‘I have a dream.’ (Martin Luther King)
We were leading a strategy development process at an international NGO and wanted to envision ourselves and each other rather than to paint bleak pictures of burning platforms, a future to avoid or a present to escape. This was instead about inspiring wonder, hope and aspiration. ‘Imagine if…’ We invited people to paint, depict and enact future scenarios – the futures that our beneficiaries, supporters and we ourselves dreamed of. It was about imagining, hoping, reaching, aiming high.
There are parallels with the ‘dream phase’ of Appreciative Inquiry. This is where we invite people to imagine a different, brighter future: what they would like things (e.g. relationships, ways of working, success stories) to be more like, more of the time. There are also parallels with posing a ‘miracle question’ in solutions-focused coaching or therapy. This is where we invite a person to imagine vividly that a desired future state has already been reached or achieved. To experience it as if it really is.
This is important and here are some reasons why. If we focus our attention only on problems, deficits or undesirable states, it can evoke anxiety, drain energy and close-down creative thinking. I say ‘only’ because there are some situations (e.g. aspects of accountancy/IT/audit) where identifying problems/errors and fixing them can be very important. Some people also get a buzz, a real sense of achievement, from searching for, sniffing out or hunting down problems and sorting them out.
If, however, we focus entirely on problems, red-ratings or what is missing or broken, psychologically and culturally-speaking there is a risk that they grow out of proportion, that we become unhelpfully fixated on them and that we lose a broader perspective – thereby undermining vision, awareness and morale. If, conversely, we invite people to dream and tap into the power of positive imagination, it can inspire fresh hope, open new horizons, release creative energy and surface great ideas.
So – when was the last time you spent time dreaming..?
‘Organisations do not exist. People do.’ This was the provocative title I chose for a dissertation I wrote some years ago now. The idea, the belief, has stayed with me. It shapes how I think about and approach leadership development, OD, coaching, facilitation and training. Inspired by Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organisation and insights from social constructionism, I continue to be fascinated by how the images we hold when we think of ‘organisation’ influence and, at times, constrain our awareness, actions and the range of options we believe we have available to us.
So I meet you in the street and ask you to tell me about you organisation. You may start by telling me about the products or services you provide. You may well move onto saying something about the structure, by which you are less likely normally to mean the physical structure and more likely to mean how jobs, roles, responsibilities and authority are organised. You may well describe or depict the structure like an organisation chart. Now here’s the important bit. Insofar as you and everyone else in the organisation believe this structure exists and behave as if it does, to you – it does.
Now imagine that the structure dissolves so that what is left is people and whatever physical assets the organisation may own. Imagine that people are released from job titles, role boundaries and that you now see them as whole people, rich with experiences, in vibrant colour. You have a task to achieve and you invite people with the best energy, enthusiasm, skills and life experiences to offer. As different tasks arise, different people get involved. Imagine, just for a moment, what that could look and feel like and achieve. Imagine the creativity and potential for innovation. Imagine!
What did this thought experiment reveal for you? What images are constraining you or your clients? What assumptions are you making about what’s possible? What dreams could be realised if the images were to change? What would it take to make the shift?
Take an issue (e.g. a painful memory, a foreboding experience) and hold it in your imagination for a moment. Now freeze the movie in your mind into a still shot. Tune down the colour until it’s black and white. Shrink the picture until it’s the size of a postage stamp. Cast the image away from you, as if into a distant bin. Now return to the present moment, the here-and-now. Notice the difference in how you are feeling. Allow the feeling to dissipate. Breathe.
Now, by contrast, imagine a positive experience, a great outcome, an exciting future. Hold the image in your mind. Tune up the colour until it’s vivid, radiant and bright. Turn up the sound until you can hear everything in crystal clarity. Really feel the positive energy and hope. Now turn the image into your favourite colour – a colour you associate with feeling happy, excited, relaxed. Hold the image, see the colour, feel the feeling. Now return to the here-and-now. Breathe.
We hold memory and imagination as sensory experiences in the mind, body and emotions. Constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing experiences in this way through coaching or therapy can create profound shifts in what we notice, how we feel, how we behave and what we evoke. It can reduce pain from the past, present new solutions, engender fresh hope and enhance results. What’s your experience of using the imagination to influence change?
A well-known management development agency invited me to take part in a masterclass in Appreciative Inquiry (AI) some years ago, at around the time when AI was first becoming popular in the UK. The idea was that I would write a review of the workshop afterwards that would be published in the agency's monthly journal. I have to confess that I wasn't exactly blown away by the experience. Phrases like 'Emperor's New Clothes' came to mind and I wrote a critical review accordingly. Needless to say, it wasn't published!
