What is real, what is true, how can we know? These are questions that have vexed philosophers for centuries. In more recent times, we have seen an increasing convergence between philosophy and psychology in fields such as social constructionism and existential therapy. How we experience and make sense of being, meaning and purpose is inextricably linked to how we behave, what we choose and what stance we take in the world.
As a Christian and psychological coach, I’m intrigued by how these fundamental issues, perspectives and actions intertwine with my beliefs, spirituality and practice. Descartes once wrote, ‘If you would be a real seeker after truth, you must at least once in your life doubt, as far as possible, all things.’ It’s as if we must be prepared to suspend all assumptions about ‘what is’, to explore all possibilities and dare to think the unthinkable in order to grow and make our best contribution.
Things are not always as they at first appear. There are sometimes multiple explanations for the same phenomenon, depending on the frame of reference we or others use to interpret it (see, for instance, Gareth Morgan’s seminal work, Images of Organisation, 1986). We are sometimes blinded to what’s in front of us by our prejudices, preconceptions, cultural constraints or rigid views of the world. It can be hard to maintain healthy scepticism without cynicism.
I see it with clients, sometimes in myself too. A sense of being trapped by a fixed Gestalt, a cognitive distortion, an inherited or learned belief system. An inability to see, to recognise the box that we’re in, never mind to see or think outside of it. An avoidance of deep, difficult questions because of the discomfort, confusion or anxiety they may evoke. If we’re not careful, if we can’t find the right help when we need it, it may limit our lives and our learning.
I think this is where coaching can play a very important role, helping pose and address some deep questions. Nick Bolton commented insightfully in Coaching Today that, ‘To explore a coaching issue existentially is to understand the relationship that the presenting problem has to the human condition to which it is a response, and to remain focused on enabling a change of perspective that allows the client to move past their current challenge.’
He also provided some helpful examples: ‘For instance, how is a client’s procrastination around something that seems to matter to her a failure to remember that life comes to an end? How is a client’s need to be unconditionally loved by his partner an attempt to deal with existential rather than interpersonal isolation? (And the solutions are very different things). How is someone’s lethargy simply a part of their fear of taking responsibility for their life?’ (July 2013, p17)
A metaphysical, existential or theological dimension can shift the entire paradigm of the coaching conversation. The question of whether a client should apply for this or that job is influenced by her sense of purpose. If she is willing to consider that God may exist and have a plan for her life, the whole situational context will change. It can be a dizzying and exciting experience, yet it’s really a question of how courageous and radical we and the client are prepared to be.
Imagine over 2 billion people. It’s enough to make me feel dizzy, roughly a third of the world’s total population, Christians all over the globe marking a very significant event this weekend. Easter. But what does Easter mean for Christians? Why is it so important? How is it different to a colourful, pagan, fertility festival marked by chocolate, rabbits and eggs?
At the heart of the Christian Easter is a cross, a symbol used by Christians to highlight the centre-point of their faith. The cross is a reminder of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, crucified on a cross 2,000 years ago. It’s a shocking symbol, an instrument of Roman torture and agonising death. It draws our attention to a God-man-saviour, prepared to give his life for us.
That’s where it gets hard. What if the biblical account is true? Can I dare myself to believe it? What if Jesus really was the Son of God? Could he really love someone as messed up as me? I can only draw one conclusion. If this story is true, the cross cries out in the starkest possible terms that no matter who we are or what we have done, we really matter to God.
And there is more hope. Easter Sunday marks an equally remarkable event. This Jesus who died is raised by God. Miraculously, he is brought back to life and, what is more, promises us life over death by trusting in him. He offers us light, life and hope in the midst and beyond the dark deaths and despair we may face in life, psychological, emotional and physical.
So that’s where I place my faith. Not in my weak and inconsistent efforts to be a good person, a clever person, an interesting or adventurous person. I know what I’m really like inside. Amazingly, God is never disillusioned with me because he never had any illusions in the first place. I place my faith in Jesus. If the Bible is true, he truly deserves my life.
