‘Stop deciding ahead of time what to discover.’ (John Shotter)
It’s summer in the UK – holiday season. And I dislike planned holidays. I love to take holidays…but to decide and organise every detail in advance feels like sucking the life, the oxygen, the fun out of it! This can of course prove very tricky when sharing holidays with plan-ful people. For me, it’s a tight-loose principle. It’s about ensuring just enough structure to make it happen and, at the same time, lots of flex and freedom for serendipitous encounters and unexpected adventures to emerge.
I like the joy, excitement and stimulation of not-yet-knowing so the idea of planned discovery feels strangely paradoxical to me. How can we know for definite in advance what we may discover? It’s like a training course where we formulate learning outcomes in advance: ‘This is what you will learn.’ How would it be if we were to frame it differently: ‘This is the material we plan to cover. Come prepared for an exciting adventure of discovery! Who knows where the journey could lead?’
The same can be true of team meetings or conversations with colleagues. How quickly we fall into formulaic patterns and routines. It creates a sense of predictability, which can be good, yet often leads to frustration and boredom. It engenders what Heidegger calls listening as ‘already listening’, that is, listening, anticipating and interpreting through the filter of what we have already decided or believe. How different it would be if we were to meet each other in an excited spirit of inquiry!
So discovery can bring fresh energy, inspiration and innovation – yet what can we do to foster the conditions for it without trying to prescribe or design it ahead of time? Here are some ideas: Firstly, practise curiosity: be willing to not-know, experiment, take a risk. Secondly, be disruptive: do something different, try a new method, meet in a different place. Thirdly, step outside: visit other organisations, join cross-cultural teams, network widely. Try it – and see what you discover!
What is real, what is true, how can we know? These are questions that have vexed philosophers for centuries. In more recent times, we have seen an increasing convergence between philosophy and psychology in fields such as social constructionism and existential therapy. How we experience and make sense of being, meaning and purpose is inextricably linked to how we behave, what we choose and what stance we take in the world.
As a Christian and psychological coach, I’m intrigued by how these fundamental issues, perspectives and actions intertwine with my beliefs, spirituality and practice. Descartes once wrote, ‘If you would be a real seeker after truth, you must at least once in your life doubt, as far as possible, all things.’ It’s as if we must be prepared to suspend all assumptions about ‘what is’, to explore all possibilities and dare to think the unthinkable in order to grow and make our best contribution.
Things are not always as they at first appear. There are sometimes multiple explanations for the same phenomenon, depending on the frame of reference we or others use to interpret it (see, for instance, Gareth Morgan’s seminal work, Images of Organisation, 1986). We are sometimes blinded to what’s in front of us by our prejudices, preconceptions, cultural constraints or rigid views of the world. It can be hard to maintain healthy scepticism without cynicism.
I see it with clients, sometimes in myself too. A sense of being trapped by a fixed Gestalt, a cognitive distortion, an inherited or learned belief system. An inability to see, to recognise the box that we’re in, never mind to see or think outside of it. An avoidance of deep, difficult questions because of the discomfort, confusion or anxiety they may evoke. If we’re not careful, if we can’t find the right help when we need it, it may limit our lives and our learning.
I think this is where coaching can play a very important role, helping pose and address some deep questions. Nick Bolton commented insightfully in Coaching Today that, ‘To explore a coaching issue existentially is to understand the relationship that the presenting problem has to the human condition to which it is a response, and to remain focused on enabling a change of perspective that allows the client to move past their current challenge.’
He also provided some helpful examples: ‘For instance, how is a client’s procrastination around something that seems to matter to her a failure to remember that life comes to an end? How is a client’s need to be unconditionally loved by his partner an attempt to deal with existential rather than interpersonal isolation? (And the solutions are very different things). How is someone’s lethargy simply a part of their fear of taking responsibility for their life?’ (July 2013, p17)
A metaphysical, existential or theological dimension can shift the entire paradigm of the coaching conversation. The question of whether a client should apply for this or that job is influenced by her sense of purpose. If she is willing to consider that God may exist and have a plan for her life, the whole situational context will change. It can be a dizzying and exciting experience, yet it’s really a question of how courageous and radical we and the client are prepared to be.
