I took part in an intensive Teaching English as a Foreign Language workshop at the weekend. It forms part of a longer course that leads to a TEFL qualification. The tutor, John Nelson, was inspiring and experienced as a teacher and offered great insights, ideas and challenge in a spirit of support. I noticed how valuable it felt to have a tutor, a mentor, a leader with us on our learning journey.
John wasn’t simply a detached expert who stood and pointed us in the right direction. He was committed to ensuring that we were able to grow and succeed in our work. He engaged with us – tuned into where we were, what mattered to us, what we could already do well, what we were struggling with or could improve – and helped moved us forward towards where we wanted to be.
At one point, John role-modelled a teaching session by enabling us to use basic greetings in an alien foreign language from scratch. At another, he gave us very specific feedback. I discovered that I can explain complex concepts simply…and that I can improve my teaching by engaging participants creatively in conversation around a topic first. I have grown in awareness, ability and confidence.
So what are some lessons here for leaders, trainers, facilitators, mentors and coaches? The points that stand out for me are: (a) intention – a commitment to helping others to grow; (b) relationship – working with others as people, not as objects to be done to; (c) expertise – crafting and using what we have to move others forward and (d) freedom – a willingness to experiment, laugh and play!
We ask questions for all kinds of reasons. For example: sometimes it’s for information, e.g. ‘Which button do I push to turn on the photocopier?’ Sometimes it’s to think out loud, e.g. ‘Hmmm…how will I get home now the train has been cancelled?’ At times it can be to look clever or put someone else on the spot, e.g. ‘How about we compare my grades to yours?’ At other times it’s to stimulate reflection and learning in people or groups, e.g. ‘What do you think is really going on here?’
Influential teachers such as Jesus and Socrates excelled in the latter, posing questions to stimulate awareness and insight. Conrad Gempf wrote a whole book on Jesus’ approach called, Jesus Asked (2003), drawing attention to how often Jesus posed questions – including in response to other people’s questions. There’s something about great questions that can strike deep into our soul, our psyche, our assumptions and beliefs. They can detonate, evoke, provoke, create movement, shift.
A question I may pose is, ‘What’s the question behind the question?’ I may use it in leadership, coaching, training and facilitation if I sense there is something deeper, unspoken, hiding or struggling to surface. Sometimes it moves the focus from an issue to a person, making it person-al in the best possible sense. For example: ‘How can we improve people’s performance?’ could be reframed as, ‘How can I know that what we’re doing is making a difference to what’s important here?’
Another question I may pose is, ‘What do you need?’ In many cultures, we are conditioned to be and to appear confident, capable and self-sufficient. To admit to needing someone or something can feel like a confession of guilt, weakness or failure. In this context, addressing the need that lays behind a question can be transformational. For example: ‘How can we improve people’s performance?’ could be reframed as, ‘How can I meet my need to feel wanted, needed and successful here?’
As we walked through the village we were met by wide smiles and eyes full of vivid curiosity. Brightly-coloured clothing hung outside of wooden huts to dry in the sun. Rice and coconut lay on the ground, apparently there to dry too. We had travelled by plane, ship, tuk tuk and boat, meandering through lush green jungle and rice fields to reach this place in Samar, Philippines. The children were excited having waited 3 hours for us to arrive. A rich sense of anticipation felt tangible in the air.
This was my first experience of working with such a large group of children. 120+ turned up, ages ranging from 3 to 12. We were there 2 weeks ago to inspire the children with English language, lead play activities, share about Jesus and provide nutritious food. The children were eager to learn, to spend time with this strange, tall, white alien and his inspiring, energetic Filipina counterpart – and to have fun. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such wild, sustained enthusiasm in a group.
We chose a theme each day and, at the start, invited the children to teach me some Waray, their local language. The teacher became learner and the students became teachers. The kids loved it, scoring my pronunciation by signalling thumbs up if I did well, thumbs sideways if I needed to improve, thumbs down if I was unintelligible! After each phrase the children jumped up and down with excitement, big smiles and waving their thumbs in the air. A true spirit of encouragement.
This simple idea and approach gave the children real confidence to play and to practise with English language. They had seen my vulnerability, willingness to try, imperfect attempts and friendly laughter. It enabled them to give every activity we tried their best shot, encouraging each other when we-they did well and forgiving each other when we-they didn’t. We were committed to learn together, to travel an exciting journey of discovery together, and that made such a difference.
