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!
ABC - Always Be Contracting. (Watts)
A coach friend commented recently that he keeps annoying clients and is not sure why. He likes to challenge people’s thinking but they don’t always respond well. I asked, ‘Have you contracted first with your clients about how you will work together?’ Great questions at the outset can be, ‘What are we here to do?’ and ‘How shall we do this?’ It creates opportunity to discuss and agree what to focus on and what kind of relationship and ways of working will be most useful.
I had another experience where contracting proved valuable. I had joined an organisation as a new team leader and one of my team members led a presentation. Afterwards, she asked if I could give her any feedback. I asked with a smile, ‘Are you asking for affirmation – or critique?’ ‘I’m so glad you asked that’, she replied. ‘I’m really just hoping I impressed you as my new boss!’ That opened a very different conversation about how we would like to work together in the future.
What we are talking about here is similar to a counsellor establishing a 'therapeutic container’. It’s about creating psychological, relational boundaries, focus and ground rules together that enable honest, robust conversations to take place (high in support and high in challenge) without feeling threatened – because that’s what we’ve agreed to do in that context. We can renegotiate the terms of engagement as time or things move on or if the context for the relationship changes.
I worked as coach with a leadership team that was struggling with internal conflict. It felt caught in a vicious cycle and couldn’t find a way out of it. I invited the team to imagine a team meeting that, by contrast, felt incredibly inspiring and effective. They painted a vivid picture of a very positive team experience. ‘What were you and others doing that made the difference?’ They agreed behaviours, began to practise them and the team’s experience was transformed.
The core principle here is about making the implicit explicit. Rather than assuming that different people share the same underlying assumptions and expectations, raise them to the surface – especially if establishing new relationships or working with people from different backgrounds. ‘ I think a great outcome would be X. Is that what you think?’, ‘I see my role in this as X and yours as Y. How do you see it?’, ‘I’d find it useful if you would X. What would you find useful from me?’
If things feel tense or stuck, I find it useful to imagine myself speaking from an observing place, as if I’m standing outside of the room looking in, and comment dispassionately on what I’m noticing here-and-now. ‘I’m aware this conversation is going in circles without moving forward…and I’m wondering how we might approach this differently to get a different result.’ It invites insight from the other person too and opens opportunity to contract to solutions that will work for both.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.