It was really muddy this weekend and the woodland tracks were almost impassable. Almost. It’s precisely the almost-ness that makes this sport so challenging and exhilarating. I’m not that skilled on a mountain bike. I can do enough to complete rough tracks on hilly ground without falling off too often. Last year I went over the handlebars, not on purpose, when I hit a tree root hidden by bracken. It left me breathless, yet the element of risk adds to the thrill and adventure.
Each time I go out, I get that bit better. My legs get stronger and I improve my balance. I skip over a log where before I would have stepped off the bike to lift it over. I wince less when I get caught by brambles, digging their thorns through my trousers and shirt. I get a better sense of which puddles to ride through and which to avoid. I push on ahead whereas in earlier days I might have given up. I’m improving my stamina, my fitness and my biking technique – and it feels great.
Spurred on by a friend who has also joined this cycling sport, I signed up this week for a sponsored ride for a UK charity (http://www.justgiving.com/Nick-Wright40). It’s a stretching target for me, the longest distance I will have ridden since I was 15. It feels like testing myself, seeing what I’m capable of, paving the way perhaps to even greater challenges in the future. I think that’s where the fun is, that ‘not sure if I can make it’ feeling combined with a gritted determination to succeed.
I’m reminded of leadership, of parenting and of coaching. How can we keep ourselves and others at the cutting edge, the edge where we and they feel stretched and challenged yet most alive? How can we motivate ourselves and others to keep growing, to keep pushing boundaries of experience without feeling over-stretched or snapping? How can we develop our own and others’ resilience to persevere and to reach new heights that we or they would never have dreamed possible?
Reaching 64 lengths felt like quite a stretch. I normally swim around 25 so pushing for a mile felt exciting yet daunting. When I did reach the final strokes, I felt tired yet exhilarated. It was a good feeling, a feeling of achieving something beyond my normal boundaries, routine, comfort zone. In that moment, I felt more alive somehow as if I had extended my boundaries into a new space. I was spurred on to test my limits by a good friend who takes his own sport, motorcycling, to extremes, perfecting his riding technique in every detail and crossing continents in ways I only dream of. Rho Sandberg added inspiration in her deeply thought-provoking blog, ‘Working with our Edges and No-Go Zones’: http://thegritintheoyster.cleconsulting.com.au/blog/working-our-edges-and-no-go-zones.
Rho, a coach and consultant, comments on how each time we reach the border of our experience, it’s as if we reach an edge. The edge represents an opportunity for growth and something new yet it can also sometimes feel unsettling, disorientating and anxiety-provoking. We may at times hesitate, avoid or pull back to avoid the discomfort or fear of what may lie beyond. ‘Will I be able to handle it?’ It could be a new relationship, a new job or taking something familiar to the next level. The edge can symbolise adventure...and risk. I remember that feeling vividly, the first time I set off to hitch hike around Europe. I had never done it before and felt butterflies of anxiety and thrill as I made preparations and finally stood at the road side, waiting for that first lift that would signal the start.
Rho comments that, ‘An edge is the limit to what we know and are comfortable with’ and ‘a coach or consultant’s key contribution can be holding and supporting the client at the edge long enough for them to discover a little more about it’. This echoes with my own experience as coach, supporting people who face fresh opportunities and challenges in life or who are working through change and transition. It inspires me to continually develop my own thinking and practice too…how to keep growing, extending my own boundaries and not to stay within my safe circle of experience. My next challenge is to cycle 1,000 miles and I can already feel myself touching that edge. Rho’s advice: ‘The edge is an interesting place – I recommend taking a torch to find your way around.’
