I have rarely witnessed such a humbling, authentic act of generosity. I was in the Philippines for the past 2 weeks visiting people and communities who are, by global standards, economically poor. The Filipina who accompanied me is poor too. She grew up in a remote jungle hut with no running water, electricity or sanitation. She works hard, long hours to support her children, family and community, determined that others should have better opportunities in life that she has experienced in her own.
We were walking through an island village with children, teenagers and parents staring and smiling to see these strange visitors. The homes they were living in had only one room, no facilities, and we were passing a small hut with snacks hanging outside it on strings. It served as the village shop. We hadn’t eaten or had anything to drink for some time and the weather was hot and humid so I handed some money to my guide to buy herself some food. What happened next took me completely by surprise.
This young woman bought all the snacks that were hanging there and immediately handed them to the intrigued children that had surrounded us. Then she walked around, handing them openly to mothers who were carrying toddlers – and toyed playfully with teenagers who wanted some too but were too shy to ask. The scene around us was transformed into one of spontaneous celebration with smiles everywhere and children running and laughing excitedly. It reminded me of Spirit, of incarnation, of Jesus.
As we left the village with these images and sounds still dancing vividly in my mind, I commented to this special person, ‘You were amazing with them.’ She looked at me, wide eyed, and replied quite simply, ‘Nick – I am them.’ Those words detonated deeply in my soul. As leaders, OD and coaches, how far do we view staff, clients etc. as ‘them’, distinct from ‘us’? How would it impact on our presence, our behaviour, our effectiveness if we shifted our perspective, our stance, to one of radical identity with..?
How would you describe your coaching style? What questions would you bring to a client situation?
In my experience, it depends on a whole range of factors including the client, the relationship, the situation and what beliefs and expertise I, as coach, may hold. It also depends on what frame of reference or approach I and the client believe could be most beneficial. Some coaches are committed to a specific theory, philosophy or approach. Others are more fluid or eclectic.
Take, for instance, a leader in a Christian organisation struggling with issues in her team. The coach could help the leader explore and address the situation drawing on any number of perspectives or methods. Although not mutually exclusive, each has its own focus and emphasis. The content and boundaries will reflect what the client and coach believe may be significant:
Appreciative/solutions-focused: e.g. ‘What would an ideal team look and feel like for you?’, ‘When has this team been at its best?’, ‘What made the greatest positive difference at the time?’, ‘What opportunity does this situation represent?’, ‘On a scale of 1-10, how well is this team meeting your and other team members’ expectations?’, ‘What would it take to move it up a notch?’
Psychodynamic/cognitive-behavioural: e.g. ‘What picture comes to mind when you imagine the team?’, ‘What might a detached observer notice about the team?’, ‘How does this struggle feel for you?’, ‘When have you felt like that in the past?’, ‘What do you do when you feel that way?’, ‘What could your own behaviour be evoking in the team?’, ‘What could you do differently?’
Gestalt/systemic: e.g. ‘What is holding your attention in this situation?’ ‘What are you not noticing?’, ‘What are you inferring from people’s behaviour in the team?’, ‘What underlying needs are team members trying to fulfil by behaving this way?’, ‘What is this team situation telling you about wider issues in the organization?’, ‘What resources could you draw on to support you?’
Spiritual/existential: e.g. ‘How is this situation affecting your sense of calling as a leader?’, ‘What has God taught you in the past that could help you deal with this situation?’, ‘What resonances do you see between your leadership struggle and that experienced by people in the Bible?’, ‘What ways of dealing with this would feel most congruent with your beliefs and values?’
An important principle I’ve learned is to explore options and to contract with the client. ‘These are some of the ways in which we could approach this issue. What might work best for you?’ This enables the client to retain appropriate choice and control whilst, at the same time, introduces possibilities, opportunities and potential new experiences that could prove transformational.
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.
I had strange dreams about mirrors and reflections last night and woke early in the darkness. I lay there for a while, semi-conscious, daydreaming about the brightness of the moon and how it reflects the light of the sun. I prayed silently, instinctively, ‘Just as the moon reflects the light of the sun, may my life reflect the light of God’. Then I woke up.
I do think there’s something profound about mirrors and reflection as psychological, cultural and spiritual phenomena. The recent fantasy film, Snow White and the Huntsman created a vivid portrayal of a tormented queen returning repeatedly to seek reassurance in the mirror of legend: ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?’