The team decided to work on clarifying its purpose, it’s raison d'être, it’s answer to the, ‘What are we here to do?’ question. It had been thinking about its ways of working, its team meetings, its mode of operation. It made sense to step back, at least one step, before stepping forward. As team coach, I stepped in briefly to suggest that they start by clarifying the questions they were seeking to answer. They settled on, ‘What is our optimal role?’ and ‘How can we add value?’
I asked again, ‘So how might you do this?’ A team member responded quickly, ‘Let’s discuss it and see what we come up with.’ The others nodded in agreement. As they turned to talk, I interrupted by pushing a metaphorical pause button, ‘And how else could you do this?’ They looked puzzled then one said, ‘We could each write down a purpose statement on a post-it note then compare and contrast what we’ve written?’ I repeated, ‘And how else could you do it?’
They looked confused and then thought hard. ‘We could split into 2 x 3s, work on one question each then compare?’, ‘We could brainstorm ideas on a flipchart?’, ‘We could share our visions of a team from hell, what to avoid at all costs?’, ‘We could draw pictures instead of writing words?’ They combined the final 3. Each person grabbed a coloured pen, stepped up and a provocative, vivid, collage emerged. Their chosen technique generated laughter, insight and great ideas!
The principle here is how to challenge habitual, default patterns of behaviour, how to pause and reflect critically and creatively before diving into action. Posing the simple question, ‘How else could we do this?’ can significantly enhance team energy, engagement – and effectiveness.
Difficult is in the eye of the beholder. Or is it? If I’m working with you and find you difficult, doesn’t that mean you are difficult? If you find me difficult to work with, does that make me difficult? Or, looking at it differently, could it be that difficult is personally, culturally or contextually constructed? I’ll give some examples to show what I mean. Personal: ‘I don’t like your approach’; cultural: ‘Your style doesn’t fit here’; contextual: ‘Your way of doing things isn’t what’s needed here and now.’
There are all kinds of factors like these that can make a relationship feel difficult. If we’ve had a difficult encounter with a person before, or even someone this person reminds us of, the power of imagination can go wild. Stop for a moment. Imagine approaching a real person that you find very difficult to work with…as if about to enter the room. What stories are you telling yourself, albeit subconsciously, about yourself, the other person, the situation, God? How are they impacting you?
Our beliefs influence how we feel. What we believe and how we feel influence how we behave. What we feel and how we behave influence how the other person experiences us. We may make all sorts of assumptions about the other person, inferring intentions from their actions that may or may not be true. What we believe to be true is ‘true’ – for us. This should cause us to pause and reflect. What assumptions are we making? What may we be inadvertently evoking in the other person?
Curiosity can be a great bridge builder, especially if exercised with openness, courage and humility. If you encounter a ‘difficult’ person and relationship, try offering an observation first, invite feedback then explore goals and values. Observation: ‘I’m aware that we seem a bit stuck. What are you noticing?’ Goals: ‘A great outcome for me would be X. What would be a great outcome for you?’ Values: ‘What’s important to me in this is Y. What’s most important to you?’ What do you think?
‘Sawubona.’ I was at a change leadership event in Canada with colleagues from around the world. It was the first time I had heard this Zulu greeting. ‘Sawubona’. I was curious so asked my South African colleague to explain it. ‘It means: I see you.’ I was immediately struck by his emphasis on see. He explained it further. ‘It means I honour your presence. It’s as if I am calling you into my focus, into existence, against the background of everything else that lays around you. I really see you.’ He said this simple word with such warmth and sincerity that I felt genuinely moved by it.
There are resonances for me in the dynamic of this greeting with Gestalt psychology. Gestalt uses its own language of ‘figure’ and ‘ground’, where figure is that which holds our attention at any given moment in time and ground is the background which, in that same moment, lays largely out of awareness. In other words, figure is what we are noticing and ground is what we are not-noticing. How often when we meet and work with people, our attention is drawn away from the person so that what we notice instead is the issue, the story, the task, whatever it is we are there to do.
In my experience, most transformational work in leadership, coaching, group work etc. occurs when we learn to shift our focus, our attention, to the person, the relationship, to what is happening here-and-now. In this context, Gestalt poses a great question: ‘What is the quality of contact between us?’ where contact signifies presence and attention, as if almost literally touching one-another. Picture a meeting where the leader or coach enables team members to learn do this well. ‘What is holding our attention?’, ‘What are we not noticing?’, ‘What is the quality of contact between us?’
Sawubona, my friend. Notice what you are noticing - and not noticing. Never lose sight of the person.
