The best of intentions. How often we do things with good motives and yet, in spite of that, our actions have unintended consequences. It’s often because we haven’t known or understood the wider implications of what, where, when, how or with-for whom we do something. We may, for instance, offer support to a specific person, team or group…only to discover that a different person, team or group perceives that intervention as partisan, favourit-ist or creating unfair advantage.
Here’s an extreme. A friend was delivering aid to a poverty-stricken village in Sudan when he was stopped at gunpoint by militia from a neighbouring village. He was forced to the ground with rifle barrel pressed hard against the back of his head whilst the group relieved him of the vehicle and relief supplies. It turns out the group and its community were envious and resentful that they were being effectively ignored whilst supplies were being provided to a different village.
Or here’s a less extreme example. I spoke with an emotional intelligence (EI) specialist this week about using psychological mentoring, coaching and tools to raise awareness and insight, with a risk that some clients may use it in weaponised form to manipulate colleagues or customers. It points to a real need to pay attention to wider systemic, cultural, ethical, political and longer-term considerations when seeking to do the right thing – a principle known as ‘primum non nocere’.
If you’re a leader, coach, OD or trainer, here are some questions for critical reflection: When have you acted in good faith to resolve one issue, only to discover that your interventions have inadvertently incentivised, precipitated or exacerbated another? How do you manage the tension of never fully knowing or understanding the potential implications of everything – and yet still taking meaningful stances, decisions and actions? What is your best advice on ‘do no harm’?
Take a clean sheet of flipchart paper. Draw a small black dot in the middle. Ask people what they see, what they notice. Almost invariably in my experience, people will say, ‘A black dot’. I haven’t yet heard someone say, ‘A white sheet of paper’. I first saw this used in an anti-racism workshop. The tutor, Tuku Mukherjee, used it as a metaphor for how we tend to focus our attention on minorities in society and ignore or don’t even see the majority. The backdrop is, in effect, invisible to us.
In this example, the backdrop forms the context for the ‘minority’. In other words, ‘minority’ only has meaning vis a vis a perceived ‘majority’. I heard one astute black speaker say, ‘In the UK, I am viewed as an ethnic minority whereas, when I look across the world as a whole, I see that I am part of an ethnic majority.’ So what we see, what sense we make of it, is contextual. To understand what we notice, we sometimes need to shift our focus to the background against which it stands out.
Take, now, an example of a person who is ‘underperforming’ at work. This definition of the situation locates underperformance in the person, as if it represents a quality, aptitude or behaviour of the person him or herself. It leads us to consider how to improve the person’s performance, e.g. through mentoring or training. All things being equal, this may improve the person’s performance and, if so, we may view the situation as resolved. ‘X was underperforming…X is now performing…sorted.’
Yet what constitutes ‘good performance’ is defined by the backdrop, the wider organisation. What if performance expectations are unrealistic? What if the person does not have sufficient resources, guidance or support? What if systems, policies or procedures are such that they make the person’s work untenable? What if relationships or power dynamics are culturally toxic? What if instances of ‘under-performance’ form a repeating pattern in this organisation or team? Step back…look…see.
Ignorance is bliss - until we realise our ignorance. Therein lies a painful paradox at the crux of films like, The Matrix and Vanilla Sky. There can be something deeply unsettling, disorientating, releasing about a dramatic shift in awareness like a sudden waking from sleep. Our eyes are opened, we can see and now we face fresh possibilities, choices and responsibilities. Ironically, the existentialist French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre described this experience bleakly as, ‘condemned to be free.’
This awareness-raising phenomenon raises important practical and ethical questions for those working in people professions. The Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, emphasised the importance of conscientisation, critical consciousness-raising, as a means to liberation. He argued that people are in some ways unaware of themselves, their circumstances, until enabled to see through fresh eyes. This resonates with a Chinese proverb: ‘If you want to know what water is, don’t ask a fish’.