It stands around the corner from an authentic Thai restaurant in central London. On the face of it, it’s an elegant building. As you walk past, however, you realise with surprise that the frontage is a façade, an elaborate shield concealing a plain office building that lies behind it. It’s a striking metaphor, a symbol of sorts for an inauthentic life. It challenged me powerfully yet silently to consider the masks I wear, the images I project to disguise my real self.
Some years ago, John Powell published a popular, short self help book, ‘Why am I afraid to tell you who I am?’ He explored how we attempt to protect our fragile egos and avoid our fear rejection by acting out roles or playing games. These are defensive routines aimed at minimising social anxiety or negative evaluation. By putting on a front that we believe will impress others, we attempt to feel better about ourselves and to win others’ approval.
At one level, these strategies can prove successful in life and work. It’s one reason why we pay attention to our physical appearance, the way we behave and conduct ourselves in public, the way we present ourselves at job interviews etc. From our earliest childhood experiences, we learn what wins love and affirmation from others within our key relationships, social environments and culture. We learn how to play the game.
At another level, however, keeping up appearances can prove self-defeating. Over time we may feel alienated from ourselves, not sure how we really are, and alienated from others, not sure if we are really loved and accepted. We can feel lonely, frustrated and tired. It’s as if, paradoxically, the façades we create to develop and maintain relationships can have the opposite effect, preventing authentic and intimate contact with others.
This presents us with a dilemma, an anxiety-provoking risk. What if I remove the mask, tell you what I’m really thinking, show you how I’m really feeling? Would you love and accept me for who I am or would you look at me with disappointment in your eyes? Will making myself vulnerable release you to be vulnerable too? Can we find a new way of connecting that feels more real, more authentic, less defended, less like a façade?
It can feel like a breathtaking step. The possibility feels exciting and yet the potential feels daunting. I’m reminded of Jesus’ call in the gospels: ‘remove the mask and come into the light’. There is further New Testament teaching too: ‘perfect love casts out fear’. If God can love and accept me as I am, perhaps I can learn to love and accept myself and to love and accept others too. Perhaps that’s where it starts, feeling truly safe with God.
So therein lies the challenge. As a leader and a coach, am I willing to make myself vulnerable so that others can be vulnerable too? Can I demonstrate unconditional love with such honesty that others feel safe to remove their masks, to take down their façades? Can I find new ways to relate to others with an increasing sense of trust and authenticity, creating ever-deeper levels of contact? It’s certainly a goal worth praying and striving for.
The first thing I notice is the random cluster of bikes parked outside the café ranging from Japanese street machines to British and American cruisers. I wander inside and get myself a hot mug of tea. There are no formal welcomes, only various bikers in black leathers and motorcycle gear sitting in small groups, talking earnestly or laughing as they chat together. The leader walks in. He has long hair, a wispy beard and piercing blue eyes. This man, Graham, has an unusual warmth in his smile as he glances around, beckoning informally to whoever is interested to join him in the room next door. We get up and slowly wander in across the cold hallway. The seats, like their occupants, are covered in black leather. It’s chilly inside and there’s a single oil-filled heater in the corner.
The conversation starts easily, people speaking in relaxed tones as they talk about the ride in, things that have been happening at work in the past week, ordinary things, everyday things. There is no ecclesiastical language, no religious jargon, no speaking in stuffy tones. It feels natural, real. I wonder what’s going to happen next, curious about this earthy bunch of heaven’s angels. This was my first encounter with a Christian Motorcyclists’ Association (CMA) meeting, a loose organisation of ordinary blokes who share two passions: bikes and Jesus. One person talks about how much he struggles to get his head around anything to do with God at the moment, feels very messed up like everything is going wrong in his life. Others around the room nod and empathise. He looks reassured.
