I sat down in a café today to do some work, away from the usual distractions at the office, away from people. The café was virtually empty so I grabbed a drink, spread my papers out on the table and started to read and make notes. Within minutes, a bloke came and sat at the table behind me. Now this is a big café, lots of tables, and he sat directly behind me. Not only that, he fired up his laptop then sat muttering to himself loudly, continually.
He went on and on…droning on. I felt angry, irritated. Can’t he see I’m a raving introvert?? It’s like when I park miles from anyone in a car park, only to return and find a car parked so close to mine I can hardly open the door. What’s wrong with these people? Why do they follow me? Why can’t they just leave me alone? I went to a beach once, set up my tent at the far end, away from anyone. Within no time, some people set up right beside me. Why??
Perhaps there’s something about me that’s wildly interesting, attractive. People just want to be near me. Hmmm… Perhaps some people just want to be near people. They imagine I want to be near other people too. So they take pity on me. Look at that lonely soul. Let’s pitch up next to him, make him feel better. They imagine that because they need company, I need company. They don’t like to be alone, so they think I don’t like to be alone.
Perhaps that’s it. It’s empathy. Misplaced perhaps, but better than persecuting me. So I tried to grin and not look too obvious, too rejecting, as I picked up my papers, grabbed another drink and moved to another table. Now don’t get me wrong. I do like people. Well some, err…most people. Most of the time. In fact, I work with people pretty much all of the time. I live and socialise with other people too. But sometimes I need space, to be alone.
I wonder how often we superimpose onto other people what we ourselves need. What we imagine others want. I wonder how often I’m insensitive to what others need just because it doesn’t feature for me. That's food for thought.
I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry. I was looking for a speaker on Christian leadership recently and a colleague recommended someone from the House of Lords. I contacted this person by email and got a reply that simply said, “In any future communications, kindly address your correspondence to Lord X, not Mr X.”
Excuse me? It took self-restraint not to reply with something like, “Anyone so concerned with title and status is certainly not the speaker we’re looking for!” After all, the Bible has a lot to say about leadership, with words like humility and servant spirit featuring as headlines. Jesus, Son of God, demonstrated it in his own life and practice.
But I noticed on reflection how easy it is to judge. The email response felt like a slap, an arrogant condescension. It touched on my raw political sensibilities, wounded my own pride, evoked a sarcastic, confrontational spirit within me. Yet am I really so different? Jesus didn’t only preach humility, he preached love and forgiveness too.
It’s curious, the unexpected impact teachers can have in our lives. How they shape our experiences, our perspectives, our choices. I had one teacher who was a sadistic bully. He used his power punitively to evoke terror. As children, we felt fearful and powerless before him. It galvanised within me a later commitment to civil rights, to defend the oppressed from powerful oppressors.
I had other teachers who opened up the world to us. One was French, attractive with a sweet accent. She believed in me and fuelled my interest in languages. Another was English but taught us German. He showed us photographs from his visits and evoked a sense of adventure, an exciting world beyond our horizons of experience. He inspired me to explore abroad.
I had another teacher who protected me. I switched classes without permission and, when an angry tutor came to check where I was, this teacher covered for me. It was a moment of unexpected and undeserved grace. He put himself at risk in order to protect me from punishment. It taught me to step out for others, to put myself on the line to protect those who are vulnerable.
One teacher had a passion for language. He could create magic with words, enabled us to capture and express ideas with creativity and precision. He enabled and inspired me to write, to play with words, to reach for excellence. I had another English teacher who toyed with us, manipulated the class for his own entertainment. He taught me to avoid misuse of position.
In all these cases, I was influenced as much by the person as the subject. It was the people who shaped my world, fanned my passions into flame or served of warnings of what to avoid. In particular, I learned important lessons about power and humility, the power to liberate and the potential to abuse. Central issues in Christian faith and important lessons for leadership.
Christian organisations in the UK are experiencing challenges with redefining their identity in a 21C secular environment, particularly in light of legislation prohibiting the exclusive employment of people who share these organisations’ Christian beliefs. What do these changes mean for Christian organisations? What does it mean to be a ‘Christian organisation’ anyway? How can such organisations embrace greater diversity and, at the same time, retain their unique Christian distinctiveness?
