‘The teacher works with the students; the students work on the language.’ (Caleb Gattegno)
The Silent Way. It sounds like a monastic tradition. As a student at International House Newcastle last week, I was invited by teachers, Sally Muse and Jane-Maria Harding da Rosa, to lead a teaching-English class in…silence. The experiment was to demonstrate and experience the power of silence in a learning process. It can sound counter-intuitive for leaders, managers and trainers who are used to directing, guiding and imparting knowledge. It involves evoking, eliciting and enabling discovery with minimal input and interference from the teacher. I led the class without speaking a word.
So now I’m thinking about leadership, OD, coaching, mentoring and training. The Silent Way calls for discernment, discipline and self-restraint, providing just-enough input where needed so that people are able to focus, grasp, struggle-with and find their own way forward. The image come to mind of a parent stepping back, letting go, coaxing with gestures and smiles as a child takes its first steps. It’s hard at first yet, in overcoming the barriers, in achieving the task, the child finds courage, confidence and new abilities. The parent offers challenge and support but it’s the child who walks.
There are useful parallels here in e.g. coactive leadership, process consultation, non-directive facilitation and coaching. It’s not always about holding absolute silence. It is about having a clear intention; paying attention to who is doing the talking and why; noticing what the impacts are on the relationship, the person’s growth and the outcomes. Very often, listening and minimal prompts are good and enough: e.g. ‘So?’, ‘And?’, ‘Then?’, ‘Who?’, ‘What else?’, ‘Next?’ You can almost see and hear the cogs whirring. Do you ever say too much when silence could achieve a better result?
'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.
It’s different to waiting, constructive waiting, when waiting itself is the wise and expedient thing to do. Procrastination is more about putting things off, not doing the constructive thing, avoiding what we need to or should do. It’s as much a psychological state, an oft debilitating stance, as an action or inaction. It’s the topic of reams of jokes too – suggesting that is has resonance, raising that awkward smile-when-found-out feeling, personally and culturally. We know it and recognise it in ourselves.
Yet why do we do it? Why do we put something off until tomorrow – or forever – that we know, at some level, would be better done today? Think of all those tasks, conversations, unresolved issues and that unfinished business that crowd in on us mentally and emotionally, running like background programmes that drain us. Think of how much energy it takes to avoid, to hold off, to delay rather than to do. We convince ourselves it’s about priorities – ‘the urgent and the important’. Maybe.
Think of it this way. Procrastination achieves or safeguards something for us. It fulfils a conscious or subconscious need. It could be a need to feel safe if a conversation feels too risky. It could be a need to feel self-esteem if a job feels too big or too hard. It could be a need to feel in control if an array of tasks feels too overwhelming. It could be a need to feel purpose-ful if our work seems meaningless. It could be a need to feel loved if a relationship appears at stake. It could be that we are just…tired.
So, what can we do if we notice a spirit of procrastination creeping insidiously into our clients? How can we help break the lethargy, the corrosive downward spiral it can create over time? 1. Acknowledge the need (above). 2. Challenge to decide. (The act of deciding is energising: ‘Optimism of action is better than pessimism of thought.’) 3. Challenge to act. 'Don’t overthink. Just do it – Now.' 4. Offer support to snap out of it, to jolt into action, if the client feels stuck. 5. Notice – and celebrate – achievement.
‘You can’t always control who walks into your life but you can control which window you throw them out of!’ (Anon)
It can be one of the worst feelings. To lose control. To be out of control. It’s also one of the main root causes of anxiety, depression and stress. To have control suggests to have choice, to have power to decide, to have agency, to be free. To lose those things, to have them taken away from us or to discover they lay out of reach for us can feel scary, disorientating and debilitating. It’s a critical consideration in change leadership, coaching, OD and training: how to handle issues of control.
