In times of perceived crisis, the lines between coaching and therapy can sometimes feel more blurred than usual. This is because the kind of issues that clients bring to coaching may touch on more personal dimensions and at a deeper level than they would normally. The Coronavirus and the intense drama that surrounds it is a case in point. Clients may find themselves not only, say, dealing with the impacts of lockdown on their business and work, but also anxieties they hold for the health, safety and well-being of their family, friends and colleagues. So here are some insights from four psychological fields to help coaches enable clients to navigate such times and experiences.
First, Gestalt. Notice if and when a client is fixated on one specific dimension of what is taking place, as if that is the only dimension. A vivid, current example is the mass media’s fixation on the number of people contracting or dying from the Corona virus – to the exclusion of attention to a far, far greater number of people who haven’t contracted the virus and who haven’t died from it. It can create the impression that everyone is contracting the virus and that everyone is dying from it. If, therefore, you notice a client becoming overly-preoccupied by one dimension of an issue, acknowledge the underlying feeling (e.g. anxiety) and enable the client to notice what they are not-noticing.
Second, Existential. The Corona crisis has evoked deep fears, particularly in wealthier countries where people and communities are no longer used to facing these levels of perceived vulnerability and threat. Dramatic soundbites in social media, claiming this is the worst crisis the world has ever faced, add to the sense of fear and alarm – that death and destruction of people, communities, organisations and social systems are imminent. Whilst such apocalyptic visions ignore previous and arguably far-worse crises (e.g. Bubonic plague; Spanish flu; Two World Wars), the coach can use this opportunity to enable clients to explore their deeply-held beliefs, values and stance in the world.
Third, Psychodynamics. People, groups, organisations and communities experience the present through the emotional, psychological and cultural filters of the past. Clients will very likely have experienced crises of one sort of another before that from their standpoint and experience ended badly or, conversely, worked out well in the end. Such experiences will influence what the client perceives, how they feel about it and how they will respond to a crisis now. If you notice a client reacting very strongly, particularly if it appears disproportionate or out of character, acknowledge the feeling and explore how it may be reverberating with experiences from that person or group’s past.
Fourth, Social Constructs. People create personal and cultural narratives that give focus and shape to their experiences and, thereby, enable people and groups to make sense of them. So, for instance, politicians, health professionals and the media are, currently, presenting very specific versions of events in relation to the Corona crisis. They are construing facts, stories and images selectively to convey a particular narrative that will lead to a certain response; whether that be e.g. to engender public confidence, influence public behaviour...or sell more newspapers. Listen carefully to the stories your client is creating and using and, where helpful, enable them to construct a healthier narrative.
Do you need help with navigating crisis? Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org
'Vulnerability + Hazard = Disaster.’ (Steve Penny)
It’s one thing to conceptualise it. It’s quite another thing to feel it, to experience it, to know it for real. Marcus Oxley, international disaster response expert, comments with insight that at moments when crisis hits, all vulnerabilities that pre-existed, yet lay out of view, come into sharp relief. It’s like a lightning flash in the darkness of night that, suddenly and just for a moment, reveals starkly what’s already there: e.g. political systems, public services, infrastructure, corruption, technology, security etc.
Yet crisis can also reveal and evoke extraordinary awareness, resourcefulness and resilience. Shona Adams, a clinical psychology expert, observed astutely that people often don’t know what’s possible, or what they and others are truly capable of, until they are in a crisis. There’s only so much we can imagine, anticipate and prepare for in advance. People sometimes discover surprising strength, support and spirit and fresh possibilities emerge, as if by magic, that lay hidden or untapped before.
So, here are some tips for leaders, coaches, OD and HR that feel especially pertinent in the midst of the Coronacrisis: 1. What vulnerabilities have emerged that were already there, yet your client now sees more visibly and has energy to address? 2. What has stayed strong or not broken in the face of crisis? (e.g. ‘If your client rates his or her resilience as 2 out of 5, what has stopped it becoming a 1?’). 3. What new opportunities can you and the client see and create: to be, become or do something new?
Can I help you think through steps 1-3 in your work? Get in touch! email@example.com
‘The facts never speak for themselves.’ (Geoff Pelham)
Res ipsa loquitur. A Latin phrase. It means: the facts are so obvious that no further explanation is needed. ‘Anita is under-performing, despite having been trained. She is clearly incompetent.’ Right? Wrong. Anita may well be incapable of doing the job, but the facts (under-performing; trained) don’t necessarily, of themselves, lead to that conclusion. What if, for instance, she’s trying to cover for an absent colleague at the same time as doing her own job, or if elements have changed that weren’t covered by the training?
The focus on Anita, in isolation as an individual, is just one way of construing a situation. If we were to zoom-out, as with a camera, who and what else comes into view and what questions could that raise? For instance: Who sets the performance standards? What are they based on? Are they fair, realistic and achievable? What other factors could influence Anita’s performance, such as quality of line-management relationship, access to the right and timely information and resources, critical dependencies on other teams?
The facts never speak for themselves. When have you experienced or enabled a paradigm shift, a radical re-framing, a surfaced personal-cultural assumption, that changed everything? How did you do it? What then became possible?
Would you like help with thinking outside of the box? Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org
‘It’s front-to-back!’, my daughter would say with a smile – when she was two. It was creative genius, depicting the meaning of the phrase, back-to-front, in how she structured the sentence itself. It’s a word play suggesting that something is, somehow, the wrong-way-round. This notion of wrong-way-round itself suggests implicitly that there is a right-way-round. Our notions of right-way-round are usually an indicator of convention, function or perspective rather than something that is, per se.
Take, for instance: ‘The West in the East if you’re standing in Vladivostok.’ The statement only makes sense if we hold a Eurocentric view of the world, in which countries on the left of a flat, traditional map are regarded as the West, corresponding to directions on a compass, and those on the right are (progressively) East. If we form the map into a globe, however, everywhere is relatively West and East of everywhere else, marked only in relation to other places by relative direction and distance.
We could instead take, say, a geo-political view in which places are distinguished or related by location, terrain, access or resources. Or we could take, say, a socio-anthropological view in which places are distinguished or related by history, tradition, language and culture. There is no one, definitive, way of looking at and making sense of what is in the world. Whatever statement I make reveals an implicit personal-cultural construct; a hidden backdrop of beliefs, values and assumptions.
How easy do you find it to view things front-to-back at work, to notice, reveal and challenge existing paradigms and perspectives? If you do it well, what then becomes possible?
Do you need help with front-to-back thinking? Get in touch! nick-wright.com
‘If you equate listening with being silent, not disrupting the status quo, not interrupting another person’s monologue, not challenging their view of the world ...you’re not ready to be a coach.’ (Ana Karakusevic)
I’m paid to be disruptive.
Isn’t that, after all, at the heart of what it is to be a good leader, coach, OD change agent or trainer? There’s something about an encounter with leadership, a true leader, that leaves us changed and transformed. The best OD people I’ve known have challenged, stretched and reframed much of what I thought I believed. The best trainers have impacted my ideas and practice. The best coaches have left me startled, dizzy, at times disorientated, and yet, somehow…renewed.
There is, however, a cost to all this. Don’t always expect a warm welcome and smiles in the room. An honest HR colleague commented to me once: ‘You pose questions and perspectives that can make us feel jarred, frustrated and, at times, even threatened. You turn everything upside down, inside out – and you are absolutely right to do so.’ And this is where contracting and trust prove critical. Without a genuine spirit of relationship and intention of support, we risk simply p***ing people off.
So, how far are you a disruptive influence? How well do you build trust through risk-taking with support?
'Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for life. Right? Wrong. Not if there’s a factory upstream pumping toxic effluent into the river.’ (Bill Crooks)
Bill’s jolting critique demonstrates starkly the potential inadequacy of focusing on a person, or an issue, out of context. There is, after all, always a context, a Gestalt ‘Ground’, that bears an influence on a person, team, group or organisation and what she, he or they are capable of achieving. It could be an enabling or disabling influence, a stronger or weaker influence, yet an influence all the same.