The queen’s sense of self, security and value were based on the response from the mirror. It’s as if she didn’t really know who she was, how she was, without reference to its external perspective. According to psychodynamic and social psychological theories, our sense of self is affected by the responses we evoke and encounter in others.
Take, for instance, a young child who gazes into its mother’s face. If it sees consistent expressions of warmth, attentiveness, affection and happiness, it may well develop the sense that ‘I am loved’ and, thereby, ‘I am loveable.’ If on the other hand the child consistently sees looks of disapproval, it may develop a negative sense of self.
Psychodynamic theorists (e.g. Winnicott) call this process ‘mirroring’.Just as a person knows what they look like by glancing in a mirror, a child sees something of itself, learns something about itself, its relationships and its place in the world, by observing what is mirrored in the face of others. It’s a process that continues throughout our lives.
This phenomenon has deep existential implications. Corinne Taylor in her paper, You are the fairest of them all, comments on what may happen if a mother lacks connection with the child and fails to offer mirroring: ‘Perhaps a mother with a rigid face gives the baby the sense of never having being at all.’* Its very existence may feel negated.
Richard Rohr in his book, The Naked Now draws spiritual parallels, inviting us to consider what we see in God’s face, his gaze, as we gaze at him in prayer. It’s as if God is the ultimate, absolute parent figure in whose face we are able to gain a true sense of who we actually are. A distorted image of God will create a distorted image of self.
Projection is a related psychological process whereby we project aspects of ourselves (often aspects we feel uncomfortable with) onto other people or even onto God. I may be aware of and focus on characteristics of others that I’m not aware of or deny in myself, even though others may recognise them as typical of me.
If I grow in awareness of my projections, I can grow in awareness of myself by noticing what I notice in others. It’s another form of mirroring. As a leader and coach, I can draw important lessons too: what do others see in my face; do my responses help others develop a truer and more-loved sense of self; do I reflect the light of God?
Heidegger's philosophy of experience strikes a chord for me. The sense of feeling ‘called’ in the moment to act or respond in a certain way expresses well what I often experience in my coaching practice. At times, I feel an almost irresistible desire and energy to act in certain way and moment. It feels intuitive, a knowing-beyond-knowing, a calling forth from beyond myself.
I believe that such insights often emerge phenomenologically from tacit knowledge, subconscious or bodily knowledge gained through years of life and work experience, a rationally unprocessed form of knowledge that emerges as intuition. I’m interested in how this correlates with my Christian beliefs about the activity of God’s Spirit and, in particular, spiritual discernment.
My interpretation of my experience, the meaning I attribute to it, is that God sometimes reveals insight that feels intuitive and prompts action in the moment that can prove profoundly transformational. It’s not something I can make happen. It’s a deeply mysterious belief and conviction and, when I experience it personally, a purely psychological explanation feels inadequate.
A challenge in coaching is how to navigate 'spiritual' conversations about existence, identity and meaning without taking clients into places they don’t want to go. It's something about acting ethically and authentically, contracting and negotiating the depth and scope of the coaching agenda openly without imposing or manipulating a client to accept my own metaphysical beliefs.
Heidegger's philosophy also resonates with social constructionism and, in particular, the relationship between language and meaning. After one coaching session, my supervisor observed how often I reflected back to the client specific words they had used, prompting further exploration to uncover the meaning such words held for the client and her own cultural environment.
During a subsequent coaching training programme, one of the participants commented to me in private how angry and frustrated she felt that some people in the group were bringing high levels of emotional content into the room, using the course for therapeutic purposes, and how inappropriate she felt this was. “This isn’t coaching!”, she complained.
I responded that different people in the group seemed to have positioned themselves differently along a consultant-coach-therapist continuum. I felt an underlying desire to persuade her to acknowledge her own subjectivity; e.g. to reframe, “This isn’t coaching” to, “That isn’t how I think of coaching” or, “That isn’t where I would draw the boundaries between coaching and therapy.”
In doing so, I was seeking to challenge and convince her to share my own constructionist outlook. It made me wonder how far my coaching practice is influenced by a desire to persuade people that a constructionist outlook is a more ‘true’ or honest way of perceiving and articulating their experience, rather than simply enabling them to explore within their own frame of reference.