I met with a change team recently that discussed how best to support people through transition. They had a very positive intention and created some great ideas. The critical and missing ingredient was to invite and involve the actual people they aimed to support in choosing what they would find most useful. The simple felt-experience of choosing can create a psychological sense of control in the midst of bewildering and anxiety-provoking change – and that can make all the difference.
I worked with a leadership team that felt overwhelmed by challenges they were facing. Their environment was so turbulent, complex and unpredictable that they struggled to understand it and to know what to do in response. Their felt sense of out-of-control-ness evoked anxiety and that made it difficult to think straight. Their solution lay not in exercising greater control but in letting go of their psychological need for control. They learned adaptive-responsive, emergent leadership instead.
How do you work with issues of control?
People sometimes ask if I have a guiding framework for fields of practice that range from individual and team coaching to organisation development. To be honest, it’s difficult to pin down definitively without becoming simplistic. After all, we work with people, cultures, systems and contexts that are dynamically complex. Different people, situations and times call for different interventions. Here-and-now presence, openness, curiosity and trust are prerequisite conditions for successful outcomes.
That said, I often hold 5 x Rs in mind as potential areas for attention. Each R represents a different and inter-related dimension of experience, awareness and practice that commonly influences a client’s inspiration and effectiveness. The Rs are: Results, Relationships, Resourcefulness, Resilience and Reflexivity (sometimes known as ‘critical reflective practice’ or ‘praxis’). I may explore and apply these dimensions with a client at different levels ranging from intra/inter-personal to organisational.
Results focuses on who or what is most important to a client and other key stakeholders and taps into e.g. vision, values, purpose, strategy, plans and outcomes. Relationships focuses on the quality of client contact with and between key stakeholders and taps into e.g. ethics, cultures, systems, synergies and dependencies. Resourcefulness focuses on solutions, strengths and opportunities in the client/environment and taps into e.g. spirituality, talent, creativity, innovation and networks.
Resilience focuses on client health, wellbeing and sustainability and taps into e.g. motivation, engagement, patterns-trends, agility and flow. Reflexivity focuses on the client’s critical self- and situational awareness, stance and actions and taps into e.g. assumptions, constructs, influences, behaviours and decisions. I place the latter at the centre of this model because, at best, it radically questions, challenges and guides all other dimensions. It lays at the heart of transformational change.
What frameworks do you use and find most useful?
At a crucial moment in World War 2, Winston Churchill is said to have consulted with two of his key advisors on how to proceed in the face of Nazi Germany’s terrifyingly-effective military advances. One proposed (my paraphrase), “We need to become more organised than the Nazis if we are to defeat them.” The other pushed back in response: “No, the key to victory lays in our unique ability to improvise and, thereby, to take the Nazis by surprise. Organisation is the enemy of improvisation.”
What a dilemma. It’s like Myers Briggs J meets P in stark confrontation. The challenge here was how to face a serious existential threat posed by a highly organised enemy and not only to survive it but also to win: whether to out-organise the organised or to out-wit the organised by doing what they least expect. Yet, in that moment, two people looked at the same data-information, made sense of what they saw in different ways, drew different conclusions and proposed very different solutions.
I see parallels in some of the opportunities and challenges that leaders, OD, coaches and trainers face today. In volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous (VUCA) and stressful situations, how often are our observations and decisions - and those of our clients - based subconsciously on (and thereby constrained by) implicit psychological-cultural assumptions and preferences, e.g. for certainty-structure vs fluidity-agility, rather than necessarily on what the situation itself calls for per se?
Take, for instance, restructuring and re-engineering projects to solve issues where different types of conversations and relationships could have been less costly and more effective; or formal change management programmes that adhere to strict policies and procedures whereas innovative change leadership could have achieved far better outcomes. This begs important questions: What lies beneath different analyses and ideas for solutions? How can we work with clients to raise them into awareness?
