Gareth Morgan in Images of Organisation (1986) commented, ‘People have a knack for getting trapped in webs of their own creation’. It’s as if we can create ways of seeing the world personally and between us that become fixed and prevent us seeing alternatives. According to social construct theory, we never really see the world for what it is, but rather as how we learn to perceive and make sense of it. This means that we attribute meaning to people, objects and situations, rather than perceive them objectively.
Personal and social construct psychology are interested in how people, groups, organisations and societies create their own ‘reality’. The language, images, metaphors and stories we use both reveal and reinforce how we see, experience and respond to the world. So, for instance, if we talk about a team, an organisation, an organisational structure etc, it may be to us as if those abstract entities actually exist in their own right, rather than simply as a way of thinking about and organising our psychosocial perceptions and experience.
Depending on what images, beliefs, values and assumptions we hold about such ‘constructs’, we can find ourselves holding fixed views that blind us to alternative ideas and options. Social construct coaching is not about unearthing ‘the truth’ but exploring alternative constructs. Social construct coaching aims to help a person or group to surface, examine and challenge the constructs they have inherited and created and to experiment with creating alternative constructs to see what they may reveal, release and enable. Sample techniques:
*Invite the coachee or group to depict a real work scenario, e.g. by drawing on paper, using objects (e.g. toys) or configuring people in a room to see what picture (or ‘construct’) emerges.
*Encourage the coachee or group to reflect on what has emerged, e.g. who or what have they included and why, how have they positioned themselves in relation to others and why etc.
*Challenge the coachee or group’s assumptions, e.g. who or what is missing, what evidence is there to support any assumptions, what evidence could point towards contrary conclusions?
*Urge the coachee or group to consider how people from diverse situations might perceive or approach the scenario, e.g. from different genders, cultures, ages, jobs, positions in hierarchy.
*Support the coachee or group to experiment with radical alternatives, e.g. draw the diagram upside down, swap roles and places, play with opposite words, images and metaphors.
Person and social construct coaching can enable changes in perception, resulting options and personal-cultural behaviour. The most exciting examples result in a fundamental paradigm shift, a total reconstruction of how an individual or group perceives, shapes and responds to the world.
Who or what has most influenced your OD thinking and practice? What maxims or principles do you bear in mind as you approach organisational issues from an OD perspective? Someone asked me this question recently and I crystallised my response into seven statements, drawing on background influences including Morgan, Schein, Bolman & Deal, Gergen and Burr:
*Organisations do not exist but people do.
*Every action is an intervention.
*Actions have symbolic as well as rational meaning.
*What’s important is not what happens but what it means.
*The same event has different meanings for different people.
*People get trapped in their own psychological and cultural constructs.
*What passes for rationality is often irrationality in disguise.
These statements, taken as a whole, create a metaphorical lens through which I often view, analyse or interpret a situation or experience. They help me to consider an underlying question, ‘What is really going on here?’ before attempting to work with a client or organisation to devise a way forward. What maxims or principles do you use to guide your practice?
How do you feel? What are you feeling? Why do you feel it? Whose emotion are you experiencing? The answers to these questions may be more complex than we at first imagine. I’ll try to explain some of the reasons why. Firstly, I could respond to the first and second questions above with something like, ‘I feel happy’ or ‘I feel sad’. These are labels we use to express certain types or categories of experience.
I say categories because, on the face of it, happy or sad are only general descriptions. For instance, how happy is happy? What does being happy feel like? How is happy different to, say, joyful or content? We may use other words to express nuance or increase accuracy. For example, ‘I feel very happy’ expresses a level of intensity. ‘I feel generally happy’ says something about continuity of experience.
We notice immediately how we are constrained by language, by limited words to express subtle shades of emotional experience. In principle, the wider range of words we have available to us, the better we should be able to articulate what we feel. In this sense, we are using language descriptively, to distinguish between emotional states. It’s as if the emotion simply is, and we try to find the best word to label it.
It's nevertheless tricky using words to describe and differentiate emotions in this way. After all, an emotion isn't an object with fixed shape, depth or form. It's a phenomenon, not a thing. It's a feeling, a felt experience, a sense of something that we experience deeply, psychologically and physically. It's often a shifting state, hard to pin down, hard to grasp hold of and yet nevertheless powerfully present and impacting.