The important issue then is how to bring challenge of potential benefit to the client in what Transactional Analysis describes as Adult-Adult rather than Parent-Child mode. In order to avoid hidden agendas, I need to check I am clear about my own intentions beforehand and pose my insights or perspectives along the lines of, “This is how I see it...how do you see it?” as an invitation to explore.
I was reading Richard Rohr’s Preparing for Christmas, a short book of advent meditations, when I came across this extract which I decided to quote in full (...with a few tweeks!).
“One of the major problems in the spiritual life is our attachment to our own self-image, either positively or negatively created. We have to begin with some kind of identity but the trouble is that we confuse this idea of ourselves with who we actually are in God. Ideas about things are not the things in themselves. We all have to start by forming a self-image but the problem is our attachment to it, our need to promote it and protect it and have others like it. What a trap!
This is what the Spirit has to strip away from us so that we can find our true identity in God’s image of us rather than in our image of ourselves, which is always changing anyway. Who we are in God is a much more enduring and solid foundation. As Christians, God always sees his son Jesus in us, and he cannot not love him! This new identity, an image created through God and our relationship to him, is a solid and enduring self-image, no up and down anymore.
We get stuck if our self-image is based on mere social or psychological information rather than theological truth. The gospel promises us that we are objectively and inherently children of God. This is not psychological worthiness, an attempt to feel good about ourselves. It is ontological, metaphysical and substantial and cannot be gained or lost. When this God given image becomes our self-image, the gospel becomes very good news indeed.
Which of your self-images, positive or negative, get in the way of your relationship with God?”
Think of a great leader, leadership team or experience. A person, group or moment where you strongly noticed or felt the influence and impact of leadership. What made the difference?
I don't believe in the cult of the perfect leader, the person who lives and demonstrates perfect leadership qualities at all times and in all circumstances - except of course, God.
Nevertheless, I do know when I experience or exercise leadership. I have an intuitive sense that I'm being something, doing something, experiencing something that feels both 'me' and 'beyond me'.
I've noticed these moments most profoundly when certain qualities emerge at the same time. It's a kind of synergy that, in a particular moment and context, ignites a spark and something emerges:
*Identity. The intrinsic me. A sense of who I am, who I am in God, what I believe about myself, what others recognise in me, what my talents are, what I base my confidence in.
*Initiative. Personal proactivity. A sense of my own power, personal leadership, a willingness to be the first to step out and take a risk, a preparedness to take responsibility for action.
*Inspiration. How I motivate others. A sense of vision, imagination, a compelling idea, a grasp of opportunities and possibilities, an ability to help others believe in themselves, to release potential.
*Intuition. Deep insight. A sense of what's important, an awareness of my own feelings, an ability to tune into what isn't being said, an ability to notice and discern 'what's really going on here.'
*Influence. Inspiring others to follow. An awareness of what matters most to others, a commitment to role modelling, an ability to communicate, negotiate, convince and persuade.
*Inclusion. Valuing others' contribution. A sense of awareness of my own limitations, a recognition of others' gifts and talents, an ability to involve others and draw out their best.
*Intimacy. How I relate to others. A sense of empathy, a willingness to challenge and support, a preparedness to stand alongside others through good times and bad.
*Integrity. My values and behaviour. A sense of conscience, a moral compass, a determined commitment to ethical practice, a clear sense of parameters and boundaries.
*Innovation. Seeing and doing things differently. A sense of creativity, a willingness to be playful, experiment and take risks, an ability to reframe, to challenge the status quo, to enable paradigm shifts.
*Impact. A commitment to action. A sense of purpose, a desire to achieve change, the courage to get involved, a willingness to take decisions, an openness to experiment, evaluate and learn.
It's a dynamic combination of these elements that results in the exercise and experience of leadership, whether personal leadership or leadership as a team (where ‘I’ could be converted to ‘we’).
So I want to use this list as a checklist before God. How far does my attitude, outlook and approach reflect these qualities? What would it take for me to become more of a leader, more of the time?
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.
Does God exist? Does it matter anyway? This is a question philosophers, theologians and ordinary people have been grappling with for centuries. For some, the notion of ‘God’ feels abstract, archaic or loaded with cultural or political baggage. For others, it simply feels irrelevant, something that only seems to have meaning or significance for those of a religious disposition.
