‘To demand perfection from someone is to crush them.’ (Joyce Huggett)
I’m a recovering perfectionist. Perhaps I’ll never fully get over it, but the first step is at least to admit it. In the olden days when we used to write things like letters, essays and reports on paper with a typewriter or pen (some of you won’t remember that far back), I can recall clearly a sense of dismay if I made a mistake at the end of a sheet, and ripping it up to start all over again. The thought of a crossed-out word, or Tippex, was far too painful to contemplate. Everything had to be…perfect.
This kind of perfectionist streak can be a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it can drive us to achieve dizzying heights that would otherwise seem impossible. On the other hand, it can leave us permanently frustrated, disappointed or exhausted. We may spend inordinate amounts of time and energy on tasks and relationships, where ‘good enough’ really would have been good and enough. There’s an opportunity cost too: I’m wasting resources that would be better used elsewhere.
Yet perhaps the most dangerous dynamic is if and when we begin to impose those same standards, expectations and demands on other people; irrespective of what the situation or relationship itself calls for. This is a risk of ‘red pen leadership’ – where a leader or manager (or, perhaps, parent or partner) takes issue with every slightest detail in another person’s e.g. appearance, performance or behaviour, to the point where the other person is left feeling damaged, diminished or despairing.
If you have perfectionist tendencies or are leading-coaching others who do, there are some useful insights from psychology that can help, e.g. psychodynamic: ‘What has happened to you that makes perfection feel so critical?’; Gestalt: ‘What are you not-noticing here and now?’; cognitive: ‘What assumptions are you making about who or what’s most important?’; systemic: ‘What cultural factors are driving your behaviour?’ I’m learning to breathe, pray, relax, be more pragmatic – and forgive.
‘We are interested in the past only insofar as it impacts on the present.’ (Geoff Pelham)
I worked with a training group recently that was learning the skills of action learning, a form of group coaching in which one person presents an issue and others help her or him to think it through to find or create a solution. As one person at a time talked about a challenge that he or she was facing at work, I noticed others often instinctively posed questions or prompts that aimed to uncover the person’s history or the backstory to the situation. The person presenting would then typically respond with something like, ‘OK, let me take you back to the beginning, where it all started.’
In doing so, the presenter used up precious action-learning time reciting a story that he or she already knew. It was as if, by sharing wider background information in this way, the peer coaches would have greater understanding and, therefore, be better equipped to pose useful questions. Yet, as Claire Pedrick (Simplifying Coaching, 2021) puts it: ‘…our role is not to see the situation thoroughly, or to diagnose. It is for the thinker to see the situation thoroughly.’ The purpose of action learning, like coaching, is to enable the person to think more deeply and broadly for themselves.
Claire goes on to reframe past-facing questions by bringing them into the present, e.g. from, ‘Tell me your backstory?’ to ‘Tell yourself your back story and let’s see what we notice?’; or from ‘What have you already tried?’ to ‘If you look at what you have tried already, what do you notice?’ If a person repeatedly recounts the same story from his or her past, Claire will shift the focus to the present, the here-and-now, by posing a gentle challenge, e.g. ‘Assume I know everything. What do we need to think about today?’; or ‘What is your most important question about that today?’
I worked with a psychodynamic consultant, Kamil Kellner, in an action learning group. Once, when a person presented a topic by framing its origins in the past, Kamil noticed her emotional state as she spoke and reflected back simply with, ‘The past feels very present.’ I had a similar experience when once, as a student in a group, I became quite emotional. The psychotherapist tutor, Mark Sutherland, responded, ‘It’s not the first time you’ve been here is it, Nick?’ The past can resonate so powerfully in the present. The gift is to notice its presence and create a shift in the now.
'Look before you leap.' (John Heywood, 1546)
The wind grew cold as the sun set yesterday evening. Pete and I sat on a bench beside the river warming ourselves with bags of hot chips. Pete noticed a man nearby stepping onto railings and behaving oddly. I didn’t see him as he was behind me and then, apparently, the man walked away. Some minutes later, we heard a strange splash in the water. Now feeling concerned, we went quickly to investigate. Leaning over the railings and peering into the murky water below, we couldn’t see anything. We called out. No response. Called out again. Silence. Had it just been a swan?
