‘Come out from behind ourselves into the conversation and make it real.’ (Susan Scott)
Hiding for fear of discovery is an archetypal characteristic of human beings. Think back to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Think too to an ex-colleague of mine who, employed as a police officer, donned his uniform every day and – strange as it may sound – spent his time impersonating a police officer. John Powell reflected this phenomenon well in his classic book, ‘Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am?’ It’s very often about fear of exposure, risk of rejection…imposter syndrome.
There are, of course, at times good reasons to hide. I think, for instance, of criminals on the other side of the law who attempted last night to evade the blinding glare of a police helicopter searchlight outside a friend’s house. It was a dramatic scene, accompanied by the throbbing and deep reverberation of chopper blades overhead. We could think of such hiding as a rational and practical act – at least in the sense that it relates to a realistic prospect of arrest and imprisonment if caught.
Yet we may find ourselves hiding for all kinds of other reasons too. Hiding often manifests itself in relationships and at work in subtle avoidance strategies. We may rationalise our hiding by telling ourselves that we can’t tackle a tricky person, a difficult issue, a daunting conversation, because we’re too busy, it’s not our job, they wouldn’t listen or it could make things even worse. In doing so, we may deprive ourselves and others of invaluable talent, trust, possibility – and hope.
Stepping out takes courage with humility, challenge with support. When have you stepped out from behind yourself and made it real? When have you enabled others to step out too?
On the face of it, the hottest early May bank holiday on record in the UK wasn’t the ideal time to run a marathon. After all, the risks of dehydration, heat stroke and exhaustion were high. I went, not to run but to support and take photos of my friend and mentor, Adrian Spurrell, as he and other athletes set out in high spirits to grasp this intense challenge. 20 miles in, I watched person after person stagger past, bathed in sweat, struggling ahead but determined to finish. Charity logos emblazoned proudly on their t-shirts, they were unwilling to give in to the sun’s relentless heat.
After a while, I noticed one man stop at the side of the path. He was desperately weary, bent over, clearly out of energy, rubbing his cramped hands up and down his painful thighs. He looked depressed, dejected and defeated. After a few minutes, however, two other runners appeared behind him. One paused briefly, smiled, put his hand reassuringly on the man’s back and spoke calmly but assertively, ‘Don’t stop. Keep walking. You can do this.’ The man’s face brightened a little, a glimmer of hope – and he stood straight, started limping…and walking…then broke into a jog.
It felt moving and inspiring to observe. The empathy and compassion, support and challenge of a fellow runner, a total stranger. What a difference it made. I would like to think that exhausted man finished the race, collected his medal and went home feeling proud of this great achievement. And what a wonderful example of a ‘good Samaritan’, the person who was willing to notice, to pause in that moment, to think beyond himself, to act decisively on behalf of the other. What a fantastic role model and metaphor for leaders, coaches, L&D and OD too. I want be more like him.
‘A penguin walks through that door right now wearing a sombrero. What does he say and why is he here?’ (Google)
I searched Google recently for ‘weird interview questions’ and, among others, the vivid, sombrero-donned penguin example flashed up onto my screen. It was definitely my favourite. I mean…who would think to ask that question never mind try to answer it?
Its brilliance lays in its strange unexpectedness, zany imagery and sheer randomness. It’s a fantastic example of lateral thinking, a provocative-evocative approach designed to disrupt ordinary thinking, routines and expectations. A person’s response to such questions can reveal their personal and cultural assumptions, projections, imaginative-creative skills – and sense of humour! It can also stimulate fresh energy, insights and ideas.
The jolts we experience mentally, emotionally and physically when we encounter such questions, especially if they come out of the blue…or red…or yellow…or any other colour that may appeal to or disturb us…can feel like, all of a sudden, riding a rollercoaster at breakneck speed with no seatbelt on – like being catapulted, confused, into strange and unusual worlds. Think Jesus and parables, Zen and koans or, if you prefer, Alice and Wonderland.