Another talks excitedly about his return to faith after years in the drugs and clubs scene. He is energetic and animated as he speaks and his enthusiasm is infectious. Another looks thoughtful and talks about how, when he’s working on his bike, he gets totally focused on it. He goes on to comment how easy it is to get preoccupied with things, whether good or bad. The conversation, like the bikes outside, feels random but a strange flow emerges. The bloke next to me chips in, ‘If we focus on something long enough, act on it consistently enough, we become defined by it.’ The bloke next to him agrees and says ‘Yes, like anger. If we allow someone to anger us, they control us.’ Another says, ‘Yes, and if you are always angry, it becomes who you are.’ The room falls silent.
One by one, these men start to share stories about when they’ve been angry, when someone has really wound them up, treated them unfairly, different things they’ve tried to deal with it. It gets quite heated at points and Graham chips in with Jesus’ teaching and example of forgiveness, how meaningful it is, how healing it can be. It felt unforced, timely, but I wonder how the others will react. They start mulling over this, how difficult it can be, what it feels like when they manage it even if only for a short time. You can tell these blokes want to get it right, want to follow Jesus’ example, and they’re instinctively determined not to gloss over realities. They close by praying out loud, whoever wants to, speaking on behalf of the group. ‘God, help us because we can’t do this stuff on our own.’
The meeting closes and we stroll back into the café. The whole thing has lasted just 30 mins. I feel immediately inspired and challenged by what I’ve just seen, heard, felt, being part of. I don’t own a bike (although I've owned 21 and crashed 19) but these guys accept me, a stranger. As we chat and laugh over bacon and egg, they are the same in the café as they were in the room. No facades, no pretence. They’re happy to get their hands dirty and their faith is very practical too, looking out for each other, providing pastoral care at biker events, running charitable activities, praying for people who need support. We exit the café, the bikes rumble off with a snarling roar…and I’m left with the distinct impression I’ve been in the presence of Jesus. (www.bike.org.uk/cma)
I took part in an excellent mediation workshop this week run by Karen Bailey, a talented and experienced coach, mediator and trainer in this field (http://www.karenbaileymediation.com/). I found it interesting to explore different models and approaches ranging from arbitration and advocacy through to non-directive facilitation. It resonated for me professionally because, as an OD practitioner, I’m often invited to coach others on conflict resolution, to do teambuilding where unresolved conflict is a factor affecting team morale and performance, or to act as a third party helping others (e.g. line managers and staff, or peers) to address and resolve stuck-ness or tensions between them. It also resonates for me spiritually because the notion of mediation is at the heart of my Christian beliefs. The biblical characterisation of Jesus Christ as mediator between God and humanity is the cornerstone of Christian theology, a role that Christians too are called to emulate and follow as peace-builders in the world.
The model we explored and practised emphasised the importance of creating a semi-structured space for parties to listen to each other. If they can genuinely hear each other, there is scope for establishing empathy and reaching shared solutions. This involves the willingness of all parties to engage in open, direct and…potentially scary…dialogue. The mediator speaks to this fear dynamic explicitly: ‘This is going to feel very uncomfortable, but we’re here because we believe the outcome will be worth it.’If the mediator and participants can learn to manage their own anxiety by facing it head on, they may also feel able to lower their defences and hear each other. We looked at four conditions that enable this type of mediation to be successful: the mediator is impartial; the mediation is confidential; participation is voluntary; outcomes are self-determined. These condidtions provide a basis for establishing clarity and for contracting with oneself, participants and sponsors beforehand.
Karen explains why these same conditions can sometimes make it difficult for internal HR (or OD) practitioners to fulfil this role within their own organisation or business partnering arena effectively. (For further comment on this issue, see: http://www.karenbaileymediation.com/transforming-hr-practitioners-into-mediators/). We also looked at four aspects of participant experience and perspective that provide a content-orientated focus for the mediation: each participant’s Story; each participant’s felt Impacts; each participant’s Needs; each participant’s Goals (making the acronym SING). The mediator meets with each participant to tease out these aspects beforehand. The participant’s story is his or her own subjective experience of the situation; impacts are what he/she is feeling emotionally; needs are unfulfilled desires or challenged values; goals are the outcomes each person hopes for. ‘What’s going on for me’, ‘How this is impacting me’ and ‘Why this is important to me’.
