Running for the school bus every morning felt like hard work. I don’t know why I didn’t just get up a bit earlier but, hey, I was a teenager. I remember vividly having my attention caught by a programme on TV featuring Timothy Gallwey and his revolutionary idea of The Inner Game. I think it served as an introduction for me to the world of psychological insight. I practised his idea, focusing away from the activity itself onto something else as a distraction, and the running became smoother, easier.
Some years later, the UK’s Guardian Newspaper ran an advertisement on TV, Point of View, that challenged perspective and interpretation. It invited viewers to re-think their own ways of making meaning of events, including the implicit risks of assumptions and prejudice. I found the ad’s message simple yet profound. It was at a time when the need to question everything was already pulsating through my own mind, within a prevailing culture that seemed to question far too little.
Later still, I saw a psychology experiment on TV, The Invisible Gorilla, by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, designed to test selective attention. The narrator invited viewers to try the test for themselves by watching a short video clip with specific instructions to follow. She also suggested that viewers record it so that they could play it back afterwards. I dutifully followed the instructions and was so completely astonished by the results that I did play it back to check if I’d been tricked.
Such influences, among others which now included my Christian faith, drew me into the professional fields of psychological coaching, training and organisation development (OD). I continue to be curious, intrigued and amazed by the dazzling weirdness, complexity and potential of people, teams, groups and organisations, and by different cultures. I hope and pray I will never lose that sense of wonder. Who or what have been the earliest or greatest influences on your life and career?
'Don't be still. One of the most common mistakes when change is upon us is to take enormous amounts to time to run analysis and come up with various routes to be followed. Sitting still in moving waters will only lead to a ship becoming adrift, with no indication of where it will end up or whether it will sink. If adjusting the course is needed, the leader should do it quickly and without hesitation.' (Raluca Cristescu)
The start of this new year has felt like a very rough ride for some people. I’ve been working alongside humanitarian disaster management experts in and from a wide range of countries, trying to make a difference for those who are poorest and most vulnerable in the world. In some places, wave after wave of devastating impacts have hit hard and fast, ranging from drought, crop failure and swarms of locusts to military conflict and deep civil unrest – all with the ongoing Covid-19 crisis overlaid on top.
A close friend in the Philippines spent today with her children, praying earnestly and wrapping what few possessions they have in plastic bags in preparation for the roof of their fragile boarding house being torn off by an impending typhoon. Others I’ve been supporting have been grafting long hours, trying to help people and communities recover from the effects of war. The power fluctuates on and off, as does the wifi signal, making online communication difficult – yet I, we, they, persevere.
My first direct experience of disaster response was some years ago during the Kosovo crisis. I travelled with a team across Spain, France, Italy and Albania to take emergency logistical supplies to refugee camps on the frontline border with Serbia. Our vehicles were fitted with spare tyres, satellite communications equipment and ballistic blankets in case we drove over land mines. I remember vividly the ‘No weapons on board’ symbols on our windows – signalling, I hoped, ‘Please don’t shoot us.’
We encountered challenge-after-challenge on route. At times, it felt as if everything was against us. As military helicopters flew overhead in impressive formation, we meanwhile were often stuck firmly on the ground, mired in red tape or the insidious effects of blatant corruption. It was a rapid learning experience for me, seeing how my seasoned disaster response colleagues handled this. It was my first exposure to adaptive leadership in a crisis too – out in the field, not inside an organisation.
It went something like this: 1. Hold tightly to your goals and values but loosely to your plans. If you expect everything to go smoothly, you will get disheartened and frustrated. 2. Treat every roadblock as a new reality. It’s not the end of the road, it’s another challenge to navigate. 3. Think quickly and tactically. Lateral thinking will prove more useful than strategic planning. 4. When faced with an obstacle, take a decision and act. Don't stop, keep moving. 5. Pray – God can do more than you can do.
This kind of activist-pragmatist outlook, behaviour and stance draws on and develops creativity, innovation, resourcefulness and resilience. It’s a way in which the poorest and most vulnerable people and communities learn to survive and thrive too. When a life situation is too painful, turbulent or dynamically-complex to understand, predict or control, a focus on the here-and-now can be the most meaningful choice. Even small steps can engender and evoke a real sense of agency, hope and change.
My work now includes coaching, mentoring, facilitating and training of humanitarian field workers in action learning: a here-and-now, real-time methodology to stimulate adaptive leadership and learning in the midst of action. It’s an experimental pilot initiative with a global network of humanitarian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and a team of action learning specialists. When have you developed or used adaptive leadership in a crisis? How did you do it? What difference did it make?