Social constructionists suggest that language not only expresses how we feel, but shapes it too. In other words, how I distinguish between different emotional experiences is governed by language. Since language is culturally constructed (that is, it is inherited, used and evolves in human environments) how I feel is to some degree culturally determined. Culture shapes how I experience personal emotion.
From an early age, we observe how others respond to experience. We copy their reactions and find ourselves culturally expected to respond, or inhibited from responding, in certain ways. So to some extent, how I react to an experience is a learned, conditioned response. It feels instinctive, ‘simply how I feel’, but it could be described as a personal and social experience. It’s about me, but not just about me.
Which leads to the final question. Whose emotion am I feeling? We tune into others’ emotional states, often subconsciously. We may pick up unexpressed feelings from another and experience them as if our own. We may pick up a feeling from a group, a community, and carry it as if it’s our own. In this sense, the boundary between what I’m feeling and what others are feeling is permeable and blurred.
So what am I feeling? It depends on the language available to me, the categories I have learned to assign to emotional experiences, the ways I have learned to feel and respond. Why am I feeling it? It's a partly personal and partly social response to psychological, physiological, social or environmental stimuli. Whose emotion am I feeling? It's my own, but sometimes it's not only my own. Complicated? Hmm. How are you feeling?
‘Isn’t it curious how question has quest at its heart?’ (Brian Watts) This was a great question. It set my mind on a quest, a journey of discovery, and it was intended to do so. It wasn’t a question inviting information, an immediate response, a simple answer. It was intended to stimulate, intrigue, inspire.
Some of the world’s greatest teachers have used questions powerfully to evoke and achieve transformation. Jesus asked so many questions that Gempf wrote a whole book on it: Jesus Asked. Socrates the philosopher is famous for posing questions too: the Socratic method. Aquinas observed that good questions have a way of creating uncertainty, restlessness, momentum. By contrast, once we achieve an answer that satisfies, our minds come to a halt. Is that why God leaves so many questions unanswered, to invite us on a dynamic, profound journey of faith?
We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, that good questions often lie at the heart of good therapy, good coaching, good organisation development, good international development. Finding the right questions, the quantum questions, is often the key to unlocking transformative results. In coaching, good questions are often about enabling the client to see him or herself, his or her situation, through fresh eyes. In this sense, it’s about enabling the client to gain fresh in-sight. Questions are often about challenging assumptions, reframing, enabling paradigm shifts.
Questions can also be used to explore emotional experience. ‘How are you feeling?’ Or to surface intuition. ‘What is your intuition telling you?’, ‘What’s your hunch?’. They can also move a person towards action. ‘What would motivate you to do this?’, ‘What are your next steps?’ Some questions are good for framing and focusing a conversation. ‘What would be good use of this time for you?’, ‘What’s the most important thing for us to focus on?’, ‘What do you hope to have achieved by the end of this meeting?’, ‘How would you like us to do this?’
Social constructionism poses fundamental questions. ‘What has led you to see things in the way you do?’, ‘Where do your beliefs come from?’, ‘What cultural and contextual assumptions does your language reveal?’, ‘How could you reconstruct this scenario into something quite different?’ Some questions invite a deeper spiritual dimension. ‘How would it be if we were to pray about this?’, ‘How far is this course of action consistent with Biblical principles?’, ‘What ethical issues does this raise?’, ‘If Jesus was physically present with you now, what would he ask you to do?’
One of the best questions I’ve found is simply, ‘What’s really going on here?’ Susie Orbach, social psychotherapist, wrote a good book by that title. It invites exploration of an issue from a wide range of perspectives, personal, social and political, drawing on rationality and intuition. Gestalt psychology hints at great questions. ‘What are you aware of?’, ‘What is holding your attention?’, ‘What are you not noticing?’, ‘What assumptions are you making?’, ‘What do you need to be effective in this situation’, ‘What would improve the quality of contact between us?’
