Picture this. Early morning. Hotel. Looking forward to a good cup of tea - for which read lots of good cups of tea. I mean, I had slept (for which read I hadn’t slept) on a hotel bed that night and was feeling sleepy, in real need of a caffeine fix. So the waitress offers me a small pot of tea. You know, one of those things that’s so small that it barely fills one cup. Politely, I ask for a large pot instead.
The waitress appears. Large pot of tea. I feel a sense of excitement. Excellent. She leaves the pot on the table and I lift it to pour. Oh…feels unexpectedly light. :/ Weird. Lift the lid and look inside. Tiny amount of hot water, enough to fill one cup, with 4 tea bags floating in it. Strong as treacle. So I call her back. Ask her to fill the pot to the top with hot water. Wait again in hopeful anticipation.
Waitress reappears with the large pot in hand. Puts it on the table and walks away. It’s heavy this time. Yes. Excitement. Lift the lid just to check. Pot full of clear, hot water, no tea bags. Aaargh. Call the waitress back. ‘Could I have 3 tea bags please?’ Waitress looks bemused, that make-your-mind-up look. Comes back with 3 tea bags. Tries to take the pot away. I grab it with both hands…
What was going on here? Peter Cotterell, comms guru, calls this being in different ‘presuppositional pools’. I had an idea in mind, what I wanted, and assumed the waitress would get that without my explaining it. She, on the other hand, had a very different idea of what I meant. We were in very different pools without even realising it. So, what was your best-worst communication gaff?
When teams are under pressure, e.g. dealing with critical issues, sensitive topics or working to tight deadlines, tensions can emerge that lead to conversations getting stuck. Stuck-ness between two or more people most commonly occurs when at least one party’s underlying needs are not being met, or a goal that is important to them feels blocked.
The most obvious signs or stuck-ness are conversations that feel deadlocked, ping-pong back and forth without making progress or go round and round in circles. Both parties may state and restate their views or positions, wishing the other would really hear.
If unresolved, responses may include anger/frustration (fight) or disengagement/withdrawal (flight).
If such situations occur, a simple four step process can make a positive difference, releasing the stuck-ness to move things forward. It can feel hard to do in practice, however, if caught up in the drama and the tense feelings that ensue! I’ve found that jotting down questions as an aide memoire can help, especially if stuck-ness is a repeating pattern.
1. Observation. (‘What’s going on?’). This stage involves metaphorically (or literally) stepping back from the interaction to notice and comment non-judgementally on what’s happening. E.g. ‘We’re both stating our positions but seem a bit stuck’. ‘We seem to be talking at cross purposes.’
2. Awareness. (‘What’s going on for me?’). This stage involves tuning into my own experience, owning and articulating it, without projecting onto the other person. E.g. ‘I feel frustrated’. ‘I’m starting to feel defensive.’ ‘I’m struggling to understand where you are coming from.’ ‘I’m feeling unheard.’
3. Inquiry. (‘What’s going on for you?’). This stage involves inquiring of the other person in an open spirit, with a genuine, empathetic, desire to hear. E.g. ‘How are you feeling?’ ‘What are you wanting that you are not receiving?’ ‘What’s important to you in this?’ ‘What do you want me to hear?’
4. Action. ('What will move us forward?’) This stage involves making requests or suggestions that will help move the conversation forward together. E.g. ‘This is where I would like to get to…’ ‘It would help me if you would be willing to…’. ‘What do you need from me?’ ‘How about if we try…’
Shifting the focus of a conversation from content to dynamics in this way can create opportunity to surface different felt priorities, perspectives or experiences that otherwise remain hidden. It can allow a breathing space, an opportunity to re-establish contact with each other. It can build understanding, develop trust and accelerate the process of achieving results.
It was an energising experience, facilitating a group of leaders this week who are keen to build a new high performing team. We pushed the boundaries of normal ways of working to stimulate innovative ideas in all aspects of the team’s work. We used photos to create an agenda and physically enacted people’s aspirations to avoid falling into conventional patterns of heady, rational conversation.
It felt very different to meeting ‘because that’s what we do’. There was a different dynamic, energy and momentum. Participants leaned actively into the conversation, not leaning back in passivity or boredom. Yet it can be a real challenge to break free from tradition, from norms that trap a team in ways of doing things that feel familiar and safe but, deep down, lack inspiration or effectiveness.