At the start of the session with all parties in the room, the mediator reiterates the process and invites the participants to (a) be honest and direct with each other and (b) listen and show respect to each other. The mediator may invite each party to make an opening statement and then allow the conversation to free-flow. The tricky part I found as mediator-in-practice was when to intervene and not to intervene, how to intervene in such a way that facilitates rather than interferes with the process, how to manage my own anxieties if ferocious conflict emerges, if one party appears bullied or if the conflict became directed at me.
Karen offered some useful ideas…simple in principle, harder to do in practice! The mediator can summarise, reflect back…’This is what I’m hearing…’, ‘Sounds like…’, enabling the participants to feel heard before moving on. The mediator can call for a break, allowing mediator and participants to step back, take time out if they need to cool down or reflect before re-engaging.
The mediator can co-facilitate with another mediator, creating the benefit of two perspectives, insights and interventions, especially valuable if one of the mediators feels hooked, emotionally destabilised or disorientated by something in the conversation and needs to detach in order to re-engage. The real challenge, opportunity and skill lies in enabling the participants to establish and maintain high quality contact with each other, even if that contact feels loaded with intense emotion. It’s a process that involves faith, faith that if the participants will find a way to hear and connect with each other, that they may feel empathy and will move towards finding their own solutions. It also demands that the mediator be fully present in the room, fully in role and fully in contact with participants. The session ends with participants discussing and agreeing their own way forward. This kind of mediation clearly demands patience and courage but the benefits can be transformative.
Christmas time. A special time to enjoy family, friends and festivities. For many of us, it’s a time off work, chance to relax, eat, drink and party. There is, however, a deeper meaning to the event, a meaning embedded in its very name: Christ-mas. For Christians, it represents a celebration of a unique and critical moment in history, the birth of Jesus Christ. This distant event has important implications for my work in leadership, OD, coaching and training.
The idea of God as a human child should shock, confuse and amaze us. After all, if God exists and if he really is everything the Bible says he is, e.g. all powerful, all knowing, an invisible being, it makes no sense to imagine all those qualities in a vulnerable, dependent, human baby. The arrival of Jesus, the transcendent become immanent, is a profoundly paradoxical event. Little wonder so many people today find it difficult to imagine, understand or believe.
I find it stimulating and humbling to reflect on this. It calls me to ask serious questions of myself, my life and my work. Whatever I’m doing, whatever role I’m playing, my work is essentially about people, developing people, releasing potential, building a better organisation, a better world. So I will share five short thoughts and meditations this Christmas kairos evokes for me. Please share your reflections and responses with me too. I’m keen to hear.
1. God as human. The appearance of God in human form (Gestalt) reminds me of the notion of contact in Gestalt psychology, a deep sense of presence and connection with people. It’s about intimacy, empathy, touch, being-with in the here and now. In my work, I sometimes become so focused on the task that I can lose touch with myself, with others, with God. Incarnation is about coming close. How can I develop and sustain a better quality of contact?
2. God as child. The Christ child reveals God at his most vulnerable, a willingness to take risks and to depend on others. It reminds me of notions of attachment in psychodynamic psychology. It sounds inconceivable to imagine God placing his life, his wellbeing, in human hands. Yet it challenges notions of arrogant, egotistical, macho leadership. It models humility, trust, a working with others to achieve a purpose. How can I become more humble and inclusive?
3. God as love. In becoming human, God enters human experience. Jesus’ loving, empathetic way of relating to people reminds me of notions of relationship, positive regard and authenticity in humanistic and person-centred psychology. He balances ‘grace’ with ‘truth’ in a way that I find very difficult. He demonstrates altruistic self-sacrifice, critical friendship and tough love. How can I be better and more consistent at putting others’ best interests first?
