I haven’t always been good at doing the sensible thing. Take, for instance, the time when I left my job and studies in industry after 5 years of hard work, 3 months before my finals. I had recently become a Christian and believed Jesus was leading me into a new volunteer role in community development instead. My family and friends thought I had gone crazy. What on earth was I thinking of? They urged me to do the sensible thing, not to be so reckless with my life. I could understand what they were saying. Nevertheless, I resigned and never looked back. Not even for a moment.
That was one of the best decisions of my life. It changed the course of everything for me. I also wasn’t sensible, apparently, when I decided to give all my possessions away, to live out of a rucksack in an attempt to identify with the world’s poorest people. I wasn’t sensible when I worked in some unstable and dangerous places in the world in my work with charities, human rights and NGOs. I wasn’t sensible when I applied to do a master’s degree when I didn’t have any of the pre-requisite qualifications. I prayed, negotiated, worked hard and completed it with a distinction grade.
I wasn’t sensible when, more recently, I crashed my bike on a charity ride and snapped my knee sideways, leaving me seriously debilitated. I was told to be mindful, to accept my new reality and not to fight against it. I refused and I dragged myself forward step by painful step. I can now walk. I have managed to cycle and swim further than I had ever done before. I have learned that ‘sensible’ is a construct, a preference, a cultural outlook, a state of mind, a stance in the world. It appears self-evident, rational, reasonable and safe. Yet how far are we willing to take a risk - a leap of faith?
It was dark, at night, in heavy traffic. I could only just make out the shocking scene in front of me. I flipped up my visor and there, in the headlights, I saw a man beating another man badly. Without thinking, I pulled up on my motorcycle and quickly ran over to the assailant, arms outstretched and said, ‘Are you OK?’ He looked at me, puzzled, got back in his car and drove away. The other man, face covered in blood, thanked me…’You just saved my life.’
I felt puzzled too. I was astonished that I had approached the attacker with compassion and yet also noticed how it had diffused rather than inflamed the situation. DeBono calls this ‘lateral thinking’ – to do the counter-intuitive as a way of creating shift. It felt to me like God’s surprising wisdom. It was an important learning moment for me too. What can our actions inadvertently evoke in others? How far do we actually create what we experience?
Then I’m in Germany. I had been an anti-Nazi activist since I was 15 and here I was in the midst of a Christian social work project that aimed to influence neo-Nazi youth by reaching out to them. It ran against everything I felt and believed. Surely – we must oppose these people vehemently rather than open our arms to them?! And yet, over time, I learned important things about their psychology. Attacking would have stiffened their resolve and reinforced their beliefs.
Now to 9-11. Appalling scenes on TV and people crying out for revenge. I remember my first words: ‘We need to think very carefully before we respond. What reaction is Al Qaeda trying to provoke and what will that achieve for them?’ It was a complex situation and a controversial stance and yet, years later, the Middle East is in flames, Islamist extremism is spreading, the West lives in fear of terror and refugees are pouring across borders at unprecedented levels.
I think Gestalt psychology can offer critical insight here. Figure and ground: figure is what holds our attention, ground is the backdrop that provides the context yet lays out of awareness. So here we are in the EU with problems of rising nationalism. The far right parties hold our attention, provide a focus for our fear and scorn, yet the conditions that fuel their support, that drive people towards them, lay unexamined, out of consciousness, out of the spotlight.
Like a magician that tricks by misdirection, we can find our attention drawn to the person, the issue that lays immediately in front of our eyes and miss the vital background. It’s so tempting to go for it. We can feel justified in our actions, feel better about ourselves, yet how often do we compound the issue by what we do? How far are we creating the monsters that keep us awake at night? How can we spot the sleight of hand that deceives us so convincingly?
