I have the privilege of knowing an amazing young woman in the Philippines. She’s a single mum who gets up at 2am to go to a market, buy food items, return home to cook them then back to the street to sell them to passers-by. She also works in a school to earn enough money to support her own mum and her 3 children. She lives in a hostel and shares a room and facilities with numerous other residents in order to be where the work is so that she can pay her bills and send money home.
She regards herself as poor, of little account. She compares herself to wealthy, Western women and feels small. She has little formal education yet is bright spirited and speaks English fluently with natural ability. She’s passionate and really, really cares about people. She gives free food to children on the street who have no money. She teaches the homeless, the forgotten children, to see and treat themselves with dignity and respect. This woman, this angel, completely humbles me.
Yet how easy it is to mistake our wealth, our technology, our education, our comfortable lives for what it means to be human and to succeed. I can hear disturbing echoes from the New Testament – if we have all these things and yet lack love, we are nothing. This woman, this beautiful daughter of God, demonstrates the kind of character, the kind of love, that I only hope and dream of. At 2am, she will be back on the streets again, tired but uncomplaining. God – help me be like her.
Ouch! Sooner or later, something hits us in life. It could be a broken relationship, an accident, loss of employment, sudden ill health. It could be anything. But we know it when it hits us. The impact can feel physical like a thud to the chest, a sharp pain that leaves us gasping for breath. It hurts, it aches…and, for a time, it disorientates everything we know, believe, expected or hoped for. It can leave us spinning, angry, scared, numb. We feel vulnerable. We may feel anxiety, despair.
You do know it if you’ve had this experience. You may be having it now. The usual optimism and positive thinking that have served you so well in the past suddenly feel empty, shallow somehow, lacking substance. You reach out for help but if feels like grasping at thin, intangible mist. All you know is a persistent, uneasy, gnawing feeling, deep inside and the light of hope looks hopelessly dim. Family and friends offer support but, in the midst of it you feel – alone. Painfully…alone.
It’s moments like these where existential and spiritual questions may come sharply into view. I’ve know that feeling of falling, sinking, so deep that I thought I would drown. It felt like slipping into deep darkness, overwhelmed by a pain-filled fear. I couldn’t see a way to stay alive. Sitting on a fence in a cold field one night, all I could discern was a feint pin prick of light in the farthest distance. I tried hard to cling on, however weakly. That night, I discovered the light was - Jesus.
Two years ago, I came off a mountain bike – badly(!) - during a UK Sport Relief charity ride. I demonstrated perfectly how not to fall, how not to land and, as a consequence, snapped my left leg sideways at the knee and ruptured two ligaments. During the next twelve months of leg splints, crutches and intensive physiotherapy, specialists told me I would never be able to walk up and down stairs again, never be able to swim again, never be able to ride off road again.
It was a shocking, painful and numbing experience. I kept playing over in my mind what had happened, what I could have done differently, what this could all mean for my life, how it could impact on my family and work. I felt angry with myself for making such a simple, stupid mistake, frustrated that I could no longer do activities I loved. And I realised I faced a choice. I could give in to the experience, accept my ‘fate’, or take what action I could to re-shape the future.
Two years on, after months of (at times) agonising physio, dragging myself up stairs by hand rails etc, I managed to reach the top of a mountain without leg splints. Two years on, having learned to use a pull buoy float and hand paddles, I managed to swim 80 lengths with arms only. Two years on, with leg braced and lots of deep breaths, I managed to complete a 22 mile off road bike challenge. It has shed revealing light onto my attitude to risk. A reminder to hold onto hope.
I thank God, family, friends, colleagues, professionals, neighbours - and even total strangers - who have supported me. It has influenced my thinking as a leader, coach and OD practitioner: how to support, challenge and increase the resource-fullness of people, teams and organisations. It has strengthened my conviction that we and others are often capable of far more than we know or believe. It has reinforced my faith that God stands with us in the midst of trials.
I struggle for words at Easter. How can I speak? It’s about horrific pain…and incredible hope. An intense emotional, physical roller coaster that evades articulation, defies human language. It’s a place of stretched imagination, strained to its most bewildering, unfathomable limits.
And, today, I worked with a Christian organisation, Open Doors. I arrived during a vivid presentation about conflict in South Sudan. The images were harsh and hard and yet, in the midst of such suffering, they held strange glimmers of light, of hope. I just can’t make sense of it.
So I’m reminded of Christ who presences himself – Person of Jesus, God with us – and Easter’s stark reminder of the risk, the cost, of presence and contact. It’s an existential, spiritual challenge that feels so completely beyond me and yet, paradoxically, the deepest place that I find hope.
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?
I write, therefore I think. I guess you could call that Descartes for Introverts. A journal editor contacted me this week to invite me to draft an article. The guidelines propose having a clear idea of content and structure from the outset. I get the point, I see the logic, but I’m aware I don’t write like that. I don’t think I even think like that. Often I don’t know what I think, what I want to say, until I start to write. This means that, for me, writing is an exciting adventure of exploration, discovery and promise. It’s as if each word, each sentence, opens the way for what could emerge, what could surprise, what will reveal itself, next.
I sometimes experience a similar phenomenon when I lead, teach, coach, facilitate. In the past, I would prepare…and prepare…so that I would be, well… – prepared. Now I notice I’m more interested in preparing myself. How to be present, curious, open to the person, open to the group, open to God, open to the moment: noticing what is preoccupying my thoughts, how I am feeling emotionally and physically, what is holding my attention, what I’m not noticing, what stories I’m telling myself. It's about learning to risk just one step forward with awareness, intention and belief in what could unfold, what will become, next.
This attitude, this stance, is invitational by nature. It reaches out to inquire, share, collaborate and co-create. It’s so different to a defensive, defended posture, trying to hold the ‘other’ or the future at bay to protect and preserve. It’s a willingness to be vulnerable, not-know, let go of control, move out and trust. It’s not easy to sustain this state if work and relationships feel pressured and stressed. It's easy to fall back. Yet it can be a place of great fruitfulness, alive and life-giving. It can be a sacred space where love thrives and where hope is truly transformational. It calls for a leap of faith. Just one step. Next.
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.
Picture this. Here I am in a church meeting when a woman sitting in front of me starts to shake physically. This was in the context of a meeting where expectations were high that God would do something dramatic. The people around this woman prayed enthusiastically and the physical shakes were interpreted as a visible and positive sign of God’s activity.
I later spoke to a nurse and asked how the same phenomenon would be interpreted in, say, an Accident & Emergency unit at the local hospital. ‘Possibly as some kind of neurological disturbance’, she replied. I then asked how medical staff were likely to respond if they observed this happening. ‘They would probably conduct tests to understand and treat the underlying physical cause.’
This intrigued me. It’s as if the interpretation we apply to an experience depends partly on the socio-physical environment in which the phenomenon arises (in this example, a church or hospital) and what the prevailing expectations and interpretations are in that context. It also depends on our own personal belief systems and the broader cultural worldview that we inhabit.
This raises interesting questions about which, if either, interpretation is ‘correct’. Someone of a particular religious conviction may argue strongly for a spiritual interpretation whereas someone of a secular-medical outlook may argue equally strongly for a medical interpretation. It sets up the risk of a false dichotomy, as if different interpretations are necessarily mutually exclusive.
One way to look at this is that events and experiences have no inherent meaning of their own. They just are what they are. What happens simply…happens. As individuals and social groups (e.g. cultures, professions), we construct meaning based on what we believe and hold to be true. In other words, we apply meaning to events and experiences rather than derive meaning from them.
A non-medical church member may look at the experience through a spiritual lens; a secular medical practitioner through a scientific lens. As a consequence, they each notice, don’t notice, include and conclude something different. Each lens creates and reinforces its own meaning, superimposes its own meaning, and, having done so, appears obvious or self-evident for those share that view.
