I took part in a fascinating workshop this week on systemic coaching and constellations led by Sarah Rozenthuler and Edward Rowland. Part-way through, I went for a quick comfort break and smiled when I saw this sign on the wall: ‘Please refrain from spitting chewing gum in the urinals. It blocks the system.’ What a great metaphor! A simple action in one part of a system can have inadvertent and far-reaching impacts on other parts of the system – or even on the system as a whole.
This reminded me of an incident 3 years ago when I snapped my left knee in a cycling accident. It was a serious injury that left me immobilised for 3 months. As I started learning to walk again, I felt sharp pains and heard crunching sounds in my right knee. Feeling surprised and alarmed by this, I spoke with a physiotherapist who explained that I was, in effect, overcompensating for the injury in my left knee by avoiding putting weight on it – and thereby placing extra strain on my other knee.
Here’s the point. The solution to the symptoms I was experiencing in the right knee lay not in the right knee per se but in how I dealt with the left knee. Imagine now that the issue is not a knee but is an issue at work. As leaders, OD or coaches, how often do we locate an issue or a problem in a person or team, thereby attempting to address or solve it there without paying attention to factors elsewhere in the system, often out of sight, that could be creating, exacerbating or sustaining it?
Edwin Nevis, a Gestalt organisational consultant, comments that we often see and feel aspects of the macro system reflected and revealed in the micro – and vice versa too. A simple inquiry can be illuminating here, e.g. ‘Who else?’ or ‘What else?’ It draws us to step back, to be curious, to shift our focus, to consider who or what may be influencing what and how. So: what do you look for, what are you (not) noticing, what are you experiencing and how do you make sense of it?
Ever had one of those situations where you have said or done something entirely innocently and the person or group’s response seems totally disconnected to what you said or did – or completely out of proportion to it? It can feel like you have stepped on a hidden landmine. It can take you by surprise and can leave you reeling from the impact. It can feel hurtful, confusing and disorientating. What is going on here? What can you do to make sense of it and to deal with it?
There are some really useful insights we can draw on from fields including psychodynamics, Gestalt, social psychology, social constructionism and systems thinking. They are all interested in human relationships, what happens when we interact with each other and why. I’m going to share a couple of insights here, briefly, because I think they can be very helpful for leaders, OD, coaches etc. In fact, anyone who encounters people, works with people, is keen to build good relationships.
Firstly, we experience everything and everyone we encounter through a psychological-cultural filter. The filter is, essentially everything and everyone we have experienced in the past, how we have felt about it and what sense we and others have made of it. This means that a person who, say, appears to overreact to you is encountering you through their own filter. The filter subconsciously influences their assumptions, perceptions etc. It may be about you…but it isn’t only about you.
Secondly, no encounter takes place in a vacuum. Even as you read this, you aren’t doing so in a bubble. The stuff that is going on around us, which includes things in our lives and work here and now as well as things we carry from the past and our anticipated futures, influences what we notice, what we value, what we prioritise, what we enjoy, how we cope etc. in any given moment. So, the ‘overreacting’ person? Acknowledge they have a backstory. Breathe, be open; ask, listen.
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.