‘What is most important about any event is not what happened, but what it means. Events and meanings are loosely coupled: the same events can have very different meanings for different people because of differences in the schema that they use to interpret their experience.’ These illuminating words from Bolman & Deal in Reframing Organisations (1991) have stayed with me throughout my coaching and OD practice.
They have strong resonances with similar insights in rational emotive therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy. According to Ellis, what we feel in any specific situation or experience is governed (or at least influenced) by what significance we attribute to that situation or experience. One person could lose their job and feel a sense of release to do something new, another could face the same circumstances and feel distraught because of its financial implications.
What significance we attribute to a situation or experience and how we may feel and act in response to it depends partly on our own personal preferences, beliefs, perspective and conscious or subconscious conclusions drawn from our previous experiences. It also depends on our cultural context and background, i.e. how we have learned to interpret and respond to situations as part of a wider cultural group with its own history, values, norms and expectations.
A challenge and opportunity in coaching and OD is sometimes to help a client (whether individual or group) step back from an immediate experience and reflect on what the client (or others) are noticing and not noticing, what significance the client (or others) are attributing to it and how this is affecting emotional state, engagement, choices and behaviour. Exploring in this way can open the client to reframing, feeling differently and making positive choices.
In his book, Into the Silent Land (2006), Laird makes similar observations. Although speaking about distractions in prayer and the challenges of learning stillness and silence, his illustrations provide great examples of how the conversations we hold in our heads and the significance we attribute to events often impact on us more than events themselves. He articulates this phenomenon so vividly that I will quote him directly below:
‘We are trying to sit in silence…and the people next door start blasting their music. Our mind is so heavy with its own noise that we actually hear very little of the music. We are mainly caught up on a reactive commentary: ‘Why do they have to have it so loud!’ ‘I’m going to phone the police!’ ‘I’m going to sue them!’ And along with this comes a whole string of emotional commentary, crackling irritation, and spasms of resolve to give them a piece of your mind when you next see them. The music was simply blasting, but we added a string of commentary to it. And we are completely caught up in this, unaware that we are doing much more than just hearing music.
‘Or we are sitting in prayer and someone whom we don’t especially like or perhaps fear enters the room. Immediately, we become embroiled with the object of fear, avoiding the fear itself, and we begin to strategise: perhaps an inconspicuous departure or protective act of aggression or perhaps a charm offensive, whereby we can control the situation by ingratiating ourselves with the enemy. The varieties of posturing are endless, but the point is that we are so wrapped up in our reaction, with all its commentary, that we hardly notice what is happening, although we feel the bondage.’
This type of emotional response can cloud a client’s thinking (cf ‘kicking up the dust’) and result in cognitive distortions, that is ways of perceiving a situation that are very different (e.g. more blinkered or extreme) than those of a more detached observer. In such situations, I may seek to help reduce the client’s emotional arousal (e.g. through catharsis, distraction or relaxation) so that he or she is able to think and see more clearly again.
I may also help the client reflect on the narrative he or she is using to describe the situation (e.g. key words, loaded phrases, implied assumptions, underlying values). This can enable the client to be and act with greater awareness or to experiment with alternative interpretations and behaviours that could be more open and constructive. Finally, there are wider implications that stretch beyond work with individual clients.
Those leading groups and organisations must pay special attention to the symbolic or representational significance that actions, events and experiences may hold, especially for those from different cultural backgrounds (whether social or professional) or who may have been through similar perceived experiences in the past. If in doubt, it’s wise ask others how they feel about a change, what it would signify for them and what they believe would be the best way forward.
I was having a conversation recently with Rudi, a social worker mentor and friend in Germany, about personal construct psychology when he suddently commented, 'I really don't know how much of what I think and believe is genuinely my own, and how much is a product of the government, media, commercial organisations etc.' Rudi is one of the most profoundly insightful, constructively-critical and free-thinking people I have ever encountered and so, at this point, his comment took me a bit by surprise.
As the conversation progressed, we explored how we are each subject to lifelong conditioning by parents, educational systems, organisational cultures etc. combined with ongoing influences from what we read, what we experience, everyday conversations etc. And so even as I write this blog entry, how much of what I'm thinking and seeking to articulate genuinely originates in me and how much is simply a cumulative product of the influences of others? I'm speaking with my own voice, but whose thoughts are they?
Even the language I use, the language I'm using now, is something I have learned from others. It enables me to communicate but also creates and shapes the conceptual frameworks I think in, filters how I experience the world, limits my ability to think outside of the constructs and ideas inherent in it. It's one of the advantages of learning a different language, to immerse onself in the culture of others (as far as that is possible), to stretch one's own ability to think in new ways, to find an ability to experience and express fresh ideas and perspectives.
Yet even then, how much of my thinking is unique, generated from within me, genuinely my own? Have I simply broadened the range of influences on my thinking? I don't know. Perhaps the awareness of others' influence on my thoughts provides me with some opportunity to choose - and although what and how I choose is similarly influenced by the formative thinking and values I've encountered in others, the sense of choosing is about making my thoughts my own. 'God, guide my thoughts towards your thinking.'
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.