It can be one of the most painful of human experiences, especially if compounded by rejection or betrayal. But why is loss so difficult, whether it be loss of a person, a relationship, a job, a home, our health? Thinking back, I remember vividly when I heard the news of Princess Diana’s death. I have never been a royalist and had no interest whatsoever in the UK royal family. Yet still, somehow, I felt an odd sense of grief, of bereavement, that made no rational sense to me at all.
Susie Orbach, a psychotherapist and writer who applies psychodynamic insights to social and political phenomena, explained this well. Although I had no relationship with Diana, she had nevertheless been part of the backdrop, the fabric, of my life so that when she died, it felt like something of that fabric had been lost, torn away. The subconscious effect of this was amplified and intensified by the social, cultural effects of experiencing that loss alongside others.
At another level, this feeling of loss also echoed deeply with previous losses in my life, e.g. when I moved home as a child, when I lost a precious relationship. These combined insights enabled me to understand that Diana’s death carried symbolic significance (some part of my life would never be the same again) and psychological resonance (echoes of previous experiences of loss). I’ve learned that these same dynamics are present when working with people, teams and organisations too.
So, if you’re a leader leading change, an OD practitioner facilitating groups through transition, a coach enabling a person to move deeper and move forward: look out for loss – sometimes masked as resistance, sometimes as denial, sometimes as loss of energy and hope. You can’t always know or predict what change may represent symbolically or trigger psychologically. Be present, be patient and be willing to persevere until the person, the group, is able to see and feel light again.
Picture this. Here I am in a church meeting when a woman sitting in front of me starts to shake physically. This was in the context of a meeting where expectations were high that God would do something dramatic. The people around this woman prayed enthusiastically and the physical shakes were interpreted as a visible and positive sign of God’s activity. I later spoke to a nurse and asked how the same phenomenon would be interpreted in, say, an Accident & Emergency unit at the local hospital. ‘Possibly as some kind of neurological disturbance’, she replied. I then asked how medical staff were likely to respond if they observed this happening. ‘They would probably conduct tests to understand and treat the underlying physical cause.’
This intrigued me. It’s as if the interpretation we apply to an experience depends partly on the socio-physical environment in which the phenomenon arises (in this example, a church or hospital) and what the prevailing expectations and interpretations are in that context. It also depends on our own personal belief systems and the broader cultural worldview that we inhabit. This raises interesting questions about which, if either, interpretation is ‘correct’. Someone of a particular religious conviction may argue strongly for a spiritual interpretation whereas someone of a secular-medical outlook may argue equally strongly for a medical interpretation. It sets up the risk of a false dichotomy, as if different interpretations are necessarily mutually exclusive.
One way to look at this is that events and experiences have no inherent meaning of their own. They just are what they are. What happens simply…happens. As individuals and social groups (e.g. cultures, professions), we construct meaning based on what we believe and hold to be true. In other words, we apply meaning to events and experiences rather than derive meaning from them. A non-medical church member may look at the experience through a spiritual lens; a secular medical practitioner through a scientific lens. As a consequence, they each notice, don’t notice, include and conclude something different. Each lens creates and reinforces its own meaning, superimposes its own meaning, and, having done so, appears obvious or self-evident for those share that view.
It seems possible to me that the same phenomenon can carry more than one meaning. In the example above, it’s possible (assuming, as I do, that God exists) that God may act in a person’s life by creating a neurological disturbance that may, say, reveal some hidden issue psychosomatically or symbolically that is important for that person or cultural community to pay attention to. Having said that, there may be different explanations altogether to those offered above that could explain this experience. They may not be obvious to us because they don’t fit with our current frames of reference or lenses and are, therefore, in effect, invisible to us. It’s a bit like asking a colour-blind person to describe coloured images or shapes on a card that lie outside their ability to perceive.
So what is the significance for leadership, coaching and facilitation? I think it’s something about being aware, as far as we can be, of our own personal and cultural influences, the effect they have on, say, who and what we notice and don’t notice, who and what we value and don’t value and the impact we have on others. It’s about being willing to engage in the existential struggle that holding core assumptions lightly whilst taking a stance with conviction entails. It’s about using our work to help others – whether individuals, teams or organisations – grow in awareness of their personal and cultural beliefs, values and assumptions so they can explore new possibilities constructively and creatively. It’s about modelling and nurturing curiosity, integrity and hope.
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.