Take organisation X: in now employing non-Christian staff alongside Christian staff, is it essentially a Christian organisation that happens to employ some non-Christian staff or really, at heart, a new type of hybrid organisation – a mix of Christian and non-Christian? The implications of this distinction are very significant. For instance, has X implicitly changed its core identity, even if its mission is still intact? What does it mean for teams staffed predominantly by non-Christians? What are the implications for X's brand?
There are parallels with the current social-political debate about what it means to be ‘British’. How is X to relate to those who don’t share its core Christian beliefs? Should its approach be characterised by, for instance, reluctant tolerance (e.g. accept that it has to employ non-Christian staff owing to legislative requirements but focus on ‘containing the problem’), positive assimilation (e.g. welcome non-Christians as part of the organisation but expect them to adapt to its current cultural norms) or active accommodation (e.g. change its own cultural norms to embrace greater diversity)?
These questions press right to the heart of Christian identity at individual, team and organisational levels. What is critical to nurture and safeguard and what is negotiable? How are such organisations to conduct themselves in relation to others? What are the key ethical principles involved? To what degree should secular or alternative faith perspectives now be represented alongside Christian perspectives in their policies and practices? What should be the spiritual practices of those teams in which non-Christian staff are employed alongside Christians? In which specific respects should such organisations be distinctive?
This situation isn't new. In fact, there has been a debate for some time in Christian organisational circles about the nature and practice of Christian distinctiveness. I believe the debate could be framed differently and more helpfully, however, around Christian authenticity. When Christians are authentic, there will be dimensions in which we are distinctive (e.g. faith in Christ as Saviour). There will also be dimensions in which we are not distinctive but which are, nevertheless, consistent with our faith (e.g. commitment to social justice). We need to consider what it means for non-Christians to be authentic in shared organisational environments too.
At leadership levels, organisations need to decide which dimensions of their Christian beliefs, identity, mission and values are fundamental and thereby non-negotiable. This releases them to identify which other dimensions (e.g. cultural expressions) are flexible and open to modification or negotiation. They need to safeguard and nurture those things that are non-negotiable and adapt those things that are negotiable in light of current circumstances. They also need to live out their beliefs, identity, mission and values in order to be congruent. This is true at individual, team and organisational levels and poses cultural challenges where those beliefs etc. are inconsistent.
The problem with ‘distinctiveness’ is that it necessarily focuses on difference, separateness, division. An alternative biblical model is the incarnation in which we see Christ share our common humanity whilst retaining his unique divinity. This model illustrates in a very radical sense how sharing common ground and experience with others can build bridges, whilst holding onto specific distinctives too. It also provides a relational platform from which those dimensions that make us distinctive can be more easily and readily understood. This may be a useful model for organisations like X to explore further in terms of its practice implications.
This issue is important but not unique to any one Christian or faith-based organisation. Other faith-based organisations in the UK and elsewhere are grappling with similar issues and seeking to act with wisdom and integrity too. We could learn from one-anothers’ practices and experiences. We could create spaces for dialogue, experimentation and learning. This could be a key issue for the Christian leadership agenda. We have the opportunity now to consider future implications of current actions in order to help ensure we develop in the way and direction we intend and hope for.
Gestalt psychology emphasises the value of high quality contact, where contact is about presence, attention, engagement, relationship. I'm sure you've had the experience of being with someone who appeared bored or distracted. Conversely, think of examples when someone has really been there for you, with you, really listened hard. In that moment, you felt close, connected.
In the busyness of life, it can feel hard to stay in contact with ourselves, our physical environment, others around us. It's as if we live in a blur, a semi-conscious state, that deadens us to the richness of life and real engagement. It's a survival strategy, a way of dealing with complex pressures and demands, that can nevertheless leave us feeling empty, alientated, lifeless.
We can experience the same in our spiritual lives too, vaguely aware of a Presence that lies beyond but largely drowned out by other activities and preoccupations. We get bored, restless, dissatisfied, exhausted. Christian life can feel like a concept, an abstraction, a memory rather than a vibrant, life-giving relationship in the here and now.
In order to re-establish contact, a Gestalt therapist may encourage a person to pause, sit, notice what's going on in and around them at that very moment...thoughts, feelings, breathing, sights, sounds, their own body. The aim is to help raise into awareness that which lies buried, ignored, suppressed or unnoticed. It's about exploring the 'what else' of a person's experience.