‘If you don’t know what an extrovert is thinking, it’s because you haven’t listened. If you don’t know what an introvert is thinking, it’s because you haven’t asked.’ (Richard Marshall)
Extroverts speak, introverts write. I first noticed this reality whilst studying for a masters’ degree. I enjoyed writing my dissertation immensely because it felt like an exciting journey of discovery. It was like a stream of consciousness, seeing my learning and ideas take shape as I wrote them. I didn’t know what I thought until I wrote it down. By contrast, an extrovert colleague found writing her own dissertation tedious, an administrative task to simply record what she had already talked-through.
‘Extroverts tend to think externally; they need to verbalize their thoughts to think. Thoughts are actually formed as they are verbalized. They don’t know exactly what they are going to say at first, but they know their thoughts will take shape as they speak them. That is, an extrovert will speak it to think it. By contrast, an introvert will sit quietly and ponder, mulling ideas over in her head, looking for the right word and the best description of the ideas that are taking shape.’ (Heather Hollick)
Now, it’s not that extroverts can’t write well or take pleasure in it, or that introverts can’t talk or enjoy conversation. It’s more about a preference or a default. Whereas extroverts sometimes need to remember to listen, I sometimes need to remember to speak. The conversation can be so vivid, so active in my mind that I feel as if I’m engaged in the discussion out loud. I have learned over time that sometimes I need to speak earlier, before my thoughts are fully-formed, to invite others in.
So, what does this mean in practice? If you’re working with an extrovert, speak to them directly and give them chance to speak, to think. Give them time to mull things over by talking out loud until they reach their own conclusions. Conversely, if you’re working with an introvert, give them quiet space to think, to write down, to form their thoughts before speaking. What’s your preference? How do you take preference into account when working with people? Do you prefer to speak or to write?
Anita asked during a coach training workshop this week if it’s appropriate to address emotion in coaching. After all, isn’t that stepping too far into a person’s personal space or risking a drift into therapy? Curious, I asked which dimension of the issue she was feeling most concerned about. Anita replied that she felt anxious about straying into what could feel like a counselling relationship. If she did, she said, she would feel both out of her depth and as if she had breached a professional boundary. I paused, then asked if it had felt inappropriate when I posed that question to her, or if she had felt compromised in how she answered it. She looked up, smiled and said, ‘No.’
Another coaching workshop and Brian, a colleague, was introducing reflecting back as a core skill. One participant looked increasingly frustrated and eventually blurted out, ‘You call this a skill but it’s like playing a game with someone, using techniques on them rather than holding a real and respectful conversation.’ Brian listened then responded calmly, ‘So, reflecting back feels to you like toying with someone, and that clashes with your value for authenticity.’ 'Yes – that’s it exactly!’ he replied with a burst of positive energy that took everyone in the room by surprise. After a brief moment, he and everyone else broke out in fits of laughter. ‘OK, now I get it.’
The principle here is that of modelling an idea, an approach, a method or a technique, rather than simply describing or explaining it. There’s something about experiencing that can feel profoundly and qualitatively different to understanding a concept purely intellectually. This insight lays at the heart of Gestalt coaching and experiential learning. It’s primarily about doing, not thinking, and seeing what emerges into awareness when we do it. I worked with a leadership team that agreed a set of and behaviours to govern its practice. It looked neat on flipchart paper but its potential for transformation didn’t emerge until they grasped the nettle and practised it.
What have been your best examples of learning by experience? How do you model this principle in your work with others?
We sometimes associate 'rescue' with a danger of creating unhealthy dependency, and it does carry that risk. Yet what when a person, team or group faces a crisis that is absolutely beyond their capacity to resolve?
Henry stood with his wife, along with the other prisoners, with their backs against a cold wire fence. In front of them, camp guards were mounting machine guns on tripods and aiming at them. It was early morning and they had been forced outside in a hurry. There was an uneasy tension in the air and the guards were looking both menacing and stressed.
In that moment, Henry knew they were about to be shot down in cold blood. He gripped his wife’s hand, looked upwards and prayed silently to Jesus. Then, as if out of nowhere, Allied plane after plane flew low over the camp with ‘RESCUE’ painted white on the undersides of their wings. The camp guards panicked, dropped their guns and ran to escape. Saved.