I have, however, used aspects of AI on numerous occasions since with different people and organisations and I have to say I've been impressed by the results. I like its emphasis on imagination, positivity and solutions. It fits well with my beliefs from social constructionism about how we create and co-create our own realities. Its discover, dream, design and destiny phases can envision and energise, inspire and motivate people far more than any problem-solving approaches I've seen or used. A simple question such as, 'What has inspired you in the last month?' really can transform the focus and energy in a team.
The best article I've read on the foundations of AI and what it involves in practice is by Richard Seele (2008): An Introduction to Appreciative Inquiry. If you're interested in the AI and to learn more about it, Richard's article is well worth a glance. I have used, adapted and applied aspects of AI without ever having worked systematically through its 4-stage process. I'd be interested to hear from you if you have: what was the issue/opportunity you focused on, how did you approach it, what questions did you pose at each stage, what happened as a result?
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.
Reaching 64 lengths felt like quite a stretch. I normally swim around 25 so pushing for a mile felt exciting yet daunting. When I did reach the final strokes, I felt tired yet exhilarated. It was a good feeling, a feeling of achieving something beyond my normal boundaries, routine, comfort zone. In that moment, I felt more alive somehow as if I had extended my boundaries into a new space. I was spurred on to test my limits by a good friend who takes his own sport, motorcycling, to extremes, perfecting his riding technique in every detail and crossing continents in ways I only dream of. Rho Sandberg added inspiration in her deeply thought-provoking blog, ‘Working with our Edges and No-Go Zones’: http://thegritintheoyster.cleconsulting.com.au/blog/working-our-edges-and-no-go-zones.
Rho, a coach and consultant, comments on how each time we reach the border of our experience, it’s as if we reach an edge. The edge represents an opportunity for growth and something new yet it can also sometimes feel unsettling, disorientating and anxiety-provoking. We may at times hesitate, avoid or pull back to avoid the discomfort or fear of what may lie beyond. ‘Will I be able to handle it?’ It could be a new relationship, a new job or taking something familiar to the next level. The edge can symbolise adventure...and risk. I remember that feeling vividly, the first time I set off to hitch hike around Europe. I had never done it before and felt butterflies of anxiety and thrill as I made preparations and finally stood at the road side, waiting for that first lift that would signal the start.
Rho comments that, ‘An edge is the limit to what we know and are comfortable with’ and ‘a coach or consultant’s key contribution can be holding and supporting the client at the edge long enough for them to discover a little more about it’. This echoes with my own experience as coach, supporting people who face fresh opportunities and challenges in life or who are working through change and transition. It inspires me to continually develop my own thinking and practice too…how to keep growing, extending my own boundaries and not to stay within my safe circle of experience. My next challenge is to cycle 1,000 miles and I can already feel myself touching that edge. Rho’s advice: ‘The edge is an interesting place – I recommend taking a torch to find your way around.’
I was speaking with a colleague recently who felt trapped in unresolved conflict. It was a key relationship, one that couldn’t be avoided, and all previous efforts had failed. As a consequence, both parties were feeling frustrated, de-energised and despondent about the future. As we explored how they had attempted to fix things in the past, it became clear they had focused on all the negatives…a long list of annoying and painful experiences from the past. Their conversations were characterised by blame and demands. It felt intractable.
The problem with such patterns of behaviour is that they create a negative expectation of the future. Both parties now felt stressed before they even spoke with each other. The stress affected their perspective and their resilience, their ability to hear and to cope. So we decided to try a different approach. How to build a positive expectation in order to create a different focus, a different conversation and, ultimately, a different relationship. It wouldn’t be easy but it felt worth a go. My colleague felt sceptical but, nevertheless, willing to give it a try.
Firstly, we agreed that next time they spoke, they would meet off site in a physical environment (e.g. café, park) that they both found positively stimulating and energising. This helped to break them away from the current environment that held such negative memories for them. Secondly, we agreed they would speak only of the positive moments in their relationship together. They found this hard at first. The negative experiences felt so overwhelming that they could hardly think of any positives. Nevertheless, they managed to remember some examples.
Thirdly, we agreed that after sharing such positive examples, they would each share future hopes for their relationship: ‘what we would like our relationship to be more like, more of the time’. They reflected each others’ hopes back to each other: ‘So you would like…’ Fourthly, we agreed they would move on to discuss ‘what it would take from me to make this work in practice’. This shifted each party’s focus from the other onto themselves. ‘This is how I would need to change…this is what it will take for me to do it…this is the help I will need.’
This kind of approach demands openness to fresh possibilities, humility, a willingness to forgive. It demands imagination and courage too, an ability to envision and embrace a new future. It’s not easy and the support of a friend, counsellor or coach can help make the journey possible. I would be interested to hear examples from others who’ve worked on conflict resolution too. What was the issue? How did you approach it? What happened as a result? What made the biggest difference? What did you learn? What would you do the same or differently next time?
