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.
Calling has long-standing roots in theistic spiritual traditions, often associated with being ‘called by God’ to a certain way of life or to a specific course of action. Existential psychologists have commented on how sometimes it feels like a situation is calling for its own response from us. In both cases, the source of the calling is attributed to someone or something beyond us. It’s a phenomenon that can feel like an evocative pull, tugging at something deep within us.
I’ve experienced this many times since becoming a Christian, a strange intuition that feels beyond me, prompting or leading me in a certain direction. Sometimes it seems very clear or inspiring, at others it’s more of a vague notion, a restlessness that compels me to move or change. I’ve often experienced it in coaching relationships too, an almost irresistible impulse to speak or act that feels like revelation, an energising compulsion from the situation itself.
It’s not magic, something I can make happen, something I can manufacture for myself. It’s sometimes unexpected, sometimes challenging and sometimes involves scary risk-taking. It’s not definitive either, something I can measure, test or prove in a lab. This can make the experience of calling feel mysterious, sometimes spiritual, a step in faith in response to a curious, invisible stimulus. It’s as if something ‘out there’ connects with something ‘in here’, setting up a dynamic resonance.
So how to apply this in leadership and coaching? How to listen for and discern calling in the midst of so many other tasks and preoccupations that clamour for our attention? How to weigh up calling in order to act wisely? In my experience, there is no simple formula. It’s mostly about learning to be still, to live with awareness, to tune into my intuition, to be sensitive to prompts from the situation itself, to experiment and see what happens, to be open to God in prayer.
I wish I could say I always follow this call. Sometimes I'm sceptical, sometimes I pull back for fear of embarrassment or failure. Nevertheless, I've seen and felt amazing things happen when I do listen and act. I would love to hear from others on this topic of calling. When have you felt called? What was the situation? What did the experience of calling feel like? What did you attribute the calling to? How did you act in response? What happened as a result?
Who or what has most influenced your OD thinking and practice? What maxims or principles do you bear in mind as you approach organisational issues from an OD perspective? Someone asked me this question recently and I crystallised my response into seven statements, drawing on background influences including Morgan, Schein, Bolman & Deal, Gergen and Burr:
*Organisations do not exist but people do.
*Every action is an intervention.
*Actions have symbolic as well as rational meaning.
*What’s important is not what happens but what it means.
*The same event has different meanings for different people.
*People get trapped in their own psychological and cultural constructs.
*What passes for rationality is often irrationality in disguise.
These statements, taken as a whole, create a metaphorical lens through which I often view, analyse or interpret a situation or experience. They help me to consider an underlying question, ‘What is really going on here?’ before attempting to work with a client or organisation to devise a way forward. What maxims or principles do you use to guide your practice?
It felt like magic. No matter where I turned, it would simply calculate a fresh route. I couldn’t get lost. Wow, this felt exciting and liberating, especially for someone like me who has an absolutely hopeless sense of direction. It was my first drive out with a satnav. I had heard of them but never seen one in action. Journeys would never be the same. I could relax more, play more, not worry so much about getting disorientated and ending up in the wrong place.
I loved it. I still love it now. It’s one of the best investments I’ve ever made. No more heated arguments in the car, ‘This way, turn off here, no I meant back there…didn’t you see the sign??!’ Those were not relaxing times. So, why thinking about the satnav, why now? Well, I’ve had some fascinating chats with people, provoked by my recent blog on discerning God’s will in our lives. How can we know if we are where God wants us to be? What if we make a mistake?
I get the impression from the Bible that God has an eternal plan in mind, an eternal destination if you like. Nothing we can do can undermine his ultimate plan. We can’t change it, prevent it or subvert it. It’s as if God has given us free will, choices about what route to take, but whatever we choose becomes part of his plan. He uses it, incorporates it, recalculates the route, so to speak, to reach that same ultimate destination. In theology, it’s called pre-destination.
