I have some really weird dreams. Some feel like sources of insight and inspiration. Others just seem wild and whacky. Some I remember for days afterwards, the drama and the mood staying with me, whereas others vaporise like mist on waking. What are your dreams like? Where do they come from? What do they mean?
Psychoanalysts over the years have posited all kinds of theories, mostly that the images in dreams represent repressed aspects of ourselves. It’s as if our suppressed thoughts, feelings and desires surface in our dreams in symbolic form. The challenge lies in how to interpret the symbols to discover the meaning behind them.
Some explain the often bizarre imagery in dreams using the analogy of the brain as a computer, closing down or de-fragmenting. It’s sorting out, filing away, all sorts of diverse and dispersed bits of information in order to clear the desk ready for the next day. The dream is the subconscious mind somehow experiencing this process.
In the Bible, some dreams are represented as visions or revelations from God. Why would God choose to speak through dreams? I don’t know. Perhaps because they are unfiltered by the conscious mind and capable of conveying vivid imagery and drama that feel more impacting, more compelling than when we are awake. Could be.
More recently, a human givens counsellor explained that in his view, dreams represent a surfacing of feeling, an important feeling that may be suppressed or simply lay outside of awareness when we are awake. The images, the storyline is fairly random. What really matters if the emotional content. What did I feel in the dream?
I find aspects of all these perspectives compelling. So, a checklist for next time I have a vivid or impacting dream. Does it raise into awareness something I’ve been ignoring or avoiding, in order to deal with it? Does is leave me with a feeling that I need to surface and work through? Could it be a spiritual revelation from God?
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My daughter is studying media and we had a chat today about communication principles, particularly about working with large groups, e.g. presenting at meetings or conferences. On the face of it, I explained, it’s as simple as ABC: (a) having clear intention, (b) knowing your audience and (c) using effective media.
Having clear intention
What do you want your audience to leave thinking? Do you want them to have fresh information, knowledge, questions, understanding? If so, what is the focus? If you were to meet with each person present one week later, what are the three key things you hope they would remember from this meeting?
What do you want your audience to leave feeling? Do you want them to feel encouraged, inspired, confident, challenged? What do you want your audience to do as a result of this encounter? Do you have specific actions in mind? If so, is the audience clear what you want them to do – what, how and when?
Knowing your audience
This is tricky in large meetings, especially if open meetings. It’s about finding out as much as you can beforehand. Why are these people here? What are their core interests? What kind of language, metaphors and concepts do they tend to use? What would make this meeting worthwhile from their point of view?
It’s worth assuming a mix of theorists (who will want to know that what you’re saying is well founded), reflectors (who will want space and time to think it through), pragmatists (who will want to know there is some practical purpose to it) and activists (who will want to get on and do something).
Also a mix of thinkers (like to know the rationale), feelers (want to feel an emotional connection), big picture people (like to know overall vision and concepts), data people (want to know the key details), organised people (like structure) and emergent people (enjoy fluidity).
Using effective media
The choice of media falls out of intention and audience and what kind of facilities and equipment are available. Some people have a visual preference (engage with what they see) some auditory (engage with what they hear) and some kinaesthetic (engage by doing something practical).
Using a range of media, therefore, that involve seeing, hearing and doing can be most engaging for a large mixed group. This often demands creative thought and planning beforehand. ‘What could be the most creative and engaging way to do this?’ ‘How can we best use a diverse mix of media in the same meeting?’
It’s worth thinking about who to involve too. It would be one thing for a team to present on its own work, what it does. It would be another thing for a different team to present on what that team’s efforts have enabled them to do. It can help to involve a range of people, to hear different, unexpected voices.
Intention, audience and media are important. I’ve learned over time, however, that authenticity and trust are equally, if not more, important. Covey comments, ‘When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective’. When trust is low, even the most simple communications can feel strained.
I often encourage speakers to consider beforehand, ‘As you look out on this sea of faces, what do you really believe? Do you genuinely love these people? Do you believe they are worthy of trust and respect? Is what you want to communicate real and true? Are you really open to listen and invite challenge?’
These are the more subtle aspects of communication, the character and values dimensions that can easily be missed, lost or ignored whilst focusing on technical messages, methods and techniques. It's passionate conviction, quiet humility and determined integrity that often make the difference.
I love creativity. I find creative people interesting and stimulating. My definition of creative is very simple: creative is something I would never have thought of myself. I love innovation too. Innovation is doing something different and new.
It’s not that I’m entirely uncreative. In fact, I love playing, experimenting, exploring new things and experiences. I even have the occasional novel idea. You may find me creative if I see and do things differently to you.