Leandro Herrero (Disruptive Ideas: 10+10+10=1000, 2008) proposes that the impact of a few simple, such disruptive ideas can be like dynamite. They are likely to be controversial and counterintuitive, risk being ridiculed or dismissed – and yet are disproportionate in their ‘potential to impact on and transform the lives of (people and) organisations.’ Sometimes small things really are big.
Where have you seen or experienced simple questions, ideas or actions create earth-shaking movement?
It was great fun to work with a professional cartoonist. Bill Crooks has a remarkable gift for capturing, expressing or stimulating a thought, an idea or a feeling with a few quick strokes of a marker pen. We were leading a workshop that aimed to reveal and challenge the assumptions that participants bring to customer, client and beneficiary relationships. Bill quickly sketched a large person looking down at a small person through a magnifying glass. He then asked the group, simply, ‘What do you see?’
Participants looked down, thought, discussed then spoke up. ‘We – the organization – are the large person. We are scrutinising the client.’ The inference here was that the organization holds the power, the influence, the prerogative to evaluate and to choose. The wider group agreed. Bill responded provocatively, ‘And what if, unknown to us, the client is connected to unseen networks that dwarf the power, the influence, the prerogative of our organization? Who now is looking down on who?’
It was a sobering moment. Silence hit the room. How easily we make assumptions about ourselves, about others, based on what we see, know or think we understand. Imagine, for a moment, the leader who believes that he or she holds far greater power and influence than individual front-line staff. Hold that thought. And now: think of front-line staff who are connected by social media to key networks and influencers in the organisation’s wider arena. Who now is looking down on who?
We are talking here about the dramatic power of re-framing. As we change the metaphorical frame through which we view a person or situation, different pictures, perspectives, opportunities and challenges can emerge, change colour/shape or come into sharper focus. Shift the frame, shift what appears, how it feels and what options become available to us and to our clients. What have been your best experiences of reframing or achieving a radical paradigm shift? How did you do it?
‘I want it all and I want it now.’ (Queen)
I’m not the most patient of people. Some have a remarkable gift of serenity, an ability to stay calm and peaceful and to……..….wait. I sometimes wish I was more like that more of the time. It reminds me of M. Scott Peck’s ‘The Road Less Travelled – A New Psychology of Love’ with its emphasis on the value of delayed gratification. It’s like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s fox in ‘The Little Prince’. The fox teaches the Prince how important it is in taming, anticipating and arriving to learn to…..…….wait.
This is not, or course, to say that waiting per se is an absolute imperative or virtue at all times and in all situations. If, for instance, the fire alarm went off while writing this piece, wisdom would demand an instant response: ‘Leave the building – now!’ Yet how is it that, culturally, we appear to have become so incapable, so intolerant, of waiting? Is it that our sense of time horizons, partly driven by communications technology, are getting narrower and narrower, shorter and shorter, near-instant?
Biblical writers talk a lot about the need to ‘wait on the Lord’. It’s something about seeing things from a wider perspective, a wider timeframe, trusting God to work things through in eternal-time. I see resonances in Adam Kahane’s ‘Solving Tough Problems’ where he advocates, counterintuitively in our cultural era, stepping back from difficult, complex issues, rather than trying hard to think our way through them, to allow space and time for solutions to emerge, to rise into consciousness.
Dr Lim Peng Soon cautions us to be aware of the ‘marathon effect’. Leaders, coaches and other change agents may race ahead and become impatient with people lagging behind, especially if they appear to be holding up the changes. ‘In a marathon, the front row sets off first but it takes a while for the middle section to start moving and even longer for people at the back. By the time the middle and back sections are moving, we may already be racing off to the next great idea and initiative.’
How good are you at…………waiting?
