'Worthwhile elephants make it real.'
‘Of course.’ I can hear you thinking. ‘Tell us something we don’t already know.’ Or, perhaps – and quite reasonably so – you are wondering what on earth I am talking about. If, by chance, I have spiked your curiosity, let me break it down into 3 parts that form important ingredients of inspiring and effective conversations at work: worthwhile; elephants; make it real. It’s about a degree of focus and quality of contact that can release energy, engender engagement and achieve great results.
First: worthwhile. ‘If we were to be having a really useful conversation, what would we be talking about?’ (Claire Pedrick). ‘What outcome from this conversation will mean our time together will have been well spent?’ Or, ‘First things first – begin with the end in mind.’ (Stephen Covey). The aim here is to clarify goals and aspirations, test implicit assumptions and co-create focus. It addresses the question: ‘Of all the things we could spend time doing together, what would make this valuable?’
Second: elephants. ‘The most valuable thing any of us can do is find a way to say the things that can’t be said.’ (Susan Scott). It’s about naming the proverbial elephants in the room or, in Gestalt, speaking the unspoken, saying the un-said. ‘What are we not talking about that, if we were to talk about it, would release fresh insight and energy in this conversation…and in this relationship too?’ This is an invitation to ‘radical candour’ (Kim Scott), to practise courage, disclosure and openness.
Third: make it real. ‘What matters most to you in this?’ It’s about being real…doing real…avoiding an unhelpful, distracting dance around the most important questions and issues in the room. Cultural complexities surface here: how to hold conversations that are open and honest and, at the same time, respectful of different cultural nuances and norms. The core principle here is ‘challenge with support’ (Ian Day & John Blakey): having the conversations we need to have to move things forward.
Have you ever felt truly seen? Perhaps the romantic gaze of a secret admirer from across the room? Perhaps a boss, colleague or friend who acknowledged your best efforts, talents and achievements? Perhaps an encounter where you felt exposed, vulnerable – and yet accepted? There’s something about being seen that can be and feel tremendously affirming, reassuring and life-giving. In some cultures, it’s as if we don’t truly exist until seen by another; whether that be e.g. God, a lover, a friend or a family member. In some deep existential way, I know that I am because you perceive me.
Consider the alternative: how it is to be and to feel unseen, ignored or invisible. It’s as if, somehow, our very humanity, value and existence can be unrecognised, marginalised or diminished. It can feel socially, psychologically and existentially alienating. I was struck, therefore, by the moving example of a student friend in the Philippines this week who spontaneously stepped outside her own world. This girl visited and said hello to some of the poorest people who live in shacks at the roadside beside her college. In this simple-yet-profound act she saw the unseen and, in doing so, the invisible became visible.
I believe there are parallels in our organisations here. I think back to some amazing leaders and colleagues who have seen me, often spotting gifting and potential that was not-yet-alive in my own awareness. I also think back to places that have felt stifled by hierarchy and bureaucracy, where people were viewed by job titles and as employees rather than as whole, creative, wonderfully-complex human beings. As leader, coach, OD or trainer, who do you see and not-see? What have been your best/worst examples of seeing and being-seen? What can you do to see the unseen..?
Who or what is important to you? Who or what do you value most? I’ve heard it said that we can know who or what we value in practice, which sometimes differs from who or what we value in principle, simply by looking at our diaries and bank account statements to see who and what we spend our actual time with and money on. It’s a crude measure but can be revealing – especially as we can be prone as people and groups to deceive ourselves by believing what we want to believe.
In Britain, we often value e.g. individuality, effort and achievement. You could think of this as affirming: standing on our own two feet, trying hard and reaching stretching goals that are perceived as worthwhile by UK culture and the wider nation-community. I’ve heard some people say that, as British, we are only impressed by a person, team or country that manages to achieve something better than we believe we could have achieved ourselves. ‘I could have done that’ is a subtle put-down.
Against this backdrop, I was challenged and inspired last week by a girl from a very different culture who discovered that a fellow student had been excluded from taking part in a drama production team because she had some difficulties with her speaking. This girl instinctively showed empathy and compassion, valued the person, reached out, drew her in and modelled social inclusivity rather than simple task achievement. I wondered what I would have done. She reminded me of Jesus.
Why is this so significant? Our values reveal and shape something profoundly important about who we are in the world. They influence our stance, focus, decisions and boundaries. I’ve often found that working with values as a leader, OD, coach or trainer has had a transformational impact on people, teams and organisations. There’s something about, ‘What really matters to you in this?’ that can feel so much deeper than, ‘What are your goals?’ So – who or what matters most to you?