Creativity is contrast with the norm, pushing boundaries, shifting paradigms. It’s about shedding strange light on the ordinary, introducing a new idea, angle or dimension. It challenges and awakes us, introduces fresh possibilities.
I was watching a music video today, marvelling at the creativity in its words, the music, the images, its ability to convey a story and a mood. We live in a media saturated world with endless possibilities to generate and convey the new.
Where does all this creativity come from? It’s partly subjective, in the eye of the beholder. Experientially, it can feel like a spark of inspiration that comes out of nowhere. At other times, it’s a synergy released from what’s already there.
The Bible describes God as inherently and irresistibly creative. He has the ability, the imagination, to create ex nihilo, to create quite literally out of nothing. Our creativity reflects his creativity. It’s inherent to our identity too.
So next time you look at a person, a situation, an experience, the world, what will you see? Will you marvel at the imagination, colour, richness, hope? Will you allow your own creative potential to surface, enrich and release? I hope so!
It feels like the climax of an western movie. High noon, haunting music by Ennio Morricone, two figures facing each other in the dusty, deserted street. The tension mounts. The camera zooms in to the eyes, who’s going to blink first?
I’m staring blankly at my annual tax return form. It stares back at me, coldly, unforgivingly, without flinching. I can feel that same tension. I’ve been here before but it doesn’t diminish the feeling of drama, of challenge, of threat.
I feel helpless, alone. Desperately, I call out for help. I dial the ‘help-line’, Iisten to IR information I don’t want and am directed to push number after number on the keypad, only to be cut off. Feelings of painful isolation intensify.
What makes this experience so bad? Why does it evoke such desolation, panic, stress? How is it I can cope with normal demands of life and yet, suddenly, something so small like this can feel overwhelming? What's this all about?
The first challenge is known in psychotherapy as transference. The tax form is like a trigger, evoking memories from my earliest childhood of struggling with maths. That familiar, 'I’m never going to be able to do this’ feeling.
I’m transferring those feelings into this current situation. Every time I’ve faced a maths challenge, every time I’ve felt unable to do it, every time I’ve felt this pain and frustration. It’s all being transferred into the here and now.
At a subconscious level I’m not just dealing with this tax form. I’m dealing with every tax form, every budget at work, every till receipt, every bank statement, every maths test where I’ve struggled. It all gets added together, multiplied.
This creates the next challenge, known in human givens therapy as emotional arousal. When emotions are amplified to a high degree, it switches the brain from ordinary rational thinking to emergency fight, flight or freeze mode.
When I feel this stressed, I quite literally can’t think straight. My heart pounds, my pulse races, I just want to scream, tear up the papers, swear at the IR or run away. I feel cornered, trapped with no escape. The feelings escalate.
This creates the next challenge, known in cognitive behavioural therapy as cognitive distortion. I’m unable to think straight, to keep things in perspective. I speak wild unfounded assumptions to myself and that reinforce the feelings.
‘I’m never going to be able to do this.’ ‘I’m never going to understand the form.’ ‘I’m never going to be able to find all the information I need.’ ‘I’m hopeless at maths.’ ‘The IR deliberately makes these forms difficult!’
At this point, I’m not open to reasoning, to rational persuasion. I need to reduce the emotional arousal first in order to allow the brain to flick back into normal rational thinking mode. I need to allow the emotional dust to settle.
So I breathe deeply, go outside into the open space and fresh air, go for a walk, a run, do something physical that distracts me from the tax form. As I do so, I can feel my stress levels lowering, can feel my head gradually clearing.
Now I’m in a better place to challenge my cognitive distortions. ‘I did manage to complete last year's form.’ ‘I can find the information I need because it’s around here somewhere.’ ‘I can do maths when I take it slowly, one step at a time.’
I can also step back, notice what triggered the emotional panic in the first place, the way I’m transferring feelings from the past. It’s a kind of self-help therapy. And now back to the tax form - with a smile. (ok, the last bit's exaggerated!)
How do you feel? What are you feeling? Why do you feel it? Whose emotion are you experiencing? The answers to these questions may be more complex than we at first imagine. I’ll try to explain some of the reasons why. Firstly, I could respond to the first and second questions above with something like, ‘I feel happy’ or ‘I feel sad’. These are labels we use to express certain types or categories of experience.
I say categories because, on the face of it, happy or sad are only general descriptions. For instance, how happy is happy? What does being happy feel like? How is happy different to, say, joyful or content? We may use other words to express nuance or increase accuracy. For example, ‘I feel very happy’ expresses a level of intensity. ‘I feel generally happy’ says something about continuity of experience.