In our meetings, how often do we pause before diving into the agenda to ask, ‘What’s the most important thing we should be focusing on?’, ‘How are we feeling about this?’, ‘What is distracting us or holding our attention?’, ‘What could be the most creative and inspiring way to approach this?’, ‘What do we each need, here and now, to bring our best to this?’, ‘What would be a great result?’
So I presented a simple model to the team with four words: content (what), process (how) and relationship (who) encircled around goal (where). In all my experience of working with individuals and teams, whether in coaching, training or facilitation, whether in the UK or overseas, these four factors are key recurring themes that make a very real difference.
They seem to be important factors that, if we get them right, make a positive impact. They lead to people feeling energised, more alive, more motivated and engaged. Conversely, if we get them wrong, they leave people frustrated, drained of energy, bored or disengaged. Worse still, if left unaddressed, they can lead to negative, destructive conflict that completely debilitates a team.
We can use a simple appreciative inquiry to reflect on this.‘Think back to your best experience of working with another person or team. How did you feel at the time?’, ‘Think back to a specific example of when you felt like that with the person or team. Where were you at the time? What were you doing? What were they doing? What made the biggest positive difference for you?’
One of the things we notice when asking such questions is that different things motivate and energise different people. That is, of course, one of the tricky parts of leading any team. So a next question to pose could be something like, ‘What would it take for this team to feel more like that, more of the time for you?’ and to see what the wider team is willing to accommodate or negotiate.
Now back to the model with some sample prompts to check out and navigate with a client, group or team. Notice how the different areas overlap and impact on each other. It’s about addressing all areas, not just to one or two in isolation. However, having explored each area in whatever way or level suits your situation, you are free to focus your efforts on those that need
Goal: ‘What’s your vision for this?’, ‘Why this, why now?’, ‘What are you hoping for?’, ‘What would make a great outcome for you?’, ‘What would be the benefits of achieving it or the costs of not achieving it?’, ‘Who or what else is impacted by it and how?, ‘Where would you like to get to by the end of this conversation?’, ‘An hour from now, what would have made this worthwhile?’
Content: ‘What’s the most important issue to focus this time on?’, ‘What is the best use of our time together?’, ‘What is the issue from your perspective?’, ‘How clear are you about what this issue entails?’, ‘What feelings is this issue evoking for you?’, ‘What do we need to take into account as we work on this together?’, ‘Do we have the right information and expertise to do this?’
Process: ‘How would you like to do this?’, ‘What approach would you find most inspiring?’, ‘What might be the best way to approach this given the time available?’, ‘Which aspects to we need to address first before moving onto others?’, ‘What would be best to do now and what could be best done outside of this meeting?’, ‘Could we try a new way that would lift our energy levels?’
Relationship: ‘What’s important to you in this?’, ‘What underlying values does this touch on for you?’, ‘How are you impacted?’, ‘How are you feeling?’, ‘What are you noticing from your unique perspective?’, ‘What distinctive contribution could you bring?’, ‘What is working well in the team’s relationships?’, ‘What is creating tension?’, ‘How could we resolve conflicting differences?’
The versatility of the model is that it can be reapplied to coaching, training and other contexts too. In a training environment you could consider, for instance, ‘What are we here to learn?’ (goal), ‘What material should we cover?’ (content), ‘What methods will suit different learning styles?’ (process) and ‘How can we help people work together well in this environment?' (relationship).
In a coaching context it could look something like, ‘How do you hope to develop through engaging in this coaching experience?’ (goal), ‘What issues, challenges or opportunities would you like to focus on?’ (content), ‘How would you like to approach this together?’ (process) and ‘What would build and sustain trust as we work on these things together?’ (relationship).
I’d be interested to hear from you. Do the areas represented in this model resonate with your own experiences? Which factors have you noticed tend to be most attended to or ignored? Do you have any real-life, practical examples of how you have addressed these factors and what happened as a result? In your experience, what other factors make the biggest difference?
What’s your theory of change? What issues are you trying to address? What creates and sustains those issues? What kind of interventions and when are most likely to prove successful? What would success look and feel like, and for whom? What is your overall goal? These are some of the questions we looked at on a Theory of Change workshop I took part in yesterday. Theories of change are becoming increasingly commonplace in the third sector, paralleling e.g. strategy maps in other sectors. There are a number of reasons for this. Charities and NGOs are under increasing scrutiny from supporters and funders to demonstrate how their resources are being used to achieve optimal impact. This has created a whole industry in impact evaluation.
