'Beware the stories we tell ourselves.' (Brené Brown)
In fields of psychology such as TA (transactional analysis) and Gestalt, there’s an idea that, as we look back over our lives, we only notice key events that stand out to us as in some way significant. We don’t notice everything else. The events that hold our attention from our past are often those that we consider pivotal moments or experiences for us and that still carry emotional resonance. We join the dots between the events and, for us, the narrative that emerges becomes our ‘life story’.
(If you want to try this out for yourself, pause for a moment, take a sheet of paper and draw a line that, in some way, represents your life. Some people use an image of, say, a river as the line. Now mark key relationships, moments, events or experiences in your life on the line. You may want to draw these as, say, high points or low points – or as graphic images. When you are finished, tell yourself or someone else the story that has emerged. Notice how the story sounds and feels.)
This ability to create patterns and to tell stories provides a sense of continuity and coherence and enables us to make sense of our lives. Instead of recalling multiple random events, we experience life as journey. It’s like how we hear music as melody or flow, not as disconnected, separate notes. We do the same in teams, groups, organisations and cultures. We notice some things, don’t notice other things and create narratives based on what we see, believe and experience as significant.
Yet a story is necessarily selective. What now appears as true and coherent to us is one possible narrative, one version of events, one way of making sense of things. Furthermore, the more self-evident the story appears and feels to us, the greater the risk is that we are trapped, like Alice, in our own Wonderland. The stories we tell ourselves influence and reinforce what we notice and not-notice now, what sense we make of it, how we feel and how we anticipate-respond to the future.
So how to use these insights when working with clients? 1. Notice how a client depicts their issue, relationship or situation. What story are they telling themselves? How are they feeling as they do it? 2. Explore what they are not-noticing, what they are assuming, who or what is not featuring in the story, how the same facts or perceptions could be configured differently. 3. Enable them to experiment creatively with alternative stories to raise fresh awareness, insight and possibilities into view.
I was reminded recently of one of my sister’s ex-boyfriends in our teenage years. The lad was called Tom and, one day, he decided proudly to have his name tattooed on his neck. When he got home, however, he was dismayed to look in the mirror and read ‘moT’. ‘I can’t believe they spelt my name wrong!’, he exclaimed in near despair. My mother looked on in near despair too. How could her daughter be going out with this guy?? My sister laughed but poor Tom just looked puzzled.
I can hear so many satirical expressions immediately coming to mind: ‘Not the sharpest knife in the drawer; A few sandwiches short of a picnic; Proof that evolution can go in reverse’, etc. It’s as if we’re a lot brighter than Tom, less prone to such stupid mistakes. Tom misinterpreted what he saw but we see and understand things more clearly. Perception is reality and Tom needed a reality check. We’re not that easily tricked or confused. We’re not like Tom. We see things as they are.
That is, until we read books like David McRaney’s ‘You Are Not So Smart’ (2012). With a wide range of disarmingly simple-yet-profound examples, McRaney describes a whole host of ways in which we unknowingly and convincingly delude ourselves, pretty much every day. Alex Boese concludes on the back cover: ‘Fascinating! You’ll never trust your brain again.’ It’s as if the assumptions we hold about what is real and true about ourselves, the world, life and relationships need to be held…lightly.
Yet this poses some serious existential, ethical and practical challenges. Who or what are we to trust if we’re not sure what’s real or true? Who or what are we to take a stance on if we’re not sure if the ground we’re standing on is sound? Faith, doubt and belief come face-to-face with diverse related fields, e.g. social constructionism and Gestalt. This is rich territory for deep coaching, leadership and OD. So, tell me - what are your experiences of working with certainty and uncertainty, ambiguity and trust?
Take a clean sheet of flipchart paper. Draw a small black dot in the middle. Ask people what they see, what they notice. Almost invariably in my experience, people will say, ‘A black dot’. I haven’t yet heard someone say, ‘A white sheet of paper’. I first saw this used in an anti-racism workshop. The tutor, Tuku Mukherjee, used it as a metaphor for how we tend to focus our attention on minorities in society and ignore or don’t even see the majority. The backdrop is, in effect, invisible to us.