Are you an agent of hope - or of fear? It’s a stark choice. Faced with challenges that look and feel insurmountable, it’s easy to fall into fear. Some avoid fear by closing their eyes tightly, holding their breath, sticking their fingers in their ears and singing, ‘La la la’, hoping it will go away. Some try to avoid the situations, the relationships, the circumstances that evoke their fears. It sometimes works, but not often. Our fears have an annoying way of stalking and haunting us, tracking us down.
And so it is so often with those we lead, coach, train or facilitate in groups. What message do we model, communicate, inspire in others? I walked through fire last week. Well, on burning embers anyway. It was a charity fundraising event and I volunteered. In preparation beforehand, a trainer tested our fears in order to build resilience. We did all sorts of strange activities to overcome our inhibitions, culminating in breaking boards with bare hands and snapping an arrow end-on with my throat(!)
Weird stuff. But it worked. The Firewalk was easy after that. It’s the same as exposure therapy: a gradual exposure to things we fear most in order to overcome our anxiety by facing them head-on and by doing them, not just thinking about them. Have you heard of P = P – I? Performance = Potential – Interference, based on Tim Gallwey’s Inner Game. Interference can be external or internal. Internal includes our fears of failure, of rejection, of humiliation, of getting it wrong.
So I’m intrigued by how often e.g. God in the Bible says, ‘Don’t be afraid’. There’s a deep spiritual, existential dimension to this. Who or what do we place our trust in, our confidence in? What enables us to muster courage, to take a stance, in the face of our fears? There’s a psychological dimension to this too. How far do we take a breath, reveal our anxieties, take a risk, take courageous steps forward in the face of fear - to build the belief and hope in others that they can do the same?
It’s Christmas Day and I could have better used the title Christmas mess-edge for this short piece. The story of Jesus Christ isn’t just a sweet and sentimental account of a baby boy born in Bethlehem 2000+ years ago. If it’s true, it’s about God entering the very real messiness of our lives and world and offering the potential to transform them into something completely new. Something beyond our wildest dreams, hopes or expectations. Something that stretches and transcends the boundaries of all human existence and experience.
I’ve known something about this notion of stretching boundaries over this past year, about extending the edges of my own experience. I bought a new bike in the spring, challenged myself to cycle over 1000 miles in 6 months and over 50 miles in a single ride. I had never done anything like that before and yet I did it. I also challenged myself to swim 1 mile 3 times in the same week. And I did it. It felt like I had crossed over an important physical and psychological line, achieving things that had previously felt impossible for me.
I wrote and had published my first article with the British Association for Counselling and Psychology (BACP). I’d written lots of articles for different publications before but this felt like the next step up in a professional field that sits close to my heart. The editor of Coaching Today invited me to write on spirituality and I jumped at the chance. To top it off, I did my first ever series of radio interviews on spirituality too. It was a great opportunity and a novel experience so sit in a recording studio and to share my beliefs openly on air.
And if that was the end of the story, there would be no need for a Jesus, at least for me. But it’s far from the end. I’ve struggled and failed on so many fronts. Sometimes, I haven’t even struggled when I have known I should. I’ve known deeply and personally what Francis Spufford aptly calls the universal ‘human propensity to f* things up’ (Unapologetic, 2013). At times, I’ve failed in relationships, made mistakes at work, fallen short of my own standards, spoken when I should have kept quiet and kept quiet when I should have spoken.
What’s more, one of my closest friends has fought courageously with terminal illness. I’ve felt hopeful and helpless, trying to offer support where I could yet knowing I can’t make it OK. I’ve yearned to take the anxiety away but known that I can’t. I’ve watched Syria in the news, the damage that human beings are able to inflict on each others’ lives, on whole countries and regions. I’ve felt impotent and confused. Not all the time, but enough to know that redeeming the world is something I can take part in yet, ultimately, lies well beyond me.
And so as I reflect on Christmas, I know what it is to be an aspiring yet fragile human being. I’ve felt exciting moments on the edge of success and have known what it is to screw up and need forgiveness. I have felt the amazing love of others, often undeserved yet tangible all the same. At that first nativity, I believe God himself entered the messy complexity of our lives and world with the most profound message of love and hope possible. Not just in words but in a life well-lived and a promise of presence and eternal life. Merry Christ-mas!