We notice immediately how we are constrained by language, by limited words to express subtle shades of emotional experience. In principle, the wider range of words we have available to us, the better we should be able to articulate what we feel. In this sense, we are using language descriptively, to distinguish between emotional states. It’s as if the emotion simply is, and we try to find the best word to label it.
It's nevertheless tricky using words to describe and differentiate emotions in this way. After all, an emotion isn't an object with fixed shape, depth or form. It's a phenomenon, not a thing. It's a feeling, a felt experience, a sense of something that we experience deeply, psychologically and physically. It's often a shifting state, hard to pin down, hard to grasp hold of and yet nevertheless powerfully present and impacting.
Social constructionists suggest that language not only expresses how we feel, but shapes it too. In other words, how I distinguish between different emotional experiences is governed by language. Since language is culturally constructed (that is, it is inherited, used and evolves in human environments) how I feel is to some degree culturally determined. Culture shapes how I experience personal emotion.
From an early age, we observe how others respond to experience. We copy their reactions and find ourselves culturally expected to respond, or inhibited from responding, in certain ways. So to some extent, how I react to an experience is a learned, conditioned response. It feels instinctive, ‘simply how I feel’, but it could be described as a personal and social experience. It’s about me, but not just about me.
Which leads to the final question. Whose emotion am I feeling? We tune into others’ emotional states, often subconsciously. We may pick up unexpressed feelings from another and experience them as if our own. We may pick up a feeling from a group, a community, and carry it as if it’s our own. In this sense, the boundary between what I’m feeling and what others are feeling is permeable and blurred.
So what am I feeling? It depends on the language available to me, the categories I have learned to assign to emotional experiences, the ways I have learned to feel and respond. Why am I feeling it? It's a partly personal and partly social response to psychological, physiological, social or environmental stimuli. Whose emotion am I feeling? It's my own, but sometimes it's not only my own. Complicated? Hmm. How are you feeling?
I glanced at a book today on coaching using appreciative inquiry (AI). AI is an optimistic, solutions-focused approach that aims to (a) generate vision (b) and galvinise the client's energy and commitment by framing questions, reflections and challenges in the positive. Here are some sample questions:
What would a great outcome look and feel like? What would make this a great experience for you? Which aspects of this do you enjoy most? What would make this a genuinely rewarding experience for you? How come this is so energising for you? Where does your passion come from?
Tell me about a recent experience where you found yourselves in agreement about something? Give me an example of an interaction with this person when you didn’t get frustrated? How far do we need to go to get back to a time when this wasn’t a problem? Which aspects of this did go well?
When did you first begin to notice that things were changing for the better? If you believed you could do this, what would you do next? What would a great solution be? What would mark a positive step foward? If we weren’t talking about this, what would we be talking about?
If you were leader of this organisation, what is the first thing you would do to resolve this? What story would you like to tell someone about this? How do you make sense of this? What else could I usefully ask you at this point? And an AI question to finish: what did you find most helpful about this blog?
Coaching is listening for a voice. More accurately, at deeper levels, for 4 voices. Firstly, the voice of the client: his or her concerns, aspirations, thoughts and feelings. This is the traditional focus of coaching and counselling, seeking to hear the client, to listen, pay attention, help the client to hear his or her own voice more clearly.
Secondly, the voice of the client’s environment: his or her background, experience and context. It’s what Gestalt calls the field. The introjects, assumptions, cultural norms and metaphysical constructs that shape and speak implicitly through the client’s outlook and experience. The hidden voices behind the client’s voice.
Thirdly, the voice of God: revealing, guiding, challenging and consoling. The clear, confusing, mysterious voice of God who whispers in sound, in silence, through the visible and invisible. The God who is the Word, who speaks the eternal Divine language behind human language, calling us inwards, outwards, towards and beyond.
And finally my own voice: my learning, intuition, experience and discernment. It’s about listening for a resonance, a dissonance, a sense of harmony with the client, with his or her world, with God. It’s an art, a science, an energetic struggle, a dance. It’s a precious and challenging call, but the potential for transformation is significant.
‘Isn’t it curious how question has quest at its heart?’ This was a great question. It set my mind on a quest, a journey of discovery, and it was intended to do so. It wasn’t a question inviting information, an immediate response, a simple answer. It was intended to stimulate, intrigue, inspire.
Some of the world’s greatest teachers have used questions powerfully to evoke and achieve transformation. Jesus asked so many questions that Gempf wrote a whole book on it: Jesus Asked. Socrates the philosopher is famous for posing questions too: the Socratic method.
