‘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 do things need to get for you before you take action…and does that reflect 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?
Take a clean sheet of flipchart paper. Draw a small black dot in the middle. Ask people what they see, what they notice. Almost invariably in my experience, people will say, ‘A black dot’. I haven’t yet heard someone say, ‘A white sheet of paper’. I first saw this used in an anti-racism workshop. The tutor, Tuku Mukherjee, used it as a metaphor for how we tend to focus our attention on minorities in society and ignore or don’t even see the majority. The backdrop is, in effect, invisible to us.
In this example, the backdrop forms the context for the ‘minority’. In other words, ‘minority’ only has meaning vis a vis a perceived ‘majority’. I heard one astute black speaker say, ‘In the UK, I am viewed as an ethnic minority whereas, when I look across the world as a whole, I see that I am part of an ethnic majority.’ So what we see, what sense we make of it, is contextual. To understand what we notice, we sometimes need to shift our focus to the background against which it stands out.
Take, now, an example of a person who is ‘underperforming’ at work. This definition of the situation locates underperformance in the person, as if it represents a quality, aptitude or behaviour of the person him or herself. It leads us to consider how to improve the person’s performance, e.g. through mentoring or training. All things being equal, this may improve the person’s performance and, if so, we may view the situation as resolved. ‘X was underperforming…X is now performing…sorted.’
Yet what constitutes ‘good performance’ is defined by the backdrop, the wider organisation. What if performance expectations are unrealistic? What if the person does not have sufficient resources, guidance or support? What if systems, policies or procedures are such that they make the person’s work untenable? What if relationships or power dynamics are culturally toxic? What if instances of ‘under-performance’ form a repeating pattern in this organisation or team? Step back…look…see.
Performance = Potential – Interference (Gallwey); Trust = Risk + Support (Covey).
‘Vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation’. If you’ve ever taught or learnt a foreign language, these words will sound very familiar to you. We could think of them as technical dimensions. They have an almost objective feel. The students I worked with in the Philippines last week have been taught well in English yet some still lacked confidence to use it. They were, at first, also unsure about how to navigate conversations with a person from the UK. We could call these psychological and cultural dimensions. Some were so preoccupied with doing it right that they struggled to do it at all.
We opened the workshops by inviting the students to experiment with some simple ground rules: 1. Be willing to try. 2. It’s OK to make mistakes. 3. Support each other. 4. Any question is OK. Next, we introduced (playfully) that I would present a medal to every person who would come forward and speak at the front for the first time. I would not correct their English. I would simply reward their courage to do it. By the end of the first workshop, every student left proudly wearing a medal. By the end of the third workshop, every student took part enthusiastically in open group conversation.
Taking a leaf from Timothy Gallwey’s research, we engaged the students in distractor topics (e.g. ‘Skin whitening in Asia’). The idea was to choose themes that the students would find interesting, provocative and meaningful. By focusing on the topic rather than on the language itself, the students became less self-conscious about their English and actually more fluent. In Gallwey’s terms, too much attention to performance can become an interference to performance. An overall approach? Open, relational warmth and positive reinforcement throughout: ‘What did well; Even better if.’
Now – a question: what are the lessons here for leadership, mentoring and coaching?
Who or what is important to you? Who or what do you value most? I’ve heard it said that we can know who or what we value in practice, which sometimes differs from who or what we value in principle, simply by looking at our diaries and bank account statements to see who and what we spend our actual time with and money on. It’s a crude measure but can be revealing – especially as we can be prone as people and groups to deceive ourselves by believing what we want to believe.
In Britain, we often value e.g. individuality, effort and achievement. You could think of this as affirming: standing on our own two feet, trying hard and reaching stretching goals that are perceived as worthwhile by UK culture and the wider nation-community. I’ve heard some people say that, as British, we are only impressed by a person, team or country that manages to achieve something better than we believe we could have achieved ourselves. ‘I could have done that’ is a subtle put-down.