As Henry recounted this memory, I felt transfixed by the intense drama he and his wife had lived through. I tried to imagine that moment when all seemed lost, and then the sudden, unexpected and immense relief of seeing those planes appear. The feeling of hope in the midst of such complete and utter helplessness must have been incredible.
I felt caught up in a similar yet very different drama today when I heard of a young student in the Philippines who is critically ill and whose family is too poor to pay for his medical bills. A poor Filipina prayed to Jesus, raced to his help, gave what little she had and inspired others to get involved too. They pooled enough money to pay for an emergency transfusion.
I try to imagine how he will feel when he wakes up to this news. It’s not just practical assistance. It’s being seen, valued and loved, including by total strangers who chose to act. When have you been rescued from a situation that felt impossible? How did you feel? What difference has it made in your life? How do you bring hope to those without hope?
On the edge of a New Year, social media accounts have been bombarded with messages about how terrible 2020 has been and how we can’t get out of it fast enough. Of course, 2020 has posed some significant challenges; most notably, on the global stage, the Covid-19 pandemic. The challenges in the wealthier countries, where we have tended to make the most emotional drama out of it, pale into insignificance when compared to the those faced by the poorest. We’re not used to this level of vulnerability, uncertainty and threat. It has freaked us out and, perhaps in some ways, that’s a good thing.
My hope for 2021 is that this glimpse of vulnerability, of real fear and helplessness, will engender far greater empathy for those poorest people in the world who live with that anxiety every day. And not just empathy, but a greater resolve to do something tangible to bring about positive and sustainable change. I hope it will drive us re-evaluate our crazy consumerism that is pushing the world further into irreversible environmental disaster. I hope it will reveal, too, our fundamental interdependence; although reports of rich countries racing to buy-up Covid vaccines first fills me with near-despair.
Yet there have been, for me, silver linings in the midst of all this. I’ve been grateful to God for the opportunity to live with my parents all year, to support each other during the lockdown and to spend valuable, irreplaceable time with them. I’ve been grateful for free technology that has allowed me, and others, to do so much online that would otherwise have been impossible. I’ve been grateful for the chance, with others, to support the poor in the Philippines; an experience that has often brought at least as much richness and joy to my life as to theirs. What have been your silver linings in 2020?
‘To the existentialist, life is like a small child, lost and alone in a deep, dark forest. And the child means nothing to the forest.’ (Peter Hicks)
Hicks’ bleak depiction of the human condition, of an unresolvable existential angst that we face and experience as we find ourselves thrown into this world, is a despairing vision of life without hope. It reflects vividly Jürgen Moltmann’s view that ‘hell is hopelessness’. Yannick Jacob comments that, ‘there is a way to live without this anxiety, at least temporarily, by deceiving ourselves, by closing our eyes to some of the realities of our existence.’ It’s as if we can numb the pain, make ourselves feel better for a time, by distracting ourselves, or drugging ourselves, to feel safer and more alive.
This is, perhaps, a deep root cause of addictive behaviours, of aligning ourselves with extreme positions, of engaging in some forms of extreme sports or of taking medication that seeks to dampen our too-painful-to-handle thoughts and feelings. Instead of being willing to pause, pray and peel back the curtains to reveal what may lay behind our personal and cultural actions and routines, we grip and hold them tightly shut. Over a lifetime, we glue them, stitch them and tape them together. We build barricades to support them, reinforce them and hide them, even to ourselves. Out of sight, out of mind.
At least for a while. Sooner or later, we may inadvertently catch a glimpse, experience an unnerving feeling, find ourselves fighting, falling or failing as the walls creak, crack and start to crumble down. It could be sparked by an accident, a break-up, a failed promotion, an illness, a mid-life crisis, a war. Our defences are weakened, no longer able to withstand the swirling, turbulent pressures that have built up behind them. It’s as if suddenly, as if by a flash of lightning, everything is revealed. Our self-assured confidence collapses and, perhaps for the first time, we experience terrifying vulnerability.
This is the existential backdrop to the Christmas story: an intensely dark crisis that can’t be resolved with a quick-fix solution. For followers of Jesus, it’s a piercing and dazzling hope-filled account of a profoundly transformational encounter between God and humanity, where God takes the first step and enters our reality. When the Bible says ‘Light shines in darkness’, we catch a glimpse of radiant light, life and love now made possible. Whatever your experience as a coach, whatever the experience of your clients in 2021 – let’s face truth gently, with courage and humility – and make hope real.
