I was reminded recently of one of my sister’s boyfriends in our teenage years. The lad was called Tom and, one day, he decided proudly to have his name tattooed on his neck. When he got home, however, he was dismayed to look in the mirror and read ‘moT’. ‘I can’t believe they spelt my name wrong’, he exclaimed in near despair. My mother looked on in near despair too. How could her daughter be going out with this guy?? My sister laughed but poor Tom just looked puzzled.
I can hear so many satirical expressions immediately coming to mind: ‘Not the sharpest knife in the drawer; A few sandwiches short of a picnic; Proof that evolution can go in reverse’, etc. It’s as if we’re a lot brighter than Tom, less prone to such stupid mistakes. Tom misinterpreted what he saw but we see and understand things more clearly. Perception is reality and Tom needed a reality check. We’re not that easily tricked or confused. We’re not like Tom. We see things as they are.
That is, until we read books like David McRaney’s ‘You Are Not So Smart’ (2012). With a wide range of disarmingly simple-yet-profound examples, McRaney describes a whole host of ways in which we unknowingly and convincingly delude ourselves, pretty much every day. Alex Boese concludes on the back cover: ‘Fascinating! You’ll never trust your brain again.’ It’s as if the assumptions we hold about what is real and true about ourselves, the world, life and relationships need to be held…lightly.
Yet this poses some serious existential, ethical and practical challenges. Who or what are we to trust if we’re not sure what’s real or true? Who or what are we to take a stance on if we’re not sure if the ground we’re standing on is sound? Faith, doubt and belief come face-to-face with diverse related fields, e.g. social constructionism and Gestalt. This is rich territory for deep coaching, leadership and OD. So, tell me - what are your experiences of working with certainty and uncertainty, ambiguity and trust?
"Ignore me. I’m just having a bitch-moan-whine moment.” That made me laugh. I had never heard that expression before and thought, what a great way to signpost self-awareness and intention. So many conversations end up strained and, as a consequence, relationships lay in tatters because the underlying values, motivation and thought processes are assumed but left unexpressed. Work cross-culturally – whether that be in different counties or even with people from different personal and professional backgrounds or sectors – and you will almost certainly know what I mean.
It’s where we sometimes talk about crossed wires or, in Transactional Analysis (TA) terms, crossed transactions. I may say something tongue-in-cheek and you may take it as a serious comment. You may say something neutrally as an observation and I hear it as implied criticism. In other words, we infer things, particularly meaning and intention, based on where we are at personally or culturally in the moment, rather than necessarily on what the other person meant or intended us to hear or feel. This is an area where learning to signpost explicitly can make a very positive difference.
To signpost well involves being aware-in-the-moment, authentic in what we disclose, skilful in how we communicate and curious about the other. Aware: tune into what we believe, think and feel – here-and-now. Authentic: be honest and truthful – speak with congruence and integrity. Skilful: use language, signs and symbols that bridge or transcend personal, professional and cultural boundaries – sensitive to the person, context and relationship. Curious: check with the other what they saw, heard and felt – whether they know and understand what lay behind your actions and words.
What sense do you make of categorical, definitive statements? For example, ‘This book is excellent.’ ‘That person is annoying.’ Could it be that such truth claims say more about the person making them, perhaps also about the beliefs and values of the cultural worlds they inhabit, than who or what they are referring to? In coaching, what could they reveal about embedded, hidden and often subconscious assumptions, perspectives, constructs, needs, hopes, fears and expectations?
I had a difficult conversation tonight. Some close neighbours have 2 dogs that they leave outside barking and a son that kicks his football against the wall, fence and bins. The noise, the persistent intrusive disturbance, drives me crazy. I tried to tackle it in polite conversation but it ended badly. The neighbour was angry and frustrated with me and slammed the door with a loud bang as the conversation came to an abrupt end. I walked away feeling shaken, disappointed and stressed.
It is easy to imagine the kind of statements we could now be making about each other inwardly and, perhaps, outwardly in conversation with others. ‘That bloke is so inconsiderate!’ ‘That guy is so over-sensitive.’ It’s as if the statements we project convey objective, incontrovertible truths about the other, statements of what-is rather than statements of subjective opinion, of cultural possibility and, at a deeper level, of veiled revelations of how we are feeling and the pain and hurt of unmet need.
I worked with one leader, Richard Marshall, who took this principle very seriously. Every time I or another made a definitive statement, he would challenge us to personalise it. So, for example, ‘This meeting is a waste of time’ would be reframed as something like, ‘I feel frustrated in this meeting and would prefer to do X’. The effect was transformational. It surfaced underlying values and needs and made them explicit. So, is my neighbour unreasonable? I don’t know. I just need peace and quiet.