Aquinas observed that good questions have a way of creating uncertainty, restlessness, momentum. By contrast, once we achieve an answer that satisfies, our minds come to a halt. Is that why God leaves so many questions unanswered, to invite us on a dynamic, profound journey of faith?
We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, that good questions often lie at the heart of good therapy, good coaching, good organisation development, good international development. Finding the right questions, the quantum questions, is often the key to unlocking transformative results.
In coaching, good questions are often about enabling the client to see him or herself, his or her situation, through fresh eyes. In this sense, it’s about enabling the client to gain fresh in-sight. Questions are often about challenging assumptions, reframing, enabling paradigm shifts.
Questions can also be used to explore emotional experience. ‘How are you feeling?’ Or to surface intuition. ‘What is your intuition telling you?’, ‘What’s your hunch?’. They can also move a person towards action. ‘What would motivate you to do this?’, ‘What are your next steps?’
Some questions are good for framing and focusing a conversation. ‘What would be good use of this time for you?’, ‘What’s the most important thing for us to focus on?’, ‘What do you hope to have achieved by the end of this meeting?’, ‘How would you like us to do this?’
Social constructionism poses fundamental questions. ‘What has led you to see things in the way you do?’, ‘Where do your beliefs come from?’, ‘What cultural and contextual assumptions does your language reveal?’, ‘How could you reconstruct this scenario into something quite different?’
Some questions invite a deeper spiritual dimension. ‘How would it be if we were to pray about this?’, ‘How far is this course of action consistent with Biblical principles?’, ‘What ethical issues does this raise?’, ‘If Jesus was physically present with you now, what would he ask you to do?’
One of the best questions I’ve found is simply, ‘What’s really going on here?’ Susie Orbach, social psychotherapist, wrote a good book by that title. It invites exploration of an issue from a wide range of perspectives, personal, social and political, drawing on rationality and intuition.
Gestalt psychology hints at great questions. ‘What are you aware of?’, ‘What is holding your attention?’, ‘What are you not noticing?’, ‘What assumptions are you making?’, ‘What do you need to be effective in this situation’, ‘What would improve the quality of contact between us?’
Coaches in a workplace can ask all sorts of powerful questions too. ‘Where is your focus at the moment?’, 'What's the goal you are working towards?', ‘What should take priority?’, ‘Where can you be more proactive?’, ‘What do you need to do right now?’, ‘What have you learnt from this that you can use?’
‘What should we be celebrating?’, ‘Where do you feel most challenged?’, ‘Where is the greatest return on your effort?’, ‘How can you make more use of what is working?’, ‘What is the most important thing for you to change?’, ‘What would you most like to improve?’
The list goes on... ‘What really excites you about this?’, ‘Where could you show greater leadership?’, ‘What is your deadline?’, ‘What options do you have?’, ‘What are the pros and cons?’, ‘Who will you need on board to achieve this?’, ‘What support will you need to be successful?’
I’m fascinated by how the quality of a good question, alongside the quality of the relationship, the intention behind the question and the spirit in which it is posed, can be so impactful. And I’m keen to find out more. So, please tell me, what’s the best question you have asked, used or received?
They looked at me with disbelief. ‘Who is this guy, how did he get here?’ It was the first day on the course and I was out of my depth. I couldn’t understand the jargon, the acronyms. I was the only one who hadn’t studied this field before.
And so I was faced with a stark choice. Sink or swim. No contest. Swim was easily the more attractive option. After all, this felt like a God-given moment, a lifetime opportunity, and I was determined to grasp it with both hands.
It felt awkward at first, interrupting each time I didn’t understand a word, a phrase, a concept. I could feel the frustration of others around me, wanting to press on. My concern about offending them risked closing me down.
So I had to steel myself within. I really want to learn. In fact, learning was more important to me than worrying about how some others may think or feel. So, if I didn’t understand something, I would persevere with asking until I did.
This felt like an important lesson in personal leadership. About overcoming voices of doubt within me, being proactive and creating my own experience. It was about stepping out with determination, not regressing to passivity.
I’m glad that I did. The course was an amazing experience, deeply formative in my personal and professional life. Others commented afterwards how they began to value my questions and feel inspired by my passion to learn.
So I learnt some important lessons through this experience. It also left me with a number of valuable questions, questions I use to challenge myself when faced with fresh situations where I feel anxious, bored, frustrated or constrained.
What is my own contribution to what I’m experiencing? What is the opportunity in this? How am I limiting myself? How can I exert greater influence? How can I persevere in adversity? What can I negotiate to achieve a better result?
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.