The boy looks about 13, maybe 14, and is guiding cars into parking spaces. The sun is beating down and its steaming hot. Exhausted, he sits down against a wall for a break. This is in the Philippines last week. A poor woman from Samar, Jasmin, notices him out of the corner of her eye as she steps down off a jeepney – a mini-bus used for public transport. The boy looks weak and unwell. She walks across to him, speaks gently then reaches out and touches his face with her hand. His skin is burning with a fever.
Jasmin urges him to stay there and wait for her as she rushes quickly to find a shop where she can buy medicine, food and drink. Then she returns and says she will take him home, to the slum area where he lives. She reassures him that things will be OK, that she will give his family the equivalent of what he could earn in 2 weeks, along with the food, so that he could take a rest to recover. The boy looks up at this stranger, can’t speak…and just cries. She helps him into a jeepney and honours her promise.
I ask Jasmin why she has taken such a risk, to touch a person with clear signs of a fever when the Philippines is in the midst of a Covid-19 lockdown. She looks emotional now and says, quite simply, ‘I imagined how I would have felt if I was that teenager.’ She couldn’t bear to leave him alone, so very sick. She gave what little she had so that his family would not become destitute. I flash back to the parable of the good Samaritan. Jasmin loves Jesus and is willing to engage. I might well have just walked by.
No, not platypus – that’s a duck-billed, beaver-tailed, otter-footed, egg-laying aquatic creature native to Australia. ‘Don’t worry – be happy.’ Now, that’s a platitude. It’s a superficial cliché that rolls too easily off the tongue, without thinking, and presents itself as truth. It’s the kind of thing you may well hear from well-meaning, secure, content-with-life people; yet lacks empathy, depth or genuine appreciation of a person, situation or struggle.
Now you may already be thinking, ‘I wouldn’t worry about that if I were you.’ Oops. Ding! Platitude. Here’s the thing: I’m not you; I might not worry about it if I were you; you might worry about it too if you were me. Furthermore, I’m a human being, not a robot. I don’t have an on-off switch for worry, or for happiness, although I sometimes wish I did. A platitude creates the sense of saying something useful…without actually saying something useful.
So, what’s the antidote? How can I avoid inadvertently slipping into platitude-speak? 1: Listen. Don’t speak. Zip it. Resist the temptation to fill the space, to apply a fix without having heard. 2: Empathise. Feel the feeling, the emotional tone, the tremor, the resonance that lays behind the words. 3: Understand. ‘How are you feeling?’ ‘What do you need?’ Great questions, powerful reach. 4: Offer. Share your wisdom – if called for. Make it real.
‘The only exercise some people get is jumping to conclusions.’ (Hal Elrod)
A recurring theme in psychological coaching/OD is that of enabling a person or a team to grow in awareness of what they are believing, assuming, hypothesising or concluding. This could be about, for instance, themselves, another person, a relationship or a situation. In Yannick Jacob’s words, ‘Human beings are meaning-making machines’ (An Introduction to Existential Coaching, 2019). We are wired to see things as complete wholes and, where there are gaps, to fill them subconsciously – and therefore, by definition, without noticing we are doing it.
This reflects a core concept in Gestalt psychology; where you may be familiar with, say, an image of black shapes on a white background that viewers typically see as a ‘panda’. This assumes, of course, that the person seeing the image already has an idea of panda in mind – i.e. what a panda looks like. We join the dots or, in this case the shapes, to create something that we already know. In doing so, we superimpose meaning onto the image and, at the same time, exclude alternative interpretations. It’s as if, to us, if the image is self-evidently that of a panda. Full stop.
This panda-perceiving phenomenon can help us to understand how we, as individuals and as cultural groups, construe our ideas of reality at work. Drawing on limited data, we fill-in any gaps (e.g. with our own hopes, anxieties or expectations) to create what looks and feels, to us, like a complete understanding of a situation. Yet, in Geoff Pelham’s words, ‘The facts never speak for themselves’ (The Coaching Relationship in Practice, 2015). If we enable a person or a team to revisit the gaps and to hold their hypotheses lightly, fresh insights and opportunities can arise.
First, pay attention to how a person is feeling, or the mood in a team. Acknowledge the emotion without necessarily seeking to change or to resolve it. Instead, invite a spirit of curiosity, a desire for discovery. Next, facilitate a process of critically-reflexive exploration: e.g. of what meaning they are making of their experience; of what needs it reveals; of what strategies they are using to address them. Now, offer support and challenge to test assumptions, stretch boundaries, shift a stance. Be prayerful and playful. Release the panda to emerge as something new.
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!