Nazi projects in Germany, taught English to Vietnamese refugees, taught East European people, worked with African people from vulnerable contexts and people from almost every country in Asia. You?
‘Leave voters are nationalistic fascists.’
I’m pro-European and pro-International; pro-refugee and pro-migration; pro-democracy and pro-human rights. Until 2 years ago, I was passionately pro-EU. I voted Leave because, among other things, I feel desperately concerned about rising nationalism across the EU and beyond which is, in my view, fuelled by EU policies and behaviour.
A lot of good people disagree with me and voted Remain. Respect.
A lot of good people voted Leave too.
We may have more in common than we know. That is my hope.
I have the privilege of knowing an amazing young woman in the Philippines. She’s a single mum who gets up at 2am to go to a market, buy food items, return home to cook them then back to the street to sell them to passers-by. She also works in a school to earn enough money to support her own mum and her 3 children. She lives in a hostel and shares a room and facilities with numerous other residents in order to be where the work is so that she can pay her bills and send money home.
She regards herself as poor, of little account. She compares herself to wealthy, Western women and feels small. She has little formal education yet is bright spirited and speaks English fluently with natural ability. She’s passionate and really, really cares about people. She gives free food to children on the street who have no money. She teaches the homeless, the forgotten children, to see and treat themselves with dignity and respect. This woman, this angel, completely humbles me.
Yet how easy it is to mistake our wealth, our technology, our education, our comfortable lives for what it means to be human and to succeed. I can hear disturbing echoes from the New Testament – if we have all these things and yet lack love, we are nothing. This woman, this beautiful daughter of God, demonstrates the kind of character, the kind of love, that I only hope and dream of. At 2am, she will be back on the streets again, tired but uncomplaining. God – help me be like her.
Do you try to live and work in perpetual 'summer' mode?
One thing you notice living in a temperate climate is the changing of the seasons. In autumn and winter, we see nature dying back, retreating into hibernation. In spring and summer, we see it springing back into life again. It’s as if winter is resting and summer is thriving. It’s a similar rhythm to sleeping and waking. Down-times allow us to recharge so that we have the energy we need for the up-times. Try going without sleep for a night or two and you quickly realise how vital it is!
Confucius said wisely: ‘If the land is always filled with sunshine, it will soon turn to desert.’ These words resonate down through the ages and yet, in the 21 century, our technology (e.g. electricity, light, on-line) and culture (e.g. consumerism; competition; on-demand) are driving us incessantly towards continuous activity, constantly straining to achieve, to out-perform. Busy-ness is equated with value (if you don’t believe me – try telling your boss and peers at work that you’re not busy). No rest.
In order to sustain this lifestyle, we live on caffeine and all sorts of other stimuli to keep us going, running at peak performance. As a consequence, physical and mental health suffers and we feel caught in a perpetual rat race where only the fittest survive. Organisational KPIs drive us to lower costs and higher results, always with an anxious look over one shoulder to keep an eye on the global competition biting at our heels. Resources are getting scarce and the environment is at risk.
So here we are and it’s tempting to think, ‘We’re all doomed’ and to cry out in protest, ‘Stop the world, I want to get off!’ Or we can pause and reflect: What is driving our leadership and business beliefs and behaviour? What could the benefits be (e.g. energy, sustainability, effectiveness) of building autumn & winter periods into our organisational plans and cycles? What ecological principles can we draw on? What could that look like in practice? What are we willing to do to make it happen?
‘Work-life balance’. What's that all about? Picture this: I have my work perched at one end of the see-saw that somehow represents my life and my…erm…my life perched precariously at the other. On the face of it, it signifies that my work is completely and utterly devoid of anything that comes close to life and, similarly, that my life is hermetically sealed off from work. I guess I could re-draw the image so that there’s a blurry, permeable bit between the two ends but, even so, it still depicts my work and my life as a polarity, distinctly different and at opposite ends of a spectrum.
OK, I’m being a bit playful here. I get the idea – to help ensure that we pay attention to different aspects of our lives, in particular to avoid work taking over our whole lives. There are echoes of biblical principles of Sabbath in this, safeguarding a space for spiritual, psychological, physical and social refreshment, enrichment and restoration. It poses important questions in modern day, post-modern life, especially against a backdrop of increasing mental and physical health costs of a non-stop lifestyle, e.g. how to do ‘Sabbath’ meaningfully in the midst of 24hr connectivity?
Now here’s a weird thing. When I typed ‘work-life’ into my phone, it auto-corrected to ‘worm-like’. I know what you’re thinking: I really need to get out more – and you may well be right. But what occurs to me is that a worm lives most of its life inside a tunnel in total, relentless darkness. By contrast, there’s something for us here about how to discover and create light, freedom, meaning and purpose in whoever we are, in whatever we are doing. The question then is how to be alive in its widest, deepest, most holistic sense in all aspects of our lives - including in our work. How do we do it?
‘I don’t have time like you for all this coaching, reading and networking stuff. In fact, if you were as busy as I am, you wouldn’t either.’ It’s a common refrain from leaders and managers who feel so time and work pressured that they can’t find space to pause, reflect or think. The more optimistic will say, ‘When things settle down…when we just get through this change…then I’ll do it.’ And yet, somehow, things never do settle down…and change follows change. And they never do do it.
Steve was a senior leader in an international organisation. We sat with a rare coffee and he looked drained, exhausted. ‘I can’t keep this up. I’m working long hours and things still stack up. What am I supposed to do?’ The idea he held in mind what that if he just worked harder, worked longer, he would be able to reduce, control and make progress with his work, finish it. It’s an understandable belief, a belief that strains to provide a glimmer of hope, yet so often it’s basically - wrong. Illusion.
I shared an image of a huge pile of sand, Steve digging away with a teaspoon at the bottom. No matter how committed he was, no matter how hard or fast he dug, no matter how skilfully he did it, sand would continue to tip in. There is no end, especially as the world is adding sand to the top of the pile faster than he can ever remove it. Yet there is a solution. It means stepping back, praying, reviewing, reflecting, reprioritising, renegotiating – in a nutshell, making choices rather than just doing.
The paradox, of course, lays in making time to do this. Yet, as one of my leader colleagues commented today, ‘A pit stop doesn’t mean slowing down’. It’s about creating optimal space to breathe, recover, invite challenge, test assumptions, find perspective, explore ideas; in other words, to safeguard just enough time for the proverbial dust to settle to see clearly again. This is where things like coaching, reading and networking can prove so valuable. What do you do to take your pit stops?
What’s your first instinct when you see a sign that says, ‘Don’t walk on the grass'? Do you see it as an instruction to be obeyed at all cost, a mere suggestion or an outright provocation to break the rules? There are, of course, certain mitigating circumstances where, for instance, the building you’re in is on fire and the only safe way to escape from danger is across the grass. Or you may be in a place littered with hidden landmines and the only safe option is to stay on the path. Under those types of circumstance, it would be fair to say the range of realistic options available to you is limited at best.
Those kinds of situation apart, however, what’s the first thought that comes to mind, the first feeling that you experience? I have to confess that these signs often trigger a playful, mischievous spirit in me – unless I could see some really good reason not to do it. I experience the same spirit, often accompanied by frustration, if I encounter rules, regulations, policies, procedures – anything that seems like constraining, life-wasting, pointless bureaucracy. I’m open to influence and persuasion but I need to believe that what I’m doing is worthwhile and I need to feel the freedom to choose.
This disposition has served me well at times, particularly in terms of questioning assumptions, challenging the status quo and finding different ways to think about and do things. It can, however, lead to a restlessness; an inability to settle down; a need to keep experiencing new things - new people, new cultures, new environments in order to feel truly alive. It can also mean that, if I’m not careful, I can drive colleagues whose role is to enforce policies and procedures crazy! So, what’s your instinct if you see the ‘grass’ sign? What are the pros and cons for your leadership, coaching or training?
(For more playful, subversive inspiration, check out: http://imgur.com/gallery/8frOy)
‘Sawubona.’ I was at a change leadership event in Canada with colleagues from around the world. It was the first time I had heard this Zulu greeting. ‘Sawubona’. I was curious so asked my South African colleague to explain it. ‘It means: I see you.’ I was immediately struck by his emphasis on see. He explained it further. ‘It means I honour your presence. It’s as if I am calling you into my focus, into existence, against the background of everything else that lays around you. I really see you.’ He said this simple word with such warmth and sincerity that I felt genuinely moved by it.
There are resonances for me in the dynamic of this greeting with Gestalt psychology. Gestalt uses its own language of ‘figure’ and ‘ground’, where figure is that which holds our attention at any given moment in time and ground is the background which, in that same moment, lays largely out of awareness. In other words, figure is what we are noticing and ground is what we are not-noticing. How often when we meet and work with people, our attention is drawn away from the person so that what we notice instead is the issue, the story, the task, whatever it is we are there to do.
In my experience, most transformational work in leadership, coaching, group work etc. occurs when we learn to shift our focus, our attention, to the person, the relationship, to what is happening here-and-now. In this context, Gestalt poses a great question: ‘What is the quality of contact between us?’ where contact signifies presence and attention, as if almost literally touching one-another. Picture a meeting where the leader or coach enables team members to learn do this well. ‘What is holding our attention?’, ‘What are we not noticing?’, ‘What is the quality of contact between us?’
Sawubona, my friend. Notice what you are noticing - and not noticing. Never lose sight of the person.
‘Organisations do not exist. People do.’ This was the provocative title I chose for a dissertation I wrote some years ago now. The idea, the belief, has stayed with me. It shapes how I think about and approach leadership development, OD, coaching, facilitation and training. Inspired by Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organisation and insights from social constructionism, I continue to be fascinated by how the images we hold when we think of ‘organisation’ influence and, at times, constrain our awareness, actions and the range of options we believe we have available to us.
So I meet you in the street and ask you to tell me about you organisation. You may start by telling me about the products or services you provide. You may well move onto saying something about the structure, by which you are less likely normally to mean the physical structure and more likely to mean how jobs, roles, responsibilities and authority are organised. You may well describe or depict the structure like an organisation chart. Now here’s the important bit. Insofar as you and everyone else in the organisation believe this structure exists and behave as if it does, to you – it does.
Now imagine that the structure dissolves so that what is left is people and whatever physical assets the organisation may own. Imagine that people are released from job titles, role boundaries and that you now see them as whole people, rich with experiences, in vibrant colour. You have a task to achieve and you invite people with the best energy, enthusiasm, skills and life experiences to offer. As different tasks arise, different people get involved. Imagine, just for a moment, what that could look and feel like and achieve. Imagine the creativity and potential for innovation. Imagine!
What did this thought experiment reveal for you? What images are constraining you or your clients? What assumptions are you making about what’s possible? What dreams could be realised if the images were to change? What would it take to make the shift?
Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant.