A ‘university for the poor’. The past 2 weeks have been an inspiring and humbling experience at so many different levels. A close friend invited me to train and facilitate students, faculty and staff at a college in the Philippines that supports young people who cannot afford university education. It’s based in the inner city, shares basic facilities with various other government institutions and backs onto a market that, at times, fills hot and humid classrooms with a foul stench of waste.
It’s my third time in the Philippines and I’m always struck by the wild, extroverted and, in some ways, quite crazy culture. Dance, song and loud music are everywhere (as are people with guns), intermingled with sounds of all kinds of passing traffic and street dogs barking. The students here greet me with wide-eyed enthusiasm. It’s unusual to receive a visitor from the UK and they are curious, intrigued and keen to learn. We run classes for 3 days and the energy in the group is exhilarating.
At the end of the week, the students first sing a song to me then, one-by-one, come forward with hand written letters and cards, beautifully coloured and designed. I want to cry and yet fight back the tears. They are thanking me but I owe them so much. We move to workshops with faculty and staff using positive psychology and appreciative inquiry. Like the students before them, they are passionate, playful and professional. We laugh, work, sing, dance and learn together.
These memories stay with me: Their faith in Jesus that shines simply and brightly without inhibition. Their vision for the poor that extends beyond academic theory to personal and social transformation. Their kind welcome and hospitality to me as a total stranger. The very special friend who worked so incredibly hard – yet so carefully avoided the limelight. The open-hearted generosity of students who said, ‘We want others to experience what we have experienced here.’
It’s about waiting…anticipating…expecting…looking forward to the coming, the arrival of – Jesus.
It’s not just a re-enactment of an event that happened 2000+ years ago, a bit like how some people re-enact historical scenes from a civil war.
It’s about looking for…opening ourselves…seeking deeply…the presence of Jesus who
is with us…who approaches us even as we approach him.
I have rarely witnessed such a humbling, authentic act of generosity. I was in the Philippines for the past 2 weeks visiting people and communities who are, by global standards, economically poor. The Filipina who accompanied me is poor too. She grew up in a remote jungle hut with no running water, electricity or sanitation. She works hard, long hours to support her children, family and community, determined that others should have better opportunities in life that she has experienced in her own.
We were walking through an island village with children, teenagers and parents staring and smiling to see these strange visitors. The homes they were living in had only one room, no facilities, and we were passing a small hut with snacks hanging outside it on strings. It served as the village shop. We hadn’t eaten or had anything to drink for some time and the weather was hot and humid so I handed some money to my guide to buy herself some food. What happened next took me completely by surprise.
This young woman bought all the snacks that were hanging there and immediately handed them to the intrigued children that had surrounded us. Then she walked around, handing them openly to mothers who were carrying toddlers – and toyed playfully with teenagers who wanted some too but were too shy to ask. The scene around us was transformed into one of spontaneous celebration with smiles everywhere and children running and laughing excitedly. It reminded me of Spirit, of incarnation, of Jesus.
As we left the village with these images and sounds still dancing vividly in my mind, I commented to this special person, ‘You were amazing with them.’ She looked at me, wide eyed, and replied quite simply, ‘Nick – I am them.’ Those words detonated deeply in my soul. As leaders, OD and coaches, how far do we view staff, clients etc. as ‘them’, distinct from ‘us’? How would it impact on our presence, our behaviour, our effectiveness if we shifted our perspective, our stance, to one of radical identity with..?
I woke on the floor by the front door with blood on my head. I had no idea how I had got there or how long I had been laying in that position. I tried to lift myself up, weakly, and saw pieces of wood all around me. I was puzzled and confused, disorientated. It turns out I had fallen unconscious and fallen through a wooden table. I half-crawled, half-staggered, to a different room and collapsed.
This experience taught me vividly how suddenly and dramatically our circumstances can change. In this case, I had a contracted a severe infection and was rushed into hospital in an ambulance. In other situations, it could be e.g. a sudden loss of a relationship or a job, a loss of someone or something important to us. It can come out of nowhere, leaving us lost, shocked and reeling.
There’s something about loss that can fundamentally challenge our sense of security and certainty, especially in wealthy nations where we cushion and insure ourselves against all kinds of pain and hardship. It can force us to face deep spiritual and existential questions that lay out of reach of simple ‘positive thinking’, e.g. who are we, why are we here, who and what really matters?
So a reflection and challenge for leaders, OD, coaches and trainers. How far do we face and address profound life questions in our work? How far do we allow ourselves to stay on the surface, the superficial, without going deeper? How far are we willing to travel with people, if they want to, into spiritual and existential places? How well do we handle it if people pose such questions to us?
