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?
I did a coaching demonstration in front of a group of experienced mentors this weekend. In feedback afterwards, one person asked how I managed to (a) engage enough with the person to ensure they felt heard and understood and yet (b) remain disengaged enough to avoid being drawn too far into their situation with them. Another participant posed a similar question: how do I empathise and convey empathy to a person whilst holding a retaining a healthy and useful degree of detachment?
These are great and important questions for leaders, coaches and facilitators. Earlier in my career, I was working as an internal OD consultant and one of my client groups said they thought it would be helpful if I could know more about their work and become more embedded with them. I felt a bit concerned at hearing this (‘Are they saying I don’t understand them and, therefore, I’m not able to add enough value?') so spoke with my supervisor. He responded wisely: ‘Don’t play into that game.’
He was right. I order to add optimal value in that situation, I needed to understand and feel just enough of the client’s situation and experience to give them confidence that I was with them and, at the same time, to remain sufficiently detached to be able to bring fresh insight, perspective and challenge. The risk of being ‘embedded’ is that we become too immersed in the same institutional influences, agendas, cultural dynamics and personal circumstances that the client already is and feels stuck in.
So how to engage yet disengage? How to hold that creative tension without snapping in one direction or the other? Here are some ideas: 1. Be clear about your role in that situation – what it is you are there to be and do. 2. Pay attention to what you see, hear and feel when you are with the client, team or organisation – key headlines, themes, metaphors, intuitions and emotions. 3. Offer your insights as process observations - ‘What I’m noticing is…X…what I’m aware of is…Y’ How about you?
I once trained with Mark Sutherland, a supervisor and psychotherapist, who shared the image of a client as someone floating out at sea on a raft. Whereas some coaches may swim out to rescue the client, to pull the raft back to safer shores so to speak, Mark saw his role by contrast as simply joining the person on the raft: ‘Two people…wondering together.’ For many years now, I’ve found that image incredibly attractive and releasing.
A good friend and colleague, Ian Henderson (Eagle Training), uses a similar principle when drawing on NLP to evoke curiosity in a training group. He may open an event by telling an evocative story at the outset, without introduction or explanation, then stop the story at a critical juncture and shift focus to the formal agenda. It leaves the group surprised, confused and curious…and it’s that state of curiosity that draws the group into deep learning.
A very similar principle attracts me to Gestalt, a coaching approach that involves active, physical experimentation with a client or group. The key to the experiment is to follow your intuition, support the client’s intuition, go with the flow, be playful and creative, let go of control. It means trusting the moment, the dynamic between you, and seeing what happens. I’m continually amazed by what surfaces into awareness and what changes take place.
So picture the coach, the leader, the facilitator or trainer as someone whose role is to evoke curiosity, to enable the client, the team colleague, the group, to wonder. It is a child-like quality that can lead to all kinds of exciting adventures and discoveries. It entails suspending what we know, the pressure to know, and surfacing the power, the gift of not-knowing, allowing the unexpected to emerge – and noticing the newness that is revealed.
ABC - Always Be Contracting. (Brian 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.
When did you last have a great conversation at work? I’ve noticed that frustration and fatigue often arise from conversations and meetings that lack focus, that feel pointless, that lack purpose. It’s one of the main reasons why there is so much cynicism about meetings in organisations.
Now while different types of conversation are appropriate for different relationships and situations, questions that tease out purpose can be very powerful. They surface assumptions and create opportunity to discuss and agree on what would be worthwhile.
Here are some purpose-focused questions: Why are we here? What are we here to do? What would make this time useful? What is the goal we’re trying to achieve? What would a great outcome look and feel like? What do we want to be different by the end of this conversation?
We can use purpose-focused questions at the start of a meeting or mid-way through if we start to notice drift or confusion. ‘Let’s just remind ourselves what we’re here to do…where we’re trying to get to.’ Focusing and re-focusing can energise our conversations and achieve great results.
We often think of coaching as creating a special space for a person to step back, often quite literally, from the pressures of day to day work and life to think about things differently. Indeed, the space we create between coach and coachee offers a great opportunity for change.
Yet space is a bit like elastic. Too much space and coaching can feel slack and lifeless, without definition or form. Too much pace and it can feel rushed, superficial and forced. Navigating space and pace is part of the, ‘How shall we do this?’ contract between coach and coachee.
