The impact of an unexpected collision can leave us dazed and reeling. A good friend was standing on a ski slope when suddenly, out of the blue, he felt himself flying through the air then laid on his back in intense pain and struggling to breathe. It turned out another skier had lost control and hit him at speed from behind. The impact could have killed him. Another friend was hit by a trike. He was riding his motorcycle and stopped at traffic lights. Unfortunately, the trike rider behind him didn’t see he had stopped and hit him hard. My friend lived but sustained serious head injuries.
I’ve lived through similar impacts and, 19 motorcycle accidents and 8 car crashes later, I have the aches and scars to prove it. There are parallels in psychological and emotional realms too, e.g. the impact of receiving unexpected and devastating news that can leave the whole world crashing down around us. Such experiences can leave us broken, disorientated and struggling to breathe. They may trigger fight-flight-freeze: we may scream, shout, kick, punch, run for cover or feel numb, paralysed. Our hope, life and existence can feel threatened. It takes time, rest and care to recover.
Yet there are also collisions of a very different kind. These are the serendipitous encounters, events and experiences that shift and reshape us positively. They alter radically our paradigms and beliefs and lift our eyes and hearts to a totally different plane. I remember when Jesus collided with me at age 21. The impact shook my life to its very core, transcending and transforming my deepest hopes and fears. I remember too so many ordinary-extraordinary people, places and experiences that have stimulated, disrupted, supported and challenged me. Collisions can be a life-giving gift.
So - I’m interested: what have been your worst and best collisions? How have they impacted and shaped you?
There’s an old Taoist story. It teaches that the answer to everything that goes apparently well or badly is maybe. ‘I got a new job. That’s great, isn’t it?’ Maybe. ‘I just crashed my car. That’s terrible, isn’t it?’ Maybe. The reason for maybe is that we don’t know the wider context or consequences of any encounter or event. We cannot predict all the ripple effects, some of which may continue down through the years or into completely different relationships or parts of the world. What we construe as a curse in the moment may turn out to be a blessing in disguise and vice versa. It’s complex.
Some of this is about framing and re-framing. We can view the same situation, the same moment, through different metaphorical lenses and see what different pictures emerge. Take, for instance, a change in any team in any organisation. The change will have pros and cons – and different pros and cons depending on which stakeholder perspective we or others view it from. It could touch on, say, wider roles, relationships and resources. Maybe depends on viewpoints and values: who is impacted and how, what it means psychologically and culturally and how it feels for them and others.
Maybe is also about time lags and time-frames. A change that creates pain now may result in positive benefits in the future or vice versa. An action we take here and now could trigger unintended consequences, a chain reaction down the line that we could never have imagined or anticipated. As such, maybe calls for openness, curiosity and humility. It calls us - and clients - to learn to approach 'knowing' and 'certainty' in tentative spirit, particularly in fluid (VUCA) environments. For me, it calls for prayer and patience too, to seek God’s insight and wisdom. What does maybe mean for you?
It has been great to work with charities, human rights and international NGOs for over 25 years. Yet I keep seeing the same 4 x Cs impeding and undermining well-being, development, sustainability and hope. These are: culture, conflict, corruption and climate. In the face of complex global, systemic issues and dynamics and what can look like insurmountable odds, we can feel like Sisyphus of Greek mythology, endlessly pushing a heavy boulder uphill only to have it endlessly roll down again.
Take a culture that denies girls and women access to education, thereby limiting its own potential and capacity for the future. Or a violent conflict that wipes out years of progress, reducing people’s homes, livelihoods and infrastructure to ruins. Or insidious corruption that stifles human rights and drains away precious resources to line the pockets of the rich and powerful. Or dramatic changes in climate that render whole populations vulnerable to drought, flooding, poverty or displacement.
I wish I could point my finger at the anonymous, proverbial ‘they’ or ‘them’ who are responsible for all this. I’m tempted to blame politicians, media, religions, banks, multinationals, oil companies, rich, poor, uneducated, apathetic, self-interested, everyone…but myself. Yet, if I’m honest, I see imprints of similar dynamics at work within me too. It’s what Francis Spufford (in his vivid, graphic paraphrase for the Christian notion of sin) calls bluntly: the universal human propensity to f*** things up.
So - what advice could we offer Sisyphus today? What can we learn as leaders, coaches, trainers and OD? 1. Recognise that who we are and what we do is part of what is: we are part of the problem and part of the solution too. 2. Step back from immediate issues and concerns to view things systemically and prayerfully: who or what is causing and sustaining what, why and how? 3. Be humble, collaborative and courageous: who else's insights, talents and resources could we draw on to achieve meaningful change?
‘People look for HD photos whereas what’s really possible is dots on a page.’