Take 5 minutes. Allow yourself to relax. Notice your breathing. Notice your body, how you are sitting, how you are feeling in different parts of your body. Notice how you are feeling, where you are feeling it. Notice what thoughts are drifting through your mind, what is preoccupying you. Look and listen, what do you notice in the room, sights, sounds, smells, what do you notice outside?
This kind of practical exercise draws our attention away from the past or the future into the present. Now practice being present, really present to another person. Allow that person to fill your attention. Notice how they look, listen to them attentively, tune into how they are feeling. Notice how giving attention affects the quality and feeling of contact between you.
These principles are really important in Christian leadership. It's about paying attention to how we arrive in meetings and enable others to arrive. It's too easy to rush in, race ahead with an agenda, without really first becoming present to and with one another. It's about how to establish high quality, meaningful contact with oneself, others in the room and God, to really hear and discern.
(I love Richard Rohr's comment in Things Hidden: 'God's face is turned towards us absolutely...it is we who have to learn, little by little, to return the gaze.' It conveys the profound and startling revelation that God is already present to us, already in deep contact with us. In this sense, spirituality is something about becoming present to the Presence, the God who is already with us.)
Take an aide-memoire into your next meeting. Ask yourself silently, 'What is the quality of my contact with myself...with the other people in the room...with God...with the subject matter we are considering?' 'What can we do to improve the quality of contact in order to bring out the best in ourselves and each other?' You may be amazed at the difference it can make.
I've found one of the most powerful questions to ask in a meeting is, 'What do I need in order to bring my best contribution?' It's based on a wider question, 'What do we need to be engaging and effective?' If I exercise personal leadership, if I'm proactive and take responsibility in a meeting, I will pay attention to what I and others need and seek to address it.
I was in a leaders' meeting recently and, as we were about to move onto the next agenda item, I felt the need for a comfort break. I felt tempted to try to suppress it, to ignore it, but noticed how it was affecting my attention. I didn't want to interrupt the flow of the meeting and felt a bit embarrased to raise it but decided, nevertheless, to exercise this personal leadership principle.
'Would you mind if we pause for a 5 minute comfort break before we move on?' The others looked at me, surprised, then started to laugh. 'I'm so glad you suggested that', said one person, 'me too' said another, with looks of relief on their faces. We paused for a break and returned feeling more focused and energised. It was a simple step that really enhanced the quality of the meeting.
I met with another leader recently who commented how he finds meeting difficult if everyone is speaking and he can't think fast enough to interject. By the time he has formulated what he wants to say, the conversation has moved on. His best contribution is lost. How much do we lose in meetings by not paying attention to what people need?
I asked, 'What do you need in such a moment, to bring your best contribution alongside others?' 'Space to think.' 'How much space would you need?' 'Oh, perhaps a minute or so before we move on.' 'So how would it be if you proposed to the chair that you all pause for a minute or so after each agenda item, to see if anything else emerges, before moving onto the next item?'
His face lit up. He had a practical solution. Imagine the potential to transform the quality, experience and output of meetings by such simple, practical steps. It would require him to pay attention to what he needs and to speak it out in the meeting, not just to think or feel it. It takes courage to break into normal patterns of meeting behaviour, but the potential for change is considerable.
I was invited to another meeting where the agenda was packed full. The team hadn't met for a while, had each been involved in intense activity or travelling. This created pressure to become even more task focused than usual. I asked them to pause and reflect at the start, 'What do you need here and now to arrive well, to be fully present to one-another and the tasks ahead?'
They went quiet, thoughful, then spoke about how they felt the need to connect with each other before moving onto the formal agenda, to share something of what they had been doing since they last met, what was on their minds and hearts now, to pray together to seek God's guidance and wisdom. They spent the next 30 mins doing just that, and the whole meeting was transformed.
This focus on need fulfilment need has its roots in Gestalt psychology, the notion that our performance is likely to be affected if we don't pay attention to what we need and take steps to resolve it. We can't always fulfil everything we need and sometimes what we need may conflict with the needs of others. Nevertheless, we can still speak up - and explore the possibilities.