I worked with an organisation that took contextual dynamics very seriously; e.g. when setting and reviewing goals, ‘What else?’ was a key question. What else would it take to achieve success, over and above the enthusiasm, expertise and hard work of the individual? What people, resources, relationships and other factors would she have to navigate well, and what support would she need?
This approach raises some interesting questions. If we take this kind of systemic view, to what extent does it make sense to reward (or reprove) an individual if the wider context plays such a significant influence on what he does, or doesn’t, do or achieve? It is something about how well, or not, he grasps, transcends or overcomes whatever opportunities or challenges the context may create?
What do you think?
Can I help you develop greater systemic awareness in your work? Get in touch! email@example.com
Like it or not, you’ve been framed. You’ve framed others too. Not just some-one. Everyone you’ve ever met or imagined. Think: male, female, black, white, tall, short, extrovert, introvert, manager, staff, marketing, operations, rich, poor, educated, uneducated, leave, remain. Whatever category we apply to ourselves, or to others, creates an experience, an awareness, of same-as or different-to.
‘I’m a white, male, Christian from the North East of England. I like riding motorbikes.’ Notice what those descriptors evoke for you. Reflect on which draw you towards me and which push you away from me. Have those words created a sense of greater affinity with me or do they now make me feel more alien to you? How are they the same or different to the labels that you apply to yourself?
Why does this matter? Well, the categories, the frames of reference, we use are always selective and simplifications of a wider reality and, thereby, reductionist. They draw our attention to certain attributes and cause us to not-notice others. They carry personal-cultural value judgements and trigger emotional responses that influence, often reinforce, our beliefs, attitudes and behaviour.
So - what happens if we switch frames, re-frame? What then becomes possible?
How can I help you reframe your reality and relationships? Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org
Cliché: ‘There’s no I in Team’. Linguistically correct; yet conceptually so wrong! Inspiring and effective teamwork is always a dynamic interplay between I, you, we and they. It’s the magic that occurs where personal leadership and team leadership intersect and collide; releasing fresh insight, energy and potential. Here (below) is a short case example. What do you think?
I remember their faces vividly. I was invited to work as team coach with a leadership team that was experiencing significant conflict. Our introductory meeting was filled with deafening silences, with team members looking around or down at their notes to avoid painful eye contact. The next step was to meet with each team member individually. A resounding, recurring theme emerged: the conflict was between 2 team members, with each of the 2 attributing the blame to the other, and the rest of the team were innocent bystanders. It was the 2 protagonists who needed to change.
I invited each of the bystanders, separately, to look back to the last time conflict erupted in a team meeting. ‘What happened?’ They each described the behaviour of the 2. ‘And what did you do?’ They each described sitting back, saying nothing. ‘And why was that?’ Their responses ranged from, ‘I didn’t want to get caught up in the conflict’ to, ‘I didn’t want to be seen as taking sides’ to, ‘I didn’t want to make things worse.’ I pressed on with the challenge, ‘So, as a leader, what could-will you do differently next time?’ They looked bemused, or alarmed, and shuffled uncomfortably in their seats.
What we are seeing here is an intersection between personal leadership and team leadership. The conflict between the 2 was influenced, or supported, or sustained, by the behaviour, the passivity, of the wider group. I teased out different scenarios with the bystanders, the kinds of interventions they could make instead: e.g. ‘I feel really uncomfortable when this kind of conflict breaks out in a meeting.’; ‘When you 2 fight, I find myself withdrawing.’; ‘Let’s find another way to tackle this that doesn’t get so heated.’; ‘Let’s look at how to hold robust conversations that feel more constructive.’
At the next team meeting, I invited team members to share their reflections from our conversations, along with what they would take responsibility for and what they were willing to do. I was amazed by the courage and humility that surfaced: ‘I sometimes sit quietly and don’t say anything when I should. I’m going to try to speak up in future. I want you to help me to do it.’; ‘I play it safe when I should take more risks. From now on, I’m going to say what I’m thinking and feeling, even if I feel scared.’ It was the start of a transformational leadership-team process…where everyone changed.