In this example, the backdrop forms the context for the ‘minority’. In other words, ‘minority’ only has meaning vis a vis a perceived ‘majority’. I heard one astute black speaker say, ‘In the UK, I am viewed as an ethnic minority whereas, when I look across the world as a whole, I see that I am part of an ethnic majority.’ So what we see, what sense we make of it, is contextual. To understand what we notice, we sometimes need to shift our focus to the background against which it stands out.
Take, now, an example of a person who is ‘underperforming’ at work. This definition of the situation locates underperformance in the person, as if it represents a quality, aptitude or behaviour of the person him or herself. It leads us to consider how to improve the person’s performance, e.g. through mentoring or training. All things being equal, this may improve the person’s performance and, if so, we may view the situation as resolved. ‘X was underperforming…X is now performing…sorted.’
Yet what constitutes ‘good performance’ is defined by the backdrop, the wider organisation. What if performance expectations are unrealistic? What if the person does not have sufficient resources, guidance or support? What if systems, policies or procedures are such that they make the person’s work untenable? What if relationships or power dynamics are culturally toxic? What if instances of ‘under-performance’ form a repeating pattern in this organisation or team? Step back…look…see.
This impressed me. This woman has been deaf since birth and lip-reads. Struck by how naturally she speaks and with apparent ease in conversation, I'm curious and ask if she can hear anything of her own voice. She replies, ‘No - nothing’. Even more intrigued, I ask, ‘So…how do you know what volume you are speaking at?’ ‘Trial and error’, she replies. ‘I started to speak when I was a child. If someone leaned back as if trying to move away from me, I realised I was speaking too loudly. If they leaned forward as if straining to hear me, I knew I was speaking too quietly. Simple.’ And brilliant.
There are some interesting parallels to this approach in fields such as Gestalt coaching and OD action research. It’s about trying something new – an experiment, if you like – and being open to, sensitive to, the experience, the response. This type of feedback loop can enable us to learn, grow, innovate and improve. It takes courage to take a step into not-yet-knowing; attentive observation skills to notice what happens; critical reflective research skills to make sound, meaningful sense of it and, last but not least, personal and professional judgement to make good decisions and act on them.
So, what does this point towards as leaders, OD, coaches and trainers? I believe it’s about recruiting, releasing and rewarding people who seize the initiative: responsible risk-takers willing to try something new, more likely to seek forgiveness than permission. It’s also about creating healthy relational and cultural conditions where positive qualities – e.g. wonder, curiosity and inquiry – thrive and are supported. It’s about experimenting and learning without fear of blame or failure. ‘There is no such thing as a failed experiment, only experiments with unexpected outcomes.’ (Fuller).
I took part in a workshop last week that focused on social media, work and leadership. One of the questions that Zoe Amar, the trainer, posed was, ‘What’s your personal brand?’ It was in relation to being clear and authentic about, say, who we are, what makes us distinctive, what others value about us, what we have to offer etc. I quickly thought about my own Twitter, LinkedIn and website profiles. How clear and consistent am I in how I portray myself, what is true about me and what matters to me, bearing in mind the different audiences and purposes for those profiles?
The phrase ‘psychological coach’ sprang to mind. ‘I’m a psychological coach’. I also do mentoring, training, facilitation, consultancy, writing and even some teaching yet, somehow, ‘psychological coach’ felt the clearest and most grounding. Perhaps it’s something about how I see myself, what I enjoy, what expertise I hold, where I feel my calling lays, where clients say I add value, how I see and approach what I do. The psychological part signifies a type, a focus, a style, an orientation to my work; the coaching part signifies developing and releasing hope and potential in others.
What this means in practice is that I tend to view and approach leadership, mentoring, training, facilitation, consultancy etc. through a psychological lens. I instinctively look at what enhances or inhibits people, teams, groups and organisations from psychological, relational, cultural and systemic perspectives. I draw on insights and practices from fields as diverse as social constructionism, Gestalt/field theory and cognitive behavioural psychology. I enable people, teams, groups and organisations to grow in insight and ability to create, achieve and sustain their transformation.
So – ‘I’m a psychological coach’. Inspired by my Christian faith and informed by my studies and experience, it’s at the heart of who I am in the world, my work, what I do and how I do it. What’s your personal brand?
My brother handed it to me proudly with a smile on his face. The case looked more tatty than when I had seen it last and the shoulder strap had snapped, hanging down to the floor. As I unbuckled the case and lifted it out carefully – almost reverently – I could see he had looked after it well. It was an old Webley Vulcan .177, an air rifle I had bought when I was just 13 years old. It was my treasured possession for many years when I did target shooting. As the case slid to the floor and I caressed the wood and metal in my hands, I felt an adrenaline rush as vivid flashbacks rushed through my mind.
I was 15 when someone tried to burgle the house at midnight. My parents were away on holiday and I was inside – alone. I could hear someone outside trying to break through the back door. I slid out of bed, grabbed the rifle, loaded it, opened the window, called out a warning (trying to avoid my voice shaking) and fired a shot at a metal bin in the garden. The loud bang reverberated in the dead of night and it startled me as much as them. They fell silent. I closed the window, held my breath and, after a few moments, heard them scrambling over the garage roof to escape into the night.
Why am I sharing this? As leaders, OD, coaches and trainers, we may focus on practical, thinking and feeling aspects of change and lose sight of the impacts of physicality, of environment, of doing-it. It is when I touched and held the rifle that I felt it, that my imagination was triggered. It’s often when we visit a place, meet a real person, do a thing, try something new (rather than think about, reflect on, imagine it, ‘as if’) that startling awareness, insight and ideas rise to the surface. We discover intuitively and viscerally – and it can propel us forward. If we touch something, it touches us.
Ever had one of those situations where you have said or done something entirely innocently and the person or group’s response seems totally disconnected to what you said or did – or completely out of proportion to it? It can feel like you have stepped on a hidden landmine. It can take you by surprise and can leave you reeling from the impact. It can feel hurtful, confusing and disorientating. What is going on here? What can you do to make sense of it and to deal with it?
There are some really useful insights we can draw on from fields including psychodynamics, Gestalt, social psychology, social constructionism and systems thinking. They are all interested in human relationships, what happens when we interact with each other and why. I’m going to share a couple of insights here, briefly, because I think they can be very helpful for leaders, OD, coaches etc. In fact, anyone who encounters people, works with people, is keen to build good relationships.
Firstly, we experience everything and everyone we encounter through a psychological-cultural filter. The filter is, essentially everything and everyone we have experienced in the past, how we have felt about it and what sense we and others have made of it. This means that a person who, say, appears to overreact to you is encountering you through their own filter. The filter subconsciously influences their assumptions, perceptions etc. It may be about you…but it isn’t only about you.
Secondly, no encounter takes place in a vacuum. Even as you read this, you aren’t doing so in a bubble. The stuff that is going on around us, which includes things in our lives and work here and now as well as things we carry from the past and our anticipated futures, influences what we notice, what we value, what we prioritise, what we enjoy, how we cope etc. in any given moment. So, the ‘overreacting’ person? Acknowledge they have a backstory. Breathe, be open; ask, listen.
Moving from city to village was a big shift. All kinds of changes. On arrival, we took my 7 year old daughter to visit the local village school. Teachers took her around enthusiastically, explaining how the classes work, introducing her to other children, showing her the school equipment, facilities etc. On leaving, I asked her how she felt, what her impressions were. She replied, ‘Great!’ I asked her what she liked most – and she responded immediately, ‘The kids get to wear their own shoes!!’
This young girl came from a school that had a strict dress code. Black shoes were mandatory. The idea that she could choose what to wear at this new school completely transfixed and excited her. Nobody had mentioned shoes or uniform as we had taken the school tour yet this is what she noticed. In fact, it was as if she hadn’t seen or heard anything else. She noticed what she valued, what mattered most to her, and what stood out in stark contrast to what she was used to.