Straining over the railings now, I saw what looked like a pair of training shoes just below the surface. ‘There’s someone in there’. Pete called the Police while I climbed over the railings to get a better view. There was a man below floating in the water. ‘Are you OK?’ No response. I could see he was breathing. Confused at what he was doing, I grabbed a life buoy ring and lowered it, by rope, down the vertical pier into the water beside him. ‘You’re OK, mate. Help is on its way. You can grab hold of the float if you need it.’ Still no response. He lay there, eyes closed and completely motionless.
Within moments, a Police officer ran up to us and immediately started shouting at the person in the water to get hold of the ring. His voice seemed to jolt a response and, for a moment, the man instinctively took a loose hold of it. ‘I can’t swim’, said the Police officer to us, quietly. I felt an instant dilemma. Do I jump in and risk 2 of us becoming trapped (or worse) in the cold water, or do I wait until further help arrives? I decided that, if the man turned over or started to sink, I would brace myself and leap in. I was surprised at my own hesitation. Was it fear, indifference…or a learned response?
Within minutes, more emergency service professionals arrived and the man’s life was saved. As I drove home, I reflected on what had happened. As a younger man, I would have dived straight into the water in rescue mode. Moreover, it would have felt like the right and courageous thing to do. What has changed? Through years of work in coaching and OD in humanitarian organisations, I have learned to pause, weigh up options and choose a response. To jump in is a judgement call with wider implications. When do you 'jump in' and when do you hold back? What drives your response?
It was very hot that day. I sat on a bench at the roadside to drink a cool Pepsi. Girls walked back and forth along the roadside hoping to attract the attention of a wealthy foreigner. Some Indian business men sat down beside me and opened a conversation. ‘Are you here with work or for a holiday?’, and ‘Aren’t these Thai girls beautiful?’ They went on to explain that this was one of their main reasons for coming to Thailand, a recreational dimension – as they saw it – to their otherwise busy work life.
Curious, I asked, ‘What do you know about these girls – their lives, I mean?’ The man beside me looked puzzled: ‘What do you mean?’ I explained I was working in Thailand with a Christian NGO and that, from what I had heard, many of these girls were desperately poor and trying to eek out a living by street walking. ‘Yes, they are very beautiful’, I said, ‘Yet to pay them for sex would feel, to me, like taking advantage of their vulnerability.’ He looked stunned, thoughtful, and went very quiet.
‘I’d never thought about that before,’ he confessed. ‘I’d never really thought about the girls as real people with real lives.’ And then, with a half-grin, ‘…and now you have ruined my holiday!’ At that moment, one of the girls sat down beside me, linked her arm through mine and gazed up at me with deep, dark eyes. ‘Is this your first time in Thailand?’, she asked. ‘Are you here for work or on holiday?’, ‘Which hotel are you staying at?’, ‘Would you like to take me to your hotel room?’
I thanked her for her offer and explained that, although I would be happy to sit and chat with her, I would not take her to my hotel room. ‘Why not?’, she asked with the cheekiest smile, ‘I could make you very happy!’ She persisted with a now pretending-to-be-hurt look on her face, ‘Aren’t I attractive enough for you?’ I responded that I’m a follower of Jesus, I was married and I was there with an NGO. ‘I want to honour God, my wife, the organisation I represent…and you’, I replied.
She looked genuinely surprised. ‘Most men come here and sleep with us with no care for their wives. They don’t appreciate what they have got.’ She went on to tell me that she was a single parent. Her 2 sons lived with her mother in a shack in the countryside while she worked in the city to support them. Her husband had been an alcoholic and had left them destitute. ‘Would you like to see a picture of my sons?’, she asked proudly. ‘Yes indeed’, I said as she revealed them on her phone.
She went on to tell me about her life and work in unabashedly graphic detail. Curious, I asked, ‘Aren’t you afraid to go to a hotel with a stranger? After all, he could be a violent man.’ She replied that if she felt scared, she would take a friend with her to wait outside of the room in case she needed help. ‘And do you ever worry about contracting serious diseases?’ Yes, she replied, ‘so I only have sex with men who look respectable.’ I winced inside at her naivety and risks she was taking.
I didn’t want to ask too many questions in case that too felt like an abuse, so now she asked me a question: ‘What are you thinking?’ I replied I was wondering what it might feel to sleep with so many strangers, and how I might handle that within myself. She explained starkly that it’s not love, it’s only physical, and that the girls never reveal their real names. They always use a pseudonym to protect their real identity and, psychologically, to separate their true selves off from what they are doing.
