Christmas time. A special time to enjoy family, friends and festivities. For many of us, it’s a time off work, chance to relax, eat, drink and party. There is, however, a deeper meaning to the event, a meaning embedded in its very name: Christ-mas. For Christians, it represents a celebration of a unique and critical moment in history, the birth of Jesus Christ. This distant event has important implications for my work in leadership, OD, coaching and training.
The idea of God as a human child should shock, confuse and amaze us. After all, if God exists and if he really is everything the Bible says he is, e.g. all powerful, all knowing, an invisible being, it makes no sense to imagine all those qualities in a vulnerable, dependent, human baby. The arrival of Jesus, the transcendent become immanent, is a profoundly paradoxical event. Little wonder so many people today find it difficult to imagine, understand or believe.
I find it stimulating and humbling to reflect on this. It calls me to ask serious questions of myself, my life and my work. Whatever I’m doing, whatever role I’m playing, my work is essentially about people, developing people, releasing potential, building a better organisation, a better world. So I will share five short thoughts and meditations this Christmas kairos evokes for me. Please share your reflections and responses with me too. I’m keen to hear.
1. God as human. The appearance of God in human form (Gestalt) reminds me of the notion of contact in Gestalt psychology, a deep sense of presence and connection with people. It’s about intimacy, empathy, touch, being-with in the here and now. In my work, I sometimes become so focused on the task that I can lose touch with myself, with others, with God. Incarnation is about coming close. How can I develop and sustain a better quality of contact?
2. God as child. The Christ child reveals God at his most vulnerable, a willingness to take risks and to depend on others. It reminds me of notions of attachment in psychodynamic psychology. It sounds inconceivable to imagine God placing his life, his wellbeing, in human hands. Yet it challenges notions of arrogant, egotistical, macho leadership. It models humility, trust, a working with others to achieve a purpose. How can I become more humble and inclusive?
3. God as love. In becoming human, God enters human experience. Jesus’ loving, empathetic way of relating to people reminds me of notions of relationship, positive regard and authenticity in humanistic and person-centred psychology. He balances ‘grace’ with ‘truth’ in a way that I find very difficult. He demonstrates altruistic self-sacrifice, critical friendship and tough love. How can I be better and more consistent at putting others’ best interests first?
4. God as truth. The arrival of God in human history in such a dramatic, physical way challenges previous notions of God and of humanity. God challenges all presuppositions, cultural perspectives and traditions. This reminds me of addressing limiting beliefs in cognitive psychology, fixed Gestalts in Gestalt psychology and personal-social constructs in social constructionism. How can I work with others to explore and create fresh possibilities, fresh paradigms?
5. God as saviour. The Bible depicts Jesus Christ entering the world to save a humanity that is lost. This notion of lost-ness reminds me of ‘angst’ in existential and psychodynamic psychology, a deep feeling of alienation from oneself and others and from any sense of ultimate meaning and purpose. It’s as if Jesus resolves our alienation from God and the world to bring new hope. How can I ensure my work brings fresh meaning and hope to others?
I wish you a merry Christmas and a very happy new year!
Why is it so hard to get to grips with the concept of grace, of ‘unmerited favour’? Why is it so difficult to imagine that God could love us exactly as we are? Why is it that in spite of profound biblical revelation, many Christians still try to earn their way to God by personal achievement, good deeds and hard work, fearing rejection and punishment if they fail to make the grade?
I want to offer some insights from psychological and cultural studies that may shed some light on this. I’m writing from personal experience too. I can get my head around grace at a conceptual level but sometimes feel uncertain, anxious. It’s as if the promise of the gospel feels too good to be true, as if it can’t really apply to me, as if there must be hidden strings attached.
From our earliest childhood, we meet approval or disapproval on the basis of how we behave. A baby monitors its mother’s face for her reactions and learns that smiling, giggling, looking cute and not screaming evoke positive strokes and emotional rewards. The baby develops a sense of who he or she is, of what is socially acceptable and unacceptable, through these earliest encounters.
It gets complicated psychologically and relationally, however, because the baby draws subconscious conclusions from how he or she feels. The parent may indeed feel unconditional love for the child but without language to convey it in a way the child can grasp, the child can only infer from what he or she experiences and, critically, how he or she interprets that experience.
Object relations theory proposes that if a baby feels secure in its relationship to its primary caregiver, if its needs are met in a satisfying and consistent way, the baby is likely to grow up feeling secure in future relationships too. Conversely, if the baby feels insecure, he or she may struggle in future relationships, acting codependent, ambivalent or independent as a form of self protection.
