‘Constructive counterfactualisation’. What on earth?! I can almost hear the cogs whirring. This was the title of an intriguing seminar I attended yesterday led by Professor Chris Oswick. The main focus was on how to break out of proverbial boxes that trap our thinking and to find ways to challenge our taken-for-granted assumptions in order to broaden the range of options available to us. It reminded me a lot of DeBono’s lateral thinking – except with much more complicated-sounding language.
The main technique we tried was to create deliberate dissonance, e.g. by, ‘making the strange familiar or the familiar strange’ (Foucault). The idea here is to present the strange (e.g. an idea that contrasts starkly with that which we hold currently) as having some (surprisingly) similar qualities to that which seems more normal or self-evident to us, or to present something familiar and ordinarily unquestioned in such a weird or unusual light as to make it appear and feel strange to us after all.
Here’s an example. We often think of global poverty and related suffering as caused or exacerbated by military conflict, e.g. between two or more different ideologies, tribes or nations. We only need to look as far as Yemen in recent months to see this horrifying phenomenon played out in practice. This observation vis a vis ‘poverty & conflict’ could be developed into a hypothesis that, say, military intervention is the antithesis to development. It has a face-value appearance of plausibility about it.
Yet now take, for instance, a scenario in which the military provides sufficient security (e.g. from an external aggressor) to allow sustainable development to take place. It flips the equation so that an alternative hypothesis could be juxtaposed that, in X context, military intervention is a necessary condition for development. This way of posing contrasting propositions to create dissonance and challenge accepted assumptions and norms can be powerful. How could you use it as leader, coach or OD?
Reflexivity – a research word. It means that when we explore something such as a strategy for the future or an idea for a significant life change, who we are in relation to what we are looking into will influence what we see – and what we don’t see – how we do it and what conclusions we draw from it. This is because our subconscious personal and cultural assumptions and biases along with our psychological filters and defence mechanisms can create blind spots and hot spots.
Gareth Morgan characterised the blind spot phenomenon as, ‘People have a knack for getting trapped in webs of their own creation.’ In other words, we can get stuck in our own way of seeing things. Similarly, Morgan characterised hot spots by, ‘What passes for rationality is often irrationality in disguise.’ That is, we may mask and try to justify our emotional responses by rationalising them. Reflexivity is the skill of identifying and addressing such spots to minimise their influence.
Blind spots are what we are not thinking about. They touch on what is invisible to us. They are concerned with (un)awareness. They are created by our beliefs. They reflect the paradigms we hold. If we challenge them, it can feel mind-bending. Hot spots are what we are not talking about. They touch on what is sacred to us. They are concerned with relationships. They are created by our values. They reflect the passions we hold. If we challenge them, it can feel heart-wrenching.
Here are some reflexive questions that can help. Blind spots: What are we assuming? What appears self-evident to us and why? Who do we need to involve in our exploratory process? How can we draw in contrasting perspectives and ideas? Hot spots: What are we avoiding? How will we handle power dynamics and vested interests? What will we do if we feel threatened or defensive? How can we hold robust conversations that feel safe? How do you deal with the hot and the blind?
‘Thud…BANG!’ At its worst, it’s every 2.7 minutes. They go off every day, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 9 months a year, where I live. Farmers use these gas guns – which are like small canons – to attempt to scare birds from their crops. They are very loud…and largely ineffective. In an attempt to improve their effectiveness, farmers are increasing the number they install in their fields and the frequency of the bangs. It’s as if more canons and more bangs will scare away more birds.
The problem is: it doesn’t work, it drives local residents crazy and it is actually counter-productive. Research shows that birds quickly ignore the bangs. They realise there is no actual threat. The more the bangs, the more the birds become immune to them. In fact, research also shows that, over time, the birds are actually attracted by the bangs, using them to locate sources of food. So, apart from the dubious ethics of using these guns close to residential areas, what is going wrong here?
The simple answer is that these farmers have inadvertently locked themselves into a pattern of faulty assumptions and self-defeating behaviour. Their desperation to protect their crops drives them away from rational thought to a more defensive and defended stance. If they could find a way to step back far enough to revisit the results they desire and the factors that support or undermine them, they could potentially discover new tactics that would make a more positive difference.
Organisations call this stepping back to examine and challenge implicit assumptions, to reflect on and address causal and influencing relationships, strategy mapping or creating theories of change. Professionals who apply the same principles to their work call it reflective practice. It’s about being willing to pause-reflect-act in the midst of the busy-ness of doing in order to think widely and deeply, conduct research, learn from experience and produce better results. How do you do it?