The same question arises in leadership, training and facilitation. When to up the tempo, inject energy, move quickly. When to pause, breathe, process. It’s tricky in mixed groups. Activists want to get on with it. Suck it and see. Reflectors want space to observe it. Make sense of it.
So I try to remember: just enough space to allow for reflection; just enough pace to keep things moving. It’s always a judgement call. How much space and pace does this person or group need - in this situation, at this time? If in doubt, discuss it openly and ask for feedback.
I was co-facilitating a coach training workshop for leaders last week. Sun was streaming in through the windows and I was thinking about how to illustrate the concept of psychological filters and distortions. At that very second, I looked up and saw this perfect image. A real Plato’s Cave moment. Pointing to the window blind, I asked participants to imagine what the window frame is like behind it, based purely on what they could see. ‘Curved, bent, twisted, grey?’
In my experience as a psychological coach, this can be a most important and valuable insight. We continuously filter experiences so that what we perceive and what meaning we attribute to it is influenced as much by what is happening within us as anything that is taking place externally to us in the room. I’ll introduce four types of filter or influence in these notes below, along with a brief explanation for each: projection, transference, culture and emotion.
You may have heard the expression, ‘We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.’ This idea of projection is a simple and complex one. Watts illustrates it like this: imagine a projector on your shoulder, projecting an image onto a person standing in front of you. What you see is a combination of what they actually look like with an overlay of aspects of the projected image. This distorts what we perceive so that we partly relate to the person as they are, and partly as we are.
The principle here is that we subconsciously project aspects of ourselves onto those we encounter. At a functional level, it helps us to identify and empathise with people. It’s as if we recognise something of ourselves in them. However, we also project aspects of ourselves onto others that we don’t acknowledge or recognise in ourselves. Perhaps I’m not aware of how compassionate I am but see it in others around me. Perhaps what I find annoying in others is a denied aspect of me too.
Our perceptions are also influenced by our past. It’s as if we filter all new experiences through what we have experienced previously and what conscious (rational) or subconscious (intuitive) conclusions we have drawn from it. Human Givens therapists talk about this as pattern matching. If we encounter someone or something that reminds us of a previous person or event, it may re-trigger that previous experience so that we experience the new event along with the past.
I see this happen a lot in coaching conversations. Clients may react to experiences in the present as if they are unknowingly re-living similar experiences from the past and transferring something of those experiences onto how they are interpreting the present. This kind of resonance can create an amplifying effect, causing the person to overreact to a person or issue in the here and now. Surfacing the pattern, the transference, can be releasing and create a new sense of perspective.
What and how we perceive someone or something in a situation is also influenced by our cultural beliefs and values. It’s as if there is a permeable boundary between ourselves and others so that what we experience is us - but not only us. Cognitive behavioural research shows how what we feel in any given situation is influenced profoundly by what we believe about that situation. In this sense, our culture acts as a filter, influencing what we notice, or not, and what sense we make of it.
Finally, our perceptions are influenced by our physical and emotional state in the moment. If a person is feeling highly stressed, for instance, they may shift into fight/flight/freeze mode which significantly affects their cognitive abilities. He or she may experience a whole range of cognitive distortions that nevertheless appear to them, in that moment, as reality. I’ve written more about this in a short article: Fresh Thinking.
Perhaps the most significant point here is that for most of us most of the time, we are unaware of the filters we hold. We continually create and recreate our perceived realities. When we look at the window blind, we may assume we are looking at the window. We believe that what we perceive is what is. As far as we know, the window frame is curved, bent, twisted and grey – that is, assuming we know or believe there is a separate reality, a window frame, beyond the blind.
As leaders, coaches and facilitators, we can grow in awareness of our own filters and their potentially distorting effects. We can learn to notice when we are projecting or transferring onto people and experiences. We can grow in awareness of our cultural beliefs and how they shape what we perceive and what we value. We can grow in awareness of our emotional states – what triggers them and how to handle them in the moment.
We can enable others to grow in awareness too, thereby broadening the range of possibilities, of options, available to them – and to us. I would be interested to hear whether anything I’ve described here resonates with your own experiences. Notice what the photo, my language, my way of presenting ideas evokes in you. How do you feel as you read this? What does it remind you of? What are you noticing and not noticing, including within and about yourself? I look forward to hearing from you!
