'Beware the stories we tell ourselves.' (Brené Brown)
In fields of psychology such as TA (transactional analysis) and Gestalt, there’s an idea that, as we look back over our lives, we only notice key events that stand out to us as in some way significant. We don’t notice everything else. The events that hold our attention from our past are often those that we consider pivotal moments or experiences for us and that still carry emotional resonance. We join the dots between the events and, for us, the narrative that emerges becomes our ‘life story’.
(If you want to try this out for yourself, pause for a moment, take a sheet of paper and draw a line that, in some way, represents your life. Some people use an image of, say, a river as the line. Now mark key relationships, moments, events or experiences in your life on the line. You may want to draw these as, say, high points or low points – or as graphic images. When you are finished, tell yourself or someone else the story that has emerged. Notice how the story sounds and feels.)
This ability to create patterns and to tell stories provides a sense of continuity and coherence and enables us to make sense of our lives. Instead of recalling multiple random events, we experience life as journey. It’s like how we hear music as melody or flow, not as disconnected, separate notes. We do the same in teams, groups, organisations and cultures. We notice some things, don’t notice other things and create narratives based on what we see, believe and experience as significant.
Yet a story is necessarily selective. What now appears as true and coherent to us is one possible narrative, one version of events, one way of making sense of things. Furthermore, the more self-evident the story appears and feels to us, the greater the risk is that we are trapped, like Alice, in our own Wonderland. The stories we tell ourselves influence and reinforce what we notice and not-notice now, what sense we make of it, how we feel and how we anticipate-respond to the future.
So how to use these insights when working with clients? 1. Notice how a client depicts their issue, relationship or situation. What story are they telling themselves? How are they feeling as they do it? 2. Explore what they are not-noticing, what they are assuming, who or what is not featuring in the story, how the same facts or perceptions could be configured differently. 3. Enable them to experiment creatively with alternative stories to raise fresh awareness, insight and possibilities into view.
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.
It feels like walking on egg shells. That sense of tip toeing ever-so-carefully…a bit like making your way with nervous trepidation through a proverbial minefield. Every step feels dangerous. You don’t know what lays beneath. You’re never quite sure if you’re about to trigger something – Explosive!!! This kind of encounter, this type of volatile relationship, can feel incredibly difficult to navigate. It’s something about threat, uncertainty and unpredictability that can leave us anxious and stressed.
A real problem here is that it places – or, we place – the other person in a position of great power over us, especially if we fear their reaction. This is compounded if it is a boss, a peer or another authority figure who holds sway over our job, our family, our organisation or our community. We can expend huge amounts of mental, emotional and physical energy trying to placate them, to avoid being, saying or doing anything that may set them off. It’s a form of intimidation and control.
I worked with one leader who displayed wild mood swings at work. A mentor at the time invited me to envisage approaching this leader’s office…putting my hand on the door knob…turning it. What feeling did that evoke for me? I could feel the immediate tension in my stomach, that sense of ‘in the grip-ness’, not knowing – and fearing – who or what to expect on the other side of the door. I became aware that I would tend to modify my own behaviour to try to keep the peace at all cost.
A turning point was in discovering insights from Transactional Analysis (TA) that helped me to manage such interactions differently – although still rarely easily. I pray for courage and grace, to view the person through a prism of love rather than one of fear. I choose to relate in adult-adult mode, irrespective of what mode the person may relate to me in. I take a deep breath and name the dynamic and, if needed, walk away if it can’t be resolved. What have you found works for you?
I mentored a young woman this week who was struggling with the responses she sometimes receives when working with others in a business partnering capacity. She often feels undervalued or dismissed which then influences how she approaches and what she evokes and encounters in subsequent conversations. As the discussion unfolded, I was struck by her description of how she framed her role and authority alongside that of others in her own mind and how this impacted on her interactions with clients.
I was reminded of Transactional Analysis' (TA) insights into relational dynamics and so introduced some of its basic principles to her. TA definitely struck a chord so I looked online for simple introductory material to point her towards to learn more about it. I have read Harris' I'm OK You're OK and Berne's Games People Play and have just ordered a copy of Stuart & Joines' TA Today. However, I discovered a series of short videos on YouTube by Theramin Trees that were perfect. I've posted the links below for anyone else who may be interested.
TA1 - Ego States and Basic Transactions
TA2 - Games
TA3 - Gimmicks
I took my mountain bike for repairs last week after pretty much wrecking it off road. In the same week, I was invited to lead a session on ‘use of self’ in coaching. I was struck by the contrast in what makes a cycle mechanic effective and what makes the difference in coaching. The bike technician brings knowledge and skill and mechanical tools. When I act as coach I bring knowledge and skills too - but the principal tool is my self.
Who and how I am can have a profound impact on the client. This is because the relationship between the coach and client is a dynamically complex system. My values, mood, intuition, how I behave in the moment…can all influence the relationship and the other person. It works the other way too. I meet the client as a fellow human being and we affect each other. Noticing and working with with these effects and dynamics can be revealing and developmental.
One way of thinking about a coaching relationship is as a process with four phases: encounter, awareness, hypothesis and intervention. These phases aren’t completely separate in practice and don’t necessarily take place in linear order. However, it can provide a simple and useful conceptual model to work from. I’ll explain each of the four phases below, along with key questions they aim to address, and offer some sample phrases.
At the encounter phase, the coach and client meet and the key question is, ‘What is the quality of contact between us?’
The coach will focus on being mentally and emotionally present to the client…really being there. He or she will pay particular attention to empathy and rapport, listening and hearing the client and, possibly, mirroring the client’s posture, gestures and language. The coach will also engage in contracting, e.g. ‘What would you like us to focus on?’, ‘What would a great outcome look and feel like for you?’, ‘How would you like us to do this?’
(If you saw the BBC Horizon documentary on placebos last week, the notion of how a coach’s behaviour can impact on the client’s development or well-being will feel familiar. In the TV programme, a doctor prescribed the same ‘medication’ to two groups of patients experiencing the same physical condition. The group he behaved towards with warmth and kindness had a higher recovery rate than the group he treated with clinical detachment).
At the awareness phase, the coach pays attention to observing what he or she is experiencing whilst encountering the client. The key question is, ‘What am I noticing?’
The coach will pay special attention to e.g. what he or she sees or hears, what he or she is thinking, what pictures come to mind, what he or she is feeling. The coach may then reflect it back as a simple observation, e.g. ‘I noticed the smile on your face and how animated you looked as you described it.’ ‘As you were speaking, I had an image of carrying a heavy weight…is that how it feels for you?’ ‘I can’t feel anything...do you (or others) know how you are feeling?’
(Some schools, e.g. Gestalt or person-centred, view this type of reflecting or mirroring as one of the most important coaching interventions. It can raise awareness in the client and precipitate action or change without the coach or client needing to engage in analysis or sense-making. There are resonances in solutions-focused coaching too where practitioners comment that a person doesn’t need to understand the cause of a problem to resolve it).
At the hypothesis stage, the coach seeks to understand or make sense of what is happening. The key question is, ‘What could it mean?’
The coach will reflect on his or her own experience, the client’s experience and the dynamic between them. The coach will try to discern and distinguish between his or her own ‘stuff’ and that of the client, or what may be emerging as insight into the client’s wider system (e.g. family, team or organisation). The coach may pose tentative reflections, e.g. ‘I wonder if…’, ‘This pattern could indicate…’, ‘I am feeling confused because the situation itself is confusing.’
(Some schools, e.g. psychodynamic or transactional analysis, view this type of analysis or sense-making as one of the most important coaching interventions. According to these approaches, the coach brings expert value to the relationship by offering an explanation or interpretation of what’s going on in such a way that enables the client to better understand his or he own self or situation and, thereby, ways to deal with it).
At the intervention phase, the coach will decide how to act in order to help the client move forward. Although the other three phases represent interventions in their own right, this phase is about taking deliberate actions that aim to make a significant shift in e.g. the client’s insight, perspective, motivation, decisions or behaviour. The interventions could take a number of forms, e.g. silence, reflecting back, summarising, role playing or experimentation.
Throughout this four-phase process, the coach may use ‘self’ in a number of different ways. In the first phase, the coach tunes empathetically into the client’s hopes and concerns, establishing relationship. In the second, the coach observes the client and notices how interacting with the client impacts on him or herself. The coach may reflect this back to the client as an intervention, or hold it as a basis for his or her own hypothesising and sense-making.
In the third, the client uses learned knowledge and expertise to create understanding. In the fourth, the coach presents silence, questions or comments that precipitate movement. In schools such as Gestalt, the coach may use him or herself physically, e.g. by mirroring the client’s physical posture or movement or acting out scenarios with the client to see what emerges. In all areas of coaching practice, the self is a gift to be used well and developed continually.
Heidegger's philosophy of experience strikes a chord for me. The sense of feeling ‘called’ in the moment to act or respond in a certain way expresses well what I often experience in my coaching practice. At times, I feel an almost irresistible desire and energy to act in certain way and moment. It feels intuitive, a knowing-beyond-knowing, a calling forth from beyond myself.
I believe that such insights often emerge phenomenologically from tacit knowledge, subconscious or bodily knowledge gained through years of life and work experience, a rationally unprocessed form of knowledge that emerges as intuition. I’m interested in how this correlates with my Christian beliefs about the activity of God’s Spirit and, in particular, spiritual discernment.
My interpretation of my experience, the meaning I attribute to it, is that God sometimes reveals insight that feels intuitive and prompts action in the moment that can prove profoundly transformational. It’s not something I can make happen. It’s a deeply mysterious belief and conviction and, when I experience it personally, a purely psychological explanation feels inadequate.
A challenge in coaching is how to navigate 'spiritual' conversations about existence, identity and meaning without taking clients into places they don’t want to go. It's something about acting ethically and authentically, contracting and negotiating the depth and scope of the coaching agenda openly without imposing or manipulating a client to accept my own metaphysical beliefs.
Heidegger's philosophy also resonates with social constructionism and, in particular, the relationship between language and meaning. After one coaching session, my supervisor observed how often I reflected back to the client specific words they had used, prompting further exploration to uncover the meaning such words held for the client and her own cultural environment.
During a subsequent coaching training programme, one of the participants commented to me in private how angry and frustrated she felt that some people in the group were bringing high levels of emotional content into the room, using the course for therapeutic purposes, and how inappropriate she felt this was. “This isn’t coaching!”, she complained.
I responded that different people in the group seemed to have positioned themselves differently along a consultant-coach-therapist continuum. I felt an underlying desire to persuade her to acknowledge her own subjectivity; e.g. to reframe, “This isn’t coaching” to, “That isn’t how I think of coaching” or, “That isn’t where I would draw the boundaries between coaching and therapy.”
In doing so, I was seeking to challenge and convince her to share my own constructionist outlook. It made me wonder how far my coaching practice is influenced by a desire to persuade people that a constructionist outlook is a more ‘true’ or honest way of perceiving and articulating their experience, rather than simply enabling them to explore within their own frame of reference.
The important issue then is how to bring challenge of potential benefit to the client in what Transactional Analysis describes as Adult-Adult rather than Parent-Child mode. In order to avoid hidden agendas, I need to check I am clear about my own intentions beforehand and pose my insights or perspectives along the lines of, “This is how I see it...how do you see it?” as an invitation to explore.
Think back to your early childhood. What was your favourite story? What was the plot? How did it begin, what happened in the middle and how did it end? Which character did you most identify with? Can you see themes and patterns from the story reflected in your own life?
Some psychologists believe childhood stories can act as life scripts. It’s as if there is something in a favourite story that resonates with the child’s experience and expectations to date which then becomes formative in how the child experiences and approaches their own life.
It may be a story from a book. It could equally be a story in a song, or perhaps the real story happening around the child, the observations, interpretations and early sense they make of what they notice in people and situations as they experience them.
The child subconsciously acts out the script, with the script functioning like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ask a person, ‘what keeps happening to you?’ and they can often identify and articulate repeating patterns, as if trapped in recurring cycles of experience.
‘I keep falling into the same kind of relationships.’ ‘ ‘No matter what I do, I end up on my own.’ ‘Whatever happens, I always land on my feet.’ ‘I always achieve what I want in the end.’ ‘I often get rescued by others.’ ‘People always betray me.’
I find this hypothesis intriguing. I’m curious about it because I’m interested in the stories we construct retrospectively of our own lives, the way we join dots between what we perceive as significant events or experiences to create our own coherent life story.
How far is our life story created by our own expectations? How far do our expectations shape how we experience people, relationships, objects and events? How do our expectations focus or limit what we notice, what we don’t notice and the meanings we attribute?
In transactional analysis, coaches and therapists may help a client to surface their life script with a view to evaluate it and, if they wish, to change it in order to experience greater freedom and autonomy as the client approaches the future.
I’m not sure its possible or desirable to live a script-free life. It’s often our hopes and expectations that draw us forward, inspire us, energise us with the courage we need to face fresh challenges. Nevertheless, I do like the idea of increasing awareness and choice.
So, what’s your story?
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
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
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 find the notion of shifting ego states very compelling. It certainly resonates with my own personal experience. I’ve often thought, it only takes a moment to change the whole world. Here I am one moment feeling low, fragile, anxious, under-confident then, unexpectedly, someone smiles warmly and reassuringly and – hey – the whole world instantly brightens. It’s like the blazing sunshine appearing suddenly from behind a dark cloud.
We have a postcard on the kitchen wall at home with an expression in German, Jeder Moment ist ein neuer Anfang, every moment is a new beginning. Sometimes new beginnings are of our own making, we make a new decision, take a new course of action, choose to see things differently. Other times it feels like new beginnings happen to us, as if caught unawares and finding ourselves propelled by inner feelings or outer circumstances.
A social worker friend of mine in Germany would sometimes say, ‘Es ist eine Frage der Wahrnehmung’, it’s a question of perception. Our perspective changes as we shift between ego states. It’s a phrase borrowed from transactional analysis – how one minute we can feel clear, adult, in the present but in another moment can feel and behave more like parental figures from our past, or how we felt and behaved as a child.
I remember one occasion when I was feeling very tired and stressed at work, but trying to push on ahead anyway. I met with a senior leader and could see a look of surprise and concern on his face as we spoke. It took me by surprise too. I hadn’t been aware of how I was feeling, how defensively I was responding, until I saw his expression. It felt like looking into a mirror, seeing an inverted reflection of myself, a moment of raised awareness.
We can regress into experiences and patterns of responding from our past. We find ourselves feeling off-balance, acting out of character, sometimes surprised by our own reactions. I’m curious about how this happens, what triggers it, how to be aware of it happening in the moment, how to shift back consciously into adult state when it does happen. It’s an ongoing challenge and yet a great opportunity for personal growth.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.