‘Britons’ top three favourite accents are Irish, Welsh and Geordie. The least favourite are Brummie, Scouse and Cockney. People with a Yorkshire and Welsh twang sound the happiest followed by Scouse. The Southeast sound the most intelligent and Glaswegians sound the angriest.’ (Howarth, Dec 2017)
Isn’t it interesting that accents carry such connotations and evoke such feelings? I arrived some years ago at London School of Theology in the South of England as a new student. It was a daunting experience: that first-day-at-school feeling. At the first evening meal, I heard another student speak with a Northern accent and instantly connected with him. We became great friends. It was as if our common accent gave us a deep point of contact – a ‘secure base’ (Bowlby) in an alien environment.
Accents, like other cultural distinctives, create and sustain a sense of unique identity and belonging. They distinguish 'us' from 'them', creating a socio-psychological boundary, an existential and emotional safety barrier, a metaphorical extended family, in the midst of a larger and potentially overwhelming complexity. I remember moving to a new area to engage in community development work. I had to learn the local accent convincingly in order to be accepted by local people. Accent influenced trust.
Accents can serve as a useful metaphor for cultural issues in organisations too. Here are some useful questions for leaders, OD practitioners and coaches: What functions as a secure base for people in this team/organisation? What brings hope and fulfilment here - or provokes anxiety or resistance if threatened? Where, when and how have helpful boundaries in this organisation become unhelpful barriers? Where may I need to learn a new ‘accent’ in order to build credibility and relationship?
‘Organisation Development’s (OD) goal is an inspiring and effective organisation’.
We can view OD as perspective: a way of looking at people and organisations and posing provocative, searching, stretching questions, e.g. ‘When you look at this person, team or organisation, what do you see?’; ‘What are you (and others) noticing and not-noticing?’; ‘What stands out to you (and to others) as important and valuable here – and why?’
We can view it as critically-reflexive: a way of surfacing and testing oft-hidden personal, cultural-systemic and contextual beliefs, values and assumptions, e.g. ‘How are you (or are others) construing this situation, e.g. via metaphor/narrative?’; ‘What enabling or limiting assumptions are we making here?’; ‘Who or what is influencing who or what – and how?’
We can view it as reframing: a way of re-thinking and creating paradigm shifts, e.g. by viewing a situation through different frames (e.g. psychological; political; financial; legal-regulatory); flipping between vantage points, e.g. personal; team; organisation; other stakeholders; shifting the conversation from problem-solving to innovative solutions-focus.
We can view it as co-creative: a radically-relational way of working, high in support and challenge, that engages diverse people and teams in powerful conversations that engender shared focus, insight, energy and action. It involves listening, visioning, influencing and sense-making as collaborative ventures, releasing talent-potential and building trust.
What’s your experience of OD? What has it looked like? What difference has it made?
'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.
‘Is that sufficiently unclear?’ (Richard Gold)
I took part in a fascinating workshop with Richard Gold this week. Richard is a Lego Serious Play facilitator who uses Lego as a colourful, creative, engaging and experiential tool to raise awareness, evoke insight and generate ideas with individuals, teams and groups. The method involves touching, moving, doing – physically – rather than simply talking about. It is a fun, visceral method that plays with metaphor and imagination and invites experimentation and team collaboration.
At each stage of the process, Richard offers minimal guidance, simple prompts, then asks in provocative spirit, ‘Is that sufficiently unclear?’ What a great question. It creates optimal space for serendipitous new experiments, insights and ideas to surface and evolve without being directive or prescriptive. It provides just-enough; inviting team participation, courage and co-creation. It reminds me of Henry Mintzberg’s ‘emergence’ – take a step forward and see what comes into view.
So that got me thinking about leadership, OD, coaching and training. There are situations where directive and prescriptive interventions are entirely appropriate. Yet how often – perhaps in our desire to impress, be helpful or achieve the outcomes we hope for – do we exercise too much control over the person, task or process? How often, in doing so, do we limit the potential for personal/team initiative, ownership, discovery and innovation? Are you sufficiently un-clear?
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in developing critical reflective practice.