I was reminded recently of one of my sister’s ex-boyfriends in our teenage years. The lad was called Tom and, one day, he decided proudly to have his name tattooed on his neck. When he got home, however, he was dismayed to look in the mirror and read ‘moT’. ‘I can’t believe they spelt my name wrong!’, he exclaimed in near despair. My mother looked on in near despair too. How could her daughter be going out with this guy?? My sister laughed but poor Tom just looked puzzled.
I can hear so many satirical expressions immediately coming to mind: ‘Not the sharpest knife in the drawer; A few sandwiches short of a picnic; Proof that evolution can go in reverse’, etc. It’s as if we’re a lot brighter than Tom, less prone to such stupid mistakes. Tom misinterpreted what he saw but we see and understand things more clearly. Perception is reality and Tom needed a reality check. We’re not that easily tricked or confused. We’re not like Tom. We see things as they are.
That is, until we read books like David McRaney’s ‘You Are Not So Smart’ (2012). With a wide range of disarmingly simple-yet-profound examples, McRaney describes a whole host of ways in which we unknowingly and convincingly delude ourselves, pretty much every day. Alex Boese concludes on the back cover: ‘Fascinating! You’ll never trust your brain again.’ It’s as if the assumptions we hold about what is real and true about ourselves, the world, life and relationships need to be held…lightly.
Yet this poses some serious existential, ethical and practical challenges. Who or what are we to trust if we’re not sure what’s real or true? Who or what are we to take a stance on if we’re not sure if the ground we’re standing on is sound? Faith, doubt and belief come face-to-face with diverse related fields, e.g. social constructionism and Gestalt. This is rich territory for deep coaching, leadership and OD. So, tell me - what are your experiences of working with certainty and uncertainty, ambiguity and trust?
It was great fun to work with a professional cartoonist. Bill Crooks has a remarkable gift for capturing, expressing or stimulating a thought, an idea or a feeling with a few quick strokes of a marker pen. We were leading a workshop that aimed to reveal and challenge the assumptions that participants bring to customer, client and beneficiary relationships. Bill quickly sketched a large person looking down at a small person through a magnifying glass. He then asked the group, simply, ‘What do you see?’
Participants looked down, thought, discussed then spoke up. ‘We – the organization – are the large person. We are scrutinising the client.’ The inference here was that the organization holds the power, the influence, the prerogative to evaluate and to choose. The wider group agreed. Bill responded provocatively, ‘And what if, unknown to us, the client is connected to unseen networks that dwarf the power, the influence, the prerogative of our organization? Who now is looking down on who?’
It was a sobering moment. Silence hit the room. How easily we make assumptions about ourselves, about others, based on what we see, know or think we understand. Imagine, for a moment, the leader who believes that he or she holds far greater power and influence than individual front-line staff. Hold that thought. And now: think of front-line staff who are connected by social media to key networks and influencers in the organisation’s wider arena. Who now is looking down on who?
We are talking here about the dramatic power of re-framing. As we change the metaphorical frame through which we view a person or situation, different pictures, perspectives, opportunities and challenges can emerge, change colour/shape or come into sharper focus. Shift the frame, shift what appears, how it feels and what options become available to us and to our clients. What have been your best experiences of reframing or achieving a radical paradigm shift? How did you do it?
‘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.
I had a friend once, Jack, who was deaf and had tunnel vision – literally. He was able to see people and things directly in front of him but had no peripheral vision at all. If I wanted to gain his attention, I had to stand directly in front of him to sign. As I approached, I had to be careful not to take him by surprise, as if suddenly appearing out of nowhere. It was a tough lived-experience for Jack and made navigating the world and relationships very challenging. I admire his courage in how he handled it.
In common use, we apply the phrase ‘tunnel vision’ metaphorically to represent a person or group’s psychological state. It tends to be characterised by limited focus or perspective, lack of awareness of the bigger picture and unwillingness to consider alternative points of view. As such, we normally associate tunnel vision negatively with narrow-mindedness, a condition to be avoided or challenged. We need to think more openly, broadly or laterally if we are to be effective…or so we assume.
Yet there are other dimensions to tunnel vision. Think of blinkers or blinders that enable a horse to focus on straight ahead by excluding a wider view and, thereby, to avoid it becoming distracted or alarmed by things around it. Think of choosing to focus intently and single-mindedly on a vision or piece of work in order to fulfil it, complete it to a certain standard or achieve it within a given timeframe. There are times and situations where tunnel vision serves us well to achieve our goals.
There are aesthetic dimensions too. I walked along a train platform this week and noticed a beautiful snowscape through a porthole window. I was struck by how the window framed the view in such a way that it drew my attention to things I had never noticed before. It was as if I saw them simultaneously out-of context and in-new context, like how we see special qualities in a person, how he or she now stands out from a crowd, when we fall in love.
So...as we approach 2018, is there light at the end of your tunnel?
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.
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..?
Ever had one of those situations where you have said or done something entirely innocently and the person or group’s response seems totally disconnected to what you said or did – or completely out of proportion to it? It can feel like you have stepped on a hidden landmine. It can take you by surprise and can leave you reeling from the impact. It can feel hurtful, confusing and disorientating. What is going on here? What can you do to make sense of it and to deal with it?
There are some really useful insights we can draw on from fields including psychodynamics, Gestalt, social psychology, social constructionism and systems thinking. They are all interested in human relationships, what happens when we interact with each other and why. I’m going to share a couple of insights here, briefly, because I think they can be very helpful for leaders, OD, coaches etc. In fact, anyone who encounters people, works with people, is keen to build good relationships.
Firstly, we experience everything and everyone we encounter through a psychological-cultural filter. The filter is, essentially everything and everyone we have experienced in the past, how we have felt about it and what sense we and others have made of it. This means that a person who, say, appears to overreact to you is encountering you through their own filter. The filter subconsciously influences their assumptions, perceptions etc. It may be about you…but it isn’t only about you.
Secondly, no encounter takes place in a vacuum. Even as you read this, you aren’t doing so in a bubble. The stuff that is going on around us, which includes things in our lives and work here and now as well as things we carry from the past and our anticipated futures, influences what we notice, what we value, what we prioritise, what we enjoy, how we cope etc. in any given moment. So, the ‘overreacting’ person? Acknowledge they have a backstory. Breathe, be open; ask, listen.
Moving from city to village was a big shift. All kinds of changes. On arrival, we took my 7 year old daughter to visit the local village school. Teachers took her around enthusiastically, explaining how the classes work, introducing her to other children, showing her the school equipment, facilities etc. On leaving, I asked her how she felt, what her impressions were. She replied, ‘Great!’ I asked her what she liked most – and she responded immediately, ‘The kids get to wear their own shoes!!’
This young girl came from a school that had a strict dress code. Black shoes were mandatory. The idea that she could choose what to wear at this new school completely transfixed and excited her. Nobody had mentioned shoes or uniform as we had taken the school tour yet this is what she noticed. In fact, it was as if she hadn’t seen or heard anything else. She noticed what she valued, what mattered most to her, and what stood out in stark contrast to what she was used to.
Gestalt psychology talks about this idea in terms of ‘figure’ and ‘ground’. ‘Figure’ is whatever stands out to us, whatever holds our attention, in the moment. ‘Ground’ is the backdrop that, in that same moment, lays largely out of awareness. It raises some very interesting and important questions such as, ‘What are we noticing – and why?’; ‘What are we aware of?’ and, conversely, ‘What are we not noticing?’; ‘What are we not aware of…e.g. that we may do well to pay attention to?’
What we notice – and what meaning we attribute to it – is influenced by our interests, values, cultures, preferences and concerns. We don’t simply see what is there, as if in some objective sense. We focus, filter and construe what we see so that different people see different things in the same situation, or the same person may see different things in the same situation at a different time. So, as leaders, coaches and OD – what is holding your attention? What are you not noticing?
‘Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.’ – Albert Einstein
I saw a blog by Tony Clark on Heart of the Art this morning and found it so inspiring that I thought I'd share an extract here:
Take a minute to scan your surroundings. Are you in a familiar place or somewhere new? Stop reading this, and just look around you.
Pick out an object, maybe something you hadn’t noticed before, and focus your attention on it. If you really focus, it’ll get brighter and more “real” than it was when it was just an unnoticed piece of the background noise of your life.
Now, try to view your surroundings from the point of the object. Some people can do this with no effort, and for others, it takes some concentration.
Depending on how adept you are at focusing your concentration, you may notice a slight shift in your perception – a weird jump in realty, where you are suddenly viewing the world from a different perspective.
What do you think..?
What do you see? What sense do you make of it? What does it mean? I met with a social worker friend in Germany last week. He shared this idea: Imagine sitting in a dark room. You take a torch, shine it across your hand and cast a shadow onto the wall in front of you. The shadow creates a shape that we recognise as a ‘snake’. Its overall shape resonates with previous images of snakes we have seen and, hence, we superimpose that meaning, that interpretation, onto it.
An interesting thing here is that the snake is not a snake or a hand, nor is it a light or a torch. In fact, the snake shares very few properties at all with the hand or the torch that created it. If we tried to infer a hand or a torch from the snake without previously being aware of the way in which hands can be formed to create snake-like shapes when used with a torch, it would be almost impossible. The snake is a consequence of a hand, a torch, an experience and an interpretation.
Now imagine working with a client or team member who describes the consequence of a situation at work. In doing so, they paint a picture of something, maybe someone, much like casting an image of a snake onto a wall. If we focus our attention on the image as if it holds its own intrinsic meaning, or if we assume its meaning to be the same as that of the personal and contextual conditions that created it, we could miss significant factors that carry their own separate meaning.
So, we can pose questions. What is the person seeing, as if projected onto a wall? What meaning are they superimposing onto it? What beliefs, values or assumptions are influencing their interpretations? If the client is the hand, what are they doing to shape the shadow they are seeing? What stance are they taking – or could they take? What contextual factors (e.g. organisational culture, team expectations) are creating the image, like a torch? Who or what is the light?
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.