A baby is of course unable to meet many of its own physical and psychological needs. The baby needs the carer for food, for cleaning and nappy changes, for burping when he or she gets trapped air, for wrapping to keep warm, for hugging to feel secure. Approval and attention from the carer feels critical to the baby for physical and psychological survival, safety and comfort.
The same child enters school and finds similarly that certain types of behaviour, paying attention, working hard, pleasing the teacher, producing good results, meet with approval. Other behaviours result in disapproval or discipline. This pattern continues into working life. Performance is monitored and good performance can result in promotion, bad performance in dismissal.
In so many aspects of our lives, therefore, we learn that love, attention and reward are based on behaving well or achieving results in the eyes of a significant other, whether that other be a person, group, community or organisation. We also learn that the converse is true. Get it wrong and you could suffer the negative and painful consequences of rejection or punishment.
We learn to put on a confident face in the office, hoping to convince significant others of our ability and therefore worth to the organisation. We put on a good show in front of other people to demonstrate we are great parents with a model family. We put on a ‘holy’ face at church, hoping to convince others of our spiritual credentials and, thereby, worthiness to belong.
By transference, we project the same expectations onto God. Surely this principle we have learned from birth must apply to him too? Surely the law in the Bible, all those rules and regulations, is the yardstick that God uses to measure our spiritual performance and, thereby, whether we are worthy of his love, whether we are good enough, whether we deserve reward or rejection?
And so we face an existential crisis, self-righteousness if we think we’re good enough and a crushing anxiety if we feel we’re not. I believe this dilemma lies at the heart of why so many Christians struggle with the notion of grace, struggle to experience the freedom the Bible promises to those who believe. It's not so much a rational conceptual issue as an anxiety driven by human experience.
I've found one of the most powerful questions to ask in a meeting is, 'What do I need in order to bring my best contribution?' It's based on a wider question, 'What do we need to be engaging and effective?' If I exercise personal leadership, if I'm proactive and take responsibility in a meeting, I will pay attention to what I and others need and seek to address it.
I was in a leaders' meeting recently and, as we were about to move onto the next agenda item, I felt the need for a comfort break. I felt tempted to try to suppress it, to ignore it, but noticed how it was affecting my attention. I didn't want to interrupt the flow of the meeting and felt a bit embarrased to raise it but decided, nevertheless, to exercise this personal leadership principle.
'Would you mind if we pause for a 5 minute comfort break before we move on?' The others looked at me, surprised, then started to laugh. 'I'm so glad you suggested that', said one person, 'me too' said another, with looks of relief on their faces. We paused for a break and returned feeling more focused and energised. It was a simple step that really enhanced the quality of the meeting.
I met with another leader recently who commented how he finds meeting difficult if everyone is speaking and he can't think fast enough to interject. By the time he has formulated what he wants to say, the conversation has moved on. His best contribution is lost. How much do we lose in meetings by not paying attention to what people need?
I asked, 'What do you need in such a moment, to bring your best contribution alongside others?' 'Space to think.' 'How much space would you need?' 'Oh, perhaps a minute or so before we move on.' 'So how would it be if you proposed to the chair that you all pause for a minute or so after each agenda item, to see if anything else emerges, before moving onto the next item?'
His face lit up. He had a practical solution. Imagine the potential to transform the quality, experience and output of meetings by such simple, practical steps. It would require him to pay attention to what he needs and to speak it out in the meeting, not just to think or feel it. It takes courage to break into normal patterns of meeting behaviour, but the potential for change is considerable.
I was invited to another meeting where the agenda was packed full. The team hadn't met for a while, had each been involved in intense activity or travelling. This created pressure to become even more task focused than usual. I asked them to pause and reflect at the start, 'What do you need here and now to arrive well, to be fully present to one-another and the tasks ahead?'
They went quiet, thoughful, then spoke about how they felt the need to connect with each other before moving onto the formal agenda, to share something of what they had been doing since they last met, what was on their minds and hearts now, to pray together to seek God's guidance and wisdom. They spent the next 30 mins doing just that, and the whole meeting was transformed.
This focus on need fulfilment need has its roots in Gestalt psychology, the notion that our performance is likely to be affected if we don't pay attention to what we need and take steps to resolve it. We can't always fulfil everything we need and sometimes what we need may conflict with the needs of others. Nevertheless, we can still speak up - and explore the possibilities.
Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant with over 15,000 followers on LinkedIn. How can I help you? Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org