Moving from city to village was a big shift. All kinds of changes. On arrival, we took my 7 year old daughter to visit the local village school. Teachers took her around enthusiastically, explaining how the classes work, introducing her to other children, showing her the school equipment, facilities etc. On leaving, I asked her how she felt, what her impressions were. She replied, ‘Great!’ I asked her what she liked most – and she responded immediately, ‘The kids get to wear their own shoes!!’
This young girl came from a school that had a strict dress code. Black shoes were mandatory. The idea that she could choose what to wear at this new school completely transfixed and excited her. Nobody had mentioned shoes or uniform as we had taken the school tour yet this is what she noticed. In fact, it was as if she hadn’t seen or heard anything else. She noticed what she valued, what mattered most to her, and what stood out in stark contrast to what she was used to.
Gestalt psychology talks about this idea in terms of ‘figure’ and ‘ground’. ‘Figure’ is whatever stands out to us, whatever holds our attention, in the moment. ‘Ground’ is the backdrop that, in that same moment, lays largely out of awareness. It raises some very interesting and important questions such as, ‘What are we noticing – and why?’; ‘What are we aware of?’ and, conversely, ‘What are we not noticing?’; ‘What are we not aware of…e.g. that we may do well to pay attention to?’
What we notice – and what meaning we attribute to it – is influenced by our interests, values, cultures, preferences and concerns. We don’t simply see what is there, as if in some objective sense. We focus, filter and construe what we see so that different people see different things in the same situation, or the same person may see different things in the same situation at a different time. So, as leaders, coaches and OD – what is holding your attention? What are you not noticing?
‘Work-life balance’. What's that all about? Picture this: I have my work perched at one end of the see-saw that somehow represents my life and my…erm…my life perched precariously at the other. On the face of it, it signifies that my work is completely and utterly devoid of anything that comes close to life and, similarly, that my life is hermetically sealed off from work. I guess I could re-draw the image so that there’s a blurry, permeable bit between the two ends but, even so, it still depicts my work and my life as a polarity, distinctly different and at opposite ends of a spectrum.
OK, I’m being a bit playful here. I get the idea – to help ensure that we pay attention to different aspects of our lives, in particular to avoid work taking over our whole lives. There are echoes of biblical principles of Sabbath in this, safeguarding a space for spiritual, psychological, physical and social refreshment, enrichment and restoration. It poses important questions in modern day, post-modern life, especially against a backdrop of increasing mental and physical health costs of a non-stop lifestyle, e.g. how to do ‘Sabbath’ meaningfully in the midst of 24hr connectivity?
Now here’s a weird thing. When I typed ‘work-life’ into my phone, it auto-corrected to ‘worm-like’. I know what you’re thinking: I really need to get out more – and you may well be right. But what occurs to me is that a worm lives most of its life inside a tunnel in total, relentless darkness. By contrast, there’s something for us here about how to discover and create light, freedom, meaning and purpose in whoever we are, in whatever we are doing. The question then is how to be alive in its widest, deepest, most holistic sense in all aspects of our lives - including in our work. How do we do it?
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.
I live in a small rural community in central England. Until a couple of years ago, it was a tranquil, peaceful area. Then the local farmer introduced gas gun bird scarers, hoping to protect his crops. If you haven’t heard these guns, they emit a very loud bang every few minutes. It now feels like living next door to a live artillery range. Imagine a grenade exploding outside your front window every 2 minutes. From dawn until dusk. Day in, day out. Week in, week out. Month in, month out.
I struggle to find words to express how stressful and exhausting this experience is. As time goes by, I range from anger to frustration to despair. The sheer relentlessness of it tests my Christian values to the limit. I’ve written so many letters in my head and yet, thankfully, managed to avoid sending them. I’ve explained how I’m feeling and asked the farmer, politely, to consider alternative methods available that are not so intrusive. No response. The loud blasts continue. No end in sight.
And now imagine the farmer’s experience. Struggling to make a living, growing and selling his crops in an increasingly competitive market. Climate change making things worse, alternating between drought and floods. Birds wreaking havoc, or so it seems to him, on the crops. Every loud bang brings a feeling of comfort, an expectation of birds dispersed, hope for a good crop this year. The guns make him feel safer, better protected, more able to deal with the challenges he faces.
This begs questions such as whether the gas guns actually have what the farmer considers to be the desired effect (because increasing evidence shows they are ineffective or even, over time, attract birds) and whether a better win-win solution could be found. However, the striking aspect I want to focus on here is how two parties are able to experience and respond to what is, on the face of it, the same phenomenon, in this case loud bangs throughout the day, so very differently.
Bolman & Deal explored this phenomenon in 1991 and commented that, ‘What’s important is not what happens but what it means’, that is, that every event carries with it potential psycho-symbolic significance. This resonates with Ellis’ earlier observations (the basis for his rational emotive therapy, forerunner of cognitive behavioural therapy) that what we feel tends to be governed more by what we believe about an event, what associations it holds for us, than the fact of the event itself.