What is real, what is true, how can we know? These are questions that have vexed philosophers for centuries. In more recent times, we have seen an increasing convergence between philosophy and psychology in fields such as social constructionism and existential therapy. How we experience and make sense of being, meaning and purpose is inextricably linked to how we behave, what we choose and what stance we take in the world.
As a Christian and psychological coach, I’m intrigued by how these fundamental issues, perspectives and actions intertwine with my beliefs, spirituality and practice. Descartes once wrote, ‘If you would be a real seeker after truth, you must at least once in your life doubt, as far as possible, all things.’ It’s as if we must be prepared to suspend all assumptions about ‘what is’, to explore all possibilities and dare to think the unthinkable in order to grow and make our best contribution.
Things are not always as they at first appear. There are sometimes multiple explanations for the same phenomenon, depending on the frame of reference we or others use to interpret it (see, for instance, Gareth Morgan’s seminal work, Images of Organisation, 1986). We are sometimes blinded to what’s in front of us by our prejudices, preconceptions, cultural constraints or rigid views of the world. It can be hard to maintain healthy scepticism without cynicism.
I see it with clients, sometimes in myself too. A sense of being trapped by a fixed Gestalt, a cognitive distortion, an inherited or learned belief system. An inability to see, to recognise the box that we’re in, never mind to see or think outside of it. An avoidance of deep, difficult questions because of the discomfort, confusion or anxiety they may evoke. If we’re not careful, if we can’t find the right help when we need it, it may limit our lives and our learning.
I think this is where coaching can play a very important role, helping pose and address some deep questions. Nick Bolton commented insightfully in Coaching Today that, ‘To explore a coaching issue existentially is to understand the relationship that the presenting problem has to the human condition to which it is a response, and to remain focused on enabling a change of perspective that allows the client to move past their current challenge.’
He also provided some helpful examples: ‘For instance, how is a client’s procrastination around something that seems to matter to her a failure to remember that life comes to an end? How is a client’s need to be unconditionally loved by his partner an attempt to deal with existential rather than interpersonal isolation? (And the solutions are very different things). How is someone’s lethargy simply a part of their fear of taking responsibility for their life?’ (July 2013, p17)
A metaphysical, existential or theological dimension can shift the entire paradigm of the coaching conversation. The question of whether a client should apply for this or that job is influenced by her sense of purpose. If she is willing to consider that God may exist and have a plan for her life, the whole situational context will change. It can be a dizzying and exciting experience, yet it’s really a question of how courageous and radical we and the client are prepared to be.
Calling has long-standing roots in theistic spiritual traditions, often associated with being ‘called by God’ to a certain way of life or to a specific course of action. Existential psychologists have commented on how sometimes it feels like a situation is calling for its own response from us. In both cases, the source of the calling is attributed to someone or something beyond us. It’s a phenomenon that can feel like an evocative pull, tugging at something deep within us.
I’ve experienced this many times since becoming a Christian, a strange intuition that feels beyond me, prompting or leading me in a certain direction. Sometimes it seems very clear or inspiring, at others it’s more of a vague notion, a restlessness that compels me to move or change. I’ve often experienced it in coaching relationships too, an almost irresistible impulse to speak or act that feels like revelation, an energising compulsion from the situation itself.
It’s not magic, something I can make happen, something I can manufacture for myself. It’s sometimes unexpected, sometimes challenging and sometimes involves scary risk-taking. It’s not definitive either, something I can measure, test or prove in a lab. This can make the experience of calling feel mysterious, sometimes spiritual, a step in faith in response to a curious, invisible stimulus. It’s as if something ‘out there’ connects with something ‘in here’, setting up a dynamic resonance.