People sometimes become stuck and struggle to find ways forward in their work and relationships because of how they perceive and respond to people and situations. I ran a workshop recently to help managers develop insights and skills in cognitive behavioural coaching (CBC). CBC is based on cognitive behavioural psychology. It is interested in how a person’s thinking influences his or her feelings and behaviour. It aims to improve a person’s effectiveness by reducing stress and opening fresh possibilities for the future.
Cognitive refers to mental processes: what we are thinking and what we believe.
Behaviour refers to what we do: how we act in relationships and other situations.
Coaching refers to helping a person enhance their life quality and effectiveness.
CBC aims to help a person surface, examine and challenge limiting or self-defeating thoughts and beliefs. It is not just about positive thinking but more about reality-orientation. It focuses on what’s happening ‘here and now’ and on helping the person approach the future differently. A CB coach invites a person to talk about an issue, a challenge or something they are experiencing. Often, it is something that is causing the person frustration or stress. Sometimes, however, it could be simply that a person feels limited by a way of working or is struggling to find a way forward.
In order for the person to be honest, the coach needs to demonstrate genuine interest and trustworthiness. The person needs to feel free to be open, without being judged, and to know the coach has the person’s best interests at heart. Listening and confidentiality are very important. If the person is feeling anxious, stressed or highly emotionally-charged, it’s unlikely that he or she will feel able to engage in a conversation about thinking patterns without calming down first. Creating the right cathartic space, perhaps over a coffee, can help the person relax and engage.
A CB coach will allow a person to introduce an issue or situation he or she is dealing with and listen out for indicators of ‘cognitive distortions’, that is, ways in which the person is thinking about the issue or situation that are out of synch with reality or proving counterproductive. Common examples include polarising issues into extremes; over-generalising from specific experiences and ignoring all evidence to the contrary; predicting the future and excluding all alternative possibilities; assuming what other people are thinking or feeling; anticipating the worst possible outcomes.
The coach will draw attention to these thinking patterns, invite the person to examine them, and offer supportive challenges that help the person think in new ways (e.g. ‘what assumptions are you making?’, ‘how far is what you’re thinking supported by the facts?’, ‘what are you not noticing?’). Finally, the coach will help the person plan a way forward to deal with the issue or situation differently. This could involve e.g. conversation, vividly imagining new scenarios or role playing to practise and reinforce new ways of thinking and behaving.
I watched Inception late last night and woke thinking about the power of imagination. This hi-tech film plays dramatically with the idea of manipulating dreams. Dreams are one way of experiencing our image-ination at work, quite literally by experiencing images that appear, within the dream, as reality. Ordinarily on waking, we feel able to differentiate what we perceive and experience as ‘actual reality’ from what we perceive and experience within a dream state as ‘apparent reality’.
I want to propose however that our perception and experience of reality while we are awake are, similarly, mediated by imagination. I want to challenge the notion of our ability to perceive and experience ‘actual reality’, as if we are in some objective sense able to perceive and experience reality as it is, reality per se. I want to suggest that our imagination acts as the interface between our selves and reality, that is, we perceive and experience reality as filtered and projected by our imagination.
The distinction between dream state and wake state may not be as clear and definitive as we normally assume. What does it really mean to be awake? Does awake mean to be fully conscious, to be fully aware of what is happening in and around us, to be able to take deliberate decisions and actions? This begs further questions that are difficult to answer. For example, what does it really mean to be conscious? What does it really mean to be fully aware? How do we know what’s really driving our decisions?
An example. I once had a dream in which I discovered my brother was having an affair with my girlfriend. It was a powerful and painful emotional experience and, even when I woke and realised it was only a dream, it still affected how I felt about and behaved towards my brother the next day. It’s possible that what we experience in dreams, in this case emotional insecurity, could reveal something of what we are experiencing in the current awake state, yet which lies out of our consciousness.
The notion that we are not conscious of some aspects of what we are experiencing challenges the notion of awake-ness as ‘fully aware’. If we think about our ordinary day-to-day experience, we can see how we are only ever selectively aware. For example, as you read this blog entry, notice how you have tuned out of other things happening within and around you, e.g. things you were thinking about previously, how you are sitting, your breathing, sounds outside of the room.
This ability to selectively perceive, to filter out stimuli that would otherwise be distracting or in totality overwhelming, is the same ability that enables us to focus, to concentrate. What we choose to focus or concentrate on links to interesting questions of motivation. In the present moment, what is motivating me to focus on A rather than B or C, why am I more interested in X rather than Y or Z? We’re sometimes aware of what is motivating us, sometimes we simply don’t know.
According to psychodynamic theory, we can be motivated to move towards or away from experiences by unconscious or subconscious forces that lie outside of our awareness. Sometimes it may be an intuitive gut instinct, a learned response that we somehow experience physiologically yet find it difficult to understand, rationalise or explain. I believe sometimes it could be a spiritual intuition, a knowing from outside ourselves that feels mysterious yet compelling, a revelation from God.
The psychodynamic tradition proposes that our subconscious memory draws connections between what we experience in the now and what we have experienced in the past. We perceive and experience each new person, relationship, situation etc. through the filter of what we have experienced previously and what meaning we have derived from or attributed to it. We encounter objective reality subjectively, that is, we never really perceive or experience people and things fully for what they are but always, to some degree, as distorted by what we project onto them.
This is a great example of the power of imagination. Picture for a moment holding a projector on your shoulder each time you meet a new person. The encounter evokes subconscious memories and emotions within that you automatically project, like an image, onto that person. What you then experience of the person is a product of the actual person, the actual encounter, combined with metaphorical ‘images’ and feelings you project onto them, resulting from previous encounters with other people.
By way of illustration, I once met a co-leader of a study group for the first time. I found myself relating to him warmly, confidently and humorously, and, after a while, noticed that he looked a bit bemused by this. I realised on reflection that there was something about how he looked, talked and behaved that reminded me of a very close friend. It was as if I had projected an ‘image’ of my friend onto this stranger and then, subconsciously, perceived and related to him as if he was that friend.
Social constructionist theory proposes that what we notice, how we perceive the world (e.g. how we categorise things), what images we hold of it, what sense we make of ‘reality’ and the meanings we attribute to it are created through interactions with others. In other words, our perception and experience of reality are socially and culturally constructed. We use language to reveal our maps (or images) of the world within and around us and, in doing so, shape and reinforce those things with others.
In this tradition, to be aware means to be conscious, as far as it is possible, of the various influences that shape our beliefs, our assumptions, our worldview and to be open to other possibilities, other ways of perceiving and experiencing reality. According to this tradition, reality is perception; that is, our experience of reality is inescapably governed by what we imagine it to be, how we have learned to perceive and experience it, how we shape it by the way we think and talk about it.
The psychodynamic and social constructionist traditions combined lead to a conclusion that human perception and experience of ‘actual reality’ is mediated by memory, imagination and interactions with others. We never fully experience reality in an objective sense, for what it is, but as a curious mix of what’s in here, what’s out there and what value and meaning we superimpose onto it. At best we perceive reality in terms that the New Testament describes as, ‘a poor reflection’.
This is consistent, I think, with Kant’s (paraphrased) reflections on spirituality: ‘God reveals himself objectively but we experience him subjectively’. It’s as if God reaches into our human constructs, shaping, challenging and reframing them to reveal a glimpse of himself in terms we can grasp. Our images of God are nevertheless created and constrained by the limits of human language, culture, experience and imagination.
In light of this, we do well to approach God and all aspects of reality and truth with humility and an openness to fresh challenge and possibility.
I smiled today when a colleague invited me to explain appreciative inquiry (AI), ‘because it sounds like an optimistic approach to problem solving’.
The wonderful paradox lay in the framing of the question itself. AI is an outlook manifested in an approach that challenges conventional problem-solving. It frames issues and experiences not in terms of problems to be solved but opportunities to be grasped. It draws the attention away from problems and deficits towards positive attributes and potential.
Unlike rational analytical problem-solving, AI evokes and draws on the power of positive and vivid imagination. It aims to create a compelling vision that stimulates motivation and drives people energetically forward. It reframes situations by encouraging people to think in fresh ways, to notice the unnoticed, to experience and celebrate the joy of success.
Imagine looking back on a project. Use your imagination to put yourself back into a phase when things went really well. What happened? What did people say or do that made the difference? How did it feel at the time? What do you want to repeat or build on when you approach a new project? What positive platform has the outcome of that project created for the future?
Even those most challenging aspects can be open to reframing. When we felt frustrated, what underlying positive desire did the frustration point towards? What did it reveal about our hopes, dreams, values, aspirations, even if they felt thwarted? In light of that experience, what has it revealed that we want to be more like, more of the time?
Thinking forward to the future. Use your imagination to picture a really exciting and positive outcome. What would be happening? What kind of looks would people have on their faces? What would they be saying? How would you and they be feeling? ‘Imagine...’ The idea is to generate a vision that’s so compelling that people will have the energy to overcome any obstacles on route.
The trick is in not to use AI to avoid, deny or gloss over problems, setbacks and difficulties. It doesn’t intend to build a naive idealism. Where people have experienced or anticipate trauma, frustrations etc and where real problems and blockages have emerged, acknowledge these things honestly and sensitively before moving to explore potential up-sides and a way forward.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.