Participants are arriving at the training room. I’ve never met them before and one appears very loud and confrontational. I’m taken aback, wondering how I’m going to work with this person in the group. I mention this to my co-trainer and he responds calmly, ‘Everyone has their own way of dealing with anxiety’. This was many years ago now but his words still resonate when I’m facilitating training events.
I’m back in a training room again. This time, more recently. It’s a group of senior leaders from an organisation and one of the participants repeatedly questions the trainers’ credentials as if to imply: ‘I don’t know if you have what it takes to do this well.’ He avoids taking part in activities by discussing and debating them rather than doing them. His behaviour feels resistive, disruptive, difficult. ‘Everyone has their own way of dealing with anxiety…’
OK, let's hypothesise: this man is among peers, concerned about how his performance will be perceived and evaluated. His organisation is going through leadership changes and he feels vulnerable. A subconscious voice gnaws at him from within: ‘What if I don’t have what it takes to do this well?’ ‘What if this exposes how inadequate I am?' He projects his insecurity onto the trainer and avoids activities as a defence against anxiety.
At the end of the day, the co-trainer and I leave feeling drained. It’s an unusual feeling and we wonder what we are carrying from the group. The group itself feels draining, drained. After all, it takes huge amounts of energy to hold up a front, to mask and subdue anxiety, to contain it. Perhaps the group’s behaviour opens a window into its wider organisational reality: ‘We don’t feel safe; this organisation doesn’t feel safe.’
I've found this psychodynamic perspective to be valuable for trainers, coaches and leaders alike. It poses questions such as: ‘What is really going on here?’, ‘What is what happens within the room telling us about what may be happening outside of the room?’, ‘What do participants in this group need to feel sufficiently safe to work together?’, ‘What do I need to recognise and work well with complex group dynamics?’
What is your experience of dealing with group anxiety? What have you noticed and experienced? How have you worked with it? I'll be interested to hear more!
If you’ve got nothing to say, say it.’ As teenagers at school, we could always tell the teacher was annoyed when he would blurt out these words in exasperation. It was usually when the class was noisy, people chatting away excitedly but paying no attention whatsoever to the teacher at the front. I have to confess that, at the time, its subtlety was lost on us.
We would look at each other across the room, puzzled faces, mouthing silently, ‘It?’ Over many years working as leader, coach and facilitator, however, I have noticed, discovered, the real value of staying silent. As someone with a clear introverted preference, being quiet comes easily to me. However, the silence I’m talking about here isn’t quietness per se but silence as presence – active, engaged, being-with.
Often, silence is associated with absence, avoidance, withdrawal from. You can imagine, for instance, the stony silence that follows an argument or the silence of a bored colleague gazing out of the window during a team meeting. I know extroverted trainers who dread working with introverted participant groups because they find the silence deafening, impenetrable, debilitating.
The silence I’m talking about, though, is a deliberate space, choosing contact with another person or a group (or God) rather than filling that space with our words. It’s a silence that invites the other, assures the other of our attention and believes that that connection, that quality of relationship itself, can be transformative. It’s about offering ourselves – and believing that is enough.
When I first started out in my career, I was keen to make a difference through my efforts and concerned about how others would perceive me. I felt I had to speak to convince others of my worthwhile-ness, to show that I had something useful to say. It was all about displaying and asserting my own knowledge and experience. Over time, however, I discovered that my speaking was sometimes, paradoxically, counter-productive.
As a leader, it could inhibit others from speaking their own words. As a coach and facilitator, it could be a distraction, an interference. I realised that awakening and building the best in others often involves silence, listening, genuine curiosity and care. It entails pausing before stepping in, allowing the silence to do its own work.
My silence allows me to not-know. It allows me space to listen, truly listen, to the sound behind a person’s voice; the silent, vibrant, resonating sound of deeply-held beliefs and values, unspoken questions, hopes and fears. My attention, my presence, supports the other person as a human being, nurturing what is within to emerge, to rise to the surface and, in doing so, it affirms something of my own humanity too.
Of course, silence itself is not the only quality that matters in our work. There are times where we do need to speak up, to share and show what we think, feel and believe. Nevertheless, silence can evoke the space, the environment, the conditions, the opportunity, for creative conversation, energetic dialogue and a dynamic way forward.
Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant with over 15,000 followers on LinkedIn. How can I help you? Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org