‘You’ve got to know when to panic.’ I smiled the first time I heard a colleague use this expression. He was talking about how every situation calls for its own particular response. If we only have one modus operandi, one approach to space and pace, we could well miss some important moments. Some of these moments could turn out to be work or business critical. Others could turn out to be, quite literally, life and death. I had one of these latter moments in a hospital last week.
I had a CT scan which involved being injected with a radioactive dye. Unfortunately, it triggered an anaphylactic reaction. The doctors responded quite casually at first, smiling and strolling around, chatting, until they realised I was quite literally about to lose my ability to breathe. My airways were swelling up rapidly and someone had removed critical drugs from the emergency crash kit. Only a nurse reacted in appropriate panic mode, ran to find drugs…and saved my life.
I have been in other situations where people, teams and organisations have acted in almost permanent crisis mode. It’s as if they have run on adrenaline, construing every situation as one that demands a dramatic reaction. Although some people love and work well with this type and level of stimulus, for others it can lead to high levels of stress and burnout. So it’s often something about finding a sustainable pace, reserving capacity for an emergency response if needed.
What does this mean for leaders, OD, coaches and trainers? How far do we and/or our clients settle into a fixed pace that suits us personally or culturally, irrespective of what may be called for or bring benefit? If so, how would it be if we were to experiment with alternative patterns? For some, this could involve slowing down to reflect or recover. For others, it could mean speeding up to increase energy or impact. Do you create enough space? Do you know when to panic?
We often think of coaching as creating a special space for a person to step back, often quite literally, from the pressures of day to day work and life to think about things differently. Indeed, the space we create between coach and coachee offers a great opportunity for change.
Yet space is a bit like elastic. Too much space and coaching can feel slack and lifeless, without definition or form. Too much pace and it can feel rushed, superficial and forced. Navigating space and pace is part of the, ‘How shall we do this?’ contract between coach and coachee.
The same question arises in leadership, training and facilitation. When to up the tempo, inject energy, move quickly. When to pause, breathe, process. It’s tricky in mixed groups. Activists want to get on with it. Suck it and see. Reflectors want space to observe it. Make sense of it.
So I try to remember: just enough space to allow for reflection; just enough pace to keep things moving. It’s always a judgement call. How much space and pace does this person or group need - in this situation, at this time? If in doubt, discuss it openly and ask for feedback.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.