4. God as truth. The arrival of God in human history in such a dramatic, physical way challenges previous notions of God and of humanity. God challenges all presuppositions, cultural perspectives and traditions. This reminds me of addressing limiting beliefs in cognitive psychology, fixed Gestalts in Gestalt psychology and personal-social constructs in social constructionism. How can I work with others to explore and create fresh possibilities, fresh paradigms?
5. God as saviour. The Bible depicts Jesus Christ entering the world to save a humanity that is lost. This notion of lost-ness reminds me of ‘angst’ in existential and psychodynamic psychology, a deep feeling of alienation from oneself and others and from any sense of ultimate meaning and purpose. It’s as if Jesus resolves our alienation from God and the world to bring new hope. How can I ensure my work brings fresh meaning and hope to others?
I wish you a merry Christmas and a very happy new year!
Critical reflexivity…hmm…what’s that? Sounds complicated. I was re-reading one of my favourite books, An Invitation to Social Construction (2009) by Kenneth Gergen this morning which introduces this concept with the following explanation:
‘Critical reflectivity is the attempt to place one’s premises into question, to suspend the ‘obvious’, to listen to alternative framings of reality and to grapple with the comparative outcomes of multiple standpoints…this means an unrelenting concern with the blinding potential of the ‘taken for granted’…we must be prepared to doubt everything we have accepted as real, true, right, necessary or essential’.
I find this interesting, stimulating and exciting. It’s about journeying into not-knowing, entertaining the possibility that there could be very different ways of perceiving, framing and experiencing issues or phenomena. It’s about a radical openness to fresh possibilities, new horizons, hitherto unimaginable ideas. It’s a recognition that all assumptions and preconceptions about reality could be limiting or flawed.
I’ve found this critical reflexivity principle invaluable in my coaching and OD practice. How often people and organisations get stuck, trapped, by fixed ways of seeing and approaching things. The same cultural influences that provide stability can blind us to alternative possibilities. The gift of the coach or consultant is to loosen the ground, release energy and insight, create fresh options for being and action.
It certainly resonates with my reading of the gospels. Jesus Christ had a way of confronting the worldviews, traditions and apparent ‘common sense’ outlook of those he encountered in such a way that often evoked confusion, anger or frustration. It’s as if he could perceive things others couldn’t see. He had a way of reframing things that it left people feeling disorientated. He operated in a very different paradigm.
This is one point at which spirituality meets philosophy and psychology. I too get easily trapped in my own constructs so I pray to God to open my eyes, to reveal new insights and unrecognised opportunities. Jesus’ words speak to me with renewed impact. He came ‘to proclaim freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, to set captives free.’ It’s about fresh awareness, deep liberation and a renewed life.
The can hit the ground with a clanking sound. It felt empty, painful somehow. The young woman had been sitting in her car, gazing across the countryside in the warm sunshine. She drank the drink then tossed the can through the open window. It looked wrong on the grass, an intrusion, out of place. It felt symbolic, enigmatic. The human paradox, our ability to love and enjoy nature and carelessly, thoughtlessly, to destroy it. It was selfism, nihilism, abandonment of compassion and principle.
Should I confront her, should I complain and chastise her? I felt angry, frustrated, a momentary sense of despair. Hold back, best not to speak, best to walk on. Pass by on the other side of the road. The girl looked at me and grinned, a sarcastic smile, a challenging look. I felt conflicted, annoyed but then convicted too. How quick I was to judge her. How fast I was to feel self righteous. The can felt like biblical 'sin', a scar on the landscape, and I felt its dark parallel, a cynical dynamic, tightening its grip within me too.
I became uncomfortably aware of how easily I react to things in others that I disown in myself. It's what Jesus exposed as psychodynamic projection with spiritual roots. As I walked on, I experienced a mysterious intuition, a flash of revelation in the midst of anti-revelation. It was as if God had emerged suddenly and unexpectedly as now-here in the apparent no-where. It took me by surpise as the spotlight turned from the girl to me. God holds the mirror in love and truth and now it's me he is inviting to change.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.