Coaches in a workplace can ask all sorts of powerful questions too. ‘Where is your focus at the moment?’, 'What's the goal you are working towards?', ‘What should take priority?’, ‘Where can you be more proactive?’, ‘What do you need to do right now?’, ‘What have you learnt from this that you can use?’ ‘What should we be celebrating?’, ‘Where do you feel most challenged?’, ‘Where is the greatest return on your effort?’, ‘How can you make more use of what is working?’, ‘What is the most important thing for you to change?’, ‘What would you most like to improve?’
The list goes on... ‘What really excites you about this?’, ‘Where could you show greater leadership?’, ‘What is your deadline?’, ‘What options do you have?’, ‘What are the pros and cons?’, ‘Who will you need on board to achieve this?’, ‘What support will you need to be successful?’ I’m fascinated by how the quality of a good question, alongside the quality of the relationship, the intention behind the question and the spirit in which it is posed, can be so impactful. And I’m keen to find out more. So, please tell me, what’s the best question you have asked, used or received?
Who am I? From a social constructionist perspective, it's a difficult question to answer.
In fact, it’s problematic to say anything meaningful about an essential ‘me’ without thinking about myself, how I am, within a particular context. After all, we never exist in an existential or experiential vacuum. Perhaps it’s a bit like 'figure' and 'ground' in Gestalt: I am who I am against a backdrop of culture, experience etc. and, of course, God. So, if the context changes, who I am changes too.
So again, who am I? Lots of things, partly depending on my ego state at the time. The notion of ego state has been developed in transactional analysis (TA) as a way of understanding how we are in relation to ourselves and others. It suggests we are in constantly shifting psychological states which influence how we are, feel, perceive and behave towards others and, therefore, what we correspondingly evoke in and experience of them.
You may have heard of TA’s parent/adult/child model. Sometimes I relate to another person a bit like a nurturing or, alternatively, punitive parent, at another time I may relate to the same person as an equal (‘adult’), at another time I might relate to them as a playful or mischievous child etc. How I relate to the other evokes a response in them, potentially shifting their ego state too and creating all sorts of interesting dynamics between us.
I was asked recently which ego state I like most, which feels most like the ‘real’ me. It’s a great question and it begs all sorts of other interesting questions, e.g. what does a real me actually mean? How can I know which is the real me? I can prefer to be in certain ego states at certain times but what influences that preference, i.e. why do I prefer to be in it rather than in another state?
It’s quite possible that in any given moment, one 'me' would like to hold a sensible adult-adult conversation, another 'me' might simultaneously reject that and prefer to be more playful, like a free & cheeky child, another 'me' may frown on my own behaviour like a critical parent...all at the same time. This is one reason why social constuctionists challenge the notion of a single, unified persona.
Perhaps we are more fragmented, inconsistent, potentially self-contradictory and conflicted then we normally feel aware of or comfortable with. It’s challenging to think of ourselves in this way, to imagine the boundaries between our selves and our contexts being less firm, less fixed, more permeable, than we normally assume. It’s challenging to think of ourselves, the person we are, as fluid, shifting, evolving...what do you think?
I watched 'Inception' late last night and woke thinking about the power of imagination. This hi-tech film plays dramatically with the idea of manipulating dreams. Dreams are one way of experiencing our image-ination at work, quite literally by experiencing images that appear, within the dream, as reality. Ordinarily on waking, we feel able to differentiate what we perceive and experience as ‘actual reality’ from what we perceive and experience within a dream state as ‘apparent reality’.
I want to propose however that our perception and experience of reality while we are awake are, similarly, mediated by imagination. I want to challenge the notion of our ability to perceive and experience ‘actual reality’, as if we are in some objective sense able to perceive and experience reality as it is, reality per se. I want to suggest that our imagination acts as the interface between our selves and reality, that is, we perceive and experience reality as filtered and projected by our imagination.
The distinction between dream state and wake state may not be as clear and definitive as we normally assume. What does it really mean to be awake? Does awake mean to be fully conscious, to be fully aware of what is happening in and around us, to be able to take deliberate decisions and actions? This begs further questions that are difficult to answer. For example, what does it really mean to be conscious? What does it really mean to be fully aware? How do we know what’s really driving our decisions?