There are important implications for coaching and organisation development, as there are in therapy. When working with individuals, groups and organisations, we need to pay attention to what is happening in the client’s world and what meaning, what significance, it holds for them. Imagine, for instance, a change initiative at personal, team or organisational level. What, subjectively, will the change mean to the client? What hopes and fears and implications does it evoke for them?
The client’s meaning-making is likely to be influenced psycho-dynamically (i.e. how it resonates with their previous experiences) and culturally (i.e. how their cultural group – e.g. team, sector or wider community - makes sense of these experiences, including what value judgements it places against them). It means that where leaders seek to introduce proposals, solutions or resolutions, they need to take careful account of different stakeholder values, goals, perspectives and experiences.
When teams are under pressure, e.g. dealing with critical issues, sensitive topics or working to tight deadlines, tensions can emerge that lead to conversations getting stuck. Stuck-ness between two or more people most commonly occurs when at least one party’s underlying needs are not being met, or a goal that is important to them feels blocked.
The most obvious signs or stuck-ness are conversations that feel deadlocked, ping-pong back and forth without making progress or go round and round in circles. Both parties may state and restate their views or positions, wishing the other would really hear.
If unresolved, responses may include anger/frustration (fight) or disengagement/withdrawal (flight).
If such situations occur, a simple four step process can make a positive difference, releasing the stuck-ness to move things forward. It can feel hard to do in practice, however, if caught up in the drama and the tense feelings that ensue! I’ve found that jotting down questions as an aide memoire can help, especially if stuck-ness is a repeating pattern.
1. Observation. (‘What’s going on?’). This stage involves metaphorically (or literally) stepping back from the interaction to notice and comment non-judgementally on what’s happening. E.g. ‘We’re both stating our positions but seem a bit stuck’. ‘We seem to be talking at cross purposes.’
2. Awareness. (‘What’s going on for me?’). This stage involves tuning into my own experience, owning and articulating it, without projecting onto the other person. E.g. ‘I feel frustrated’. ‘I’m starting to feel defensive.’ ‘I’m struggling to understand where you are coming from.’ ‘I’m feeling unheard.’
3. Inquiry. (‘What’s going on for you?’). This stage involves inquiring of the other person in an open spirit, with a genuine, empathetic, desire to hear. E.g. ‘How are you feeling?’ ‘What are you wanting that you are not receiving?’ ‘What’s important to you in this?’ ‘What do you want me to hear?’
4. Action. ('What will move us forward?’) This stage involves making requests or suggestions that will help move the conversation forward together. E.g. ‘This is where I would like to get to…’ ‘It would help me if you would be willing to…’. ‘What do you need from me?’ ‘How about if we try…’
Shifting the focus of a conversation from content to dynamics in this way can create opportunity to surface different felt priorities, perspectives or experiences that otherwise remain hidden. It can allow a breathing space, an opportunity to re-establish contact with each other. It can build understanding, develop trust and accelerate the process of achieving results.
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 most important about any event is not what happened, but what it means. Events and meanings are loosely coupled: the same events can have very different meanings for different people because of differences in the schema that they use to interpret their experience.’ These illuminating words from Bolman & Deal in Reframing Organisations (1991) have stayed with me throughout my coaching and OD practice.
They have strong resonances with similar insights in rational emotive therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy. According to Ellis, what we feel in any specific situation or experience is governed (or at least influenced) by what significance we attribute to that situation or experience. One person could lose their job and feel a sense of release to do something new, another could face the same circumstances and feel distraught because of its financial implications.
What significance we attribute to a situation or experience and how we may feel and act in response to it depends partly on our own personal preferences, beliefs, perspective and conscious or subconscious conclusions drawn from our previous experiences. It also depends on our cultural context and background, i.e. how we have learned to interpret and respond to situations as part of a wider cultural group with its own history, values, norms and expectations.
A challenge and opportunity in coaching and OD is sometimes to help a client (whether individual or group) step back from an immediate experience and reflect on what the client (or others) are noticing and not noticing, what significance the client (or others) are attributing to it and how this is affecting emotional state, engagement, choices and behaviour. Exploring in this way can open the client to reframing, feeling differently and making positive choices.
In his book, Into the Silent Land (2006), Laird makes similar observations. Although speaking about distractions in prayer and the challenges of learning stillness and silence, his illustrations provide great examples of how the conversations we hold in our heads and the significance we attribute to events often impact on us more than events themselves. He articulates this phenomenon so vividly that I will quote him directly below:
‘We are trying to sit in silence…and the people next door start blasting their music. Our mind is so heavy with its own noise that we actually hear very little of the music. We are mainly caught up on a reactive commentary: ‘Why do they have to have it so loud!’ ‘I’m going to phone the police!’ ‘I’m going to sue them!’ And along with this comes a whole string of emotional commentary, crackling irritation, and spasms of resolve to give them a piece of your mind when you next see them. The music was simply blasting, but we added a string of commentary to it. And we are completely caught up in this, unaware that we are doing much more than just hearing music.
‘Or we are sitting in prayer and someone whom we don’t especially like or perhaps fear enters the room. Immediately, we become embroiled with the object of fear, avoiding the fear itself, and we begin to strategise: perhaps an inconspicuous departure or protective act of aggression or perhaps a charm offensive, whereby we can control the situation by ingratiating ourselves with the enemy. The varieties of posturing are endless, but the point is that we are so wrapped up in our reaction, with all its commentary, that we hardly notice what is happening, although we feel the bondage.’
This type of emotional response can cloud a client’s thinking (cf ‘kicking up the dust’) and result in cognitive distortions, that is ways of perceiving a situation that are very different (e.g. more blinkered or extreme) than those of a more detached observer. In such situations, I may seek to help reduce the client’s emotional arousal (e.g. through catharsis, distraction or relaxation) so that he or she is able to think and see more clearly again.
I may also help the client reflect on the narrative he or she is using to describe the situation (e.g. key words, loaded phrases, implied assumptions, underlying values). This can enable the client to be and act with greater awareness or to experiment with alternative interpretations and behaviours that could be more open and constructive. Finally, there are wider implications that stretch beyond work with individual clients.
Those leading groups and organisations must pay special attention to the symbolic or representational significance that actions, events and experiences may hold, especially for those from different cultural backgrounds (whether social or professional) or who may have been through similar perceived experiences in the past. If in doubt, it’s wise ask others how they feel about a change, what it would signify for them and what they believe would be the best way forward.
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.
How do we make sense of situations when it all goes wrong? How do we help clients do the same? I had one such incident this weekend. Having psyched myself up for a long cycle ride, the valve on my rear tyre broke just as I was setting off. I couldn’t fix it so I replaced it with a new tube. When I started to pump that up, however, the tube burst. I couldn’t believe it. End of ride. I felt surprised and frustrated. Why do these things happen? A couple of hours later, however, I felt relieved as the heavens opened with an unexpected downpour of cold rain. If I had made it out on the bike, I would have been caught out in the open, soaked to the skin with no waterproofs. Was this providential? Did the tyres mysteriously go wrong so that I would avoid this storm?
Alison Hardingham cites a Chinese Taoist story that fits the theme well. It describes a farmer in a poor country village. He was considered very well-to-do because he owned a horse that he used for ploughing, for riding around and for carrying things. One day his horse ran away. All his neighbours exclaimed how terrible this was, but the farmer simply said, ‘Maybe’. A few days later the horse returned and brought two wild horses with it. The neighbours all rejoiced at his good fortune, but the farmer just said, ‘Maybe’. The next day the farmer’s son tried to ride one of the wild horses. The horse threw him and broke the boy’s leg. The neighbours all offered their sympathy for this misfortune but the farmer again said, ‘Maybe’.
The story continues. The next week, conscription officers came to the village to take young men away for the army. They rejected the farmer’s son because of his broken leg. When the neighbours told him how lucky he was, the farmer replied, 'Maybe’. (Psychology for Trainers, 1998, p116). The meaning of the story is clear. We are never quite sure of the future consequences of actions or experiences in the present. How we experience events, how we feel about them, is also influenced by how we frame them, how we construct them, what we believe about them. It’s the focus of a number of fields of research including cognitive behavioural psychology and social constructionism.
In this same vein, I’m fascinated by an enigmatic place in the Bible where it describes the Spirit preventing people doing what they had set out to do and, presumably, were convinced was the right thing to do. (If you’re interested, check out Acts 16: 6-8). The point it conveys is that God may at times intervene in human lives to stop us doing something, e.g. if the unforeseen consequences may be harmful to us or others, or if there’s something else that’s more important for us to do. The Bible doesn’t attribute the direct intervention of God to every human experience. Nevertheless, for me, this example opens an intriguing window into a spiritual dimension that has important implications for how I make sense of what happens to and around me.
Quite a while ago, I studied at a college. I really struggled with the whole thing and, since then, have felt a passion to support students going through similar experiences. Two years ago, the college sent out a flyer asking for coaches and mentors for its students. I felt delighted. This was my moment. I sent an email explaining my background and coaching experience and qualifications, including coaching and mentoring students from other colleges. No reply. I sent another email to the same person. No reply. Bemused, I sent an email to the college administrative team. No reply. Now feeling frustrated, I sent an email to the college registrar. No reply. Was this just a terrible system with poor client care, or was there a deeper principle at work?
I’ve had other similar experiences. Some years ago I worked in a Palestinian hospital in the Middle East. The experience really screwed me up but, on return, I felt desperate to go back. I tried and tried, applying for job after job and yet every one drew a blank. I tried volunteering with various organisations and still drew a blank. However, in the back of my mind, in my spirit, I had this growing intuition, a 'spiritual discernment', that this wasn’t the right path for me. I don’t know what the consequences might have been if I had gone but this felt more than coincidence. So tell me. Have you had similar experiences where your or a client’s best efforts have failed? What sense have you made of it? What new insights or opportunities emerged as a result?
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.