‘You get what you tolerate.’ (Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations)
We were sitting by a window on an icy winter day. I was working with Bryan Emden, my coach at the time and a skilled psychotherapist. Part-way through the conversation, I felt a cold shiver and asked Bryan if he would mind if we moved to a different table. He looked back at me with cool, penetrating gaze then spoke. ‘It has been cold here for some time. I wonder how uncomfortable things need to get for you before you take action…and whether that reflects a wider pattern in your life and work?’
I was a bit taken aback because I had always prided myself on a decisive-activist mantra, ‘(almost) any decision is better than no decision’. Nevertheless, on reflection I could remember certain hard situations in which I had not acted early enough. I had feared that to do so could have made things even worse. We could call this an avoidance strategy, a defence against anxiety based on a fear of negative consequences. In CBT terms, I had catastrophised, predicted the worst possible outcomes.
At those times, the anxiety had sometimes increased to such a degree that it had triggered a fight-flight-freeze response within me. The fight option meant I risked becoming aggressive, the flight option becoming passive and, as a result, I simply – froze. One way I have learned to tackle this is to acknowledge the emotion and to challenge how sound the prediction is. It sometimes means doing the thing we fear most, to see what new opportunities it creates. To notice how we survive it.
It’s about resilience and, at work, it’s often about relationships. Claire Pedrick offers a stark challenge on this front: ‘What’s the conversation you need to have that you’re not having?’ Guy Rothwell advocates a willingness to listen openly and also to have the courage, the authenticity, to speak up. Rick James proposes exercising courage with humility, to grasp the proverbial nettle, to have the difficult conversation and yet to address the person with open hand, not clenched fist.
How do you handle challenging conversations?
‘I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.’ ‘I guess I should warn you, if I turn out to be particularly clear, you’ve probably misunderstood what I said.’ (Alan Greenspan)
You may have had that experience of communicating something you thought was perfectly clear, only to discover that the other person got the completely wrong end of the proverbial stick. How is that possible? Was it something in what you said or, perhaps, how you said it that influenced how the message was received, distorted or misunderstood? Whatever the cause, when it does happen, you can both feel bemused, confused or frustrated – and the consequences can be difficult, damaging or dangerous.
I want to suggest this occurs mainly as a result of mismatched beliefs, values, assumptions and emotions in four critical areas: language, culture, context and relationship. There are, of course, situations in which a person may wilfully misinterpret what you said or simply choose to ignore you. However, I’m thinking more here about when it happens inadvertently and out of awareness. It’s something about what influences (a) what we infer and (b) how we interpret, when we communicate – so that we can improve it.
The language question means the same words can mean different things to different people, even in the same language group. The culture question means the assumptions I make appear obvious or self-evident in the groups or teams I belong to. The context question means I interpret what you say based on my own perspective and understanding of the situation. The relationship question means I filter what you say based on what I perceive and feel about the nature, dynamics and quality of our relationship.
So – this where a spirit of inquiry can help: Check what the other has heard and understood. Notice the language they use. Be curious about their cultural and contextual perspectives. Sense how they are feeling. Build trust.
It often happens in leadership, training and coaching conversations. ‘So – what will you do?’, or ‘What’s your next step?’ The person responds with, ‘I’ll do X’ or, ‘I plan to do Y’ and we both leave feeling satisfied we’ve reached a conclusion. Yet we check in a month later and, guess what: nothing has happened. It’s a bit like those New Years’ resolutions that are great in principle but vaporise in practice. What’s going on here? Is the answer here to press for detailed goals and action plans?
We could. We could also probe more deeply at the decision-action phase. Here are some samples of probing questions: ‘Given everything else on your plate at the moment, what is it going to take in practice to move this up your priority list?’, ‘Compared to everything else you could pour your time and energy into at the moment, what is going to make this most worthwhile for you/others?’ or ‘Who or what is likely to prevent you doing this in practice – and what can/will you do about that?’