Against this backdrop, I was challenged and inspired last week by a girl from a very different culture who discovered that a fellow student had been excluded from taking part in a drama production team because she had some difficulties with her speaking. This girl instinctively showed empathy and compassion, valued the person, reached out, drew her in and modelled social inclusivity rather than simple task achievement. I wondered what I would have done. She reminded me of Jesus.
Why is this so significant? Our values reveal and shape something profoundly important about who we are in the world. They influence our stance, focus, decisions and boundaries. I’ve often found that working with values as a leader, OD, coach or trainer has had a transformational impact on people, teams and organisations. There’s something about, ‘What really matters to you in this?’ that can feel so much deeper than, ‘What are your goals?’ So – who or what matters most to you?
I took part in a workshop last week that focused on social media, work and leadership. One of the questions that Zoe Amar, the trainer, posed was, ‘What’s your personal brand?’ It was in relation to being clear and authentic about, say, who we are, what makes us distinctive, what others value about us, what we have to offer etc. I quickly thought about my own Twitter, LinkedIn and website profiles. How clear and consistent am I in how I portray myself, what is true about me and what matters to me, bearing in mind the different audiences and purposes for those profiles?
The phrase ‘psychological coach’ sprang to mind. ‘I’m a psychological coach’. I also do mentoring, training, facilitation, consultancy, writing and even some teaching yet, somehow, ‘psychological coach’ felt the clearest and most grounding. Perhaps it’s something about how I see myself, what I enjoy, what expertise I hold, where I feel my calling lays, where clients say I add value, how I see and approach what I do. The psychological part signifies a type, a focus, a style, an orientation to my work; the coaching part signifies developing and releasing hope and potential in others.
What this means in practice is that I tend to view and approach leadership, mentoring, training, facilitation, consultancy etc. through a psychological lens. I instinctively look at what enhances or inhibits people, teams, groups and organisations from psychological, relational, cultural and systemic perspectives. I draw on insights and practices from fields as diverse as social constructionism, Gestalt/field theory and cognitive behavioural psychology. I enable people, teams, groups and organisations to grow in insight and ability to create, achieve and sustain their transformation.
So – ‘I’m a psychological coach’. Inspired by my Christian faith and informed by my studies and experience, it’s at the heart of who I am in the world, my work, what I do and how I do it. What’s your personal brand?
What marks out professionals from practitioners, the best from the good? It’s a great question. One thing I would suggest is critical reflective practice (CRP). It’s a semi-structured way of learning in and through experience, often with support and challenge from peers, a coach or a non-managerial supervisor. It takes willingness and commitment, an on-going desire to learn, develop and improve. I want to suggest a four-stage CRP process (based on Kolb): experience; reflect; make sense; decide.
It will call us to pause, reflect and act; to be curious and test our assumptions, to expose our sometimes uncomfortable feelings and – for me – to pray for discernment and wisdom. Here are some sample questions. Firstly, experience: What happened? What was/am I aware of? Where was/is my attention? What was/am I feeling? What was/is the impact? Secondly, reflect: What was my intention? What beliefs or values were at play? What didn’t I notice? What assumptions was/am I making? What other options were/are available?
Thirdly, make sense: What are the bigger-picture issues (e.g. politics/principles)? What wider team or organisational issues does it reveal? What is the generic issue (e.g. conflict)? What theory or research could I draw on to inform my thinking and practice? What hypotheses am I making? Finally, decide: What have I learned through this? What do I need to do the same or differently in future? How I will I prepare next time? Do any wider issues need to be addressed? What will my next step be?
The third stage, ‘make sense’ distinguishes critical reflective practice from simple reflection on practice. It draws the experience and learning of others including academics and peers into the frame. It’s also the area that many professionals neglect because of time constraints – or because they are not sure how to do it. Simple ideas: journals, books, networks, conferences and LinkedIn groups. How good are you at critical reflective practice? What do you do to develop and sustain it?
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.