A girl I was working with recently from a very different cultural background to my own reinforced this point: ‘I didn’t see myself until you saw me.’ Her interactions with me as an outsider enabled her to see herself in a new light – as if for the first time. This idea of metaphorically (and sometimes literally) stepping back to notice what we had previously not noticed, to critique and reframe our insights and experiences, to open up new choices and actions, is at the heart of reflective practice.
Yet someone challenged me strongly on the ethics of this last night: ‘Who are we to raise others’ awareness like this? What if it leads them to be less happy, more frustrated in life?’ If we enable people to reflect, critique and de/reconstruct their current realities, what if they and others experience the net impact as negative? Is it always true that it is better to be aware than to be unaware? Who makes that decision? If you work with people, I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas on this!
If you love 2 x 2 models, you will love this. Maybe. I led a group supervision session this afternoon for coaches throughout the UK. As a prompt for contracting, signposting and focusing, I drew a simple grid with 2 polarities: (a) Person – Situation and (b) Here & Now – There & Then.
We can think of 'Here & Now' as in the room; 'There & Then' as in the situation or story. This creates 4 permeable zones of interest and inquiry for supervision and coaching and potential prompts for reframing. I’ll offer some sample questions below that can be used or adapted in each zone:
Person – Here & Now. How is this situation impacting on you here and now? As you talk about this now, what stands out as most important to you? What are you aware of here and now? How are you feeling now as you talk about this? Which aspect of this would you like to focus on here and now?
Person – There & Then. What role are you playing in this situation? What responsibility are you taking for what’s happening? What outcome are you hoping for in this situation? What are you noticing and not-noticing in this situation? What critical strengths is this calling for from you?
Situation – Here & Now. What is the current situation? Who is influencing, involved in or impacted by the situation and how? What opportunities and challenges are emerging in this situation here and now? Which aspects of the situation are most important to pay attention to at the moment?
Situation – There & Then. What’s the back story to this situation? What goals and outcomes were identified at the outset? If this project was to be successful, what would success look and feel like for different stakeholders? What professional and policy issues will need to be taken into account?
'What are you not noticing?’ What an odd question. How can I notice what I’m not noticing? It sounds, feels, like a paradox. I first heard this question during a Gestalt workshop posed by the legendary Malcolm Parlett. And then, next: ‘What are we not talking about?’ So now we’re supposed to talk about what we’re not talking about?! Weird. Mind-bending. An intriguing adventure.
I took part in a workshop with Tuku Mukherjee. He drew a black dot in the middle of a blank sheet of flipchart paper. What did we see? 'A black dot'. What did we not notice? The white background. Or you may have tried the selective attention test where you are invited to watch a basketball game and count the number of bounces or passes. How is it that we miss the gorilla walking by?
Such insights and ideas sparked the start of my own journey into not-noticing. What am I not noticing? It has profoundly influenced my leadership, OD and coaching practice. What are we noticing? What is captivating us, holding our attention? What have we become fixated by? And, What are we not noticing? Who or what is lying in the background, hidden in plain sight?
Our noticing is filtered by e.g. language, beliefs, values, assumptions, cultures, paradigms, interests, experiences, expectations and emotional states. Not-noticing enables us and our clients to focus, simplify and make sense of the world. Yet it can blind us to all kinds of insights, ideas and possibilities. Noticing not-noticing can be liberating and powerful. What are you not noticing?
I once trained with Mark Sutherland, a supervisor and psychotherapist, who shared the image of a client as someone floating out at sea on a raft. Whereas some coaches may swim out to rescue the client, to pull the raft back to safer shores so to speak, Mark saw his role by contrast as simply joining the person on the raft: ‘Two people…wondering together.’ For many years now, I’ve found that image incredibly attractive and releasing.
A good friend and colleague, Ian Henderson (Eagle Training), uses a similar principle when drawing on NLP to evoke curiosity in a training group. He may open an event by telling an evocative story at the outset, without introduction or explanation, then stop the story at a critical juncture and shift focus to the formal agenda. It leaves the group surprised, confused and curious…and it’s that state of curiosity that draws the group into deep learning.