I was astonished and humbled by her willingness to share so openly like this with me, just another stranger. I asked if it would be OK to ask her one more question, without her feeling any pressure to answer. ‘Yes, of course’, she replied. Taking a deep breath, ‘What’s your deepest hope for your life?’, I asked. She responded thoughtfully: ‘Simply to meet a man who would love me and my children so that we could be a family together. I don’t care how poor we are, just that we love one-another.’
I stood up, took her hands gently and said, ‘Thank you so much for spending this time with me and for sharing so honestly. I need to leave now because it’s getting late, but I will pray for you that God will give you what you dream of.’ She looked tearful. ‘Thank you for listening to me’, she said, and then quietly, ‘My real name is…X’ I almost cried. I felt so privileged to have spent this time with her. Please - never call a girl a prostitute, as if that’s all she is. Every girl is a person, and she has a name.
'Education is not the filling of a pail, but the kindling of a fire.' (Socrates)
Questions that make you think hard. Socrates, a Greek philosopher who specialised in ethics, created a revolutionary method of education based on posing questions rather than prescribing answers. His rigorous and structured approach is still commonly used today to: ‘explore complex ideas; get to the truth of things; open up issues and problems; uncover assumptions; analyse concepts; distinguish what we know from what we do not know; or follow out logical consequences of thought.’ (Paul & Elder).
As such, the Socratic method can be an immensely powerful tool in leadership, coaching, mentoring, training and facilitation (e.g. in action learning). It can elicit profound discoveries and learning and, by doing so, create significant shifts in thinking, feeling and behaviour. It is widely used in psychology-based fields including cognitive behavioural therapy. We see parallels too in domains including Jesus’ teaching approach in the New Testament (see: Conrad Gempf, Jesus Asked, 2003).
Richard Paul and Linda Elder (see: Thinkers’ Guide to Socratic Questioning, 2016) identified 6 different types of Socratic questions that can be posed in sequence to help an individual or a group think through an issue. The 6 types focus on: clarifications; assumptions; rationales; perspectives; implications; meta questions. (James Bowman offers a very useful sample template with examples of related questions here: The Six Types of Socratic Questions).
If you’re interested to read more about cognitive-behavioural approaches to coaching, learning and leadership that draw on Socratic questioning methods, have a glance at: Cognitive Behavioural Coaching; Fresh Thinking; Gestalt Meets Cognitive Behavioural Coaching. If you would like to learn more about eliciting and posing questions more broadly as a learning approach, see: Art of Discovery; In the Question; Good Question; Behind the Question; The Silent Way.
When have you used Socratic questioning at work? How did you do it? What impacts did it have?
Two monks were travelling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As they were preparing to cross, they saw a very beautiful woman also attempting to cross. The woman asked if they could help her cross to the other side. Without a word, the older monk picked her up, carried her across the river, placed her gently on the other side and carried on his journey.
The younger monk was speechless and, after some hours of walking together in complete silence, he couldn’t contain himself any longer. ‘As monks, we are not permitted to touch a woman. How could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?’ The older monk looked at him and replied, ‘Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river. Why are you still carrying her?’ (Zen Koan)
Who, or what, are you carrying that you need to put down? What do you need to find release?
Compassion has a human face.
It was that first day at school feeling, all over again. Except now I was 27. I stepped into the London School of Theology dining hall, confronted by a deafening sound of voices and clanking plates and an overwhelming sea of faces.
I was dressed in black leathers and motorcycle gear with my crash helmet in hand, but the child within felt tiny, lost and intimidated. I glanced around, searching for anyone familiar, a spare seat next to someone I vaguely recognised. Nothing – and no-one.
And then, surprisingly, my eyes settled on a young woman walking towards me, smiling, a striking look of care and kindness on her face. Jo reached out and asked me if I would like to join her and her friends at her table.
She was a stranger showing compassion to a stranger. I felt rescued and relieved. A sense of being invited, welcomed, the beginnings of belonging. It felt good, warm, strengthening, sacred. And I have never forgotten it.
This Jo came to mind afresh this Easter. It’s so easy to reduce our humanity, and our spirituality where we hold it, to abstract principles. But Jo’s example speaks to me of something different – to reach out with kindness and show compassion.
Last week felt like a perfect storm, an unexpected convergence of pressures from all directions that left me reeling. Betsy Kolkea describes it as like having the tail shot off a plane in mid-flight; a sudden loss of control that sets us spinning downward at terrifying speed. I’m reminded me of the dramatic plane-falling-from-the-sky scene in the film Knight & Day, where Cameron Diaz asks Tom Cruise anxiously, ‘Are we going down?’, to which he replies with a grin, ‘It’s just a rapid descent.’