I met with an insightful strategy consultant last week who used this ingenious metaphor. We live in an era where leaders face increasing complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty. This can evoke anxiety, risk-aversion and paralysis in decision-making. Against this backdrop, it’s tempting to attempt to increase our certainty by gathering and analysing exhaustive (sometimes exhausting!) reams of data, information and evidence. It’s as if we may want and need to see a high definition photo where every detail is present and crystal clear before feeling confident enough to take a step forward.
I do get it. There are good reasons for basing decisions on research and evidence, especially in high-risk environments where to do otherwise could be reckless at best and dangerous at worst. Or if we miss great opportunities because we hadn’t looked well enough before leaping…or failing to leap. But what if such situations are the exception rather than the norm? What if ‘sufficient’ evidence is unavailable, or if it would take more time or other resources to gain it than we can afford, or if conditions are so complex and fluid that today’s truth fades quickly into tomorrow’s jaded history?
Picture this alternative. A blank sheet on which we place dots. We can place them wherever we want. The dots represent what we do know, what we have a gut feel for, what we could reasonably find out – if needed. We can add, remove or move dots as things progress. We can experiment with reconfiguring the dots into different, creative, shapes and patterns. We can play with colouring the space between the dots, around the dots, to see what picture, what possibilities, what passions emerge. I love this idea of the dots. Of joining the dots. Of steps in faith. Of creating future.
An organisation I work with is moving office this weekend. I spoke with one person today who commented that he feels sad to leave the building. When I invited him to elaborate, he explained that he has worked with the organisation for 15 years. He has seen and experienced lots of changes and yet this, somehow, feels like the end of an era in the organisation’s life and in his life too. The change from one building to another feels like an important physical and psychological transition.
There’s an idea in developmental psychology that, from an early age, during times of change we can attach meaning to objects that provide a sense of comfort and security (see, for instance, ‘More Than Just Teddy Bears’: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-guest-room/201407/more-just-teddy-bears). We could think of this as a bit like a person who clings onto a piece of drift wood when lost at sea. The wood can keep the person afloat and reduce the feeling of (total) isolation.
If the piece of wood is from the broken ship, it can provide a sense of psychological connection with what-was before. Holding onto the wood can provide a psychological sense of safety. It isn’t just me vs endless, boundary-less water. I am with this object, the log, and the log is with me. The log, by keeping me afloat, can provide me with a psychological sense of hope that I will get through this. In this sense, the log can take on a psychological significance for me that lays far beyond the log itself.
If we apply this insight during change in people’s and organisations’ lives, we can look out for things – whether, say, objects or routines – that people or groups now imbue with special significance. It could be, for instance, a photo or plant on the desk, a habitual conversation at coffee break, whatever people need to provide (enough) sense of security as they move forward. To offer support in the midst of this, avoid the temptation to label as ‘resistance’ and ask simply, ‘What do you need?’
‘We need to talk.’ 4 short words that can send a chill running down the spine. Perhaps it taps into being caught out as a child. That look from a parent or teacher when we know we’re in trouble. My wife called me into a room. ‘I want a divorce.’ 4 short, sharp words that created that same cold shiver. The room starts to spin, pulse races, breathing feels difficult. Fight, flight, freeze. Shock.
I want to run but my feet feel glued to the ground. It’s like I can’t move. Words clutter my brain and I speak but it all comes out clumsily, awkwardly, wrong. I feel angry and sad and understanding and confused. My wife’s face is telling its own story but I can’t read it. She looks absolutely the same and yet completely different. This is the woman I’ve known for 25 years. Scared – intimate strangers.
Life change really can feel like this, especially unexpected, out-of-the-blue change. It can send us reeling, a psychological, emotional and physical jolt. Debilitating and disorientating, dizzying in its effects. It draws deep spiritual and existential questions into sharp focus. ‘Why is this happening to me?’, ‘How could we have got here?’ It feels like grasping at mist, straining to take hold of God.
Perhaps you’re a leader, leading people through organisational change. Perhaps you’re a coach, therapist or trainer, working with people through transition. Here are 4 words of advice in such situations: Empathy: give people cathartic space to feel; Listen: create opportunities for people to talk; Patience: allow time for people to process what they're going through; Speak: 4 words – ‘I am with you.’
The best bit about the first day of a new year at school was getting a brand new exercise book. I remember writing my name v…e…r…y carefully on the front cover, trying to make my writing as neat as possible. And then the first page, blank and clean. I remember the feeling too as I wrote on it for the first time. The new page was a thing of perfect beauty. I didn’t want to make any mark that could spoil or detract from it. The pen would glide smoothly on the soft, fresh paper. Exquisite.
The new book represented a fresh start for me. No matter what successes or mistakes I had made in the previous year, no matter how many scribbles on the cover or crossings out on that year’s tattered pages, it was all behind me now. I could start all over again. All that new day, the future, held for me now was potential. And that experience, that awareness of endings and beginnings, has stayed with me, firstly when I became a follower of Jesus and then in my professional life too.