A very similar principle attracts me to Gestalt, a coaching approach that involves active, physical experimentation with a client or group. The key to the experiment is to follow your intuition, support the client’s intuition, go with the flow, be playful and creative, let go of control. It means trusting the moment, the dynamic between you, and seeing what happens. I’m continually amazed by what surfaces into awareness and what changes take place.
So picture the coach, the leader, the facilitator or trainer as someone whose role is to evoke curiosity, to enable the client, the team colleague, the group, to wonder. It is a child-like quality that can lead to all kinds of exciting adventures and discoveries. It entails suspending what we know, the pressure to know, and surfacing the power, the gift of not-knowing, allowing the unexpected to emerge – and noticing the newness that is revealed.
Awareness is the key to insight and to change. But how easily we seem able to deceive ourselves. This New Year, I tell myself an imaginary story. It’s so convincing that I actually believe it to be true. I feel sure that I cycled frequently throughout December 2015. I remember the rides vividly and they merge into a filmstrip that depicts almost continuous cycling last month. And, yet, somehow the weigh scales in the bathroom tell me a different story.
So, I’m curious. I wonder if I really cycled as frequently and as far as I’m telling myself I did. I check the sports tracking app and discover that I only went out on the bike half a dozen times for a total of around 8 hours. Not exactly ‘continuous’. The revelation leaves me puzzled and intrigued. It’s as if I noticed when I did cycle…and didn’t notice when I didn’t…then subconsciously extrapolated the did-cycle experiences to create a self-convincing scenario.
What we’re talking about here is a sort of dissonance, a contradiction between my perceived reality and my actual experience. And this is fruitful territory for coaches and therapists too. How to work with clients and groups to enable them to explore beliefs, values, constructs, realities and experiences, especially where there are tensions or potential for distortions, in order to create space for new awareness, meaning, choices and actions.
A cognitive behavioural approach can be particularly effective here. The coach helps the client to identify limiting beliefs and to examine them, as if holding objects up to the light to see how far the client’s ideas about them correlate with reality. This calls for a willingness and ability to wonder even for a moment, to suspend what we believe we know to be true and to be test alternatives. The result can be a revelation – and a great opportunity for change.
I wrote a blog back in March called, ‘Goal, content, process and relationship’, based on coaching I was doing at the time with leadership teams. I’ve used and adapted this model since with various teams and have noticed some interesting results.
Firstly, some people found the word ‘process’ confusing because, in their cultural framework, it suggested formal business processes rather than creative methods (e.g. within a team meeting) that could work best for the people in the room. I now use the word ‘method’ instead.
Secondly, some teams found it helpful to substitute ‘why’ for goal, ‘what’ for content, ‘how’ for process and ‘who’ for relationship. This enabled them to include e.g. ‘vision’ under why, ‘activities’ under what, ‘processes’ under how and ‘behaviours’ under who.
Thirdly, some teams have found it useful to highlight warning signs against each of the model’s 4 dimensions, indicating what to look out for as red flags. Against ‘goal’ I write ‘dulled’, against content, ‘distracted’, against method, ‘disengaged’ and against people, ‘dismissed’.
The most striking observation for me has been how the model seems to easy in principle and yet so difficult to apply and sustain. This is because teams, like individuals, can struggle to break away from embedded preoccupations, patterns of behaviour and ways of working.
In light of this, I’ve found it useful to encourage teams to pause and notice their own behaviour, reflect honestly on what is influencing their choices, challenge themselves when they are drifting off track and be willing to face and address underlying dynamics.
If you have tried using this, contrasting or similar models in team development and coaching, I would be very interested to hear from you, e.g. what you have done, how you have applied it, what kind of response you got and what happened as a result.
How would you describe your coaching style? What questions would you bring to a client situation?
In my experience, it depends on a whole range of factors including the client, the relationship, the situation and what beliefs and expertise I, as coach, may hold. It also depends on what frame of reference or approach I and the client believe could be most beneficial. Some coaches are committed to a specific theory, philosophy or approach. Others are more fluid or eclectic.