We never really work with ‘just an individual’ because human beings always exist within systems of relationship. (Malcolm Parlett)
You’re not alone. Neither are your colleagues or clients. OK, you may be alone in a room together (if I can use ‘alone’ and ‘together’ in the same breath like this) for a meeting, a training workshop, a catch-up, a coaching conversation. As you focus intently on the other person or group – their goals, interests, ideas, concerns etc. – it can be as if the wider world and its noisy distractions fade out of existence, at least for a moment. There is just you…and me…and us. Our space.
It is a kind of sacred space and it can feel – spiritual. It has a person-centred quality about it. We may conceive of what we bring as the gift of our presence, attention and expertise. It can be immensely affirming for the other and it ensures they feel seen, heard, valued and understood. It can feel like offering…love. But far be it from us to use the L word in a corporate context! So we will sanitise it for now with culturally-safer words like empathy and respect. Still with me?
Now a sting in the tail. There are some important risks here. In our heartfelt desire to be client-focused, how often do we hear trainers and coaches say things like, ‘My job is to help you reach your goals’ or, in marketing-speak, ‘Your success is my success’? I get the principle but it can lead us to approach our work in a blinkered way, as if the person exists in a relational, cultural and contextual bubble. Where are the ethics in this if our sole focus is on the client or group?
Take the person whose success will undermine the success of peers in other teams or the wider strategy of the organisation. Or the person whose success will impact negatively on people and groups in the wider community, e.g. politically, economically or environmentally. Our well-meaning interventions can inadvertently collude with or even facilitate hidden or unintended consequences. So: what can we do to address this? What are we willing to take responsibility for?
Ouch! Sooner or later, something hits us in life. It could be a broken relationship, an accident, loss of employment, sudden ill health. It could be anything. But we know it when it hits us. The impact can feel physical like a thud to the chest, a sharp pain that leaves us gasping for breath. It hurts, it aches…and, for a time, it disorientates everything we know, believe, expected or hoped for. It can leave us spinning, angry, scared, numb. We feel vulnerable. We may feel anxiety, despair.
You do know it if you’ve had this experience. You may be having it now. The usual optimism and positive thinking that have served you so well in the past suddenly feel empty, shallow somehow, lacking substance. You reach out for help but if feels like grasping at thin, intangible mist. All you know is a persistent, uneasy, gnawing feeling, deep inside and the light of hope looks hopelessly dim. Family and friends offer support but, in the midst of it you feel – alone. Painfully…alone.
It’s moments like these where existential and spiritual questions may come sharply into view. I’ve know that feeling of falling, sinking, so deep that I thought I would drown. It felt like slipping into deep darkness, overwhelmed by a pain-filled fear. I couldn’t see a way to stay alive. Sitting on a fence in a cold field one night, all I could discern was a feint pin prick of light in the farthest distance. I tried hard to cling on, however weakly. That night, I discovered the light was - Jesus.
‘I don’t know’ is a leadership act that invites others in. (Karakusevic)
It all depends on the voice. I can say, ‘I don’t know’ with heavy heart and sloped shoulders, a voice of resignation, a paralysed feeling. A sense of no way forward. This may be a voice that I speak to myself, to others, when I encounter unfamiliar territory, new experiences, fresh challenges. It can leave me feeling stuck, lost, hopeless. I’ve heard this voice whisper in my own head from time to time and I’ve felt its debilitating effects.
I’m learning that I can use a different voice too: ‘I don’t know - but I’m really curious to find out. Let’s start something and see what happens!’ This voice comes from a free place, a spirit of playful inquiry, a willingness to experiment. It’s a voice that releases me, invites others to contribute, draws people in. It’s an approach to co-creative leadership that liberates and empowers. It’s at the heart of coaching: the power of not-knowing to release knowing in others.
This approach to living and leading can build optimism and agility in organisations where things are ambiguous and uncertain. No surprise, therefore, to see 2 new books in 2015: ‘Not knowing’ (D’Souza & Renner) and ‘Nonsense – The Power of Not Knowing’ (Holmes). Not-knowing frees us from the pressure to know and allows us to explore new ideas, new horizons, new paradigms. It enables us to embrace the future with open minds and hearts.
So I’m noticing resonances between current thinking, my Christian spirituality (e.g. ‘Cloud of Unknowing’) and what I’m discovering through experimental fields (e.g. Gestalt). And I’m very curious to hear from others who live, work and play in this not-knowing space too. How do you create and sustain a not-knowing mindset? How have you applied it to your leadership or coaching practice? What benefits of not-knowing have you found to be true?