In that satirical moment, the character played by Cruise actually models an important principle in a sudden crisis: create a pause, no matter how brief, to breathe, reflect, weigh up options (and, for me, pray) – then decide and act. I heard a similar idea in a video this week, about how to survive a parachute jump if the parachute doesn’t open. The most important thing is not to panic (yeah right!) and to use the moments available, no matter how brief, to breathe, focus, scan options and choose.
This skill may indeed, of course, come a lot easier and more instinctively if we’ve had opportunity to practise and gain experience beforehand. There’s something about having already been through a challenge and survived, having been tested repeatedly under fire, that can develop a resilience and psychological adaptivity akin to muscle memory. It makes an auto-response possible in the midst of unexpected and extraordinary circumstances and, thereby, creates a vital moment-space to think.
When have you gone into a tailspin? What have you done to recover from a surprise nosedive, a crisis that came from nowhere and hit you out of left field? What can you do to help others caught in free fall?
Dissonance: a deep feeling of tension, disquiet or discomfort if we find ourselves conflicted. It’s most common if there’s a significant gap between what we tell ourselves we believe and what we actually do; or if we feel caught between competing alternatives; or if we have invested significant effort, time and resources into something that now feels wasted.
Here are some examples to illustrate this phenomenon: ‘My boss insists I work long hours if I want to keep my job, yet I believe spending time with my family is most important’; ‘I can see the relative pros and cons of two different job offers, yet I can’t decide which to choose’; ‘I’ve spent the last 5 years working very hard in my job, yet it hasn’t done anything to advance my career.’
If the dissonance feels strong enough, we will usually try to find ways to reduce, resolve or reconcile ourselves to it. We may do this, in the first example, by trying to change something in the situation itself, e.g. by seeking to negotiate a different number or pattern of hours or, if this isn’t possible, by justifying it, e.g. by reassuring ourselves that the long hours of work will benefit the family.
In the second example, we may try to reach a decision by shifting the balance, e.g. by seeking to emphasise, to ourselves, the attractive qualities of one alternative and minimise its downsides or, correspondingly, to focus on the costs of the other option and underplay its benefits. It’s a subconscious mental manoeuvre that aims to tip the scales and break the deadlock.
In the third example, which concerns a past decision and actions that cannot now be changed, we may find ways to post-rationalise it, e.g. by seeking to redefine the outcome as having in some way benefitted our career after all, or by reframing the experience and focusing on other benefits that, although not directly career-advancing, nevertheless make the investment feel worthwhile.
These types of psychological strategies can bring positive mental health benefits such as peace of mind, especially in situations that feel stressful and unresolvable. At the same time, they run risks of avoidance of personal responsibility; diminished sense of agency; defensive behaviour; or failure to pursue more radical options that could create a better, more life-giving and sustainable future.
When have you seen or experienced dissonance, and how do you address it?
‘If you don’t stick to your values when they’re being tested, they’re not your values.’ (Jon Stewart)
We sometimes discover what our values are when someone behaves, or something happens, that cuts sharply across them. It can be like a glass filled with liquid that gets knocked. We find out what’s inside when we see what spills out. At times, we’re surprised to find that our true values are quite different to those we espouse or identify with rationally. We don’t just think values. We feel them. Gut level, heart-wrenching feeling. If you don’t feel it when challenged or experiencing a clash, it doesn’t matter enough to you. If in doubt, shake the tree, see what falls and feel it land. Impact.
I was sitting in an awkward circle during a coaching workshop. It was one of those activities where a group is placed in a room with no instructions and no guidance, to see what emerges. I felt curious as a conversation gradually unfolded… until, that is, a forceful-sounding man assumed the role of leader and put down a shy-looking woman sitting opposite me. Without thinking, I leapt straight to her defence and challenged the power figure, as if the woman needed saving. The group remarked later on my response – and that’s when I became aware of Stephen Karpman’s Drama Triangle.
It wasn’t a rationale that had triggered me but a behaviour that crossed a deeply-held value. That was some years ago now and, although I no longer default to rescue mode, it helps in part to explain why so much of my life and career have been dedicated to international development, advocacy and relief work. I’m a follower of Jesus, I hate that the poor are so vulnerable and I want my life to make a difference. What gets you up in the morning or keeps you awake at night? What are your true values, and how do you know? If push comes to shove, what are the lines that you will not cross?
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