Gestalt psychology places interesting and helpful emphasis on ‘closure’. It marks the ending of one phase, one episode, one experience and thereby creates positive psychological and emotional space and energy to transition healthily to another. There are parallels in personal development and change leadership too. It’s as if by pausing, acknowledging and honouring one stage of our lives or work, it can enable us to face, invite and embrace the future with open arms, minds and hearts.
So what does this mean for leaders, OD, coaches and trainers? 1. Plan for key milestones, e.g. in strategies, projects and personal lives. 2. Invite people involved to say how they would love to mark them. 3. Create space to address the past, e.g. celebrations, failures and learning as well as thanks, apologies and forgiveness if needed. 4. Pay careful attention if people feel stuck, unable to move on. 5. Engender a sense of blank sheet and renewal as people move forward.
This is a place where Gestalt and Social Constructionism meet. ‘Ge-what and what?’ Already confused? You could well be. I’ll have a go at explaining it. I discovered these words whilst studying organisational and coaching psychology. They arise out of a background, a field of research, experience and practice where psychology and philosophy dance together to create meaning. They have become words that I love, carrying all kinds of exciting insights, ideas and potential.
Yet my point is that they only hold meaning, evoke a response, against a backdrop. My experience and understanding could be very different to yours and that will influence what we each notice, what sense we make of it and how we feel when we encounter it. So, for instance, if you are feeling irritated now by my use of academic-sounding language, your focus is likely to be on me, on my words, rather than on the personal background and experiences that influence your reaction.
Gestalt describes this phenomenon as ‘Figure’ – for argument’s sake, the thing we notice, that is holding our attention, in the moment, and ‘Ground’ – the background to the ‘Figure’ that we are not noticing. Similarly, Social Constructionism proposes that it’s the hidden subconscious backdrop of our beliefs, values, interests, experiences etc. that create meaning and make sense of that which we notice and focus on. And, for most of the time – the background is completely invisible to us.
So here are some ideas: You’re leading a team and people get stuck, fixated on an issue. Why is it so important to them? Check out the invisible backdrop as a way of resolving it. You’re facilitating an organisation through change and things start to feel derailed. Surface underlying cultural constructs and assumptions to enable a shift. You’re coaching a client who presents an issue, a relationship, as if it exists in a vacuum. Explore the invisible context, the ‘what else’, to create a solution.
‘Listen. Tactics and techniques matter – but not as much as what you believe.’ This was my advice to a CEO who was about to embark on a strategic change process. The question had been about to what extent and how to engage staff in it. ‘As you look out across the organisation, what do you believe about those you see? Picture the real people, the real faces. Do you see abstract human resources that can be retained or dispensed with depending on the outcome of the review – or passionate and talented people you’d love to have with you as you move forward from here?’
My point is this: what you believe about people influences fundamentally how you relate, how others experience you and how they’re likely to behave in response. If the idea I hold in mind is that you are a dispensable human resource, no matter what clever engagement tactics and techniques I use, at some level you will sense it, feel it, know it. You’re unlikely to trust me if what I say and do conflicts with what you’re picking up from me intuitively or subconsciously. It’s a mixed message. You will experience me as confusing, inauthentic, incongruent. You may resist or withdraw.
Now picture this. If the idea I hold of you is that you’re amazing, talented and that I really do want you on board, imagine the impact that belief has on you, on how you experience me, on how you feel as a result. The CEO chose this latter stance as it resonated well with his personal values. He also asked me to hold him to account personally throughout to ensure integrity and consistency. The change leadership team achieved high levels of useful and enthusiastic staff input and, to top it off, the Staff Council presented the team with a special award for modelling ‘partnership spirit’.
So, leader, OD, coach or trainer, what do you believe..?
I unexpectedly found my eyes 'sweating' as I first saw my Twitter feed this morning. First shock. Deep breaths. Then disbelief. Then numbness. Then fighting back tears. Stepping onto the train in a daze. Lost for words. David Bowie is dead.
Tributes pour in from across the world to a man, an artist, who touched so many people’s lives. From my earliest teens until now, so many life memories are etched with his music, his imagery, his artistry. Words, often veiled in mystery, expressing hopes, fears, dreams – life.
I didn’t know Bowie personally. Yet for those who loved his gift to the world, his astonishing talent, he became woven intimately into the fabric of our lives. His death is a sharp tearing of the fabric, a feeling that something of our own lives has died with him.
So public and personal grief touch here, hand in hand. This evening, this day, we mourn the loss of an extraordinary man. I know: tomorrow the news and our lives will move onto different stories. Yet, in our hearts, something - somehow - will have changed.
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.