So how to apply this in leadership and coaching? How to listen for and discern calling in the midst of so many other tasks and preoccupations that clamour for our attention? How to weigh up calling in order to act wisely? In my experience, there is no simple formula. It’s mostly about learning to be still, to live with awareness, to tune into my intuition, to be sensitive to prompts from the situation itself, to experiment and see what happens, to be open to God in prayer.
I wish I could say I always follow this call. Sometimes I'm sceptical, sometimes I pull back for fear of embarrassment or failure. Nevertheless, I've seen and felt amazing things happen when I do listen and act. I would love to hear from others on this topic of calling. When have you felt called? What was the situation? What did the experience of calling feel like? What did you attribute the calling to? How did you act in response? What happened as a result?
It was really muddy this weekend and the woodland tracks were almost impassable. Almost. It’s precisely the almost-ness that makes this sport so challenging and exhilarating. I’m not that skilled on a mountain bike. I can do enough to complete rough tracks on hilly ground without falling off too often. Last year I went over the handlebars, not on purpose, when I hit a tree root hidden by bracken. It left me breathless, yet the element of risk adds to the thrill and adventure.
Each time I go out, I get that bit better. My legs get stronger and I improve my balance. I skip over a log where before I would have stepped off the bike to lift it over. I wince less when I get caught by brambles, digging their thorns through my trousers and shirt. I get a better sense of which puddles to ride through and which to avoid. I push on ahead whereas in earlier days I might have given up. I’m improving my stamina, my fitness and my biking technique – and it feels great.
Spurred on by a friend who has also joined this cycling sport, I signed up this week for a sponsored ride for a UK charity (http://www.justgiving.com/Nick-Wright40). It’s a stretching target for me, the longest distance I will have ridden since I was 15. It feels like testing myself, seeing what I’m capable of, paving the way perhaps to even greater challenges in the future. I think that’s where the fun is, that ‘not sure if I can make it’ feeling combined with a gritted determination to succeed.
I’m reminded of leadership, of parenting and of coaching. How can we keep ourselves and others at the cutting edge, the edge where we and they feel stretched and challenged yet most alive? How can we motivate ourselves and others to keep growing, to keep pushing boundaries of experience without feeling over-stretched or snapping? How can we develop our own and others’ resilience to persevere and to reach new heights that we or they would never have dreamed possible?
Reaching 64 lengths felt like quite a stretch. I normally swim around 25 so pushing for a mile felt exciting yet daunting. When I did reach the final strokes, I felt tired yet exhilarated. It was a good feeling, a feeling of achieving something beyond my normal boundaries, routine, comfort zone. In that moment, I felt more alive somehow as if I had extended my boundaries into a new space. I was spurred on to test my limits by a good friend who takes his own sport, motorcycling, to extremes, perfecting his riding technique in every detail and crossing continents in ways I only dream of. Rho Sandberg added inspiration in her deeply thought-provoking blog, ‘Working with our Edges and No-Go Zones’: http://thegritintheoyster.cleconsulting.com.au/blog/working-our-edges-and-no-go-zones.
Rho, a coach and consultant, comments on how each time we reach the border of our experience, it’s as if we reach an edge. The edge represents an opportunity for growth and something new yet it can also sometimes feel unsettling, disorientating and anxiety-provoking. We may at times hesitate, avoid or pull back to avoid the discomfort or fear of what may lie beyond. ‘Will I be able to handle it?’ It could be a new relationship, a new job or taking something familiar to the next level. The edge can symbolise adventure...and risk. I remember that feeling vividly, the first time I set off to hitch hike around Europe. I had never done it before and felt butterflies of anxiety and thrill as I made preparations and finally stood at the road side, waiting for that first lift that would signal the start.