What’s your angle? We use this expression to check out a perspective, a way of seeing things, of presenting things. The angle itself is designed to convey something as interesting, eye-catching, novel, unique. There’s another way of thinking about ‘angle’ too. A friend commented yesterday that, if we look at a protractor, we see how a slight shift at the centre leads to a significantly different end point at the perimeter. The shift represents a change of direction and trajectory.
So here we are at the start of a New Year. The decisions, the angles, we take, here and now, will influence where we finish in the future. They may seem small and insignificant in the moment yet, each time we change our angle, the direction in which we face, we change our trajectory too. In many aspects of life, the cause-and-effect consequences are not as linear and predictable as lines on a mathematical tool. Nevertheless, it’s as if every choice and decision, in some way, counts.
We can also look at our lives, circumstances, choices and decisions, from different angles. Leaders, coaches, OD and trainers refer to this as ‘reframing’. It could involve, say, looking at ourselves, our relationships and situations through different metaphorical frames or lenses, from different angles or vantage points, from different points in time or stakeholder perspectives etc. This can open up new insights and possibilities that may otherwise lay obscure or hidden to us.
I believe this is where coaching to develop critical reflective practice can be so important, valuable and useful. It can enable us to grow in awareness of our beliefs, values, assumptions and preoccupations – our default angles, if you like. It can enable us to consider fresh options and implications that will guide our focus, attention, behaviour, decisions and actions. It can enable us to live authentic lives and to work with greater insight and freedom. So – what’s your angle?
We were talking about focus in leadership and coaching and my colleague, Pav, looked at me intently and said, quite simply, ‘Keep your eye on the squirrel!’ It did make me laugh. It’s a fun, colourful image that cautions us to stay focused, to avoid getting side-tracked, to beware of – like Alice in Wonderland – falling down proverbial rabbit holes (if you can forgive the mixed metaphor). Or to quote guru Stephen Covey: ‘The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.’
I can see the sense in this. If we work to achieve a vision, to fulfil a strategy, it can enable us to be effective and efficient, to prioritise and reach goals. It can also help us to avoid dissipating energy, wasting resources. It’s a reason why, when coaching, I will ask clients questions such as, ‘What are we here to do?’, ‘What are you hoping for?’, ‘What is possible if we do this well?’, ‘What would a great outcome look and feel like?’, ‘How will we know when you have reached it?’
The flip side is that we can become so focused, fixed, planned, organised, that we may miss all kinds of serendipitous adventures and emergent opportunities that arise. A friend, Rob, commented on this recently: ‘When we look back in life, many of our best relationships and experiences came as a result of things which, on the face of it, at the time, appeared to go horribly wrong.’ A question for leaders, coaches and clients could be: how to be well-focused – and yet open to the potential of each moment?
Finally, what appears to us to be 'the main thing', the most important thing, depends a lot on what we believe, our values, how we are feeling, our cultural paradigm and what frame of reference we adopt. A shift in language, perspective or circumstance can change the whole way in which we view and construe something or someone. A related challenge for leaders, coaches and clients may be, therefore: how to keep our eyes on the squirrel – without becoming blinded or fixated by it..?
Conventional wisdom tells us this: if we acquire more resources, we can do more and achieve more. Correspondingly, if we have less, we can do less and achieve less. It’s as if there’s a direct 1-2-1 causal relationship between resource and ability. The language we use in organisations often reinforces this view. We grow and shrink our ‘human resources’ according to the number and size of jobs that need to be done, tasks that need to be performed. It’s a linear logic. And it’s wrong.
Let’s flip this around a bit. A charity plans to run a leadership development programme but loses the funding to do it. It lost the resource so lost the programme, right? No, it explored alternative ideas and found a commercial organisation that was willing to run a high quality programme for it pro bono. It satisfied the charity’s need for a programme and the commercial organisation’s desire to support ethical work in the community. A great outcome for both parties. A win-win solution.
So what made the difference? Was it a shift in resources - or a shift in thinking? Here’s the thing: ‘How else might we do this?’ invites lateral thinking, creative ideas and innovative approaches. It takes us away from acquiring more resources and towards becoming more resource-ful. It moved this charity away from, ‘How can we get more money to support our work?’ towards, ‘Who shares similar passions and interests?’ and, ‘What might be possible to achieve our mutual goals?’
This is, of course, the domain of agile thinking. As environments become increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA), we need to think ever more creatively, adaptively and resourcefully. This implies a fundamental paradigm shift away from human resources and towards resource-ful humans. It means shifting our attention beyond solving the immediate issue to developing critical thinking, creative ideation and reflective practice. How do you do it?
'What are you not noticing?’ What an odd question. How can I notice what I’m not noticing? It sounds, feels, like a paradox. I first heard this question during a Gestalt workshop posed by the legendary Malcolm Parlett. And then, next: ‘What are we not talking about?’ So now we’re supposed to talk about what we’re not talking about?! Weird. Mind-bending. An intriguing adventure.
I took part in a workshop with Tuku Mukherjee. He drew a black dot in the middle of a blank sheet of flipchart paper. What did we see? 'A black dot'. What did we not notice? The white background. Or you may have tried the selective attention test where you are invited to watch a basketball game and count the number of bounces or passes. How is it that we miss the gorilla walking by?
Such insights and ideas sparked the start of my own journey into not-noticing. What am I not noticing? It has profoundly influenced my leadership, OD and coaching practice. What are we noticing? What is captivating us, holding our attention? What have we become fixated by? And, What are we not noticing? Who or what is lying in the background, hidden in plain sight?
Our noticing is filtered by e.g. language, beliefs, values, assumptions, cultures, paradigms, interests, experiences, expectations and emotional states. Not-noticing enables us and our clients to focus, simplify and make sense of the world. Yet it can blind us to all kinds of insights, ideas and possibilities. Noticing not-noticing can be liberating and powerful. What are you not noticing?
When teams are under pressure, e.g. dealing with critical issues, sensitive topics or working to tight deadlines, tensions can emerge that lead to conversations getting stuck. Stuck-ness between two or more people most commonly occurs when at least one party’s underlying needs are not being met, or a goal that is important to them feels blocked.
The most obvious signs or stuck-ness are conversations that feel deadlocked, ping-pong back and forth without making progress or go round and round in circles. Both parties may state and restate their views or positions, wishing the other would really hear.
If unresolved, responses may include anger/frustration (fight) or disengagement/withdrawal (flight).
If such situations occur, a simple four step process can make a positive difference, releasing the stuck-ness to move things forward. It can feel hard to do in practice, however, if caught up in the drama and the tense feelings that ensue! I’ve found that jotting down questions as an aide memoire can help, especially if stuck-ness is a repeating pattern.
1. Observation. (‘What’s going on?’). This stage involves metaphorically (or literally) stepping back from the interaction to notice and comment non-judgementally on what’s happening. E.g. ‘We’re both stating our positions but seem a bit stuck’. ‘We seem to be talking at cross purposes.’
2. Awareness. (‘What’s going on for me?’). This stage involves tuning into my own experience, owning and articulating it, without projecting onto the other person. E.g. ‘I feel frustrated’. ‘I’m starting to feel defensive.’ ‘I’m struggling to understand where you are coming from.’ ‘I’m feeling unheard.’
3. Inquiry. (‘What’s going on for you?’). This stage involves inquiring of the other person in an open spirit, with a genuine, empathetic, desire to hear. E.g. ‘How are you feeling?’ ‘What are you wanting that you are not receiving?’ ‘What’s important to you in this?’ ‘What do you want me to hear?’
4. Action. ('What will move us forward?’) This stage involves making requests or suggestions that will help move the conversation forward together. E.g. ‘This is where I would like to get to…’ ‘It would help me if you would be willing to…’. ‘What do you need from me?’ ‘How about if we try…’
Shifting the focus of a conversation from content to dynamics in this way can create opportunity to surface different felt priorities, perspectives or experiences that otherwise remain hidden. It can allow a breathing space, an opportunity to re-establish contact with each other. It can build understanding, develop trust and accelerate the process of achieving results.
‘What is most important about any event is not what happened, but what it means. Events and meanings are loosely coupled: the same events can have very different meanings for different people because of differences in the schema that they use to interpret their experience.’ These illuminating words from Bolman & Deal in Reframing Organisations (1991) have stayed with me throughout my coaching and OD practice.
They have strong resonances with similar insights in rational emotive therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy. According to Ellis, what we feel in any specific situation or experience is governed (or at least influenced) by what significance we attribute to that situation or experience. One person could lose their job and feel a sense of release to do something new, another could face the same circumstances and feel distraught because of its financial implications.
What significance we attribute to a situation or experience and how we may feel and act in response to it depends partly on our own personal preferences, beliefs, perspective and conscious or subconscious conclusions drawn from our previous experiences. It also depends on our cultural context and background, i.e. how we have learned to interpret and respond to situations as part of a wider cultural group with its own history, values, norms and expectations.
A challenge and opportunity in coaching and OD is sometimes to help a client (whether individual or group) step back from an immediate experience and reflect on what the client (or others) are noticing and not noticing, what significance the client (or others) are attributing to it and how this is affecting emotional state, engagement, choices and behaviour. Exploring in this way can open the client to reframing, feeling differently and making positive choices.