The third sector is maturing too. No longer driven into action by empathy or altruistic instinct alone, organisations in this sector have more experience, more evidence of what works and what doesn’t and more analysis and understanding of why. The issues have turned out to be more complex than some had originally imagined, making significant and sustained progress challenging. Against this backdrop, a theory of change can prove valuable. It aims to clarify goals and outcomes and to work back to activities and other factors that will enable the outcomes to be achieved. In articulating these things clearly and succinctly (often in simple graphic flowchart form), underlying assumptions and causal links can be surfaced, explained and tested.
At heart, a theory of change answers questions such as ‘What are we trying to achieve?’, ‘What is necessary for the goal to be achieved?’ and ‘What’s the rationale behind our intervention strategy?’ In doing so, it makes the organisation’s focus, operations and use of resources transparent, accountable and more open to challenge and improvement as new research and evidence emerges. I find myself particularly drawn to the critical-reflective aspects. For instance, one NGO I worked with conducted a fundamental strategy review starting with these same principles, asking questions such as, ‘Why are people poor?, ‘What causes and sustains poverty?’, ‘What interventions make the greatest difference?’, ‘What is our optimal contribution?’
One of the interesting challenges for a third sector organisation is whose voice is represented in framing and answering such questions, e.g. donors, beneficiaries, trustees, staff, volunteers. A charitable organisation I work with currently conducted a strategy review recently, inviting feedback from beneficiaries using surveys, focus groups etc. to find out what they struggle with and aspire to and what role they would want to see the organisation playing in helping them address or achieve these issues. The needs and aspirations that surfaced have been summarised as ‘I’ rather than ‘we’ or ‘they’ statements in clear and colloquial language, keeping the focus on what each individual as beneficiary wants to experience as a result of the organisation’s actions.
This is a sharp contrast with some experiences I’ve had in the past. In one instance, a third sector organisation I worked with set up a drop-in project providing advice and support for long-term unemployed people. The Local Authority provided funding using ‘number of people using the service’ as its key success criterion. Paradoxically, the more successful the service was in enabling local people to find employment, thereby reducing the number of people who needed to access the service, the more the service was deemed statistically by the Local Authority to be failing. A theory of change can help surface such outcomes and assumptions at an early stage, enabling more constructive dialogue and agreement between agencies and stakeholders.
I believe the potential for theory of change extends beyond third sector organisations aiming to articulate their vision, strategy, plans and reasons behind them. I’ve used similar methodologies to explore and articulate an organisation development strategy within a third sector organisation. We started by exploring a number of questions with diverse stakeholders and groups such as, ‘What kind of organisation are we trying to develop?’, ‘Where are we now?’, ‘Why are things as they are?’, ‘What drives or sustains how things are?’, ‘What matters most to people here?’, ‘Who or what influences change?’, ‘What would it take to achieve the changes?’ This enabled us to create a map showing goals, activities, assumptions and causal relationships.
The same principles can be applied at team and individual levels too, e.g. for leadership, coaching, mentoring, training and counselling purposes. It enables dialogue between different parties and keeps rationale and assumptions explicit. If assumptions are clear to all parties, they can be challenged and revised in light of different preferences, perspectives, realities and evidence. I’ve used adaptations of this approach with people and organisations where Christian beliefs have been held as important and integral, developing the model as a theology of change. A theology of change may surface and articulate e.g. God’s purpose, values, presence and activity in the world, the role of the Spirit and Christians, discerning a sense of ‘calling’.
In my experience, the language and methods of applying theory or change need to be adapted for different purposes and audiences. It represents a logical-rational paradigm that is likely to work well for some people and cultures but not so well for others. Using Honey & Mumford’s learning styles as one possible frame of reference, theory of change (as the name implies) may appeal most to people, teams or cultures with a theorist orientation. Reflectors may be attracted most by its emphasis on surfacing underlying assumptions, activists by the evidential dimensions and pragmatists by its focus on outcomes. Perhaps the key lies in using the principles it embodies flexibly and sensitively in the context of real human dialogue and relationship.
Have you noticed how different people respond differently to change? Some go very quiet, some completely freak out, some bombard with questions, some seem comfortable with the big picture. There are various ways of understanding why and, even better, practical ways to take this into account when planning and communicating change.