It seems possible to me that the same phenomenon can carry more than one meaning. In the example above, it’s possible (assuming, as I do, that God exists) that God may act in a person’s life by creating a neurological disturbance that may, say, reveal some hidden issue psychosomatically or symbolically that is important for that person or cultural community to pay attention to.
Having said that, there may be different explanations altogether to those offered above that could explain this experience. They may not be obvious to us because they don’t fit with our current frames of reference or lenses and are, therefore, in effect, invisible to us. It’s a bit like asking a colour-blind person to describe coloured images or shapes on a card that lie outside their ability to perceive.
So what is the significance for leadership, coaching and facilitation? I think it’s something about being aware, as far as we can be, of our own personal and cultural influences, the effect they have on, say, who and what we notice and don’t notice, who and what we value and don’t value and the impact we have on others.
It’s about being willing to engage in the existential struggle that holding core assumptions lightly whilst taking a stance with conviction entails. It’s about using our work to help others – whether individuals, teams or organisations – grow in awareness of their personal and cultural beliefs, values and assumptions so they can explore new possibilities constructively and creatively. It’s about modelling and nurturing curiosity, integrity and hope.
Easter is a good time to reflect on dying to an old life and rising to a new one. If what I believe is true, the cross reveals in the starkest terms possible that no matter who we are or what we have done, we really matter to God.
I woke up this morning with a sense of excitement, threw back the curtains and…oh no. It was foggy and grey. The weather app had predicted sunshine and the heavy mist dampened my spirits as well as the ground. I was looking forward to a ride out on the bike under blue skies and bright sunlight. Now I would need to dress for the wet and return my cool cycling shades to the shelf.
Immediately, the voices started in my head. Not literal voices, but speaking powerfully to me all the same. ‘Take the day off.’ ‘You don’t want to go out in this weather.’ ‘The bike will get covered in salt and you’ll need to wash it when you get back.’ ‘My knees are aching anyway so best to give it a miss.’ ‘Wait until another day when the weather is better.’ ‘Go back to bed!’
It was as if everything inside me was subtly yet fiercely resisting what I really wanted to do. My creative mind was generating a whole host of rationalisations to convince me of a different course of action and, what is more, to persuade me it would be the right or best thing to do. Yet deep inside, somewhere, I wanted to go out on the bike and knew I would feel much better if I did.
There are parallels in my Christian experience where one part of me wants to live in relationship with God and yet another part struggles actively against it. (If you’re interested in this dimension, have a look at Romans 7 and 8 in the Bible). Projected across a lifetime, this struggle can be exhausting and calls me to something, someone, beyond myself to grow and know peace.
On the whole, it’s as if there are competing beliefs, values, motivations or dynamics within us that struggle for prominence, analogous to Freud’s struggle between the superego and the id. Willpower alone is insufficient to win the battle, although in some situations it works. Often, I’ve found I just need to ignore the voices of dissent: get the bike out or drive to the swimming pool.
Motivation theories suggest different factors that motivate us. Sometimes, it’s about moving towards something, e.g. ‘If I save hard enough, I will be able to buy that shiny new bike.’ Sometimes it’s moving away from something: ‘If I get this new job, I will be able to leave this terrible neighbourhood.’ Sometimes it’s about doing one thing to avoid having to do something else.
As leaders and mentors, we’re often engaged in helping people grow in awareness of subconscious motivations, or motivating them to move in a different direction or towards a more healthy and sustainable goal. It’s one reason why understanding motivations is important in leading change. The closer changes align with people’s motivations, the greater chance of success.
We get stuck when competing motivations leave us feeling paralysed, like the proverbial donkey that stands between equidistant piles of hay and dies of starvation because it can’t decide which pile to go for. We weigh up pros and cons and yet they still hang annoyingly in the balance. ‘Should I tell people in advance about possible changes or wait until the changes are finalised?’
I believe this is where skilful coaching can really help, e.g. by enabling a person to understand ‘what lies beneath’, identify wider systemic influences, paint a picture of a different desired future, release fresh possibilities for lifestyle and action. As for me, enough of writing this blog. It’s time to get the lycra shorts and t-shirt on and to head for the open road! :)
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