In his book, Into the Silent Land (2006), Laird makes similar observations. Although speaking about distractions in prayer and the challenges of learning stillness and silence, his illustrations provide great examples of how the conversations we hold in our heads and the significance we attribute to events often impact on us more than events themselves. He articulates this phenomenon so vividly that I will quote him directly below:
‘We are trying to sit in silence…and the people next door start blasting their music. Our mind is so heavy with its own noise that we actually hear very little of the music. We are mainly caught up on a reactive commentary: ‘Why do they have to have it so loud!’ ‘I’m going to phone the police!’ ‘I’m going to sue them!’ And along with this comes a whole string of emotional commentary, crackling irritation, and spasms of resolve to give them a piece of your mind when you next see them. The music was simply blasting, but we added a string of commentary to it. And we are completely caught up in this, unaware that we are doing much more than just hearing music.
‘Or we are sitting in prayer and someone whom we don’t especially like or perhaps fear enters the room. Immediately, we become embroiled with the object of fear, avoiding the fear itself, and we begin to strategise: perhaps an inconspicuous departure or protective act of aggression or perhaps a charm offensive, whereby we can control the situation by ingratiating ourselves with the enemy. The varieties of posturing are endless, but the point is that we are so wrapped up in our reaction, with all its commentary, that we hardly notice what is happening, although we feel the bondage.’
This type of emotional response can cloud a client’s thinking (cf ‘kicking up the dust’) and result in cognitive distortions, that is ways of perceiving a situation that are very different (e.g. more blinkered or extreme) than those of a more detached observer. In such situations, I may seek to help reduce the client’s emotional arousal (e.g. through catharsis, distraction or relaxation) so that he or she is able to think and see more clearly again.
I may also help the client reflect on the narrative he or she is using to describe the situation (e.g. key words, loaded phrases, implied assumptions, underlying values). This can enable the client to be and act with greater awareness or to experiment with alternative interpretations and behaviours that could be more open and constructive. Finally, there are wider implications that stretch beyond work with individual clients.
Those leading groups and organisations must pay special attention to the symbolic or representational significance that actions, events and experiences may hold, especially for those from different cultural backgrounds (whether social or professional) or who may have been through similar perceived experiences in the past. If in doubt, it’s wise ask others how they feel about a change, what it would signify for them and what they believe would be the best way forward.
What is real, what is true, how can we know? These are questions that have vexed philosophers for centuries. In more recent times, we have seen an increasing convergence between philosophy and psychology in fields such as social constructionism and existential therapy. How we experience and make sense of being, meaning and purpose is inextricably linked to how we behave, what we choose and what stance we take in the world.
As a Christian and psychological coach, I’m intrigued by how these fundamental issues, perspectives and actions intertwine with my beliefs, spirituality and practice. Descartes once wrote, ‘If you would be a real seeker after truth, you must at least once in your life doubt, as far as possible, all things.’ It’s as if we must be prepared to suspend all assumptions about ‘what is’, to explore all possibilities and dare to think the unthinkable in order to grow and make our best contribution.
Things are not always as they at first appear. There are sometimes multiple explanations for the same phenomenon, depending on the frame of reference we or others use to interpret it (see, for instance, Gareth Morgan’s seminal work, Images of Organisation, 1986). We are sometimes blinded to what’s in front of us by our prejudices, preconceptions, cultural constraints or rigid views of the world. It can be hard to maintain healthy scepticism without cynicism.
I see it with clients, sometimes in myself too. A sense of being trapped by a fixed Gestalt, a cognitive distortion, an inherited or learned belief system. An inability to see, to recognise the box that we’re in, never mind to see or think outside of it. An avoidance of deep, difficult questions because of the discomfort, confusion or anxiety they may evoke. If we’re not careful, if we can’t find the right help when we need it, it may limit our lives and our learning.
I think this is where coaching can play a very important role, helping pose and address some deep questions. Nick Bolton commented insightfully in Coaching Today that, ‘To explore a coaching issue existentially is to understand the relationship that the presenting problem has to the human condition to which it is a response, and to remain focused on enabling a change of perspective that allows the client to move past their current challenge.’
He also provided some helpful examples: ‘For instance, how is a client’s procrastination around something that seems to matter to her a failure to remember that life comes to an end? How is a client’s need to be unconditionally loved by his partner an attempt to deal with existential rather than interpersonal isolation? (And the solutions are very different things). How is someone’s lethargy simply a part of their fear of taking responsibility for their life?’ (July 2013, p17)
A metaphysical, existential or theological dimension can shift the entire paradigm of the coaching conversation. The question of whether a client should apply for this or that job is influenced by her sense of purpose. If she is willing to consider that God may exist and have a plan for her life, the whole situational context will change. It can be a dizzying and exciting experience, yet it’s really a question of how courageous and radical we and the client are prepared to be.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.