Here below are some insights and tips from a friend and colleague, Richard Marshall, drawing on insights from Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). For more on this tool, check out the Myers & Briggs Foundation (http://www.myersbriggs.org/). The ideas shared here are intended as indicative rather than definitive, suggestive rather than prescriptive.
In MBTI terms, people with an extroverted preference like energetic communication, time to talk about what’s going on, to be spoken with, to have opportunity to share their own views and ideas in conversation, to be involved. People with an introverted preference like written communication, time to reflect, one to one conversations, to be asked for their views.
People with a sensing preference like real data, detailed explanation of what’s happening and why, specific information about what will change and when, a realistic picture of the future and clear guidelines. People with an intuitive preference like to know the overall rationale, a general plan or direction, opportunity to co-create a vision, opportunities to influence.
People with a thinking preference like to know the logic behind decisions, clarity in decision making and planning, a clear view of the goals and structure, fairness and equity in the changes. People with a feeling preference like to know that leaders care, that impacts on people have been recognised, how people will be supported, what values underlie the changes.
People with a judging preference like a clear, concise action plan, defined outcomes with clear goals, a structured timeframe, no new surprises and a commitment to see the changes through to completion. People with a perceiving preference like an open ended plan, general parameters, flexibility with lots of options, room to adjust goals and plans.
The important thing is to remember that every individual is unique. The same person may respond differently in the same kinds of circumstances depending on how he or she is feeling, what else is happening in his or her life etc. As a rule of thumb, check out with the individuals and teams concerned: ‘how would you like us to do this’ before leaping into action.
My daughter is studying media and we had a chat today about communication principles, particularly about working with large groups, e.g. presenting at meetings or conferences. On the face of it, I explained, it’s as simple as ABC: (a) having clear intention, (b) knowing your audience and (c) using effective media.
Having clear intention
What do you want your audience to leave thinking? Do you want them to have fresh information, knowledge, questions, understanding? If so, what is the focus? If you were to meet with each person present one week later, what are the three key things you hope they would remember from this meeting?
What do you want your audience to leave feeling? Do you want them to feel encouraged, inspired, confident, challenged? What do you want your audience to do as a result of this encounter? Do you have specific actions in mind? If so, is the audience clear what you want them to do – what, how and when?
Knowing your audience
This is tricky in large meetings, especially if open meetings. It’s about finding out as much as you can beforehand. Why are these people here? What are their core interests? What kind of language, metaphors and concepts do they tend to use? What would make this meeting worthwhile from their point of view?
It’s worth assuming a mix of theorists (who will want to know that what you’re saying is well founded), reflectors (who will want space and time to think it through), pragmatists (who will want to know there is some practical purpose to it) and activists (who will want to get on and do something).
Also a mix of thinkers (like to know the rationale), feelers (want to feel an emotional connection), big picture people (like to know overall vision and concepts), data people (want to know the key details), organised people (like structure) and emergent people (enjoy fluidity).
Using effective media
The choice of media falls out of intention and audience and what kind of facilities and equipment are available. Some people have a visual preference (engage with what they see) some auditory (engage with what they hear) and some kinaesthetic (engage by doing something practical).
Using a range of media, therefore, that involve seeing, hearing and doing can be most engaging for a large mixed group. This often demands creative thought and planning beforehand. ‘What could be the most creative and engaging way to do this?’ ‘How can we best use a diverse mix of media in the same meeting?’
It’s worth thinking about who to involve too. It would be one thing for a team to present on its own work, what it does. It would be another thing for a different team to present on what that team’s efforts have enabled them to do. It can help to involve a range of people, to hear different, unexpected voices.
Intention, audience and media are important. I’ve learned over time, however, that authenticity and trust are equally, if not more, important. Covey comments, ‘When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective’. When trust is low, even the most simple communications can feel strained.
I often encourage speakers to consider beforehand, ‘As you look out on this sea of faces, what do you really believe? Do you genuinely love these people? Do you believe they are worthy of trust and respect? Is what you want to communicate real and true? Are you really open to listen and invite challenge?’
These are the more subtle aspects of communication, the character and values dimensions that can easily be missed, lost or ignored whilst focusing on technical messages, methods and techniques. It's passionate conviction, quiet humility and determined integrity that often make the difference.
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.