‘Thud…BANG!’ At its worst, it’s every 2.7 minutes. They go off every day, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 9 months a year, where I live. Farmers use these gas guns – which are like small canons – to attempt to scare birds from their crops. They are very loud…and largely ineffective. In an attempt to improve their effectiveness, farmers are increasing the number they install in their fields and the frequency of the bangs. It’s as if more canons and more bangs will scare away more birds.
The problem is: it doesn’t work, it drives local residents crazy and it is actually counter-productive. Research shows that birds quickly ignore the bangs. They realise there is no actual threat. The more the bangs, the more the birds become immune to them. In fact, research also shows that, over time, the birds are actually attracted by the bangs, using them to locate sources of food. So, apart from the dubious ethics of using these guns close to residential areas, what is going wrong here?
The simple answer is that these farmers have inadvertently locked themselves into a pattern of faulty assumptions and self-defeating behaviour. Their desperation to protect their crops drives them away from rational thought to a more defensive and defended stance. If they could find a way to step back far enough to revisit the results they desire and the factors that support or undermine them, they could potentially discover new tactics that would make a more positive difference.
Organisations call this stepping back to examine and challenge implicit assumptions, to reflect on and address causal and influencing relationships, strategy mapping or creating theories of change. Professionals who apply the same principles to their work call it reflective practice. It’s about being willing to pause-reflect-act in the midst of the busy-ness of doing in order to think widely and deeply, conduct research, learn from experience and produce better results. How do you do it?
What’s your angle? We use this expression to check out a perspective, a way of seeing things, of presenting things. The angle itself is designed to convey something as interesting, eye-catching, novel, unique. There’s another way of thinking about ‘angle’ too. A friend commented yesterday that, if we look at a protractor, we see how a slight shift at the centre leads to a significantly different end point at the perimeter. The shift represents a change of direction and trajectory.
So here we are at the start of a New Year. The decisions, the angles, we take, here and now, will influence where we finish in the future. They may seem small and insignificant in the moment yet, each time we change our angle, the direction in which we face, we change our trajectory too. In many aspects of life, the cause-and-effect consequences are not as linear and predictable as lines on a mathematical tool. Nevertheless, it’s as if every choice and decision, in some way, counts.
We can also look at our lives, circumstances, choices and decisions, from different angles. Leaders, coaches, OD and trainers refer to this as ‘reframing’. It could involve, say, looking at ourselves, our relationships and situations through different metaphorical frames or lenses, from different angles or vantage points, from different points in time or stakeholder perspectives etc. This can open up new insights and possibilities that may otherwise lay obscure or hidden to us.
I believe this is where coaching to develop critical reflective practice can be so important, valuable and useful. It can enable us to grow in awareness of our beliefs, values, assumptions and preoccupations – our default angles, if you like. It can enable us to consider fresh options and implications that will guide our focus, attention, behaviour, decisions and actions. It can enable us to live authentic lives and to work with greater insight and freedom. So – what’s your angle?
Coaching has become increasingly well-defined over recent years, particularly owing to great efforts by e.g. the International Coach Federation and European Mentoring & Coaching Council to clarify, advocate and promote core professional standards and ethics. I believe that, on the whole, this has been a useful development. It adds credibility to the field and, in principle, focus, parameters and accountability for those who study, train and practice within it.
There are challenges too, not least the process and cost of credentialing to be recognised by the professional bodies. This can be prohibitive for practitioners who don’t have access to the time or financial resources to do this in spite of having, potentially, extensive knowledge, skill and experience in the coaching arena. The risk here is that increasing professionalism leads to increasing exclusivity, dictated more by economic circumstances than passion or expertise.
There are wider and deeper questions. Coaching is without doubt a powerful field of research and practice that can make a very significant impact. Its focus on reaching goals and solutions can enable people to live and work with greater focus, better ideas and higher levels of commitment. I have felt and witnessed it so many times that I am beyond need for convincing. Yet, as I read and speak with fellow coaches, it often feels like something important is missing.
How far are our coaching assumptions, models and approaches (e.g. vis a vis personal efficacy and choice) appropriate to non-Western cultures - yet applied uncritically? How well do we enable clients to grow in insight and resourcefulness as reflective practitioners – beyond reaching goals or solving issues? How willing are we to raise and challenge systemic implications of client choices – e.g. for families, teams, organisations and wider cultural groups?
Am I alone? What do you think?
Working cross-culturally can be a fascinating, illuminating and enriching experience. Picture this: here is an interview panel for a job in the UK. The candidate is from South East Asia and the lead interviewer asks her to comment on her strengths and weaknesses. The candidate bows her head. Her long hair falls across her face and she falls into silence. The interviewer restates the question, this time enunciating each word slowly and clearly in case she hadn’t understood. Still silence.
