What do you see? What sense do you make of it? What does it mean? I met with a social worker friend in Germany last week. He shared this idea: Imagine sitting in a dark room. You take a torch, shine it across your hand and cast a shadow onto the wall in front of you. The shadow creates a shape that we recognise as a ‘snake’. Its overall shape resonates with previous images of snakes we have seen and, hence, we superimpose that meaning, that interpretation, onto it.
An interesting thing here is that the snake is not a snake or a hand, nor is it a light or a torch. In fact, the snake shares very few properties at all with the hand or the torch that created it. If we tried to infer a hand or a torch from the snake without previously being aware of the way in which hands can be formed to create snake-like shapes when used with a torch, it would be almost impossible. The snake is a consequence of a hand, a torch, an experience and an interpretation.
Now imagine working with a client or team member who describes the consequence of a situation at work. In doing so, they paint a picture of something, maybe someone, much like casting an image of a snake onto a wall. If we focus our attention on the image as if it holds its own intrinsic meaning, or if we assume its meaning to be the same as that of the personal and contextual conditions that created it, we could miss significant factors that carry their own separate meaning.
So, we can pose questions. What is the person seeing, as if projected onto a wall? What meaning are they superimposing onto it? What beliefs, values or assumptions are influencing their interpretations? If the client is the hand, what are they doing to shape the shadow they are seeing? What stance are they taking – or could they take? What contextual factors (e.g. organisational culture, team expectations) are creating the image, like a torch? Who or what is the light?
Picture this. Here I am in a church meeting when a woman sitting in front of me starts to shake physically. This was in the context of a meeting where expectations were high that God would do something dramatic. The people around this woman prayed enthusiastically and the physical shakes were interpreted as a visible and positive sign of God’s activity.
I later spoke to a nurse and asked how the same phenomenon would be interpreted in, say, an Accident & Emergency unit at the local hospital. ‘Possibly as some kind of neurological disturbance’, she replied. I then asked how medical staff were likely to respond if they observed this happening. ‘They would probably conduct tests to understand and treat the underlying physical cause.’
This intrigued me. It’s as if the interpretation we apply to an experience depends partly on the socio-physical environment in which the phenomenon arises (in this example, a church or hospital) and what the prevailing expectations and interpretations are in that context. It also depends on our own personal belief systems and the broader cultural worldview that we inhabit.
This raises interesting questions about which, if either, interpretation is ‘correct’. Someone of a particular religious conviction may argue strongly for a spiritual interpretation whereas someone of a secular-medical outlook may argue equally strongly for a medical interpretation. It sets up the risk of a false dichotomy, as if different interpretations are necessarily mutually exclusive.
One way to look at this is that events and experiences have no inherent meaning of their own. They just are what they are. What happens simply…happens. As individuals and social groups (e.g. cultures, professions), we construct meaning based on what we believe and hold to be true. In other words, we apply meaning to events and experiences rather than derive meaning from them.
A non-medical church member may look at the experience through a spiritual lens; a secular medical practitioner through a scientific lens. As a consequence, they each notice, don’t notice, include and conclude something different. Each lens creates and reinforces its own meaning, superimposes its own meaning, and, having done so, appears obvious or self-evident for those share that view.
It seems possible to me that the same phenomenon can carry more than one meaning. In the example above, it’s possible (assuming, as I do, that God exists) that God may act in a person’s life by creating a neurological disturbance that may, say, reveal some hidden issue psychosomatically or symbolically that is important for that person or cultural community to pay attention to.
Having said that, there may be different explanations altogether to those offered above that could explain this experience. They may not be obvious to us because they don’t fit with our current frames of reference or lenses and are, therefore, in effect, invisible to us. It’s a bit like asking a colour-blind person to describe coloured images or shapes on a card that lie outside their ability to perceive.
So what is the significance for leadership, coaching and facilitation? I think it’s something about being aware, as far as we can be, of our own personal and cultural influences, the effect they have on, say, who and what we notice and don’t notice, who and what we value and don’t value and the impact we have on others.
It’s about being willing to engage in the existential struggle that holding core assumptions lightly whilst taking a stance with conviction entails. It’s about using our work to help others – whether individuals, teams or organisations – grow in awareness of their personal and cultural beliefs, values and assumptions so they can explore new possibilities constructively and creatively. It’s about modelling and nurturing curiosity, integrity and hope.
Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant.