‘I have a dream.’ (Martin Luther King)
We were leading a strategy development process at an international NGO and wanted to envision ourselves and each other rather than to paint bleak pictures of burning platforms, a future to avoid or a present to escape. This was instead about inspiring wonder, hope and aspiration. ‘Imagine if…’ We invited people to paint, depict and enact future scenarios – the futures that our beneficiaries, supporters and we ourselves dreamed of. It was about imagining, hoping, reaching, aiming high.
There are parallels with the ‘dream phase’ of Appreciative Inquiry. This is where we invite people to imagine a different, brighter future: what they would like things (e.g. relationships, ways of working, success stories) to be more like, more of the time. There are also parallels with posing a ‘miracle question’ in solutions-focused coaching or therapy. This is where we invite a person to imagine vividly that a desired future state has already been reached or achieved. To experience it as if it really is.
This is important and here are some reasons why. If we focus our attention only on problems, deficits or undesirable states, it can evoke anxiety, drain energy and close-down creative thinking. I say ‘only’ because there are some situations (e.g. aspects of accountancy/IT/audit) where identifying problems/errors and fixing them can be very important. Some people also get a buzz, a real sense of achievement, from searching for, sniffing out or hunting down problems and sorting them out.
If, however, we focus entirely on problems, red-ratings or what is missing or broken, psychologically and culturally-speaking there is a risk that they grow out of proportion, that we become unhelpfully fixated on them and that we lose a broader perspective – thereby undermining vision, awareness and morale. If, conversely, we invite people to dream and tap into the power of positive imagination, it can inspire fresh hope, open new horizons, release creative energy and surface great ideas.
So – when was the last time you spent time dreaming..?
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’?
I worked with a leadership team recently where we experimented with reframing statements from problems-focus to solutions-focus to see what would happen if we did. The team had been grappling with difficult issues for some time which had led some to the near-resigned conclusion that there was little hope of change. I wondered whether part of the challenge and resulting mood lay in the psychological-linguistic framing of the issues rather than, necessarily, in the issues themselves.
I was curious and invited the team to be curious too about how the issues were being perceived, construed and articulated within the team – a kind of team self-talk, if you like. If someone said, ‘X will not work because of Y’, we experimented with reframing the statement as a question instead, e.g. ‘Given Y, what would it take for X to work?’ It shifted the conversation from a definitive, closed end to an open, curious, exploration of new possibilities and ideas. It created fresh energy too.
I’ve worked with some clients where a person may comment that, for instance, ‘X is a good idea in principle but it would never work here.’ It’s often a response from someone who has worked a long time in the same place, has been around the proverbial block a few times or is starting to feel a bit jaded. I try to tune into the mood, acknowledge the underlying feeling and then reframe it: ‘OK, so what would work here?’ or, perhaps, ‘If X is a good idea, what would it take for it to work here?’
In my experience, solutions-focus works best when done in an open (e.g. prayerful) spirit, eliciting values (what matters to you – to motivate), creative visioning (what do you/we hope for – to inspire), appreciative inquiry (what’s working well – to build on) and affirming strengths (what are you/we good at – to draw on). Positive appraisal of the present with optimistic aspiration for the future lead well into: ‘So, what would need to happen for that to happen?’ and, ‘The next step?'
I posted a blog a while ago where I proposed that four ‘Cs’ persistently undermine global efforts at development in the poorest countries: corruption, culture, conflict and climate. I spoke afterwards with Steve, an international development expert who has spent his life working with NGOs around the world, leading change strategies and interventions, running refugee camps etc. He said in all seriousness that I was missing a critical fifth C that is, in his experience, central to this equation: ‘Craziness’.
I started to laugh but stopped myself when I realised he wasn’t joking. Steve went on to explain with this example: Whilst working in Africa, he witnessed refugees burn down a primary school because of a personal disagreement between the head teacher, himself a refugee, and another person in the camp. He went on to say that we could attempt to explain such actions rationally but, unless we take into account the capacity for sheer human craziness, our efforts at development will be both naïve and limited.
This really got me thinking. I’ve never yet seen a craziness factor feature in a strategy map, theory of change, HR framework, coaching proposal or organisation development plan. So, I wonder…do we subconsciously and culturally filter out craziness because it doesn’t fit with our worldview, our theory of humanity? Conversely, could a resort to craziness-as-explanation simply be an admission of the limits of our ability to understand that which mystifies us, takes us by surprise, appears to defy all logic?