An example. I once had a dream in which I discovered my brother was having an affair with my girlfriend. It was a powerful and painful emotional experience and, even when I woke and realised it was only a dream, it still affected how I felt about and behaved towards my brother the next day. It’s possible that what we experience in dreams, in this case emotional insecurity, could reveal something of what we are experiencing in the current awake state, yet which lies out of our consciousness.
The notion that we are not conscious of some aspects of what we are experiencing challenges the notion of awake-ness as ‘fully aware’. If we think about our ordinary day-to-day experience, we can see how we are only ever selectively aware. For example, as you read this blog entry, notice how you have tuned out of other things happening within and around you, e.g. things you were thinking about previously, how you are sitting, your breathing, sounds outside of the room.
This ability to selectively perceive, to filter out stimuli that would otherwise be distracting or in totality overwhelming, is the same ability that enables us to focus, to concentrate. What we choose to focus or concentrate on links to interesting questions of motivation. In the present moment, what is motivating me to focus on A rather than B or C, why am I more interested in X rather than Y or Z? We’re sometimes aware of what is motivating us, sometimes we simply don’t know.
According to psychodynamic theory, we can be motivated to move towards or away from experiences by unconscious or subconscious forces that lie outside of our awareness. Sometimes it may be an intuitive gut instinct, a learned response that we somehow experience physiologically yet find it difficult to understand, rationalise or explain. I believe sometimes it could be a spiritual intuition, a knowing from outside ourselves that feels mysterious yet compelling, a revelation from God.
The psychodynamic tradition proposes that our subconscious memory draws connections between what we experience in the now and what we have experienced in the past. We perceive and experience each new person, relationship, situation etc. through the filter of what we have experienced previously and what meaning we have derived from or attributed to it. We encounter objective reality subjectively, that is, we never really perceive or experience people and things fully for what they are but always, to some degree, as distorted by what we project onto them.
This is a great example of the power of imagination. Picture for a moment holding a projector on your shoulder each time you meet a new person. The encounter evokes subconscious memories and emotions within that you automatically project, like an image, onto that person. What you then experience of the person is a product of the actual person, the actual encounter, combined with metaphorical ‘images’ and feelings you project onto them, resulting from previous encounters with other people.
By way of illustration, I once met a co-leader of a study group for the first time. I found myself relating to him warmly, confidently and humorously, and, after a while, noticed that he looked a bit bemused by this. I realised on reflection that there was something about how he looked, talked and behaved that reminded me of a very close friend. It was as if I had projected an ‘image’ of my friend onto this stranger and then, subconsciously, perceived and related to him as if he was that friend.
Social constructionist theory proposes that what we notice, how we perceive the world (e.g. how we categorise things), what images we hold of it, what sense we make of ‘reality’ and the meanings we attribute to it are created through interactions with others. In other words, our perception and experience of reality are socially and culturally constructed. We use language to reveal our maps (or images) of the world within and around us and, in doing so, shape and reinforce those things with others.
In this tradition, to be aware means to be conscious, as far as it is possible, of the various influences that shape our beliefs, our assumptions, our worldview and to be open to other possibilities, other ways of perceiving and experiencing reality. According to this tradition, reality is perception; that is, our experience of reality is inescapably governed by what we imagine it to be, how we have learned to perceive and experience it, how we shape it by the way we think and talk about it.
The psychodynamic and social constructionist traditions combined lead to a conclusion that human perception and experience of ‘actual reality’ is mediated by memory, imagination and interactions with others. We never fully experience reality in an objective sense, for what it is, but as a curious mix of what’s in here, what’s out there and what value and meaning we superimpose onto it. At best we perceive reality in terms that the New Testament describes as, ‘a poor reflection’.
This is consistent, I think, with Kant’s (paraphrased) reflections on spirituality: ‘God reveals himself objectively but we experience him subjectively’. It’s as if God reaches into our human constructs, shaping, challenging and reframing them to reveal a glimpse of himself in terms we can grasp. Our images of God are nevertheless created and constrained by the limits of human language, culture, experience and imagination.
In light of this, we do well to approach God and all aspects of reality and truth with humility and an openness to fresh challenge and possibility.
Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant with over 15,000 followers on LinkedIn. How can I help you? Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org