Take, for instance, a leader in a Christian organisation struggling with issues in her team. The coach could help the leader explore and address the situation drawing on any number of perspectives or methods. Although not mutually exclusive, each has its own focus and emphasis. The content and boundaries will reflect what the client and coach believe may be significant:
Appreciative/solutions-focused: e.g. ‘What would an ideal team look and feel like for you?’, ‘When has this team been at its best?’, ‘What made the greatest positive difference at the time?’, ‘What opportunity does this situation represent?’, ‘On a scale of 1-10, how well is this team meeting your and other team members’ expectations?’, ‘What would it take to move it up a notch?’
Psychodynamic/cognitive-behavioural: e.g. ‘What picture comes to mind when you imagine the team?’, ‘What might a detached observer notice about the team?’, ‘How does this struggle feel for you?’, ‘When have you felt like that in the past?’, ‘What do you do when you feel that way?’, ‘What could your own behaviour be evoking in the team?’, ‘What could you do differently?’
Gestalt/systemic: e.g. ‘What is holding your attention in this situation?’ ‘What are you not noticing?’, ‘What are you inferring from people’s behaviour in the team?’, ‘What underlying needs are team members trying to fulfil by behaving this way?’, ‘What is this team situation telling you about wider issues in the organization?’, ‘What resources could you draw on to support you?’
Spiritual/existential: e.g. ‘How is this situation affecting your sense of calling as a leader?’, ‘What has God taught you in the past that could help you deal with this situation?’, ‘What resonances do you see between your leadership struggle and that experienced by people in the Bible?’, ‘What ways of dealing with this would feel most congruent with your beliefs and values?’
An important principle I’ve learned is to explore options and to contract with the client. ‘These are some of the ways in which we could approach this issue. What might work best for you?’ This enables the client to retain appropriate choice and control whilst, at the same time, introduces possibilities, opportunities and potential new experiences that could prove transformational.
What are your favourite coaching questions? I often use 3 that I’ve found can create a remarkable shift in awareness, insight and practice, especially in team coaching. I’ve applied them using variations in language and adapted them to different client issues, opportunities and challenges. They draw on principles from psychodynamic, Gestalt and solutions-focused coaching and are particularly helpful when a client or team feels stuck, unable to find a way forward.
* ‘What’s your contribution to what you are experiencing?’
* ‘What do you need, to contribute your best?’
* ‘What would it take..?’
Client: ‘These meetings feel so boring! I always leave feeling drained rather than energised.’ Coach: ‘What’s your contribution to what you are experiencing?’ Client: ‘Excuse me?’ Coach: ‘What do you do when you feel bored?’ Client: ‘I drift away, look out of the window.’ Coach: ‘What might be the impact on the wider group when you drift away?’ Client: ‘I guess others may disengage too.’ Coach: ‘How does the meeting feel when people disengage?’ Client: 'Hmmm…boring!’
Coach: ‘What do you need to contribute your best?’ Client: ‘It would help certainly if we could negotiate and agree the agenda beforehand, rather than focus on things that feel irrelevant.’ Coach: ‘So you want to ensure the agenda feels relevant to you. What else?’ Client: ‘If we could meet off site and break for coffee from time to time, that would feel more energising.’ Coach: ‘So venue and breaks make a difference too. Anything else?’ Client: ‘No, that’s it.’
Client: ‘I don’t think I can influence where and how these meetings are held.’ Coach: ‘It sounds like you feel quite powerless. How would you rate your level of influence on a scale of 1-10?’ Client: ‘Around 3’. Coach: ‘What would it take to move it up to a 6 or 7?’ Client: ‘I guess if I showed more support in the meetings, the leader may be more open to my suggestions.’ Coach: ‘What else would it take?’ Client: ‘I could work on building my relationship with the leader outside of meetings too.’
These type of questions can help a client grow in awareness of the interplay between intrapersonal, interpersonal and group dynamics, his or her impact within a wider system, what he or she needs to perform well and how to influence the system itself. They can also shift a person or team from mental, emotional and physical passivity to active, optimistic engagement. What are your favourite coaching questions? How have you used them and what happened as a result?
Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant.