'Beware the stories we tell ourselves.' (Brené Brown)
In fields of psychology such as TA (transactional analysis) and Gestalt, there’s an idea that, as we look back over our lives, we only notice key events that stand out to us as in some way significant. We don’t notice everything else. The events that hold our attention from our past are often those that we consider pivotal moments or experiences for us and that still carry emotional resonance. We join the dots between the events and, for us, the narrative that emerges becomes our ‘life story’.
(If you want to try this out for yourself, pause for a moment, take a sheet of paper and draw a line that, in some way, represents your life. Some people use an image of, say, a river as the line. Now mark key relationships, moments, events or experiences in your life on the line. You may want to draw these as, say, high points or low points – or as graphic images. When you are finished, tell yourself or someone else the story that has emerged. Notice how the story sounds and feels.)
This ability to create patterns and to tell stories provides a sense of continuity and coherence and enables us to make sense of our lives. Instead of recalling multiple random events, we experience life as journey. It’s like how we hear music as melody or flow, not as disconnected, separate notes. We do the same in teams, groups, organisations and cultures. We notice some things, don’t notice other things and create narratives based on what we see, believe and experience as significant.
Yet a story is necessarily selective. What now appears as true and coherent to us is one possible narrative, one version of events, one way of making sense of things. Furthermore, the more self-evident the story appears and feels to us, the greater the risk is that we are trapped, like Alice, in our own Wonderland. The stories we tell ourselves influence and reinforce what we notice and not-notice now, what sense we make of it, how we feel and how we anticipate-respond to the future.
So how to use these insights when working with clients? 1. Notice how a client depicts their issue, relationship or situation. What story are they telling themselves? How are they feeling as they do it? 2. Explore what they are not-noticing, what they are assuming, who or what is not featuring in the story, how the same facts or perceptions could be configured differently. 3. Enable them to experiment creatively with alternative stories to raise fresh awareness, insight and possibilities into view.
It’s different to waiting, constructive waiting, when waiting itself is the wise and expedient thing to do. Procrastination is more about putting things off, not doing the constructive thing, avoiding what we need to or should do. It’s as much a psychological state, an oft debilitating stance, as an action or inaction. It’s the topic of reams of jokes too – suggesting that is has resonance, raising that awkward smile-when-found-out feeling, personally and culturally. We know it and recognise it in ourselves.
Yet why do we do it? Why do we put something off until tomorrow – or forever – that we know, at some level, would be better done today? Think of all those tasks, conversations, unresolved issues and that unfinished business that crowd in on us mentally and emotionally, running like background programmes that drain us. Think of how much energy it takes to avoid, to hold off, to delay rather than to do. We convince ourselves it’s about priorities – ‘the urgent and the important’. Maybe.
Think of it this way. Procrastination achieves or safeguards something for us. It fulfils a conscious or subconscious need. It could be a need to feel safe if a conversation feels too risky. It could be a need to feel self-esteem if a job feels too big or too hard. It could be a need to feel in control if an array of tasks feels too overwhelming. It could be a need to feel purpose-ful if our work seems meaningless. It could be a need to feel loved if a relationship appears at stake. It could be that we are just…tired.
So, what can we do if we notice a spirit of procrastination creeping insidiously into our clients? How can we help break the lethargy, the corrosive downward spiral it can create over time? 1. Acknowledge the need (above). 2. Challenge to decide. (The act of deciding is energising: ‘Optimism of action is better than pessimism of thought.’) 3. Challenge to act. 'Don’t overthink. Just do it – Now.' 4. Offer support to snap out of it, to jolt into action, if the client feels stuck. 5. Notice – and celebrate – achievement.
‘You can’t always control who walks into your life but you can control which window you throw them out of!’ (Anon)
It can be one of the worst feelings. To lose control. To be out of control. It’s also one of the main root causes of anxiety, depression and stress. To have control suggests to have choice, to have power to decide, to have agency, to be free. To lose those things, to have them taken away from us or to discover they lay out of reach for us can feel scary, disorientating and debilitating. It’s a critical consideration in change leadership, coaching, OD and training: how to handle issues of control.
I met with a change team recently that discussed how best to support people through transition. They had a very positive intention and created some great ideas. The critical and missing ingredient was to invite and involve the actual people they aimed to support in choosing what they would find most useful. The simple felt-experience of choosing can create a psychological sense of control in the midst of bewildering and anxiety-provoking change – and that can make all the difference.
I worked with a leadership team that felt overwhelmed by challenges they were facing. Their environment was so turbulent, complex and unpredictable that they struggled to understand it and to know what to do in response. Their felt sense of out-of-control-ness evoked anxiety and that made it difficult to think straight. Their solution lay not in exercising greater control but in letting go of their psychological need for control. They learned adaptive-responsive, emergent leadership instead.
How do you work with issues of control?
Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant.