Two years ago, I came off a mountain bike – badly(!) - during a UK Sport Relief charity ride. I demonstrated perfectly how not to fall, how not to land and, as a consequence, snapped my left leg sideways at the knee and ruptured two ligaments. During the next twelve months of leg splints, crutches and intensive physiotherapy, specialists told me I would never be able to walk up and down stairs again, never be able to swim again, never be able to ride off road again.
It was a shocking, painful and numbing experience. I kept playing over in my mind what had happened, what I could have done differently, what this could all mean for my life, how it could impact on my family and work. I felt angry with myself for making such a simple, stupid mistake, frustrated that I could no longer do activities I loved. And I realised I faced a choice. I could give in to the experience, accept my ‘fate’, or take what action I could to re-shape the future.
Two years on, after months of (at times) agonising physio, dragging myself up stairs by hand rails etc, I managed to reach the top of a mountain without leg splints. Two years on, having learned to use a pull buoy float and hand paddles, I managed to swim 80 lengths with arms only. Two years on, with leg braced and lots of deep breaths, I managed to complete a 22 mile off road bike challenge. It has shed revealing light onto my attitude to risk. A reminder to hold onto hope.
I thank God, family, friends, colleagues, professionals, neighbours - and even total strangers - who have supported me. It has influenced my thinking as a leader, coach and OD practitioner: how to support, challenge and increase the resource-fullness of people, teams and organisations. It has strengthened my conviction that we and others are often capable of far more than we know or believe. It has reinforced my faith that God stands with us in the midst of trials.
It was minus 7 so I got up early to scrape ice off the car windows. The journey to the train station that followed felt like torture. I got stuck behind a JCB for 10 miles with nowhere to pass. It reached a peak of 20mph and I kept glancing at the clock anxiously. Was I going to make it? I could feel the frustration like a tight knot in my stomach. Every passing moment felt like slow motion. I kept looking ahead, hoping for a clear stretch to overtake. It took forever. When I finally did get past, I felt like waving an angry gesture at the JCB driver. ‘How could you be such a *£%!&$* pain?!’
I left the car and jogged the final 10 minutes to the station. According to the clock, I’d missed the train but adrenaline spurred me on. On arrival, breathless, I discovered the train was running late. I caught it, stepped on board just as it pulled into the station. I sighed with great relief. Yet what a waste of nervous energy. The pressure I put myself under not to miss the train. The imagined exaggerated consequences if I were to arrive late. The risk of dangerous driving in icy conditions. My ungracious attitude towards the JBC driver. The life draining stress of an impatient journey.
How much of my life I live under self-imposed pressure. The deadlines I create for myself. The expectations I place on myself. The determination to arrive on time, never to be late. The avoidance of risks that could lead to a mistake. The drive to do everything perfectly. The unwillingness to let a ball drop. The desire always to do well, never to fail. Such pressures can drive me inwards, close me down, cause me to lose contact with God, lose contact with people. It leaves me tired, stressed, anxious, irritable, frustrated and self-centric. It’s not the kind of person I want to be.
I can almost hear God whispering to me, ‘Stop…look...listen...look up and around you…breathe…’ It’s about regaining perspective, keeping the most important things in view. Not losing sight of the people, the things, the issues, the actions that matter most. It’s about loosening my grip, learning to prioritise, learning to negotiate, increasing flexibility. I know these things in my head, I practice them in my work, but the experience this morning has flashed into consciousness with renewed energy and vision. It’s something about learning to live, to love and to know peace.
I was speaking with a colleague recently who felt trapped in unresolved conflict. It was a key relationship, one that couldn’t be avoided, and all previous efforts had failed. As a consequence, both parties were feeling frustrated, de-energised and despondent about the future. As we explored how they had attempted to fix things in the past, it became clear they had focused on all the negatives…a long list of annoying and painful experiences from the past. Their conversations were characterised by blame and demands. It felt intractable.
The problem with such patterns of behaviour is that they create a negative expectation of the future. Both parties now felt stressed before they even spoke with each other. The stress affected their perspective and their resilience, their ability to hear and to cope. So we decided to try a different approach. How to build a positive expectation in order to create a different focus, a different conversation and, ultimately, a different relationship. It wouldn’t be easy but it felt worth a go. My colleague felt sceptical but, nevertheless, willing to give it a try.
Firstly, we agreed that next time they spoke, they would meet off site in a physical environment (e.g. café, park) that they both found positively stimulating and energising. This helped to break them away from the current environment that held such negative memories for them. Secondly, we agreed they would speak only of the positive moments in their relationship together. They found this hard at first. The negative experiences felt so overwhelming that they could hardly think of any positives. Nevertheless, they managed to remember some examples.
Thirdly, we agreed that after sharing such positive examples, they would each share future hopes for their relationship: ‘what we would like our relationship to be more like, more of the time’. They reflected each others’ hopes back to each other: ‘So you would like…’ Fourthly, we agreed they would move on to discuss ‘what it would take from me to make this work in practice’. This shifted each party’s focus from the other onto themselves. ‘This is how I would need to change…this is what it will take for me to do it…this is the help I will need.’