What sense do you make of categorical, definitive statements? For example, ‘This book is excellent.’ ‘That person is annoying.’ Could it be that such truth claims say more about the person making them, perhaps also about the beliefs and values of the cultural worlds they inhabit, than who or what they are referring to? In coaching, what could they reveal about embedded, hidden and often subconscious assumptions, perspectives, constructs, needs, hopes, fears and expectations?
I had a difficult conversation tonight. Some close neighbours have 2 dogs that they leave outside barking and a son that kicks his football against the wall, fence and bins. The noise, the persistent intrusive disturbance, drives me crazy. I tried to tackle it in polite conversation but it ended badly. The neighbour was angry and frustrated with me and slammed the door with a loud bang as the conversation came to an abrupt end. I walked away feeling shaken, disappointed and stressed.
It is easy to imagine the kind of statements we could now be making about each other inwardly and, perhaps, outwardly in conversation with others. ‘That bloke is so inconsiderate!’ ‘That guy is so over-sensitive.’ It’s as if the statements we project convey objective, incontrovertible truths about the other, statements of what-is rather than statements of subjective opinion, of cultural possibility and, at a deeper level, of veiled revelations of how we are feeling and the pain and hurt of unmet need.
I worked with one leader, Richard Marshall, who took this principle very seriously. Every time I or another made a definitive statement, he would challenge us to personalise it. So, for example, ‘This meeting is a waste of time’ would be reframed as something like, ‘I feel frustrated in this meeting and would prefer to do X’. The effect was transformational. It surfaced underlying values and needs and made them explicit. So, is my neighbour unreasonable? I don’t know. I just need peace and quiet.
What’s your angle? We use this expression to check out a perspective, a way of seeing things, of presenting things. The angle itself is designed to convey something as interesting, eye-catching, novel, unique. There’s another way of thinking about ‘angle’ too. A friend commented yesterday that, if we look at a protractor, we see how a slight shift at the centre leads to a significantly different end point at the perimeter. The shift represents a change of direction and trajectory.
So here we are at the start of a New Year. The decisions, the angles, we take, here and now, will influence where we finish in the future. They may seem small and insignificant in the moment yet, each time we change our angle, the direction in which we face, we change our trajectory too. In many aspects of life, the cause-and-effect consequences are not as linear and predictable as lines on a mathematical tool. Nevertheless, it’s as if every choice and decision, in some way, counts.
We can also look at our lives, circumstances, choices and decisions, from different angles. Leaders, coaches, OD and trainers refer to this as ‘reframing’. It could involve, say, looking at ourselves, our relationships and situations through different metaphorical frames or lenses, from different angles or vantage points, from different points in time or stakeholder perspectives etc. This can open up new insights and possibilities that may otherwise lay obscure or hidden to us.
I believe this is where coaching to develop critical reflective practice can be so important, valuable and useful. It can enable us to grow in awareness of our beliefs, values, assumptions and preoccupations – our default angles, if you like. It can enable us to consider fresh options and implications that will guide our focus, attention, behaviour, decisions and actions. It can enable us to live authentic lives and to work with greater insight and freedom. So – what’s your angle?
We were talking about focus in leadership and coaching and my colleague, Pav, looked at me intently and said, quite simply, ‘Keep your eye on the squirrel!’ It did make me laugh. It’s a fun, colourful image that cautions us to stay focused, to avoid getting side-tracked, to beware of – like Alice in Wonderland – falling down proverbial rabbit holes (if you can forgive the mixed metaphor). Or to quote guru Stephen Covey: ‘The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.’
I can see the sense in this. If we work to achieve a vision, to fulfil a strategy, it can enable us to be effective and efficient, to prioritise and reach goals. It can also help us to avoid dissipating energy, wasting resources. It’s a reason why, when coaching, I will ask clients questions such as, ‘What are we here to do?’, ‘What are you hoping for?’, ‘What is possible if we do this well?’, ‘What would a great outcome look and feel like?’, ‘How will we know when you have reached it?’
The flip side is that we can become so focused, fixed, planned, organised, that we may miss all kinds of serendipitous adventures and emergent opportunities that arise. A friend, Rob, commented on this recently: ‘When we look back in life, many of our best relationships and experiences came as a result of things which, on the face of it, at the time, appeared to go horribly wrong.’ A question for leaders, coaches and clients could be: how to be well-focused – and yet open to the potential of each moment?
Finally, what appears to us to be 'the main thing', the most important thing, depends a lot on what we believe, our values, how we are feeling, our cultural paradigm and what frame of reference we adopt. A shift in language, perspective or circumstance can change the whole way in which we view and construe something or someone. A related challenge for leaders, coaches and clients may be, therefore: how to keep our eyes on the squirrel – without becoming blinded or fixated by 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.