Existentialists take the question seriously, after all, they’re concerned with answering questions such as, who am I, why am I here, what is the purpose of life? Many are atheist and draw bleak conclusions. We’re here purely by chance, a cosmic accident. One day our solar system will die, we will die with it and there will be nobody to remember or care that we even existed.
I believe this is an honest appraisal of life without God. It leads to some startling conclusions. If there is no God, there is no absolute truth, no absolute right or wrong, no absolute meaning to anything. The only meaning is that which we make for ourselves. We create values and worthy causes or bury ourselves in everyday activity to avoid facing the inevitable angst.
I find it difficult to get away from this conclusion, if I hold the view that God doesn’t exist. I can of course do things that feel meaningful, I can do things that others find meaningful too, e.g. I can use my talents to contribute to the wider family, society or world. These things feel culturally important, intuitively right, personally fulfilling, the best way to build a happy world.
The underlying problem persists however, as if nagging in the background of our consciousness. It surfaces occasionally, e.g. with the birth of a new baby, mid-life crisis, the death of a close one, poverty or war. What does all this mean? Why are things as they are? Is there anything more to life than this? I too will face death - what would make my short life worthwhile?
Existentialists pose a stark challenge. Life is meaningless. Our efforts to avoid this reality are defensive, delusional and futile. There is no ultimate point to anything. We can face this reality or deny it. Either way, the facts remain the same. Nevertheless, we can still make choices. We can choose to be, do and become our best, to fulfil our human potential.
This all presupposes, of course, that God does not exist. If God does exist, a very different picture emerges, depending of course on our concept of ‘God’. I experience God first and foremost as an intuitive phenomenon, a deep sense of knowing, an awareness of an inner presence that transcends my own self. My Christian beliefs help me make sense of this existential experience.
If God exists, if the God of Christian theology is the God who is, I exist because he exists. He created me which gives me a profound sense of identity: I am first and foremost a child of God. He created me with an eternal purpose in mind: my life is first and foremost an opportunity to fulfil his designs, plans and intentions in, for and through me.
This paradigm, this way of living in the world, presents fresh challenges. How to exercise faith in an invisible yet somehow discernable God, how to live an authentic life based on his call whist distracted by my own preoccupations, how to live with suffering and injustice with a new vision of what could be, how to work with others to achieve meaningful transformation.
Nevertheless, this belief presents a radical alternative to the atheist existentialist view. It fills bleak darkness with blazing light, hopeless meaninglessness with hope-filled meaning in everything. It isn’t wishful thinking, an attempt to avoid existential nihilism. It’s a profound revelation of truth and reality, a relationship that calls me beyond myself into amazing possibility.
‘Will you come down to London to see my art exhibition next week, uncle Nick?’ She looked at me expectantly. ‘I’m so sorry Dani, but I can’t. I’m helping lead a global leadership event all week.’ ‘But, uncle Nick, I’ve been working on this for ages, it’s the culmination of all I’ve been working on for my degree.’ ‘I would love to be there, Dani, but it’s really not possible. People are coming to this event from all over the world and I’m part of the team that’s leading it.’
Dani turned away with a look of disappointment in her eyes. I felt bad but what else could I do? Later that evening as I was leading, Dani tried one last time, ‘Please uncle Nick, come to my exhibition!’ I was about to repeat by previous reply when she spoke for me in an exaggerated posh voice and hurt, sarcastic tone, ‘Oh I forgot, you can’t come, you’re at a global leadership event.’ Ouch, slap. I felt confronted, chastised, embarrassed, humbled.
The following week, here was I surrounded by colleagues from 25 countries. We sat around the table and introduced ourselves. As people spoke in turn, I noticed what noble and impressive-sounding job titles we create for ourselves in organisations, the big words that convey importance and status as much as describing our roles. And I remembered Dani’s challenge and Paul’s words (from the Bible) rang out in my head, ‘don’t think of yourselves more highly than you ought’.
I’ve reflected on my identity and attitude since, how easy it is to inadvertently assume a sense of self-importance, an implicit arrogance, a self-inflated pride. I’m challenged by Jesus’ example, the one who demonstrated extraordinary humility, the divine leader who gave others dignity and revealed a servant heart. I need to guard against the seduction of status, the pull of power, the temptation to grasp for myself the honour that belongs to God.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in developing critical reflective practice.