This kind of approach demands openness to fresh possibilities, humility, a willingness to forgive. It demands imagination and courage too, an ability to envision and embrace a new future. It’s not easy and the support of a friend, counsellor or coach can help make the journey possible. I would be interested to hear examples from others who’ve worked on conflict resolution too. What was the issue? How did you approach it? What happened as a result? What made the biggest difference? What did you learn? What would you do the same or differently next time?
I took part in an ‘immunity to change’ coaching psychology workshop this week. Based on work by Kegan and others, we looked at how and why personal and organisational change can be so difficult to achieve and sustain. The notion of immunity is taken from the physiological system where the immune system serves to protect and preserve. The psychological parallel could be regarded as an anxiety management system, designed to protect us from feelings of insecurity and threat.
The psychological immune system provides relief from anxiety. It enables us to function in the world, to maintain a degree of psychological health. The problem is that we can become locked in defended patterns of belief and behaviour, often out of conscious awareness, that prevent us facing fresh challenges and growing in resilience by surfacing, confronting and working through our deepest fears. It’s as if we become subject to our beliefs and assumptions, rather than choosing them.
In the workshop, we worked through a 4-step process known as creating an X-ray or immunity map. Draw 4 columns on a sheet of paper. In the first column, write down the ‘one big thing’ about yourself that, if you could change and achieve it, would make a significant positive difference in your life and work. You may want to take feedback from others too. For example, what do key colleagues believe would make the biggest positive difference to your performance at work?
In the second column, write down what you do (or, conversely, don’t do) that works against you fulfilling that goal. In other words, how do you actually behave in practice that’s different to the ‘one big thing’ that you want to characterise your behaviour in the future? Try to be very specific. ‘I do X’ or ‘I avoid doing Y’ rather than describing feelings or states of mind. You may want to ask others for feedback too on what they observe you doing or not doing, e.g. in the workplace.
In the third column, start first by vividly imagining yourself behaving in real situations in the opposite way to how you described yourself behaving in the second column. Try focusing on those behaviours and situations that could feel most scary, threatening or dangerous. Allow yourself to really feel the feelings, to feel the deep discomfort, anxiety or pain that such behaviours and situations evoke for you. You may find this best to do with a coach who can provide appropriate support.
In the fourth column, reflect and write down the core beliefs and deep assumptions you are carrying that lead to the feelings you are experiencing. These are often assumptions drawn from childhood experiences, e.g. ‘I must do everything perfectly if I am to be loved and accepted by others.’ Such assumptions are often unspoken, subconscious beliefs that guide our thinking, feeling and behaviour. Again, it can be useful to work with a coach to help you tease out such beliefs.
This 4-step process is designed to surface underlying beliefs and assumptions that have such a powerful influence that they hold our current behaviours in place. They are the subconscious anchors that can hold us back from changing. By surfacing and ‘objectifying’ our beliefs, we have opportunity to weigh them up, examine and challenge their validity. How true are they? What evidence supports them? How well do they serve us? What alternatives could be more realistic and releasing?
We closed this activity by setting up four chairs in the room, each representing one stage of the process. The person acting as ‘client’ would sit in one seat at a time while the coach coached them through that stage of the process. On completing one stage, the client would move to the next seat. We also experimented with physicality too, inviting the client to act out their goal at the first stage and their feelings at the third stage. The impact was dynamic, vivid and visual.
According to the theory underpinning this approach, change efforts fail if they address profound issues at a surface, technical or behavioural level without attending to underlying psychological dynamics too. Deeply held beliefs and assumptions act like an elastic band, pulling the person back to where they started once the pressure to change is released. If the person or group is enabled to explore their personal and wider cultural beliefs, genuine transformation becomes possible.
At some level, the Haiti earthquake of 2010 shook all of us. Measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale, the quake caused 250,000 homes and 30,000 commercial buildings to collapse or suffer damage. 316,000 people died, 300,000 were injured and another 1,000,000 were left homeless. It was an urban natural disaster of epic proportions. Traumatic media images showed people struggling to escape and rescue others from the ruins. Relief agencies reported severe logistical problems with providing aid because transport and communications infrastructure had been destroyed.
As hours and days progressed, people started to ask questions. Why had the earthquake been so devastating? Would it have had the same effect in richer countries where buildings are designed and constructed to withstand such impacts? What were the underlying causes? It transpired that Haiti had no government-regulated building codes. Houses were built wherever they could fit, often on steep mountain slopes with insufficient foundations. Limited access to clean water and proper sanitation exacerbated risk of disease in the aftermath of the quake.
This catastrophe illustrated all too painfully a simple predictive equation used by relief agencies throughout the world: hazard + vulnerability = disaster risk. A powerful earthquake (hazard) hits a densely populated urban area with poor housing (vulnerability) and disaster results. A disaster reveals underlying vulnerability to potential and actual hazards. The global financial crisis during the same period as the Haiti earthquake revealed serious flaws in the global banking system, exposing economic vulnerability at local, national and international levels.
Against this backdrop, talk of building resilience, an ability to cope or even thrive in the face of considerable stresses and demands, has understandably become more urgent and commonplace in governmental, non-governmental and commercial institutions. Models of proactive resilience building strategies used in the relief and development sector include disaster risk reduction (identifying and addressing underlying causes) and disaster management (mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery). They have operational parallels in other sectors too.
A friend put it this way. A man lives under a cliff and a rock is about to fall on him. If you can, address whatever is causing the rock to become unstable. If you can’t, do what you can to remove or shore up the rock to prevent it falling. If you can’t, encourage and enable the man to move away from the cliff face. If you can’t, provide him with a helmet and body armour to protect him when the rock falls. If you can’t, have a medical emergency team on hand to increase his chances of survival when it does happen. Once you have done all that, prepare the man for rehabilitation.
Organisations have responded to the resilience challenge in a whole host of ways including continuous environmental scanning, diversifying fundraising or investment portfolios, ensuring clearer brand differentiation, exploring new global markets, forging strategic alliances, investing in innovation, improving customer experience and retention, introducing flexible employment policies and practices, investing in talent management and engagement, ensuring transparent ethical practice. All these tactics aim to reduce and mitigate external and internal risks.
This parallels similar developments in counselling and coaching arenas where the agenda has shifted from reactive or remedial stress or crisis management to a more proactive and developmental focus. People professionals from disciplines ranging from therapy to human resources recognise that people and people systems (e.g. families, teams, communities, organisations) are facing unprecedented challenges and need to learn and develop fresh insights, skills, relationships and resources to face them effectively and prevail.
In the UK, cognitive behavioural psychology-based approaches have become increasingly popular, helping people to think differently in order to reduce anxiety and stress and to see opportunities in the midst of all kinds of potentially bewildering challenges and changes. The principle works something like this. If I can learn to perceive a situation differently, to see it through fresh eyes, I will feel differently about it and respond or behave differently towards it. This approach can achieve dramatic and quick results and achieve a greater sense of wellbeing.
Other approaches based on psychotherapy, person-centred or human givens psychology expose and heal internal trauma or emotional struggle. If I can heal the historical pain that experiences may trigger or tap into, I can face new experiences afresh and with greater personal resilience. Psychological coaching has grown in popularity alongside traditional business or performance coaching, reflecting a recognition that how well a person deals with a situation depends as much on the person’s awareness and resilience as on the demands of the situation itself.
Recent psychological innovations include acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) which is concerned less with challenging and changing thoughts about situations than its cognitive behavioural counterpart and more with learning mindfulness. The principle involves growing in awareness, noticing and observing one’s experience rather than struggling with or trying to change it, and learning to rest in a deeper sense of transcendent self. It reframes and embraces pain and difficulty as part of the ebb and flow of life rather than as a dysfunctional problem to be challenged, resisted or resolved.
There are parallels in Buddhism and in Jewish, Christian and Islamic thought. The latter view human experience in the context of a theology of God. The Bible portrays God as actively involved in the world and invokes trust in him as a way of approaching and dealing with experience, e.g. ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart and don’t rely on your own understanding…’ (Proverbs 3:5); ‘I [God] will never leave you nor forsake you’ (Hebrews 13:5). The Qur‘an, similarly: ‘Nothing can befall us except that which God has ordained…the faithful should put their trust in him.’ (Sura 9:51).
Judeo-Christian theology points far beyond simple rational assent and commitment to an alternative metaphysical social construct and lifestyle. It invites an openness to a spiritual dimension, a willingness to enter into a Supernatural relationship, an ability to draw on a transcendent experience that can result in inner strength, peace and growth in the face of adversity. It also advocates attitudes and behavioural qualities that build resilience at interpersonal and macro-systemic levels, e.g. love, integrity, equality, faithfulness, forgiveness, peace, celebration and hope.
These and similar qualities were found to be highly significant in enabling people and communities to survive during and recover following some of humanity’s worst recent disasters including the Nazi Holocaust, the Asia Tsunami, the Haiti earthquake. In light of this, Western psychosocial approaches and interventions aimed at providing post-traumatic support, based largely on secular assumptions and methodologies, are beginning to revisit the spirituality question. There may in fact be more to faith, spiritual reality and experience than a traditional secular functional outlook has presupposed.
This kind of phenomenology enables us to confront crisis and disaster at deep human-existential levels. A crisis challenges our assumptions, reveals our vulnerabilities, evokes our defences, shifts our perspectives, tests our resilience. In Western societies, our culture, wealth and technology have enabled us to insulate ourselves from some of life’s more difficult trials. Since resilience is built through facing challenge with support, some psychologists now believe this external protection is, paradoxically, reducing our inner psychological resilience. Is it time to think again?
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.