‘What is most important about any event is not what happened, but what it means. Events and meanings are loosely coupled: the same events can have very different meanings for different people because of differences in the schema that they use to interpret their experience.’ These illuminating words from Bolman & Deal in Reframing Organisations (1991) have stayed with me throughout my coaching and OD practice.
They have strong resonances with similar insights in rational emotive therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy. According to Ellis, what we feel in any specific situation or experience is governed (or at least influenced) by what significance we attribute to that situation or experience. One person could lose their job and feel a sense of release to do something new, another could face the same circumstances and feel distraught because of its financial implications.
What significance we attribute to a situation or experience and how we may feel and act in response to it depends partly on our own personal preferences, beliefs, perspective and conscious or subconscious conclusions drawn from our previous experiences. It also depends on our cultural context and background, i.e. how we have learned to interpret and respond to situations as part of a wider cultural group with its own history, values, norms and expectations.
A challenge and opportunity in coaching and OD is sometimes to help a client (whether individual or group) step back from an immediate experience and reflect on what the client (or others) are noticing and not noticing, what significance the client (or others) are attributing to it and how this is affecting emotional state, engagement, choices and behaviour. Exploring in this way can open the client to reframing, feeling differently and making positive choices.
In his book, Into the Silent Land (2006), Laird makes similar observations. Although speaking about distractions in prayer and the challenges of learning stillness and silence, his illustrations provide great examples of how the conversations we hold in our heads and the significance we attribute to events often impact on us more than events themselves. He articulates this phenomenon so vividly that I will quote him directly below:
‘We are trying to sit in silence…and the people next door start blasting their music. Our mind is so heavy with its own noise that we actually hear very little of the music. We are mainly caught up on a reactive commentary: ‘Why do they have to have it so loud!’ ‘I’m going to phone the police!’ ‘I’m going to sue them!’ And along with this comes a whole string of emotional commentary, crackling irritation, and spasms of resolve to give them a piece of your mind when you next see them. The music was simply blasting, but we added a string of commentary to it. And we are completely caught up in this, unaware that we are doing much more than just hearing music.
‘Or we are sitting in prayer and someone whom we don’t especially like or perhaps fear enters the room. Immediately, we become embroiled with the object of fear, avoiding the fear itself, and we begin to strategise: perhaps an inconspicuous departure or protective act of aggression or perhaps a charm offensive, whereby we can control the situation by ingratiating ourselves with the enemy. The varieties of posturing are endless, but the point is that we are so wrapped up in our reaction, with all its commentary, that we hardly notice what is happening, although we feel the bondage.’
This type of emotional response can cloud a client’s thinking (cf ‘kicking up the dust’) and result in cognitive distortions, that is ways of perceiving a situation that are very different (e.g. more blinkered or extreme) than those of a more detached observer. In such situations, I may seek to help reduce the client’s emotional arousal (e.g. through catharsis, distraction or relaxation) so that he or she is able to think and see more clearly again.
I may also help the client reflect on the narrative he or she is using to describe the situation (e.g. key words, loaded phrases, implied assumptions, underlying values). This can enable the client to be and act with greater awareness or to experiment with alternative interpretations and behaviours that could be more open and constructive. Finally, there are wider implications that stretch beyond work with individual clients.
Those leading groups and organisations must pay special attention to the symbolic or representational significance that actions, events and experiences may hold, especially for those from different cultural backgrounds (whether social or professional) or who may have been through similar perceived experiences in the past. If in doubt, it’s wise ask others how they feel about a change, what it would signify for them and what they believe would be the best way forward.
A good friend in the police service once commented how he would arrive at work each day, put on his uniform and spend the rest of the day ‘impersonating a police officer’. He had a clear idea in mind of how a police officer would typically speak and behave and so consciously acted it out. It was like playing a role in a theatre with the uniform acting as both costume and psychological prop. A young girl working as a prostitute on the streets of Bangkok told me how she always used a pseudonym when working with clients. This name kept her real identity hidden and provided her with an alternative persona. By doing this, she was able psychologically to disassociate and protect her ‘true inner self’ from the separate persona that was engaging in sexual acts with strangers. A priest spoke of the pressures he felt to live a public life under constant moral scrutiny. By wearing a dog collar, he identified with a faith, a role and a calling that demanded high levels of personal integrity. Over the years, he struggled and found ways to live a more integrated and authentic life commenting that, ‘the real question is not how to be a priest but how to be oneself who is a priest.’
The first example here is of a person who found ways to fulfil a role by copying the behaviours of role models within that specific professional culture. The second is a person who learned to survive by deliberately separating herself psychologically from her persona-in-role. The third is a person who sought to find ways to live out a role by becoming more truly himself within that role. I’ve worked with numerous leaders who have experienced similar challenges. How to live and cope with one’s own expectations of leader and leadership as well as those imposed by the organisation or culture, not to mention the actual or imagined expectations of the board, peers and staff. It can feel stressful, daunting, isolating, debilitating and anxiety-provoking. It can result in burnout. Sometimes it’s a case of ‘impostor syndrome’ where a person believes he or she has been appointed to a role under some assumed false pretext or mistake. In such a situation, the person may put on a brave face and live in continual fear of being found out. ‘Sooner or later, they will discover that I’m not as good or capable as they think I am.’ It’s a form of exaggerated negative self-evaluation.
I’ve experienced similar pressures myself, especially 6-12 months into a new job. During the first 6 months, I tell myself it’s OK not to know everything because I’m new. There comes a point at which, however, I risk placing expectations on myself that I should now know more than I do. It’s a type of personal anxiety (fear of failure) combined with social anxiety (fear of being negatively evaluated). One coping strategy is to wear a metaphorical mask like a stage actor. The problem is that it’s the same phenomenon the word ‘hypocrite’ points towards: literally, one who pretends to be what he or she is not. It lacks reality and authenticity, takes considerable energy to sustain and can lead to stress and exhaustion. It prevents the person being and contributing their best, as they really are. There are spiritual parallels in Christian theology where people are both challenged and encouraged to ‘move into the light’ or to ‘live in the truth’ where everything is exposed for what it really is. It’s as if we need to find a space, a relationship, where we can see clearly and be totally honest, real and accepted in order to build out from that place. It’s about learning honesty, integrity and peace.
It’s like the equation: ‘trust = risk + support’. A person is more likely to open up, to be real (which can feel risky) if, when he or she takes such a step, they experience genuine acceptance and support. It reduces anxiety, helps the person think more clearly and creatively, fuels their energy and motivation, enables them to hear critical feedback and builds trust for the future. Various coaching and therapeutic schools draw on similar principles, e.g. providing unconditional positive regard (e.g. person-centred); enabling a person to question and test their beliefs and assumptions in order to get a better sense of what is real (e.g. cognitive behavioural); experimenting with new behaviours to discover new experiences and ways of being and doing (e.g. gestalt). In my coaching work with a leader, I may encourage him or her to explore and grow using a range of approaches, e.g. draw graphic images, select objects/symbols or strike physical poses that depict (a) their idea of the leader they believe the organisation or others expect them to be and (b) the leader they believe they are or aspire to be, then explore the commonalities and differences. Alternatively, I may encourage the person to experiment wearing different types of clothing, to practice holding themselves in a variety of postures, to speak in different volumes or tones of voice to explore which they feel most comfortable with, to find a physical expression that best enables them to be who they are.
I may encourage the person to brainstorm what they believe others expect of them, believe about them as a leader and to test those assumptions openly with others. I may encourage the person to vividly imagine themselves as e.g. a humble, confident, capable leader and to role play it focusing on real scenarios, reflecting on thoughts, feelings, behaviours and responses as we do it together. I may provide the person with toy figures and invite him or her to create a configuration of their current key relationships (e.g. leadership team), then ask them to move the figures into different configurations to reflect on how that feels and what insights emerge. I may also invite them to reflect on past life or work experiences that have felt very similar (e.g. family, previous teams). I may encourage the person to step back and consider what their own experience might point towards culturally or systemically. If, for instance, the leader feels unsafe to be honest, what light does that shed on, for example, what is considered acceptable and unacceptable culturally within that environment and what can the leader do practically and realistically to influence positive change.
I would be interested to hear of others’ experiences in this area and how you have worked through them. Have you experienced ‘impostor syndrome’? Have you struggled to reconcile who you are with the role you find yourself playing? Have you coached, mentored or trained others working through similar personal or professional challenges? If so, I would love to hear from you.
Think back to your early childhood. What was your favourite story? What was the plot? How did it begin, what happened in the middle and how did it end? Which character did you most identify with? Can you see themes and patterns from the story reflected in your own life?
Some psychologists believe childhood stories can act as life scripts. It’s as if there is something in a favourite story that resonates with the child’s experience and expectations to date which then becomes formative in how the child experiences and approaches their own life.
It may be a story from a book. It could equally be a story in a song, or perhaps the real story happening around the child, the observations, interpretations and early sense they make of what they notice in people and situations as they experience them.
The child subconsciously acts out the script, with the script functioning like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ask a person, ‘what keeps happening to you?’ and they can often identify and articulate repeating patterns, as if trapped in recurring cycles of experience.
‘I keep falling into the same kind of relationships.’ ‘ ‘No matter what I do, I end up on my own.’ ‘Whatever happens, I always land on my feet.’ ‘I always achieve what I want in the end.’ ‘I often get rescued by others.’ ‘People always betray me.’
I find this hypothesis intriguing. I’m curious about it because I’m interested in the stories we construct retrospectively of our own lives, the way we join dots between what we perceive as significant events or experiences to create our own coherent life story.
How far is our life story created by our own expectations? How far do our expectations shape how we experience people, relationships, objects and events? How do our expectations focus or limit what we notice, what we don’t notice and the meanings we attribute?
In transactional analysis, coaches and therapists may help a client to surface their life script with a view to evaluate it and, if they wish, to change it in order to experience greater freedom and autonomy as the client approaches the future.
I’m not sure its possible or desirable to live a script-free life. It’s often our hopes and expectations that draw us forward, inspire us, energise us with the courage we need to face fresh challenges. Nevertheless, I do like the idea of increasing awareness and choice.
So, what’s your story?
‘The more I think about what it means to experience something, the less I understand it.’ Mark, a psychotherapist, was sharing his reflections towards the end of a course on supervision and consultation. We had met week after week for a year, a group of counsellors in which I was the only community worker, spending time to see what emerged between us, then to reflect on its potential meaning and significance for our practice.
It felt excruciating at times, looking to each other, ourselves or the wooden floor, sometimes in desperation, for any glimpse of inspiration and insight. On one occasion, Mark was sharing some complex theory from psychoanalysis when I blurted out angrily, ‘I can’t see why we’re spending so much time on this, wasting our time on abstractions!’ Mark responded calmly and thoughtfully, ‘This isn’t the first time you’ve been here, is it?’
His insight detonated within me and I felt speechless. I had previously spent 3 years in theological college where I had felt very similar frustrations. It drove me crazy studying God, faith, spirituality as a theoretical topic, often focusing on questions that had very little practical value as far as I could see. Mark’s observation drew my attention to how I had imported that experience into the current situation, amplifying my feeling of frustration in the present moment.
In psychodynamic theory, this phenomenon is known as transference, the transferring of assumptions and feelings associated with previous experiences into a new experience, thereby distorting our experience of the current moment, the current relationship, the current situation. It’s as if we experience each new experience through the filter formed by previous experiences, which makes it hard if not impossible to see things as they ‘really are’.
I’m interested in how our experiences are also influenced by other factors, e.g. expectations. My friends rave about a film being shown in the cinema, my expectations are heightened, I go to see it and feel disappointed. My colleagues complain about a leader’s qualities and behaviour at work and I find myself bemused – I’m impressed by the same leader because she or he is so much better than others I’ve experienced previously.
How we experience something, someone is far from fixed. Our experience is influenced by so many factors, past experiences, future hopes, what we believe the implications are, what significant others value. It’s influenced by how we are feeling physically, mentally and emotionally, whether or not we got out of the right side of the proverbial bed, whether the sun is shining or it’s raining, who we are with at the time. The experience question? It's complicated stuff.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in developing critical reflective practice.