Rho comments that, ‘An edge is the limit to what we know and are comfortable with’ and ‘a coach or consultant’s key contribution can be holding and supporting the client at the edge long enough for them to discover a little more about it’. This echoes with my own experience as coach, supporting people who face fresh opportunities and challenges in life or who are working through change and transition. It inspires me to continually develop my own thinking and practice too…how to keep growing, extending my own boundaries and not to stay within my safe circle of experience. My next challenge is to cycle 1,000 miles and I can already feel myself touching that edge. Rho’s advice: ‘The edge is an interesting place – I recommend taking a torch to find your way around.’
What is it that makes certain individuals stand out from the crowd? How is it that some people resist peer pressure, seize the initiative and radically break the mould? Is this kind of personal leadership, the ability to think freely, move proactively and act autonomously, something we should seek to attract and nurture in organisations? Could it release fresh energy, inspiration and innovation? The relationship between an individual, group and organisation is complex. Organisations as groups often foster consistency, continuity and conformity. We test people during recruitment for their potential fit, we induct and orientate people into the existing culture and we performance manage people to deliver preconceived products and services.
It’s a brave organisation that recruits and develops social revolutionaries, people who will instinctively challenge the status quo, think laterally, refuse to accept time-honoured traditions and push for something new. For leaders who operate in a conventional management paradigm, it can feel threatening, confusing and chaotic. The risks can seem too high and too dangerous. I worked in one organisation where we recognised our culture had become too settled, too complacent, too safe. People often commented on its warm, supportive relational nature but it lacked its former edginess, struggled to deal with conflict and desperately needed to innovate. The challenge was how to introduce and sustain a shift without evoking defensiveness.
Social psychologists offer some valuable insights here, for instance in terms of social loafing and diffusion of responsibility where individuals are less likely to act independently or with the same degree of effort if they perceive themselves as part of a wider group where responsibility is shared. A challenge in this organisation was how to stimulate personal initiative and responsibility. Social conformity is another social psychological factor where people are likely to act consistently with the norms of a group if
it provides them with a sense of acceptance and belonging within that group, or the approval of a perceived authority figure. A challenge in this organisation was how to ensure that personal initiative and responsibility were valued and affirmed.
We took a four pronged approach. Firstly, we worked with the leadership team with a skilled external consultant known for his outspoken, courageous, challenging style to develop a more robust leadership culture, capable of open and honest conversations without fear that this would undermine relationships. This enabled the top team to model a new cultural style. Secondly, we introduced a simple behavioural framework that positively affirmed personal leadership in terms including personal initiative, personal responsibility, creative thinking and innovative practice. This framework was embedded into the organisation’s recruitment and performance development to attract, develop and reward these qualities and capabilities.
Thirdly, we held an annual ceremony where staff were invited to nominate peers for awards where they had seen positive examples of such qualities demonstrated in practice. The peer aspect helped raise awareness and reinforce personal leadership as a cultural quality valued and affirmed by the organisation and to capture real stories that illustrated what it looked like in practice. Fourthly, we created a new innovation post, appointed an innovation enthusiast and allocated a new budget to stimulate and enable creative thinking and innovation across the organisation. This created a culture shift and a tangible symbol of the leaders’commitment to move in this direction. A willingness to question the status quo became a cultural value.
A corresponding challenge was how to engender a spirit of personal leadership that took the wider system and relationships into account. If individuals only operated independently and didn’t take account of or responsibility for the implications of their decisions and actions on others, relationships would become strained, the organisation would become chaotic and it wouldn’t achieve its goals. To address this issue, we introduced the notion of shared leadership alongside personal leadership, emphasising and affirming the value of collaborative working alongside independent initiative. This too was reflected in the annual staff award ceremony and in recruitment, development and rewards. It was a matter of creative balance.
As a tool for developing greater personal and shared leadership, I have found the following questions can be helpful: Who are my cultural role models? Who have I seen demonstrate great personal leadership? What can I learn from them? What would it take to contribute my best in this situation? What will I do to make sure it happens? In the past 12 months, where have I shown personal initiative? When have I held back from saying what I really thought or felt for fear of disapproval? What are the impacts of my actions on others? How far do I take responsibility to help others manage the implications of my decisions? How can I work collaboratively to achieve better win-win solutions? What difference do I want my life to make here?