It reminds me of student days in philosophy lectures. I couldn’t get my head around it. If God knows everything, knows what free choices I will make, and God cannot know something that isn’t true, how can I not do what feels like a free choice and, therefore, what does it mean to call it free? It was mindbending. It assumed, however, that God exists in linear time. If God exists outside of time, he knows what is at all times. He knows it because we choose it.
It was hard to get my thinking straight around this notion of ‘outside of time’ because I couldn’t easily relate to it in my own experience. I can only experience life in-time, in linear sequence. Yesterday…today…tomorrow. The clock ticks, one second follows another. However, I can grasp the notion that I actually live in one moment at a time. I live in the now, not the what-was past or the what-will-be future. The Bible describes God as encountering us in the now.
The now is where I am as a result of my particular life circumstances, decisions I have taken and of God leading me. God is calling me to be and become as fully as I can be in the now moment: all he has created me to be, enables me to be, empowers me to do. He guides me mysteriously by his Spirit, by the Bible, through experience and through others towards his final destination. God is our ultimate 'satnav' guide. If I choose to listen, I may get there quicker.
I sometimes meet Christians in my coaching practice who feel concerned about whether or not they are missing God's call on their lives. They want to know they are following God's path for them. The question is sometimes framed along the lines of, 'How can I know what God wants me to do with my life?'
There are instances in the Bible where God has specific plans for specific people in specific situations at specific times. On those occasions, he tends to make his will abundantly clear. My sense is we need to be open to those moments, to be ready to receive specific guidance if God should choose to reveal it.
I've had some examples of this in my own life. For instance, I once felt God prompting me to take a can opener to a youth meeting I was due to lead that evening and to give it to a particular girl. I didn't hear a voice, it was a kind of sense impression, a strange kind of knowing, hard to describe.
I felt surprised and confused but decided to do it anyway. I mean, why not? What's the worst thing that could happen? I handed it to the girl on arrival and simply said, holding my breath, 'I believe God wants me to give this to you.' I felt a bit awkward and embarrassed but gave it to her anyway.
I continued with leading the meeting and, after a few minutes, noticed the girl was in tears. It turns out she had had a major row with her mum that week and, as a result, had left home that day, moving into a bedsit. Her mum, also feeling distraught, gave her a box of food to take with her.
The girl wasn't going to come to the meeting that evening. She sat in her bedsit alone, weeping. After a while, she opened the box to get something to eat, only to discover it was all in cans. The shops were closed and so she came to the group because at least she would get some refreshments there.
That was the moment at which I had handed her the can opener. You can imagine the exposive impact. I was completely blown away by it, as was she. I've never forgotten that experience. I can't explain it, but it did teach me an important lesson about listening to God and acting in faith.
In everyday life, I believe God's general call is to live a life that his consistent with his overall mission and values. This is what it means to follow him: to discern his goals, his direction, his attitude, his way of doing things and to walk behind him, imitate him, get in on his act, so to speak.
I've sometimes offered people at a crossroads in life with advice drawing on three principles: mission, values and identity. It seems to me that it's important to think through these things prayerfully, allowing space for God to encourage, guide, reveal, challenge our preconceptions etc.
For example. Mission: which course of action is most consistent with what God has already been doing in and through my life? Values: which course of action is most consistent with biblical ethical values? Identity: how would this decision affect my sense of identity and relationship as a child of God?
It can also be important to consider intention. What's my intention in taking this course of action? Am I being entirely honest about my motivation? Who will be affected by it and in what ways? Is this how God would want me to deal with the issue? Once again, a need for prayer.
Many of these things are hard to do alone. We can get muddled, frustrated and confused. This is the value of talking things through with others, people we can trust to be encouraging and honest with us. People we can pray and discern with together, supporting each others' lives of faith with integrity.
The Bible itself reveals a God who is trustworthy, who doesn't play games with us. It's sometimes hard to work out what he is calling us to do, to discern his voice from so many other voices, but he does promise to live in and guide us by his Spirit. The bottom line on guidance? God is God, therefore relax.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.