My boss had been reading John Ortberg’s ‘Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them’ and it was time for us to plan our annual leadership team retreat. Looking for a theme title, he suggested half-jokingly, ‘How about ‘Everybody’s Weird’?’ I laughed at first but then thought for a moment…what a great concept and idea. It felt inspired. How to blow away any sense of normality and conformity and to meet each other afresh as we really are. Our creativity lies in our unique weirdness and what a great way to explore our individual quirkyness and its potential for the team and organisation.
Every group, every team, develops its own normative behaviours. Some even prescribe them by developing explicit competency and behavioural frameworks. It provides a sense of identity, stability and predictability. It can also improve focus and how people work together by establishing a set of ground rules, how we can be at our best. The flip side of all of this is that a team can begin to feel too homogeneous, too bland. It can lose its creative spark, its innovative spirit. The challenge was how to rediscover our differences, our wonderful, exciting, diversity in all its weird complexity.
We invited people to bring objects that represented something significant in their personal lives and to share their stories. We invited people to use psychometrics to explore their preferences to shared them in the group. We invited them to challenge the psychometric frames, not to allow themselves to be too categorised. We invited people to challenge stereotypes, to break the moulds they felt squeezed or squeezed themselves into, to look intently for what they didn’t normally notice in themselves and each other, to allow themselves to be surprised and inspired by what they discovered.
It felt like an energetic release. People laughed more, some cried more, others prayed deeply together. The burden of leadership felt lighter as people connected and bonded in a new way. It felt easier to challenge and to encourage. By relaxing into each other and themselves, people became more vibrant, more colourful, less stressed. They saw fresh possibilities that lay hidden from sight before. They discovered more things they liked about each other, fresh points of common passion, interest and concern. They built new friendships that eased their ways of working. It felt more like team.
What space do you and your organisation allow for weirdness? Do you actively seek, nurture and reward differences? Do your leadership style and culture bring out and celebrate individuals’ strange idiosyncracies, each person’s unique God-given gifts, talents and potential? Have you had experiences where a capacity for weirdness has enhanced your team or organisation’s creativity and innovation? Do you risk inadvertently squeezing out the best of weirdness by policies and practices that drive towards uniformity? Could a bit more weirdness be more inspiring and effective – and fun?! :)
It stands around the corner from an authentic Thai restaurant in central London. On the face of it, it’s an elegant building. As you walk past, however, you realise with surprise that the frontage is a façade, an elaborate shield concealing a plain office building that lies behind it. It’s a striking metaphor, a symbol of sorts for an inauthentic life. It challenged me powerfully yet silently to consider the masks I wear, the images I project to disguise my real self.
Some years ago, John Powell published a popular, short self help book, ‘Why am I afraid to tell you who I am?’ He explored how we attempt to protect our fragile egos and avoid our fear rejection by acting out roles or playing games. These are defensive routines aimed at minimising social anxiety or negative evaluation. By putting on a front that we believe will impress others, we attempt to feel better about ourselves and to win others’ approval.
At one level, these strategies can prove successful in life and work. It’s one reason why we pay attention to our physical appearance, the way we behave and conduct ourselves in public, the way we present ourselves at job interviews etc. From our earliest childhood experiences, we learn what wins love and affirmation from others within our key relationships, social environments and culture. We learn how to play the game.
At another level, however, keeping up appearances can prove self-defeating. Over time we may feel alienated from ourselves, not sure how we really are, and alienated from others, not sure if we are really loved and accepted. We can feel lonely, frustrated and tired. It’s as if, paradoxically, the façades we create to develop and maintain relationships can have the opposite effect, preventing authentic and intimate contact with others.
This presents us with a dilemma, an anxiety-provoking risk. What if I remove the mask, tell you what I’m really thinking, show you how I’m really feeling? Would you love and accept me for who I am or would you look at me with disappointment in your eyes? Will making myself vulnerable release you to be vulnerable too? Can we find a new way of connecting that feels more real, more authentic, less defended, less like a façade?
