My brother handed it to me proudly with a smile on his face. The case looked more tatty than when I had seen it last and the shoulder strap had snapped, hanging down to the floor. As I unbuckled the case and lifted it out carefully – almost reverently – I could see he had looked after it well. It was an old Webley Vulcan .177, an air rifle I had bought when I was just 13 years old. It was my treasured possession for many years when I did target shooting. As the case slid to the floor and I caressed the wood and metal in my hands, I felt an adrenaline rush as vivid flashbacks rushed through my mind.
I was 15 when someone tried to burgle the house at midnight. My parents were away on holiday and I was inside – alone. I could hear someone outside trying to break through the back door. I slid out of bed, grabbed the rifle, loaded it, opened the window, called out a warning (trying to avoid my voice shaking) and fired a shot at a metal bin in the garden. The loud bang reverberated in the dead of night and it startled me as much as them. They fell silent. I closed the window, held my breath and, after a few moments, heard them scrambling over the garage roof to escape into the night.
Why am I sharing this? As leaders, OD, coaches and trainers, we may focus on practical, thinking and feeling aspects of change and lose sight of the impacts of physicality, of environment, of doing-it. It is when I touched and held the rifle that I felt it, that my imagination was triggered. It’s often when we visit a place, meet a real person, do a thing, try something new (rather than think about, reflect on, imagine it, ‘as if’) that startling awareness, insight and ideas rise to the surface. We discover intuitively and viscerally – and it can propel us forward. If we touch something, it touches us.
This was an HR team. A group of experienced professionals working hard but struggling, somehow. They felt together but separate. They invited me to meet with them, to help them create and sustain a greater sense of teamwork. We rented a room off-site and I marked a large outline of a person on the ground using white tape. It looked like one of those outlines police use to mark the position of a body(!).
The team arrived and, being from a Christian organisation, I opened by referring to the image of a body in the Bible, a metaphor that aims to convey the importance of diversity, contribution, care and interdependence. I then invited the team to stand on the ‘body’ on the ground in a place that best represented for them how they saw themselves and how they felt within the team and in the wider organisation.
One person stood on the head. Others stood on the arms, hands, legs and feet. After a moment, I asked them to look around and to say what they noticed, how it felt to stand where they were standing, what they noticed about others and what they noticed about the team as a whole. Everyone commented on how they found themselves standing instinctively on ‘doing’ parts of the body - hands, feet etc.
After a few minutes, the team leader, a deeply intuitive woman, looked up and spoke: ‘We’re all looking outwards. There’s no-one at the heart.’ It was as if something of profound significance had emerged in the room, in that physical space. ‘We are so busy supporting others outside of the team that we haven’t paid attention to what we need.’ ‘Let’s explore what a team with a heart would look and feel like - then let’s be and do it.’
I could feel a real shift in energy and insight. It was as if something had been released and a heavy burden had been lifted. Fresh awareness, hope and ideas poured into the room. Physical experimentation and movement had enabled something to take place that may not have happened, or at least with the same degree of experiential impact, through group conversation alone. Note to self: if in doubt, just do it.
Do your conversations ever feel dull, pedestrian? Do you find yourselves reaching agreement quickly but sense there’s a lack of inspiration, depth or stretch to what you’ve decided? There’s an idea in Gestalt coaching that involves experimenting with polarities. When exploring an issue or when people can’t think of useful options, try introducing opposite extremes.
I met with a leadership team this morning to look at talent management. Rather than opening with a proposal, a colleague and I sat at opposite ends of the table and role played a conversation in which each of us argued passionately for radically contrasting approaches. We invited the team to listen, to feel, to see what it evoked for as we played out the different scenarios.
Claire Pedrick uses a technique that involves opening the arms out wide to signify a polarity. ‘Let’s imagine this extreme (looking to one hand) involves doing nothing. Let’s imagine this extreme (looking at the other hand) is the ‘nuclear option’. What would the nuclear option involve doing in practice? Now let’s explore other options that lie in the space between.’
I sometimes use a polarities technique in leadership workshops. For example, if exploring directive vs non-directive approaches, I may walk an imaginary line across the room and explain at each end what that extreme represents. I then invite the group to stand along the line. ‘Where do you find yourself most of the time?’, ‘Where you would like to be?’
When using physicality like this, it can be very powerful to ‘do it’ rather than ‘imagine it’. So, if the group is standing along a line as above, I will invite them to move physically to where they want to be, rather than just talk about it. Then, ‘How are you feeling as you stand there?’, ‘What do you notice about where others are standing?’, ‘Have a conversation – where you are now.’
Another polarity technique is great for exploring the merits and risks of a proposal. Using a flipchart, I will start by inviting the group to brainstorm all the positive benefits. I will then use another flipchart and invite the group to brainstorm all the reasons why it won’t work. I use a final chart to brainstorm, ‘So, in light of that…what would it take to make it work?’
The benefits of polarising in ways such as these can include: stretching the imagination, discovering new/radical ideas, surfacing diverse views and feelings, experimenting with courage, testing different experiences and approaches, releasing fresh insight and energy. If you have worked with polarities, I’d love to hear from you. What did you do? What happened?
Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant.