‘Being in the question is wondering what things mean instead of assuming you already know…It involves treating your first thought as a hypothesis rather than as a statement of truth…It means being willing to learn something new about a situation. The first step is to consider the possibility that the situation may not be as it seems.’
(Latting & Ramsey, 2009)
I was encouraged to glance at this book, Reframing Change, recently after having posted a blog on a similar theme. I love the idea of ‘being in the question’. Posing a question is the act of projecting an inquiry outwards. By contrast, being in the question is about our own presence, attitude and stance – a spirit of humility, openness and curiosity – and a willingness to invite challenge.
It’s so different to proposing a solution. At times, we jump to answers too quickly, draw conclusions too rashly and potentially miss a deeper meaning, a greater significance that could change our thinking, our lives, our organisations, our world. This is a high cost of our do-it-now, instant, everything-in-the-moment, high speed culture. We lose the ability to reflect and to…....wait.
Perhaps being in the question is one reason why e.g. Jesus and Socrates had such a profound impact. Perhaps it is why coaching and therapy can be so transformative. Perhaps it is why rediscovering not-knowing is a theme in so many books on leadership and change today. Two questions: How far are you ‘being in the question’? How are you enabling others to be so too?
I write, therefore I think. I guess you could call that Descartes for Introverts. A journal editor contacted me this week to invite me to draft an article. The guidelines propose having a clear idea of content and structure from the outset. I get the point, I see the logic, but I’m aware I don’t write like that. I don’t think I even think like that. Often I don’t know what I think, what I want to say, until I start to write. This means that, for me, writing is an exciting adventure of exploration, discovery and promise. It’s as if each word, each sentence, opens the way for what could emerge, what could surprise, what will reveal itself, next.
I sometimes experience a similar phenomenon when I lead, teach, coach, facilitate. In the past, I would prepare…and prepare…so that I would be, well… – prepared. Now I notice I’m more interested in preparing myself. How to be present, curious, open to the person, open to the group, open to God, open to the moment: noticing what is preoccupying my thoughts, how I am feeling emotionally and physically, what is holding my attention, what I’m not noticing, what stories I’m telling myself. It's about learning to risk just one step forward with awareness, intention and belief in what could unfold, what will become, next.
This attitude, this stance, is invitational by nature. It reaches out to inquire, share, collaborate and co-create. It’s so different to a defensive, defended posture, trying to hold the ‘other’ or the future at bay to protect and preserve. It’s a willingness to be vulnerable, not-know, let go of control, move out and trust. It’s not easy to sustain this state if work and relationships feel pressured and stressed. It's easy to fall back. Yet it can be a place of great fruitfulness, alive and life-giving. It can be a sacred space where love thrives and where hope is truly transformational. It calls for a leap of faith. Just one step. Next.
What is real, what is true, how can we know? These are questions that have vexed philosophers for centuries. In more recent times, we have seen an increasing convergence between philosophy and psychology in fields such as social constructionism and existential therapy. How we experience and make sense of being, meaning and purpose is inextricably linked to how we behave, what we choose and what stance we take in the world.
As a Christian and psychological coach, I’m intrigued by how these fundamental issues, perspectives and actions intertwine with my beliefs, spirituality and practice. Descartes once wrote, ‘If you would be a real seeker after truth, you must at least once in your life doubt, as far as possible, all things.’ It’s as if we must be prepared to suspend all assumptions about ‘what is’, to explore all possibilities and dare to think the unthinkable in order to grow and make our best contribution.
Things are not always as they at first appear. There are sometimes multiple explanations for the same phenomenon, depending on the frame of reference we or others use to interpret it (see, for instance, Gareth Morgan’s seminal work, Images of Organisation, 1986). We are sometimes blinded to what’s in front of us by our prejudices, preconceptions, cultural constraints or rigid views of the world. It can be hard to maintain healthy scepticism without cynicism.
I see it with clients, sometimes in myself too. A sense of being trapped by a fixed Gestalt, a cognitive distortion, an inherited or learned belief system. An inability to see, to recognise the box that we’re in, never mind to see or think outside of it. An avoidance of deep, difficult questions because of the discomfort, confusion or anxiety they may evoke. If we’re not careful, if we can’t find the right help when we need it, it may limit our lives and our learning.
I think this is where coaching can play a very important role, helping pose and address some deep questions. Nick Bolton commented insightfully in Coaching Today that, ‘To explore a coaching issue existentially is to understand the relationship that the presenting problem has to the human condition to which it is a response, and to remain focused on enabling a change of perspective that allows the client to move past their current challenge.’
He also provided some helpful examples: ‘For instance, how is a client’s procrastination around something that seems to matter to her a failure to remember that life comes to an end? How is a client’s need to be unconditionally loved by his partner an attempt to deal with existential rather than interpersonal isolation? (And the solutions are very different things). How is someone’s lethargy simply a part of their fear of taking responsibility for their life?’ (July 2013, p17)
A metaphysical, existential or theological dimension can shift the entire paradigm of the coaching conversation. The question of whether a client should apply for this or that job is influenced by her sense of purpose. If she is willing to consider that God may exist and have a plan for her life, the whole situational context will change. It can be a dizzying and exciting experience, yet it’s really a question of how courageous and radical we and the client are prepared to be.
I took part in an excellent mediation workshop this week run by Karen Bailey, a talented and experienced coach, mediator and trainer in this field (http://www.karenbaileymediation.com/). I found it interesting to explore different models and approaches ranging from arbitration and advocacy through to non-directive facilitation. It resonated for me professionally because, as an OD practitioner, I’m often invited to coach others on conflict resolution, to do teambuilding where unresolved conflict is a factor affecting team morale and performance, or to act as a third party helping others (e.g. line managers and staff, or peers) to address and resolve stuck-ness or tensions between them. It also resonates for me spiritually because the notion of mediation is at the heart of my Christian beliefs. The biblical characterisation of Jesus Christ as mediator between God and humanity is the cornerstone of Christian theology, a role that Christians too are called to emulate and follow as peace-builders in the world.
The model we explored and practised emphasised the importance of creating a semi-structured space for parties to listen to each other. If they can genuinely hear each other, there is scope for establishing empathy and reaching shared solutions. This involves the willingness of all parties to engage in open, direct and…potentially scary…dialogue. The mediator speaks to this fear dynamic explicitly: ‘This is going to feel very uncomfortable, but we’re here because we believe the outcome will be worth it.’If the mediator and participants can learn to manage their own anxiety by facing it head on, they may also feel able to lower their defences and hear each other. We looked at four conditions that enable this type of mediation to be successful: the mediator is impartial; the mediation is confidential; participation is voluntary; outcomes are self-determined. These condidtions provide a basis for establishing clarity and for contracting with oneself, participants and sponsors beforehand.
Karen explains why these same conditions can sometimes make it difficult for internal HR (or OD) practitioners to fulfil this role within their own organisation or business partnering arena effectively. (For further comment on this issue, see: http://www.karenbaileymediation.com/transforming-hr-practitioners-into-mediators/). We also looked at four aspects of participant experience and perspective that provide a content-orientated focus for the mediation: each participant’s Story; each participant’s felt Impacts; each participant’s Needs; each participant’s Goals (making the acronym SING). The mediator meets with each participant to tease out these aspects beforehand. The participant’s story is his or her own subjective experience of the situation; impacts are what he/she is feeling emotionally; needs are unfulfilled desires or challenged values; goals are the outcomes each person hopes for. ‘What’s going on for me’, ‘How this is impacting me’ and ‘Why this is important to me’.
At the start of the session with all parties in the room, the mediator reiterates the process and invites the participants to (a) be honest and direct with each other and (b) listen and show respect to each other. The mediator may invite each party to make an opening statement and then allow the conversation to free-flow. The tricky part I found as mediator-in-practice was when to intervene and not to intervene, how to intervene in such a way that facilitates rather than interferes with the process, how to manage my own anxieties if ferocious conflict emerges, if one party appears bullied or if the conflict became directed at me.
Karen offered some useful ideas…simple in principle, harder to do in practice! The mediator can summarise, reflect back…’This is what I’m hearing…’, ‘Sounds like…’, enabling the participants to feel heard before moving on. The mediator can call for a break, allowing mediator and participants to step back, take time out if they need to cool down or reflect before re-engaging.
The mediator can co-facilitate with another mediator, creating the benefit of two perspectives, insights and interventions, especially valuable if one of the mediators feels hooked, emotionally destabilised or disorientated by something in the conversation and needs to detach in order to re-engage. The real challenge, opportunity and skill lies in enabling the participants to establish and maintain high quality contact with each other, even if that contact feels loaded with intense emotion. It’s a process that involves faith, faith that if the participants will find a way to hear and connect with each other, that they may feel empathy and will move towards finding their own solutions. It also demands that the mediator be fully present in the room, fully in role and fully in contact with participants. The session ends with participants discussing and agreeing their own way forward. This kind of mediation clearly demands patience and courage but the benefits can be transformative.
Did you make New Year resolutions this year? The new year marks a symbolic new beginning, an opportunity to leave the past behind and to create a fresh and hope-filled future. Our resolutions focus our attention and efforts on things we want to do or to change for the better. We could think of them as goals or aspirations, a chance to break a habit or to do something new.
There are principles we can draw from coaching that improve our chances of success. For example, if I focus on something that really matters to me, I’m more likely to be motivated to achieve it than if I focus on something more trivial. So I can test my goals with something like, ‘On a scale of 1-10, how important is this to me?’ or ‘What would make this really worthwhile?’
The clearer my goal is, the more likely I am to achieve it. Say, for example, if I decide to get fitter (one of my actual goals for this year), I’m more likely to do something about it if I’m more specific, e.g. I will cycle 10 miles every weekend, or 500 miles by the end of the year. I can make myself accountable by making it public and creating a visual, colourful wall chart to mark progress.
I’m also more likely to achieve it if I consider what could prevent me doing it. This is a personal reality check. What will get in the way? What will stop me achieving it? I can ask myself questions such as ‘What got in the way when I’ve tried to do similar things in the past?’, ‘What has helped me persevere in the past?’, ‘What will I do practically to overcome obstacles this time?’
So for instance, since one of my resolutions is to get fitter by cycling, what will I do if it rains or if I’m too tired? I need to make contingency plans. ‘If it rains on the day I plan to cycle, I will swim 25 lengths at the pool instead’, or ‘If I’m too tired, I will cycle on the following day instead.’ It builds in flexibility that helps me to stay on track and avoid losing momentum.
Enlisting others to support us can make a great difference. This is one of the benefits of doing things with a peer group, people sharing similar interests or goals. Alternatively, we may find someone who is prepared to cheer us on as we make progress, challenge us if we go astray or encourage us if we start to lose heart. Seek out e.g. family, colleagues or friends – or God.
Finally, make a point of choosing motivational rewards for yourself as you achieve key milestones on route and the final goal itself. These rewards enable us to celebrate progress, are a way of pausing to notice how far we have moved on and incentivise us for the next steps. It’s about maintaining focus, energy and determination, often over a period of time. Keep on keeping on!
Critical reflexivity…hmm…what’s that? Sounds complicated. I was re-reading one of my favourite books, An Invitation to Social Construction (2009) by Kenneth Gergen this morning which introduces this concept with the following explanation:
‘Critical reflectivity is the attempt to place one’s premises into question, to suspend the ‘obvious’, to listen to alternative framings of reality and to grapple with the comparative outcomes of multiple standpoints…this means an unrelenting concern with the blinding potential of the ‘taken for granted’…we must be prepared to doubt everything we have accepted as real, true, right, necessary or essential’.
I find this interesting, stimulating and exciting. It’s about journeying into not-knowing, entertaining the possibility that there could be very different ways of perceiving, framing and experiencing issues or phenomena. It’s about a radical openness to fresh possibilities, new horizons, hitherto unimaginable ideas. It’s a recognition that all assumptions and preconceptions about reality could be limiting or flawed.
I’ve found this critical reflexivity principle invaluable in my coaching and OD practice. How often people and organisations get stuck, trapped, by fixed ways of seeing and approaching things. The same cultural influences that provide stability can blind us to alternative possibilities. The gift of the coach or consultant is to loosen the ground, release energy and insight, create fresh options for being and action.
It certainly resonates with my reading of the gospels. Jesus Christ had a way of confronting the worldviews, traditions and apparent ‘common sense’ outlook of those he encountered in such a way that often evoked confusion, anger or frustration. It’s as if he could perceive things others couldn’t see. He had a way of reframing things that it left people feeling disorientated. He operated in a very different paradigm.
This is one point at which spirituality meets philosophy and psychology. I too get easily trapped in my own constructs so I pray to God to open my eyes, to reveal new insights and unrecognised opportunities. Jesus’ words speak to me with renewed impact. He came ‘to proclaim freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, to set captives free.’ It’s about fresh awareness, deep liberation and a renewed life.
Management literature is filled with guidance and case studies on how to change organisational culture. Some view culture as an overarching descriptor of ‘how we do things round here’. Others view it as a shared underlying belief system that influences behaviour and practice.
I think there’s some truth in both these viewpoints. They point to the shared nature of culture, that is, it includes the individual yet extends beyond towards a group: its values and ways of acting. It’s this shared dimension that differentiates culture from individual thinking or behaving.
Yet it still feels like something is missing. Culture is a felt experience. Observing culture, studying it, analysing it, isn’t the same as directly experiencing it. It’s something about what it feels like, what it means personally, existentially to be part of something bigger than myself.
And yet it isn’t just something I feel. It’s about a mood, a shared experience, something we within the culture feel, together. It’s an intangible phenomenon, a group dynamic, that feels tangible. It guides us, moves us, motivates us in subconscious ways that feel natural and mysterious.
This is one of the reasons why culture change programmes are so problematic. If culture was simply about thinking or behaviour, it would be possible to devise methods that motivate and enable change in these areas. In some situations, that may well be all that is needed.
In transformational change, however, we must pay attention to deep rooted existential issues, psychodynamic and social psychological phenomena, cultural climate and experience. It’s about working-with, certainly not doing-to, and that demands humility, wisdom and patience.
‘My car is red.’ ‘Big deal,’ you may say, ‘my car is blue, green or silver.’ On the face of it, ‘my car is red’ simply sounds like a point for information, principally about the colour of the car. But is that really all it conveys? The relationship between language, culture and personal constructs is complex and profound. ‘My car is red’ conveys all kind of hidden personal and cultural messages.
‘My’ relates to ‘I’. It says something about how I see myself in relation to others, my ‘self’ as separate and distinct from others. It’s a culturally-constructed ‘I’. ‘My’ says something about possession. I consider the car in some way ‘belongs’ to me. This notion of possession, of belonging, is a cultural construct. It’s about the relationship between ‘me’ and ‘other’.
It points beyond my personal beliefs, my personal constructs, to a wider cultural context, how the relationship between people and objects is perceived and organised in my cultural environment. It has political and economic implications, touches on issues of rights and legality, shared implicit values, rules and behaviours that the culture I live within accepts and endorses.
‘Car’. At a literal level, I picture the car and I see an object that has a particular function, a mode of transport. As I explore my ‘car’ phenomenologically, I realise it evokes feelings of comfort, convenience, freedom, enjoyment for me. Culturally, it also represents something about relative wealth, social status, mobility. It's an object and a personal-cultural symbol.
If I had never seen or heard of 'car' before, or any such vehicle, and encountered one out of context, I could only guess what it is, what it is designed for. I would have no idea how to operate it, what its capabilities are, what significance it carries in my actual cultural environment. In other words, the whole idea of 'car', what it means, is culturally constructed.
‘Is red’. This attributes properties to the car, as if ‘redness’ is inherent to the car, an actual colour of the car. It’s about the car, it’s not about me. It’s a metaphysical view, how I believe things are in the world. To be more accurate, I could say, I experience the car as ‘red’, where ‘red’ is the colour I experience in the brain when I see the car in white light. Is the car still red when it’s dark?
But ‘red’ is a social construct too. We use red to denote a colour, a label that distinguishes one colour, or a group of similar colours that fall broadly into ‘red’ within my culture, from other colours. I don’t simply see and categorise colours at a personal level, I live within a culture that distinguishes between and organises colour categories in very specific ways.
I inherit the language I use, language that creates its own ways of framing and categorising. I also inherit my own cultural environment and history. My thinking and experience is profoundly influenced by these inheritances. At the same time, I have my own unique experience of the world. How I act in the world shapes language and culture too, it’s a mutually-influencing process.
So, ‘my car is red’. Simple to say, profoundly revealing when unpacked. It says something about me, how I perceive and experience the world and myself in the world, and also something about the beliefs, constructs, values and practices of my wider cultural environment. Revealing such assumptions, opening ourselves to re-examination, can be a radical route to transformation.
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.