We could think of these as contextual questions or dependencies. They feature as the reality-check in 'GROW' and 'SMART'. Questions with more of a psychological orientation could include, e.g. ‘How much energy do you have for this?’ or, ‘How much do you really want this?’ or ‘On a scale of 1-10 how likely are you really to do this?’ We tend to use them, if at all, during the exploration phases of a conversation yet don’t often circle back at the end. It’s as if we take signs of decision at face value.
So, next time you reach the decision-action phase of a conversation, try a quick pause before you and the client stand up, shake hands and leave the room. Look – again – before you leap. If a person seems hesitant or lacks energy, go back to goals, aspirations, hopes and fears. How convinced is the person by their chosen route forward? How inspired do they feel to take the next step? Are there any relational, cultural, contextual or resource-linked realities that need revisiting first?
My response was anything but appreciative. I had been invited to attend an Appreciative Inquiry (AI) workshop in the UK with a view to writing an article on it for a UK organisation development (OD) journal. At that time, AI was still a fairly new concept and approach and I was curious to learn what the hype was about and whether anything new and of substance lay behind the rhetoric. I left the workshop feeling distinctly unimpressed and with clichés like emperor’s new clothes floating in my mind. I subsequently wrote a scathingly cynical piece and the editor chose (wisely) not to publish it!
I’m pleased to say that was all a very long time ago now. Over the years since, I’ve returned to and experimented with AI on many occasions, increasingly convinced by its amazing potential and that of related fields such as Gestalt, social constructionism, strength-based/solutions-focused approaches and positive psychology. There’s something about what we notice and focus on and how we construe it that impacts profoundly on what we perceive as real, true and valuable, what sense we make of it, how we feel, what energy it releases – or not, how we respond what emerges or changes as a result.
I drew on AI with faculty and staff at a ‘university for the poor’ in the Philippines recently. They were experiencing some challenges with cross-departmental working and wanted to find and agree ways to resolve them. I prayed, suggested an alternative hope-filled framing of ‘what is’ and proposed using AI for a 1-day whole group workshop with 4 sequential phases: 1. Stories: when have we been at our best? 2. Aspirations: what do we want to be more like, more of the time? 3. Ideas: what would need to happen for that to happen? 4. Commitments: what are we willing to do?
The vision, energy, ideas and relationships that formed throughout this event were truly incredible – and proved transformational. So, I’m interested: what have been your best experiences of using AI?
I posted a blog a while ago where I proposed that four ‘Cs’ persistently undermine global efforts at development in the poorest countries: corruption, culture, conflict and climate. I spoke afterwards with Steve, an international development expert who has spent his life working with NGOs around the world, leading change strategies and interventions, running refugee camps etc. He said in all seriousness that I was missing a critical fifth C that is, in his experience, central to this equation: ‘Craziness’.
I started to laugh but stopped myself when I realised he wasn’t joking. Steve went on to explain with this example: Whilst working in Africa, he witnessed refugees burn down a primary school because of a personal disagreement between the head teacher, himself a refugee, and another person in the camp. He went on to say that we could attempt to explain such actions rationally but, unless we take into account the capacity for sheer human craziness, our efforts at development will be both naïve and limited.
This really got me thinking. I’ve never yet seen a craziness factor feature in a strategy map, theory of change, HR framework, coaching proposal or organisation development plan. So, I wonder…do we subconsciously and culturally filter out craziness because it doesn’t fit with our worldview, our theory of humanity? Conversely, could a resort to craziness-as-explanation simply be an admission of the limits of our ability to understand that which mystifies us, takes us by surprise, appears to defy all logic?
I don’t know – but I do think Steve may have a point. In our desire to structure, organise, manage and control, do we edit out, seek to remove or simply ignore the unpredictable, unmanageable, spontaneous, playful, mood-swinging aspects of our humanity that don’t fit our tidy, preconceived ideas and plans? If so, in doing so, do we miss out on the best of amazing, emergent, creative, human potential as well as find ourselves caught off-guard by its flip-side dark, destructive, shadows and risks?
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.