I don’t know – but I do think Steve may have a point. In our desire to structure, organise, manage and control, do we edit out, seek to remove or simply ignore the unpredictable, unmanageable, spontaneous, playful, mood-swinging aspects of our humanity that don’t fit our tidy, preconceived ideas and plans? If so, in doing so, do we miss out on the best of amazing, emergent, creative, human potential as well as find ourselves caught off-guard by its flip-side dark, destructive, shadows and risks?
There’s something about chronic illness or injury that is hard to cope with, not only for ourselves but for others too. In my experience, people often want to say, ‘Get well soon’ rather than, ‘How can I stand with you when there is no prospect of recovery in sight?’ Over time it starts to feel awkward. Every time someone asks, ‘How are you?’ with look of sincere hope of improvement in their eyes, it feels harder to say, ‘No change (and no realistic prospect of change).’ Their face drops and, after a while, they stop asking. We feel a relief of sorts not to be asked and yet, at the same time, increasingly alone.
We live in an age where we expect everything to be fixed…and fixed quickly. As technology speeds up communication, service and delivery, we become socially conditioned to a culture of the instant. We become increasingly intolerant of waiting. We want immediate responses, immediate results. It’s all about now, narrowing the time gap between action and response. In project management, it’s as if we want to eliminate lag altogether, impatient that one coat of paint must dry first before we can apply a second coat. If push comes to shove, we’ll trade quality for speed. Just do it. Now.
At heart – if it had a heart, it’s a culture of reductionism that seeks to accelerate maturation without trusting a process of slow change or an experience of being. It ignores the value of the present moment, the potential deep richness of the space between the now and the not yet. It discounts an eternal perspective and purpose, the larger frame that places everything now in context. It’s a leader who drives change without allowing people time to take their own journey. It’s a coach who presses clients to set goals before they’re ready to take that step. So, now: pause, reflect - and breathe..?
Who or what is important to you? Who or what do you value most? I’ve heard it said that we can know who or what we value in practice, which sometimes differs from who or what we value in principle, simply by looking at our diaries and bank account statements to see who and what we spend our actual time with and money on. It’s a crude measure but can be revealing – especially as we can be prone as people and groups to deceive ourselves by believing what we want to believe.
In Britain, we often value e.g. individuality, effort and achievement. You could think of this as affirming: standing on our own two feet, trying hard and reaching stretching goals that are perceived as worthwhile by UK culture and the wider nation-community. I’ve heard some people say that, as British, we are only impressed by a person, team or country that manages to achieve something better than we believe we could have achieved ourselves. ‘I could have done that’ is a subtle put-down.
Against this backdrop, I was challenged and inspired last week by a girl from a very different culture who discovered that a fellow student had been excluded from taking part in a drama production team because she had some difficulties with her speaking. This girl instinctively showed empathy and compassion, valued the person, reached out, drew her in and modelled social inclusivity rather than simple task achievement. I wondered what I would have done. She reminded me of Jesus.
Why is this so significant? Our values reveal and shape something profoundly important about who we are in the world. They influence our stance, focus, decisions and boundaries. I’ve often found that working with values as a leader, OD, coach or trainer has had a transformational impact on people, teams and organisations. There’s something about, ‘What really matters to you in this?’ that can feel so much deeper than, ‘What are your goals?’ So – who or what matters most to you?
What sense do you make of categorical, definitive statements? For example, ‘This book is excellent.’ ‘That person is annoying.’ Could it be that such truth claims say more about the person making them, perhaps also about the beliefs and values of the cultural worlds they inhabit, than who or what they are referring to? In coaching, what could they reveal about embedded, hidden and often subconscious assumptions, perspectives, constructs, needs, hopes, fears and expectations?
I had a difficult conversation tonight. Some close neighbours have 2 dogs that they leave outside barking and a son that kicks his football against the wall, fence and bins. The noise, the persistent intrusive disturbance, drives me crazy. I tried to tackle it in polite conversation but it ended badly. The neighbour was angry and frustrated with me and slammed the door with a loud bang as the conversation came to an abrupt end. I walked away feeling shaken, disappointed and stressed.
It is easy to imagine the kind of statements we could now be making about each other inwardly and, perhaps, outwardly in conversation with others. ‘That bloke is so inconsiderate!’ ‘That guy is so over-sensitive.’ It’s as if the statements we project convey objective, incontrovertible truths about the other, statements of what-is rather than statements of subjective opinion, of cultural possibility and, at a deeper level, of veiled revelations of how we are feeling and the pain and hurt of unmet need.
I worked with one leader, Richard Marshall, who took this principle very seriously. Every time I or another made a definitive statement, he would challenge us to personalise it. So, for example, ‘This meeting is a waste of time’ would be reframed as something like, ‘I feel frustrated in this meeting and would prefer to do X’. The effect was transformational. It surfaced underlying values and needs and made them explicit. So, is my neighbour unreasonable? I don’t know. I just need peace and quiet.
Some years ago, I had the privilege of editing a ground-breaking book by Wai K Leong on coaching in an Asian cultural context. My interest and curiosity had had been sparked by some intriguing issues and dynamics I had encountered in my own attempts to coach people from countries including Singapore, Indonesia, Myanmar and Vietnam – with mixed success. More recently, I was invited to coach someone from the Philippines and the same issues arose. What I have encountered here tests the limits of Western coaching models and raises important questions for cross-cultural work.
Take, for example, a typical Western goal-orientated coaching question such as: ‘What do you want to do in the future?’ In the West, it sounds simple and straightforward… yet the question itself is loaded with implicit cultural assumptions about, e.g. aspiration, autonomy and time. Autonomy is particularly significant in an Asian context where cultural beliefs about the individual in relation to e.g. authority, responsibility, family, interdependence and relationships are absolutely fundamental. In light of this, I have been exploring and experimenting with alternative Asian cultural framings.
I tried a shift away from, ‘What do you want to do in the future?’ and towards a different pattern of questions: ‘What is your greatest hope for your family?’, ‘What is your family’s greatest hope for you?’, ‘What is your greatest hope for your own future?’, ‘How might you work through any differences to find a solution that is acceptable for both your family and you?’ The client’s face lit up and she smiled: ‘Now you are starting to understand Asian culture!’ I’m very interested to hear from others who have experienced cross-cultural coaching. How did you do it – and what did you learn?
Reflexivity – a research word. It means that when we explore something such as a strategy for the future or an idea for a significant life change, who we are in relation to what we are looking into will influence what we see – and what we don’t see – how we do it and what conclusions we draw from it. This is because our subconscious personal and cultural assumptions and biases along with our psychological filters and defence mechanisms can create blind spots and hot spots.
Gareth Morgan characterised the blind spot phenomenon as, ‘People have a knack for getting trapped in webs of their own creation.’ In other words, we can get stuck in our own way of seeing things. Similarly, Morgan characterised hot spots by, ‘What passes for rationality is often irrationality in disguise.’ That is, we may mask and try to justify our emotional responses by rationalising them. Reflexivity is the skill of identifying and addressing such spots to minimise their influence.
Blind spots are what we are not thinking about. They touch on what is invisible to us. They are concerned with (un)awareness. They are created by our beliefs. They reflect the paradigms we hold. If we challenge them, it can feel mind-bending. Hot spots are what we are not talking about. They touch on what is sacred to us. They are concerned with relationships. They are created by our values. They reflect the passions we hold. If we challenge them, it can feel heart-wrenching.
Here are some reflexive questions that can help. Blind spots: What are we assuming? What appears self-evident to us and why? Who do we need to involve in our exploratory process? How can we draw in contrasting perspectives and ideas? Hot spots: What are we avoiding? How will we handle power dynamics and vested interests? What will we do if we feel threatened or defensive? How can we hold robust conversations that feel safe? How do you deal with the hot and the blind?
We were talking about focus in leadership and coaching and my colleague, Pav, looked at me intently and said, quite simply, ‘Keep your eye on the squirrel!’ It did make me laugh. It’s a fun, colourful image that cautions us to stay focused, to avoid getting side-tracked, to beware of – like Alice in Wonderland – falling down proverbial rabbit holes (if you can forgive the mixed metaphor). Or to quote guru Stephen Covey: ‘The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.’
I can see the sense in this. If we work to achieve a vision, to fulfil a strategy, it can enable us to be effective and efficient, to prioritise and reach goals. It can also help us to avoid dissipating energy, wasting resources. It’s a reason why, when coaching, I will ask clients questions such as, ‘What are we here to do?’, ‘What are you hoping for?’, ‘What is possible if we do this well?’, ‘What would a great outcome look and feel like?’, ‘How will we know when you have reached it?’
The flip side is that we can become so focused, fixed, planned, organised, that we may miss all kinds of serendipitous adventures and emergent opportunities that arise. A friend, Rob, commented on this recently: ‘When we look back in life, many of our best relationships and experiences came as a result of things which, on the face of it, at the time, appeared to go horribly wrong.’ A question for leaders, coaches and clients could be: how to be well-focused – and yet open to the potential of each moment?
Finally, what appears to us to be 'the main thing', the most important thing, depends a lot on what we believe, our values, how we are feeling, our cultural paradigm and what frame of reference we adopt. A shift in language, perspective or circumstance can change the whole way in which we view and construe something or someone. A related challenge for leaders, coaches and clients may be, therefore: how to keep our eyes on the squirrel – without becoming blinded or fixated by it..?
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.