The interviewer now looks awkward. I feel curious so I ask the candidate, gently, ‘Is there something about the question that makes it difficult for you to answer?’ She lifts her head and responds in apologetic tone: ‘Yes. In my culture, it would feel very immodest to talk about my own strengths in this way.’ I say, ‘OK…so if we were to ask you to leave the room for a moment and to invite your colleagues into the room, what kind of things do you think they might say to us about you?’
Her face brightens immediately and she reels off a list of things she excels in and things she could develop further. It was as if, culturally, it was OK to talk about herself in this way from a third party perspective but not OK to talk about herself directly. Plaister-Ten (The Cross-Cultural Coaching Kaleidoscope, 2016) talks about this type of encounter and experience as working with the cultural self and cultural mandates. It’s about learning to navigate cultural beliefs, assumptions and norms.
Plaister-Ten also offers some interesting culture-based coaching and interview questions, e.g. ‘What do you think members of your family would think about that?’ (if respect for elders and allegiance to family is high); ‘What do you think your boss would do in such a situation?’ (if power-distance is high); ‘If you were in a position of power in the government, what would you do about that?’ (if deference to institutions is high). So, I’m curious – how well do you navigate different cultures?
‘What language does a racoon speak?’ This young girl looked at me intently, clearly expecting an answer. I felt compelled to respond quickly, in the moment. ‘I don’t know. I guess…Racoonish?’ That seemed to satisfy her curiosity, at least for now. The thing that struck me most in this brief encounter was her wide-eyed, uninhibited enthusiasm for exploration, discovery and learning. She clearly felt unfettered by adult-type assumptions, e.g. by a belief that she should already know.
I sat in an HR team meeting where participants became preoccupied with how best to store annual leave request forms. They proposed various systems and procedures and evaluated them for their relative pros and cons. As the conversation progressed, along with the time it was taking for the team to resolve this, I felt increasingly curious and bemused and so interjected, quite innocently, ‘Why do you keep annual leave forms?’ Blank faces all around. Oh. End of that item. Move on.
But what was going on here? These were bright people in professional roles. A real risk is that ‘professionalism’ can lead to ever-increasing demands for sophistication. Instead of asking simple questions, seeking simple solutions, we can become too complex, too complicated and miss key issues and ideas that lay hidden in plain sight. We associate child-likeness with childishness and therein lies a big mistake and a lost opportunity. Jesus said, ‘Be like children’. I say, ‘Amen.’
So here is a suggested antidote. A colleague describes coaching as the ‘art of the obvious’. There is important truth in that. When we face a situation, whether in leadership, OD or coaching, ask, ‘What would a child ask?’ (or even better, ask a child), ‘What’s the most obvious question that we’re not asking ourselves?’ e.g. ‘Why on earth are we doing this?’ Be willing to laugh and experiment too: ‘What would be the most radical, unorthodox, playful, creative solution to this?’ Give it a try!
Jackie LeFevre of Magma Effect is an inspiring and thoughtful guru in the values-related field. One of the things Jackie talks about is the importance of exploring the values and beliefs that lay behind people’s actions and behaviours. Two people could behave the same way but with very different reasons for doing it. Dave believes that people should arrive at meetings on time. For him, it’s about ensuring that time spent at meetings is efficient and effective. Sandra also believes it’s important to arrive on time. For her, it is about showing personal respect for colleagues in the room.
Why is this important? Covey in The Speed of Trust observed that, ‘We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions.’ The risk here is that I assume your intention from your behaviour then respond and relate to you as if my assumption (that is, my own belief about you in that situation) is true. What is more, we tend to notice things that confirm and reinforce the belief we already hold and don’t notice things that would challenge or contradict it. All kinds of misunderstandings can occur and these can prove limiting or damaging to relationships.
This tendency is exacerbated if we are feeling tired, pressured or stressed. Somebody walks past my desk who normally stops and speaks to me. This time, they don’t speak. In fact, they don’t even look at me. I begin to hypothesise. If I’m already feeling anxious about the relationship, I may start to dream up an elaborate fantasy: ‘I’m sure they’re angry with me.’ ‘It’s because they didn’t like that email I sent.’ It’s a classic example of cognitive distortion. If we notice we are doing it, e.g. if we think we are reading the other person’s mind, it can really help if we simply stop and…breathe.
I discovered a useful ‘3 Hypotheses Technique’ in Latting & Ramsey’s Reframing Change that can be used to surface such assumptions and open up alternatives. The first step is to take note of what we assume the person’s action or behaviour means. The second is to assume the person has a positive intention. The third is to assume the person is being driven by external circumstances. If we are able to entertain the possibility that more than one of these could be true, it can create sufficient psychological and emotional shift to enable us to respond with far greater reality and freedom.
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)
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.