Gestalt psychology talks about this idea in terms of ‘figure’ and ‘ground’. ‘Figure’ is whatever stands out to us, whatever holds our attention, in the moment. ‘Ground’ is the backdrop that, in that same moment, lays largely out of awareness. It raises some very interesting and important questions such as, ‘What are we noticing – and why?’; ‘What are we aware of?’ and, conversely, ‘What are we not noticing?’; ‘What are we not aware of…e.g. that we may do well to pay attention to?’
What we notice – and what meaning we attribute to it – is influenced by our interests, values, cultures, preferences and concerns. We don’t simply see what is there, as if in some objective sense. We focus, filter and construe what we see so that different people see different things in the same situation, or the same person may see different things in the same situation at a different time. So, as leaders, coaches and OD – what is holding your attention? What are you not noticing?
This is a place where Gestalt and Social Constructionism meet. ‘Ge-what and what?’ Already confused? You could well be. I’ll have a go at explaining it. I discovered these words whilst studying organisational and coaching psychology. They arise out of a background, a field of research, experience and practice where psychology and philosophy dance together to create meaning. They have become words that I love, carrying all kinds of exciting insights, ideas and potential.
Yet my point is that they only hold meaning, evoke a response, against a backdrop. My experience and understanding could be very different to yours and that will influence what we each notice, what sense we make of it and how we feel when we encounter it. So, for instance, if you are feeling irritated now by my use of academic-sounding language, your focus is likely to be on me, on my words, rather than on the personal background and experiences that influence your reaction.
Gestalt describes this phenomenon as ‘Figure’ – for argument’s sake, the thing we notice, that is holding our attention, in the moment, and ‘Ground’ – the background to the ‘Figure’ that we are not noticing. Similarly, Social Constructionism proposes that it’s the hidden subconscious backdrop of our beliefs, values, interests, experiences etc. that create meaning and make sense of that which we notice and focus on. And, for most of the time – the background is completely invisible to us.
So here are some ideas: You’re leading a team and people get stuck, fixated on an issue. Why is it so important to them? Check out the invisible backdrop as a way of resolving it. You’re facilitating an organisation through change and things start to feel derailed. Surface underlying cultural constructs and assumptions to enable a shift. You’re coaching a client who presents an issue, a relationship, as if it exists in a vacuum. Explore the invisible context, the ‘what else’, to create a solution.
A coaching conversation can bring to mind the image of a 1-hour, serious conversation. Two people sitting in chairs, facing each other at 135-degrees, one talking, the other leaning forward, listening. The client speaks slowly, thoughtfully. The coach holds eye contact, empathetic expression, nods occasionally. The atmosphere is, well...reflective. Now imagine the same scenario in bright daylight, vivid colour, creative energy, physical movement.
Example: Sarah stood there, told me she was stressed about a forthcoming meeting. She looked tense, slumped shoulders. I said, ‘Stressed’ back and mirrored her posture. I asked, ‘How would you want to be at the meeting?’ Sarah responded, ‘More confident, full of life.’ I replied, ‘Show me – full of life’. She jumped up and down on the spot, grinning and arms waving. I did too. I asked, ‘Do you know what you need to do now?’ She said, ‘Yes.’
Dave was worried about conflict with a colleague. As he spoke about it, I noticed his arm moving as if writing something in thin air. I mirrored the movement, in silence. He looked surprised. ‘What does that mean?’, I asked. Dave looked thoughtful. ‘I take notes when we meet to avoid looking at him.’ ‘What would you be doing if you had a great relationship?’ Dave looked brighter so I asked, ‘Do you know what you need to do?’ He replied, ‘Yes.’
Don’t get me wrong. There is a time and a place for deep, thoughtful conversation. We can’t solve every situation with a simple, quick solution. Yet how far do we fall unquestioningly into patterns of behaviour and practice simply because they feel comfortable, normal and predictable for us? How far do we always insist on a full-course meal when something light, crispy and spicy could be, for the client, refreshing, satisfying, life-giving – and enough?
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.