I took part in an excellent mediation workshop this week run by Karen Bailey, a talented and experienced coach, mediator and trainer in this field (http://www.karenbaileymediation.com/). I found it interesting to explore different models and approaches ranging from arbitration and advocacy through to non-directive facilitation. It resonated for me professionally because, as an OD practitioner, I’m often invited to coach others on conflict resolution, to do teambuilding where unresolved conflict is a factor affecting team morale and performance, or to act as a third party helping others (e.g. line managers and staff, or peers) to address and resolve stuck-ness or tensions between them. It also resonates for me spiritually because the notion of mediation is at the heart of my Christian beliefs. The biblical characterisation of Jesus Christ as mediator between God and humanity is the cornerstone of Christian theology, a role that Christians too are called to emulate and follow as peace-builders in the world.
The model we explored and practised emphasised the importance of creating a semi-structured space for parties to listen to each other. If they can genuinely hear each other, there is scope for establishing empathy and reaching shared solutions. This involves the willingness of all parties to engage in open, direct and…potentially scary…dialogue. The mediator speaks to this fear dynamic explicitly: ‘This is going to feel very uncomfortable, but we’re here because we believe the outcome will be worth it.’If the mediator and participants can learn to manage their own anxiety by facing it head on, they may also feel able to lower their defences and hear each other. We looked at four conditions that enable this type of mediation to be successful: the mediator is impartial; the mediation is confidential; participation is voluntary; outcomes are self-determined. These condidtions provide a basis for establishing clarity and for contracting with oneself, participants and sponsors beforehand.
Karen explains why these same conditions can sometimes make it difficult for internal HR (or OD) practitioners to fulfil this role within their own organisation or business partnering arena effectively. (For further comment on this issue, see: http://www.karenbaileymediation.com/transforming-hr-practitioners-into-mediators/). We also looked at four aspects of participant experience and perspective that provide a content-orientated focus for the mediation: each participant’s Story; each participant’s felt Impacts; each participant’s Needs; each participant’s Goals (making the acronym SING). The mediator meets with each participant to tease out these aspects beforehand. The participant’s story is his or her own subjective experience of the situation; impacts are what he/she is feeling emotionally; needs are unfulfilled desires or challenged values; goals are the outcomes each person hopes for. ‘What’s going on for me’, ‘How this is impacting me’ and ‘Why this is important to me’.
At the start of the session with all parties in the room, the mediator reiterates the process and invites the participants to (a) be honest and direct with each other and (b) listen and show respect to each other. The mediator may invite each party to make an opening statement and then allow the conversation to free-flow. The tricky part I found as mediator-in-practice was when to intervene and not to intervene, how to intervene in such a way that facilitates rather than interferes with the process, how to manage my own anxieties if ferocious conflict emerges, if one party appears bullied or if the conflict became directed at me.
Karen offered some useful ideas…simple in principle, harder to do in practice! The mediator can summarise, reflect back…’This is what I’m hearing…’, ‘Sounds like…’, enabling the participants to feel heard before moving on. The mediator can call for a break, allowing mediator and participants to step back, take time out if they need to cool down or reflect before re-engaging.
The mediator can co-facilitate with another mediator, creating the benefit of two perspectives, insights and interventions, especially valuable if one of the mediators feels hooked, emotionally destabilised or disorientated by something in the conversation and needs to detach in order to re-engage. The real challenge, opportunity and skill lies in enabling the participants to establish and maintain high quality contact with each other, even if that contact feels loaded with intense emotion. It’s a process that involves faith, faith that if the participants will find a way to hear and connect with each other, that they may feel empathy and will move towards finding their own solutions. It also demands that the mediator be fully present in the room, fully in role and fully in contact with participants. The session ends with participants discussing and agreeing their own way forward. This kind of mediation clearly demands patience and courage but the benefits can be transformative.
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.