Moving from city to village was a big shift. All kinds of changes. On arrival, we took my 7 year old daughter to visit the local village school. Teachers took her around enthusiastically, explaining how the classes work, introducing her to other children, showing her the school equipment, facilities etc. On leaving, I asked her how she felt, what her impressions were. She replied, ‘Great!’ I asked her what she liked most – and she responded immediately, ‘The kids get to wear their own shoes!!’
This young girl came from a school that had a strict dress code. Black shoes were mandatory. The idea that she could choose what to wear at this new school completely transfixed and excited her. Nobody had mentioned shoes or uniform as we had taken the school tour yet this is what she noticed. In fact, it was as if she hadn’t seen or heard anything else. She noticed what she valued, what mattered most to her, and what stood out in stark contrast to what she was used to.
Gestalt psychology talks about this idea in terms of ‘figure’ and ‘ground’. ‘Figure’ is whatever stands out to us, whatever holds our attention, in the moment. ‘Ground’ is the backdrop that, in that same moment, lays largely out of awareness. It raises some very interesting and important questions such as, ‘What are we noticing – and why?’; ‘What are we aware of?’ and, conversely, ‘What are we not noticing?’; ‘What are we not aware of…e.g. that we may do well to pay attention to?’
What we notice – and what meaning we attribute to it – is influenced by our interests, values, cultures, preferences and concerns. We don’t simply see what is there, as if in some objective sense. We focus, filter and construe what we see so that different people see different things in the same situation, or the same person may see different things in the same situation at a different time. So, as leaders, coaches and OD – what is holding your attention? What are you not noticing?
What do you really believe? It’s sometimes hard to know. We can believe something absolutely, with real passion and conviction, and yet act completely differently. The really weird thing is that we can convince ourselves that we’re living consistently with what we believe and yet the behavioural evidence, the decisions we take, the time and energy and resources we spend on people and things, can tell a very different story. Our human ability to deceive ourselves is quite remarkable.
Against this backdrop, words like integrity, genuineness, authenticity and congruence spring to mind as a stark contrast, posing a powerful and deep challenge to who we are and how we conduct ourselves in the world. We tend to think of these words as inner qualities, personal attributes, the idea of someone walking their personal talk whether anyone notices it or not. Yet they are often formed, outworked and sustained in the context of complex situations and relationships.
In this sense, we could consider the integrity phenomenon as having social and cultural as well as personal dimensions. It’s about the individual but it’s not only about the individual. So we can ask: Who best models integrity for us? If we live seek to live with integrity in all aspects of our lives, what impact and influence does that have on those around us? What cultural beliefs and values nurture and support it? What social conditions provoke and inspire it, often against all the odds?
What does this mean for leaders, OD and coaches? Here are some ideas: 1. Clarify our beliefs and values: what matters most to us? 2. Invite people to support and challenge us when we risk dissonance, self-deception or slip up on route. 3. Model, inspire, support and affirm integrity in behaviour, relationships, decision-making and culture. 4. Support and challenge, not collude, when working with clients. 5. Love, honour –and forgive – when we and others get it wrong.
Jackie LeFevre of Magma Effect is an inspiring and thoughtful guru in the values-related field. One of the things Jackie talks about is the importance of exploring the values and beliefs that lay behind people’s actions and behaviours. Two people could behave the same way but with very different reasons for doing it. Dave believes that people should arrive at meetings on time. For him, it’s about ensuring that time spent at meetings is efficient and effective. Sandra also believes it’s important to arrive on time. For her, it is about showing personal respect for colleagues in the room.
Why is this important? Covey in The Speed of Trust observed that, ‘We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions.’ The risk here is that I assume your intention from your behaviour then respond and relate to you as if my assumption (that is, my own belief about you in that situation) is true. What is more, we tend to notice things that confirm and reinforce the belief we already hold and don’t notice things that would challenge or contradict it. All kinds of misunderstandings can occur and these can prove limiting or damaging to relationships.
This tendency is exacerbated if we are feeling tired, pressured or stressed. Somebody walks past my desk who normally stops and speaks to me. This time, they don’t speak. In fact, they don’t even look at me. I begin to hypothesise. If I’m already feeling anxious about the relationship, I may start to dream up an elaborate fantasy: ‘I’m sure they’re angry with me.’ ‘It’s because they didn’t like that email I sent.’ It’s a classic example of cognitive distortion. If we notice we are doing it, e.g. if we think we are reading the other person’s mind, it can really help if we simply stop and…breathe.
I discovered a useful ‘3 Hypotheses Technique’ in Latting & Ramsey’s Reframing Change that can be used to surface such assumptions and open up alternatives. The first step is to take note of what we assume the person’s action or behaviour means. The second is to assume the person has a positive intention. The third is to assume the person is being driven by external circumstances. If we are able to entertain the possibility that more than one of these could be true, it can create sufficient psychological and emotional shift to enable us to respond with far greater reality and freedom.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.