It can feel like a breathtaking step. The possibility feels exciting and yet the potential feels daunting. I’m reminded of Jesus’ call in the gospels: ‘remove the mask and come into the light’. There is further New Testament teaching too: ‘perfect love casts out fear’. If God can love and accept me as I am, perhaps I can learn to love and accept myself and to love and accept others too. Perhaps that’s where it starts, feeling truly safe with God.
So therein lies the challenge. As a leader and a coach, am I willing to make myself vulnerable so that others can be vulnerable too? Can I demonstrate unconditional love with such honesty that others feel safe to remove their masks, to take down their façades? Can I find new ways to relate to others with an increasing sense of trust and authenticity, creating ever-deeper levels of contact? It’s certainly a goal worth praying and striving for.
Critical reflexivity…hmm…what’s that? Sounds complicated. I was re-reading one of my favourite books, An Invitation to Social Construction (2009) by Kenneth Gergen this morning which introduces this concept with the following explanation:
‘Critical reflectivity is the attempt to place one’s premises into question, to suspend the ‘obvious’, to listen to alternative framings of reality and to grapple with the comparative outcomes of multiple standpoints…this means an unrelenting concern with the blinding potential of the ‘taken for granted’…we must be prepared to doubt everything we have accepted as real, true, right, necessary or essential’.
I find this interesting, stimulating and exciting. It’s about journeying into not-knowing, entertaining the possibility that there could be very different ways of perceiving, framing and experiencing issues or phenomena. It’s about a radical openness to fresh possibilities, new horizons, hitherto unimaginable ideas. It’s a recognition that all assumptions and preconceptions about reality could be limiting or flawed.
I’ve found this critical reflexivity principle invaluable in my coaching and OD practice. How often people and organisations get stuck, trapped, by fixed ways of seeing and approaching things. The same cultural influences that provide stability can blind us to alternative possibilities. The gift of the coach or consultant is to loosen the ground, release energy and insight, create fresh options for being and action.
It certainly resonates with my reading of the gospels. Jesus Christ had a way of confronting the worldviews, traditions and apparent ‘common sense’ outlook of those he encountered in such a way that often evoked confusion, anger or frustration. It’s as if he could perceive things others couldn’t see. He had a way of reframing things that it left people feeling disorientated. He operated in a very different paradigm.
This is one point at which spirituality meets philosophy and psychology. I too get easily trapped in my own constructs so I pray to God to open my eyes, to reveal new insights and unrecognised opportunities. Jesus’ words speak to me with renewed impact. He came ‘to proclaim freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, to set captives free.’ It’s about fresh awareness, deep liberation and a renewed life.
I find it intriguing to look back on defining moments in life. One such moment for me arose when I was 8 years old. My nan lay dying in hospital and it was a strangely mystical experience because, as a spiritualist medium, she appeared to know the exact date and time that she was going to die.
The thing that captured my imagination at the time, however, was her moving admission that she had always dreamed of going horse riding but never actually got round to it. And now she would never fulfil that dream. It freaked me out, the possibility of reaching the end of my life with that feeling.
So I embarked on an approach to life characterised by doing whatever I felt an interest or passion for. I was determined not to miss a moment, an experience, that could leave me feeling regret - that sense of opportunity lost. If nothing specific came to mind, I would try something new anyway...just in case.
As I look back, I can see how that experience of my nan's experience has stimulated, spurred and driven me to push my own boundaries so many times. On reflection, it feels like a mixed blessing, making it difficult to ever feel settled, content, satisfied. There's always the possibility of that something else.
And so it feels like a paradox. I thank God for the rich experiences he has granted me, for that desire to experiment and explore, yet I also need to learn to be less driven by my own need for adventure, to look outward to others' needs more, to know peace and calm and to appreciate more that which is.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.