Why think outside of the box when you could dispense with the box altogether? Rosabeth Moss-Kanter commented recently on Twitter that ‘To lead real change, it’s not enough to think outside of the box. We need to think outside of the building.’ It reminded me of Chris Argyris who, some years ago, coined the phrase ‘learning loops’ to describe different levels of learning and application:
Single loop learning asks the question, ‘Are we doing this right?’, e.g. ‘Do we have a clear agenda for today’s meeting?’ Double loop learning steps back to ask, ‘Are we doing the right things?’, e.g. ‘Is a meeting really the best way to do this?’ Triple loop learning steps back further still to ask, ‘How do we decide what is right?’, e.g. ‘Are we focusing our attention on the most important things?’
Each step back brings new dimensions into the frame, surfacing and thereby opening assumptions to challenge. I think of it like concentric circles, ripples on a pond, ever moving outwards from the initial point of impact or concern. It exposes wider systems. It shifts the focus onto broader cultural or contextual issues in order to make sense of and take decisions within a narrower domain.
There are some parallels with strategic, tactical and operational lenses, aimed at ensuring effectiveness. Peter Drucker commented: ‘Nothing is less productive than to make more efficient what should not be done at all.’ How much resource do we waste in organisations inadvertently paying one person or team to burn the proverbial toast and another to scrape off the burnt bits?
So we are really looking at how to ask fundamental questions. ‘What is the purpose of our organisation in the world?’ I mean existentially or spiritually, not just pragmatically. 'Why are we here?', ‘What is shaping our values?’, ‘What are we aware of?’, ‘What are we blind to, filtering out?’, ‘What matters most to us, and why?’, ‘Why are we doing things this way?’, ‘Who or what is really driving this?’
This type of critique is where things get tricky and, potentially, revolutionary. Organisations, as people, shape their own perception of reality, what is real and what is true, by the way they construe situations, the narratives they create to explain their experiences, the rationalisations they use to justify their actions etc. And most of this is subconscious, hidden behind cultural filters and defences.
Deconstructing the box entails a willingness to acknowledge it first – to explore and reveal the unspoken, the unspeakable, the not-yet imagined. As leaders and coaches, it calls for vulnerability and courage. It demands a preparedness to challenge and be challenged, to open our eyes, perhaps pray, to expose our limits, our assumptions, our implicit collusion with what is and what appears to be.
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.
How would you describe your coaching style? What questions would you bring to a client situation?
In my experience, it depends on a whole range of factors including the client, the relationship, the situation and what beliefs and expertise I, as coach, may hold. It also depends on what frame of reference or approach I and the client believe could be most beneficial. Some coaches are committed to a specific theory, philosophy or approach. Others are more fluid or eclectic.
Take, for instance, a leader in a Christian organisation struggling with issues in her team. The coach could help the leader explore and address the situation drawing on any number of perspectives or methods. Although not mutually exclusive, each has its own focus and emphasis. The content and boundaries will reflect what the client and coach believe may be significant:
Appreciative/solutions-focused: e.g. ‘What would an ideal team look and feel like for you?’, ‘When has this team been at its best?’, ‘What made the greatest positive difference at the time?’, ‘What opportunity does this situation represent?’, ‘On a scale of 1-10, how well is this team meeting your and other team members’ expectations?’, ‘What would it take to move it up a notch?’
Psychodynamic/cognitive-behavioural: e.g. ‘What picture comes to mind when you imagine the team?’, ‘What might a detached observer notice about the team?’, ‘How does this struggle feel for you?’, ‘When have you felt like that in the past?’, ‘What do you do when you feel that way?’, ‘What could your own behaviour be evoking in the team?’, ‘What could you do differently?’
Gestalt/systemic: e.g. ‘What is holding your attention in this situation?’ ‘What are you not noticing?’, ‘What are you inferring from people’s behaviour in the team?’, ‘What underlying needs are team members trying to fulfil by behaving this way?’, ‘What is this team situation telling you about wider issues in the organization?’, ‘What resources could you draw on to support you?’
Spiritual/existential: e.g. ‘How is this situation affecting your sense of calling as a leader?’, ‘What has God taught you in the past that could help you deal with this situation?’, ‘What resonances do you see between your leadership struggle and that experienced by people in the Bible?’, ‘What ways of dealing with this would feel most congruent with your beliefs and values?’
An important principle I’ve learned is to explore options and to contract with the client. ‘These are some of the ways in which we could approach this issue. What might work best for you?’ This enables the client to retain appropriate choice and control whilst, at the same time, introduces possibilities, opportunities and potential new experiences that could prove transformational.
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.