How can I help you build a more inspiring and effective team? Get in touch! email@example.com
Well-being and resilience are hot topics in the world of work at the moment. The Stockdale Paradox offers a useful psychological outlook and stance. How do you handle faith, facts and hope?
‘Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties and, at the same time, confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.’ (Stockdale Paradox)
Someone commented recently on my ‘relentless optimism that everything will work out in the end.’ They saw this as a principle that guides my decision making, drawing on my faith as a follower of Jesus. I was a bit taken aback, partly because I had read in Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great some years ago that optimism can lead to naïve passivity in the face of challenge. On further exploration, it became clear that they meant I appear un-phased by some situations that could leave other people shaking. It’s as if I am open to, look out for, the possibility in, the opportunity in, what is. Sometimes.
This is quite different to a kind of positive thinking that says things like, ‘You can be whatever you want to be’, as if personal, cultural and contextual constraints don’t exist, or, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be fine’ – when clearly you won’t be. Collins talks about the importance of confronting the brutal facts; that is, of actively seeking out and facing what could well look and feel like the opposite to how we would prefer things to be. In contrast to optimism or pessimism, it’s a kind of relentless realism. It demands honesty, courage, humility, and a hopeful outlook to avoid falling into paralysis or despair.
Achieving this perspective, attitude and stance isn’t always as easy, however, as it may sound. Psychodynamically-speaking, leaders, teams and organisations often develop subconscious and highly-effective defence mechanisms that protect them from dealing with issues that could feel threatening or anxiety-provoking. As a consequence, it can mean that we see what we want to see, hear what we want to hear and filter everything else out – without even knowing it. This may create both risky blind spots (what we can’t see) and dangerous hot spots (what we avoid facing).
To add to the complexity, according to Gestalt and social constructionist research, leaders, teams and organisations can become so focused-fixated on specific issues they consider most important that they inadvertently exclude wider perspectives or dimensions – again without realising it. This influences what they perceive as key, what they consider to be the brutal facts in relation to it, what they believe the options are and, therefore, what they decide to do in response to it. It’s as if the narratives we create function for us as as-if realities. How do you handle faith, facts and hope?
How can I help you build well-being and resilience? Get in touch!
An opportunity to receive questions.
‘Unless your ideas are ridiculed by experts, they are worth nothing.’ (Reg Revans)
You may have heard of Action Learning – a powerful tool used in organisations and between peers to learn in the context of action, and act in the context of learning. It typically involves one person presenting an issue, and then receiving critical questions from peers that enable them to think it through for themselves and reach their own solutions. In this sense, we could think of a conventional Action Learning process as a group-team of individuals providing coaching-consultancy to an individual.
I saw this idea turned on its head on a trip to Africa. An organisation was grappling with key strategic issues and invited leaders and professionals to form Action Learning sets to address them. Instead of one person presenting, however, the groups first spent time clarifying and crystallising their own issues. They then asked of themselves and each other: What are the critical questions that, if we could answer them, would provide us with strategic options? They finished by reaching agreement on solutions.
It’s the first time I had seen Action Learning used as a collective venture in this way. It was a a shared, relational process of inquiry, ownership and problem-solving wherein the group itself functioned simultaneously as both client and coach-consultant. I have seen similar patterns of approach used in Asia since. What strikes me is that this isn’t just a different, novel methodology or technique. It’s the product of a deep cultural mindset, belief and stance that sees, values and places the group first.
In my experience, there are corresponding benefits and risks to working in these different ways. An individual-orientation can develop personal insight, awareness and autonomy yet may lack ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’ strength and cohesion in addressing change. A group-orientation, on the other hand, can bring the latter advantages to bear, yet faces its own risks including social loafing, conflict-avoidance or group-think. I’m curious, therefore: what have been your experiences of Action Learning?
Nick is a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant with over 20,000 followers on LinkedIn. How can I help you? Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org