‘Organisations do not exist. People do.’ This was the provocative title I chose for a dissertation I wrote some years ago now. The idea, the belief, has stayed with me. It shapes how I think about and approach leadership development, OD, coaching, facilitation and training. Inspired by Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organisation and insights from social constructionism, I continue to be fascinated by how the images we hold when we think of ‘organisation’ influence and, at times, constrain our awareness, actions and the range of options we believe we have available to us.
So I meet you in the street and ask you to tell me about you organisation. You may start by telling me about the products or services you provide. You may well move onto saying something about the structure, by which you are less likely normally to mean the physical structure and more likely to mean how jobs, roles, responsibilities and authority are organised. You may well describe or depict the structure like an organisation chart. Now here’s the important bit. Insofar as you and everyone else in the organisation believe this structure exists and behave as if it does, to you – it does.
Now imagine that the structure dissolves so that what is left is people and whatever physical assets the organisation may own. Imagine that people are released from job titles, role boundaries and that you now see them as whole people, rich with experiences, in vibrant colour. You have a task to achieve and you invite people with the best energy, enthusiasm, skills and life experiences to offer. As different tasks arise, different people get involved. Imagine, just for a moment, what that could look and feel like and achieve. Imagine the creativity and potential for innovation. Imagine!
What did this thought experiment reveal for you? What images are constraining you or your clients? What assumptions are you making about what’s possible? What dreams could be realised if the images were to change? What would it take to make the shift?
It’s easy to get trapped, stuck, locked in an argument with passions running high on both sides. The harder you push, the stronger the push back. The issue escalates and so does the mood. Lots of heat, not so much light. Where do you go from here? Who’s going to blink first? If this scenario sounds familiar, if like me it’s something you have witnessed or experienced, this piece is for you!
I got stuck in an organisation when a different team tried to impose new systems and processes without consultation or explanation. It created extra work for my team and it felt cumbersome, bureaucratic, over-engineered and pointless. I felt annoyed and frustrated and my instinct was to challenge, to resist, to rebel. Instead, I took deep breaths and tried a different approach.
I arranged to meet with the leader of the team who had introduced the changes. My first question was to do with goals: ‘What’s important to you that you’re trying to achieve?’ She explained the legal and regulatory rationale behind the changes, what was driving them and why they were necessary for the organisation. It also provided her with space to articulate her own vision.
My second and related question focused on values: ‘What matters most to you in this?’ After a moment, she explained her team needed accurate, accessible information in order to ensure accountability. It opened the door for us to explore different methods to ensure they had the information they needed whilst, at the same time, to reduce the burden on other teams.
The simple approach I’ve outlined here can help build awareness, collaboration, mutuality and trust: ‘This is what’s important to me that I’m trying to achieve…what’s important to you?’; ‘This is what matters most to me in this…what matters most to you?’ It brings goals and values to the surface and creates a useful platform for conversation, negotiation and win-win solutions.
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?
What am I evoking? What’s my contribution to what I’m experiencing? These can be great questions for coaches, facilitators and leaders. How often have you sat in a meeting, for instance, and thought, ‘I am so bored.’ It’s one of those moments where you can feel so much energy being drained out of you, so much oxygen being sucked out of your lungs, that it almost hurts physically. You’re desperate to get out but can’t think of a polite and convincing enough excuse to exit the room.
Or maybe you’re in conversation with a colleague, with a coach or in a training workshop and thinking, ‘This is such a waste of time. I’m not getting what I need from this.’ Such experiences can create a sense of life, of work, of relationships, of outcomes happening to us. It’s as if we are passive recipients at the mercy of others’ actions and behaviour. It can leave us feeling helpless, powerless and hopeless. And I’m wondering…is there another way of framing and stance-taking in this?
So here goes: ‘What’s your contribution to what you’re experiencing?’ ‘What do you need to receive and give your best?’ I often pose these questions when working with leadership teams. At first, I see puzzled faces but, when the penny drops, the difference can be transformational. It’s about disrupting normal personal and cultural patterns of belief and behaviour. It’s about challenging and supporting proactivity, ownership and influence. It’s about choosing. It’s about waking up.
There’s a skill in learning to engage, negotiate, contract and lean into the experience like this - and it takes practice: ‘I would find this more purposeful and worthwhile if….’ ‘I would like to focus our attention on X…’ ‘How about we do it this way instead…then I could bring something useful to it?’ ‘If we could break for 10 minutes, I could come at this with so much more energy.’ Take the initiative: Seize it. Shape it. Make it happen. What’s your contribution to what you’re experiencing?
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.