A view across the barricades
Wright, N. (2022), 'A View Across the Barricades', Coaching and Life, 25 April.
The world is spinning – again – into binary polarities and turbulent chaos. It’s as if, once the unifying global scare of Covid had faded out of the headlines (at least in the wealthiest and most well-vaccinated countries), we could revert back to our traditional patterns of fighting between ourselves over national and international power, resources, control and influence. Gone are the utopian predictions in the midst of the pandemic that humanity would somehow be different now, as if Covid could have altered something deep in our collective spirit, psyche and DNA. We are still who we are.
As soon as the first Russian tanks appeared on the borders of Ukraine, we defaulted back to that strange yet familiar place where we find the solace of solidarity in the face of a threat. There are lessons from history that could help us here; not least from the near-distant Brexit experience of the UK and European Union (EU) where, paradoxically, the conduct and behaviour of the Remain lobby arguably did more to ensure the British-Exit than did that of Leave. I want to suggest there’s always a risk that we inadvertently create, strengthen or contribute to the very thing we are trying to stop.
I first wrote on this theme back in 2003 for the UK’s Institute of Leadership and Management’s Edge journal in an article entitled, Blue Rabbits – Intervention Paradox in Leadership. The title came from the ironic instruction: ‘Don’t think of blue rabbits’ which, almost invariably, brings images of blue rabbits to mind. It has since become a recurring focus in my coaching and organisation development (OD) practice, enabling people to develop greater critical reflexivity and, thereby, better results. ‘What’s your contribution to what you are experiencing?’ can be a powerful and searching question.
A challenge, which echoes Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:3-5, is that it call for a willingness to go deep in critical self-examination – and that can trigger defensive routines. It’s easier to divide the world, including our own personal and cultural experience, into black-white, good-evil, and to project outwards onto other people or circumstances. It releases us from the painful, anxious or inconvenient discomfort of accountability. Critical reflexivity can, however, enable a person or group to discern and differentiate their own contribution from that of others, e.g. ‘It’s about me, but it’s not only about me’.
In my experience, it can truly transform awareness, relationships and situations. Here are some sample questions I may use with individuals and teams. I would frame them as an invitation to healthy self-exploration and discovery – prayerfully with humility, courage, challenge and support:
- What am I noticing?
- What is holding my attention, and why?
- What am I not noticing?
- What am I assuming?
- Who or what matters most to me in this?
- What am I hoping for?
- What do I fear most?
- What seems self-evident to me, and why?
- How am I feeling, and why?
- What response am I evoking in others?
- What am I avoiding?
- On what am I willing to take a stance?
- What am I willing to take responsibility for?
- What are my needs?
- What will I do if I feel threatened or defensive?
- How can we hold robust conversations that feel safe?