'That was a great meeting.' 'You're joking, it was terrible!' It's hard to imagine these two were in the same room at the same time. How can different people's experience of the same meeting be so different? I sometimes get asked for advice on good meetings, how to manage good meetings.
It's an interesting challenge. After all, what constitutes a good meeting is highly contextual. In some cultures, relational aspects take precedence over tasks; in others, tasks take precedence over time. In some organisations, formal, structured meetings are preferred. In others, flexible creativity is the norm.
It partly depends on purpose. 'What are we here to do?' or 'What would a good outcome of this meeting look and feel like?'. It's also partly about timing and situation. In a crisis, a short task driven meeting may be appropriate; in other circumstances, spending time getting to know each other may take priority.
But it's not just cultural differences that are significant. People's preferences are personality driven too. So some people prefer meetings to be highly structured, organised. Others in the same meeting may prefer fluidity, an emergent agenda, a 'let's see what happens' approach.
Some people will insist that a good meeting involves circulating an agenda in advance, having fixed timings against item, ensuring the purpose of each item is clear and agreed (e.g. for information, for discussion, for decision), carefully documenting agreed action points to ensure follow-through.
Others will place greater emphasis on ensuring everyone is heard and understood, creating an environment where everyone can be honest about what they are thinking and feeling, addressing agenda items in a way that inspires passion and engagement, ensuring the content feels meaningful.
So the question becomes, 'In light of what we are here to do, how would we like to do it?' This takes openness and a willingness to negotiate. It's about exploring what's possible, what will enable different people to engage and contribute their best, what will ensure the meeting achieves its goal.
He's a philosopher, psychologist, social worker and friend. On this occasion, Rudi as mentor posed a question to me. 'What does it mean to a tree to die?' It was summer in South Germany and I was about to go for a walk in the nearby woods. Rudi is a deep thinker, a profoundly spiritual man who poses socratic questions as a way of provoking insight, so I took his question seriously.
As I walked through the trees, I thought about consciousness and meaning. The trees don't possess consciousness, therefore it makes no sense to ask what it means to a tree to live, or die. So I returned and reported back to him. He was gardening and looked up at me, trowel in hand. 'Did you find the answer?' I replied confidently, 'Yes, the answer is nothing.'
I could see by the look on his face, in his eyes, that I was missing something. He responded simply, 'Are you sure?' I returned to the woods a second time and thought further. What was it I was missing? Perhaps he thought I was being too certain, too confident in how I replied. I returned and tried to sound more open minded, more tentative. 'Probably nothing?' He gave me that same look.
Now I felt confused, frustrated. I walked back up the hill into the woodland and this time tried to imagine, see and perceive through fresh eyes. In doing so, I somehow became aware of how limited my awareness, knowledge, thinking and experience is and returned feeling humbled. I spoke more thoughtfully this time. 'I don't know.' Rudi smiled at me. 'Now you have found the beginning of wisdom.'
We make so many assumptions about life, reality, truth, God, ourselves, others etc, arrogant assumptions based on limited perspective, understanding and experience. A tree does't have consciousness in the way we understand it, it doesn't cry out when chopped down, it doesn't act in the same way as we might and so we conclude it doesn't experience living or dying in a way that is meaningful for it.
How can we really know that? How can we really know how a tree experiences 'being in the world'? What if a tree has a form of awareness that is alien and unknown to us? It's not just about trees, it's about holding our presuppositions, ideas and constructs lightly. It's about delving deeply into our not-knowing. It's about rediscovering wonder, curiosity, possibility, imagination.
At this point, Rudi introduced me to Plato's Cave. 'In this story, Socrates describes a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to ascribe forms to these shadows. According to Socrates, the shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality.
He then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not make up reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners.' (Wiki)
This conversation, encounter, experience has always stayed with me. I can still see Rudi kneeling in his garden with trowel in hand, posing his questions patiently and with conviction, provoking insight. He prompted a seeking, a journey akin to the agnostic's quest in Mark Vernon's After Atheism.
It reminded me that things are now always as they seem, that reality and truth can be so much more intriguing, complex, fascinating and bewildering than we tend to assume, that God does reveal and touch us but that we should beware of imposing our human constructs and limitations onto him, that to approach life with open mind and heart can be a truly enriching adventure.
Nick is a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant with over 18,000 followers on LinkedIn. How can I help you? Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org